Things to Do in San Francisco - The Insider's Guide

Golden Gate Bridge Over San Francisco Bay In Foggy Weather
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    Ride a Cable Car

    Riding a Cable Car is One of the Things to Do in San Francisco
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    Flip through this countdown of the top 12 things to do in San Francisco, as evaluated by our readers. This list was created based on what San Francisco travelers enjoyed and may probably do again. Try them out for yourself to see why people leave their hearts in San Francisco. 

    Ride a Cable Car

    Iconic, fun, and uniquely San Francisco, the cable cars are often called San Francisco's moving landmark.

    A cable car ride can be a bit of a thrill as they clatter up and down the hills, bells ringing. You'll see some interesting neighborhoods along your route - or someone else's backside the whole way, depending on whether you're lucky enough to snag an outside seat or get stuck inside.

    Get more information, including where to get on (and off), where to get tickets, and where to go for the shortest lines with this complete guide to cable cars

    Why San Francisco Cable Cars Are Popular

    A ride is a true San Francisco treat and many visitors don't want to go home until they've done it.

    Why You Might Not...MORE Like the Cable Cars

    On the downside, there are only a few places they go, the wait to get on can sometimes seem endless, and there are only a few of the highly-prized places to stand outside. 

    More About San Francisco Cable Cars

    If you don't have the time in your schedule to go for a cable car ride or want to know what to expect when you do, take this photo tour of the cable cars. See their routes and what attractions they go to with this map of San Francisco cable car routes.

    The Most Popular Things to Do in San Francisco

    This list of things to do in San Francisco is based on the San Francisco places people search for most online and observations of the most popular things to do in San Francisco as indicated by the number of people there. The rank comes from what our readers say are the things to do they like best in San Francisco.

    There are plenty of other things to do in San Francisco besides the ones on this list. If you're looking for more things to do, something different or perhaps a few sights that reflect the "real" San Francisco more than its tourist facade, start with More Things to Do in San Francisco: Best of the Rest.

    If you are very interested in specific things to do or other activities in San Francisco and you have plenty of information, don't skip them because of our recommendations. However, if you don't know much about something, there may be a reason why it's not listed. We recommend researching other things to do carefully before you go to be sure you spend your San Francisco vacation time and money wisely.

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    See the City from the Bay

    Alcatraz island, San Francisco, California, America, USA
    ••• chrisvankan/Getty Images

    The city as just as beautiful from afar as it is up close. See the whole thing form from a bay cruise, a great way to get away from the city so you can enjoy its skyline. The traditional cruise goes around Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, a nice trip that rounds out your San Francisco experience.

    Why Bay Cruises Are Popular

    San Francisco usually means a lot of walking, so a bay cruise is a nice way to see the city from a different angle - and rest your tired feet. On a clear, warm day it's a rare San Francisco sight.

    Why You Might Not Like a Bay Cruise

    However, it can be cold on the bay when you'd least expect it; fog and cold, damp air can move in fast even in mid-summer and a moving boat makes it feel that much colder. So in short, pack a jacket and maybe even a scarf for the ride.

    More About San Francisco Bay Cruises

    Learn about all of your options, including the cruise I think is the best in the San Francisco Bay, with my guide. It offers a low-cost alternative to a pricey bay...MORE cruise that lets you take in two sights for one price. Get all of the information you need with my complete guide to San Francisco bay cruises

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    Enjoy Some Great Food

    Roasted Quail at Zuni Cafe
    ••• Roasted quail at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe. T. Tseng/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Foodies, unite! San Francisco enjoys a reputation as one of America's greatest cities for fine dining, boasting a dozen Michelin star-rated restaurants within its city limits at one point in time and a gaggle of others in the area. San Francisco chefs draw on a tradition of innovation and emphasis on fresh, local cuisine and their proximity to some of the country's most bountiful agricultural areas gives them plenty to work with. Besides all the haute cuisine, you'll also find plenty of tasty things almost anywhere you go.

    Romantic San Francisco Restaurants: Whether you want to impress your beau on a first date or pop the question in a romantic setting, check out these romantic San Francisco restaurants. Not a fan of public displays of affection? Find a restaurant that delivers and have your romantic meal delivered to a location of your choice.

    Where to Eat in Chinatown: Get a taste of different regions of China in Chinatown. Although most places are cash only, you'll be happy to...MORE fork over your bills once you've eaten at these places to grab a bite to eat in Chinatown.

    Restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf: When you visit Fisherman's Wharf, you'll find that many of the restaurants are kitschy, and clearly meant for tourists. If you want the tourist experience, here's the low-down on Fisherman's Wharf restaurants

    Italian Dining in North Beach: North Beach is a popular San Francisco destination. So popular that many restaurants have tried their hand at appealing to many a tourist, and some have failed. So instead of giving you a list of places to go, I have instead a guideline from breakfast to dinner that will help you taste some of the best traditional Italian dining in North Beach.

    Best Breakfast Spots in San Francisco: There's something special about waking up to the city with a delicious breakfast, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Breakfast is a popular time for many restaurants, but if you can stand a bit of wait, then your tastebuds will thank you when you visit these restaurants for San Francisco's best breakfasts.

    Eat Like a Local: Locals love to have a "usual" at places throughout the city. You're sure to find something you'll love as much as the next San Franciscan as these locals' favorite places to eat.

    Savor Street Food: When visiting, make a mission to find these best taquerias and food carts.

    Ferry Building and Farmers Market: San Francisco natives are spoiled by the year-round offerings of the Ferry Building. It features local and artisanal goods that would please the best of chefs. See what you can expect from the San Francisco Ferry Building and Farmers Market.

    Desserts and Sweets: If you've got a sweet tooth, try this guide to San Francisco chocolate makers or best ice cream in San Francisco.

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    Check out Chinatown

    Lanterns in San Francisco Chinatown
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    Just eight short blocks long and scarcely three blocks wide, San Francisco's Chinatown is one of the largest outside China. The style is what early 20th Century Western architects thought Chinese buildings should look like - and much is created just for the tourist.

    Chinatown

    Most Chinatown visitors stroll along one of the two major streets, buy a few souvenirs, eat, gawk and take photos. The more adventurous ones enjoy checking out the markets, herbalist shops, tea stores and alleyways.

    Why Chinatown is Popular

    This iconic San Francisco area can be fun. It has lots of hidden corners and interesting things to see, but it takes a little work to get off the well-beaten tourist track.

    Why You Might Not Like Chinatown

    On the downside, it's often very crowded, forcing visitors to shuffle down the street shoulder-to-shoulder.

    More About Chinatown

    Get traveling hints, places to get a glimpse of the "real" Chinatown in its alleys and shops, how to get there and when to go in my complete guide...MORE to Chinatown

    You can also see what it's like before you get there with this photo tour of Chinatown

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    Lombard Street

    Traffic slowly zigzags down Lombard Street
    ••• Neale Clark/Getty Images

    Although billed as the "Crookedest" Street, Lombard actually isn't the street with the most curves, nor is it the steepest, but it's surely the best-known. It's only a block long with eight sharp turns and a roadway flanked by colorful flowers.

    Lombard Street

    Most visitors drive down Lombard Street - it's one-way and you can't drive up. Others walk to the bottom, watch for a minute, take photos, and leave. You can also get off the cable car at the top and walk down.

    Why Lombard Street is Popular

    Lombard is a San Francisco oddity and lots of people enjoy seeing it, gathering bragging rights they can exercise with the folks back home.

    Why You Might Not Like Lombard Street

    The wait to drive one curving block can be long - and the drive is finished in less than a minute.

    More About Lombard Street

    If you need more information, such as where it is and how to get there, check the Complete Guide to Lombard Street

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    Golden Gate Park

    Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    Three miles long by a half mile wide and larger than New York City's Central Park, Golden Gate Park is the city's largest outdoor spot. If you go, you can see Dutch windmills, a buffalo herd, remote-controlled boats, museums and gardens - and plenty of places to play or have a picnic.

    Golden Gate Park

    One of the most popular attractions in the park is the Japanese Tea Garden, but there's plenty more to see here, including the San Francisco Botanical Garden, California Academy of Sciences and Conservatory of Flowers.

    Why Golden Gate Park is Popular

    Golden Gate Park seems to have something for everyone - and a lot of it.

    Why You Might Not Like Golden Gate Park

    On the downside, it's far from the main tourist destinations and best-accessed by automobile. Although public transit also goes there, it's still a long walk from the bus stop to some of the park attractions.

    More About Golden Gate Park

    Learn about the most popular spots with hours and how to get tickets, along with a map that shows where...MORE it all is. Get the information you need in my complete guide to Golden Gate Park

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    Golden Gate Bridge

    Golden Gate Bridge Over San Francisco Bay In Foggy Weather
    ••• Prakash Braggs/EyeEm/Getty Images

    Not only is it one of the city's most enjoyable things to do, but it's also one of the most-photographed sights in the world. The iconic, photogenic bridge is synonymous with the city it's in.

