Best San Francisco Attractions

A compilation of favorite San Francisco attractions -- where I like to take my own visitors -- including the best way to see city icons like the Golden Gate Bridge. This article includes information on where to go just outside of the downtown area, exploring some of the landmarks farther afield.

Information to help you get around San Francisco:

Muni Metro Map | Muni Trip Planners | Cable Car Route Map | San Francisco Taxis | Taking BART to SFO & Oakland International Airports | San Francisco Weather Map

  • 01 of 23
    crissy field
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    1. Walk or Bike the Golden Gate Bridge

    It's impossible to fully grasp the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge without seeing it on foot or two wheels. Even if you're afraid of heights, do your best to suck it up for this walk -- because you'll be blown away by the views, the sensation of being atop this San Francisco icon and, on some blustery days, by the fickle clouds that will drift over you in a mist of advection fog.

    For those afraid of heights, it may be disconcerting at first to be so high. But there are guard rails. And, the walk gets easier as you grow accustomed to the sensation.

    See Map for Locations

  • 02 of 23
    Alcatraz
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    2. Alcatraz Night Tour

    Before I ever took the Alcatraz Night Tour, I envisioned a much creepier crawl among the ghosts of the rock. Anyone drawn to the night tour might have a high threshold for eerie encounters. If you do, you'll be a bit disappointed by how perfectly normal, organized, and populated the night tour actually is.

    That's not to say evening hours in the historic prison don't have their ghostly elements . . . sometimes enhanced by the mist sweeping over the island. But there are no scary surprises as you meander through the dim halls with your self-guided audio.

    Then, chill yourself into a cube, as you stand on the cliff, contemplating the lethal jump escapees made into 50-degree bay currents.

    Alcatraz Cruises website.

    See Map for Locations

  • 03 of 23

    Fisherman's Wharf History & Nature

    pier 39 sea lions
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    3. Fisherman's Wharf History & Nature

    You'll hardly hear a good word about Fisherman's Wharf from city natives. I happen to think the area gets too much of a bad rap, although I understand why. It's a tourist zone, to be sure. Streets are lined with vendors selling identical pastel sweatshirts. It feels, at times, like a typical, arcade-style seaside resort.

    Yet, the wharf also showcases the city's affiliation with the sea. In and around the tourist venues is a hidden memorial chapel, a self-guided historic walk, and an old three-masted schooner. It's home to a large raft of sea lions and a range of sea birds.

    History:

    • Maritime Historical Park
    • USS Pampanito
    • Musee Mecanique

    Nature at Fisherman's Wharf:

    • Sea Lions
    • Aquarium of the Bay
    • Bay Area Birds

    See Map for Locations

  • 04 of 23

    Barbary Coast Trail: Union Square - Chinatown - North Beach - Coit Tower

    coit tower
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    4. Barbary Coast Trail: Union Square - Chinatown - North Beach - Coit Tower

    Grant Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown is a straight passage from Union Square to North Beach. You can expand your day's walk by following the historic Barbary Coast Trail through the (mostly) modern structures and amenities which now line the route.

    The beauty of the Barbary Coast Trail is that in the span of this walk, you'll visit some of San Francisco's popular destinations: Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Coit Tower, and Fisherman's Wharf.

    Check out this Photo Tour of the Barbary Coast Trail for an idea of what you'll encounter along this famous walk.

    You'll also walk the Montgomery corridor along the trail. See some additional Photos of the Financial District for information on San Francisco's financial history.

    See Map

    Continue to 5 of 23 below.
  • 05 of 23

    Cable Cars, Street Cars & Cable Car Museum

    cable car museum
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    5. Cable Cars, Street Cars & Cable Car Museum

    There's probably not a soul who visits San Francisco without anticipating a cable car ride. You have to interrupt your ride to disembark at the Cable Car Barn and Museum. This is the control center that drives the entire cable car system. You'll see the motors, cables, and sheaves used to propel the cars throughout San Francisco.

    At sea level, along Market Street and the Embarcadero, is another breed of streetcar known as the F-Market Line. It can be near impossible to get on during high season (crowds). But, even from the outside, you can admire the fleet of historical streetcars imported from Australia, Milan and . . . Chicago.

