Top 30 Things To Do in San Francisco

From iconic landmarks and vibrant neighborhoods to hidden stairways and culinary delights, San Francisco offers a perfect blend of the familiar and the unexpected.

West Parker
By
West Parker
July 18, 2024

Welcome to San Francisco, where the fog is so beloved it has its own name - Karl. This whimsical approach to weather is just the beginning of the city's unique charm. As you navigate the steep, winding streets, you'll find yourself in a place where counterculture is the culture, and innovation meets tradition at every turn.

San Francisco is a city of contrasts, where tech billionaires and street artists cross paths, where you can slurp world-famous sourdough in the morning and savor Michelin-starred cuisine at night. It's a place where you can lose yourself in the redwoods of Muir Woods or find yourself in the colorful alleys of the Mission. From the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to the hidden mosaic stairways, San Francisco invites you to explore, indulge, and be inspired.

So grab your walking shoes (you'll need them for those hills), pack layers (Karl the Fog can be unpredictable), and get ready to leave your heart in the City by the Bay. Here are the 30 best things to do in San Francisco that will make you fall in love with this captivating city.

Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge

Tourists walking on Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk with San Francisco Bay views, iconic suspension cables visible
Braved the wind for this walk across the Golden Gate! The views of the bay and city are absolutely worth it. Don't forget to bring a jacket!

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a stroll across its most famous icon. As you step onto the Golden Gate Bridge, you're walking on a marvel of engineering and a symbol of American ingenuity. The bridge's distinctive International Orange color pops against the blue bay or peeks dramatically through the fog. As you walk, the city skyline unfolds behind you, while ahead, the rugged Marin Headlands beckon. Listen for the foghorns and feel the brisk bay breeze - this is San Francisco at its most iconic. The walk takes about 35 minutes one-way, but give yourself time to stop and soak in the 360-degree views. You might even spot a whale in the distance!

  • Location: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA 94129
  • Hours: Pedestrian access 5:00 AM to 6:30 PM (Nov-Mar) or 9:00 PM (Apr-Oct)
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience San Francisco's most iconic landmark up close and personal while enjoying breathtaking views of the bay and city.

Insider Tip: For the best photos, head to Battery Spencer on the Marin side for a stunning view of the bridge with the city as a backdrop.

Explore the Mysteries of Alcatraz

Tourists exploring infamous cell block on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay's former federal prison turned national park
Stepping into these cells at Alcatraz gives you chills. The audio tour narrated by former inmates and guards really brings the history to life.

Set sail for "The Rock," America's most infamous prison turned national park. As your ferry approaches Alcatraz Island, the foreboding prison looms large, its history of notorious inmates and daring escape attempts palpable in the air. The award-winning audio tour, narrated by former inmates and guards, brings the cells and corridors to life with vivid stories of prison life. Stand in Al Capone's cell, see the marks left by the 1962 escape attempt, and gaze across the choppy waters to the tantalizing view of San Francisco - so close, yet unreachable for the island's former residents. As you explore, you'll uncover layers of history beyond its prison years, from its role in Native American activism to its surprising array of wildlife.

  • Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, CA 94123
  • Hours: Varies by season, first ferry typically departs at 8:45 AM
  • Admission: Adults $39.90, Children (5-11) $24.40, Seniors (62+) $37.65

Why Visit: Step into a pivotal piece of American history and experience the chilling atmosphere of this notorious former prison.

Insider Tip: Book the night tour for a more intimate, spooky experience and stunning sunset views of the city.

Ride a Historic Cable Car

Tourists riding historic San Francisco cable car, hanging onto brass poles as car climbs steep city street
Caught the Powell-Hyde line for a thrilling ride up and down San Francisco's famous hills. Pro tip: stand on the running board for the best views!

Hop aboard a moving piece of history! San Francisco's cable cars are the last manually operated cable car system in the world, a quaint reminder of a bygone era amid the city's modern hustle. As you climb aboard, grab onto the brass pole and feel the thrill as the car clatters up and down San Francisco's steep hills. The views from the open-air car are spectacular - you'll see Nob Hill's stately mansions, catch glimpses of Alcatraz, and rattle past bustling Chinatown. Listen for the distinct "ding-ding" of the cable car bell, a sound that's been synonymous with San Francisco since 1873. It's not just a ride; it's a journey through the city's past and present.

  • Location: Multiple lines, popular stop at Powell and Market Streets
  • Hours: Approximately 6:30 AM to 12:30 AM daily
  • Admission: $8 per ride or $13 for an all-day pass

Why Visit: Experience a unique, historic mode of transportation while taking in panoramic views of the city.

Insider Tip: Avoid long wait times by boarding at the less crowded California Street line, which offers equally stunning views.

Wander Through Lively Fisherman's Wharf

People enjoying clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls at bustling Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco's popular waterfront neighborhood
Nothing beats a warm bowl of clam chowder on a chilly San Francisco day. The sourdough bread bowl at Boudin Bakery is a must-try!

