Discover the best things to do in San Francisco with this handy guide.
It will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that there are so many things to do in San Francisco! You could spend weeks exploring all the different neighborhoods and attractions and not even come close to doing it justice.
Sounds great right? Maybe if you have months for your visit. If you’re on a shorter itinerary or are stopping off on your West Coast road trip don’t worry, this guide will walk you through what to do in San Francisco.
From well-known tourist destinations like Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz, to hidden gems that only the locals know about – we’re going to discover some of the best things to do in this amazing city.
So put on your walking shoes and get ready to explore!
Best Things to do in San Francisco – Top 10 Attractions
See the Iconic Golden Gate Bridge
New York has The Statue of Liberty, London has Big Ben, and San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s no way I could talk about the best things to do in San Francisco and not include a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The bridge was built in 1937 and spans the Golden Gate Strait, which connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the most photographed landmarks in the world, and it’s definitely worth a visit!
Constructed from granite and steel, the bridge is an iconic part of San Francisco’s skyline.
Did you know the Golden Gate Bridge was never actually intended to be red! It was only painted red because it’s the color of the primer used by the construction company – although technically the colour is actually “International Orange”.
On a clear day, hop on the bridge and you can see all the way to Marin County on the other side of the strait.
How to Visit: Take a Golden Gate Bay Cruise or hike through the Golden Gate Park (featured below)
No trip to the city would be complete without a visit to Alcatraz – one of the best-known San Francisco attractions. The famous island prison was built in the early 1900s and operated until 1963.
Known for the near impossibility of escape, Alcatraz was considered to be one of the most secure prisons in the world. Some of the prison’s most famous inhabitants include Al Capone, Robert Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
The ferry ride to Alcatraz is definitely worth it alone! As you approach the island, you’ll see the imposing prison walls looming in front of you.
Once on the island, you can explore all 19 acres of it, including the prison buildings, the cell blocks, and the exercise yard. There’s also a museum on Alcatraz which tells you all about the island’s history.
There’s no doubt that Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular tourist destinations in San Francisco. With its bay-front location, colourful buildings, and famous seafood restaurants, it’s easy to see why.
Fisherman’s Wharf is located on the northern waterfront of San Francisco, and it’s home to a variety of shops and restaurants. You can also catch a boat tour from here, or visit the Aquarium of the Bay. If you’re looking for some souvenirs, head further along to Pier 39 where you’ll find everything from t-shirts to sea lions!
Stroll Around Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. It’s a great place to explore if you’re interested in Chinese culture and food.
The neighbourhood is home to some amazing restaurants, including the world-famous dim sum restaurant Yank Sing.
You can also find traditional Chinese medicine shops, souvenir stores, and temples here – the Tin How Temple is a San Francisco landmark dating back to 1852.
Ride a Cable Car
There’s no better way to experience San Francisco than by riding one of the city’s famous cable cars. The cars date back to the late 19th century, and they offer a unique (and sometimes bumpy) view of the city.
You can find the cable cars near Union Square, and it’s definitely worth taking a ride. Just be prepared to queue!
Check Out Union Square
Union Square is the heart of San Francisco, and it’s home to some of the city’s most famous landmarks such as the Cable Car Museum and the Tiffany & Co. store.
The square is a great place to people-watch, and it’s also home to some of San Francisco’s best restaurants and bars. It’s the perfect place to start your exploration of the city.
The square is surrounded by high-end stores and restaurants, and it’s a great place to people watch.
You can also find the cable cars here, as well as the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant.
Take a Look at The Painted Ladies and San Francisco’s Other Colourful Houses
The “Painted Ladies” are a row of Victorian houses located in the Alamo Square neighbourhood. The houses are painted in a variety of different colours, and they’re one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks.
The best way to see the “Painted Ladies” is from Alamo Square Park, which is located right next to them. The park offers great views of the city skyline, and it’s a great place to relax and people-watch.
