San Francisco is an amazing city with so many things to see and do. But what are the best things to do in San Francisco? We have compiled our list of The 10 Best Things To Do In San Francisco. Highlighting the Best the City has to offer. From the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge to simple pleasures such as visiting parks or a hearty bowl of soup, here are our Top 10 San Francisco Attractions.
San Francisco is home to some incredibly Iconic and world-class attractions, sights, landmarks, and things to do, We take a look at the best so you can make the most out of your next trip. We look at a number of paid attractions along with a host of free and low-cost activities so you can find something for every budget.
1 – Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic structures in the world. Any visit to San Francisco is not complete without some sort of interaction with the Bridge. There are plenty of different options for getting that Bridge Selfie or perfect Bridge photo.
The Bridge is a whopping 1.7 miles long so if you plan on walking it expect a fair trek. Plan around 4 miles there and back as you obviously can’t park right at the beginning of the bridge. If this is too much then you might consider only walking halfway. You will still get the full experience of walking the Bridge and the incredible skylines of San Francisco. But with only half the effort.
Remember when out on the bridge you are very exposed and San Francisco weather is not always the warmest. It can be cold and windy out there so dress appropriately.
A popular option is to rent a bike and pedal across the Bridge. There are many rental companies in San Francisco and most will give advice and maps on how to cross the Bridge. Pedal power makes the journey just as enjoyable as walking, only shreds the time taken, right down.
There are plenty of stops along the way to admire the View.
Of Course, the Golden Gate Bridge is primarily a road bridge so you can always just Drive across. While this reduces the effort to nearly zero it does remove the opportunity to stop and take in the view. But then you will have your pick of the Viewing points situated on the Marin headland.
A Bay Cruise is a great way to see the Bridge. Most Bay Cruise ships will take you right under the bridge for fantastic photo opportunities. They will take in a good number of other sights as well such as Alcatraz and the pier 39 Seals. There is always plenty to see out on the water.
Take a look at our San Francisco Bay Cruise Guide here
You may consider getting a San Francisco Attraction Pass which includes a Bay Cruise with the Blue and Gold Fleet. along with access to a number of other attractions.
Of course, the Full majesty of the Bridge can only really be appreciated when you are not on it! There are a number of fantastic viewing spots near the bridge where you can snap away to your heart’s content. Some are situated on the San Francisco peninsula, while other great spots are on the Marin Headland side giving views down onto the Bridge.
However, you choose to take it in the Bridge is a great spectacle and worthy addition to any photo album or collection.
2 – Alcatraz
Isolated out in San Francisco Bay, this intimidating relic of the way things used to be is now a fascinating visitor attraction. Steeped in history Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s Top attractions and high up on anyone must-see list. The eerie isolated loneliness adds to the sense of walking into history. where you will walk in the footsteps of the most infamous od US Criminals, such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
Tours operate Daily and last around 2.5-4.5 hours depending on the tour. The cost is $35.50 for a self-guided tour.
If you don’t have time for a full tour most of the bay Cruises sail past the island and get close enough for a good look.
3 – Cable Car Rides
The Historic Cable cars that run up and down the City are no longer the best forms of transport. They are slow quite uncomfortable and in most cases require up to an hour of queuing. Often longer! However, they are part of the fabric of the City and they are incredibly good fun. Definitely worth the queue at least once.
Get a seat on the rail or better still a place to stand and you are in for a great ride. the Flamboyant Brakemen (Drivers) add to the experience as you clatter up and down the streets of the City. For what should only be a quick trip across town is can be quite a white-knuckle ride as the cars teeter over the edges of seeming near-vertical streets with just the ancient and historic brakes stopping the car from running away to destruction.
Of course, the feeling of danger is a pure illusion the cars are as safe as anything with a fantastic safety record. So hop and enjoy a piece of yesteryear!
4 – Pier 39 / Fisherman’s Wharf
At the southern end of the Peninsular lies the Old Fishing ports and docks. Now Transformed into a predominately Tourist location. Filled With Shops, Restaurants, and tourist activities. It’s the hub for all things “Bay” related.
Often shunned as a tourist trap, it’s popular for a reason. And millions visit the area every year. While some restaurants are pricier than maybe they should be, the location is premium and that’s what you are paying for.
