Things to Do in San Francisco
Overview: With trademark hills and the Pacific Ocean a frequent backdrop across its seven square miles, San Francisco serves as a cultural melting pot where hippies and tech workers mingle over tacos, artisanal cocktails, and cold-brew coffee. With weather patterns as diverse as its neighborhoods, the City by the Bay offers international flavor: dim sum in Chinatown, cannoli in North Beach, izakaya bites in Japantown, and a bustling food hall scene in the Ferry Building, to name a few. History and culture thrive in the Castro and Mission District; Union Square—San Francisco’s premier shopping destination—showcases both world-renowned boutiques and indie designers; and open-air adventure is never hard to find in Golden Gate Park or along the fog-laced stretches of Ocean Beach. Visitors come for iconic experiences such as cable-car rides, photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, and tours of Alcatraz Island—and stick around for wine tasting trips to Napa and Sonoma wine country, visits to the giant redwoods in Muir Woods, and adventures in Berkeley, Oakland, Sebastopol, and the greater Bay Area. Keep in mind that the weather can be more temperamental than other California cities like Los Angeles, so pack a jacket for when the fog rolls in off the hills, or plan a trip to coincide with San Francisco’s Indian Summer, starting in early fall.
- Language: English
- Currency: $
- Time Zone: UTC (-08:00)
- Country Code: +1
- Best Time to Visit: Summer, Fall
When to Visit: Summer usually includes the biggest concentration of festivals, including Pride and the Outside Lands music festival, but typically cooler temperatures, whereas fall offers warmer sunny weather. Whenever you choose to visit, come prepared with layers, as the fog usually burns off by mid-morning and returns in the early evening, bringing with it up to 20-degree swings in temperature.
Getting Around: Although it’s a fairly walkable city, San Francisco is also easily traversed by MUNI’s system of buses and light-rail trains, including the iconic cable cars. BART rapid rail connects the city with the greater Bay Area to the east, and CalTrain’s commuter rail service runs along the San Francisco Peninsula. Uber and Lyft ride-sharing apps are also popular.
Tipping: For most service-industry businesses (restaurants, bars, cabs), tips are expected, and 10-20% is standard, with 15% generally sufficient. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the sales tax by two, which equals around a 17% tip.
You Might Not know…: Most of the BART light-rail trains connecting San Francisco to the surrounding Bay Area stop running shortly after midnight. If you miss the train, you can opt for Uber or Lyft to get home. If you cross a bridge, expect an additional charge for the toll.
For almost 150 years, Alcatraz has given the innocent chills and the guilty cold sweats. Over the years it's been the nation's first military prison, then a forbidding maximum-security penitentiary, now a National Park. No wonder that first step you take off the ferry and onto 'The Rock' seems to cue ominous music: dunh-dunh-dunnnnh!
The trip to Alcatraz is popular and space is extremely limited. Purchase Alcatraz tickets as far in advance as possible, up to 90 days. The roster of Alcatraz inmates read like an America's Most Wanted list. A-list criminals doing time on Alcatraz included Chicago crime boss Al "Scarface" Capone, dapper kidnapper George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and hot-headed Harlem mafioso and sometime poet "Bumpy" Johnson. Though Alcatraz was considered escape-proof, in 1962 the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris floated away on a makeshift raft and were never seen again. A visit to Alcatraz is more than just seeing the inside of an old prison.
Cinema buffs believe Alfred Hitchcock had it right: seen from below at Fort Point, the bridge induces a thrilling case of Vertigo. Fog aficionados prefer the lookout at Vista Point in Marin, on the north side of the bridge, to watch gusts rush through the bridge cables. Crissy Field is a key spot to appreciate the whole span, with windsurfers and kite-fliers to add action to your snapshots. Unlike the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge provides access to cyclists and pedestrians.
From the Golden Gate Bridge itself, you can see stunning vistas of San Francisco and Marin County, as well as Alcatraz, Angel Island, and oceangoing liners passing through the bridge’s tall red towers. Golden Gate Bridge connects the city of San Francisco with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Sausalito and the Muir Woods National Monument.
Few waterways carry the prestige and iconographic status of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. From the first years of its European discovery the Golden Gate became known as a pivotal access point to the American West.
Trade and military strategy aside, The Bay is California’s most important ecological treasure. A natural nursery for crab, halibut, waterfowl, seals and sea lions, as well as endangered species, the San Francisco Bay provides a great ecological treasure to residents and visitors alike. Whale watching, ferrying out to Alcatraz and Marin, or simple sunset tours with the glistening Golden Gate Bridge are favorite pastimes, while residents simply feel assured looking out of their windows and knowing that its calm waters are there.