Step into the heart of San Francisco's maritime heritage at Fisherman's Wharf. The salty sea air mingles with the aroma of fresh sourdough and just-caught seafood, creating an atmosphere that's quintessentially San Franciscan. Watch street performers entertain crowds, peek into quirky souvenir shops, and don't miss the sea lion colony at Pier 39 - their playful barks and antics are a constant source of entertainment. Indulge in a steaming bowl of clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl, a local specialty that tastes even better with a view of the bay. From here, you can also catch a glimpse of historic ships at Hyde Street Pier or hop on a bay cruise for a different perspective of the city.

  • Location: Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133
  • Hours: Most attractions open 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM daily
  • Admission: Free to explore, individual attraction prices vary

Why Visit: Experience the lively atmosphere of this waterfront neighborhood, complete with sea lions, street performers, and mouthwatering seafood.

Insider Tip: Visit early morning to see fishermen bringing in the day's catch and enjoy a quieter, more authentic experience.

Wander Among Giants in Muir Woods

Just a short drive from the city, Muir Woods National Monument offers an awe-inspiring escape into nature. As you step into this cathedral of redwoods, the hustle of the city fades away, replaced by a profound sense of peace and wonder. These coastal redwoods, some over 250 feet tall and 800 years old, create a cool, misty microclimate. Sunlight filters through the canopy, illuminating ferns and mosses below. The air is rich with the scent of damp earth and wood. Stroll along the wooden boardwalks, crane your neck to see the treetops, and listen for the soft rush of Redwood Creek. It's a humbling experience to stand among these ancient giants, a reminder of the enduring power of nature.

  • Location: 1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941
  • Hours: 8:00 AM to sunset daily
  • Admission: $15 per adult, free for children 15 and under

Why Visit: Experience the awe-inspiring majesty of ancient coastal redwoods in a serene, natural setting.

Insider Tip: Make reservations in advance and arrive early to beat the crowds and parking issues. The morning mist adds to the magical atmosphere.

Discover Wonders at California Academy of Sciences

Visitors exploring lush four-story rainforest dome at California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park
Felt like I stepped into another world in the rainforest dome at Cal Academy. Keep an eye out for free-flying butterflies!

Prepare for a mind-expanding journey through the natural world at the California Academy of Sciences. This isn't your average museum - it's a planetarium, aquarium, and natural history museum all under one spectacular living roof. Start your adventure by diving into the Steinhart Aquarium, where you can walk through a transparent tunnel surrounded by colorful fish and menacing sharks. Next, blast off into space at the Morrison Planetarium, featuring shows that will expand your cosmic perspective. Don't miss the four-story rainforest dome, where butterflies flutter freely around you. The living roof, with its rolling hills and native plants, is an engineering marvel and a lesson in sustainability. With hands-on exhibits and immersive experiences like the Earthquake simulator, the Academy makes science thrilling for all ages.

  • Location: 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
  • Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, Sunday 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM
  • Admission: Adults $39.95, Youth (3-17) $29.95, Seniors (65+) $34.95

Why Visit: Explore a world-class institution that brings the wonders of the natural world to life through innovative exhibits and immersive experiences.

Insider Tip: Visit on a Thursday night for NightLife, an adults-only event with cocktails, music, and special programming.

Get Inspired at SFMOMA

Visitor admiring vibrant modern artwork in spacious gallery at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
Lost track of time wandering through SFMOMA's incredible collection. The living wall in the sculpture garden is a work of art itself!

Step into a world of creativity and innovation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). With its striking architectural expansion, SFMOMA is a work of art itself, housing an impressive collection of modern and contemporary masterpieces. As you wander through the light-filled galleries, you'll encounter iconic works by artists like Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The museum's commitment to cutting-edge art is evident in its digital and interactive installations, pushing the boundaries of what art can be. Take a break at the rooftop sculpture garden, offering a peaceful oasis with stunning city views. Whether you're an art aficionado or just curious, SFMOMA's diverse collection and thought-provoking exhibitions offer something to intrigue and inspire everyone.

  • Location: 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103
  • Hours: Friday–Tuesday 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Thursday 1:00 PM to 8:00 PM, Closed Wednesday
  • Admission: Adults $25, Visitors aged 19-24 $22, 18 and under free

Why Visit: Immerse yourself in one of the world's premier collections of modern and contemporary art in a stunning architectural setting.

Insider Tip: Don't miss the Living Wall, a vertical garden that's both an architectural feature and a piece of living art.

Explore the Wonders of Golden Gate Park

People picnicking and relaxing on sunny day in San Francisco's vast Golden Gate Park, surrounded by trees and flowers
Perfect afternoon in Golden Gate Park. At 1,017 acres, it's actually larger than New York's Central Park!

Golden Gate Park is San Francisco's green heart, a sprawling oasis that offers a welcome respite from urban life. This 1,000-acre park is a world unto itself, filled with hidden treasures and iconic landmarks. Rent a paddleboat on Stow Lake, where you can glide past the picturesque Chinese Pavilion. Wander through the serene Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, with its pagodas, koi ponds, and zen rock gardens. For a quirky surprise, seek out the herd of American bison that have called the park home since 1899. Art lovers shouldn't miss the de Young Museum, with its distinctive copper facade and observation tower offering panoramic city views. With miles of walking trails, sports facilities, and picturesque picnic spots, Golden Gate Park truly has something for everyone.

