San Francisco is one of the most fabulous cities in the US. It is hip, vibrant, bohemian, trendy, and yet pretty casual – a uniquely Californian blend! From its famous fog to the many hills of the city, San Francisco is all about fun and excitement. And innovation. This is, after all, Silicon Valley. Each time that I visit San Francisco, I feel that anything is possible.
San Francisco has a unique history. Since the Gold Rush era, it is known as ‘the City’ – because for a long time it was the only big city on the West Coast. San Francisco was severely destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake but it was soon rebuilt into the city that we know today. San Francisco was one of the earliest cities to adopt a liberal mindset and is home to the hippie movement, which you can still observe in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
If you are spending anywhere from 3 to 5 days in the city and need to plan your trip, then read our post on Ultimate San Francisco Itinerary: 3 to 5 days trip ideas for first-time visitors.
Best Things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the country and has many attractions for all types of visitors. We recommend starting your visit to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since there are many attractions located close by. See the iconic bridge, visit the beaches, and go hiking. Then, explore the rest of the city and its colorful neighborhoods.
Here are our favorite things to do in San Francisco on your first visit:
Experience the Golden Gate Bridge
The famous Golden Gate Bridge is a San Francisco icon. The suspension bridge was constructed in 1937 and is now a much-admired engineering marvel. The bridge was once said to be too difficult to build, considering the strong currents and winds in the Golden Gate strait. The orange bridge has beautiful Art Deco architecture and you will be surprised to know that the design of the Golden Gate Bridge was finalized by Leon Moisseiff, who also designed the famous Manhattan Bridge in New York City.
I can’t describe the thrill I feel whenever I see this beautiful bridge. There are a couple of ways to experience the bridge: driving, walking, or biking. Parking near the bridge is limited, so the last two are my favorite ones. In addition to having 6 lanes for car traffic, the bridge also allows pedestrians and bikers to use the sidewalk. The bridge is made from steel and 1.7 miles long – it is a delight to walk. From the middle of the bridge, you can see stunning views of the bay below. Once you cross the bridge, there are several viewpoints with a stunning view of the bridge.
If biking, you can rent the bikes near Fisherman’s Wharf and ride across the bridge to Sausalito and return via ferry. We have done this twice – even with kids in tow – and loved it – but you need to have three to four hours to complete the adventure and return to San Francisco. On the bike route, you can experience many San Francisco attractions including Pier 39. For a longer ride, consider the trip out to Tiburon. You will bike through redwood trees and along the shore of the San Francisco Bay. From San Francisco to Tiburon, it takes 3 hours one way – making this a full day ride. Read our post on Things to know before biking the Golden Gate Bridge for more details.
If you can’t walk or bike the bridge, then I would suggest driving across the bridge and parking at Battery Spencer to avoid the crowds. The route that you will be taking across the bridge is Highway 101 or SR 1 – they converge here. My favorite time of the day to make the drive is at night when the bridge is lit by floodlights and looks impressive.
While you are visiting the bridge, you should also visit the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center to know more about the construction of the bridge and its history. You will learn tidbits such as the bridge took 4 years to complete and was opened to traffic on 28th May 1937. The city has many vantage points over the bridge, from where you can photograph the bridge in all its glory.
Take in the buzz of activity at Fisherman’s Wharf
Historic Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s famous waterfront area. It is one of the best things to see in San Francisco and hence, always crowded. The area surrounding Fisherman’s Wharf is great for people watching. While it is fun and boisterous during the day, it really lights up at night when visitors of all ages are having fun on the piers. This is where you board a cruise to Alcatraz or take the ferry to Sausalito or take a sightseeing cruise around the bay or even book your own charter.
For families, the best place to visit on the Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39. Pier 39 of Fisherman’s Wharf has everything from seafood restaurants, cruise operators, tour sellers, bike rentals, souvenir shops, carousels, gaming arcades, street buskers, and more. One of our favorite activities on Pier 39 is to spot the sea lions sunning themselves on the docks. You can watch them splash and swim in the water and even catch a fish and eat it. Our kids love looking at the sea lions and hearing them bark.
