There are countless things to do in San Fransico that are on many a bucket list. From walking across the Golden Gate Bridge to riding its iconic cable cars there is no doubt that a visit to San Francisco will be a vacation you’ll remember for years to come.
San Francisco is one of the best cities in California, if not one of the best cities in the US, and planning a San Francisco trip is so exciting. Whether you wander through San Francisco’s Chinatown or want to find the best spot to view the iconic San Francisco skyline at sunset, this guide has all the best things to do in San Francisco.
Top Things to do in San Francisco
A great way to explore the top San Francisco attractions is to purchase a San Francisco Explorer Pass. Choose 2, 3, 4, or 5 attractions and tours. Go at your own pace as you travel by the Hop-on Hop-off Big Bus Tour or take a Francisco Bay Cruise. Attractions include. The underwater glass tunnels and touch pools of the Aquarium of the Bay and California Academy of Sciences. Plus save up to 60% off compared to buying individual attraction tickets. More details here.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge is the most famous of these things to do in San Francisco. Regardless of if you are staying for 24 hours, 72 hours, or two weeks, the Golden Gate Bridge will be at the top of your itinerary.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is a massive part of the city skyline. Its characteristic red infrastructure is what most people associate with San Francisco. In fact, the Bay area around the bridge is so popular that it is now considered a national park. The area is referred to as Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is full of different viewpoints and hiking trails.
To experience Golden Gate Bridge, you can walk across it on the pedestrian footpath and also head to viewpoints for a panoramic view of the bridge. Marin Headlands is the best place for watching the sunset, while Fort Point is the best shot for dawn and sunrise.
When we first visited San Francisco, we bought a hop-on hop-off bus ticket and it was a great way to see all the major San Francisco Attractions. This is one of our favorite ways to explore a new city. It allows us to see a lot in a short time and take notes of where to come back to next. You can book a one or two day pass and the tour includes, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, exploring at your own pace, and stopping at the historic neighborhoods such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Haight-Ashbury.
2. Take a San Francisco Bay boat tour
San Francisco Bay is an estuary off of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco city is built around the estuary, with bridges crisscrossing the water to join opposite shores. San Francisco Bay is central to everyday living, and many San Franciscans cross the bay at least once daily.
Ready to experience San Francisco’s bay area for yourself? The best way to appreciate the San Francisco Bay area is to take a boat tour.
On a boat tour, you’ll pass many attractions, including San Francisco Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and typically Alcatraz Island (more on that later). You could choose a sunset catamaran tour with dinner or go for a daytime sightseeing cruise with informative commentary. This Golden Gate Bay Cruise takes you around the bay to see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the former hippy enclave of Sausalito. Make sure to keep an eye out for dolphins, sea lions, and whales.
3. See the sea lions on Fisherman’s Wharf
This is Fisherman’s Wharf, is probably the most touristy area of San Francisco, but also the perfect place to visit if it’s your first time in San Francisco. At Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find the famous San Francisco clam chowder, tickets for Alcatraz, and tourist experiences like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, and The San Francisco Dungeon.
They first appeared in Fisherman’s Wharf in 1989 and haven’t left since. When we say there are a lot of them on the pier, we mean it. You’ll have trouble spotting an empty inch of wood. The phenomenon is extremely cute, and if you haven’t seen wild sea lions before, we recommend heading down to Fisherman’s Wharf.
4. Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island is a national historic landmark and is over a century old. The notorious island was once one of the world’s strictest, most high-security jails. Alcatraz housed famous inmates such as Al Capone and Billy Cook the Killer. You can visit the island and tour the prison including the cell block to see what life was like when it was the most feared institution in the American penal system.
The prison closed in 1963, and since then, it has become one of the US’s best historical and cultural attractions. If you love dark history, it is one of the best things to do in San Francisco. There are independent exhibits to discover, audio tours, and a guided walking tour on certain days. The prison itself is still in excellent condition, and wandering the cell corridors is an eerie glimpse into the island’s pre-1960s life.
