Looking for all the best attractions in the Golden Gate City? Our guide to all the best things to do in San Francisco is all you need!
In Northern California, San Francisco has instantly recognizable sights, historic buildings, and mouthwatering local cuisine making it home to some great things to do in California.
Set upon the sprawling San Francisco Bay, with the Pacific Ocean on the other side, it offers travelers more than your average city experience.
The steep rolling hills give San Fran a unique layout. The sharp increase in elevation will often gift you with magical views of the San Francisco skyline.
You can choose to wander on foot or jump on board the historic cable cars that will guide you to some of the best restaurants in town, along the beautiful waterfront.
San Francisco is just one part of the wider Marin County. From the city, you can explore state parks, the Pacific Coast, or even further inland to Yosemite.
Table of Contents
- Best Things to Do in San Francisco
- 1) The Golden Gate Bridge
- 2) Fisherman’s Wharf
- 3) Lombard Street
- 4) Alcatraz Island
- 5) Golden Gate Park
- 6) The Cable Cars
- 7) Union Square
- 8) The California Academy of Sciences
- 9) San Francisco’s Chinatown
- 10) San Francisco Botanical Garden
- 11) Oracle Park
- 12) Ocean Beach
- 13) Angel Island
- 14) Ferry Building Marketplace
- 15) Asian Art Museum
- 16) Walt Disney Family Museum
- 17) The Twin Peaks
- 18) Palace of Fine Arts
- 19) Muir Woods National Monument
- 20) Take a Day Trip
- 21) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Where to Stay in San Francisco
Best Things to Do in San Francisco
The Golden City has a wide range of things to do. With rolling hills and the ocean, it offers no shortage of outdoor adventures.
Plus, with an exciting history and modern culture, many of the top San Francisco attractions include amazing eats and wonderful museums.
If you do plan on visiting lots of museums and attractions with entry fees, you can save money by booking the San Francisco CityPASS. You can pick 4 of the listed attractions to add to your pass and save up to 45% on entry fees.
Check prices for a San Francisco CityPASS and save money!
1) The Golden Gate Bridge
The bright orange vermillion arches of the Golden Gate Bridge are one of the most evocative sights in the United States. Whether you’re visiting San Francisco for this first or tenth time, it’s always going to be on the list.
There are many reasons seeing and walking along the iconic Golden Gate Bridge are two of the best things to do in San Francisco.
It’s a photographer’s delight as it combines man-made feats with some of Mother Nature’s finest work. For easy access, head to the Golden Gate Overlook found within the Presidio of San Francisco.
Or for a more rugged perspective, with the addition of the downtown skyline, head to the other side of the bridge and stand by the Lonely Sailor Statue. Before exploring the wider Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Of course, no experience is complete without walking some or all of the bridge. It’s a rite of passage for travelers with views of the bay, Alcatraz and San Francisco.
2) Fisherman’s Wharf
After a trek along the bridge, wander down to the vibrant city waterfront known as Fisherman’s Wharf. In the early hours, fishing boats saunter in ready to hand off their delicious crabs to lingering locals and restaurants.
It’s no surprise that eating here is the top thing to do. Along with the stands slinging Dungeness crab, there are a handful of delectable restaurants serving clam chowder and fresh catch just how you want it.
After enjoying one of the best feeds in San Francisco, walk along the wharf which harbors a great atmosphere at all times of day.
It’s a common place to depart for harbor tours or deep sea fishing and there are a number of attractions that are great for the family. These include Madame Tussauds, Ripleys, and historic ships along the Hyde Street Pier.
Visit the Fisherman’s Wharf website for a full list of the attractions there.
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3) Lombard Street
The Golden Gate Bridge may be the most famous sight in San Francisco. But something that defines the West Coast city even more is its steep hills.
Walking around San Francisco can at times feel like a hike, after all, it features two of the steepest streets in the United States.
One such road that’s gathered its own reputation is Lombard Street. Featuring eight tight switchbacks and lush vegetation, the street has taken on a life of its own.
While you can walk in both directions, Lombard Street has a steep 27% gradient. So it’s best to start from the top. You can get there via a cable car and enjoy stellar views on your way down.
If you have a car, the challenge of navigating the tight turns and steep descent is tricky but memorable.
4) Alcatraz Island
The historic Alcatraz Island holds such a fascination in popular culture.