Coastal redwoods are the tallest living things on earth, and walking among these giants is truly an awesome experience - one only to be had in Northern California and a small part of southern Oregon. Best of all, the old-growth redwoods at Muir Woods are only 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the closest redwood stand to San Francisco. Even at busy times, a short hike gets you beyond the crowds, onto trails with mammoth trees and stunning vistas.
For an easy hike, try the 1 mi (1.5 km) Main Trail Loop, which run alongside Redwood Creek to 1,000-year-old trees at Cathedral Grove. It then swings back via Bohemian Grove, where the park’s tallest tree stands at 254 feet (77 meters). The more adventurous should take the 2 mi (3.2 km) hike up to the top of Cardiac Hill, which treks through a steep grade of lush fir-fringed forest to an exposed ridge where you can see Mt. Tamalpais, the Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco.
Where once Italian fisherman in Genoese feluccas trapped unsuspecting sealife, San Francisco has expertly created one of the most popular tourist attractions in America. Fisherman’s Wharf is filled with shops, restaurants, and a pirate’s booty of attractions.
Sea lions laze the day away sunbathing and posing for photo ops on Pier 39, where the Aquarium of the Bay, carousel, and carnival-style attractions keep little kids wide-eyed. At Pier 45, the Hyde Street Pier Historic Ships Collection give navel-gazers a chance to check out tall ships, submarines and WWII warships. Bring your quarters to consult the spooky mechanical fortune tellers and save the world from space invaders at Musée Mécanique.
And if it’s raining, head to the Wax Museum and wander among the 250-plus life-like celebrities and former presidents. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, with its kaleidoscope tunnel, video displays, and illusions is also a curiously exciting diversion.
One of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, Pier 39 is a fun-filled multilevel waterfront complex, complete with shops, restaurants, lively street performers, a video arcade, and stellar attractions. An added bonus is its setting on San Francisco Bay, where you can take in panoramic bay views, fresh sea air, and watch hundreds of sunbathing sea lions lounging along its neighboring docks. From here you can see Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Families will have plenty of fun here. At the Aquarium of the Bay, watch sharks circle overhead and manta rays skate by, as conveyor belts guide you through glass tubes. A chariot awaits you on the two-story San Francisco Carousel, then whisks you past the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, other hand-painted city landmarks. Also - don’t forget to watch the sea lions. The slips on the bay can hold as many as 1,300 of the marine mammals, mostly between January and July.
Like a fossilized party favor, this romantic, Greco-Roman ruin is the memento San Francisco decided to keep from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Indeed, the Palace is a favorite wedding photo location for many couples in the San Francisco Bay area. But many come just to simply gaze up at the rotunda relief and glimpse "Art Under Attack by Materialists, with Idealists Leaping to her Rescue".
The exhibition hall, which originally housed Impressionist paintings during the exposition, was once home to the Exploratorium, a state of the art interactive science museum that moved in Spring 2013 to Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. Now the venue hosts occasional concerts and events but is not generally open to the public. The inside is not the main attraction after all.
The nearby lagoon, fringed with Australian eucalyptus trees, was intended to echo those found in classical settings in Europe, where water serves as a mirror to reflect the grand buildings.
A city within a city, Chinatown is a historic maze of mysterious sights where an ancient culture from the other side of the world survives and flourishes with remarkable authenticity. You enter the oldest Chinatown in America through Dragon’s Gate, on Grant Avenue at Bush Street. Once you walk through the gate, a 24-block labyrinth of restaurants, markets, temples, and shops unfolds.
Wander through the massive collection of Chinese artifacts at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, or ponder Thomas Chang’s monumental photographs at the Chinese Cultural Center. You can glimpse skaters practicing revolutionary moves beneath the stature of Sun Yat-sen in St. Mary’s Square or head to Spofford Alley to hear the clicking mah-jong tiles, a Chinese orchestra warming up, or even beauticians gossiping over blow-dryers.
Located at the base of San Francisco’s bustling and touristy Pier 39, Aquarium of the Bay takes you below the surface of San Francisco Bay. With 300 feet of clear acrylic tunnels holding 700,000 gallons of bay water, the view is as unique as the critters themselves. Aquarium of the Bay is home to approximately 20,000 animals, from sea stars to octopuses to native sharks.
There are three main exhibit areas to explore in the aquarium. Discover the Bay focuses on ecosystems. Touch the Bay puts critters like leopard sharks, big skates and juvenile bat rays at your fingertips. But what makes this city-sized aquarium truly unique is the Under the Bay tunnels exhibit. As you walk through the first tunnel you’ll see animals that live near shore including anchovies, sea bass and sea stars. Explore deeper water as you make your way through the second tunnel. Stop and stare as five species of local sharks and skates glides over top of your head.