  • Location: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 94122
  • Hours: Main park areas open 24/7, individual attraction hours vary
  • Admission: Free for the park, fees for some attractions

Why Visit: Experience a vast urban park that's home to world-class museums, beautiful gardens, and surprising wildlife.

Insider Tip: On Sundays, JFK Drive is closed to cars, making it perfect for biking, skating, or strolling without traffic.

Savor Local Flavors at Ferry Building Marketplace

Visitors exploring diverse food stalls and artisanal products inside historic Ferry Building Marketplace on San Francisco's waterfront
Foodie heaven at the Ferry Building! Don't miss the cheese shop - they let you sample before you buy. My taste buds (and wallet) were very happy.

Step into a food lover's paradise at the Ferry Building Marketplace. This historic ferry terminal, with its iconic clock tower, has been transformed into a gourmet emporium celebrating the best of Bay Area food culture. As you stroll through the light-filled hall, the aromas of freshly baked bread, artisanal cheeses, and brewing coffee tantalize your senses. Sample local oysters, indulge in handcrafted chocolates, or pick up picnic supplies from the array of local producers. Don't miss the famous Ferry Plaza Farmers Market held outside on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, where you can meet local farmers and artisans. With its waterfront location offering stunning bay views, the Ferry Building is not just a meal, but a quintessential San Francisco experience.

  • Location: 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111
  • Hours: Monday-Friday 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM, Saturday 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Sunday 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM
  • Admission: Free to enter, costs vary for food and products

Why Visit: Immerse yourself in the Bay Area's vibrant food scene and enjoy gourmet treats with a side of stunning waterfront views.

Insider Tip: Try the porchetta sandwich at Roli Roti during the Saturday farmers market - it's a local favorite and often sells out early.

Immerse Yourself in Chinatown's Rich Culture

Colorful red lanterns decorating street in San Francisco's bustling Chinatown, oldest and largest outside of Asia
Stepping through the Dragon's Gate into Chinatown feels like entering another world. The dim sum here is unbeatable!

Step through the ornate Dragon's Gate and enter the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, a vibrant neighborhood that's been an integral part of San Francisco since the 1850s. The narrow streets bustle with activity as the scent of incense mingles with the aroma of roast duck. Colorful lanterns sway overhead, and traditional music drifts from shop doorways. Explore the countless stores filled with exotic herbs, intricate trinkets, and authentic Chinese crafts. Don't miss the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch these iconic treats being made by hand. For a taste of local life, visit Portsmouth Square, often called Chinatown's living room, where elderly residents gather for lively games of mahjong. Cap off your visit with a dim sum feast at one of the neighborhood's many excellent restaurants.

  • Location: Chinatown, San Francisco, CA 94108
  • Hours: Most shops open 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM daily
  • Admission: Free to explore, costs vary for food and shopping

Why Visit: Experience the vibrant culture, rich history, and delicious cuisine of America's oldest and largest Chinatown.

Insider Tip: For an off-the-beaten-path experience, visit the Tin How Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in America, hidden on the top floor of an unassuming building.

Hike the Lands End Trail

Hikers on scenic Lands End Trail in San Francisco with stunning views of Golden Gate Bridge and rugged coastline
The Lands End Trail offers some of the best views in the city. We even spotted some whales breaching in the distance!

Escape the urban jungle and discover a wild, rugged side of San Francisco on the Lands End Trail. This clifftop hike offers breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and the crashing Pacific below. As you wind along the coast, you'll pass through a grove of wind-sculpted cypress trees and stumble upon hidden pocket beaches. Keep an eye out for the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a massive public bathhouse from the late 19th century that now stands as a hauntingly beautiful reminder of the city's past. The trail is dotted with benches perfect for whale watching or simply soaking in the dramatic scenery. With its stunning natural beauty and rich history, Lands End offers a wilderness experience right at the edge of the city.

  • Location: Lands End Trail, San Francisco, CA 94121
  • Hours: Open daily from sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience stunning coastal views and a slice of wilderness within city limits on this scenic hike.

Insider Tip: Time your visit for sunset when the golden light illuminates the coast and bridges, creating a magical atmosphere.

Explore the Vibrant Mission District

Vibrant, large-scale mural artwork decorating building wall in San Francisco's eclectic Mission District
The murals in the Mission are like an open-air art gallery. Balmy Alley is packed with powerful pieces reflecting the neighborhood's Latino heritage.

Dive into the colorful heart of San Francisco's counterculture in the Mission District. This neighborhood pulses with energy, from its vibrant street art to its eclectic mix of cuisines. Start your exploration on Valencia Street, browsing through quirky boutiques and independent bookstores. Then, venture down alleys like Clarion and Balmy to discover stunning murals that tell stories of the neighborhood's Latino heritage and social movements. When hunger strikes, join the locals in line for a famous Mission-style burrito, overstuffed and utterly delicious. For dessert, head to Dolores Park on a sunny afternoon, where San Franciscans gather for picnics with a side of people-watching and skyline views. As night falls, the Mission comes alive with buzzing bars and live music venues, offering everything from indie rock to salsa.

  • Location: Mission District, San Francisco, CA 94110
  • Hours: Vary by business, area active 24/7
  • Admission: Free to explore, costs vary for food and entertainment

Why Visit: Experience San Francisco's most dynamic neighborhood, known for its street art, diverse food scene, and vibrant nightlife.

