It would be easy to spend your entire San Francisco vacation going to places you saw on the same tired list everyone publishes. But why should you? The city has changed and so should the list of its best things to do.
The first three things on this list are classics, uniquely San Francisco and worth the hype they get. After that, choose from the rest depending on your style. If you want to get to know San Francisco, these different places help you to really discover it. If you're a fan of the classics and can't go home without seeing the places Aunt Mabel recommended based on her visit in 1978. Or if you need to snap some selfies that look just like everyone else's, you'll find places for that here, too.
A cable car ride is a bucket list thing to do for many people, and it's a uniquely San Francisco experience. However, if you don't know what to expect and where to get on, it can be frustrating instead of thrilling.
Don't let online ratings fool you. People can get frustrated and cranky when they don't know where to find the shortest lines and how to snag the best seats. To avoid those buzzkills, use the complete guide to San Francisco cable cars.
Some people stalk the Golden Gate Bridge like paparazzi trailing a film star, trying to photograph it from all the best angles.
You see the bridge from afar. You can drive or bike across it. But the very best way to experience it is to take a walk across it. You'll get a feel for its size, especially when you see how small a big container ship looks when you're above it at mid-span.
Find out how to get to all the vista points, where to park without worrying about the meters, and the best time to go in the complete guide to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Alcatraz's reputation has been amped up so much in films that everyone wants to see it, in spite of the time it takes out of your sightseeing day. The only way to get to Alcatraz is by ferry. The round trip and tour take several hours.
To get the most that Alcatraz has to offer, be prepared. Know that some companies say their tour includes Alcatraz, but they may just take you for a boat ride past it without stopping. To find out how to avoid the scams, when to get tickets before they sell out, what to take with you, and the best tour times, use the complete guide to Alcatraz.
Climb Some Steps
You know that San Francisco has a lot of hills, but you might not realize that they are covered with fascinating steps, and stair streets can take you to places where vehicles can't go. These are a few of the best:
On Telegraph Hill, you can start by visiting Coit Tower, then take the Filbert and Greenwich steps downhill toward the waterfront.
The Lyon Street Steps at the intersection of Broadway and Lyon Streets are known for the neatly-manicured hedges along their sides and the views you get of one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods. They take you downhill toward The Presidio.
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps with their cobalt-blue, starry-sky design are custom-made for a photo opportunity. You can visit them as a quick side trip from Golden Gate Park.
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, trek across the Golden Gate Bridge or challenge one of the city's steepest climbs, use the guide to five easy, must-do hikes in San Francisco.
You can also use your two feet to explore some of San Francisco's lesser-known areas with San Francisco City Guides. They offer dozens of free tours that visit locations from Fisherman's Wharf to the Palace Hotel.
You can graze through the Ferry Building Marketplace, tasting locally-produced artisan goodies like Michael Recchiuti chocolate, Cowgirl Creamery cheese, and Blue Bottle Coffee, but they're just the beginning of the unique San Francisco foods you can sample.
Irish coffee is custom-made for sipping on a foggy day. It first arrived in America at the Buena Vista Cafe, and they're still pouring them up daily.
Other seasonal foods to look for on local restaurant menus include Dungeness crab, fresh abalone, and dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes.
Union Square is in the city's shopping epicenter, just a stone's throw from the flashiest department store west of New York City, a space 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.
Enjoy the View from Twin Peaks
If you have the time and a clear sky, it's worth a trip to the top of Twin Peaks, where you can see the entire San Francisco Bay laid out below you.
Be warned: it's not fun every day. It can be cold on the hilltop when it's windy, and if there's fog, you won't see a thing.
The waterfront area centered on the Ferry Building and Marketplace has lots to see and do. Besides grazing local artisan food shops or going to the weekend Farmers Market, you can take a walk onto Pier 7 and Pier 14.
Both of the piers are nearby and give you a chance to see more of the Bay and the city skyline. If you go in the evening, you can spend time on a waterside bench watching the mesmerizing Bay Lights.
You can get to the Marketplace from other parts of town by riding the historic Market Street Railway streetcar.
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. 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, though, and more adventurous visitors enjoy visiting the Fortune Cookie Factory, checking out the markets, herbalist shops, tea stores, and alleyways. To know how to do that, dig into the complete guide to Chinatown.
Check Out a Specific Neighborhood
To get a look at the places where San Franciscans live, try visiting a few of its most tourist-friendly neighborhoods.
- For food options that range from Michelin-starred restaurants to no-fuss tacos and burritos, street art, and nightlife, go to the Mission District.
- Try the Fillmore neighborhood to see historic San Francisco on a fun neighborhood street lined with local shops and restaurants.
- The Marina neighborhood is good for dining and shopping, and it's close to the Golden Gate Bridge and The Presidio.
- The Castro District is one of the country's best-known gay neighborhoods, but it's also the place to go to see classic films in an opulent movie palace. It's one of the safest parts of the city, popular with young hipsters and with young families.
