Updated July 26, 2023.
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So what are the best things to do in San Francisco?
San Francisco needs no introduction but there's a reason it's one of the world's most popular tourist destinations.
It's a lot of fun! In spite of its recent woes, it's still a great place to visit and there are tons of things to do in San Francisco.
I've spent 30 years in San Francisco so I have a good idea what the best attractions are (having experienced most of them) and what activities people would likely enjoy.
There's so much packed into San Francisco's 49 square miles that figuring out what to do can be overwhelming, but here's my list! Enjoy!
A visit to San Francisco isn't complete without a visit to the most iconic spot in the city.
Admire the magnificent bridge and enjoy breathtaking views of the bay, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline. It's even more spectacular in person than in the photos.
Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is an amazing experience; it's free and highly recommended. See my guide to visiting the bridge.
Or ride a bike across the bridge and maybe down into the town of Sausalito for lunch.
There are some great places to view the bridge and get some beautiful photos. I've scouted them all and created a guide to the best viewpoints showing where they are and how to get there.
Need to park there? Check out my article on the best places to park to see the Golden Gate Bridge.
Take a tour of the infamous prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay and learn about its intriguing history as a military prison, then a federal prison.
They have a great audio tour of the inside of the prison where you can hear stories told by some of the actual prisoners and prison guards about their experiences on the "Rock".
You can see the cell where Al Capone lived, walk around the prisoners' exercise yard, and see great views of the city and bay.
Check out my article on visiting Alcatraz to decide whether to take the day tour or the night tour, and the best way to get Alcatraz tickets. Is Alcatraz sold out? Here are my tips on how to get those tickets!
Experience the festive waterfront area and enjoy the fresh seafood, shopping, and entertainment. It's touristy, but it's a lot of fun, and it still retains the wharf feel of old San Francisco.
Try the famous clam chowder sourdough bowls at the Boudin Bakery and see the local sea lions up close at Pier 39. Some of the bay cruises and tours leave from Fisherman's wharf as well.
Explore the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America. Stroll through the impressive entrance to Chinatown, the Dragon Gate, and along the colorful Grant Avenue.
Try the dim sum and poke around the interesting Chinese shops. Truly a fun cultural immersion! Tons of atmosphere.
Check rates and availability of a highly-rated, 2-hour Chinatown Walking Tour, with an optional 9-course dim sum upgrade.
Drive or walk down the "crookedest street" in the world (or is it?). It's the prettiest crooked street in town, but there's another one even twistier. See my article on Lombard Street.
A very popular spot for photos, especially when the hydrangeas are blooming in the spring. It's free to visit, or be adventurous and drive a Go Car down the curves!
Check out our Go Car experience; we had a great time!
Ride the historic cable cars and experience a classic San Francisco mode of transportation.
The Cable Car Museum is worth a visit, too. The museum has interesting info on the history of the cable cars, and you can go underground and see the huge wheels that are pulling all the cable cars.
To find out which are the best cable car lines, plus a local's tips on how to ride the cable cars, and how to visit the museum, see my article on the San Francisco cable cars.
Pay a visit to the Palace of Fine Arts and admire the fanciful architecture and peaceful setting. This unusual collection of buildings was constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, put on by the city to announce that "San Francisco is back!", after the devastating 1906 earthquake.
A favorite local spot for engagement and wedding photos, and you'll see why. You can rent it for special events.
See Palace of Fine Arts for more info.
The iconic San Francisco row of pretty Victorian houses, known as the Painted Ladies, have the city skyline as a backdrop.
This is a popular spot to visit and a great photo op. The ladies are lined up on the 700 Block of Steiner Street, along one side of Alamo Square, an attractive city park.
San Francisco has hundreds of beautiful Victorian houses, but these seven are the most famous.
Fans of the Full House series can see the intro scene setting up close.
For a long time, none of these houses had come on to the market, and no one could see the inside of them. Then just in the last few years, two of them were for sale: the corner one and the pink & yellow one.
