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by Jill Loeffler •
Discover the 50 best San Francisco things to do. You will find everything you need for your stay including the best cruises, must-see attractions, and top neighborhoods to explore.
More ideas include information on what's happening each month, what to do for the holidays, and ideas for today, tonight, tomorrow and this weekend. You will also find some of the best free and cheap things to do, top activities for families, and options throughout the SF Bay Area.
Read on for 50 options for your upcoming vacation.
Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.
The city of San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water, so there are dozens of fun water activities. The best way to check out the views is on a bay cruise.
The 60-minute bay cruise is the most popular. Two ferry companies run several each day, and it's a fun introduction to the San Francisco Bay Area.
You'll leave from Fisherman's Wharf, cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge, and pass Alcatraz Island. The cruise returns to the place where you started. Find tickets to this popular cruise.
Other bay cruises offer wine tasting, a chance to see the Bay Bridge, and night cruises with dinner, dancing, and sunset views.
>> Check out this list of the 10 best bay cruises
Alcatraz Prison sits on an island about a mile away from the shores of San Francisco. This old military and federal prison offer both day and night tours daily.
One of the reasons it's one of the top tourist attractions is its history. During the short time it was open, and it was home to some of the most infamous prisoners in the US, including Al Capone, Robert "The Birdman" Stroud, and Machine Gun Kelly.
The tours start with a ferry ride over to the island, a self-guided audio tour, and a return ferry ride to Pier 33. It usually takes about half a day to tour.
>> Find out more about Alcatraz Prison tours
>> More tips for first-time visitors
Another one of the top San Francisco things to do is to visit the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. This 1.7-mile-long suspension bridge offers both a pedestrian and cycling walkway so you can get a real feel for its magnificence.
You can see all around the SF Bay Area from the sidewalks, including Alcatraz Island, downtown San Francisco, and Sausalito.
Make sure to peek over the edge to check out the Fort Point National Historic Landmark under the southern end of the bridge.
A visit usually takes an hour to three hours, depending on how far you want to walk across.
>> More about visiting the Golden Gate Bridge
>> Where to find the best views of the bridge
The most popular day trip is to Muir Woods. This national park is home to dozens of Coastal Redwood trees. Some are more than 600 years old!
To get to this Northern California gem, you can rent a car and drive or take a tour. Unless you want to hike for a few hours, I think the best way to get here is on a guided tour.
It's easy, you don't have to worry about parking, and you can learn more about the park from your local guide.
A guided tour here takes about half a day and sometimes includes a visit to the small waterfront town of Sausalito.
>> Read more about the best Muir Woods tours
>> Additional pictures and details about visiting
>> More National Parks near San Francisco
Another popular spot to visit is Alamo Square. This is where you will find the Seven Sisters, which is a row of historic and colorful Victorians.
They became famous when the TV show Full House featured them in their opening credits (find a list of the best TV shows filmed in SF).
These painted ladies sit along Steiner Street, and if you climb the hill in Alamo Square Park, you will find a picture-perfect view of them with downtown San Francisco in the background.
>> More about visiting the painted ladies of Alamo Square
>> More about all of the painted ladies around SF
Movies Filmed in San Francisco: Want to see a little of San Francisco before you visit? Check out this list of movies filmed all around the city. It's a fun way to get to know parts of the city before you arrive. It's also a fun way to relive your experience once you return home.
San Francisco is the only city to run its cable cars using the traditional method. These manually operated beauties allow you to cruise along our steep hills and beautiful streets slowly.
Two of the cars take you between Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf. The third line takes you up the huge California Street hill to Chinatown, Nob Hill, and Van Ness Street.
The Cable Car Museum is another fun stop where you can learn about the history of these cars and watch the wheels pull them up our steep streets.
>> More about taking the cable cars
>> Tips to visit the Cable Car Museum
One of the best parts about visiting Fisherman's Wharf is Pier 39. This old pier was refurbished a few decades ago and now features shopping, restaurants, and a few fun activities.