You can spot a fleet of restored 19th and 20th-century ships along the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. There is also a Maritime museum and visitor center located on-site. Another popular activity near Fisherman’s Wharf is the Aquarium of the Bay where you can spot local marine life.
Other museums and attractions in the area include Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe it or not museum, and the Musee Mecanique or the Mechanical Museum. In this last one, you will find musical instruments and arcade game machines. It is located at Pier 45 and a fun visit for the entire family.
Read our other California posts:
Northern California road trip itinerary
How to plan a Big Sur day trip
San Francisco to LA along the Pacific Coast Highway
Eat sourdough clam chowder at Boudin Bakery Cafe
You might think that the clam chowder is a New England specialty but the bread bowl serving is what makes it an iconic San Francisco dish. While almost all restaurants and eateries in and around the Fisherman’s Wharf serve clam chowder soup in a sourdough bread bowl, our personal favorite is the Boudin Bakery Cafe.
Boudin is a San Francisco institution; the one that started it all. Located at Pier 39, they were the first ones to create the dish. They serve really delicious clam chowder soup and have a variety of animal-shaped sourdough bread for sale. The hot soup feels really good on a chilly day. Boudin also has many locations in the city, so you’ll always be near one no matter where you go!
Take the cruise to Alcatraz
Alcatraz is America’s most notorious prison. It operated as a prison for over 30 years and it’s inmates included Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, and Birdman. The country’s most dangerous and violent prisoners were sent to this island prison, from where escape was nearly impossible. Prior to being a federal prison, Alcatraz was a Civil War fort and a military prison.
You can actually tour the penitentiary located on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The ferry ticket includes round trip ferry service, access to the island, and a cell house audio tour. You can tour the civil war era buildings, cannons, the prison cells, and the historic exhibits at the Rock. The island is also a popular nesting spot for sea birds so we would recommend bringing a pair of binoculars for birding. Alcatraz also offers a special night tour and a behind the scenes tour if you are interested in exploring more.
We recommend advance ticket reservations as the ferry service is extremely popular. You will need a minimum of 3 hours to explore the island and return to San Francisco, though we would recommend keeping aside 4 hours to half a day for the experience.
Ride San Francisco’s famous cable cars
Since they were first introduced in 1837, the cable cars have become a famous San Francisco icon. Navigating the steep hills of San Francisco in a cable car is a treat. Here’s something you might not know: they even survived the earthquake of 1906!
While you can take a cable car ride anywhere to get around in the city, we recommend riding the Powell – Hyde line for its amazing views. The cars on this line go down the northern side of Russian Hill which means you are treated to brilliant views of the San Francisco Bay. You can even spot Alcatraz Island in the distance. The line connects Fisherman’s Wharf with Downtown so it’s also a good way to go sightseeing.
We recommend doing the ride early in the day as it gets super crowded later on. You can pay the cable car driver directly for your ticket which was $7 when we last visited. The cars run every 10 minutes from 6 am to 12 pm. Here’s a tip: while seating, ensure that the bay is to your left for best views!
Get your chocolate fix in Ghirardelli Square
No visit to San Francisco is complete without seeing the famous Ghirardelli Square. This iconic square has been home to the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory since 1895. For tourists, it is one of the most popular places in San Francisco to shop and eat quality chocolates and ice creams. Even though the factory no longer exists in Ghirardelli Square, the square is home to some of the most famous restaurants in the city.
Of course, there are many ways to enjoy the famous chocolatier’s creations in Ghirardelli Square. Most people love to try chocolate fudge, chocolate ice cream, and truffles when they visit the iconic square. We recommend the Original Ghirardelli ice cream and chocolate shop, Ghirardelli chocolate marketplace, and the San Francisco Chocolate store to buy some authentic chocolates as souvenirs of your San Francisco trip.