This highly rated tour includes a self-guided audio tour of Alcatraz Island. Spend 2 days visiting all the major sights of San Francisco as you learn all about San Francisco’s history and a 1-hour nighttime city tour is included. Details here.
5. California Academy of Sciences
Think science museum, and then magnify it by a hundred. The California Academy of Sciences is an incredible museum containing an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum that is worthy of spending a whole day (if not two).
The Academy’s individual museums are what make it stand out. You could discover dinosaur skeletons at Kimball Natural History Museum in the morning and spot stars in the planetarium by midday. You’ll also be able to experience the world’s largest all-digital planetarium as you journey into space. Plus, don’t forget to make your way to the top to enjoy the wildflowers on the 2.5-acre living roof.
6. Japanese Tea Garden
Fancy a relaxing walk? Walking through the Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most serene outdoor things to do in San Francisco. It is also the oldest public Japanese garden in the US.
Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, it is a beautiful place to visit in central San Francisco perfect place to enjoy the serenity of a Japanese garden. It is particularly popular in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. But even in winter, the garden has a calming charm.
At the center of the garden is a Japanese teahouse, where you can stop for a traditional tea and crack open a fortune cookie. Like many Japanese gardens, it also features koi ponds, pagodas, and a tiny footbridge. An hour is the perfect amount of time to slowly walk the footpaths and absorb all the tranquility.
7. Cable Car Museum
San Francisco is famous for its cable cars and the Cable Car Museum offers an insight into the city’s special transportation system. The exhibit covers everything from old vintage cars to mechanical displays and historical artifacts like black-and-white photographs.
Location is key, and the museum takes the ‘location, location, location’ motto seriously. The museum overlooks the cable car pulley system, and visitors can wander outside onto the deck to observe the behind-the-scenes action of San Francisco’s famous cable car system.
Inside, there’s even a section where you can view the electrical system that runs under the city’s pavements. Prepare yourself for a thorough immersion and allow an hour or two to experience the best of the museum. And better yet, visiting the museum is free.
8. Alamo Square
Alamo Square is a scenic park in the center of the neighborhood of Alamo Square – slightly confusing, we know. The park is small but has excellent views over the city skyline and the surrounding residential area.
Families will appreciate the children’s playground, and everyone can enjoy the Lady Falcon Coffee Club. We suggest treating yourself to a coffee and cake.
The park is located just off the Hayes Street and Scott Street intersect, easily accessible by bus from San Francisco’s center. If you are visiting the park, you must also visit William Westerfield’s House. The building is bizarre and gothic-looking, and while you can’t go inside, you can have fun trying to spot it on your walk around the park. The Hop on Hop off Bus also stops in this area.
The Painted Ladies are also worth visiting when visiting the park. However, the ladies are a worthy attraction of their own. Keep an eye out, as we’ll cover them in more detail later.
9. Have breakfast at North Beach
If you are picturing an actual beach, guess again. North Beach is San Francisco’s ‘Little Italy’ and is home to a significant demographic of Italian-Americans and cultures from across the pond. The hospitality is second to none, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Europe with the al fresco, retro dining. There are plenty of Italian restaurants in the area and it is one of the best places in San Francisco for nightlife.
However, just having breakfast in North Beach is easily one of the best things to do in San Francisco. Nob Hill Café, Caffe Macaroni, and Tosca Café are all local favorites. Or you can simply take a stroll as you enjoy authentic Italian Gelato while shopping for books at City Lights Booksellers and Publishing or visiting the Beat Museum.
10. Asian Art Museum
For those who love the fine arts, the Asian Art Museum is the most cultural of the things to do in San Francisco. The museum contains over 18,000 Asian artworks and is one of the world’s greatest collections.
The exhibitions are dynamic and exciting, using a variety of mediums, including video, classic canvases, and gemstones.
