You’ll never get bored of the endless amount of fun things to do in San Francisco. I mean, the Golden Gate Bridge city is a California staple.
Established during the historic Gold Rush era, San Francisco is now a metropolitan paradise. It offers visitors high-end shopping, dining, and sightseeing options, along with some more budget-friendly attractions.
I’ve lived in the state for 26 years and know the ins and outs of the best places to visit in California. To get you started, I’ve put together a list of the 31 absolute best things you must do while in San Francisco.
Table of Contents
- 31 Best Things to Do in San Francisco
- San Francisco Bay Cruise
- Golden Gate Park
- San Francisco Giants Game
- San Francisco Zoo
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Ferry Building
- North Beach
- Alcatraz Island
- Asian Art Museum
- Downtown San Francisco Restaurants
- Haight-Ashbury Street
- Lombard Street
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Ghirardelli Chocolate
- Angel Island
- Mission Dolores Park
- Coit Tower
- San Francisco Hills
- Japanese Tea Garden
- Castro District
- Cable Cars
- Walking Tour
- California Academy of Sciences
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Painted Ladies
- Walt Disney Family Museum
- 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
- Alamo Square Park
- Pacific Cafe
- Palace of Fine Arts Theater
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31 Best Things to Do in San Francisco
San Francisco Bay Cruise
Take a boat ride around the iconic San Francisco Bay right under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Experience San Francisco from a different point of view with a boat cruise around San Francisco Bay. Savor the fresh air scent and the Pacific Ocean wind as you sail right under the famous Golden Gate Bridge.
Multiple cruise lines leave from Fisherman’s Wharf, all with competitive prices. You won’t have to look very far for a boat tour on the wharf, chances are a tour operator will find you first.
Take a break from walking around and exploring the big city with a relaxing cruise around San Francisco Bay. This is the perfect activity to fill your San Francisco itinerary on a nice sunny day and one of the only ways to get to Alcatraz Island.
Golden Gate Park
Keep yourself entertained at this heritage park with a plethora of activities.
Golden Gate Park is the third most visited park in the United States and one of the most relaxing spots for a picnic in the big city. With 1,017 acres of recreation space, visitors and locals alike are sure to never tire of activities to do in the park.
The park encompasses the Japanese Tea Garden, California Academy of Sciences, a buffalo sanctuary, De Young Museum, and the Conservatory of Flowers. If you find yourself in San Francisco without an itinerary or a clue about what to do, Golden Gate Park is a good starting point.
🛎️ Need a Hotel? The Travelodge by Wyndham Presidio San Francisco is the closest hotel to Golden Gate Park with the best location in all of San Francisco.
San Francisco Giants Game
Participate in local sports camaraderie at a Giants game.
There’s no better way to experience local San Francisco pride than a San Francisco Giants game. This activity is one of the best things to do in San Francisco at night.
The San Francisco Giants moved from New York to SF back in 1958 and have been the major city’s main sports team ever since. If you go to a Giants game, you will want to make sure they are playing their primary rivalry team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for the best entertainment. These are the most intense games with heated sports fans.
There are also specially-themed nights at the stadium to keep spectators entertained. Check out a Giants game at Oracle Stadium during Hello Kitty Night, Peanuts Night, Portuguese Heritage Night, and more!
San Francisco Zoo
Pay a visit to your favorite zoo animals.
If you are visiting San Francisco with little ones, then you must pay the San Francisco Zoo a visit. This is one of the best zoos in California, and arguably the best in Northern California.
The San Francisco Zoo holds over 2,000 animals and thousands of plant species. Your little ones can enjoy special events like zoo camp, zoo play programs, dance parties, and more.
A trip to the zoo is one of the best things to do in San Francisco to fill your morning full of entertainment before exploring the nightlife of the major Northern California city.
Golden Gate Bridge
Experience the Golden Gate Bridge from a unique perspective.
Put your physical fitness to the test with a bike ride throughout the hilly city and over the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the most intimate way to experience the bridge, with the cool bay breeze in your face and no traffic in the bridge bike lane.
A popular option for renting a bike in San Francisco is exploring the whole city on two wheels. More adventurous cyclists can even bike to one of the best California towns, Sausalito, a 4-mile ride away. While the ride to Sausalito will be easy cruising, it is mostly downhill. That means that the ride back is mostly uphill.
Most visitors opt to load their bikes up onto the Sausalito ferry and cruise by way of the San Francisco Bay back to the mainland. This is the best option if you are a novice bike rider and don’t want to struggle on the uphill ride back.