Insider Tip: For the best burrito experience, skip the famous places and try El Farolito or La Taqueria, where locals swear the burritos are unbeatable.

Step Back in Time Aboard the Balclutha

Visitor exploring rigging on deck of historic Balclutha tall ship docked at San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier
Channeling my inner sailor aboard the Balclutha. Hard to believe this ship sailed around Cape Horn 17 times!

Transport yourself to the age of tall ships with a visit to the Balclutha, a majestic 1886 square-rigger docked at Hyde Street Pier. As you step aboard this National Historic Landmark, you'll feel the gentle sway of the bay beneath your feet and smell the salt in the air. Explore the ship's three decks, from the spacious cargo hold to the cozy captain's quarters, each offering a glimpse into maritime life of the late 19th century. Learn about the perilous Cape Horn trade routes and imagine the courage it took to sail this vessel around the world. The Balclutha's prime location also offers stunning views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, providing a unique vantage point for photographing these iconic landmarks.

  • Location: Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco, CA 94109
  • Hours: Daily 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM (last entry at 4:30 PM)
  • Admission: Adults $15, Youth (15 and under) free

Why Visit: Experience life aboard a historic tall ship and gain insight into San Francisco's maritime heritage.

Insider Tip: Time your visit for one of the ship's living history days, when costumed interpreters bring the Balclutha's past to life with demonstrations and storytelling.

Uncover the Secrets of Cable Cars at the Cable Car Museum

Visitors observing massive wheels and cable mechanisms at San Francisco Cable Car Museum, showcasing city's unique transportation history
Fascinating to see the actual cables and wheels that power San Francisco's iconic cable cars. The museum is free and right in the heart of the system!

Delve into the mechanical marvels that power San Francisco's iconic mode of transport at the Cable Car Museum. This free museum isn't just a tribute to nostalgia; it's a working part of the cable car system. As you enter, you're greeted by the impressive sight and sound of giant wheels and engines in action, pulling cables that move cars across the city. Explore vintage cable cars, including the first one from 1873, and learn about the system's near-destruction after the 1906 earthquake. Interactive exhibits explain the ingenious engineering behind these moving monuments, while photographs and artifacts paint a vivid picture of San Francisco's transformation from a small settlement to a booming metropolis. It's a must-visit for history buffs, engineering enthusiasts, and anyone curious about what makes San Francisco's hills come alive with the sound of clanging bells.

  • Location: 1201 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108
  • Hours: Daily 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM (April-October), 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM (November-March)
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Gain a fascinating insight into the history and mechanics of San Francisco's beloved cable cars.

Insider Tip: Visit on a weekday morning when it's less crowded, allowing you to get up close to the machinery and ask the knowledgeable staff questions.

Discover Fort Point's Civil War History

Fascinating to see the actual cables and wheels that power San Francisco's iconic cable cars. The museum is free and right in the heart of the system!
Visitors exploring brick archways and cannons at historic Fort Point beneath Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Tucked beneath the southern anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge lies Fort Point, a masterpiece of military architecture and a window into Civil War-era San Francisco. As you approach, the fort's robust brick walls and precise arches stand in stark contrast to the sleek lines of the bridge above. Step inside and you're transported to the 1860s, with the echoes of soldiers' footsteps seeming to linger in the air. Climb to the top tier for a cannon's-eye view of the Golden Gate, imagining what it was like to stand guard over these strategic waters. The fort's unique position also offers unparalleled views of the bridge's underbelly, a perspective few visitors experience. Don't miss the short film and exhibits that bring to life the fort's role in protecting the bay and its near-demolition during the bridge's construction.

  • Location: Long Ave & Marine Dr, San Francisco, CA 94129
  • Hours: Friday-Sunday 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Explore a beautifully preserved Civil War-era fort and gain a unique perspective on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Insider Tip: Visit on a foggy day for a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere that enhances the fort's historical ambiance.

Admire the Painted Ladies at Alamo Square

Row of colorful Victorian houses known as Painted Ladies at Alamo Square with modern San Francisco skyline in background
The famous "Postcard Row" doesn't disappoint! Pro tip: come at sunset for a magical golden hour photo op.

No San Francisco visit is complete without a stop at Alamo Square to admire the world-famous "Painted Ladies." This row of colorful Victorian houses, backed by the city's modern skyline, creates one of the most photographed scenes in San Francisco. As you approach Alamo Square Park, you'll understand why these pastel-hued beauties, also known as "Postcard Row," have become a symbol of the city. Spread out a picnic blanket on the grassy hill facing the Painted Ladies and watch the changing light play on their ornate facades. The juxtaposition of these 19th-century homes against the backdrop of downtown skyscrapers offers a perfect representation of San Francisco's blend of historic charm and modern innovation. While you're there, take a stroll around the park to spot other impressive Victorian and Edwardian houses that give this historic district its distinctive character.

  • Location: Steiner St &, Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94117
  • Hours: Always visible, park open 5:00 AM to midnight
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Witness one of San Francisco's most iconic views and experience a perfect blend of the city's historic and modern elements.

Insider Tip: Visit at sunset for a magical golden hour that makes the Painted Ladies glow and creates a stunning photo opportunity.