Visiting the Asian Art Museum is fantastic for art lovers and those with no previous experience in visiting art galleries. The cultural element and dynamic exhibitions make the Asian Art Museum an engaging attraction in San Francisco.
11. Walk Lombard Street
Walking Lombard Street is one of the quirkiest things to do in San Francisco. The street is controversially known as the “crookedest street in the world” and features eight hairpin turns. Many tourists head to walk up Lombard Street and appreciate the bizarre design for themselves.
There is a method behind the madness, though, and the Lombard Street design made perfect sense in the 1920s when the cars of that time lacked the power to make it up the steepest of hills. Adding the curves made climbing Lombard Street hill feasible. To visit Lombard Street for yourself, you can walk or drive. If you are walking, consider walking down Lombard Street rather than up – trust us, your legs will thank you. The neighborhood Russian Hill is full of steep hills.
12. Walt Disney Family Museum
The Walt Disney Family Museum is dedicated to the life of Walt Disney – one of the most famed movie producers of all time. If you are a Disney fan or movie buff, you’ll agree that the museum is one of the best things to do in San Francisco.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is packed with exciting things to listen to and see, from audio exhibits narrated by Walt himself to original sketches. Allow at least an hour or two to take in all the different exhibitions.
The sweetest thing about the museum is that it was founded by Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. She donated all of her father’s artifacts and masterminded the museum concept. After she passed away in 2013, one of the exhibition halls was renamed in her honor.
13. Visit Grace Cathedral
San Francisco’s architectural scene is to be admired. Once you’ve walked the Japanese Garden, visiting the Gothic European-style Grace Cathedral should be next on your list.
Grace Cathedral is the largest Episcopal Cathedral on the west coast and is quite a sight to behold. Its towering bronze doors are replicas of those on a significant religious building in Florence, and its stained glass windows are beautiful enough to turn even the most stunning European cathedral green with envy. Allow time to explore inside the cathedral and admire its grand exterior.
The cathedral is situated in Nob Hill, an upscale neighborhood in San Francisco’s center. It is excellently combined with a visit to Huntington Park, which is right next door and features a dramatic water fountain and well-maintained footpaths.
14. Ocean Beach
Ready for that California beach culture? Ocean Beach is where to head to surf and sunbathe. Its waves are notoriously huge and unsuitable for swimmers due to dangerous currents. However, for intermediate or advanced surfers, this beach is a place to prove and progress your skills. Plus, sunbathers can safely watch the action from the shore.
The beach is easy to reach on foot and is right next to Golden Gate Park. After a visit to all the park attractions, why not continue your adventure and go for a beach day? Alternatively, combine the beach with a walk to Lands End Point, the trailhead located on the beach’s north end. Read: 13 Great Hikes in San Francisco, California
15. De Young Museum
The museum is packed with modern art and historical treasures. You could view a 13th-century wood sculpture one minute and The Obama Portraits Tour the next. De Young Museum is fast-paced and encourages quick thinking encompassing American art, art from Africa and Oceania, and costumes and textiles art exhibiting different cultures, perspectives, and periods.
16. Spend a few hours in Union Square
Union Square is a massive plaza with eateries and shopping malls in Downtown San Francisco. The area is fantastic for shopping, dining out, and getting a feel of the city’s community atmosphere and buzz.
Spending a few hours exploring Union Square is one of the best things to do in San Francisco. You can be as spontaneous as you like, sitting down for brunch at a restaurant that takes your fancy or treating yourself to a souvenir from one of the shopping stores.
If you are a person that needs a planned itinerary, plan to visit Union Square but let chance and spontaneity take the lead when you arrive. And, on a wet day, the shopping malls are great for quickly dashing out of the rain.
17. Spot the bison in Golden Gate Park
Sure, Golden Gate Park has lots of things to do. The 1000-acre park is packed with museums, manicured gardens, and tourist attractions. But what about spotting a herd of wild bison?