The corner house (722 Steiner) was on the market last year and sold for $6 million. The pink/yellow Painted Lady at 714 Steiner was purchased in 2020, but required such extensive renovations that the owner put it back on the market in 2022 but it appears that it wasn't sold. (See SFGate article about the owner's experience.)
Until recently, visitors could only admire the houses from the outside, but hat has changed recently. The owner of the blue "lady" (712 Steiner, the second to last one in the row) now gives tours of his house (see SFGate article about it).
For a fun city tour that includes a visit and photo op at the Painted Ladies, check out this small group tour in a retro VW bus. 2-hours, highly rated.
Climb the Filbert Steps past the wild parrots to Coit Tower, and get a great view of the city from this art deco tower on the top of Telegraph Hill.
You can also drive (there's a small parking lot at the entrance) or take the #39 Coit bus from Fisherman's Wharf up to the tower.
Go inside and see the fascinating scenes of 1930's San Francisco in their famous WPA Depression Era murals. The lower level of murals is free, but you need to pay a small fee ($7 residents, $10 non-residents) to get up into the tower to see the view.
You can get into the upper section of murals only with a tour. We went on one of the free tours given by volunteers with San Francisco City Guides, which was great. Sign up online.
San Francisco has some of the best and varied world-class museums on the West Coast.
Four big art museums:
The California Academy of Sciences: a planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and natural history museum.
The Walt Disney Family Museum: an interesting history of Walt Disney and the Disney studio animation process.
The Exploratorium: a hands-on, science museum where both adults and children can experience scientific principles in a direct way.
See details on these below:
Visit an outstanding science museum with a planetarium, aquarium and natural history museum. Watch the penguins being fed.
See a show at the planetarium and walk up the spiral ramp to explore the rainforest dome, butterflies and all.
For more info, see Academy of Sciences.
Explore an extensive collection of fine arts from around the world. American, African, Indonesian, Mexican art and more.
Plus a great view from the museum tower.
See de Young Museum for info on their exhibits and visiting.
Play with imaginative, interactive science exhibits and indulge your inner child. As much fun for adults as kids.
See Exploratorium for more info on the exhibits and the best ways of getting tickets.
Immerse yourself in contemporary art and exhibitions.
The rebuilt museum building is beautiful and has great views of downtown San Francisco.
See SF MOMA for more info.
Enjoy a huge collection of European and ancient fine art exhibits in a beautiful park setting.
Rodin's Thinker greets you before you enter to see works by Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, John Singer Sargent, and more. Check out the exquisite porcelain exhibit downstairs as well.
See Legion of Honor for more info.
Explore their large collection of Asian art and fascinating exhibitions from all over the Asian continent.
See Asian Art Museum for info.
Browse the City Lights Bookstore, the famous Beat Generation hangout, carrying on the tradition of counterculture writing.
The beatniks were identified with the San Francisco alternative lifestyle before the hippies arrived.
261 Columbus Avenue, in the North Beach neighborhood.
Learn about the history of San Francisco's cable cars and see the big underground wheels that operate the entire cable system. Amazing to see what's pulling all those cars up the San Francisco hills!
See Cable Car Museum.
The Walt Disney Family Museum: an interesting history of Walt Disney's life and the Disney studio animation process, located in the charming Presidio with great views of the bridge.
More on the Walt Disney Museum.
San Francisco is a great spot for nature lovers, combining a mild climate and a gorgeous natural setting between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Enjoy the gardens, lakes, museums, and outdoor activities of this beautiful and massive park.
Explore the waterfalls, paddle boats, golf course, horseback riding, and pretty picnic areas.
One day is not enough to explore the whole park. Here's my guide to what to see and do in Golden Gate Park.
Climb or drive up to Twin Peaks to experience the best panoramic, 360-degree views of the city.
The highest viewpoint in the city (since you can't go up in the Salesforce Tower now) and an incredible view. And free to visit.
And look beyond to Berkeley, Oakland, the Marin Headlands, and Mount Diablo, from these iconic peaks in the geographic center of San Francisco.
More on Twin Peaks.
This is one of the oldest tea gardens in the US and it's worth a visit.