Another one of the biggest draws here is its sea lions. After the 1989 earthquake, they spent more time near the pier. Several small wooden docks were installed to allow them to hang out even longer. You will find them coming and going throughout the year.
Make sure to also head to the end of the pier, where you will find a magnificent view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
>> Everything you need to know to visit Pier 39
Want to see San Francisco and the Bay Area from above? Twin Peaks offers the city's best views and all around the SF Bay Area.
This free attraction features two steep hills of about the same height. You can climb each steep hill using the steps installed by the park’s service. The climb is short but does get the heart pumping.
You can get here by bus, car, or one of the many daily city tours. A visit here usually only takes about an hour and is well worth it!
>> More tips to visit Twin Peaks
>> Additional urban hikes around the city
Another thing to love about San Francisco is our annual festivals and street fairs. You will find both indoor and outdoor events year-round.
Some of the largest include the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Chinese New Year’s Festival and Parade, and the Outside Lands Music Festival. You can also enjoy film festivals, holiday street fairs, and colorful parades.
>> Calendar of the best festivals and streets fairs each year
>> Additional tips on the best times to visit
San Francisco is home to several professional and semi-pro sports teams. The most popular ones that play within the city limits are the SF Giants MLB baseball team and the Golden State Warriors NBA basketball team.
Just a short drive or train away, you will find the NFL football, the Oakland Athletics MLB baseball, and the San Jose Sharks NHL teams.
You will find games all year long.
>> More about our local sports teams and a schedule of upcoming games
One of the first places to look for San Francisco things to do is on my monthly pages. On each one, I've created a list of 50+ top options for each month. They include events, sports, concerts, theater and so much more. Click the links below to visit each page.
Only about an hour north, you will find two fantastic wine regions. The most well-known is Napa Valley. It's home to almost 400 wineries where you can taste Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay.
Sonoma County is where you will find even more wineries. Even though this area isn’t as popular, you will find more than 400 wineries throughout the county. They range from small, boutique producers to some of the largest in the world.
You can either drive up on your own or go on a guided tour. If it's your first time visiting, I recommend a guided tour to learn about the regions, and you can leave the driving to someone else.
>> More great wine tours from SF
>> Additional tips for visiting Napa
One of the best things to do at night is head to the theater. You will find everything from Broadway shows places such as the Orpheum Theatre to local productions on stage for the first time.
You will find almost half a dozen shows each night of the week at theaters all around the city.
>> Calendar of upcoming Broadway hits and other theater productions
Fisherman's Wharf is a small district on the city's northern end. It sits along the waterfront and is a popular place for visitors to stay.
In addition to bay cruises and Pier 39, this lively district is also where you will find Ghirardelli Square, the Aquarium of the Bay, and several bars, museums, and restaurants. You can also head over to one of the most famous places in the district, Buena Vista Café.
This is the first place in the US to make Irish Coffee, and people flock here daily to try one.
Here are just a few other things to see and do here.
>> Find more about visiting Fisherman's Wharf, including additional things to do
>> More things to do alone in San Francisco
SF is beautiful during the day, but it’s even more spectacular at night. This is when you get to see the city lights sparkle.
There is no better way to explore it than on a night tour on an open-air bus.
On this 2-hour tour, you’ll cruise around the city streets, learn more about our history, and discover some of the best places to photograph SF’s beauty.
>> Find out more about this popular night tour
>> Find additional tours at night
One of the most visited San Francisco museums is the California Academy of Sciences. They consider themselves to be four museums in one because they feature a planetarium, a natural history museum, a 4-story rainforest, and an aquarium.
You can also step inside an exhibit to feel what it’s like to be in an earthquake, check out the museum’s living roof, and stop by to say hello to Claude, their rare white alligator.
You will find it in Golden Gate Park. A visit here takes anywhere from two to four hours, depending on how quickly or slowly you want to visit.
