The 15 Best Activities in San Francisco

This list was created based on what San Francisco travelers enjoy doing and say they want to do again. Try them out for yourself to see why people leave their hearts in San Francisco.

01 of 15

Explore Fishermans' Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
Betsy Malloy Photography
Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA, USA

Fishermans' Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square are the things people want to do most on their San Francisco vacation. 

You can easily take in all three of them together. They're in a small area and easy to find on the waterfront.

Start at Fisherman's Wharf at the corner of Jefferson and Taylor Streets. In a single glance, you'll see street performers and "I (heart) SF" memorabilia, and gaggles of visitors looking for souvenirs. Find out where it is, when to go, what to see and how to get behind the tourist facade, check out the Fisherman's Wharf guide.

A few blocks east, Pier 39 has shopping—lots of it—but you'll also find a carousel to ride, an aquarium, places to eat, and other things to do. It's also where those famous sea lions hang out.

Get all the insider tips and ideas you need for going there;  read the Pier 39 visitor guide.

West of Fisherman's Wharf is Ghirardelli Square, another shopping and eating area housed in the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory, which still operates a soda fountain and store there.

02 of 15

See the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge Over San Francisco Bay In Foggy Weather
Prakash Braggs / EyeEm / Getty Images
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA, USA
+1 415-921-5858

Not only is the Golden Gate Bridge one of the city's most enjoyable places to go, but it's also one of the most-photographed sights in the world. 

You can look at the Golden Gate Bridge from all over town. Some people stalk it like paparazzi trailing a film star, trying to photograph it from all angles. You can also drive across it or bike over it. Other people just take a walk on it—which is 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.

Find out exactly how to get to all the vista points, where to park without worrying about the meters, and the best time to go in our complete guide to the Golden Gate Bridge.

03 of 15

Visit Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island
Betsy Malloy Photography
San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
+1 415-561-4900

During its prison days, Alcatraz was a place to avoid, but today it's one of the city's most popular sights. That may be in part because its reputation has been amped up by films about the criminals who lived on it (or tried to escape from it).

The only way to get to Alcatraz is by ferry. Once you're on the island, you can walk up the hill to the prison buildings and tour the cell block, exercise yard, and other areas. The free, self-guided audio tour lends a sense of life to the abandoned facility.

If you want to go, avoid deceptive scams. Some companies will say their tour includes Alcatraz, but in fact, they may just take you for a boat ride past it without stopping.

To get the most that Alcatraz has to offer, be prepared. To find out how to avoid those scams, when to get tickets before they sell out, what to take with you and best tour times, use the complete guide to Alcatraz

04 of 15

Ride a Cable Car

A cable car full of people outside the Cable Car Museum

Melissa Zink / TripSavvy

Iconic, fun, and uniquely San Francisco, the cable cars are often called the city's moving landmark. For many visitors, a cable car ride can be a thrill as it clatters up and down the hills, bells ringing. 

A cable car ride is definitely a bucket list thing to do for many people, but if you don't know what to expect, they can be frustrating instead of thrilling. They only go to a few places, the wait to get on can sometimes seem endless, and there are just a few of the highly-prized places to stand outside.

To find out how to snag the best seats, get on and off safely, where to get tickets, and where to find the shortest lines, use the complete guide to cable cars. See their routes and what attractions they go to with this map of San Francisco cable car routes.

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05 of 15

Explore Chinatown

A street shot of Chinatown with colorful shops

 Melissa Zink / TripSavvy

Chinatown, San Francisco, CA, USA

Just eight short blocks long (Bush to Broadway) and scarcely three blocks wide, San Francisco's Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities outside the country of China. It's also one of San Francisco's unique sights.

Much of what casual visitors see in Chinatown was created just for tourists. The architectural style doesn't come from China but instead is what early 20th Century Western architects thought Chinese buildings should look like. 

Most Chinatown visitors stroll along Grant Avenue, buy a few souvenirs, eat, gawk and take photos.

There's a lot more to see in Chinatown than that, and more adventurous visitors enjoy checking out the markets, herbalist shops, tea stores and alleyways. To do that, you have to know how to get a glimpse of Chinatown's alleys and where to find its most interesting shops.