Historically, houses in the Haight-Ashbury area were painted in all manner of colours – a reflection of the eclectic neighbourhood, but there’s been significant debate about the rise of what some locals call “gentrification grey”, which they claim is robbing the area of its unique character.
See the Street Art on Balmy Alley
Balmy Alley is a narrow alley in the Mission District that’s home to some of San Francisco’s best street art.
The murals here are constantly changing, and you can find everything from political statements to beautiful works of art. Historically, the alley has been a place for local artists to showcase their work, and it’s still home to a large number of street artists today.
The best way to see Balmy Alley is on foot – it’s only a few blocks long, and it’s a great way to explore the neighbourhood. Be prepared for lots of street art selfies!
Gorge on Burritos at La Taqueria in The Mission
The Mission District is one of the most vibrant and colourful neighbourhoods in San Francisco. It’s home to a large Mexican population, and you can find some amazing Mexican food here.
One of the best places to eat burritos in The Mission is La Taqueria. This small restaurant has been serving up delicious burritos since 1978, and it’s a San Francisco institution. La Taqueria is always busy, so be prepared to queue!
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is one of the most popular museums in the city, and it’s home to a huge collection of modern art. Highlights of the museum’s collection include works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock.
The museum is housed in a beautiful building, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in modern art.
How to visit: Book through GYG – or admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
Cool Things to do in San Francisco
Get Cultured at the City Lights Bookstore
City Lights Bookstore is a popular independent bookstore located in the North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco. The store was founded in 1953, and it’s become one of the most famous bookstores in the world.
City Lights is best known for its association with Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg – they published Ginsberg’s Howl, which caused a great furore when it was released in 1956.
The bookstore is also home to a number of interesting book signings and events. It’s a great place to find rare and out-of-print books, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in literature.
Discover the Haight-Ashbury Neighbourhood
The Haight-Ashbury district is one of the most famous neighbourhoods in San Francisco, and it’s definitely worth a visit. The area was made famous by the hippie movement of the 1960s, and it’s still home to a few of those same hippies today.
You can find all sorts of interesting shops and restaurants in Haight-Ashbury, as well as street performers and graffiti artists. The area is also home to the Grateful Dead House (which is now a museum) and the pretty “Painted Ladies” houses.
Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s green lung, a mosaic of wooded areas and open spaces that provides tantalising views of the bridge before culminating with a view of the bridge.
The park is huge, measuring in at over 1000 acres. From the California Academy of Sciences to the Japanese Tea Garden, the Golden Gate Park is a must-see for any visitor to San Francisco.
Indulge Your Palate at the Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building Marketplace is a foodie’s paradise. This huge building is home to over 60 different vendors, selling everything from cheese to chocolate to oysters. Don’t miss the cheese shop, which is home to some of the best cheese in the city.
The marketplace is open every day except Sundays, and it’s the perfect place to indulge your palate. Be prepared for long queues at peak times!
Visit the Asian Art Museum
The Asian Art Museum is one of San Francisco’s most popular museums, and it’s home to a huge collection of art from across Asia. Noted exhibits include a section dedicated to Chinese art and a large collection of Indian sculptures.
The museum is housed in a beautiful building, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in Asian art. Admission is free on the first Thursday of each month.
Take a Ferry Ride to Sausalito
Sausalito is a small town located just across the bay from San Francisco. It’s a popular tourist destination, and it’s home to some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area.
The best way to get to Sausalito is by ferry. The ferries leave from Pier 41 near Fisherman’s Wharf, and they offer amazing views of the city skyline. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, and you can also visit the Marin Headlands nearby.
Explore San Francisco’s Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are a hidden gem in San Francisco, and they’re definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in plants.
The gardens cover a large area, and they include everything from cacti to rare orchids. Founded in 1879, they’re home to a number of interesting plants from around the world.