The bison are kept in a particular area of Golden Gate Park, named the Bison Paddock. While the animals are cared for by San Francisco Zoo, the paddock is open for members of the public to spot the bison over the fence line. If you are visiting Golden Gate Park, why not make a detour?
Bison are huge bovines, easily recognizable by their massive neck hump. Sadly at the end of the 19th century, bison were nearly driven to extinction by unsustainable hunting. The first bison was brought to Golden Gate Park in 1891 in an attempt to recreate the Wild West and aid conservation attempts.
Thanks to conservation efforts, bison are no longer under threat of extinction. However, San Francisco’s bison remain living happily in the park – much to visitors’ delight.
18. Coit Tower
Speaking of animals living in surprising places, San Francisco has a theme going on. Coit Tower is a 210-foot building offering panoramic views over the city, plus a home for an estimated flock of 400-plus parrots.
The parrots don’t just live in the tower; you can find them all over the Telegraph Hill neighborhood. However, we recommend visiting Coit Tower for the best overall experience. You can climb to the top of the tower for a reasonable entrance price and see the whole city on a clear day. You’ll be able to spot Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, plus all the skyscrapers and skyline landmarks.
The tower was built in the 1930s yet remains one of the best things to do in San Francisco. If you like viewpoints, look no further. You may also want to read: The Ultimate San Francisco Photography Guide
19. Rent a pedalo on Stow Lake
Golden Gate Park’s attractions are amazing; there is no denying it. Another good attraction to make the most of is Stow Lake. The lake takes twenty minutes to walk around but skip walking for something a little more exciting. One of the best things to do in San Francisco is to hire a boat and enjoy the lake from the water.
You’ll pass a waterfall and the Chinese Pavilion. If you are lucky, you’ll spot ducks and the elusive turtles. There is also an old stone bridge to navigate, which has multiple arches for you to squeeze under. It is easy to spend an hour or so on the water.
To hire a pedalo (or a rowboat if you prefer), head to the Stow Lake Boathouse. The Boathouse is a café, gift shop, and rental shop all in one. You can even stop by for a bite to eat once you’ve finished on the water.
If you are visiting Golden Gate Park, download this self guided bike tour which will take you through the historic Haight Ashbury neighborhood before going into the park to visit the Conservatory of Flowers, The gardens, and California Academy of Sciences and the DeYoung, before circling around Stow Lake and much more. Ride with maps mounted on the handlebars, clearly detailing 3 different routes to choose from.
20. Ferry Building
Ferry Building is an indoor artisan food market. If you want to grab breakfast or lunch on the go, you really can’t find anywhere better. Once a significant public transport building, it is now a place for local vendors and farmers to sell their organic and handmade produce.
The market advocates for regional produce and traditional production – building up a strong sense of community while preserving local history and lifestyles. As for the visitors, you can buy pastries and breaded goods from the bakery, indulge in some fresh, handpicked fruits, and even visit the mushroom store. Delicious.
21. Painted Ladies
Ready to meet some movie stars? The Painted Ladies are a row of Victorian houses frequently used as film sets in movies and television series – plus the odd travel magazine and postcard. You can book this San Francisco Movie tour that will take you to iconic locations that have been seen on the big screen. More than 50 very famous movies have been filmed in San Francisco and this 3-hour adventure features locations.
The pastel-colored houses are located in the neighborhood of Alamo Square Park. And while you cannot enter the homes since they are private residences, you can snap plenty of photographs from the outside.
The houses are the most famous residential properties in San Francisco. Sitting on the grassy verge opposite, you can appreciate the contrast between traditional Victorian architecture and the modern cityscape behind them.
22. Muir Woods National Monument
Looking for outdoor things to do in San Francisco? Take a day trip to Muir Woods. Muir Woods is an impressive area of natural beauty, full of giant redwood trees.