Create a choose-your-own-adventure meal from delectable artisan eats then catch a ferry to explore San Francisco Bay.
One of San Francisco’s most historic structures, the Ferry Building is a must-do for architecture aficionados – and anyone who eats! Fresh ingredients can be procured from a weekly Farmers Market (Tuesdays & Thursdays/10 am – 2 pm, Saturdays 8 am – 2 pm,) and there are tons of dining options.
Start with anything from empanadas to caviar, then sit down for an entree course with a bay view before strolling along the water and deciding which treat you fancy for dessert. From cheesecake to hand-pies, food stalls feature delicious noms made with locally-sourced ingredients. Perfect grab-and-go items before boarding a boat!
Golden Gate Ferry Company offers service from the Ferry Building to ports throughout the bay. Whether you’re headed out on a day trip to Tiburon or looking to snap some good shots of Golden Gate Bridge, ferry boats are the easiest and most cost-effective options for getting out on the water.
⛴️ Pro Tip: For the best savings, download the Clipper mobile app, pre-load a digital card, then scan it at the departure point.
Enjoy the bustling North Beach neighborhoods’ Italian heritage and delicious eateries.
Contrary to its name, North Beach is actually a suburb of San Francisco and not a sandy beach with sunbathers. This bustling neighborhood has Italian heritage and hip cafes, retro diners, and vintage stores that appeal to thousands of Bay Area visitors.
North Beach was a popular hangout spot for beatnik revolutionaries like Kerouac and Ginsberg. Witness the splendor of this neighborhood and fall in love with its inviting atmosphere like the pioneers of generations past.
You can also catch the steps to the famed Coit Tower from North Beach or hang out in the neighborhood at night to visit the speakeasy bars and dimly-lit Italian restaurants.
Cruise by ferry to an old penitentiary in the middle of the bay.
Alcatraz Island is usually on top of many people’s San Francisco itineraries. Take a cruise on the SF Bay to arrive at an old sea-locked penitentiary institution that housed famous criminals like Al Capone.
One of the best things to do in California, all Alcatraz tour operators will include the boat ride into your entrance and tour fee. Once on the island, take a scenic walk around the small perimeter and admire the bay birds before you go on a guided tour of the inmate’s old cells inside.
This is one of the best things to do in San Francisco and is a quintessential activity in the big city. There are also great photo opportunities on the island, so this trip can’t be missed on your vacation to the bay.
Asian Art Museum
Celebrate Asian heritage with a trip to this comprehensive museum.
📍 Google Maps | Phone: (415) 581-3500 | Website | Hours: 1 pm-8 pm Thursdays, 10 am-5 pm Friday-Monday, Closed Wednesday & Tuesday | Entrance: $20, adults, $17, 65 and up, $14, 13-17 years old & college students, Free children under 12
Founded in the 1960s, this museum has one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world. The Asian Art Museum houses over 18,000 works of art in its permanent collection, some dating back to 6,000 years ago.
The Asian Art Museum on Larkin Street is a vibrant hub for discovering incredible art and the history of the world’s most populous continent. It is one of the top museums in San Francisco and is a must-see for art appreciators.
Downtown San Francisco Restaurants
Enjoy the different flavors of San Francisco.
Downtown San Francisco comprises Union Square, Chinatown, and South of Market (SoMa). Union Square has the highest concentration of hotels and is centrally located, so there is a good chance you will be staying here during your trip.
You will find plenty of eateries lining the shopping district of Union Square. San Francisco’s historic Chinatown is also a hotspot for restaurants. Downtown San Francisco is one of the most resilient districts in San Francisco. Its restaurants have been San Francisco staples since the early twentieth century.
Get your fix of Cantonese, Hong Kong, and Shanghainese food all within walking distance in Downtown San Francisco.
👉 Love Breweries? This craft beer brewery tour will take you to some of San Francisco’s top breweries around town.
See the famous hippie hangout spot in San Francisco.
A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete without visiting the quintessential hippie hangout. Haight-Ashbury is an eclectic area with a diverse crowd, vintage clothes, record stores, bookstores, and a historic gathering place for big-time celebrities like the Grateful Dead members and Jack Kerouac.
Also known as the birthplace of flower power, Haight-Ashbury is lined with colorful Victorian houses that contribute to the vibrant atmosphere of the area.