More Things to Do in San Francisco
Standing at the apex of the Filbert Street Steps, you can understand what Italian fishermen and beat poets saw in North Beach: tough climbs and giddy vistas, a place with more sky than ground, an area that was civilized by not entirely tamed.
A vibrant Italian community thrives in North Beach, which is home to dozens of Italian restaurants and coffeehouses. Columbus Avenue, the neighborhood's main street, is lined with many eclectic shops and one-of-a-kind fashion boutiques - perfect for an afternoon stroll.
You won’t find an actual beach in North Beach, though you will discover natural beauty atop Telegraph Hill, the neighborhood’s bucolic centerpiece. A hike up the Filbert or Greenwich street steps will put you at the top, where you can take in panoramic views of the city from Coit Tower. Or forego the climb and watch wild parrots frolic in the treetops from the friendly confines of a park bench in Washington Square.
Though it doesn’t often get the attention of its famous sibling, the Golden Gate, the San Francisco Bay Bridge is spectacular in its own right. Once the largest and most expensive bridge of its time, in 75 years the Bay Bridge has proved critics wrong – the dream of connecting San Francisco to Oakland would not be stopped by anything. Logistics, cost, and politics couldn’t stop the expansion, and now the Bay Bridge has made history yet again my becoming the world’s largest self -anchored suspension bridge. Safely transporting the 280,000 automobiles that transverse its roads every day, the Bay Bridge connects San Francisco to Oakland, with a little stop at Yerba Buena Island along the way.
This leisurely winding block of Lombard Street is called the "crookedest street in the world.” Truthfully, though, Vermont Street in Potrero Hill deserves this accolade, but Lombard is much more scenic, with its red-brick pavement and lovingly tended flowerbeds, which bloom in full color during the warmer months. The angle is steep, for sure, so much so that the road has to zig-zag back and forth to make descending it possible.
Still, Lombard Street is fun to go down. If you drive, take the curves slowly and in low gear. If you’re walking, take staircases (without curves) up or down on either side of the street. Bring a camera, not only for picturesque view from the top, but also view looking up from the bottom.
Haight-Ashbury is one of the most famous neighborhoods in San Francisco. The neighborhood is most famous for its role as a center of the 1960s hippie movement, reaching a peak in 1967, the "Summer of Love". With this liberal backdrop, modern American counterculture has been synonymous with San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood ever since.
The area still maintains its bohemian vibe, and it's fun just to people watch. In one afternoon you can see a mix of aging flower children, former Dead-heads, musicians, tourists, homeless people, and hip urban professionals going about their day.
The neighborhood is also a thriving center of restaurants, bars, trendy clothing boutiques, booksellers, head shops, and record stores. It's also home to the famous Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream shop, located at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets.
When San Franciscans refer to "the park", there's only one that gets the definite article: Golden Gate Park. Everything San Franciscans hold dear is here: free spirits, free music, redwoods, Frisbee, protests, fine art, bonsai, and buffalo. Check out the range of attractions listed below, or just follow your bliss from east to west.
Start on the east end, where you pass the Conservatory of Flowers and the sheltered contemplative valley of the AIDS Memorial Grove. As you near the Academy of Sciences, pass by the Shakespeare Garden, featuring 150 plants mentioned in Shakespeare's writings. Nearby are the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and Strybing Arboretum. Head toward Martin Luther King Drive to pass the Polo Fields, where the 1967 Human Be-In took place and free concerts are still held in summer.
The finest restaurants in town can't provide views as spectacular as the picnic tables atop Alamo Square Park facing Steiner Street's Postcard Row, a row of pastel Victorian houses, known as the Painted Ladies. In fact, the lavish gingerbread detailing, look-at-me bay windows, and frosting flourishes that adorn the houses may leave you craving dessert.
This collection of candy-jar colored Victorian houses is one of San Francisco's most famous assets. Though many exist throughout the city, this is where you’ll find the greatest concentration of these restored gems. At the corner of Fulton and Steiner streets, in Alamo Square, you can see the crisp edges of the Financial District skyscrapers behind a row of Victorians - it's one of the most famous views of San Francisco. You can even see City Hall.
Once a military base, The Presidio is now a huge public park on the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. The Spanish established a military fortress on the site in 1776, and it was later turned over to Mexico, and then to the United States in 1848. The original name was the Royal Fortress of Saint Francis, fortress being a translation of “presidio,” and the area remained an active base for military operation until 1995. Since 1996, The Presidio has been a park. It's part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, but is operated by a private trust.