Meet Exotic Animals at the San Francisco Zoo

Visitor observing giraffes in naturalistic enclosure at San Francisco Zoo, with eucalyptus trees in background
Got up close with these gentle giants at the San Francisco Zoo. Did you know their tongues can be up to 21 inches long?

Embark on a wild adventure at the San Francisco Zoo, where over 2,000 exotic, rescued, and endangered animals await your visit. Sprawling across 100 acres near the Pacific Ocean, this zoo offers a chance to travel the globe through its diverse habitats. Stand eye-to-eye with giraffes in the African Savanna, watch grizzly bears forage in their habitat, or be mesmerized by the grace of snow leopards. The zoo's commitment to conservation is evident in its many endangered species programs and naturalistic enclosures. Kids will love the Little Puffer miniature steam train and the Fisher-Price Discovery Zoo playground. Don't miss the charming penguin feeding session or the Lemur Forest, home to seven different species of these charismatic primates. With its mix of wildlife, education, and fun, the San Francisco Zoo offers a perfect day out for animal lovers of all ages.

  • Location: Sloat Blvd & Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 94132
  • Hours: Daily 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM (last entry at 4:00 PM)
  • Admission: Adults $25, Children (2-14) $18, Seniors (65+) $22

Why Visit: Experience a world-class zoo with a diverse array of animals and a strong focus on conservation and education.

Insider Tip: Check the zoo's daily schedule for keeper talks and animal feedings to get more insight into your favorite creatures.

Soak in the Bohemian Vibe of North Beach

Diners enjoying meal at charming sidewalk cafe in San Francisco's Italian-influenced North Beach neighborhood
Soaking up the European vibes in North Beach. Stop by City Lights Bookstore for a dose of Beat Generation history!

Diners enjoying meal at charming sidewalk cafe in San Francisco's Italian-influenced North Beach neighborhood

Welcome to North Beach, San Francisco's Little Italy and the former stomping ground of the Beat Generation. This lively neighborhood exudes a European charm with its sidewalk cafes, aromatic bakeries, and bustling pizzerias. Start your exploration at City Lights Bookstore, the iconic independent bookshop co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which remains a bastion of progressive literature. Wander down to Washington Square Park, where locals gather for tai chi in the shadow of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Climb the Filbert Steps for stunning bay views and a peek at the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. As evening falls, the neighborhood comes alive with the clinking of wine glasses and the aromas of garlic and tomato sauce wafting from trattorias. Cap off your night with a cocktail at one of the historic bars where Beat poets once found inspiration.

  • Location: North Beach, San Francisco, CA 94133
  • Hours: Vary by business, area active 24/7
  • Admission: Free to explore, costs vary for food and entertainment

Why Visit: Experience the vibrant Italian-American culture and bohemian history of one of San Francisco's most charming neighborhoods.

Insider Tip: For a unique dessert experience, try the tiramisu at Stella Pastry & Cafe, a neighborhood institution since 1942.

Engage Your Curiosity at the Exploratorium

Young visitor engaging with hands-on science exhibit at Exploratorium, San Francisco's innovative science museum on the Embarcadero
Hours of fun at the Exploratorium! The Tactile Dome, where you navigate in total darkness, was a unique experience.Prepare to be amazed, perplexed, and delighted at the Exploratorium, a hands-on museum that's as much an ongoing experiment as it is an educational institution. Located on Pier 15 with stunning bay views, this is not your typical look-but-don't-touch museum. Here, you're encouraged to interact with hundreds of exhibits that explore science, art, and human perception. Create a tornado, walk through a tactile dome in complete darkness, see sound, and touch time. The Exploratorium doesn't just explain scientific concepts; it lets you experience them firsthand. With sections dedicated to everything from human behavior to the living world, there's something to fascinate visitors of all ages. As the sun sets, don't miss the bay-facing exhibits that transform with the changing light, offering a new perspective on familiar sights.
  • Location: Pier 15 Embarcadero at Green St., San Francisco, CA 94111
  • Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Thursday (18+) 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM
  • Admission: Adults $39.95, Youth (4-17) $29.95, Seniors (65+) $34.95

Presidio Exploration

Hiker on trail in San Francisco's Presidio park with Golden Gate Bridge visible through trees
The Presidio is full of hidden gems. We stumbled upon Andy Goldsworthy's 'Wood Line' sculpture during our walk - a beautiful surprise!

Explore History at the PresidioOnce a military post, the Presidio has been transformed into an urban oasis that blends history, nature, and culture. This sprawling park offers something for everyone, from hiking trails with panoramic bay views to museums that delve into the area's rich past. Start at the Presidio Officers' Club, a museum and cultural center that tells the story of this land from Native American settlements to the present day. Take a stroll on Crissy Field's waterfront promenade for stunning Golden Gate Bridge views, or explore the Andy Goldsworthy art installations hidden throughout the park. History buffs will appreciate the Fort Point National Historic Site, while nature lovers can lose themselves in the Presidio's forests and beaches. With its mix of recreational areas, historic buildings, and cultural institutions, the Presidio offers a perfect blend of urban park and national park experiences.

  • Location: Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94129
  • Hours: Open 24/7, individual attraction hours vary
  • Admission: Free to enter, some attractions may have fees

Why Visit: Engage with science, art, and human perception through hundreds of interactive exhibits in a stunning waterfront location.