>> More tips to visit the California Academy of Sciences
Another one of the most popular day trips is to Monterey. This lovely waterfront town is home to one of the best aquariums globally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
You can also do a little shopping along Cannery Row or visit their historic Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you want to explore beyond Monterey, you can also stay a day or two to see Carmel-by-the-Sea, 17-Mile Drive, or do a little golfing at Pebble Beach.
>> Find out more about the best-guided bus tour from SF
>> More things to see and do around Monterey Bay
On the city’s western edge, you will find Golden Gate Park. This 1,000+ acre green space stretches around 3 miles from the Haight-Ashbury District on the east to Ocean Beach on the west.
It's home to the California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, and the Conservatory of Flowers. This is also where you find the Japanese Tea Garden, Stow Lake, and the Botanical Gardens.
In addition to these attractions, many outdoor concerts and festivals are held throughout the year, including Outside Lands Music Festival and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
It’s also the temporary home to a colorful Ferris wheel.
>> Find out more about visiting Golden Gate Park
I think the best way to explore SF is on foot. It's easy to do yourself, but it's even better when you go with an expert, local guide. I recommend you take at least one walking tour during your visit.
You can do a tour that focuses on just one district, takes you through a specific attraction, or even walks between fantastic places to eat so you can sample as you go.
>> Find my list of the best walking tours around SF
Many people don’t realize that SF is also a hiker’s dream. You will find hiking paths around San Francisco from Lands End to Glen Canyon Park.
Many of them offer steep inclines paired with some flat sections so you can catch your breath. They range from taking less than an hour to a cross-city one that can take all day.
>> Find a list of my favorite hiking spots all around SF
Another one of the best San Francisco things to do is visit Chinatown. This colorful district is home to a gorgeous Dragon's Gate, shops along Grant Avenue, and dozens of intricate pieces of street art.
You can also sample dim sum, visit the Chinese Historical Society, or pop into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Another fun way to explore this district is on a guided walking tour. The best is the food tours, where you can sample traditional dishes and learn all about the district's history.
>> Details about my favorite food walking tour of Chinatown
>> Find out more about visiting Chinatown
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you visit the Haight-Ashbury District. This famous neighborhood is where the 1968 Summer of Love took place.
As you walk along Haight Street, you will still see signs of this historical time with tie-dyed T-shirts and other funky clothing throughout the stores.
You can also step further into the district to see some of its gorgeous, historic Victorians.
It’s a fun place to spend an afternoon!
>> More about visiting the Haight-Ashbury district
>> Find out where some of SF’s most famous residents lived
Visiting the Union Square District is also a popular option for visitors. Here, you will find plenty of shopping, dozens of hotels, and several superb restaurants. I also love to explore the district's art galleries with pieces from around the world.
It's the heart of the city these days, but it has a fascinating and dark history. You can learn about its past on one of several walking tours. Most run about two hours long and offer a different perspective to this modern area of SF.
>> More about visiting Union Square including some of its best tours
As I mentioned above, Union Square is one of SF's most popular shopping districts. You will find several high-end stores all around the square. Just a few blocks away, you will find more high-end merchandise from Sephora to Apple.
However, you will also find several other great places to shop. My top picks include Chinatown, Pier 39, and Union Street in the Marina.
Plan to shop, but not sure where to go?
>> Use my guide to help plan out your shopping days
Another of the most popular San Francisco things to do is live music. You will find a variety of venues here, from large indoor arenas to outdoor stages in the park.
The new Chase Center is the largest venue and brings in big international stars. Other top picks include the historic Fillmore, Warfield, and Great American Music Hall.
You’ll find more than a dozen shows every night of the week.
>> Upcoming schedule of concerts and live music shows
Although exploring SF on foot is my favorite, you can’t get very far, so I also recommend you check out some of our city tours.
These guided tours are often by bus (or fire truck) and allow you to see and do more in just one day. Most take you on or near the Golden Gate Bridge, through Chinatown, and past Lombard Street.
