San Francisco, the dazzling hub of Northern California, is every bit as unique as its reputation suggests. With all its art, culture, landmarks, and culinary flair, it's hard to believe that this extraordinary city only spans about 7 miles.
While the city itself provides something for literally everyone, from luxury-hunting foodies and wanderlust chasers to outdoor adventurers and knowledge-seekers, its downtown districts are often overlooked by visitors. Don’t get us wrong, Golden Gate Park and Pier 39 are great, but there’s something special about exploring the areas outside of the typical touristy spots in a one-of-a-kind city like San Francisco.
Feel the rich history between the cracks of the sidewalks in the Financial District or navigate your way through the heart of the city in Union Square (literally, the area is home to a series of heart-shaped sculptures inspired by the classic Tony Bennett song). Whatever you’re in search of, it is not hard to find something to do in the “City by the Bay.”
It goes without saying, a visit to San Francisco isn’t complete without time spent inside one of the city’s vibrant museums. Enter The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, also known as SFMOMA, home to over 32,000 modern and contemporary pieces of artwork in SF’s SoMa district (South of Market Street). Founded in the mid-1930s, the museum was the first on the West Coast to be solely devoted to 20th-century modern and contemporary artwork. Admission is free for visitors under 18 years old, and there are 45,000 square feet worth of free art available for viewing in the public section. For photo lovers, the museum features an entire floor dedicated to photography.
One of the most famous shopping districts in the United States, San Francisco’s Union Square is brimming with high-end retailers like Louis Vuitton, Tiffany's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Gucci. Although the central plaza is known for its high prices (and consequently great window shopping), the area is also bordered by smaller shops, restaurants, various-sized hotels, and small theaters. In front of the plaza, Macy's Union Square rivals New York City, and the timeless European-style St. Francis Hotel has been open since 1904. Heading to the city during the holiday season? The square lights up with a seasonal outdoor ice skating rink into mid-January, and the department stores compete for the best holiday window display.
Located on the San Francisco waterfront where Market Street meets the Embarcadero, the Ferry Building is so much more than a mere boat terminal. The recognizable blue building and its 245-foot-tall clock tower is home to a world-famous farmers market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Shop for locally-sourced produce, bread, cheese, ice cream, and more against a stunning coastal backdrop of the Bay Bridge. Saturdays are accompanied by an open-air artisan market with artwork, jewelry, clothes, and crafts made by local vendors. If you’re not visiting on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, don’t worry; the indoor marketplace is open year-round with plenty of restaurants, artisan shops, and merchants.
Nerd Out at the Autodesk Gallery
This hidden gem is a design and engineering paradise tucked away on the second floor of a software company in the financial district. Autodesk leads the world in 3D design, and the gallery features a series of exhibits examining the future of design, architecture, entertainment, and engineering. Though those enthusiastic about science will be in heaven, the less science-savvy will be far from bored with displays like an 8.5 foot, 62,500 piece dinosaur made of LEGOS and a Mercedes Benz built from biological material with bioluminescent headlights.
Ok, technically Oracle Park is on the outskirts of downtown, but it just doesn't feel right talking about San Francisco without mentioning the eight-time world champion Giants baseball team who play there. Even non-baseball fans will enjoy stunning views of the bay, the Coca Cola super slide, the “little giants” park, the 26-foot-high baseball glove, and a ton of tasty food options. Plus, if you’re not visiting during baseball season, the ballpark also functions as a venue for concerts and festivals throughout the rest of the year.
Grab a Beer at SoMa StrEat Food Park
If a rotating lineup of some of San Francisco’s best local food trucks in an outdoor seating area sounds like your version of a good time, SoMa StrEat Food Park is bound to fulfill all your expectations and then some. This spot supplements its food trucks with selections of cold beer and wine, as well as TV screens for big sporting events. Even better, the pet-friendly park also offers a series of carnival games, trivia nights, DJ parties, and free wifi for guests to stay completely entertained. With 10 food trucks featured at any given time, it's the perfect spot for larger groups or families to find something tasty for everyone to enjoy.
Laugh at the Punch Line Comedy Club
Although there aren’t nearly as many as there used to be back in the day, a number of historic and popular comedy clubs have withstood the test of time in San Francisco. The Punch Line Comedy Club, arguably the most legendary of these clubs, is located right in the city’s Financial District. Opened in 1978 and kept afloat thanks to business people coming in to unwind after a busy day at the office, the Punch Line on Battery Street is the oldest running comedy club in the city. Its stage is also where celebrated performers like Robin Williams, Drew Carey, and Chris Rock got their start.
Located in the SoMa District, this 5-acre public garden just steps from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a welcoming oasis in the middle of bustling downtown. Hang out and enjoy a picnic lunch on the sprawling lawn, walk through the butterfly garden, or reflect at the Oche Wat Te Ou memorial garden, a tribute to the area’s native
Muwekma Ohlone tribe. For kids, the 130,000 square-foot children’s garden and playground puts on free learning days and story hours, while adults can spend time exploring the public artwork and sculptures throughout the property.
You’ll find two of San Francisco’s iconic cable car lines running through downtown’s Union Square, and both journey over the steep roads to Fisherman’s Wharf. Head to the corner of Market Street and Powell Street to see the famous spot where the cable cars turn around to restart their routes. There may be a line, but the time is well-spent watching the operators spin the cars around by hand and observing the riders who come from all around the world. Choose between the 25-minute Powell/Mason route that stops in Chinatown and North Beach or the slightly longer (and steeper) Powell/Hyde route that also passes historic Lombard Street.
Catch a Broadway Show at Golden Gate Theatre
San Francisco's Union Square houses a wide range of live theaters, from Broadway and Off-Broadway hits to locally written and produced shows. The Golden Gate Theatre on Taylor Street is one of two in the city that hosts Broadway productions exclusively, about six per year. The venue often features rising stars that have traveled from New York City to perform, giving audiences access to some pretty spectacular quality and talent. Its location near Market Street makes this theater easy to get to via public transportation, as well.
Visitors traveling to San Francisco with kids would be missing out by skipping the waterfront Exploratorium. The museum combines art, science, and hands-on learning to inspire curiosity and creativity in the best ways. Newly renovated with over 600 exhibits, it's more than easy to spend an entire day learning new things and experiencing unique attractions. It's not just for kids, either; the Exploratorium hosts an After Dark adults only series on select evenings with adult spins on certain attractions and a much more relaxing vibe.