Today, visitors flock to the famous Haight-Ashbury street sign from all over the U.S. for iconic and historic photos. Grab a bite at a hip cafe or go out for a night of drinking and poetry in the most happening place in town.
Experience the most crooked street in the world.
Lombard Street is one of the best things to do in San Francisco for visitors with a car. Also known as the “most crooked street in the world,” Lombard Street is a quick and entertaining activity in San Francisco.
Check your brakes before your car heads nose-first down a steep and crooked San Francisco street at the top of the city. This is one of San Francisco’s most popular landmarks and millions of visitors have a blast driving down the street’s eight hairpin turns each year.
Lombard Street is located at the top of Russian Hill and also offers one of the best viewpoints of the SF Bay and Coit Tower.
Busy yourself with sightseeing and shopping in the Fisherman’s Wharf area
Perhaps the most famous fishing wharf in California, this waterfront walkway is the busiest area in San Francisco. Here you will find street performers, San Francisco merchandise for sale, vocal sea lions, and waterfront restaurants.
You must indulge yourself in a mouthwatering soup bread bowl at Boudin Bakery in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. You can also catch almost any tour from the wharf like Alcatraz, bike riding, cable cars, boat cruises, and more.
If you are traveling with little ones, the Aquarium of the Bay is a good pastime activity, situated right on the wharf itself. You can also stop by Pier 39 for an ice cream cone, cotton candy, or a ride on the carousel.
See how famous Ghirardelli chocolate is made at this iconic ice cream and chocolate shop.
Situated in the historic Ghirardelli Square, the original Ghirardelli ice cream and chocolate shop is a tourist favorite. It’s hard not to get hooked on the world-famous, handmade hot fudge sundaes at Ghirardelli. You may just find yourself back at the tasty chocolate shop every night of your trip.
Visitors can also take a self-guided tour of the chocolate shop, which is ideal for first-timers. Witness Ghirardelli’s historic chocolate-making equipment on display and get a behind-the-scenes look at how their signature delicacies are crafted.
There are famous photo opportunities all around the Golden Gate city, including at the Ghirardelli arch.
👉 Pro Tip: Wait until sundown to take your photo because the Ghirardelli arch lights up the streets at night.
Bike a short distance to a Mediterranean-style sleepy fishing village.
Just a short distance from San Francisco, Sausalito is one of the most beautiful Northern California small towns. Reminiscent of coastal Italy, Sausalito is a pastel-colored town that’s not to be missed.
You can reach this seaside town by car, boat, or my favorite means of transportation, bike. The 4-mile bike ride from the big city to the sleepy town is a great way to get a good workout during your trip.
This Mediterranean-style fishing village offers quaint boutiques, high-end art galleries, and yacht-filled marinas. Visiting Sausalito will feel like a vacation away from your vacation and is likely to be your new favorite San Francisco spot.
Go hiking and camping in this state park on the water.
Angel Island State Park is an isolated island right off the SF Bay and is a great place to go camping in California. Bring a tent, picnic food, and lace up your hiking boots for your excursion to Angel Island.
Many people opt for a quiet escape from the bustling city to Angel Island for overnight camping trips. You can also make a day trip from San Francisco out of it if you don’t have the equipment or too much time in Northern California. Enjoy one of the islands’ four hiking trails like the 4.8-mile Sunset Trail loop.
Take the 30-minute ferry from the big city and soak in some of the best views of San Francisco from afar.
👉 Read Next: Best Things to Do in Northern California
Mission Dolores Park
Hangout at the most popular park in San Francisco.
Mission Dolores Park is the most popular hangout spot in all of San Francisco. Enjoy a taco picnic, a nap under the sun, read a good book, sunbathe, or attend a concert in Dolores Park while in San Francisco.
The history of the park is dense, just like San Francisco’s overall city history. Thousands of displaced families lived in tents in the park after the 1906 earthquake while the city was rebuilt. Today, the park offers fun playgrounds and bears no resemblance to the saddened past and instead gives parkgoers a strong sense of community.
No matter what time you get to the park, there is always plenty of space to lounge. Just make sure to visit California during the right time of year to have the best park experience. You can count on making a friend or two while relaxing in the most visited park in San Francisco.
Enjoy the best panoramic view of the city.
This 210-foot tower stands proudly in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Built in the early 1930s, the tower is now one of the best 360-degree panoramic viewpoints in the entire city.
Take photos of the murals inside the tower that were commissioned in the 1930s by the San Francisco government to depict life during the Great Depression.
