San Fransico has countless things to do, from walking across the Golden Gate Bridge to riding its iconic cable cars. Dive into Alcatraz Island’s rich history, feel the Mission Murals’ artistic pulse, and indulge in the legendary Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe.
Whether you’re shopping at Union Square or marveling at the artistic masterpieces in the SFMOMA, the city offers something for every traveler. Join us as we guide you through the top things to do in San Francisco.
Best Things to Do in San Francisco
There is no doubt that visiting San Francisco will be an American vacation you’ll remember for years to come. I know we did!
San Francisco is one of the best cities in California if not one of the best cities in the US, and planning a trip there is so exciting. Whether you wander through San Francisco’s Chinatown or want to find the best spot to view the iconic skyline at sunset, this guide has all the best things to do in San Francisco.
Getting Around SF
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 in a short time.
Book private your airport transfer to make landing at the airport easier. Enjoy a private transfer directly to your downtown SF Hotel. The city is straightforward to navigate, especially if you stay somewhere central. For a better idea of where to stay, check out our guide on where to stay in San Francisco.
1. Ride the Cable Cars
San Francisco’s cable cars are legendary, and no trip would be complete without hopping on one and doing a city tour. This tour is a great way to see the city’s top highlights, including Union Square, Chinatown, Nob Hill, The Italian Quarter, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Details here.
Cable car rides are considered an icon of the city, and you should take a ride just for the experience while visiting. Plus, riding its cable cars is the best way to tackle San Francisco’s steep hills. You’ll find most attractions in the middle of San Francisco.
You don’t need to take a tour to ride the cable cars; they are part of the city’s transportation. The best way to get around San Francisco is on foot or public transport. The city’s public transport system is called Muni. You can pay per individual ride or purchase a Muni Passport, which also gives you unlimited rides on all public transportation for a one-three or seven-day period.
2. Cable Car Museum
Visiting the Cable Car Museum offers an insight into the city’s special transportation system. Location is key, and the museum takes the ‘location, location, location’ motto seriously. The museum overlooks the pulley system, and visitors can wander outside onto the deck to observe the behind-the-scenes action of its famous cable cars.
The exhibit covers everything from old vintage cars from the 1870s to mechanical displays and historical artifacts like black-and-white photographs
3. Walk Lombard Street
Lombard Street is known as the “crookedest street in the world” and features eight hairpin turns. It was designed in the 1920s when the cars of that time lacked the power to make it up the steepest of hills.
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 street weaves through the neighborhood of Russian Hill, which is full of steep hills. Read more: 16 Great Hikes in San Francisco, California
4. Walk The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic landmarks in the entire world. Whether staying for 24 hours, 72 hours, or two weeks, the Golden Gate Bridge will be at the top of your itinerary.
The Golden Gate Bridge was built to connect the city to Marin County across the Golden Gate Strait, and today, walking across is one of the most popular things to do. The walk starts at Vista Point. The best way to go across the Golden Gate Bridge is on a guided tour. This guided bike tour is a 3-hour tour taking you across the bridge and to other top San Francisco attractions.
The iconic bridge is a massive part of the city skyline. The Bay area around the bridge is so popular that it is now considered a national park. The area is called Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is full of different viewpoints and hiking trails.
To experience the Golden Gate Bridge walk across it on the pedestrian footpath and head to viewpoints for a panoramic view. Marin Headlands is the best place to watch the sunset, while Fort Point is the best shot for dawn and sunrise.
5. Baker Beach
Baker Beach is a quiet, one-mile-long beach that is serene and brilliant for a beach walk or a dip in the sea. It also has one of the city’s best views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, which spans the bay perpendicular to the beach. Even in the harsh midday light, you’ll be blown away by the view. Prepare to be wowed entirely at sunset and stay long enough to watch the bridge and city 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 make Baker Beach a bit safer to visit – especially at sunset in low-level lighting. To get there, take the 29 Sunset bus or taxi, uber or Lyft. Parking is limited.
6. 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 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.
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 places to visit in San Francisco.
There are independent exhibits to discover, audio tours, and a guided walking tour on certain days. The prison 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. Details here.
7. Fisherman’s Wharf
What would a trip to San Francisco be without spotting the famous California sea lions? If you head down to Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find Pier 39, the favorite spot of a large colony of sea lions. They first appeared in 1989 and haven’t left since.
This is probably the most touristy area of the city, but it is also the perfect place to visit if it’s your first time in the city. Here, you’ll also find the famous San Francisco clam chowder, tickets for Alcatraz, and tourist experiences like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and The San Francisco Dungeon.