But even apart from Ghirardelli, there are many things to do in Ghirardelli Square. It is home to several different chocolate stores that are popular the world over. If you want to get gifts for your loved ones, then Teuscher chocolates, Recchiuti Confections, and Ginger Elizabeth chocolate are among the few world-renowned stores nearby. Some other famous attractions in the Square include shopping in boutique stores, dining at restaurants, wine tasting, etc. The square also has frequent events and celebrations and is great to people watch in the evening.
See the view from Twin Peaks
For unparalleled views of the city and the bay, make the trip out to Twin Peaks. The reason the Twin peaks are so immensely popular among tourists is that they offer a panoramic view of the entire city of San Francisco. Located right in the middle of the town, these peaks are along the scenic 49-mile drive of San Francisco and can be reached via different modes of transportations.
The views from here are legendary. We recommend visiting the Christmas Tree Point Overlook area for the best views. You will not only see the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge from here, but you will also get a 360-degree view of the entire San Francisco skyline. Apart from the gorgeous views of the architectural landmarks, you will also get to see the San Francisco Bay and Mount Diablo from the top of the Twin Peaks.
But the views are not what Twin Peaks are all about. There are many other things to do in the area. There are several nature trails in the Twin Peaks Natural Area. While hiking you can spot coyotes, rabbits, migratory birds, and squirrels. The Twin Peaks are also home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly. If you are lucky, you can get a glimpse of the Mission blue butterfly – it is one of the most exquisite butterflies in the world. Do not forget to click the breathtaking pictures of San Francisco while you are up there.
The views of the city from Twin Peaks at night are something else. Another reason many travelers prefer to visit the Twin Peaks at night is that they have a clear view of the Salesforce Tower light show from there. Salesforce Tower is the tallest building in San Francisco and the animated light show on its top stories is incredible. You can read more about it here.
The best thing about the Twin Peaks viewing area is that it is always free to visit. There is ample parking here. Since the Twin Peaks are 922 feet tall, it is often very windy here and we recommend layering with jackets, scarves, and caps – well into spring and summer.
Take a stroll around the Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s famous urban park. Sprawled across an area of 1017 acres, this park is one of the largest in the country – even bigger than New York’s Central Park! Opened in 1870, the park faced a lot of backlash initially as to whether transforming the sandy dunes into a green land was feasible. However, despite the doubts, Golden Gate Park was successfully designed to be the most popular green space in the city.
The park is home to many attractions including some of San Francisco’s most famous museums. If you are an art lover, the De Young Museum is a must as it is home to some of the most renowned paintings in the country. Its collections include modern American Art, African art, sculptures, and photography. Visit the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum, and research institute to see exhibits such as Foucault’s pendulum, an enclosed rainforest exhibit, aquarium which is home to a colony of penguins, and even see scientists at work on live projects. This museum is a hit with children.
The park is a haven for outdoor lovers. It has hiking and biking trails. There are also guided biking tours that will help you explore every nook and corner of the park. Many visitors prefer to skateboard or roller skate in the park while others have picnics under the shady trees. The main plaza is called Music Concourse. It is adjacent to the two museums and here you will find food trucks, statues, and fountains.
Last but not the least, make sure to visit the Japanese Tea Garden and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. The Japanese Tea Garden inside the Golden Gate Park is a beautifully landscaped area. You will be amazed to see the resemblance of Mount Fuji in the clipped hedges. Other features worth seeing include the Zen garden, a beautiful Tea House, Drum bridge, and the Lantern of Peace. The San Francisco Botanical Garden is home to trees like Wisterias, Azaleas, and maple trees.