Have a zen experience meandering though the lovely pathways, over the arched bridge, and into the moon-viewing garden before refreshing yourself with Japanese treats in the open air tea house.
More on the Japanese Tea Garden.
This rugged park on the edge of San Francisco is my favorite place to hike in the city.
Lands End is a gorgeous natural area, administered by the National Park Service.
You can hike along the coastal trails past scenes of shipwrecks and spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and the channel leading to San Francisco Bay.
Hard to believe you're still in the city!
More on Lands End.
Explore the many acres of gardens representing plants from California, Australia, and Asia, including a redwood grove and a garden of prehistoric plants.
Special events throughout the year like Flower Pianos, where pianos are distributed throughout the park and listen to music in a lovely garden setting.
More on the Botanical Gardens.
Take a ferry to this large island in San Francisco Bay for hiking or biking, and visit one of the best places to get panoramic views of the whole Bay Area.
View the entire bay from an amazing vantage point and explore the Immigration Museum.
More on visiting Angel Island.
San Francisco isn't known for its beaches, and it's not where people go to get a suntan, but the local beaches have some of the most spectacular views in the city.
Fort Funston Beach is the favorite of San Francisco dogs and hang gliders.
Check out my list of all of San Francisco's beaches.
One of the best ways to view the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island is to go out on a boat in the water.
There are lots of great boat cruises for every taste. Elegant brunch and dinner cruises, tours out and under the Golden Gate Bridge (don't miss this!), cruise the bay on sailboats or catamarans, or zoom around on speed boats.
Extra treat on all of these trips is a close up view around Alcatraz Island. Some of the best views of San Francisco are from a boat on the bay.
See my recommendations on the best bay cruises.
You can rent a bike and cycle across the iconic bridge, one of the best ways to see the Golden Gate Bridge, the city skyline and Alcatraz sitting out in the bay.
Ride back across it to the city, or even better, ride down into Sausalito, have lunch and take the beautiful ferry ride back to san Francisco.
See my guide on biking the bridge, with maps and bike rental suggestions, plus how to take the ferry back to the city.
Explore the atmospheric ruins of the Sutro Baths, the historic saltwater swimming pools at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The San Francisco Zoo is out by the ocean and is a popular spot for kids and adults.
In addition to the animals, the zoo has a little steam train to ride on, a nice carousel, and a Children's Zoo section with animals to pet. Plus creepy bugs to look at in the Insect Zoo.
See SF Zoo for more info.
There are horses to ride in Golden Gate Park again!
Ride on a wooded trail through the park or go for a ride on the beach nearby, their newest addition.
See my article on horseback riding in the park for more info and photos. We had a great time doing the park ride.
One of my favorite things about San Francisco is the fascinating variety of our distinct neighborhoods. Each one has a very individual character.
Go a block or two and you are in a totally different environment.
Bustling Chinatown, charming Little Italy, elegant Pacific Heights, and hippie Haight Ashbury are all in a relatively small city area.
You can explore the colorful murals, authentic Latin American eateries, and cultural variety in this predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
The Mission has some of the sunnier weather in San Francisco, as well.
The actual mission established by the Spanish missionary fathers is still there and worth a visit.
Built in 1871, it is one of the chain of missions built in California when it was a colony of Spain. It's the oldest building in San Francisco.
The grounds contain consists of the sturdy mission church itself, the Mission San Francisco de Asis, and a graveyard where some of San Francisco's early historical figures are buried, dating from the Gold Rush era and earlier.
The Mission de Asis is at 3321 16th Street.
Experience the hippie culture and explore the vintage shops. The Haight still has the 60's vibe. If you like tie dye and head shops, here they are. Relive the Summer of Love!
There's even a small brewery to investigate: Magnolia Brewing Co. at 1398 Haight Street.
Check out the houses where the 60's rockers lived, like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Charles Manson, too, unfortunately.
Read my article about more things to do in the Haight-Ashbury, with maps showing where some of the famous people of this era lived.