8. Visit San Francisco’s Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is North America’s Oldest Chinatown and is a must-visit. The entrance is easy to find and is marked by a striking Dragon Gate at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
This neighborhood of activity and flurry covers 30 square blocks where you can immerse in Asian culture, eat dim sum, do some shopping, and take in its bustling atmosphere.
Take a culinary tour for an immersive experience through the neighborhood sampling authentic Chinese food as you stroll the narrow streets indulging in dim sum, tea, fortune cookies, and more.
9. See the 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 – Most Notably Full House. But Full House isn’t the only name you’ll recognize. Mrs. Doubtifre was also the setting of these beautiful ladies.
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 famous movies have been filmed in San Francisco, and this 3-hour adventure features the Painted ladies and more!
The pastel-colored houses are located in the neighborhood of Alamo Square Park. And while you cannot enter the Painted Ladies since they are private residences, you can snap plenty of photographs from the outside.
Alamo Square Park is located across the street from the Painted Ladies and has beautiful views of the houses, city and bay. The park is just off the Hayes Street and Scott Street intersect, easily accessible by bus from the city center. The Hop on Hop off Bus also stops in this area.
10. Golden Gate Park – De Young Museum
Golden Gate Park spans 1000 acres with museums, manicured gardens, and tourist attractions. It warrants a full day to see all of its attractions. From horseback riding to bike rentals, it’s easy to spend a day enjoying everything the park has to offer.
A treasure of Golden Gate Park is the De Young Museum, a fine art museum. If you want your art gallery fix, this museum is one of the best things to do.
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 and art from Africa and Oceania.
11. Spot the bison at Golden Gate Park
Another cool thing to see in Golden Gate Park is its bison herd at Bison Paddock. The animals are cared for by the San Francisco Zoo, and 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?
The first bison was brought to Golden Gate Park in 1891 to recreate the Wild West and aid conservation attempts. Thanks to conservation efforts, bison are no longer under threat of extinction.
12. Japanese Tea Garden – Golden Gate Park
Fancy a relaxing walk? Walking through the Japanese Garden is one of the most serene outdoor activities in San Francisco. It is also the oldest public Japanese garden in the US. Make sure to stop at the tea house.
Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, it is a beautiful place to visit in central San Francisco to enjoy the serenity of a Japanese garden. It is trendy in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. But even in winter, the garden has a calming charm.
13. Take a San Francisco Bay boat tour
On a boat tour, you’ll pass many attractions, including the SF Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island. You could choose a sunset catamaran tour with dinner or a daytime sightseeing cruise with informative commentary. This Golden Gate Bay Cruise also includes the hippy enclave of Sausalito. Make sure to keep an eye out for dolphins and whales.
14. 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 worthy of spending a whole day (if not two). You can book tickets ahead of time, including entry to all in one day at the California Academy of Sciences.
15. Palace of Fine Arts
Don’t miss going to the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District of San Francisco – We captured this beauty at sunset. The Palace is the only remaining structure from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
With its Greek-style colonnades and soaring central rotunda, the Palace of Fine Arts is stunning and has been featured in several movies. The architecture’s grandeur and scale make is a picturesque place to relax and have a picnic.
16. Have breakfast at North Beach
North Beach is San Francisco’s ‘Little Italy,’ and the hospitality is second to none. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Europe with the al fresco retro dining. The area has plenty of Italian restaurants, and it is one of the best places in San Francisco for nightlife. The local favorites for breakfast are Nob Hill Café, Caffe Macaroni, and Tosca Café.
Or you can take a stroll as you enjoy authentic Italian Gelato while shopping for books at City Lights Bookstore and Publishing or visiting the Beat Museum.
17. Wander the Mission District
The Mission District is renowned for its spectacular Mission Murals. The best places to see the Mission murals are along Clarion Alley, Caledonia Alley, Balmy Alley, and Horace Alley
As you wander through the neighborhood, you’ll encounter walls and alleys transformed into dynamic canvases, showcasing stunning murals that tell stories of heritage, struggle, and community.
The main thoroughfares of the Mission District are Mission Street and Valencia Street, known for its diverse array of restaurants and shops. Visitors will find vintage clothing stores second-hand records and bookstores most notably Quarius Records, Dog Eared Books, and Borderlands Books.
Plus, the Mission District is recognized as an emerging hotspot for shopping, dining, and nightlife.
This walking tour is an immersive cultural journey that offers a unique glimpse into the heart and soul of the city. The area is also known for its second-hand records and bookstores it is a treasure trove of nostalgia with stores like A
18. City Lights Bookstore
Speaking of Bookstores, City Lights Bookstore is a San Francisco Institution specializing in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. It was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, who left two years later.