It’s not all price hike food either most cruises and bay activities stem from this area and there is sure to be something to bring you here at some point.
One of the best attractions of the Wharf in a colony of California Sealions that have commandeered the docks of pier 39. Displacing the Human residents to other areas of the wharf. Numbers vary through the year but at times there are thousands of the animals “hauled” out on the docks.
Crowds of equal numbers at times, line Pier 39 to watch the antics of the Sealions who appear almost oblivious to the human presence. The Sealions put on quite a show tussling with each other and fending off the giant Seagulls. The only downside that you often don’t read about is the rather pungent aroma they emit, however, it’s a small price to pay for a fantastic show.
5 – Chinatown
San Francisco is home to the world’s largest Chinatown, Outside of Asia. The area is a vibrant bustling district filled with sights, sounds, and smells not usually attributed to American cities. The streets are lined with endless shops filled with Chinese foods and trinkets. Some would call them junk shops some treasure troves.
Just wandering the streets taking in the business of the place is a fascinating experience. Strictly speaking, this is no tourist attraction but a real active, thriving community. A testament to the multi-cultured nature of both the City and the USA as a whole.
The area Starts properly at the Junction of Grant Avenue and Bush Street, where you find the Dragon Gate. It then runs the length of Grant Avenue but has ballooned far beyond this limitation, now encompassing most of Stockton Street and Kearny Street all the way to Broadway.
Of course like all Chinatowns there is a large restaurant scene. San Francisco is considered the Birth Place of “western” style Chinese food and as such there are hundreds of restaurants, and the food is up there with the best in the world. A visit to one of San Francisco Chinese restaurants is a real Bucket list item.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is also largely responsible for bringing Dim Sum to the attention of the west, so there are many fantastic options here for world-renowned Dim Sum.
6 – Shopping / Union Square
If Shopping is your thing then Union Square can stand up with the best in the world. Most major luxury Department stores are present in the petite square of shopping paradise. Macy’s, Sachs 5th Ave, and Bloomingdales are all present along with outlets of most major luxury brands such as Tiffany’s, Louis Vitton, Apple, and many many more. Really if you want it, it’s probably here.
Even if these sort of high-end ultra-luxury items are a bit beyond you, just looking is an attraction in itself.
Of course, there is more to shopping in San Francisco than the JUST the ultra-high-end big brands, the City is littered with smaller boutiques and designer shops.
If the budget is tight there are also Premium outlets where you can bag Designer brands for serious discounts. However, they are quite a trek from the City center and Maybe only worth visiting if you are heading that way anyway, You can always try Macy’s which seems to be in a permanent sale state at all times.
7 – Museums
While not renowned for museums there are still some very good offerings in the Bay area. Many are well worth checking out, especially on a rainy day :
California Academy of Sciences: Without a doubt the shining star of San Francisco Museums. And a must-see attraction in its own right. This world-class scientific wonder offers so much to see, do and experience.
Featuring an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and even a Rain Forest! it has everything you could possibly want from a science attraction. You can easily spend a day enthralled by this fantastic. Attraction. It’s well worth the time to make a visit and If you only plan one museum visit? look no further!
de Young Museum: Primarily an Art museum the De Young Showcases an incredible amount of works from all over the world.
Exploratorium: A fantastic hands-on museum packed with interactive experimental styles exhibits that encourage you to have a go. Great for younger visitors but just as inspiring to adults.
Walt Disney Family Museum: A fascinating look into the life and works of Walt and his family. It’s certainly not Disney Land, but it never pretends to be although you can see a fantastic model of it. This charming museum is far more about his actual works rather than the fantasy worlds he created. Well worth a visit for Disney Fans.
Cable Car Museum: Ever wondered how the incredible Cable cars of the city actually operate? what’s powering these ancient automotive relics up and down the streets of the city? Well, all your answers are here and more as you delve into the history of these iconic automotive legends.
8 – Lombard Street
San Francisco is famed for its Steep streets and it’s highly likely you will find yourself at some point contending with them in some way. But Lombard street was too much even for the road builders of San Francisco to put with. So the Street was Altered to take the steepness out of it.