The North Beach neighborhood is San Francisco's Little Italy. Stroll through this quaint Italian neighborhood with its charming cafes and shops. It has a genuine Italian ambiance.
Have an espresso at Caffe Trieste and bask in Bohemian nostalgia; it hasn't changed much since the beatniks were hanging out there in the 1950's. 609 Vallejo St.
Caffe Greco is a good one, too. Very Italian. At 423 Columbus St.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana is very popular (and 13-time winner of the World Pizza Championship). We enjoyed a tasty pizza there. 1570 Stockton St.
Saints Peter and Paul Church in Washington Square in the center of North Beach is where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio did their wedding photos.
You might recognize the church from the long list of movies that were filmed here, including Dirty Harry and even The Ten Commandments.
Cappuccino and pizza at its best! Great atmosphere.
For a highly-rated, walking tour of the neighborhood, check out the Little Italy and North Beach Tour. Includes food tasting.
Immerse yourself in Japanese culture, cuisine, and shops of this remarkable neighborhood.
They've managed to recreate the feeling of being in Japan in a series of connected malls, and with the shops and restaurants along a pedestrian walkway.
Great spot for Japanese food, no surprise. And lots of interesting and authentic Japanese shops to browse in.
See my article on Japantown for more info.
Also, Grace Cathedral is up there, with it's labyrinth and beautiful stained glass.
Visit the amazing survivor of the Tiki Era, the Tonga Room, at the Fairmont Hotel, as well as the classy Top of the Mark bar cross the street. Plus the hill is haunted!
Visit this former military post turned national park with great views of the bridge and some historic hotels.
The Walt Disney Museum is located here.
The newest attraction is the an area of playgrounds and view spots called the Presidio Tunnel Tops, built on top of the tunnel that leads into the Marina District as you come off the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is a great and little-known alternative to staying downtown or in Fisherman's Wharf.
Check out the two unique hotels at the Presidio, the Inn at the Presidio or the Lodge at the Presidio.
The Castro District is the gay center of San Francisco, with a long history of being a predominantly gay neighborhood.
What to do and see: there is a concentration of gay bars, no surprise, and the GLBT Historical Society Museum at 4127 18th Street. Also some gay-themed shops (for adults).
The Castro Theater is a grand old theater on Castro Street and a fun place to see classic films.
Castro Street, between Market Street and 18th Street, and 18th Street between Douglass and Church Streets are where most of the bars, restaurants and shops are. Also along Market Street between Castro and Noe Streets.
Cafe Flore, at 2298 Market St., is popular restaurant that's been an important part of the neighborhood for 50 years (now reopened as "Fische & Flore").
Telegraph Hill is the hang out of the wild parrots just voted the official animal of San Francisco.
The parrots arrived in late 1980's, probably an escape from a pet store, and have made their home in the trees there ever since.
Home to the Filbert Steps that climb the hill past attractive houses in a garden setting. And Coit Tower at the top with great views.
Explore the Financial District in downtown San Francisco at the end of Market Street. Wall Street of the West. The former site of the Pacific Stock Exchange is now a fitness studio.
The Transamerica Pyramid is here, with an interesting park at its feet: redwood trees and a jumping frog fountain to commemorate Mark Twain, who used to hang out here.
See the Salesforce Tower (how can you miss it?), the tallest building in San Francisco, and take a look at the Millennium Tower. Does it look like it's sinking and leaning? Hard to see, but it is.
I just discovered that the architect for the Salesforce Tower, Cesar Pelli, designed a strikingly similar building in Santiago Chile a few years before he designed the one in San Francisco. Now there are two of them.
Even though San Francisco is rightly considered an expensive city, there are still plenty of great things to do in San Francisco that are free or pretty cheap.
Here are some ideas for the best free things, and some fun inexpensive things, to do in San Francisco.
San Francisco is fortunate to have a lot of city green space.
The best San Francisco park is Golden Gate Park, with its flower gardens, museums and lakes, the perfect place for a picnic. There's lots to see and do in the park; one day isn't enough. The park itself is free to explore, though the museums have entry fees.