Stranded in the heart of San Francisco Bay, the notorious prison was open for just shy of three decades. With its unique location and epic tales of escapes, it didn’t take long for the jail to become one of San Francisco’s top attractions.
A part of what made Alcatraz so renowned was how many of the 1,576 total prisoners had mustered a reputation. None more so than Al Capone.
Stepping onto Alcatraz Island is an eery experience, one that’s elevated by exceptional audio commentary that allows you to wander on your own while enjoying tales from the past.
Another way to experience Alcatraz Island is on this Golden Gate Bay Cruise. This takes you around the island and the rest of the stunning bay.
5) Golden Gate Park
In the 1870s, local authorities developed Golden Gate Park to replace the unkempt dunes that stretched all the way to what is now Ocean Beach.
Over the next 150 years, Golden Gate Park became a local institution and is now the third-most visited park in the US.
It cuts through the heart of San Fran, much like New York’s Central Park. Just like its more famous counterpart, it mixes historic buildings with gorgeous landscapes.
Get about on foot, or hike a bike and explore the many trails that meander through the park. These trails will guide you through memorable attractions like the Botanical Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the historic Dutch Windmill.
In the summer, you’ll find regular concerts and festivals that elevate a lovely atmosphere even further.
6) The Cable Cars
San Francisco’s cable cars are the pride and joy of residents. The classic mode of transport is the last manually operated cable car system on earth.
There remain just three of the original 23 cars, but they’re still one of the best (and fun) ways to get around town.
Jumping on board a cable car, with its old-time aura, is a direct contrast to the modern-day city. The croaky, rickety ride is a blast and the open windows bring in the breeze, making it a delightful journey on a summer’s day.
Two routes to try are Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason. These will bring you to some of the best things to do in San Francisco, such as Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf and the beautiful Ghirardelli Square.
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7) Union Square
Speaking of squares, Union Square forms the center of San Francisco’s vibrant shopping district.
The people-watching here is top-notch, thanks to the boisterous neighborhood that is equal parts, locals and tourists.
The square itself boasts some eye-catching public art, including Hearts in San Francisco and the towering Dewy Monument, which stands at 85 feet tall. Throughout the year, both are complemented by buskers slinging rhythmic tunes and one-off events.
However, it’s the shopping that has given Union Square its reputation. You’ll find several upscale boutiques along with Saks Fifth Avenue. It’s a great place to indulge in some retail therapy before picking up some gelato and enjoying the sights.
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8) The California Academy of Sciences
After spending some time exploring Golden Gate Park, you’ll want to set some time aside to enjoy the many attractions within. The California Academy of Sciences encompasses a number of these while providing visitors with unique architecture.
Your admiration for the building begins before you even step inside thanks to the living roof that’s laden with local plants and rises and falls much like the surrounding hills.
The walls are enveloped in floor-to-ceiling windows, which flood the space with natural light.
After wandering inside the California Academy of Sciences, you’ll be able to visit the four-story Osher Rainforest, the Steinhart Aquarium, and the Kimball Natural History Museum.
The latter is a favorite among families who can see the giant T-Rex skeletons and the interactive displays.
- Location: 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
- Opening hours: 9.30am-5pm (Mon-Sat) 11am-5pm (Sun)
- Price: $35
9) San Francisco’s Chinatown
There are Chinatowns, and then there are Chinatowns. It will make you happy to know that San Francisco’s iteration falls into the latter category.
Just below the North Beach neighborhood, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the nation. It’s a labyrinth of exotic streets, where the aromas of dim sum and bao buns float through the air as much as the breeze itself.
The days here begin early but run into the late hours thanks to boisterous eateries and crowds that flow into the nearby karaoke joints.
Travelers should get lost on purpose as it’s the best way to find your new favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, charming teahouse, or eclectic antique store. But if you’d prefer to see it all with a local expert, then join this culinary walking tour.
10) San Francisco Botanical Garden
For budget travelers, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is not a place to be missed. This rings true for all visitors, but early risers will be able to enter the gorgeous gardens for free between 7:30 am and 9 am.
The botanical garden boasts over 8,500 unique plant species spread across 55 acres in the center of Golden Gate Park. It’s not only a chance to reconnect with nature but to revel in its opulent beauty.
The gardens are essentially a living museum. The wondrous diversity of plants ensures that there’s something spectacular to see year-round while providing you with a deeper understanding of just how varied our earth is.