The store gained fame following the obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s influential collection “Howl and Other Poels. In 2001, City Lights was designated an official historic landmark.
TreasureFest, formerly known as Treasure Island Flea Market, is held on the last full weekend of every month. This lively event transforms Treasure Island into an eclectic hub of indie crafts, antiques, and live music.
Launched in 2011 by San Franciscans Angie and Charles Ansanelli, the festival was designed to foster community involvement and highlight local talent.
With over 400 local vendors, shoppers will find vintage goods, handmade crafts, and unique antiques, all set against the scenic backdrop of the San Francisco Bay.
Visitors can also enjoy a variety of food trucks, interactive DIY workshops, and live music, creating an immersive experience that encapsulates the spirit of San Francisco. The event’s pet-friendly atmosphere, themed markets, and variety of culinary options make it a delightful destination for all types of travelers.
20. Hayes Valley
Nestled in the heart of San Francisco, Hayes Valley is a vibrant neighborhood known for its trendy boutiques, exquisite dining, and dynamic art scene. Stroll along Hayes Street to discover a diverse selection of fashion-forward shops and specialty stores, perfect for unique finds.
Food enthusiasts can savor various culinary delights, from cozy cafés to upscale restaurants serving global cuisines. The area is also a cultural hub, home to the San Francisco Jazz Center and a stone’s throw from the renowned SF Symphony and Opera.
Don’t miss the Proxy, an outdoor space hosting film screenings and food trucks, offering a taste of the local community spirit.
21. Shop at Haight Ashbury
Haight-Ashbury became famous primarily due to its role as a central hub of the hippie counterculture in the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, it had become a center for the hippie movement.
Today, Haight Ashbury is known for its unique boutiques, distinctive restaurants, vintage and retro-themed shops, like the famous Amoeba Records and Booksmith. The area is also known for its concentration of Victorian homes, colorful murals, galleries, and art spaces.
22. See the Parrotts Coit Tower
Coit Tower is a 210-foot building offering panoramic views over the San Francisco skyline, plus a home for an estimated flock of 400-plus parrots. The parrots don’t just live in the tower; they are all over the Telegraph Hill neighborhood.
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 viewpoints in SF. You may also want to read: The Ultimate San Francisco Photography Guide
23. Ferry Building Marketplace
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 and traditional production – building a strong sense of community while preserving local history and lifestyles. Grab a cup of Joe at Blue Bottle Coffee and enjoy perusing the shops. The Saturday Farmers Market is the best time to visit.
24. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Step into the World of Wonder at SFMOMA: A San Francisco Must-See for Art Aficionados. As one of the city’s premier destinations, SFMOMA is home to a staggering array of over 33,000 artworks, encompassing a diverse range of modern and contemporary pieces.
From awe-inspiring installations to thought-provoking paintings and sculptures, the museum presents works by illustrious artists like Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.
25. Asian Art Museum
For those who love the fine arts, the Asian Art 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.
26. San Francisco Botanical Garden
Visiting the San Francisco Botanical Garden is a lovely way to escape the city. The 55-acre garden has 8,000 flower varieties, including native and international plants. Visitors can explore from a succulent garden to a towering Redwood grove, passing by African calla lilies.
You’ll find the Great Meadow & Fountain Plaza and Redwood Grove in the gardens. The botanical garden’s Redwood Grove offers a glimpse of these majestic trees for those who can’t visit the Redwood National Forest or John Muir Woods.
Plus, the garden has the largest collection of Magnolia trees outside of China, with the best viewing time from mid-December through March.
27. Lands End Lookout
This area is called Lands End because it is located literally at the end of all land to the west, as its cliffs end at the base of the Pacific Ocean. Here, you’ll find Ocean Beach, where advanced surfers show off their skills.
Its waves are notoriously huge and unsuitable for swimmers due to dangerous currents but sunbathers can safely watch the action from the shore. On a clear day, the hikers can see far into the depths of the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Marin Headlands to the north, and the Golden Gate Bridge to the east.
The historic Sutro Baths and Park at the Lands End Main Parking Lot will also be found. The Sutro Baths are one of the best places for photography, where you’ll find San Francisco’s Heart. A rock formation in the shape of a heart.
Besides the Sutro Baths, other viewpoints include the Eastern Coastal Trail Lookout, Lands End Labyrinth, and Dead Man’s Point.
28. 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 and the Bay Area.
The island is now a state park bursting with trails, greenery, and San Francisco’s history. It is the second largest island in SF Bay and is conveniently located, making it a fantastic day trip.