Whether you want just a taste of Chinatown or want to get a more in-depth look, dig into the complete guide to Chinatown.

06 of 15

Drive Down Lombard Street

Traffic slowly zigzags down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the city, San Francisco, California, United States of America, North America
Neale Clark / Getty Images
Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

People everywhere call San Francisco's Lombard Street the "Crookedest" Street, and from the looks of it on a busy day, every single San Francisco tourist is there at the same time.

Lombard is a street that runs all the way across town, but the part of it visitors want to see is only a block long between Leavenworth and Hyde, a section with eight sharp turns and a roadway flanked by colorful flowers.

Once you get there, it's one of those touristy things to do that's over so fast you might end up wondering why you went. You can drive down Lombard Street from Hyde, get off the cable car and walk down—or just walk to the bottom side, watch for a minute, take photos, and leave. 

If you need more information, such as where it is and how to get there, check the complete guide to doing Lombard Street the right way

07 of 15

Take a Bay Cruise

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

The city of San Francisco is just as beautiful from afar as it is up close. A bay cruise is a great way to get away that you can see it all, including its famous skyline.

The traditional bay cruise goes around Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, a scenic ride that rounds out your San Francisco experience. It's also an excellent way to get a rest from walking around town all day. Most of the bay cruises leave from the docks near Fisherman's Wharf.

Like much else you can do in San Francisco, it pays to be prepared.  Otherwise, you can end up so cold you can't even think about the scenery or unhappy that you aren't going where you expected to.

Get all of the information you need to choose your perfect outing, from the best time of day to how to avoid deceptive advertising;  use the complete guide to San Francisco Bay cruises.  It also fills you in on a low-cost alternative to a pricey bay cruise that lets you take in two sights for one price.

08 of 15

Relax in Golden Gate Park

Mid Distance View Of Woman Standing By Lake At Public Park
Don Ferber / EyeEm/Getty Images
San Francisco, CA, USA
+1 415-831-2700

Three miles long by a half mile wide and larger than New York City's Central Park, Golden Gate Park stretches halfway across the city from the beach to Haight Ashbury.

In it, you can see Dutch windmills and a buffalo herd, watch people piloting remote-controlled boats, or visit its museums and gardens. And it has plenty of places to play or have a picnic.

You can drive through the park on the 49-Mile Drive in a half hour or spend an entire day there.

Among the most popular attractions in the park are the Japanese Tea Garden and the DeYoung Museum. Visitors also like seeing the albino alligator and the cute penguins at the California Academy of Sciences or strolling among the orchid gardens at the Conservatory of Flowers.

To learn about those popular spots and a lot more and to check out a map that shows where it all is, use the complete guide to Golden Gate Park.

Continue to 9 of 15 below.
09 of 15

Take a Side Trip to Sausalito

Sausalito waterfront
nik wheeler / Getty Images
Sausalito, CA 94965, USA

Sausalito is a charming small town just across the bay north of San Francisco. Its location provides some of the best views of San Francisco in the area, which is the thing that makes going there a must-do.

Sausalito is also home to a unique houseboat community, where you can see a waterborne home that looks like the Taj Mahal and another one that's an entire floating island. You can also take a stroll along the waterfront, browse in the shops and have a bite to eat. 

Taking a ferry from Fisherman's Wharf to Sausalito makes the trip even more fun. It's like taking a mini-bay cruise.

If you don't take the ferry, you can drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, taking time to enjoy the views and making a side trip to the Marin Headlands along the way.

Find out how to get Sausalito, where to park, and when to go using the complete guide to Sausalito.

10 of 15

Tackle The 49-Mile Drive

A Tour Along San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
2131 19th Ave #202, San Francisco, CA 94117-1868, USA
+1 415-966-9102

Why is this drive 49 miles long, you may be wondering. It started out as a marketing tool, using the number 49 which is also the area of San Francisco in square miles. 

Blue and white seagull-emblazoned signs lead drivers through the city, past some of its most interesting spots and through its most beautiful neighborhoods. At the drive's highest point, Twin Peaks offers a panoramic view of the city of San Francisco (when it isn't foggy).