This created a curious little oddity, a Small Wiggly Street, that was adopted by its residents and transformed into a beautiful garden-lined road billed as the most crooked street in the world. We are not sure if that’s a good thing but this quirky street makes for a great photo op and tourists flock to view this charming little street.
Remember it’s a real residential street though, and noise should be kept to a minimum as to not disturb the residents. O course they knew what they were letting themselves in for living here, but there is no need to antagonize unnecessarily
9 – Eat Clam Chowder from a Bread Bowl
Among Fisherman’s Wharf’s, culinary delights are its world-famous Clam Chowder and its also World Famous Sourdough Bread. Somewhere along the lines, someone decided the two could be combined and so the Sourdough Bread Bowl was born.
Multiple places will serve you their “secret” own Clam chowder (some far “soup”erior than others) in a Bourdin Broad loaf hollowed out and filled with the delicious rich seafood soup. Providing the perfect washing-up-free meal.
Sat down on the Seafront gazing out on the bay while eating such delicious food is one of our first ports of call in the city. A great way to get started on “bay” life. Keep an eye out for the Ginormous Seagulls who have grown to epic proportions finishing off what the tourists can’t finish!
10 – Relax / Park Life
There are many beautiful park spaces you can escape to when it all gets a bit on top of you. Large parts of the peninsular are set aside for recreation.
Save Money, do more!
An attraction pass is a fantastic way to do a number of Paid Activities all for one set price, which is usually a lot lower than paying separately for the attractions. Read our review of the San Francisco CityPASS, which is one of our favorite Passes, here.
BONUS – Leave…
While San Francisco is a fantastic city with endless sights and attractions it also happens to inhabit one of the most beautiful and interesting little corners of the world. Within Striking distance of San Francisco lie so many delights. It seems such a waste to visit the City and not get out and see a little of the surrounding area. Here are just a few highlights, and how far they are from the City:
Marin Headlands – very close
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands are a stunning Location in their own right but the main highlight is the Views they provide of the Bay area and the Golden Gate Bridge in particular. A short trip across the Bridge will reward you with breath-taking views looking back and if this is the only excursion out of the city you will still come away with some fantastic memories and photographs.
Pacific Coast Highway 0-12 hours away
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of America’s most famous and most scenic routes. The route actually runs straight through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate. But the finest stretches of the road are South of the City as Route 1 heads down through Big Sur.
Monterey – 2 hours away
Just a couple of hours down Route one is the small city of Monterey, California. An incredibly beautiful city filled with attractions and things to do. One of Monterey’s biggest draws is its incredible array of Wildlife. Seals, Sea Otters, Sea lions, Whales, Dolphins, and a whole lot more can be seen frolicking in the waters of Monterey Bay. It’s the perfect spot to soak up some nature. And a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium will open your eyes further to the wonders of the bays Nature.
Well worth spending a night or two in this “jewel” of a City. Especially if you are heading south on Route 1. It’s the perfect gateway to Big Sur.
Big Sur – 2-3 hours away
This Rugged coastal area, where the mountains meet the sea is one of the most scenic regions of America. Highway 1 meanders through the region providing vista after vista of jaw-dropping beauty. It’s something that really should not be missed. The hardest part of this journey is resisting the urge to stop every 2mins for another incredible photo opportunity.
Yosemite National Park – 4-5 hours
Head East out of San Francisco and Yosemite can be reached in around half a day. It’s too far for a day trip but overnighting in the Park is a great experience.
Some places look incredible in photographs only to seem a little underwhelming in person. Yosemite is the complete opposite. No photo could ever do this park justice. The towering Limestone monoliths are so much bigger than you could really imagine.
If you are lucky you may get a Bear encounter, But don’t worry if that scares you the bears in the park really don’t like human contact and there has never been a serious bear attack recorded in the park.
After a good long drag down Route 1, you will finally come to LA. Another City and another part of our website. We won’t say much about LA here (go here for that) but wanted to highlight the fact you can visit both City’s in a Single Trip. With a whole heap in-between.
Have Your Say
Hopefully, this article has highlighted some of the many things you can do while visiting San Francisco. Please comment below if we missed your favorite off? Got any Questions? We will do our best to answer you, just drop us a comment.