    See Map

  • 06 of 23

    San Francisco Ferry Building

    san francisco ferry building
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    6. San Francisco Ferry Building

    It wasn't that long ago that visitors to the San Francisco Ferry Building were met with the atrocity of a freeway blocking the view to the waterfront. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, that section of freeway came down, and the Ferry Building was redeemed.

    An extensive renovation rendered one of our most beautiful, historical central marketplaces. At the foot of Market Street at the Embarcadero, the San Francisco Ferry Building is home to restaurants and proprietors selling Bay Area produce, cheese, seafood and freshly-baked bread -- among other sustainable goods.

    See photos and information about the Ferry Building and the marketplace within.

    See Map for Locations

  • 07 of 23

    San Francisco Bay Waterfront

    san francisco fishing pier
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    7. San Francisco Bay Waterfront

    In either direction from the Ferry Building, enjoy a walk with a view along the San Francisco Bay waterfront. If you're heading toward Fisherman's Wharf, exit Ferry Building on Embarcadero and turn right. Access the beginning of a promenade at Pier 1. Follow the promenade around Pier 1 and all the way to the long fishing pier between Pier 5 and Pier 7, before heading north to the Wharf.

    In the other direction (south), turn left from Ferry Building on Embarcadero. Walk toward Pier 14 which has a rotating exhibit of public art at its gate. If you choose to go farther, you can walk all the way to the Bay Bridge and past that, to AT&T Park along the water.

    • About SoMa/South of Market District
    • Public Art Walk in SoMa

    See Map for Locations

  • 08 of 23
    contemporary jewish museum san francisco
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    8. San Francisco Museums

    The Yerba Buena Arts District (mentioned below) is a great spot to explore San Francisco's art scene in a relatively small area. The collections and exhibitions, of course, don't stop at the border of Market Street.

    To get a better sense of San Francisco's breadth of museum offerings, check out this San Francisco Museum Map and then the more detailed Museum Guide. From the Museum Guide, you can link out to profiles of individual art venues.

    Many of the city's museums offer once-a-month free admission. The first Tuesday of each month is free at a number of local favorites. Other museums offer free admission throughout the year. See this San Francisco Free Museum Days roster to learn about the free and discounted hours and events.

    Continue to 9 of 23 below.
  • 09 of 23

    Yerba Buena Arts District

    yerba buena gardens
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    9. Yerba Buena Arts District

    The greatest concentration of museums is within a small radius in the South of Market area. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art used to be the new kid on the block. But with the 2008 ribbon-cutting at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the existing community of smaller museums, SF MOMA is now a mature inhabitant of this growing arts district.

    Start at Yerba Buena Gardens and you won't go more than a few blocks to hit the major museums of the area.

    See Map for Locations

  • 10 of 23

    Golden Gate Park

    stowe lake san francisco
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    10. Golden Gate Park

    End to end (east to west) Golden Gate Park is just a bit more than three miles long. You can walk from the east end (Haight Ashbury) to San Francisco's Ocean Beach (on the Pacific Ocean), then reward yourself with a microbrew at the Beach Chalet.

    The Beach Chalet has Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals -- similar to the murals at Rincon Center.

    You can rent bikes in the park (Wheel Fun Rentals) or at the eastern end (San Francisco Cyclery). Explore beyond the park -- through the Outer Richmond and Sunset districts.

    Visit the de Young Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco Botanical Garden, and the California Academy of Sciences (open in September 2008).

  • 11 of 23

    Haight Ashbury & Alamo Square Victorians

    painted ladies san francisco
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    11. Haight Ashbury & Alamo Square Victorians

    The Haight is but an urban ghost of its Summer of Love days. But there's history, including the famous Grateful Dead house and, of course, the Victorians pre-dating the Summer of Love by a long shot.

    In the Haight (and in adjacent Cole Valley) you'll see exceptional examples of Victorian style. You can also walk a mile (east) to Alamo Square to get a photo of the Painted Ladies -- Victorians lined up with San Francisco as a backdrop.

    The east end of Golden Gate Park is at the west end of the Haight. Destinations like the de Young Museum are walkable, if you don't mind trekking a mile west. You can also get on the N-Judah metro line in Cole Valley (See Muni Metro Map).