Hike the Twin Peaks
The Twin Peaks are two hills located in the centre of San Francisco. They offer amazing views of the city, thanks to the fact that they’re the second-highest point in San Fran and they’re a popular destination for hikers and cyclists.
The best way to reach the peaks is to hike there – it’s a strenuous pull to the top, but the views are definitely worth it. You can also reach the peaks by bike or car, but the roads are steep and winding.
Hang Out on Baker Beach
Baker Beach is a beautiful beach located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The beach is known for its amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s a popular destination for locals and tourists alike – so much so that the beach is often named as one of the best in California.
The best time to visit Baker Beach is during the late afternoon, when the sun sets behind the bridge. It’s a great place to relax with the bonus that you can also enjoy some of the best views in San Francisco.
Marvel at the Legion of Honor Museum
The Legion of Honor Museum is a popular art museum located in Lincoln Park. The museum is home to a large collection of European art, including paintings by Rembrandt and Rodin. It’s also home to one of the largest collections of French Impressionist art in the world.
The museum is housed in a beautiful building, and it’s definitely adding to your list of places to visit in San Francisco if you’re even remotely interested in art.
Climb Coit Tower for Incredible Views
The Coit Tower is a tall tower located in the Telegraph Hill neighbourhood of San Francisco. The tower was built in 1933, and it’s named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit – a local philanthropist who left money to the city for the purpose of building a tower.
The best way to reach the Coit Tower is by foot – it’s a steep climb, but the views are definitely worth the effort. The tower offers amazing 360-degree views of the city, and it’s a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Explore The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful building located in the Marina neighbourhood of San Francisco. The palace was built in 1915, and it’s home to a number of art galleries and museums such as the Exploratorium.
It’s also popular for its stunning architecture, which has been featured in a number of films and TV shows including The Godfather and Full House. Admission is free, but it’s worth noting that the palace is often closed for private events.
Escape to the Marin Headlands
The Marin Headlands are a beautiful park located in the north of San Francisco. The headlands offer amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area, and they’re a popular destination for hikers and cyclists.
The headlands are home to a number of interesting trails and attractions, including the Point Bonita Lighthouse and Rodeo Beach. They’re definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for some beautiful views of San Francisco.
San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo is a popular zoo located in the city’s south-west – an oasis of nature facing directly onto the Pacific. The zoo is home to a number of animals, including lions, tigers and gorillas.
Carefully constructed habitats designed to look like creatures’ natural homes. The zoo is great for families, animal lovers, or those who just want to spend some time in the beautifully landscaped grounds.
The zoo is also home to a number of interesting exhibits, including the Butterfly Garden and the Lemur Walk.
Things to Do in San Francisco: Practical Tips for Your Trip
Which Area to Stay in San Francisco?
The best place to start is by deciding which area of the city you want to stay in. The city is divided into a number of different neighbourhoods, each with its own unique character and attractions.
The Financial District is great if you’re interested in sightseeing and shopping, while the Castro is perfect if you’re looking for lively nightlife. If you want to be close to the Golden Gate Bridge, head to the Marin Headlands or Presidio neighbourhoods.
Recommended San Francisco Hotels
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco, here are a few of our recommended hotels.
Westin St. Francis
Located in Union Square, this is a wonderful hotel if you want to be in the heart of the action – it’s surrounded by shops, bars, and eateries.
The hotel is also a favourite among business travelers and offers a range of amenities including an on-site gym, swimming pool, and spa.
Check Rates and Availability at the Westin St Francis
The Argonaut Hotel
The Argonaut Hotel is a beautiful hotel located in Fisherman’s Wharf, and it’s a great option if you’re looking for something a little bit different. The hotel is housed in a historic building, and it has a number of unique features including an outdoor jacuzzi and private cinema.
The Argonaut Hotel also has the added perk of offering free breakfast and Wi-Fi too.
Check Rates and Availability at the Argonaut
Best Things to do in San Francisco: Map
Love this? Save and share on Pinterest!