- Nob Hill got its sometimes-nickname of "snob hill" back when the railroad barons built their mansions on it. Even today, it's so affluent and exclusive, that you almost expect the dogs in the park to be wearing tuxedos. Take a walk around, admire the hotels, and grab a sunset cocktail at the Top of the Mark.
- You may have heard of Haight-Ashbury from the days of the Summer of Love. Like most things dating from the 1960s, it's not what it used to be, but you may enjoy exploring its shops and thinking about those hippie days.
- Hayes Valley is the place to go for a morning pick-me-up at Blue Bottle Coffee or to browse through boutiques filled with cutting-edge fashions and goods. It's also known for its bars and restaurants.
In Golden Gate Park, you can see Dutch windmills and a buffalo herd, or watch people piloting remote-controlled boats. You can also visit the Japanese Tea Garden and the DeYoung Museum, see an albino alligator and cute penguins at the California Academy of Sciences, or stroll among the orchid gardens at the Conservatory of Flowers.
If it were closer to other tourist attractions, it would be higher on this list, but the park is worth a visit if you have the time. To learn about its most popular spots and a lot more, use the complete guide to Golden Gate Park.
Visit a Museum
If the word "museum" isn't the first one that springs to mind when someone asks what you want to do in San Francisco, cast aside your preconceptions and try one of these:
If art is your thing, try the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). At the Legion of Honor, you can see an extensive collection of sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Or go to the DeYoung Museum for traditional arts of all kinds.
The Exploratorium was one of the first modern science museums, and it appeals to everyone, from tiny tots who enjoy watching shiny things moving to veteran scientists who like to explore the fundamentals. You might also enjoy the Academy of Sciences, where you can see grass growing on a rooftop or get a peek at the rare albino alligator.
If you loved riding the cable car, visit the free Cable Car Museum to find out about their history and see how they work.
Fans of Walt Disney, Disney films and the history of filmmaking will be delighted to visit the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio.
Those are just the highlights. If none of those museums appeal to you, try looking through this list of San Francisco museums A to Z.
It was once a military base, but now the Presidio is a place to go for all kinds of activities. You can visit the Disney Family Museum, go for a hike, or see artist Andy Goldsworthy's "site specific" art installations.
On Sundays, dozens of local food trucks arrive to cater the Presidio Picnic on the Main Parade Ground, which is held from the end of March through October.
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 what makes going there so much fun.
While you're there, you can see their unique houseboat community or 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. You can also drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to get there, taking time to enjoy the views along the way.
Find out how to get Sausalito, where to park, and when to go using the complete guide to Sausalito.
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 788-foot-tall Mount Livermore.
You can also check out a Civil War fort or go to the Immigration Station Museum, which recounts the history of Chinese immigrants hoping to enter America.
The only way to get to Angel Island is by ferry, either from Pier 39 / 41 in San Francisco or from the town of Tiburon. To find out about transportation options, and discover things you can do on the island, use the Angel Island guide.
A bay cruise is a great way to see all of San Francisco, including its famous skyline.
A cruise can be fun, but if you aren't prepared, 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 in our complete guide to San Francisco Bay cruises.
Blue and white seagull-emblazoned signs touting the 49-Mile Drive show up all over town. Following them can take you to some interesting spots, through beautiful neighborhoods, and to Twin Peaks for a panoramic view of the city (when it isn't foggy).
Part of the route is best covered by foot, and some of it is just plain boring. Doing only the good bits will cut your time in half. To get a map of the drive, find out which parts to see by walking and how to tour the rest by automobile, check out the complete guide to the 49-Mile Drive.
When people say Lombard Street, they usually mean a single block of it 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.
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.
Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 are the things people often want to visit in San Francisco. They are also definitely some of the oldest and most outdated places to go in the city. You could avoid them altogether and visit the modern waterfront listed above, but if you can't help yourself...
Take in the highlights and get away from the tourist traps. At Pier 39, make a quick stop at Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze, then go straight to the end for an Alcatraz view. Go left along the waterfront walkway to see those legendary sea lions.
Go back to the main sidewalk and go west, keeping as close to the water as you can. Play a few antique arcade games at the Musee Mecanique. Snap a photo of those ultra-cute, colorful boats and leave.
If you only have a day to see San Francisco, you can take the stress out of planning and get the most out of it by using the self-guided cable car tour. Or, plan your own day to take in the Golden Gate Bridge, ride a cable car, see the modern waterfront, and visit Alcatraz.
If you have two days, get out on the water. Add a Bay cruise, a ferry ride to Sausalito, or a trip to Angel Island. Take a walk at Crissy Field or visit Coit Tower and walk down Telegraph Hill using the Filbert and Greenwich Steps. Go to a museum that interests you.
In three days, you'll have time to drive around town using the abbreviated version of the 49-Mile Drive. You can also go to Golden Gate Park, or spend some time at Ocean Beach and the Sutro Baths.
With a week to visit, add day trips to Napa Valley, take a ramble through Sonoma wine country, or drive down the coast to Monterey and Carmel. You can also see Yosemite National Park on a long day trip, but an overnight stay is better.