    See Map for Locations

  • 12 of 23

    The Castro

    castro theatre
    ••• Photo © Bobster1985/Flickr

    12. The Castro

    The Castro is best known as the hub of San Francisco's gay community. The neighborhood, formerly known as Eureka Valley, went through several cultural transitions, from its years as a Scandinavian neighborhood to a center for Irish immigrants.

    The Castro Theatre is the area's most distinct icon (aside from the rainbow flag) -- and is an important San Francisco institution and historical landmark It showcases a diverse set of films and happenings, and plays host for the San Francisco International Film Festival and the International LGBT Film Festival . . . among other events.

    To get an overview of the Castro, consider joining the Cruisin' the Castro guided walk -- a tour infused with cultural information about the district.

    See Map

    Continue to 13 of 23 below.
  • 13 of 23

    Mission Dolores & Mission District Murals

    mission district murals
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    13. Mission Dolores & Mission District Murals

    Venture away from the water -- toward the inner workings of San Francisco. Visit the vibrant (and sometimes a little grungy) Mission District. The Mission District is, these days, a culinary and drinking hub, with some of San Francisco's hippest restaurants and watering holes within steps of one another.

    The district is also home to robust public art in the form of murals. The neighborhood's past is drenched in vivid multicultural stories, as it was a hub for immigrants from Europe and Central America. The art, the language, the shops, and the food still speak to that ethnic diversity.

    See Map for Locations

  • 14 of 23

    Civic Center & City Hall

    san francisco city hall
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    14. Civic Center & City Hall

    Civic Center is a dramatic contrast between its Beaux Arts splendor and the street-life born of an imperfect social system. The buildings at Civic Center are among the most majestic in the city. But the area has its share of homeless -- which is sometimes a surprise to visitors, especially those who travel from countries where homelessness is not the issue it is here.

    City Hall is the product of an almost $300 million renovation. In 2008, it became the busy site of California's first same-sex marriage ceremonies.

    See: San Francisco City Hall Website.

    Also visit the Asian Art Museum, the Herbst Theater, the San Francisco Opera, Ballet, and Symphony buildings.

    Nearby is the hip restaurant and shopping district of Hayes Valley.

    See Map

  • 15 of 23

    Japantown & The Fillmore District

    san francisco peace pagoda
    ••• Photo © Paul Fisk

    15. Japantown & The Fillmore District

    The Fillmore District hosts the Fillmore Jazz Festival each summer, honoring the district's cultural and musical heritage. Yoshi's, renowned jazz club, opened a venue in the Jazz Heritage Center in 2007 -- near the existing blues venue, The Boom Boom Room. The new development stretches toward the busy restaurant and shopping area of Fillmore Street in the Pacific Heights area.

    Japantown ("Nihonmachi") is also here -- an area collectively known as the Western Addition. In Japantown, explore the cuisine, pastries and shops, visit the Peace Pagoda (gift from sister city Osaka) or enjoy a treatment Kabuki Springs. Annual festivals include the Nihonmachi Street Fair (August) and the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

    See Map

  • 16 of 23

    Pacific Heights, Marina District & Cow Hollow

    octagon house san francisco
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    16. Pacific Heights, Marina District & Cow Hollow

    If you're interested in seeing the Victorian mansions and architecture of Pacific Heights, one of the best ways to tour is through San Francisco City Guides. They offer free walking tours of the Pacific Heights and the Marina District -- which includes Cow Hollow, the former pasture tucked in between the hill and the Marina flats below.

    The Marina District and Cow Hollow are epicenters of food and shopping. A stroll along Union and Chestnut streets will render more than enough possibilities for restaurants, bars, and boutiques. (See an overview Map of the Marina District street grid.)

    Other attractions in the area: Haas-Lilienthal House, Octagon House, Palace of Fine Arts & Exploratorium, Marina Green & Fort Mason, Crissy Field.

    See Map

    Continue to 17 of 23 below.
  • 17 of 23

    Lands End & Legion of Honor

    sutro baths san francisco
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    17. Lands End & Legion of Honor

    The Lands End area is part of the Outer Richmond district. If you have just a few days in San Francisco you may not have time to venture to these "Outside Lands."