Insider Tip: Visit on a Thursday evening for "After Dark," an adults-only event with a bar, special programming, and a more relaxed atmosphere.

Palace of Fine Arts

Majestic dome and columns of Palace of Fine Arts reflected in calm lagoon waters in San Francisco's Marina District
The Palace of Fine Arts looks like it belongs in ancient Rome, not California! It's one of the few structures remaining from the 1915 World's Fair.

Marvel at the Palace of Fine ArtsStep into a scene straight out of ancient Rome at the Palace of Fine Arts, a breathtaking structure that seems almost too grand to be real. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, this Greco-Roman inspired monument has become one of San Francisco's most photographed landmarks. As you approach, you'll be struck by the massive colonnade and rotunda, their reflections shimmering in the lagoon. Wander under the soaring dome, taking in the intricate friezes and the peaceful atmosphere. The surrounding park is perfect for a picnic or a quiet moment of reflection. Keep an eye out for the swans that gracefully glide across the lagoon, adding to the site's romantic ambiance. While no longer home to art exhibits, the Palace itself is a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design, offering a serene escape from the bustling city.

  • Location: 3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123
  • Hours: Open 24/7
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience a unique urban national park that offers a perfect blend of history, nature, and culture.

Insider Tip: Rent a bike to cover more ground and enjoy the park's 24 miles of cycling routes with stunning views.

Twin Peaks Vista

Panoramic view of San Francisco cityscape and bay from Twin Peaks viewpoint, showcasing city's unique geography
The climb up Twin Peaks is worth it for this incredible 360-degree view of the city. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Sierra Nevada!

Ride the Twin Peaks for Panoramic City ViewsFor the most spectacular 360-degree views of San Francisco, head to the top of Twin Peaks. These two adjacent hills, nearly identical in height, offer an unparalleled vantage point to take in the entire city, the bay, and beyond. As you wind your way up the slopes, the urban landscape unfolds beneath you, revealing San Francisco's unique geography. From the viewing area at Christmas Tree Point, you can spot iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and downtown skyscrapers. On clear days, you might even see as far as the Sierra Nevada mountains. The hills themselves are home to diverse wildlife and plant species, including the endangered Mission Blue butterfly. Whether you come for sunrise, sunset, or a dramatic foggy scene, Twin Peaks offers a perspective of San Francisco that you won't find anywhere else.

  • Location: 501 Twin Peaks Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94114
  • Hours: Open daily 5:00 AM to midnight
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience one of San Francisco's most beautiful and romantic landmarks, a perfect spot for photos and peaceful contemplation.

Insider Tip: Visit at night when the Palace is illuminated, creating a magical, almost surreal atmosphere.

San Francisco Botanical Garden

Visitor enjoying colorful flower display in San Francisco Botanical Garden, lush oasis within Golden Gate Park
A peaceful escape in the heart of the city. The Botanical Garden's magnolia collection is the most significant for conservation outside China!

Discover Botanical Wonders at the San Francisco Botanical GardenEscape into a world of floral beauty at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, a living museum within Golden Gate Park. This 55-acre urban oasis is home to more than 8,000 different kinds of plants from around the world, artfully arranged into a series of specialty gardens and open spaces. Wander through the misty Cloud Forest, with its collection of high-altitude tropical plants, or find serenity in the Japanese-inspired Moon Viewing Garden. The California Native Garden showcases the diverse flora of the Golden State, while the Ancient Plant Garden features species that have remained unchanged for millions of years. Throughout the year, the garden comes alive with seasonal blooms, from magnolias in late winter to dahlias in late summer. With its meandering pathways, hidden nooks, and open meadows, the Botanical Garden offers a peaceful retreat and a chance to connect with nature in the heart of the city.

  • Location: 1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122
  • Hours: Open daily, hours vary by season
  • Admission: Adults $10, San Francisco Residents Free with proof of residency

Why Visit: Gain a breathtaking bird's-eye view of San Francisco and its surroundings from the city's geographical center.

Insider Tip: Bring warm layers, as it can be windy and chilly at the top, even on sunny days.

Pier 39 Sea Lions

Group of sea lions basking on floating docks at Pier 39, popular tourist attraction on San Francisco's waterfront
These noisy neighbors showed up after the 1989 earthquake and never left! The sea lions at Pier 39 are endlessly entertaining.

Experience the Lively Atmosphere of Pier 39Dive into the heart of San Francisco's waterfront action at Pier 39, a vibrant shopping, dining, and entertainment complex that captures the spirit of Fisherman's Wharf. While it's certainly touristy, Pier 39 offers undeniable fun and some of the best views in the city. Start by saying hello to the famous sea lions that have made the K-Dock their home since 1990, barking and sunbathing to the delight of visitors. Then, explore the two levels of shops, ranging from quirky local boutiques to well-known brands. When hunger strikes, indulge in fresh seafood at one of the many restaurants with bay views. Kids (and the young at heart) will love the Aquarium of the Bay and the San Francisco Carousel, adorned with hand-painted scenes of the city. Don't leave without trying a bread bowl of clam chowder - it's a San Francisco classic!

