San Francisco is one of America’s most visited and most loved cities. It’s often called “Everybody’s Favorite City,” thanks to its lively, welcoming vibe, diverse communities, natural beauty, and vast array of attractions.
This vibrant cultural hub truly has something for everyone, from art museums to incredible viewpoints to world-class cuisine. However, having a San Francisco itinerary is essential. So, if planning a visit, read on to discover the most exciting things to do in San Francisco.
What to Do in San Francisco
To help you decide what to do in San Francisco, we’ve compiled a list of our 12 favorite things to do and see in The Golden City.
But first: Don’t miss the other California trip guides to plan an epic trip!
Admire the iconic Golden Gate Bridge
Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is an incredibly touristic attraction. Still, you cannot visit the city without checking out this iconic landmark. So, where is the best spot to see this huge red bridge? Several locations give great yet different perspectives of the bridge, so we recommend admiring it from a few places.
Baker Beach on the southwest side of the bridge gives a stunning vista, blending the rugged shoreline cliffs of The Presidio with the 1-mile long suspension bridge. Then, Fort Point in Marine Drive, just east of the bridge on the southern side, is another popular viewpoint.
Seeing the bridge from afar is a totally different experience. On the northern side, Hawk Hill gives an entire perspective of the bridge from an elevated position and is quieter than the official viewpoint. Lastly, Lands End Labyrinth in Sea Cliff provides a distinct image of the bridge in a stunning, untouched natural setting, and is a great hike in San Francisco.
Visit Alcatraz Island
Visiting the abandoned federal prison, Alcatraz Island is another of the top things to do in San Francisco. This intriguing landmark is located on a small island, 1.25 miles from the city center, and was once home to some of the country’s most notorious gangsters, such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
You can reach Alcatraz Island via a short ferry ride from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Alcatraz Island tickets include a ranger-led tour of the building and gardens and last between 2 and 3 hours. You can visit during the day or opt for a night tour to make your experience spookier.
A “behind the scenes” tour is also available that lasts up to 5 hours. You’ll go around in a smaller group and visit special areas like a secret tunnel and an underground jail.
Cruise along the bay on a boat trip
One of the best ways to enjoy San Francisco sightseeing is from the water. You’ll get incredible views of the city skyline and the unforgettable experience of sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. On a 1-hour bay cruise by boat, you’ll also cruise around the notorious Alcatraz Island and see the famous sea lions at PIER 39.
The 60-minute cruise runs four times a day, from 11 am to 4:45 pm. It includes commentary to learn more about the landmarks, and there’s a full-service bar on board, too.
Admire the view from Twin Peaks
The Twin Peaks in San Francisco, a 64-acre hilltop park, is one of the most popular places to go in San Francisco. The park has two 922-foot-high peaks that give a breathtaking panoramic view of the bay area. You can drive up to the peaks or take the 1-hour climb to the viewpoint.
The vistas from Twin Peaks are incredible during the day, but the night view gives a totally different experience. So, if you’re in SF for a while, I’d recommend taking two trips here.
Enjoy a day at PIER 39 & Fisherman’s Whaft
Although PIER 39 may look like an overly touristic place, there are several reasons why it’s one of the best places to visit in San Francisco. There is something for everyone here, from amusement park rides to an aquarium to a 3D roller coaster.
However, the biggest attraction at PIER 39 is undoubtedly the pier’s tenants, the hundreds of sea lions that choose to make it their home. If you’re visiting San Francisco from late summer to late spring, you’ll see these incredible creatures lazing around down by the pier.
PIER 39 is just one part of Fisherman’s Wharf. Other San Francisco attractions here include Ghirardelli Marketplace and Musée Mécanique. The former is an old chocolate factory that is now a shopping center, and the latter is an old-fashioned arcade with antique coin-operated games. There are many other attractions and plenty of great restaurants and shops, making it easy to spend an entire day wandering around here.
Explore the historic Nob Hill
Aside from being a diverse, cosmopolitan city, San Francisco is full of beautiful historical landmarks, many of which are in the luxurious neighborhood of Nob Hill. This lavish part of the city was once home to the mansions of the Big Four railroad barons, and many of the old buildings are still there today.
You can explore Nob Hill’s ancient landmarks and learn about the area’s history on a free walking tour. On this 2-hour tour, you’ll visit the gothic-style Grace Cathedral, the 18th century Flood Mansion, and the luxurious Fairmont Hotel. As you wander around each landmark, you’ll learn some surprising stories of what has happened within those walls over the years.