    Golden Gate Bridge

    You can look at the Golden Gate Bridge from all over town. Some stalk it like paparazzi trailing a film star, trying to photograph it from all angles. Others drive across, bike over it or just take a walk on it - the best way to get a real feel for its size, especially when you see how small those big ships look when you're right above them at mid-span.

    Why the Golden Gate Bridge Is Popular

    Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-do for many visitors and you don't get the full effect unless you go there.

    Why You Might Not Like the Golden Gate Bridge

    On the downside, unless you're a very energetic walker or have transportation, it's outside the normal tourist path.

    More About the Golden Gate Bridge

    Know exactly how to get there, where to park without worrying about the meters, and the...MORE best time to go in my complete guide to the Golden Gate Bridge

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    The Exploratorium

    Exploring the Exploratorium
    ••• Shawn Clover/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    The Exploratorium is a modern, hands-on science museum located on the San Francisco waterfront.

    The Exploratorium

    It was one of the first modern science museums and it's still one of the best, with lots of simple, hands-on exhibits to go around, simple enough that they don't break.

    Why the Exploratorium Is Popular

    The Exploratorium is fun for all ages, even the kids who just play with the exhibits and don't learn about the science behind them.

    Why You Might Not Like The Exploratorium

    It's a good option for a rainy day, but on a nice one, it's indoors - and you may have something similar near your home.

    More About the Exploratorium

    Get such information as the hours of operation, how to get tickets, admission discounts, how to get there, and the best time to go in my complete guide to The Exploratorium

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    Slip Over to Sausalito

    Sausalito Waterfront
    ••• Nanio/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    This waterfront town is a quiet reprieve from it's neighboring city. Sausalito, just across San Francisco Bay, has some of the best views of San Francisco in the area.

    Sausalito

    Most visitors take a stroll in Sausalito, browsing in the shops and having a bite to eat. The ferry ride across the Bay to Sausalito is like a mini-bay cruise.

    Why Sausalito Is Popular

    Sausalito has great views of the city - and it's pleasant enough otherwise.

    Why You Might Not Like Sausalito

    To get there, you have to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge (and pay a toll to get back) or take a ferry (and face time pressures to be sure you don't miss the return trip).

    More About Sausalito

    Know how to get there, where to park, and when to go using my complete guide to Sausalito.

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    Explore Alcatraz

    Alcatraz Island
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    Alcatraz prison wasn't always a place people wanted to go, but today it's one of the city's most popular sights, its mystique pumped up by famous films about the criminals who lived on it or tried to escape from it.

    Things to Do at Alcatraz

    You'll take a ferry to get to Alcatraz and once on the island, you can walk up to the prison buildings and tour the cell block, exercise yard, and other locations. A self-guided audio tour lends a sense of life to the abandoned facility.

    If you want to go, be especially careful about tour packages. Some will say their tour includes Alcatraz, but it can be a bit of slightly optimistic marketing: they may just take you for a ride past it without stopping.

    Why Alcatraz Is Popular

    I admit to bewilderment about why so many people want to go to Alcatraz, but most of the definitely enjoy the experience. For sure, you'll have bragging rights back home after you visit.

    Why You Might Not Like Alcatraz

    You'll use up a lot of your vacation hours collecting those...MORE bragging rights - almost half a day, counting the ferry ride out and back. That's time you could have spent seeing something else.

    More About Alcatraz

    Get the most that Alcatraz has to offer with my guide. It will tell you about hours, how to get tickets - and the best time to go to maximize your sightseeing day. Check the complete guide to Alcatraz

    Scenes from Alcatraz

    Enjoy some of our best shots on this Photo Tour of Alcatraz

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    Fishermans' Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square

    Marina at Fisherman's wharf
    ••• Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images

    Together, these three waterfront sights encompass much of the stereotypical San Francisco vacation trip and our readers say they're the #1 things to do in San Francisco.

    Like most visitors, you can easily take in all three sights together, since they're all in the same area.

    Why These Places Are Popular

    Many people feel they haven't visited San Francisco unless they've seen these long-standing tourist spots.

    Why You Might Not Like Them

    The area gets more and more tired every year. Even the street performers haven't come up with anything new in the past decade. In other parts of the city, you'll see locals enjoying themselves as much as the tourists, but most San Franciscans refuse to set foot in the area - perhaps they have a good reason.