Visitors can opt for a guided, docent-led tour through the tower for a small fee. Otherwise, take the elevator to the top of the observation deck with your loved ones and admire the view from above. Witness the metropolitan city come to life with twinkling skyscraper night lights from Coit Tower in the evening.
San Francisco Hills
Get your fix of exercising with a hike through the SF hills.
Enjoy a unique perspective of San Francisco by getting acquainted with the best hiking trails in San Francisco. While most people venture to the city for the tourist attractions and the nightlife, hiking in San Francisco is an overlooked activity that is a great way to get to know the other side of the city.
Take a trip to the El Presidio de San Francisco area for some great trails. This old Spanish- indigenous military outpost encompasses 24 miles of hiking trails on its grounds. The Presidio lies on a migratory bird route, providing great bird-watching opportunities along the hikes.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area also hosts great seaside hiking trails. You will find harder hiking trails here right along the coastline and in some cases, along the sandy coastal shores.
Japanese Tea Garden
Walk amongst quiet foliage and settle down to a warm cup of tea.
Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese tea garden in the United States. Enjoy the serenity of the environment and the harmonious, calm garden atmosphere.
Spanning 5 acres, the Japanese Tea Garden is a resilient cultural landmark in San Francisco that represents the hardships of Japanese immigrants in the area.
Walk the winding paths of the garden across wooden bridges and stepping stones, past koi ponds and peaceful zen gardens before you relax in the tea house with some fresh Japanese refreshments to commemorate your tranquil afternoon.
Enjoy the San Francisco bars and clubs in this historically LGBTQ district.
San Francisco’s Castro District is synonymous with LGBTQ culture. Most visitors venture into the area to experience rich nightlife but you can also find picturesque murals, a historic movie palace, and cultural museums in the area.
Keep an eye out for LGBTQ landmarks throughout the district like rainbow crosswalks and the famous Rainbow Walk. Similar to the Hollywood Stars, the Rainbow Walk plaques commemorate famous LGBTQ rights pioneers.
The Castro District has the largest concentration of bars and clubs in San Francisco, making it the ultimate hotspot for nightlife in the big city. From gay bars and drag shows to Latin and hip-hop clubs, party the night away in this area for an unforgettable San Francisco experience.
🛎️ Need a Hotel? The Hotel Castro San Francisco is within walking distance of the best bars and clubs in the Castro District.
Go for a ride up and down the hilly SF streets in a traditional cable car.
Go for a ride in a historic San Francisco cable car to be fully initiated into San Francisco culture. It is one of the last operating cable car systems in the world and is a blast to go on among the hilly streets of SF.
This unique San Francisco experience has been around since the late 1800s and is a staple in the city’s history. To maximize your cable car experience, opt for a standing position in the car and hang on for the ride.
Catch the cable cars at one of two turnaround stations at Powell or California and Market Street, or catch them in action along the route. The cable cars transport visitors and locals alike from 7 am-10:30 pm daily.
Get to know the facts and secrets about the famous Gold Rush town.
There’s no better way to experience the rich history of San Francisco than with a walking tour. Get to know the golden city on a more personal level by trudging your way through the busy city on foot.
There are free and paid walking tours operating throughout the city at all times. Pick one up at Fisherman’s Wharf on a whim or book one ahead of time to ensure your space on a tour.
The Free SF Tour is a top walking tour operator in the city and they offer tours daily at 10 am and 6 pm. Private tours are also available for an additional fee. Tour destinations typically include Union Square, Chinatown, the Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
👉 Pro Tip: Although the tour is free, guides operate on tips, so don’t forget to bring a few bucks!
California Academy of Sciences
Learn about natural history as you make your way through the museum exhibits.
This research institute and natural history museum in San Francisco is the perfect outing for adults and children alike. Wander through the rainforest or hold your breath as you swim through the aquarium exhibit at the California Academy of the Sciences.
If you don’t live in a big city like Los Angeles or New York City with a world-class natural history museum, then it is highly recommended that you get your fix while visiting San Francisco.
Check out the academy’s calendar so you don’t miss upcoming events like nightlife at the academy with a live DJ, outdoor bars, and live animals on display.
Muir Woods National Monument
Take an easy hike through the towering redwoods at the monument.
Follow the US-101 40 minutes north to this redwood forest sanctuary. A part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Muir Woods National Monument is a great way to experience famous Californian redwood trees without venturing too far from the city.