The best way to tackle the 49-Mile Drive is to see part of it on foot and skip the boring parts, which cuts your time in half. To get a map of the drive, find out which parts are better seen by walking and how to see the rest by automobile, check out the complete guide to the 49-Mile Drive

11 of 15

Learn About Science at the Exploratorium

Exhibits at The Exploratorium
Ben Chun/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Pier 15, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
+1 415-528-4444

If the words "science museum" aren't the first ones that spring to mind when someone asks what you want to do in San Francisco, you haven't been to the Exploratorium on the San Francisco waterfront between the Ferry Building and Pier 39.

The Exploratorium 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. It's enjoyable on levels that appeal to everyone, from tiny tots who enjoy just watching shiny things moving to veteran scientists who like to explore the fundamentals. 

The Exploratorium is also a good place to go on a rainy day, and it's open after dark one day a week.

To get tips on how to make the most of your visit and find out why this place is anything but boring, see the complete guide to The Exploratorium

12 of 15

People Watch in Union Square

Union Square, San Francisco, in sunshine
Larry Bray / Getty Images
Union Square, San Francisco, CA 94108, USA

If you love to shop—or just watch people—Union Square is one of the best places in San Francisco to do it.

The square itself dates back to San Francisco's earliest days and has been a public gathering place since the 1800s. Today, it sits in the city's shopping epicenter, just a stone's throw from the biggest department store west of New York City, a small shop that was the precursor to Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum, and an indoor shopping center with spiral escalators.

During the Christmas holidays, you can go ice skating at Union Square and enjoy the holiday decorations in the store windows.

To take a tour of Union Square, find out where all those interesting spots are and how to get a guided tour of a nearby lane with a shady reputation, check out the Union Square visitor's guide.

Continue to 13 of 15 below.
13 of 15

Take a Walk

Palace of Fine Arts from San Francisco Crissy Field
Betsy Malloy Photography

There's no better way to see San Francisco than on foot. At a walker's pace, you have time to look around, and everything is at eye level.

While the city is renowned for its steep hills, some of its best walks are entirely flat. To explore some jaw-dropping waterfront views, make your way down that has stairs instead of sidewalks, trek across the Golden Gate Bridge or challenge one of the city's steepest climbs by using the guide to 5 easy, must-do hikes in San Francisco

You can also use your two feet to explore some of San Francisco's lesser-known areas on a free tour from San Francisco City Guides who offer dozens of tours every week of locations from Fisherman's Wharf to the Palace Hotel. Check their schedule to find a walking tour that appeals to your interests.

14 of 15

Full Up at the Ferry Building and Farmers Market

Inside the Ferry Building with shops and people eating at a restaurant

 Melissa Zink / TripSavvy

One, Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA

The Ferry Building is more than just a transit hub. It's more than just a place to buy fruits and vegetables, too. It's food... and wine... and fresh oysters... and that's just to start.

Foodies go to the Ferry Building for locally-produced artisan goodies like Michael Recchiuti chocolate, Cowgirl Creamery cheese, and Blue Bottle Coffee. You can also get a full meal at one of the restaurants. On Saturdays, rub shoulders with local chefs while you graze your way through the outdoor farmer's market.

You can actually take a ferry from the Ferry Building, too. Or catch the historic streetcar out front for a quick ride to Fisherman's Wharf.

To find more reasons to go, when to visit and how to take a tour, just consult the Ferry Building Marketplace guide.

15 of 15

Hike to the Top of Angel Island

Angel Island in San Francisco Bay
Yiming Chen / Getty Images
Angel Island, Tiburon, CA 94920, USA

Angel Island is an excellent place to get some breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay. Or to get a little breathless while hiking to the top of  781-foot-tall Mount Livermore.

You can go hiking on Angel Island or delve into its history by checking out a Civil War fort. The island is also home to the Immigration Station museum. It recounts the history of the place sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West, where Chinese immigrants hoping to enter America were detained while officials checked and re-checked their paperwork. 

The only way to get to Angel Island is by ferry from Pier 41 in San Francisco or the town of Tiburon. To find out about transportation options and discover things you can do on the island by using the Angel Island guide

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The 15 Best Things to Do in San Francisco