Others will take you through the Presidio, around Golden Gate Park, and see the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.
You can choose from the Hop On Hop Off Bus, where you go at your own pace, or the Grand City Tour, which takes you to almost every possible stop throughout the city in one day.
>> Find additional city tours for your stay
Yosemite National Park is another day tour from SF. It's a gorgeous park and became famous due to the works by environmentalist and photographer Ansel Adams.
The park is about a four-and-a-half-hour drive away. The one-day tours make for a long day, but they are a great way to get a quick view of this fantastic place. They are also very popular since you can sleep or relax as someone else drives you to and from.
However, if you have more than just one day, I'd recommend driving up and staying for a night or two. This will give you more time to hike and explore this fantastic landscape.
>> Read more about the best one-day tour of Yosemite
San Francisco is also home to one of the crookedest streets in the world (actually, we are home to two!).
One block of the historic Lombard Street still features eight hairpin turns. It was originally built to help people get up and down its steep incline.
Today, you can drive down this red-bricked road. You can also walk up and down the staircases that sit on both sides of the road.
Either way, it's one of the unique San Francisco things to do and usually takes about an hour to visit.
>> More tips to visit Lombard Street
>> More unusual things to do in SF
If you love street art, you will love walking the streets around town. You’ll find artwork both high and low from the sidewalks to the tops of our historic buildings.
You will find art almost everywhere you look. The largest concentration of murals is in the Mission District. Some of the best pieces are Balmy Alley, Clarion Alley, and 24th Street.
You will also find some fantastic pieces in Chinatown, North Beach, and the South of Market district.
>> Use my guide to find some of the best pieces
If you’ve visited before, I’m sure you’ve seen those yellow, two-seater cars cruising around. These are the Go Cars.
They are a fun and easy way to do a little bit of exploring on your own. They offer maps with routes you can follow and narration to tell you more about each place during your journey.
You will pick them up and drop them off in the Fisherman’s Wharf district.
>> More about renting one of these fun tour cars
One of the longest-running breweries in the US is right here in San Francisco. Anchor Steam started in 1896 and currently brews its tasty steam beer in the Potrero Hill District. You can tour the facility or enjoy a glass at several places in SF.
In addition to this brewery, you will also find more than a dozen others brewing all around town. My favorites are Bare Bottle Brewing Company, 21st Amendment Brewing, and Magnolia Brewing in the Haight.
You can stay for a glass or try a sampler where you can check out small tasters of several of their beers.
>> More about visiting Anchor Steam Brewing Company
>> My list of 14 great breweries to check out in SF
The LGBTQIA district, the Castro, is a fun place to visit with many fun San Francisco things to do. You can check out its colorful and unique stores, have a few drinks at the historic Twin Peaks, or admire the Rainbow Walk of Fame.
If you have some extra time, make sure to also step inside the GLBT History Museum, where you will learn more about this district and some of its most famous residents.
The Castro Theater also offers a wide variety of entertainment, including everything from films to live performances.
>> More about visiting the Castro
Are you looking to save a little on your budget? If so, you are going to love our free museum admission days.
During the first part of the month, several large museums offer free admission to their permanent collections. Some are first-come, first-served, while others require booking tickets online in advance.
Museums with monthly free days include the SF Asian Art Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Legion of Honor. The California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium also offer free days from time to time.
>> Check out my calendar of free museum admission days for the upcoming months
>> Discover a list of steals and deals for those living locally and around the bay area
Spend your day hiking and exploring Angel Island. It’s the largest island in the bay and offers several fun San Francisco things to do.
You can take a ferry over for the day to explore its trails, some that offer amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco skyline.
They also offer some guided tours by Segway or on their shuttle. Make sure also to spend a little time visiting their historic buildings and museums.
The ferries don't run very often, so make sure you plan, so you have as much time as possible to explore the island.
>> More about visiting Angel Island including details on its ferries
While you are in Fisherman’s Wharf, make sure to stop by Ghirardelli Square. This former chocolate factory is now a retail building with shops, restaurants, and three Ghirardelli chocolate shops.