  • Location: The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94133
  • Hours: Daily 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM (hours may vary by business)
  • Admission: Free to explore, costs vary for attractions and dining

Why Visit: Explore a diverse collection of global flora in a beautifully designed garden setting within Golden Gate Park.

Insider Tip: Check the garden's website for their monthly plant sales, where you can purchase unique specimens propagated on-site.

Urban Wine Tasting

Group enjoying wine tasting flight at trendy urban winery in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood
Who knew you could go wine tasting without leaving the city? San Francisco's urban wineries offer a unique twist on the Napa experience.

Sip and Savor on an Urban Wine TrailWho says you need to go to Napa to experience California's wine culture? San Francisco has its own urban wine scene, with tasting rooms and wineries scattered throughout the city. Start your wine adventure in the Dogpatch neighborhood, home to several urban wineries that source grapes from nearby regions but produce their wines right in the city. At Bluxome Street Winery, you can watch the winemaking process while sipping on their Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Head to The Barrel Room for a global wine experience, or visit Tank18 for wines on tap in a spacious industrial setting. For a unique twist, check out Treasure Island, where a cluster of wineries offers tastings with panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline. This urban wine trail provides a perfect blend of local flavor and world-class wines, all without leaving the city limits.

  • Location: Various locations throughout San Francisco
  • Hours: Vary by winery, typically open afternoons and evenings
  • Admission: Tasting fees vary, typically $15-$25 per person

Why Visit: Enjoy a lively waterfront atmosphere with shopping, dining, and entertainment options, plus great views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Insider Tip: Visit early in the morning to see the sea lions at their most active and to avoid the largest crowds.

Castro Neighborhood

Pedestrians crossing vibrant rainbow-painted crosswalk in San Francisco's LGBTQ+-friendly Castro neighborhood
The Castro's famous rainbow crosswalks are just the beginning. This neighborhood's rich LGBTQ+ history and lively atmosphere make it a must-visit.

Celebrate Diversity in the CastroStep into the heart of LGBTQ+ culture in San Francisco's vibrant Castro neighborhood. Rainbow flags flutter proudly from Victorian houses, and the spirit of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, is palpable on every corner. Start your exploration at the iconic Castro Theatre, a 1922 movie palace that still screens films and hosts sing-along events. Wander down Castro Street, popping into unique shops, bookstores, and cafes. Don't miss the Rainbow Honor Walk, a series of sidewalk plaques honoring LGBTQ+ icons. For a deeper dive into the neighborhood's rich history, visit the GLBT Historical Society Museum. As evening falls, the Castro comes alive with bustling restaurants and lively bars. Be sure to stop by Twin Peaks Tavern, known as the "Gateway to the Castro" and one of the first gay bars in the US to have clear glass windows. Whether you're part of the LGBTQ+ community or an ally, the Castro welcomes all with open arms and a celebratory spirit.

  • Location: Castro neighborhood, centered around Castro and Market Streets
  • Hours: Vary by business, area active 24/7
  • Admission: Free to explore, costs vary for entertainment and dining.

Why Visit: Experience California's wine culture without leaving the city, tasting locally-produced wines in unique urban settings.

Insider Tip: Many urban wineries offer "Wine Club" memberships with perks like discounts and exclusive events - great for locals or frequent visitors.

Baker Beach Relaxation

Beachgoers relaxing on sandy Baker Beach with iconic Golden Gate Bridge visible in distance, capturing essence of San Francisco
The perfect spot to end our San Francisco adventure. Just a heads up - the north end of Baker Beach is clothing-optional!

Relax at Baker BeachEscape the urban hustle and unwind at Baker Beach, a mile-long stretch of sand offering breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Located in the Presidio, this beach provides a perfect blend of natural beauty and iconic cityscapes. Spread out your towel and listen to the rhythmic crash of waves against the shore, or take a leisurely stroll along the water's edge, keeping an eye out for dolphins or seals. The north end of the beach is clothing-optional, a testament to San Francisco's free-spirited nature. While the water is usually too cold and rough for swimming, Baker Beach is ideal for sunbathing, picnicking, or fishing. As the day winds down, stick around for a spectacular sunset that paints the sky and bridge in golden hues. It's a quintessential San Francisco experience that perfectly captures the city's blend of urban and natural wonders.

  • Location: Battery Chamberlin Rd, San Francisco, CA 94129
  • Hours: Open daily from sunrise to sunset
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience the vibrant heart of San Francisco's LGBTQ+ community and explore a neighborhood rich in history and culture.

Insider Tip: Time your visit to coincide with one of the Castro's famous street fairs or the annual San Francisco Pride Parade for an unforgettable celebration.

Why Visit: Enjoy a beautiful beach setting with unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge and a perfect spot for a San Francisco sunset.Insider Tip: Visit on a clear day after a rain for the best views of the Marin Headlands and the bridge.

Structuring Your San Francisco Adventure: A 7-Day Itinerary

Ready to dive into the best of San Francisco? This 7-day itinerary covers the city's highlights while allowing time to soak in its unique atmosphere. Feel free to adjust based on your interests and energy levels - after all, the best adventures often come from spontaneous detours!