Among the many outdoor recreational opportunities within The Presidio are hiking, mountain biking, and golfing. The waters just off the park's beaches are great places to go kite surfing or sailing, not to mention fishing. There's also one camping facility inside the park that's open from April-October, as well as one lodge in a former US Army residence hall.
Proving that getting away from the city doesn’t have to be an ordeal, Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, is a quick ferry ride away and seemingly miles away from the ordinary. Small but beautiful, Angel Island has some of the best views of the surrounding San Francisco Bay area. Climb to the top of Mt. Livermore to snap some pictures of spectacular panoramic views of the entire Bay, or head down to the paved walkway to see some of Angel Island’s beautiful coves. All five Bay Area bridges can be seen from the island point, including the imposing and illustrious Golden Gate.
Visitors to this small island enjoy miles of superb hiking trails, a cove café and oyster bar, and many forms of transportation fun (segway, tram, and electric scooter). Here you can explore this natural treasure in leisure and at your own pace.
The newly paved grounds of Union Square, bordered by brightly lit department stores and hotels, may not at first seem like an inviting place to hang out. But perch awhile on a skinny bench or grab a coveted seat at the café in the square, and you’ll discover some of the best people-watching in the city.
For in one day, you’ll see theater-goers debate the merits of the latest David Mamet productions, Nob Hill society dames in dark glasses duck into Maiden Lane spas for facials, and giddy teens wear out their parents while shopping for prom dresses.
But the real reason to come to Union Square is to shop. The square is home to six major department stores: Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Barney’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. Boutique shoppers will find plenty of spots to browse the latest designer fashion. High-end emporiums surround the square, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Prada, and Giorgio Armani.
Along the water’s edge and the Presidio neighborhood of San Francisco, Crissy Field is one of the city’s best spots to catch views of the bay and city skyline, feel the sun and/or fog on your face, and enjoy a walk with friends or a pet. Once the U.S. military’s first Air Coast Defense Station on the west coast, it is now a popular place to picnic and enjoy the open space set aside by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory.
A trail winds through the area between Marina Green and Fort Point, with a nearby beach and tidal marshes with occasional wildlife. Many of the views from Chrissy Field include a scenic inclusion of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Marin Headlands. Locals and tourists alike come to walk, jog, bike, and walk their dogs among some of the city’s best natural beauty.
If ever there was a heaven for foodies, the San Francisco Ferry Building is surely it. Since 1898, it has been a transit terminal, the second-busiest in the world until the Bay and Golden Gate bridges were completed in the 30s. For well-heeled gourmet food lovers however, it began serving a different purpose when it opened as an upscale food market in 2003. The beautiful building houses small shops that sell fancy mushrooms, olive oil, sourdough bread, wine, cheese, produce and cupcakes, as well as well-known Bay Area restaurants the Slanted Door, Gott’s Roadside and Hog Island Oyster Company. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the outdoor plaza fills with farmer’s selling local, organic and seasonal produce, plus food merchants selling specialty cheeseburgers, tacos, pizzas and more. In other words, it’s mecca for the Bay Area’s sustainable food craze. The back wharf is a great spot to watch the boats passing under the Bay Bridge.
Known for its hilly streets, cable cars, liberal outlook and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is located in northern California on a peninsula between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Founded by Spanish settlers in 1776, the city’s population exploded during the California Gold Rush of 1849. An earthquake destroyed about 90% of the city in 1906, but San Francisco rebuilt and today is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States.
Start your visit by taking a ride on one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars, which run up and down the steep streets between Fisherman’s Wharf and Market Street. Those with a strong interest in the history of the cable car may want to stop at the Cable Car Museum at the top of Nob Hill. Otherwise, while the morning fog is still lingering, head to the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood to check out some of San Francisco’s finest museums.
Sitting just below the massive Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point is a National Historic Site that once served to defend the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The brick fort can still be explored on foot today, with the opportunity to learn about the area’s history and the fort’s former military use.
The fort was in operation from the Gold Rush era through World War II, a fascinating time in San Francisco’s history. A visit to the site offers extraordinary, close-up views of San Francisco’s most famous landmark — the Golden Gate Bridge. It is one of only three third-system brick forts on the west coast of the United States. Due to its location and protection of the coastline, it is also known as the “Gibraltar of the West.”
Visitors have the chance to explore Civil War era uniforms, weaponry, and historic photographs on display. With its many floors and wide brick arches, it stands as an excellent example of American military architecture.
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