San Francisco is small but mighty. While the city is “big” in terms of attractions and amenities, it is geographically small—only 49 square miles. That makes it very easy to see and do a great many things in a short period of time.
The experiences that San Francisco offers run the gamut from iconic vistas, to historic neighborhoods, hip boutique shops, to more delicious restaurants than we can count, and friendly wildlife (we’re looking at you, sea lions), to must-see museums.
Here is a suggested list of the top 28 things not to miss in San Francisco on your next visit.
The Golden Gate Bridge, the most famous bridge in the world, manages to impress even the most experienced travelers with its stunning 1.7-mile span. Approximately 120,000 automobiles drive across it every day. A pedestrian walkway also allows crossing on foot, and bikes are allowed on the western side. The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be one of the most photographed things on Earth, so ready your camera and be sure to share it with us.
Cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. The cars run on tracks and are moved by an underground cable along three routes. Their familiar bells can be heard ringing from blocks away. Each one-way ride ($8) will provide spectacular views of the city’s celebrated hills and an exhilarating ride.
Alcatraz, the notorious former prison, is located on an island of the same name in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Some of the United States’ most notorious criminals were incarcerated there. Though several tried, no inmate ever made a successful escape from “The Rock.” The prison was closed in the 1960s and stories about Alcatraz are legendary. A visit to Alcatraz today is fascinating. Recorded cell-house tours are available, allowing visitors to learn about the prison as they explore the buildings and grounds. To reach the island, take an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance reservations are recommended. But if you don’t feel like visiting and just wants to see if from the outside, you can take a cruise that goes around the Island.
Fisherman’s Wharf is home to PIER 39, a festive waterfront marketplace that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. A community of California sea lions has taken up residence on the docks in the PIER 39 Marina and visitors line the nearby railing to watch their antics. From there, it’s a short walk to favorite area attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Museum of 3D Illusions, the Cartoon Art Museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum, historic Boudin Bakery, and multiple favorite food options, including crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails.
It’s always a great idea to picnic in the park before Karl the Fog rolls in. Dolores Park is the perfect place to enjoy sunny afternoons. With nearly 16 acres of grass, you can play, lounge, and people watch, all with a gorgeous view of the city. The Presidio is another San Francisco favorite. There are so many places within its more than 2 square miles to lay down a blanket and enjoy a meal. You can also picnic in the iconic Golden Gate Park, where you’ll find scenic spots at the Conservatory of Flowers and outside the California Academy of Sciences. Here are some other best places to have a picnic in San Francisco.
Outdoor festivals are a popular San Francisco activity for people of all ages. The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival takes place during the summer months, hosting dining, shopping and cultural activities for the whole family. The Stern Grove Festival, a San Francisco tradition since 1938, is a free outdoor music festival that has welcomed performers like The Doobie Brothers, Talib Kweli, and more. Visit Golden Gate Park for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival, which happens every October.
The best way to see and experience San Francisco is on foot. Wild SF Walking Tours offers a food crawl, a tour of the Castro and Mission District, and a Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour. Go behind the scenes at Oracle Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. You’ll have access to the player’s dugout, luxury suites, and more. There are walking tours for foodies, too! You’ll make stops along the way to taste unique foods originating from different cultures.
San Francisco is a hub for every music genre, from rock and pop to hip-hop and jazz. Venues like The Fillmore, The Warfield Theater, and The Masonic are some of San Francisco’s most legendary music halls, welcoming musicians worldwide. Past musical acts at these historic venues include MGMT, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and many more. SFJAZZ Center hosts concerts and classes and workshops designed for aspiring musicians.
Want to know “what’s glowing on” in San Francisco? Illuminate SF is an ongoing festival of light art that showcases more than 30 installations scattered throughout 17 neighborhoods of San Francisco. Admire light art on buildings, sidewalks, restaurants, cars, and more.
What was once a former military base is now a national park, widely known for its natural beauty, art and culture, and much more. If you’re visiting with kids, don’t pass on a visit to The Walt Disney Family Museum, which is full of interactive exhibits and Disney artifacts.
Known as the center of San Francisco’s hippie counterculture, Haight-Ashbury is a haven for vintage finds and 1960s nostalgia. You can walk in the footsteps of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead on a Flower Power Walking Tour, while learning about how music shaped the vibrant history of the Haight.
Founded in 1776, the Mission is San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood, but features some of its newest restaurants and galleries. Latino culture and Dolores Park are among the most popular attractions. Many visitors come to the Mission to admire the murals that adorn the walls of buildings.
Although driving around San Francisco is not encouraged, biking surely is! It’s an easy way to get to different attractions that are close to one another. The best part is, you won’t need to worry about parking.