While the trees aren’t as big as the Guinness world-record-breaking redwoods in Redwood National Park, Muir Wood’s trees are still humongous. You can appreciate the scale of the trees and the break from city living by walking the numerous trails around the park. There is also a cafe where you can stop for a hot drink or bite to eat.
23. Lands End Lookout
Most tourists skip over Lands End Lookout. The coastal trail and viewpoint are lesser known to those visiting San Francisco. However, you won’t be making that mistake.
Lands End Lookout is a scenic coastal trail that leads to Lands End Point. Here, you’ll find glorious views and a huge stone labyrinth. Even better, the endpoint also has fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay area.
If you like to keep active on holiday, a hike to Lands End Lookout is a great way to spend a morning. The trailhead is also conveniently located next to Ocean Beach, so you can relax on the beach for a well-earned rest after you’ve completed the hike.
24. Yerba Buena Gardens
Yerba Buena Gardens are an unlikely solace in the midst of the city center. Surrounded by skyscrapers and corporate buildings, the gardens feature memorials and artwork with a manmade waterfall. You can leisurely walk the esplanade, stopping by the pond and numerous statues along the way.
The waterfall is a memorial to Martin Luther King. Visitors can follow a path behind the waterfall to view an exhibition about Martin and his life. The mixture of exhibition-style information and a water feature memorial is really impactful.
The gardens are a fantastic place to visit if you want to unwind and relax. It is also home to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The Yerba Center holds art exhibits and dance performances, so check to see if there is anything that sparks your interest when visiting.
25. Angel Island
Angel Island is one of our favorite San Francisco things to do. The island was once an immigration station, (not unlike Ellis Island in New York), and a military base. Visiting here offers a beautiful 360-degree view of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the entire bay area.
The island is now a state park bursting with trails, greenery, and intriguing social history traces. It is the second largest island in San Francisco Bay and is conveniently located in the bay area, making it a fantastic day trip.
It has plenty of natural beauty as well as historical buildings to explore. If you want an excursion from the CBD, the island is a perfect option – both nearby and entertaining enough to keep you occupied all day.
26. Mission Dolores Park
This 16-acre park is one of the most popular parks in San Francisco. It has everything: a soccer field, tennis courts, a basketball court, and frequent cultural events. If you want somewhere sociable to play sports or picnic on a sunny day, join the local crowds and head over.
It has amazing views of the city and the park has somewhat of a cultural and historical stamp on it too. Mission Dolores Park is home to multiple monuments, such as the Mexico Liberty Bell and Miguel Hidalgo Statue.
And, with all the cultural events like festivals and music performances, it is worth checking to see if anything of interest coincides with your visit as well.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll strike lucky. Plus, the atmosphere will be second to none, even if you don’t know any performers.
27. Watch a San Francisco Giants game
What is more American than baseball? The San Francisco Giants are a leading baseball team in the Major League with a fierce following in San Francisco and across the US. Whether you are a sports fan or not, watching a baseball game at Oracle Park is one of the most exciting and atmospheric things to do in San Francisco.
The major league baseball season typically runs from April to October, longer if the San Francisco Giants make the playoffs. It is well worth checking to see if a game coincides with your visit or taking it into consideration when booking your trip.
A baseball game is a fantastic way to appreciate the American (and San Franciscan) spirit.
28. Baker Beach
Some may say that we’ve saved the best for last. All we’ll say is that Baker Beach is definitely worth visiting.
This quiet, one-mile-long beach is serene and brilliant for a beach walk or a dip in the sea. It also has unrivaled views of the Golden Gate Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay perpendicular to the beach.
You’ll be blown away by the view even in the harsh midday light. At sunset, prepare to be wowed entirely, and make sure to stay long enough to watch the bridge and city lights light up.
The beach gets crowded (you can’t keep good things a secret for long), but don’t let that stop you from visiting. If anything, the crowds just make Baker Beach a bit safer to visit – especially at sunset in low-level lighting.
