The 20 Best Things to Do in San Francisco

San Francisco skyline
Piriya Photography / Getty Images

San Francisco packs an incredible variety of must-see attractions and cultural landmarks into its 49 square miles. Each district has a distinct character and many things to do, whether it’s restaurants, museums, art, music, and pretty much everything in between. Best of all, the small size of the “City by the Bay” allows visitors to catch many different sights on a single trip, even if it’s just a couple of days. Nearby natural parks also offer a chance to plan some enticing day trips around Northern California.

01 of 20

Visit the Palace of Fine Arts

Moonrise at Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San francisco, CA

Robert Mackinlay / Getty Images

3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123-1019, USA
Phone +1 415-376-1704

A shining gem of the city's Marina District, the Palace of Fine Arts was initially built in 1915 to exhibit artworks for the World's Fair. Today, it is one of the most picturesque places in San Francisco and a perfect destination for taking photos or attending a performance in the theatre. The most striking building is the open dome on an artificial lake decorated with 26 large sculptures. Initially designed by Bernard Maybeck, the rotunda has appeared in many films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Its design takes its inspiration from classical European architecture.

02 of 20

Take a Day Trip to Muir Woods

Muir Woods Redwood Creek Trail Hikers
Kevin Thrash / Getty Images
Mill Valley, CA 94941, USA
Phone +1 415-561-2850

If it's your first time in Northern California, a short day trip to a nearby Redwood grove is a must-have experience. Redwoods are the tallest trees on the planet, and from San Francisco, it's an hour's drive to Muir Woods National Monument, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park has 6 miles of hiking trails, and the Main Trail, which starts at the visitor center, is wheelchair accessible for one mile. The park can get particularly crowded on the weekends, so a weekday visit would be best.

03 of 20

Cruise the Bay

San Francisco, former ship "california hornblower", Cruises & Events. The City by the Bay

Photodisc / Getty Images

Pier 3, Hornblower Landing, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
Phone +1 415-438-8300

One of the easiest ways to see the city from every angle is to hop aboard a sightseeing cruise. You can take many different types of cruises, from Hornblower's dinner cruises to standard sightseeing cruises and excursions to Angel Island, which is home to the city's historic Immigration Station and a few picturesque campsites and hiking trails. For the best views and photographs, try to time your cruise for sunset. Don't forget your jacket and motion sickness medication, as this famously foggy city can produce some rough and cold conditions on bad weather days.

04 of 20

Catch a Game at Oracle Park

Oracle Park, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA
Phone +1 415-972-2000

Home of the San Francisco Giants, Oracle Park is a beloved baseball stadium. Many design aspects of the stadium pay tribute to the team's history, such as the 24-foot high right-field wall, which pays homage to the number of Willie Mays, the most famous Giants player, and outside the park statues are dedicated to some of the team's best players. The stadium sometimes hosts football and soccer games if baseball isn't your thing.

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05 of 20

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge

Woman walking on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Katrin Engel / EyeEm / Getty Images

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA, USA
Phone +1 415-921-5858

One of the most recognizable bridges in the United States—and arguably the rest of the world—the Golden Gate Bridge stretched for nearly 2 miles over the Golden Gate Strait connecting the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. While most people get their first impressions of this stunning bridge while driving across to enter the city, the Golden Gate is something you’ll want to experience without any distractions. There’s a pedestrian walkway available to cross the bridge by foot, a bike path, or you can head to one of the bridge’s popular vista points to get some incredible views of the famous bay.

06 of 20

Take a Tour of Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

Caroline Purser / Getty Images

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, CA, USA

A former federal prison placed on a rocky island about 1.5 miles offshore from the city, Alcatraz has remained one of San Francisco’s top tourist highlights since it opened to the public in the early 1970s. Currently, visitors can reach the island through the ferry from Pier 33 (the trip takes less than 15 minutes) and tour the prison and surrounding grounds. Along with the infamous prison that housed notorious names like Al Capone in its heyday, Alcatraz was also the site of an 18-month long protest that helped spark the Native American civil rights movement.

07 of 20

Explore Chinatown

A street shot of Chinatown with colorful shops

 TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Chinatown, San Francisco, CA, USA

Established around 1848 during the California Gold Rush era, San Francisco’s Chinatown is older than any other Chinese community in North America. Take your very own self-guided walking tour starting at the much-photographed Dragon Gate at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, and explore the vibrant neighborhood as it takes you past unique souvenirs, local temples, Chinese herbal shops and authentic dim sum restaurants.

08 of 20

Stroll Through Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

San Francisco, CA, USA
Phone +1 415-831-2700

Brimming with lush gardens, museums, lakes, and meadows, Golden Gate Park is on the northwest end of San Francisco. It was initially built in 1871, converting a vast stretch of unincorporated dunes known as Outside Lands (a name that later inspired the music and arts festival held annually within the park's boundaries). Horticulture fans will have plenty to see at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers, two important landmarks protecting rare tropical plants and flowers from around the world.

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09 of 20

Buy Local at the Ferry Building

Ferry Building

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94105, USA
Phone +1 415-983-8000

Some of Northern California’s best culinary delights, such as cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, coffee from Blue Bottle, and oysters from Hog Island Oyster Company, can be found at the edge of the water in the city’s historic Ferry Building. It isn’t just food, but also crafts and souvenirs ranging from books and clothing to candles and ceramics, so one can easily spend several hours perusing the shops and enjoying lunch. Each Saturday, the restored structure opens up to local vendors for the Ferry Plaza farmers market and tons of seasonal, fresh produce.