If you’re looking for goodies that are exclusively made in San Francisco, there are many local places to shop. SFMade proudly works with local manufacturers who produce everything from clothing to coffee blends. At the Ferry Building Marketplace, you’ll find goodies from our neighboring cities like Sausalito and Guerneville. Take home unique finds while supporting Bay Area small businesses.
Since San Francisco is widely known for its diversity, it’s no surprise that the Castro is a popular spot to explore. Its vibrant and lively atmosphere make it a great destination to visit day or night. If you’re in San Francisco in October, be sure to check out the annual Castro Street Fair.
You’ll want to be in town for annual events like SF Beer Week. And you don’t need to go to wine country to enjoy exceptional California vintages. San Francisco has a handful of local wineries, including The Press Club.
San Francisco is widely known for its popular brunch spots, like Mama’s on Washington Square (1701 Stockton St.), which has been serving their famous fluffy omelettes and homemade jams for more than 50 years. In the Castro, Kitchen Story will satisfy your deepest needs with Millionare’s Bacon and Piccino in Dogpatch is a delight for locals and visitors alike.
Take a nice boat ride around Stow Lake, where you’ll be able to spot different bird species and turtles. Attractions like the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens and Aquarium of the Bay are perfect for families with kids who are eager to see and interact with wildlife. The California Academy of Sciences will enthrall kids of all ages with an albino alligator, birds, snakes, spiders and plenty of fish. Don’t miss the green rooftop!
Discover San Francisco’s beauty on the 49-mile scenic drive, which begins at City Hall and guides you to a number of popular historic and iconic landmarks. If you’re up for a hike, the Presidio has many art trails worth the stunning views. Urban Hiker SF offers itineraries for group hikes through popular urban destinations like the Castro, Twin Peaks, Coit Tower, and many others.
There are a number of museums dedicated to the rich history of San Francisco. The Wells Fargo History Museum invites visitors to use vintage bank machines, send telegraphs, and even ride in a replica stagecoach! If you want to learn about San Francisco’s transit history, the San Francisco Railway Museum and the Cable Car Museum give visitors a chance to see and learn about the living landmarks of San Francisco. Learn about California’s diverse past at the California Historical Society.
Want a different perspective of San Francisco? Kayak in the bay to get amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline. Have a romantic dinner on a Hornblower cruise. Or take a ferry to visit Alcatraz. Seeing the skyline from these aquatic vantage points will have you leaving your heart in San Francisco in no time.
These San Francisco locations are a must for your itinerary if you’re a movie buff. The Rock (1996), starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, featured shots of Alcatraz, The Fairmont, and the Palace of Fine Arts. Vertigo (1958), by Alfred Hitchcock, shot scenes at the Presidio and Fort Point, where Madeleine famously jumps into the bay. The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square is also a very familiar location for Full House fans!
Union Square is the place for serious shoppers. Major department stores and the most exclusive designer boutiques line the streets. The Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre houses the largest Bloomingdale’s outside of New York and the second-largest Nordstrom in the U.S.
North Beach, the city’s Italian quarter, isn’t a beach at all. It’s a neighborhood of romantic European-style sidewalk cafes, restaurants and shops centered near Washington Square along Columbus and Grant avenues. The beautiful Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a beloved landmark. Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, offers a splendid vantage point for photos of the bridges and the Bay. Inside the tower, floor-to-ceiling murals painted in the 1930s depict scenes of early San Francisco.
The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the Dragon’s Gate. Inside are 24 blocks of hustle and bustle, most of it taking place along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. This city within a city is best explored on foot. Exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums are all found within its boundaries. Visitors can buy traditional remedies from herb shops, relax and enjoy a dim sum lunch, or witness the making of fortune cookies.
Dining in San Francisco is an attraction in itself. Known as one of America’s best restaurant cities, San Francisco chefs excel at combining the freshest local ingredients, authentic international flavors and a touch of creative genius. Choose your cuisine: Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Indian, Malaysian, Mexican, Greek, Russian or “fusion,” a combination of any or all of these influences.
Nightlife in San Francisco is a constantly changing scene. From cocktails in Union Square to the club scene in SoMa, there are neighborhoods for all types of nightlife. For a different spin on nightlife, a number of museums host 21-and-up events that invite visitors to sip and see special exhibits. Don’t leave without catching a drag show at the legendary Oasis.
A visit to San Francisco would not be complete without a cultural experience. The city is home to the internationally recognized symphony, opera and ballet companies. Many playwrights introduce their works in San Francisco, and avant-garde theatre and dance companies dot the city. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and other institutions and galleries are devoted to the finest classical and contemporary arts. San Francisco is also home to the California Academy of Sciences, the only place on the planet with an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest all under one roof.
Well, what are you waiting for? There are tons of things to do and discover in San Francisco, whether it’s your first or tenth time visiting.
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