29. Yosemite National Park
While not in San Francisco itself, Yosemite is too nearby to miss out on. If you stay in San Francisco for longer than four days, you can easily visit Yosemite without feeling like your itinerary is too cramped.
Yosemite is full of hiking trails and natural beauty and is one of the US’ most popular national parks. To explore, you can rent a car and drive yourself or book an organized tour from San Francisco and avoid any driving. Many Yosemite tours offer doorstep pick-up services, so it should be a stress-free experience for you.
The best spots to visit in Yosemite are Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Falls has two hiking options, one which leads you to the Lower Falls and one to the Upper. The Upper Falls is slightly more challenging and longer to reach, but we recommend making the hike if you have time. Read more: Things to do in Yosemite National Park
San Francisco FAQs
So, we’ve covered all the most amazing things to do in San Francisco. However, we couldn’t let you go without telling you these significant bits of extra information. Let’s dive straight into some quick San Francisco FAQs.
How to Get to San Francisco
San Francisco sits in Northern California, about a six-hour drive north of Los Angeles. The city is straightforward to reach and well-connected to the outside world by air, rail, road, and sea. We visited San Francisco on a road trip and found driving a great way to get around. You can compare car rental prices here.
If you travel from overseas or distant states, the easiest way to reach San Francisco is to fly. The city has multiple significant airports, both international and domestic. You should find numerous direct flights and can often score reasonably priced deals.
Another popular way to reach San Francisco is driving, especially if traveling from another place in California. The California coastline makes up the famous West Coast road trip and is one of the US’s most scenic and sought-after drives. If you have time, road tripping your way to San Francisco will be an adventure.
Your other options are to take a bus or train. The main long-distance buses can be booked through coach companies like Greyhound, Flixbus, and Megabus. These are a slow but typically budget-friendly way to reach San Francisco. Trains are similar, yet you will find services a little more limited than the bus routes.
Our recommendation is to drive or fly to reach San Francisco. Flying is quick, easy, and more realistic for those visiting from distant places. Driving is more fun for those with more time on their hands; you have more freedom and a whole extra adventure.
Getting Around San Francisco
In short, the best way to get around San Francisco is on foot or public transport. San Francisco City Center is where you’ll find most attractions, and you shouldn’t need to stray far for entertainment.
San Francisco’s public transport system is called Muni and runs cable cars, buses, and street cars. You can pay per individual ride or, alternatively, purchase a Muni Passport, which gives you unlimited rides for a one, three, or seven-day period.
Of course, cable car rides are considered an icon of San Francisco, and you should take a ride just for the experience while visiting.
Consider getting a tour bus if you want a different way to explore San Francisco. Tour buses are great as they are typically hop-on, hop-off, and pass all the city’s major attractions. If you are short on time, booking a day on a tour is efficient and takes all the hassle out of navigating public transport. And, if you get stuck, there are plenty of taxis around for you to hitch a quick ride.
San Francisco is straightforward to navigate, especially if you stay somewhere central. For a better idea of San Francisco’s layout and where is best to stay, check out our guide on where to stay in San Francisco.
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
San Francisco is a city that suits all seasons, but if you want the best experience, visit in the fall.
Spring and fall are San Francisco’s two shoulder seasons. However, fall (September to November) has some of the warmest temperatures and fewest crowds – a win, win. September is San Francisco’s warmest month and is perfect for walking around the city and exploring the best nearby hiking trails.
At the beginning of fall is when you’ll also find the most street fairs and markets in San Francisco. This season is full of life and activity and has the weather to match.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Best hotels in San Francisco at a Glance
San Francisco is an incredible US holiday destination. The city is one of America’s most popular tourist destinations and has a mythical, legendary allure. However, there are so many amazing things to do in San Francisco that the city easily lives up to its huge reputation.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Family museum