Highlights include the giant Redwood Grove and the fascinating Garden of Ancient Plants.
- Location: 1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122
- Opening hours: 7.30am-6pm (Sun-Fri) 7.30am-7pm (Sat)
- Price: $9
11) Oracle Park
If you like your baseball or just live sport in general, then add Oracle Park to your San Francisco itinerary.
The stadium, which holds over 41,000 fans, is the home of the San Francisco Giants and is a marvelous place to enjoy America’s pastime. Especially if you’ve never been to a ballpark before.
From March until October, the Giants play their home games on the edge of South Beach Harbor. The atmosphere and nearby attractions make it a memorable experience.
Grab a seat, a beer, and the token hot dog and bask in the classic summertime experience.
But if you really want a unique baseball memory, rent a kayak and join a dozen others floating in the water waiting for a home run to fly out of the stadium towards them.
Visit the website to check the schedule and book tickets to a game.
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12) Ocean Beach
San Francisco juts out into the harbor, creating a beautiful waterfront with three sides. One features the downtown area, the other the Presidio and finally the city curves around to face the brilliant Pacific Coast.
There are some amazing beaches further south around Miramar and Half Moon Bay, but you can remain close to downtown and enjoy a day on the sand with a visit to Ocean Beach.
This stretch of sand runs for over three miles, and for such a great location, it rarely feels overcrowded.
The land rises quickly behind the beach, leaving you in an intimate spot with little signs of civilization. Lay down the beach towel and enjoy a break from the inner-city bustle.
13) Angel Island
Alcatraz isn’t the only island in the San Francisco Bay. In fact, there are 18 islands all up. Angel Island is one not to be missed and provides another chance to enjoy the local nature.
Getting there is straightforward. Head to Pier 41 and jump on board the 25-minute ferry that brings you to the biggest island in the bay.
There are several maintained trails and bike paths. These include one trail that takes you to the highest point on Angel Island, the peak of Mount Caroline Livermore.
After soaking in the far-reaching views, venture to one of the five picnic areas for lunch. To cool off, there are a number of beaches. You can also camp overnight.
14) Ferry Building Marketplace
After some fun in nature, it’s time to once again sample the local culture. Any foodies wondering what to do in San Francisco can’t pass up a visit to the Ferry Building Marketplace.
Long before becoming the go-to artisanal hub, the marketplace was where newcomers participating in the Gold Rush would arrive. For years, it was the ferryboat, not locomotives, that would bring people into San Francisco.
Afterward, it became a stock standard office space before enjoying a new lease on life, when the world-class food market arrived on the scene.
You can find an incredible range of eats and treats here, from delicious oysters to mouthwatering donuts and local wine. Whatever you pick, enjoy it in the hall or wander outside and nosh by the water.
The Marketplace is also home to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with the latter being the best time to visit.
- Location: 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94105
- Opening hours: 7 am -10 pm (Mon-Sun)
- Price: Free
15) Asian Art Museum
After opening in the 1960s, the Asian Art Museum has developed a reputation as one of the most beloved and important cultural institutions in San Francisco.
It began as a private collection that Avery Brundage passed on to the public and has grown into so much more.
The Asian Art Museum brings together two cultures, the East and West as Brundage put it. It has continued with this theme and has expanded beyond the initial collection to include a vast repository of Asian art.
Guests will be able to explore this collection which boasts ceramics, ancient jade carvings, sculptures, and famous works of art from China, Korea, Japan, and more.
It’s a journey through history as much as art, with some pieces dating back thousands of years.
- Location: 200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
- Opening hours: 10am-5pm (Fri-Mon) 1pm-8pm (Tue)
- Price: $15
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16) Walt Disney Family Museum
One of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids is to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum. Visitors will explore the museum’s 16 rooms to discover all there is to know about the famous figure, from his early years to the development of Disney.
But this isn’t your regular museum with endless boards of facts. It’s as fun as it is insightful as you discover the technology that has brought some of your favorite films to life. These include animation tech, invented by Walt Disney himself.
Afterward, check out the replica of Disneyland, along with some of Walt’s early sketches. Finish up by sitting in the theater inspired by Fantasia and watching the old classics.
- Location: 104 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94129
- Opening hours: 10 am-5:30 pm (Thur-Sun)
- Price: $25
17) The Twin Peaks
With some museums and galleries ticked off, it’s time to put the hiking shoes back on and venture to the Twin Peaks.
