Things to Do in San Francisco
Overview: With trademark hills and the Pacific Ocean a frequent backdrop across its seven square miles, San Francisco serves as a cultural melting pot where hippies and tech workers mingle over tacos, artisanal cocktails, and cold-brew coffee. With weather patterns as diverse as its neighborhoods, the City by the Bay offers international flavor: dim sum in Chinatown, cannoli in North Beach, izakaya bites in Japantown, and a bustling food hall scene in the Ferry Building, to name a few. History and culture thrive in the Castro and Mission District; Union Square—San Francisco’s premier shopping destination—showcases both world-renowned boutiques and indie designers; and open-air adventure is never hard to find in Golden Gate Park or along the fog-laced stretches of Ocean Beach. Visitors come for iconic experiences such as cable-car rides, photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, and tours of Alcatraz Island—and stick around for wine tasting trips to Napa and Sonoma wine country, visits to the giant redwoods in Muir Woods, and adventures in Berkeley, Oakland, Sebastopol, and the greater Bay Area. Keep in mind that the weather can be more temperamental than other California cities like Los Angeles, so pack a jacket for when the fog rolls in off the hills, or plan a trip to coincide with San Francisco’s Indian Summer, starting in early fall.
- Language: English
- Currency: $
- Time Zone: UTC (-08:00)
- Country Code: +1
- Best Time to Visit: Summer, Fall
When to Visit: Summer usually includes the biggest concentration of festivals, including Pride and the Outside Lands music festival, but typically cooler temperatures, whereas fall offers warmer sunny weather. Whenever you choose to visit, come prepared with layers, as the fog usually burns off by mid-morning and returns in the early evening, bringing with it up to 20-degree swings in temperature.
Getting Around: Although it’s a fairly walkable city, San Francisco is also easily traversed by MUNI’s system of buses and light-rail trains, including the iconic cable cars. BART rapid rail connects the city with the greater Bay Area to the east, and CalTrain’s commuter rail service runs along the San Francisco Peninsula. Uber and Lyft ride-sharing apps are also popular.
Tipping: For most service-industry businesses (restaurants, bars, cabs), tips are expected, and 10-20% is standard, with 15% generally sufficient. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the sales tax by two, which equals around a 17% tip.
You Might Not know…: Most of the BART light-rail trains connecting San Francisco to the surrounding Bay Area stop running shortly after midnight. If you miss the train, you can opt for Uber or Lyft to get home. If you cross a bridge, expect an additional charge for the toll.
A former federal prison that held notorious criminals Al “Scarface” Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alcatraz is now a national historic landmark and one of the most sought-out (and sold-out) attractions in the San Francisco Bay Area. Highlights include touring what’s left of the maximum-security facility, hearing stories from former inmates, and sailing past the Golden Gate Bridge to reach the craggy isle.
The red-orange Golden Gate Bridge is a San Francisco icon, which spans 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) across and connects the city’s northernmost point to Marin County. While the suspension bridge is a major route for Bay Area commuters, the famous landmark also attracts visitors from around the world with its panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz, and San Francisco.
A natural harbor spanned by the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the picturesque San Francisco Bay is the defining feature of California’s Bay Area. Get out on the chilly, choppy water—or just savor the views from the shoreline as the fog rolls in.
As you drive north on Highway 41 towards Yosemite Valley, you'll pass through a tunnel and, on other side, you'll be treated to an epic view: Bridalveil Fall spills over granite cliffs into a verdant valley while El Capitan and Half Dome stand sentry. Originally constructed in 1933, Tunnel View is the most famous—and visited—scenic overlook in Yosemite.
A 2008 renovation included a more accessible viewing area, improved traffic flow and educational exhibits. Every vista from Tunnel View is picture-worthy, but for frame-worthy light, try to time your stop at Tunnel View to coincide with sunset, when the light turns to shadow and sweeps across the valley.
Home to one of the world's last remaining coastal redwood forests, Muir Woods National Monument allows travelers to hike, relax, or picnic among giant Northern California trees only minutes from the city. This protected nature reserve is also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, home to Stinson Beach—the park's only lifeguarded beach—and Fort Baker.
Once the stomping ground of Italian fishermen, Fisherman’s Wharf is now one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations. The bustling waterfront strip is filled with souvenir shops, seafood restaurants, and a wealth of family-friendly attractions—most notably a colony of sea lions that sunbathes and poses for photos on Pier 39.
San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of North America’s oldest and largest, has long been one of the city’s top attractions. Highlights of this bustling neighborhood that dates back to the California Gold Rush include shops, dim sum restaurants, temples, and markets.
San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts dates to the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. One of the only remaining buildings from the World’s Fair, the Greco-Roman–inspired ruin is a favorite Bay Area venue. Walk under the picturesque rotunda, wander the grounds, and visit lagoons that are home to ducks, swans, and geese.
