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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in San Francisco
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.
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.
Walking down San Francisco’s beautiful Marina District it’s hard to believe that the area was once a marshy swampland. Dredged, developed, and beautified for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, after decades of renewal, today the Marina itself is full of joggers, bicyclists, and chic young 20-somethings either out at the numerous bars and restaurants or window shopping the upscale waterfront boutiques.
Struck hard by an earthquake in 1989, the urban renewal in years since has left the Marina with an upscale trendy feel. Combine that with great ocean views and some of the nicest parks and walkways in San Francisco and you’ve got a neighborhood with just about everything – and the price tag to match.
For sunny days, head to Crissy Field or Fort Mason and the Presidio for scenic strolling and some of the best views of the Golden Gate. For a fun night-time bar scene, head to “The Triangle” at Fillmore and Greenwich, but be prepared for a crowd.
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.
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.
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.
The California Academy of Sciences holds a fascinating collection of 38,000 natural wonders and the occasional freak of nature. Under the wildflower-covered “living roof,” butterflies flutter through a four-story glass rainforest dome, a rare white alligator stalks a swamp, and Pierre the Penguin paddles his massive new tank in the African Hall.
Downstairs, kids are sure to enjoy the basement aquarium, where they can duck inside a glass bubble to enter an eel forest, find Nemos in tropical fish tanks, or pet starfish. Head upward in the elevator to the roof for panoramic views of Golden Gate Park, or glimpse skyward into infinity in the Planetarium. For the ecology-minded, check out the displays throughout the main floor, which show how conservation issues affect California’s ecosystem.
If you stay for lunch, the dining options at the Academy are first-rate, as both the Academy Café and Moss Room restaurant are run by two of the city's top chefs.
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.
Technically speaking, the Embarcadero (Spanish for “Wharf”) is the eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco. More to-the-point, the Embarcadero is the glittering waterfront and a cultural center of one of America’s greatest cities. Running from the end of Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf on the northern end down to South Beach Park on the southern end, the Embarcadero is not only a beautiful stretch of some of the most iconic San Franciscan waterfront; it acts as a home to joggers and bicyclists, as well as bustling port tourist attraction and regional icon.
Catch a good time at Pier 39 or the nearby Fisherman’s Wharf for some excellent seafood, trendy spots with local bands, and souvenir hunting. Many festivities begin and culminate with the Embarcadero, so if you happen to be in town don’t forget to stick around for the fireworks and the always photogenic Golden Gate.
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.
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.
The Castro District, known otherwise as simply, "the Castro," is widely considered the United States' gay capital. Not only is it the largest, but also the country's first.
Regardless of a visitor's sexual orientation, the Castro is full of wonderful attractions, including the Castro Theatre, one of San Francisco's more popular movie palaces, complete with a world-class interior chandelier and designed with a colonial Spanish Baroque facade.
Perhaps the area's most culturally significant landmark, the GLBT Historical Society includes a museum and archives documenting the history of the gay and lesbian communities in the U.S. Aside from its core purpose, the building also houses other interesting institutions including the Cartoon Art Museum, which features well over 6,000 different cartoons and comics, and the Catharine Clark Gallery, an exhibition including different forms of media for contemporary, living artists.
Known for its vibrant culture, often busy by both day and night, Cow Hollow is a central San Francisco neighborhood that attracts many of the city’s young professionals. At the heart of the scene is Union Street, a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare lined with cafes, antique shops, wellness centers, bars, and restaurants. Before it was a trendy urban area, it was an open valley where cows grazed (hence its name!) Its proximity to the Marina and coastline also made it the place many fishermen resided.
Though now filled with boutique shops and posh apartments, the old Victorian houses lining Cow Hollow streets are reminiscent of this area’s past. If history is what you’re after, you’ll find it in the Octagon House, a 19th century home built to let in natural light from all angles. As for modern city life, a variety of cuisines and an active nightlife make this area a draw for many.
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