Eat dim sum in Chinatown
San Francisco has the biggest Chinatown in the country. The Chinese immigrants settled in San Francisco around 1848 and built a neighborhood of oriental buildings that stretched 24 blocks along Grant Avenue. The area was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake but was rebuilt to what is today known as Chinatown. Chinatown is one of the top tourist spots in the country and gets more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Our favorite activity in Chinatown is eating the dim sums. Our favorite is City View, where they serve a variety of dumplings on pushcarts and you can pick whichever you like. There are many other restaurants in Chinatown that serve high-quality dim sums as well. Some of them are Good Mong Kok Bakery, Hang Ah tea room, Lai Hong Lounge, and Palette tea house. Besides dim sum, some other things to try in Chinatown include Peking duck, noodle soups, egg tarts, rice cakes, and milk teas.
While you are there explore Chinatown and its alleys. You will find many shops selling herbal essences, kites, souvenirs, oriental home decor, and fresh produce. You can also see beautiful oriental architecture in Chinatown. Start at the famous Dragon Gate. This gate has dragons and lions standing guard over the neighborhood. Then walk along Grant Avenue. Spot the famous Chinese lamp posts and red lanterns on the street. You will also see many colorful murals.
See the famous Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings located at the intersection of Grant and California. Then visit the historic Old St. Mary’s Church that was built in 1853. This is the only Chinatown building that survived the disastrous earthquake of 1906. The Old Telephone Exchange, located at 743 Washington Street, is also worth a look.
To experience the vibe of Chinatown, visit Portsmouth Square. Here you will see Chinatown residents playing checkers, chess, and other games. You will see traditional music and dance performances. The square also has a play area for kids. You must also visit the TransAmerica Pyramid Redwood Grove – see redwood trees in the center of San Francisco! You can end your expedition by exploring the alleys of Chinatown and have a peek at the life of the locals.
See the beautiful artwork inside the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco. Originally the palace was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco. It is the only building standing after the exposition. The palace was rebuilt in 1965 and since then is home to concerts, music shows, and art exhibitions by renowned artists. Today, it is one of the most popular Instagram spots in the city.
The architecture of the building is spellbinding. Inspired by Roman and greek designs, the Palace of Fine Arts leaves visitors astounded. The columns and rotunda are beautiful as are the ground and the pond. The Palace looks beautiful at night when it is lit up and its reflection shimmers in the water. The Palace of Fine Arts has also been the locale of several films. Some of them are Vertigo, The Five-year engagement, Big Eyes, Murder in the first, and Jade.
Wondering how to get to the Palace of Fine Arts? You can go there, quite easily, by taking a public bus from the most popular attractions in San Francisco. The best thing is that you will not have to pay any fee to explore the site, as entry is free. You can explore the entire structure within thirty to forty minutes but we recommend an hour to relax on the benches and take photographs. The Palace of Fine Arts is also kid-friendly and an excellent place to bring the kids.
For a taste of Paris, visit the Legion of Honor
When you first visit the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, you will be struck by the striking similarities to the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The building was established in 1924 to honor Californian soldiers who died in World War I by Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the wife of San Francisco sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels. Since then the building is considered as a gift from the Spreckels to the city of San Francisco. Designed in the neoclassical French style, the building rises prominently above Lincoln Park, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean. Seeing this beautiful building is reason enough to visit the Legion of Honor.
This impressive building today functions as one of SF’s most beloved museums with a collection spanning thousands of precious artwork. The exhibits offer unique perspectives into the artistic, cultural, and social art movements of the past 4,000 years. The museum collection comprises European paintings, ceramics, Egyptian artwork, ancient Mediterranean crafts; and a large gallery of sculptures including over 100 by Rodin. You can see works by Van Gough, Monet, and Picasso among others.
The Legion of Honor also has special exhibits and free guided tours and organ concerts. The museum is located in Lincoln Park and has plenty of free parking. Lincoln Park and the nearby area of Land’s End has stunning panoramas of the Bay and Golden Gate bridge and is worth a stroll. We recommend walking along the Coastal Trail to see spectacular views. On the way, you might also spot migrating whales.