    More About Fisherman's Wharf

    As soon as you step foot onto Fisherman's Wharf, you'll see why it's a popular tourist destination. With street performers, "I (heart) SF" memorabilia, and stalls offering tours nearly inches apart,...MORE Fisherman's Wharf is almost always packed with visitors looking for souvenirs and the stereotypical San Francisco experience.

    Although more tourist-driven than not, it's still something to see when in the area. Find out where it is, when to go, what to see and how to get behind the tourist facade with my Fisherman's Wharf Guide.

    More About Pier 39

    From a man-made island and a carousel to a marina and an aquarium, Pier 39 certainly isn't short of things to see and do. Find out where it is, when to go, and all about the famous sea lions using the Pier 39 guideBrowse through these photos to see what it's like

    More About Ghirardelli Square

    The chocolate lover in your group will certainly love Ghirardelli Square, named after the famous chocolatier.

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    Take a 49-Mile Drive Around San Francisco

    City skyline viewed from Twin Peaks, San Francisco, California, United States of America, North America
    ••• Gavin Hellier/Getty Images

    It started out as a marketing ploy, but they chose 49 miles and they're sticking to it. Blue and white seagull-emblazoned signs like the one above lead you through the city, and although part of the drive is not very scenic, this is a great way to learn what more of San Francisco is like.

    Why the 49-Mile Drive Is Popular

    If you use our recommendations and see part of it on foot, driving the more interesting parts of the 49-Mile Drive will give you a nice feel for what the city is like - and you'll see some great San Francisco sights along the way. At the drive's highest point, Twin Peaks offers a panoramic view of the city of San Francisco (when it isn't foggy).

    Why You Might Not Like the 49-Mile Drive

    On the downside, you'll need your own vehicle to do it and even my abbreviated version takes time, perhaps too much of it if your visit is short.

    More About the San Francisco 49-Mile Drive

    If you're convinced ​that you want to take this drive around San Francisco, your best option is to...MORE drive yourself. If you're saving money by skipping a rental car otherwise, you can get one for just one day at rental offices in the city.

    If you need more information, the Complete Guide to the 49-Mile Drive includes a link to a map, tips, things to do along the way, how to skip the boring parts and see the rest of San Francisco in half the time - and it includes a photo tour so you can see what it's like.

    More Things You Can Do in San Francisco

    There's a lot more to do in San Francisco than just these few things, even though they are the most popular. If you're a contrarian traveler who seeks out the undiscovered spots, then don't miss these Things You Didn't Know You Wanted to Do in San Francisco.

    Do you want your kids to have fun in San Francisco? Here's where to take them.

    San Francisco is one of California's best places to have fun without spending a penny. Just use the guide to things to do for free in San Francisco.

    It might rain in the winter. Here's what to do in San Francisco when it's raining. And if it's summertime when you visit, you'll definitely want to know what to do on a summer night in San Francisco. Or that matter, find out what you can do at night in San Francisco anytime.

    What Not to Do

    You don't want to sound and look like a dumb San Francisco tourist or waste your time on trashy tourist spots. Whatever you do, don't do these 16 things when you go to San Francisco.

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    How to Do It All for Less

    San Francisco City Hall
    ••• Yiming Chen/Getty Images

    If you're planning on enjoying most of these things to do in San Francisco, a multi-attraction pass could save you a lot of money. They're pretty simple in concept: buy a pass for a fixed price and it gets you into a list of San Francisco-area attractions.

    Two companies offer them in the area and which one is best for you depends on what you want to do.

    These are your options:

    San Francisco CityPass

    The San Francisco CityPass is good for nine days and includes a seven-day transportation pass that you can use for buses, trolleys, and the cable car. However, many of its other attractions are museums - which you may or may not enjoy.

    Read more about it in our detailed guide to the San Francisco CityPASS.

    Citypass offers an Alcatraz option but to take advantage of it, you have to buy your CityPass through Alcatraz Cruises ONLY.

    Go Card

    The San Francisco Go Card includes the attractions in this list that have admission fees, except Alcatraz. It offers a wider range of activities than CityPass, but...MORE includes only one, one-way cable car ride. If you want to take guided tours or plan to go out of town to Napa or Monterey, it offers attractions in those areas, too.

    Use this handy guide to find out all you need to know about it. Go Card does not include a tour to Alcatraz, which you will have to buy separately.