You will find several boutique shops perfect for those looking for unique gifts. The Cheese School is another fun stop where you can eat, learn, and drink.
I love to swing by San Francisco Brewing Company's outdoor beer garden, where you can drink locally brewed beer and enjoy some of their delicious American dishes. When I'm done, I can't resist a sundae at the Ghirardelli store right next door with amazing views out over the San Francisco Bay.
>> More things to see and do at Ghirardelli Square
Another one of the best San Francisco things to do is go hiking along Lands End. This popular trail sits right on the cliff's edge and is an old railroad line.
You will find some great ups and downs, but the real draw is the views. You get incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge from most of the trail and sweeping views of the waterfront and the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way, you will also find a few places to stop to learn more about the local history.
>> More about hiking at Lands End
>> Additional fun, outdoor activities
The small waterfront town of Sausalito is just across the bay, and it's one of the most accessible day trips from SF.
The town features a small downtown with shops, restaurants, and views of the SF city skyline.
The best way to get here is on the ferry, where you can sit back, relax, and catch even more of the SF Bay beauty.
Most people spend just a morning or afternoon here.
>> Best things to see and do in Sausalito
The Ferry Building is another one of the great San Francisco things to do. It's a historic ferry terminal that also features boutique shops and several highly rated restaurants.
Most of the shops offer gourmet food or cooking-related items. It's a great place to grab a few articles for a picnic or sample some local wines at the wine store.
Top restaurants here include:
>> More to see, do, and eat at the Ferry Building
Diego Rivera is a controversial artist from Mexico. He visited the city several times in the 1930s and 1940s. During his stays, he created three fantastic pieces of artwork that are still on display.
His most significant piece is one you don't want to miss. It's on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for free. It spans 75 feet across and is 22 feet tall. It's an intricate piece with several scenes throughout, many of which tell you what was happening when he created it.
>> Find a list of all three pieces and where to find them
Coit Tower is another must-see attraction when visiting San Francisco. You’ve probably seen photos of this white tower sitting high on Telegraph Hill.
On its first floor, you will find several murals painted during the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration. They tell stories of SF and California at the time of their painting. You can visit these for free.
You can also pay to head to the top floor viewing area. To get here, you’ll take a small, historic elevator up to a set of stairs. You’ll then climb about 80 steps to get to the open-air top floor. From here, you peek through several plastic windows with views all around the SF Bay.
>> Find out more about visiting Coit Tower
>> More hills around SF with fantastic views
If you love beautiful outdoor art, this is one of the San Francisco things to do that you will not want to miss!
The 16th Avenue Steps are a colorful, mosaic set of stairs on SF’s Inner Sunset District. The theme is from the sea to the stars.
At the bottom of the steps, you will see underwater creatures, and as you walk up the steps, you will be taken closer and closer to the sky, the moon, and the sun.
>> Tips to find and visit the 16th Avenue Steps
>> More beautiful staircases to explore
The Palace of Fine Arts is a free attraction in the Marina District. It was a temporary building built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It was such a hit that they rebuilt it to turn it into a permanent structure.
Today, you can walk along the sidewalks underneath its beautiful dome and columns. You can also stroll around the large pond or bring along a picnic lunch.
It usually takes less than an hour to explore, but it's a fun way to learn more about SF's vibrant history.
>> More about visiting the Palace of Fine Arts
Another fun, free stop is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. This gem in Chinatown is where you can see how fortune cookies are made and buy some tasty treats for yourself.
In the past, it was purely a factory, and you had to go somewhere else to buy their cookies. However, it now also includes several shelves of their tasty cookies so you can take some home with you.
This is another quick stop, but make sure to leave at least an hour as sometimes there is a line outside to get in.
>> More about visiting the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
There are two large fireworks displays each year hosted by the city.