Marvel at the murals of Mission District
To explore some of the best street art in San Francisco, you need to head down to the Mission District. The Mission District is a free open-air museum of urban art. Walls and fences throughout the area are decorated with colorful murals depicting subjects varying from cultural traditions to socio-political issues. The first murals appeared around Balmy Alley in the mid-80s in response to human rights abuses and corruption prevalent in central America. New murals continue to appear today about current issues including gentrification, discrimination, and suppression.
Walking along the streets of Mission District is like exploring an art gallery. Seeing the murals by yourself is quite easy. To see the best murals, walk along the 24th street between Mission and York streets to see the most famous murals in the area. Explore side streets including Lilac Street and Cypress Street among others. And off course, don’t forget Balmy Alley where it all began. Clarion Alley is another hot spot as is the adjacent Women’s Building for its MaestraPeace Mural.
Parking in the area remains a problem. We were warned by several locals that car break-ins in Mission district streets are pretty common. That’s why we would recommend taking public transport to the place or while parking, ensure that no valuables are visible inside the car. Alternatively, you can also take a guided tour of the area.
Mission District also happens to be the best place in San Francisco to eat a burrito. In fact, the burritos here are called the Mission-style burritos and the taquerias of the area are full of burrito lovers. The Mission burritos are large, cheap, and delicious – you can customize it as you want! To get your fill, we recommend Taqueria Los Coyotes or El Faro or La Taqueria – to see more popular restaurants, read here.
Besides the murals and burritos, there are many other things to do in the Mission District. You will find some of the best nightlife – including pubs and dive bars – in San Francisco in the Mission District. You can also browse book stores and thrift stores and take a stroll in Mission Dolores Park, which has great views of downtown SF. While you are in the area, visit the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and the Mission Dolores, which is the oldest building in San Francisco.
Go on a food tasting spree at the Ferry building
From the Gold Rush to the 1930s, ferry boats were the only way to reach the city and the Ferry Building, built-in 1898, was soon the focal point in SF for anyone traveling by sea. Passengers coming from the ships entered an impressive two-story building with grand internal arches and overhead skylights. With the completion of the bridges, the building fell into disuse and deteriorated. The building was restored for public use in 2003 and since then, is a jewel of the city.
The Ferry Building is another of San Francisco’s icons for a number of reasons. First is its strategic location on the Embarcadero of San Francisco. Second, is its Beaux-Arts style of architecture. Third, is its famous clock tower – which has been a San Francisco waterfront landmark for more than a hundred years and is visible all the way on Market Street.
The Ferry Building Marketplace and the surrounding farmer’s market are a must-visit for foodies. The marketplace is one of the best food halls in the country – you will find several vendors lined up along the Nave, the central public area. You can buy produce and artisan goods including coffee, cheese, bread, olive oil, and more. You will also find eateries serving everything from pastries and donuts to seafood, burritos, and even sushi.
Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your San Francisco Ferry Building visit. The building is easily accessible via public transport including streetcars and ferries. There is a parking lot at the ferry building if you are driving. While you are there, the nearby Rincon Park is a good stroll.
Find the “Full House” homes
If you are an 80s kid, chances are you know Full House. The original show’s opening scenes or even the 2016 sequel “Fuller House” show famous places in San Francisco including the Tanner House. Well, did you know that you can actually visit that house while in San Francisco?
It’s a little complicated. In the series, the Tanner family had the address:1882 Girard St. However, this address is fictitious! The house used in the outside shots is actually on 1709 Broderick Street. However, the row of houses featured in the opening credits is actually called the Painted Ladies and you can find them on Postcard Row – next to Alamo Square Park where the family is shown to be having a picnic!
So which should you visit? We recommend doing both. However, remember that Broderick Street is a residential neighborhood so be discreet while you take photos and do not stand on the house steps – that’s trespassing! Postcard Row is much easier to photograph and one of the city’s top Instagrammable spots.