Some of the attractions are free for San Francisco residents (Botanical Gardens, Conservatory Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden).
One of my favorite places in the park is Stow Lake with its waterfall, ducks, and decorative Chinese Pavilion. It's a great place to walk, around the lake or climb Strawberry Hill in the middle for more city views. You can rent paddle boats to sail around the island in the middle of the lake.
Dolores Park, between the Mission District and the Castro District on Delores Street at 18th St., is a large hillside park for people-watching and stunning city views.
And Sutro Heights Park is a hidden gem overlooking the Cliff House and the Pacific Ocean.
Explore the city's neighborhoods and landmarks with knowledgeable guides from San Francisco City Guides. This is a non-profit organization with volunteer guides, and all the tours are free.
They have a wide selection of tours and areas to choose from. I've been on several of these tours and they were very professional and interesting.
See SF City Guides.
Attend live music performances at various venues and parks throughout the city.
See FunCheapSF.com for a comprehensive list of free entertainment and events in San Francisco.
San Francisco is famous for its many steep hills and it's free to hike them.
And don't miss going down the steep slides on Seward Street. What a rush!
Twin Peaks, the twin hills in the geographic center of the city, provide a 360 degree view of San Francisco and beyond. It's free to visit and so worth the effort!
You'll see the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, downtown San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean, and east to Berkeley and Oakland. See Twin Peaks.
You can also get great Golden Gate Bridge views (and city and bay views) from numerous vantage points, free to visit as well (see my list of places to view it, and maps).
You can also get incredible city, bridge and Alcatraz views from a reasonably priced ferry ride to Sausalito across the bay.
Witness the cookie-making process and sample fresh fortune cookies. This is a popular spot to visit in Chinatown. And it's also free to explore the Chinatown neighborhood.
On my page on Chinatown tours, I have a do-it-yourself chinatown itinerary and map to see the main sights on your own if you wish.
The fortune cookies aren't free, but visiting the "factory", one room with two women working, is free (it was 50 cents to take a photo last time I was there). See cookie factory.
You can get in free to some of San Francisco's attractions. The Japanese Tea Garden is free the first hour on MWF (and free to residents all the time).
Check out a handy website with a comprehensive list of all the free or relatively cheap activities, events and performances scheduled in San Francisco.
And there are free museum days in most of our museums.
Indulge in diverse and affordable meals and treats served from mobile kitchens.
Explore local food and artisanal products in the historic San Francisco ferry terminal at the end of Market Street.
Graze through the market sampling chocolate, pastries, seafood, cakes, empanadas, and delicacies from all over the world. Or have lunch or dinner at one of the popular restaurants. See what's waiting there at the Ferry Building.
Indulge in delicious dim sum, tea tasting, and exotic flavors on one of the most popular walking tours exploring the history and food of Chinatown.
Check Chinatown Food Tour for rates and availability.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with world-famous chocolate treats and ice cream sundaes, at the original location of the Ghirardelli chocolate factory.
One of the original, chocolate-making machines is there, stirring away, plus some good restaurants and a cute San Francisco-themed mini golf course.
More on visiting Ghirardelli Square.
Taste the iconic Mission-style burritos in their birthplace. Substantial burritos loaded with tasty ingredients.
They are available all over San Francisco but a couple of my favorites are
San Francisco is in a perfect place for exploring the Bay Area and is a convenient stepping off point for exploring Northern California.
Explore the majestic coastal redwood forest just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Exploring these ancient and serene groves is one of the best experiences for San Francisco visitors. It's not that far and it's easy to get to.
See my article on Muir Woods, what to see there, and how to get there.
Take a wine tour and indulge in wine tasting in this renowned region.
Not only is it fun to visit the wineries and try out different wines, the area's beauty is an added bonus. Even a winery in a recreated Tuscan castle!
See my page on visiting the Napa Valley, or try out a popular all-day tour of a variety of wineries in Napa and Sonoma (so you don't have to drive;). Tastings included. Check Wine Country Tour for rates and availability.