10 of 20

Visit One of the City’s Many Museums

SFMOMA, San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

There’s truly something for everyone when it comes to San Francisco’s great museums. The California Academy of Sciences celebrates the world of natural science. The Exploratorium offers hands-on learning for children and adults alike. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art holds one of the largest collections of modern art in the United States. The city also provides opportunities to learn about San Francisco’s rich history at the San Francisco Railway Museum and the Cable Car Museum, and individual cultures at the Museum of African Diaspora and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

11 of 20

Walk Along Pier 39

Pier 39 in San Francisco

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Phone +1 415-705-5500

Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are tourist hotspots for a reason. The area is famous for shopping and souvenir hunting, along with the population of local sea lions who’ve been hanging out on the K dock next to the pier since the 1990s. Take a walk along Pier 39, and you’ll likely find yourself staring at various street performers, a vintage carousel, and a whole host of specialty shops selling unique souvenirs and gag gifts—all surrounded by gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay.

12 of 20

Ride a Cable Car

A cable car going down the street

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

San Francisco’s cable cars were built in the late 19th century to respond to the city’s notoriously steep hills, and they’re still transporting people today as the only working system of cable cars left in the world. Three separate cable car lines run through the city streets: the Powell-Mason Line, the Powell-Hyde Line, and the California Line. Both Powell lines take off from the same hub at Union Square and continue to the Fisherman’s Wharf area, while the California line starts at California and Market and climbs up to Van Ness Avenue.

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13 of 20

Take in the View at Twin Peaks

View from Twin Peaks in San Francisco

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Twin Peaks, San Francisco, CA, USA

Named for the pair of towering peaks located near the city's center less than 4 miles from downtown San Francisco, Twin Peaks boasts a stunning 360-degree view of the Bay Area. On clear days, it's even possible to spot the Santa Clara Valley to the south and Mount Diablo to the east. Most visitors drive the winding road to the top and choose from the selection of natural trails to access the best viewpoints from there.

14 of 20

Celebrate the LGBTQ+ Community in the Castro

Castro district in San Francisco

JasonDoiy / Getty Images

The Castro, San Francisco, CA 94114, USA

San Francisco’s Castro district isn’t just the heart of the city’s LGBTQ+ community—it is also a thriving neighborhood full of colorful nightlife, restaurants, shops, museums, and landmarks. The Castro Theatre, built in 1922, is one of the only theaters left in the country with an authentic pipe organ player, while the Anchor Oyster Bar has some of the best seafood in the city. The former home of Harvey Milk, internationally recognized human rights leader and the first openly gay elected official in California’s history, the Castro is an invaluable piece of San Francisco’s character and the perfect place to explore the history of the LGBTQ+ movement.

15 of 20

Eat Pasta in North Beach

San Francisco North Beach

Gerald French / Getty Images

North Beach, San Francisco, CA, USA

The city’s own “Little Italy,” North Beach is nestled near Washington Square and Columbus and Grant Avenues. The district is known for its classic Italian restaurants, bakeries, delis, and European-style cafes. Still, it’s also a great neighborhood for simply walking around to people-watch and window shop. Don’t leave without browsing the aisles at City Lights Books, and consider making the trek to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill for a fantastic view of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.

16 of 20

Relax at the Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

John Elk III / Getty Images

75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
Phone +1 415-752-1171

Located inside Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is North America’s oldest continuously operating public Japanese garden. With its perfectly manicured trees, soft water features, and classic Japanese structures, it’s difficult not to feel relaxed inside this three-acre garden in the middle of a bustling city. The tea house serves hot tea all year round, but the landscape is breathtaking in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom or the fall when the leaves change.

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17 of 20

Have a Picnic at the Presidio

Crissy Field and the Presidio in San Francisco

Sundry Photography / Getty Images

Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA

Now a national park and historical site, the Presidio was once a thriving military base that officials converted into scenic grounds with a natural vibe in the 1990s. Today, the space spans nearly 1,500 acres, home to miles of hiking trails, restaurants, bars, and museums. Located along the main Presidio promenade is Crissy Field, a sprawling grass field popular for picnics, recreation, and lounging.

18 of 20

Go Thrifting at Haight and Ashbury

Corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco

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Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA

The Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco—named for the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets—was the epicenter of the city’s hippie movement in the 1960s. Venture down upper Haight Street for an incredible selection of vintage clothing shops, bookstores, dive bars, and record shops. Don’t leave without visiting the music lover’s paradise at Amoeba Records, or just explore and marvel at the neighborhood’s Victorian homes, murals, and colorful sights.

19 of 20

Watch the Sunset at Baker Beach

Sunset at Baker Beach in San Francisco

Thomas Dunworth / EyeEm / Getty Images

Baker Beach, San Francisco, CA, USA

One of the undisputed best beaches in San Francisco, Baker Beach is as stunning in the evenings as it is during the day. With views that combine a rocky shoreline with rolling hills and the famous Golden Gate Bridge, the beach here puts on an excellent display once the sun begins to set in the early evening, providing some genuinely breathtaking photo opportunities along the way. You'll find Baker Beach on the city's northwest side in the Presidio district.

20 of 20

Admire the Murals in the Mission

Murals in the mission district in SF

TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Mission District, San Francisco, CA, USA

Come for the vibrant murals that line the streets of the Mission District, and stay for the trendy boutiques, eclectic stores, and incredible Mexican restaurants. This historic neighborhood is home to Dolores Park, a popular hillside hangout centered around a rich Latino heritage. A walk around Clarion and Balmy alleys will show off the bulk of the Mission’s murals, but there are also plenty of art galleries around the neighborhood to experience as well.

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The 20 Best Things to Do in San Francisco