Walk down the curves of Lombard Street
Lombard Street is also known as the most crooked street in San Francisco. This east-west street is popular for a steep one-block segment of eight hairpin turns. You will find this block along the Russian Hill neighborhood. It is a major tourist attraction and attracts about two million tourists per year and even up to 17,000 per day on busy summer weekends! You can easily reach it via the Powell/Hyde cable car line.
For a challenge try driving down Lombard Street’s sharp curves. Set your GPS to 1099 Lombard Street and then go all the way down. Or walk along the sidewalk, like us – that’ll definitely give you more time to take photographs. Enjoy seeing the pretty homes on either side of the street. There are many notable homes along this red brick road. Most popular is the apartment in Vertigo at 900 Lombard Street. The Real World: San Francisco house is located at 949 Lombard Street.
Lombard Street is also a popular filming locale. Many chase scenes have been shot on Lombard Street and it has been featured in movies including Antman and the Wasp, Vertigo, and the animated film Inside Out. Lombard Street’s famous residents include Rowena Meeks Abdy, an American Modernist painter who had her home and studio on this street.
Needless to say, Lombard Street is one of the most popular Instagram spots in San Francisco. To avoid the crowds and basically avoid getting stuck in traffic on Lombard Street, visit early in the morning.
Explore the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury
While the entire city of San Francisco is hip, to see the hippest part of the city you need to visit Haight Ashbury. This area was home to the 1967 Summer of Love movement that took the country by storm. Here is where the hippie culture and its counterparts: drugs, music, and the love-peace message originated. Thousands of youngsters from all over the country moved to Haight Ashbury to be at the center of it all. The neighborhood retains its counterculture atmosphere even today.
While you can just stroll around the neighborhood to enjoy its bohemian vibe, we recommend a DIY tour to see its most notable sights. Start at the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury. This gives the area its name and is a popular photo spot. Then see the Grateful Dead House at 710 Ashbury Street. This is where the band’s founders lived during the 1960s. Many free concerts were conducted here during that time.
Apart from the famous houses, most homes in the area are beautiful Victorian mansions and worth a look. They are brightly painted and have many ornate architectural details. The most colorful ones can be found on Central Ave between Haight and Page. Another good photo op is the homes on Waller known as the Four Seasons.
Shop at the Booksmith – a popular independent bookstore at 1644 Haight which also sells books on different artists, literary journals, tote bags, and more. Drink coffee at Coffee to the People. Music lovers will love Amoeba Music. Here, in addition to contemporary music, you will find obscure tapes, cassettes, vinyl records, and movies. This is the perfect place to find new artists and rediscover old gems. The store also has excellent graffiti on the outside.
In fact, you will find graffiti throughout the neighborhood. Haight Ashbury also has great nightlife. Step into Club Deluxe for live jazz or the Alembic for a gastropub experience. Last but not least visit Buena Vista Park. This is the oldest park in San Francisco and has great views of the city due to its location on a hilltop. The annual street fair is also a popular time to visit the neighborhood.
Drink the Irish coffee at Buena Vista Cafe
One of my favorite things at Fisherman’s Wharf is drinking the Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Cafe. This cafe is said to be the place where the Irish Coffee was first recreated in San Francisco. You can read the story of the experiments here. The cafe has been featured on Food Network and many other culinary shows. Since then, Buena Vista is a must on the San Francisco foodie list.
The cafe serves over 2000 Irish coffee every day! The Irish Coffee that they serve is one of the best I have tasted, except maybe the one sold at Molly’s at the Market in New Orleans. Apart from the regular Irish Coffee, you can also try many variations including a chocolate Irish coffee and also a dessert – bread pudding with Irish whiskey sauce! The cafe also makes an ideal date in San Francisco.
We hope you like our post on our favorite things to do in San Francisco. Did we miss out on any spectacular attractions? Let us know in the comments.