The other Northern California wine region. Less-frequented by tourists, but just as pretty, the Sonoma Valley is another great place to visit wineries and do wine-tasting.
Plus you can visit the quaint Old California town of Sonoma, and maybe take the kids to Train Town. Ride the charming steam train which stops at a miniature Gold Rush Town, and lots more kiddie rides.
You can also visit Sonoma and it's wineries from San Francisco with a guide. Includes wine tastings at three Sonoma wineries, and a visit to Sausalito. Check out this highly-rated, small-group tour at Wine Country Tour.
Sausalito is a charming little town, climbing the steep hills across the bay from San Francisco.
People love to visit it for its great views of San Francisco and some first-class seafood restaurants.
Sausalito started out as an artists colony years ago and still retains that flavor with its many art galleries and funky shops. Plus, the ride over from San Francisco on the ferry is spectacular.
See info on getting here on the ferry.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge to explore the small towns and more secluded ocean beaches of the rural county just across the bridge form the city.
Head out to Rodeo Beach or Stinson Beach, hike Mount Tamalpais, explore Muir Woods and Sausalito, or go up to Point Reyes National Seashore (where Sir Francisco Drake camped out on his only visit to California).
Explore the tech hub an hour south of San Francisco.
You can still see the houses and garages where the first tech company guys started Apple and Hewlett Packard.
Check out a list of things to see there and where to find them.
Head out on a day tour to experience stunning natural beauty and awesome (literally) hiking trails.
This park is every bit as amazing as people say it is. It's a bit of a long day, but worth it. You can also stay in Yosemite if you make reservations well in advance.
Check out a popular day tour from San Francisco to Yosemite if you don't want to drive.
The Winchester House in San Jose is a large Victorian mansion where the heiress to the Winchester rifle company fortune lived.
Sarah Winchester had builders work on the house non-stop for years, so it's quite a warren of rooms and passages.
What makes it especially interesting is that it is supposed to be haunted and there are lots of pleasantly chilling stories about what people have seen here over the years.
I finally made it to the Mystery House and I'm really glad I did. I did both the regular tour and the Behind the Scenes tour and it was fascinating. And a bit spooky, especially down in the basement. The Behind the Scenes tour was particularly good, but I don't see it listed on their site now.
Is it really haunted? They certainly tell some great, hair-raising tales about it.
I don't know of any tours from San Francisco that go there, so you would need to drive down there.
See Winchester House website for info and reservations.
Union Square is a bustling area with theaters, bars, and high-end shops.
A lot of the major San Francisco hotels are in or near Union Square and there are lots of good restaurants nearby.
Plus the San Francisco theater district is just a block or two from the square if you are interested in taking in a play while you're here. The Marrakech Theater is cool (we went to an amazing magic show there) and the American Conservatory Theater is here as well.
Catch a live concert at this legendary music venue, known for booking some of the most famous performing artists and groups of the 1960's: the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, B.B. King, Pink Floyd, The Who, Cream, Santana, and more.
It's had a rocky, on-and-off history over the decades, but it's back in it's original location at 1805 Geary Boulevard and is once again a popular concert location. It's run by Live Nation now.
Check on what's playing and get tickets.
Enjoy classic movies and events in an iconic theater. This is a cool, old-time theater of the grand style, located in the Castro District, on Castro Street at Market.
I went to a Sound of Music Sing-along there years ago, which was a lot of fun, including a costume contest after the show.
Since the 1980's, they had an antique, Wurlitzer pipe organ that accompanied the performances with live music. They have a smaller one operating there now, but they're getting an impressive new one at some point. The theater is still doing the sing-alongs. Great experience.
See Castro Theater for upcoming shows.
Check out my article on the SF Opera for tips on going to the opera and best places to sit.
San Francisco's ballpark is right on the bay and it's a great place to watch a game. Go Giants!
See info on Oracle Park and the Giants schedule.
San Francisco has a lot of interesting bars, something for every taste.
San Francisco also has developed an obsession with "hidden", speakeasy-inspired bars. Unmarked doors, passwords, dial phones: here's a list of the "secret", or not so secret, bars.