It’s one of the top San Francisco activities, with all the effort rewarded with outstanding views from the summit.
In such a sprawling metropolis, locals and travelers are blessed to have a duo of untouched hills in the heart of the city. The Twin Peaks are found in a spacious 64-acre park and the short 0.7-mile path will bring you to the summit 922 feet above sea level.
You’ll pass some beautiful vegetation along the way, including the revitalized silver lupine, coastal scrub and grasslands.
Upon reaching the top, you’ll bathe in panoramic vistas that include the city skyline and Bay Bridge.
18) Palace of Fine Arts
A National Historic Landmark, the Palace of Fine Arts lives up to its name. The palace is the last building from the Panama Pacific Exposition that took place in 1915 and not one of the 100 years since has aged this masterpiece.
With almost thirty rooms set upon a scenic lake, the palace is a breathtaking sight. You could spend time admiring the Greco-Roman architecture, the towering arches and domes that reflect off the surrounding water with glee.
You can explore the exterior of the palace, the surrounding grounds and the lake on your own. It’s a lovely place to enjoy a picnic or watch the world go by.
The space also hosts a busy calendar of events, mostly based on performing arts.
- Location: 3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123
- Opening hours: 10m-5pm (Tue-Sun)
- Price: Free
19) Muir Woods National Monument
On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Muir Woods National Monument is an opportunity to experience a classic California landscape just a few minutes from downtown.
The Muir Woods comprise a stunning coastal redwood forest with the scenic Redwood Creek carving its way through.
It’s a primeval forest that’s a refuge both for wildlife and humanity, while also being a vital natural “lab” furthering our understanding of the world around us.
Most of the redwoods in the park are over 600 years old, with the oldest double that age.
To see them and other beautiful parts of the monument, set out on the Main Trail that departs from the Visitor Center. It features many side trails for further adventures.
20) Take a Day Trip
Wherever you are in San Francisco, you’re never far from the Pacific Ocean and thus, you’re well placed to go on some unforgettable adventures.
One of the best road trips in the United States departs from right here. Following Pacific Highway 1, you can drive along the famous coast past Half Moon Bay, the adorable town of Monterey and the unique Carmel-By-The-Sea.
Soon you’ll find yourself rolling along the rugged coast on your way to Big Sur and the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. Before reaching LA, you’ll venture through Malibu and the spectacular Santa Monica.
Another way to get out of San Francisco city is with a three-hour drive to Yosemite National Park.
Full of magnificent natural views and fun day hikes, Yosemite National Park is an epic place for a day trip. But you can leave the drive to your guide on this Yosemite day trip.
21) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Rounding out our guide to the best things to do in San Francisco is the city’s Museum of Modern Art. You’ll find SFMOMA, in the South of Market district near the Yerba Buena Gardens.
The expansive museum covers 10 floors and features a thorough collection of 20th-century art. All up there are well over 30,000 pieces to discover, while the flow of temporary exhibitions ensures there’s always something new to experience.
The museum opened over 80 years ago, but a recent renovation has elevated the space and made it one of the most significant buildings in San Francisco. Today, you can explore works by Matisse, Thiebaud, Frida Kahlo, and Andy Warhol.
- Location: 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103
- Opening hours: 1pm-8pm (Thur) 10am-5pm (Fri-Mon)
- Price: $25
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Where to Stay in San Francisco
Now that we’ve covered what to do in San Francisco, let’s turn our attention to the best San Francisco hotels.
Best Hostel in San Francisco: Pacific Tradewinds Hostel
At Pacific Tradewinds Hostel, guests will revel in the welcoming, social atmosphere that also provides you with modern amenities and a great location. You’ll wake up just south of Chinatown and a short walk from the Ferry Building.
Best Mid-Range Hotel in San Francisco: Club Donatello
In Union Square, Club Donatello puts you in the heart of the action. The 4-star hotel has upscale rooms, an on-site Italian restaurant and a rooftop lounge. From your hotel, you can explore Market Street and walk to Oracle Park.
Best Luxury Hotel in San Francisco: Fairmont Heritage Place
A stay at the opulent Fairmont Heritage Place will have you steps away from some of the top San Francisco attractions. Have access to luxury apartments, a full gourmet kitchen, and your own terrace with a fire pit.
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