The monument protects one of the last remaining ancient redwood forests in the bay area. Explore the monument trails that wind through the redwoods along educational boardwalk paths in the 558-acre area.
The tree’s ages range from 400 to 800 years and reach heights of up to 250 feet. The area was created to protect the historic trees from the lodging industry and sees thousands of nature-loving tourists today.
Take a classic photo of the famous Victorian-style houses.
The painted ladies are among the most photographed sights in San Francisco. The shoulder-to-shoulder pastel-colored homes are a postcard trademark of the Northern California city.
The Victorian-style homes pay homage to San Francisco’s early days and welcome stunning views of the San Francisco skyline in the distance. Made incredibly popular by the TV series Full House, many visit the Painted Ladies today for the best photo opportunity in the city.
The best time for a Painted Ladies photoshoot is during sunrise when crowds are sparse and the sun gently illuminates the feminine homes with a golden hue.
🛎️ Need a Hotel? The Queen Anne Hotel is situated near the Painted Ladies and embodies a similar Victorian-style architecture.
Walt Disney Family Museum
Learn about the trials and tribulations of Walt Disney.
This San Francisco museum features the life and legacy of Walt Disney. After hiking in the El Presidio area, Disney lovers visit this museum to get an inside look at the Disney creator’s life.
This non-profit museum was founded by Walt’s eldest daughter and offers visitors inside information about his creativity, his failures, and triumphs that led to the world-famous creation of Disneyland.
Inside you will find personal artifacts that belonged to the animator as well as the first-known drawing of the famous Mickey Mouse character. Take a break from exploring the museum exhibits with a Disney movie screening at the museum’s Fantasia-themed theater.
The museum is open Thursdays-Sundays and is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and January 1.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Visit the mosaic steps for the perfect social media photo.
Visit the creative mosaic steps in the heart of Downtown San Francisco. The 163 tiled steps are a local San Francisco community collaboration in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood.
The intricate designs can be enjoyed both far away and close up. Most San Francisco tourists visit the steps for a unique photo opportunity in the big city. This is a somewhat unknown attraction and you are sure to encounter far fewer crowds here than in Downtown San Francisco or the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
Many public staircases line the Golden Gate city but the 16th Avenue mosaic stairs are by far the most artistically elaborate.
💸 Feeling the Pinch of Inflation? Check out my guide to doing San Francisco on a Budget.
Alamo Square Park
Play at the tennis court, have a picnic, or hit up the walking trails.
The Alamo Square Park is right in front of the iconic Painted Ladies. Alamo Square is complete with a full tennis court, walking trails, and plenty of space for picnics.
This park is high in recreation popularity, along with Mission Dolores Park. The Alamo Square Park sits atop a hilltop, providing parkgoers with panoramic views of San Francisco.
There is an off-leash portion on the western end of the park as well, so you don’t have to leave your four-legged friend tied up. The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, and is a popular lounging area for both locals and visitors.
Satisfy cravings for fresh fish and friendly service at Outer Richmond’s favorite seafood restaurant.
Pacific Cafe is one of San Francisco’s best-loved local gems. Owned and operated by the same family since the day it opened in 1974, the warm ambiance of this restaurant makes every guest feel right at home.
You’ll want to get here early! They don’t take reservations, but they do offer complimentary wine while you wait. Chatting with locals over a glass of pinot is a wonderful part of the experience here, and one you won’t find anywhere else.
Located on the corner of Geary Blvd & 34th Ave, the cafe is just a few minutes from Golden Gate Park by car, and just a 10-minute walk from Legion of Honor, one of the city’s top museums.
🐟 Menu Highlights: Pacific Cafe’s parmesan-crusted halibut is to die for, and make sure you check out the daily specials – they sell out for good reason!
Palace of Fine Arts Theater
Enjoy a live performance at the historical theater or go for a stroll around its quiet courtyard.
Originally constructed to display works of art, the Palace of Fine Arts Theater has blossomed into one of California’s top performing arts theaters. Its Greco-Roman palace architecture is surrounded by an idyllic pond filled with swans and vegetation.
The theater is now used as an art gallery, for weddings, special events, and live performance plays and musicals. This is one of the best things to do in San Francisco in the evening to truly experience the artistic clamor of the big city.
There you have it, 31 entertaining things to do while you visit the iconic Golden Gate city of San Francisco. Be sure to check out my California road trip itinerary for planning the best California vacation possible.
Have fun exploring the best things to do in San Francisco!
Jericha Griffin contributed to this guide.
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