    But Lands End is a jaw-dropping visual treat. From points along the Coastal Trail you'll have a view of the Pacific Ocean with massive container ships moving through the Golden Gate and under the bridge.

    If you find yourself craving a rugged coastline, this part of the coast includes the Legion of Honor museum (with Rodin collection). At the Legion, visit the Holocaust Memorial.

    Also have a cocktail at the historic Cliff House overlooking the ocean. And see the camera obscura.
  • 18 of 23
    fort point
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    18. Presidio San Francisco

    The Presidio is a gorgeous spot just this side of the Golden Gate Bridge -- a mix of history, natural park land, and some growing amenities, including exhibit spaces, cafes, and (in the Summer of 2008) a winery in an existing airplane hangar at Crissy Field.

    The Bay Area is fortunate to have a significant amount of undeveloped land along the water, due to the military's presence. These lands were not commercially developed and are now parks -- rich habitat for wildlife, as well as hubs for people who use the park lands for hiking and outdoors activities.

    See Map for Locations

  • 19 of 23

    Top of the Mark - to - Buena Vista Cafe

    top of the mark san francisco
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    19. Top of the Mark - to - Buena Vista Cafe

    The Top of the Mark and the Buena Vista can be construed as San Francisco cliches. But, you'd have to be hardened to a pip not to appreciate these icons . . . even if they do tend to draw a touristed crowd.

    I have yet to take a first-time visitor to the Top of the Mark who wasn't awed by the experience of sipping a cocktail at sunset, with the grand expanse of San Francisco below this Nob Hill perch. Capping the night with a cable car ride to the Buena Vista Cafe (for their famous Irish Coffee) can be the quintessential San Francisco escapade for newcomers.

    See Map for Locations

  • 20 of 23

    GoCar - The Storytelling Car

    gocar san francisco
    ••• Image Courtesy of GoCar

    20. GoCar - The Storytelling Car

    The GoCar is a GPS-driven vehicle -- a bright yellow go cart of a car you'll see navigating the streets and hills of San Francisco. The beauty of GoCar tours is the autonomy you'll have, even in the context of a guided tour.

    You can choose from several different GPS programs: Downtown San Francisco, Urban Parks, Mister SFs (insider tour), and Bridge to Lombard. Once you embark in the car, you're in control. The GPS will guide you via spoken voice, and provide information about stops along the way. But it's up to you how fast you go, and how long you want to linger at the various locations.

    See the Go Car website for additional details - a map with rental locations

    Continue to 21 of 23 below.
  • 21 of 23
    san francisco explorer
    ••• Photo © Ingrid Taylar

    21. San Francisco Explorer Cruise

    San Francisco Bay is at the heart of this region's existence. Long before San Francisco was so named, the bay sustained a thriving abundance of wildlife. Native peoples relied on the bay for their food and navigation.

    Today's bay is but a fraction of its original size, due to new shorelines created by landfill. But it's as integral a part of our lives. Take a bay tour that includes some audio of what was, what is, and what will be on these beautiful shores.

    Red and White Fleet has one of my favorite bay cruises -- the San Francisco Explorer Cruise. You can listen to three self-guided audio tours: Native American history, biological history, or architectural history.

  • 22 of 23

    AT&T Park and San Francisco Giants

    att park san francisco
    ••• Photo © Andrew Madden

    22. AT&T Park and San Francisco Giants

    For baseball fans, AT&T Park is an obvious destination -- with its old-time ballpark style, set on the shores of San Francisco Bay. It's almost as if you can't go wrong no matter where you sit. If you're down below, you'll experience the intimacy of your proximity to the field. Up above: views of the bay and the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Oh, and -- there's also the game.

    The neighborhood around AT&T Park is one of the newer developments in town, with fresh restaurants and bars constantly rolling into the zone around the stadium.

    See Map for Location

  • 23 of 23

    23. Take a Guided City Walk

    The guided walking tours around San Francisco range from the absolutely free (City Guides) to more expensive, all-inclusive walking and dining tours like Wok Wiz in Chinatown. There are themed walks (the Flower Power Tour in Haight Ashbury) as well as historical tours of Victorians in Pacific Heights, and walks led by San Francisco comics.

    See this list of San Francisco Guided Walks for information on available tours.

    At various locations throughout the city, depending on which tour you choose.