Check out the famous Lombard Street
Lombard Street is undoubtedly the most photographed street in SF, famed for its steep, one-block section with eight sharp turns. You can challenge yourself to walk up the steep incline, drive up there, or take the Hyde Street cable car to the top.
You’ll enjoy an excellent perspective of the city below from the top of the street. Thanks to its central location, visiting this crooked street doesn’t take much time, so it is a must-do in San Francisco for every first-time visitor.
Ride the iconic cable cars
San Francisco is well known for its cable car system and is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. While over 20 cable car lines were running through the city at its peak, only three remain today.
Yes, riding a cable car in San Francisco is purely a tourist thing and not something the locals use. Even so, it’s a fantastic and unique way to see the city, especially if it’s your first time.
The California St. line runs 1.4 miles (2.3 km), the Powell–Mason line goes for 1.6 miles (2.6 km), and the Powell–Hyde line has a total length of 2.1 miles (3.4 km). So, if one ride is not enough, you can create your own city tour via the cable car system.
Embrace wonder at the California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is not just a natural history museum; it’s the world’s only aquarium-planetarium-rainforest-living museum (yes, you read that right). A visit to this mind-blowing museum is one of the coolest, most unique, and most educational San Francisco activities for all ages.
The diverse and interactive Steinhart Aquarium is home to over 40,000 live animals from 900 species and its own coral reef! The four-story Osher Rainforest boasts over 1600 exotic plants and animals and features a 100,000-gallon Amazonian tank of tropical fish. Then, in the 75-foot Morrison Planetarium, you can enjoy cutting-edge visualizations and hyper-realistic virtual environments!
Seek out the city’s colorful staircases
There are many unusual and quirky things to see in San Francisco, one of which is the colorful staircases! The city has 400 different stairways, and many are painted in bright colors and extravagant patterns.
One of the most famous staircases is the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, consisting of 163 individually designed steps. The 290-step Lyon Street stairway is another must-see and an excellent example of creative urban planning. These stairs start on Broadway Street, leading up to Pacific Heights, and then to Marina District.
Don’t miss the greenest staircase in the city either. Walking up the Filbert Street Steps feels like walking through a tropical rainforest, with lush gardens, tree canopies, and endless greenery rising from underneath the steps. The hidden staircase leads to Telegraph Hill from the Embarcadero. It is hard to find as it begins and ends as a regular street so keep your eyes peeled.
Take a stroll around Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park consists of 1000 acres of gorgeous landscaped gardens, rolling hills, and tree groves. This city oasis is loved by locals and tourists alike and is a favored place to take a walk or spend a relaxing afternoon.
Within the grounds, you’ll also find the San Francisco Botanic Gardens, Conservatory of Flowers, and the stunning man-made waterfall on Strawberry Hill. The manicured Japanese Tea Garden is another highlight with pagodas, ponds full of giant koi fish, and a traditional teahouse.
The Golden Gate Park is a cultural hub, too. The Music Concourse puts on free concerts every summer, and there are often street performers here, too. The park is also home to the de Young Art Museum & Sculpture Garden and the California Academy of Sciences Museum. So, if you’re into nature, music, or art, Golden Gate Park is a must-see in San Francisco.
Go wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa Valley
Finally, if you get the itch to escape the city’s hustle and bustle, head out to the beautiful wine regions nearby. The famous Napa Valley is just 75 minutes from San Francisco, and the historic winemaking valley of Sonoma is even closer, which makes them one of the best day trips or weekend trips from San Francisco.
If you don’t have your own transport, you can book a half or full-day wine country excursion with tastings. You’ll visit wineries in both Sonoma and Napa, with guided walks through the vineyards. The winery experts will show you the fermentation process and teach you about barrel-aging and bottling.
Of course, the best part about visiting any vineyard is tasting their products. You’ll get to try some of Napa’s award-winning varietals on this tour, tasting 3 to 5 signature blends at each winery.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
There’s no doubt when it comes to accommodation in big cities like San Francisco that it’s a little overwhelming choosing which area to stay in! To keep it simple, the best area for first-time visitors or for entertainment, Union Square (aka Downtown SF) is the place to be. Here are the top picks for one of the best places to stay in San Francisco:
- San Francisco Marriott Marquis: A lavish and modern hotel with city views.
- Orchard Hotel: An elegant and lovely boutique hotel.
- HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel: Basic, but comfortable and budget-friendly private rooms with a social atmosphere.