Despite its name, San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood does not border the water and has no sandy spots. But its position between Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and the Embarcadero makes it one of the city’s most popular areas for visitors and locals, all of whom enjoy its Italian eateries, Beat history, quiet park, and nightlife scene.
The 1,000-plus acres (412 hectares) of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are home to museums, picnic sites, lakes, golf, hiking and biking paths, concerts, and more. From the attraction-laden east end to the wilder west side where bison roam, the park offers plenty of ways to relax, get a culture fix, exercise, or gather with friends.
More Things to Do in San Francisco
Though it doesn’t often get the attention of its famous sibling, the Golden Gate, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is spectacular in its own right. Once the largest and most expensive bridge of its time, in 75 years the Bay Bridge has proved critics wrong – the dream of connecting San Francisco to Oakland would not be stopped by anything. Logistics, cost, and politics couldn’t stop the expansion, and now the Bay Bridge has made history yet again my becoming the world’s largest self -anchored suspension bridge. Safely transporting the 280,000 automobiles that transverse its roads every day, the Bay Bridge connects San Francisco to Oakland, with a little stop at Yerba Buena Island along the way.
Union Square is the city’s main dining, entertainment, and shopping district. Visitors can shop at department stores and designer boutiques; stop into various art galleries; grab a bite to eat at any of a number of restaurants; and see a live performance at a nearby theater.
One of the most visited sights in San Francisco, the multilevel Pier 39 complex is home to shops, restaurants, street performers, and a video arcade. Its waterfront setting on the San Francisco Bay means visitors can take in panoramic bay views, breathe fresh sea air, and watch sunbathing California sea lions.
The heart of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood will forever be associated with the hippie movement and American counterculture. Today the district’s mix of boutiques, smoke shops, vintage stores, restaurants, and bars makes it a favorite among locals. It also has a high concentration of the beautifully restored Victorian homes the city is known for.
One of the United States’ most popular national parks, Yosemite National Park is packed with natural beauty and views that never cease to amaze. From the majestic mountain peaks to the green meadows on the valley floor (plus all the waterfalls and groves of tall Sequoia trees in between), there’s no shortage of outdoor and leisure activities set against the park’s epic views. And whether you spend a single day or stay for a multi-day camping trip, you’ll feel a deeper appreciation for the nature at this national treasure.
Lombard Street runs more than 20 blocks across northern San Francisco, but only one block—between Hyde and Leavenworth streets—gives the thoroughfare its nickname, “the crookedest street in the world.” Lined with well-manicured flowers and trees and tidy million-dollar homes, the red-brick-paved road zigzags its way down Russian Hill.
Made famous by the opening credits of the late-’80s TV showFull House, San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are a prime example of the city’s candy-colored Victorian architecture. Also known as Postcard Row, the houses stretch uphill, boasting a view of the downtown skyline beyond.
Revel in nature’s wonders and discover which creatures call the waters of Northern California home at the hands-on Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf. There, marvel at the wonders of jellyfish or tunnel under sharks to view the true underbelly of marine life in the immersive exhibits.
Since it was founded in 1776, the Presidio of San Francisco has had many lives, from a Spanish military site to an American Army post to a National Park Service location. Today, it draws visitors for its cultural sites, hiking trails, public art, restaurants, and views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.
The first US version of Europe’s popular dungeon attractions, the San Francisco Dungeon takes you on spooky journey through the city’s gruesome past, from Gold Rush fever to Alcatraz escapes. During this immersive theatrical experience, live actors and special effects bring 200 hundred years of San Francisco’s history to life.
One of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks, the Ferry Building is a port of entry and transit hub, marketplace, and farmers market. Food merchants, specialty shops, wine bars, and restaurants line the historic building’s hallways, making it a one-stop shop for experiencing the diverse culinary flavors and master retailers of San Francisco.
A wide swath of beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area backed by restored wetlands is just part of Crissy Field’s story. An integral part of San Francisco’s waterfront, Crissy Field hosts a yacht harbor, a tidal marsh, and Crissy Promenade—a popular bike and pedestrian path that climbs from the beach to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
The largest natural island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island—a California state park—is often overshadowed by the much smaller Alcatraz Island. Yet with an equally interesting history as a West Coast version of Ellis Island, Angel Island also offers hiking, biking, and picnicking, all with views of the San Francisco Bay, city skyline, and Golden Gate Bridge.
Acting as both the waterfront and major road along the eastern edge of San Francisco, the Embarcadero stretches from Fisherman’s Wharf to South Beach, passing through some of the city’s most popular destinations. It attracts visitors and locals with its restaurants, bars, hotels, tourist attractions, event spaces, bay cruises and ferries, and a wide pathway for walkers and joggers.
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