Days 1-2: Iconic Sights and Downtown Exploration

  • Start with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, followed by exploring the charming bayside town of Sausalito.
  • Visit Alcatraz Island (book in advance!) and learn about its fascinating history.
  • Explore Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, enjoying seafood and watching the sea lions.
  • Take a scenic cable car ride to Union Square for some shopping.
  • End your day with dinner in Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia.

Insider Tip: Buy a multi-day Muni pass for easy use of public transportation throughout your stay.

Days 3-4: Cultural Immersion and Natural Wonders

  • Dedicate a full day to Golden Gate Park, visiting the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum.
  • Explore the San Francisco Botanical Garden and enjoy a peaceful moment at the Japanese Tea Garden.
  • The next day, head to the vibrant Mission District for amazing murals and the best burritos in town.
  • Visit the SFMOMA for a dose of world-class modern art.
  • End with a sunset view from Twin Peaks.

Insider Tip: Many museums have free days each month - check their websites to potentially save on admission fees.

Days 5-6: Neighborhood Deep Dives

  • Spend a morning in the Castro, learning about LGBTQ+ history and enjoying brunch at a local cafe.
  • Wander through North Beach, visiting City Lights Bookstore and enjoying Italian cuisine.
  • Explore the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, known for its hippie history and vintage shops.
  • Take a stroll through the Presidio, visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum and enjoying the park's natural beauty.
  • End one of your evenings with a sunset sail on the bay for breathtaking views of the city skyline.

Insider Tip: Many neighborhoods offer free walking tours led by local volunteers - a great way to get insider knowledge!

Day 7: Off the Beaten Path

  • Start your day early with a hike along the Lands End Trail for stunning coastal views.
  • Visit the ruins of Sutro Baths and explore the nearby Camera Obscura.
  • Head to the Exploratorium for hands-on science fun (or, for a change of pace, relax at Baker Beach).
  • Enjoy your last San Francisco sunset from Crissy Field, with the Golden Gate Bridge as your backdrop.
  • Cap off your trip with a farewell dinner at the Ferry Building Marketplace, sampling local specialties.

Insider Tip: If you're visiting between November and February, consider a whale watching tour to spot migrating gray whales.

Remember, this itinerary is just a starting point. San Francisco is a city that rewards exploration, so don't be afraid to wander down that interesting alley or hop on a bus to a neighborhood that catches your eye. Each district has its own unique flavor, and some of the best experiences come from unexpected discoveries. Whether you're captivated by the city's natural beauty, fascinated by its counterculture history, or simply here for the food, San Francisco has something special waiting around every corner.

As you navigate the city, keep in mind that San Francisco's weather can be unpredictable. The famous microclimates mean it can be sunny in one neighborhood and foggy in the next, so always carry layers. And don't forget comfortable walking shoes - those hills are no joke!

Most importantly, approach your San Francisco adventure with an open mind and a sense of curiosity. This is a city that has always welcomed dreamers, innovators, and free spirits. So whether you're watching the fog roll in over the Golden Gate Bridge, chatting with a local at a neighborhood coffee shop, or discovering a hidden stairway garden, embrace the unique spirit of San Francisco. Who knows? You might just leave a piece of your heart here.

Why San Francisco?

From the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to the hidden gems tucked away in eclectic neighborhoods, San Francisco offers a blend of experiences as diverse as its population. This city challenges you to look beyond the surface, to climb its hills or rewarding views, to taste flavors from around the world in a single street, and to connect with a culture that's always been a little bit countercultural.

As you've seen, the best things to do in San Francisco go far beyond the typical tourist checklist. Yes, you should ride a cable car and visit Alcatraz, but also make time to chat with local artists in the Mission, to breathe in the misty air of Lands End, and to join the morning tai chi practice in a Chinatown park. It's these moments that reveal the true heart of the city.San Francisco is a city that rewards the curious. Each neighborhood tells a different story, from the Gold Rush dreams that built it to the Summer of Love that defined it, from the tech boom that's reshaping it to the local movements fighting to preserve its unique character. It's a place where innovation and tradition coexist, often in surprising harmony.

As you plan your visit, remember that the best way to experience San Francisco is to embrace its spirit of exploration. Let yourself get a little lost. Strike up conversations with locals. Try that interesting-looking restaurant. Respect the local culture and environment. And don't worry too much about seeing everything - even longtime residents discover new facets of the city every day.

Whether you're watching the fog roll in from Twin Peaks, savoring dim sum in Chinatown, or contemplating the future at the Exploratorium, you're not just visiting San Francisco - you're becoming part of its ongoing story. So come with an open heart and a sense of adventure. The City by the Bay is waiting to welcome you, in all its foggy, hilly, quirky glory. Who knows? You might just find that you leave your heart in San Francisco.

West Parker
West Parker
Article updated:
July 18, 2024 9:01 AM

West Parker, a Cornell University School of Hotel Administration graduate, has spent two decades as the secret weapon of the jet-set elite, crafting bespoke adventures that redefine luxury travel. Now a resident writer for Town & Tourist, this 45-year-old "Architect of Extraordinary Journeys" combines razor-sharp insights with unparalleled industry connections to deliver experiences that even the most discerning globetrotters can't help but rave about. West's expertise spans from exclusive real estate to fine dining, making him the go-to strategist for those who demand nothing but the extraordinary in their travels.

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