The first is for the Fourth of July. It starts once it's dark, usually around 9:30 pm, and lasts for about 20 minutes. Every year, around 200,000 people head down to Fisherman's Wharf to see this magnificent display.
The second large display is on New Year’s Eve. This one is near the Bay Bridge and starts at 11:59 pm. This one also runs for about 20 minutes and is a great way to ring in the new year.
>> More things to see and do each holiday in SF
If you want to see the oldest intact building in San Francisco, head to the Mission District to visit the Mission San Francisco de Asis.
Built in 1791, this old Spanish Mission is a beautiful sight to see.
Next door, you can also visit the newer basilica and step into the courtyard to see one of the only cemeteries still in the city limits.
You will find the mission north of Dolores Park and near several colorful Mission District Murals.
>> More about visiting the Mission de Asis
North Beach, also called Little Italy, is a lovely district with plenty of fun things to do. It's home to more than a dozen Italian restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops. This is the district where Joe DiMaggio grew up and learned baseball.
It’s also the old stomping grounds of the Beat Generation. Here you can visit City Lights Bookstore, which started to sell Beat Generation works banned elsewhere.
It's also home to the Vesuvio Café, where Jack Kerouac spent a lot of time filling up on drinks. If you want to learn more about the generation, you can also swing by the Beat Museum.
Other highlights include Washington Square Park, Saints Peter, Paul Church, and several comedy, live music, and theater venues.
Here are a few of the best tours of the district.
>> Learn more about visiting North Beach
The Presidio is an old army fort initially used to protect the entrance into the SF Bay. Today, you will find a variety of fun San Francisco things to do.
You can visit the Walt Disney Family Museum (find advanced tickets), the National Cemetery, and several pieces by artists Andy Goldsworthy.
It’s also a fantastic place to hike, go to the beach, or explore old army batteries.
>> More of what to see and do in the Presidio
If you want to check out some of the best bars here, check out a list of my recommendations. You'll find everything from historic gems to those with Instagram-worthy cocktails.
You will find them spread out all around the city with a unique spot in almost every district.
>> My list of the best bars in SF
>> Best Happy Hour spots around SF
Another top destination for those visiting is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MoMA). This modern and contemporary art museum offers thousands of pieces from top artists such as Clyfford Still, Henri Matisse, and Georgis O'Keefe.
They also have an excellent program of traveling exhibits so that each visit will reveal something new.
Make sure to stop by the first-floor community area to see the Diego Rivera piece currently on display for free.
>> Find advanced tickets to visit
>> More about visiting the SF Museum of Modern Art
No visit to San Francisco is complete without having at least one bowl of clam chowder. It is so unique here that you can enjoy this treat in a bowl of sourdough bread (YUM!).
There are several excellent places to grab a cup or bowl, but Boudin’s is one of the best. Their sourdough is some of the best in the city, and their restaurant in Fisherman's Wharf is one you can't miss.
>> A list of my favorite places to eat clam chowder
The final recommendation on my list of 50 San Francisco things to do is the Asian Art Museum. Even though it's last on the list, it's one of my favorite museums in San Francisco.
It dedicates all of its space to art from around Asia. You'll find an entire section on art from China, Japan, and Korea. What makes it even better is that they have unique pieces from other, smaller nations, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.
>> Learn more about visiting the Asian Art Museum
In addition to top San Francisco things to do by month, I've also created some great guides for each season. You will find both indoor and outdoor options all year long.
Click the links below to learn more about the top options each season.
If you are planning to pop the question during your stay in San Francisco, you will find several great places for your special moment. My list of the 10 best include bars with a view, where you can propose at some of our top attractions, and a few romantic restaurants.
>> Places to get engaged in SF
Comments? Questions? Suggestions?
I would love for you join me in my private Facebook group!
It’s a great place to interact with me and others that know the area well.
You can ask questions, get advice for your upcoming stay, and then share your photos and advice with others when you return home. It’s a great community and the fastest way to get answers to those nagging questions about your visit!