It has plenty of natural beauty as well as historical buildings to explore. The island is a perfect option if you want an excursion from the CBD.
To visit, catch a ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf. You can then choose to explore independently or purchase a guided walking tour.
29. 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.
It has amazing views of the bay, and the park has somewhat of a cultural and historical stamp. Mission Dolores Park has 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. Who knows? Maybe you’ll strike lucky. Plus, the atmosphere will be second to none, even if you don’t know any performers.
30. Watch a Giants game at Oracle Park
What is more American than baseball? The San Francisco Giants are a leading baseball team in the Major League with a fierce following across the US.
Whether or not you are a sports fan, watching a baseball game at Oracle Park is one of the most exciting and atmospheric things to do in SF.
A baseball game is a fantastic way to appreciate the American (and San Franciscan) spirit.
The major league baseball season typically runs from April to October, longer if they make the playoffs. It is worth checking to see if a game coincides with your visit or considering it when booking your trip.
31. Hike Up Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks is one of the best hiking trails in the city for spectacular city views of the bay. It is a heavily trafficked loop trail, and you can drive or cycle up to the lookout.
It is the second-highest peak in San Francisco (922-foot tall ) that overlooks the entire Bay Area and the city’s landmarks.
The hike feels far away from the city, with forest trails, eucalyptus trees, rocky outcrops, wooden walkways and dirt paths taking you up to Eureka Peak and Noe Peak.
32. Visit the Buena Vista Cafe
As the birthplace of the American version of Irish Coffee, the Buena Vista Cafe offers a delightful blend of rich coffee, smooth Irish whiskey, and creamy topping, creating an unforgettable taste sensation.
Savoring this famed beverage isn’t just about enjoying a drink; it’s about being part of a timeless San Francisco tradition. The cafe’s cozy, welcoming atmosphere and panoramic city views make for the perfect backdrop to enjoy this classic concoction.
33. Attend the Stern Grove Festival
The Stern Grove Festival is a series of free performing arts events held each summer. Established in 1938, it takes place in the picturesque Sigmund Stern Grove, a eucalyptus-wooded natural amphitheater about two miles south of Golden Gate Park. The festival spans a 33-acre site from 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard to 34th Avenue.
Since its inaugural concert on July 10, 1938, performed by the Bay Region Symphony of the Federal Music Project, the festival has featured various performances. In 1943, the San Francisco Ballet performed at the festival for the first time, becoming a regular in its summer lineup.
The festival underwent renovations in 2004, reopening its 68th season in June 2005.
How to Get to San Francisco
San Francisco sits in Northern California, about a six-hour drive north of Los Angeles. The city is easy to reach via 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.
The main airport is the San Francisco International Airport, which is located 13 miles from downtown. To get downtown, you can take the airport shuttle busses, taxis, Uber, and Lyft.
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
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.
San Francisco is a city that suits all seasons, but if you want the best experience we suggest visiting in the fall.
At the beginning of autumn, 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.
Questions People Also Ask About San Francisco
Is 2 Days Enough for San Francisco?
Two days in San Francisco can be sufficient to see some of its highlights, but it won’t allow for a comprehensive exploration of the city. With a well-planned itinerary, you can visit famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Alcatraz Island.
What is the Number One Attraction in San Francisco?
The Golden Gate Bridge is often considered the number one attraction in San Francisco. This iconic suspension bridge is a marvel of modern engineering and offers breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay and the city skyline.
How Can I Spend a Few Days in San Francisco?
A few days in San Francisco can be spent exploring a mix of its famous attractions and local experiences:
- Day 1: Visit the Golden Gate Bridge, explore the nearby Golden Gate Park, and see the Painted Ladies. Spend the evening in the vibrant neighborhoods of the Haight-Ashbury or the Mission District.
- Day 2: Take a ferry to Alcatraz Island in the morning. In the afternoon, visit Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. You could also explore Chinatown and Union Square.
What is San Francisco Popular For?
San Francisco is popular for its diverse culture, iconic landmarks, and beautiful natural scenery. It’s known for the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, cable cars, and vibrant neighborhoods like Chinatown and Castro.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
We have an entire article breaking down the best neighborhoods and hotels for every budget and visitor. You can read it here. Where to Stay in San Francisco – A Guide To The Best Neighborhoods
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. With its world-class museums, fantastic shopping, and dining at everything from a sustainable seafood restaurant to enjoying one of the city’s famous festivals, San Francisco easily lives up to its huge reputation.
Plan your trip to California with these travel guides.