From the California Gold Rush of the 19th century to the modern marvel of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco has been a 24-karat destination bringing travelers to the West Coast for centuries.
While the gold rush is long over, the city is still full of treasures for tourists! We’re travel nuts, and had a blast when we visited the city. We’ll show you the best places to visit in San Francisco and why we love each one.
The 21 Best Places to Visit in San Francisco
While San Francisco started as a town full of prospectors, The City on the Bay is now known for its rich history of countercultures, diversity, art, and commerce.
Whether they know the city for ’60s jam bands like The Grateful Dead or a great fitting pair of jeans from The Gap, there’s no doubt travelers have an impression of San Francisco.
Whatever their expectations of the city are, visitors are sure to leave their hearts in San Francisco. We’ve considered every heart left behind in compiling our list of the 21 best places to visit in San Francisco!
1. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic American image that spans almost two miles across the strait connecting San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean.
The size of the bridge is awe-inspiring in person, and for those arriving in the city by car, it provides one of the most scenic introductions to a city possible.
Walking or biking lanes provide travelers with a safe and scenic trip over the Golden Gate Bridge. Both ends of the bridge give way to National Parks, making it a show stopping all-day trip.
2. Palace of Fine Arts
Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful monument in the middle of San Francisco designed to evoke an ancient Roman ruin.
The 162-foot-high rotunda and colonnades create a striking reflection on the adjacent lagoon while tourists, joggers, and event-goers all mingle about the grounds.
Ironically, this monument to ancient architecture is now a landmark itself. Architecture aficionados, history buffs, and photographers will love a stroll through this impressive structure.
3. Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island once hosted the most notorious prison in America. The water surrounding the island has strong currents and frigid temperatures, earning the prison a reputation as impossible to escape and becoming the subject of several popular films.
Visitors no longer have to commit crimes to get a trip to Alcatraz. Instead, daily cruises will take adventurous travelers to The Rock, where tours of the prison and historic exhibits shine a light on mass incarceration in the 20th-century.
4. Oracle Park
For visitors of San Francisco during baseball season, a trip to Oracle Park, the home of the 8-time World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, is a must-see.
Behind the ballpark’s outfield is a stunning view of the bay, so those in attendance that aren’t fans of the ol’ ball game will still appreciate the gorgeous design.
Foodies will love taking in the view with some of Oracle Park’s notoriously unique ballpark snacks like shishito peppers, garlic fries, or Kraze Krab sandwiches.
5. Cable Cars
These iconic cars have run through San Francisco since the 19th century, ever since their creator witnessed an accident with a horse-drawn buggy on a slick, steep San Franciscan hill.
A single ride on a cable car costs $7, so visitors that would like to use the cars while they take their time winding through the city should opt for an all-day pass. For $23, travelers can hop off and on these moving National Historic Landmarks to their heart’s delight.
6. Twin Peaks
The best views of San Francisco come from the vantage point of Twin Peaks, 922-feet above the city streets. From the Twin Peaks, hikers can soak the city’s most iconic sights, from the skyline of downtown to the Bay Bridge that leads to Oakland.
Open from 5 am to midnight, this spot is ideal for morning birds and night owls alike. Travelers that want to stretch their legs while snapping a beautiful photo of the Golden City will love this trek.
Be sure to pack layers! Visitors agree that the rarified air at the top of Twin Peaks is much cooler than sea level.
7. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco what Central Park is to New York City. The sprawling urban oasis is 1,017 acres packed with museums, picnic spots, playgrounds, and trails.
With so much to do here, many travelers plan to spend an entire day soaking up the sun while wandering through the park’s grounds. One of Golden Gate Park’s must-see attractions is its Japanese Tea Garden.
This oldest Japanese Garden in America boasts 5 acres of gardens lined with bamboo, cherry trees, and koi ponds leading to a beautiful pagoda and tea house. With so much to see in Golden Gate Park, travelers would be wise to plan their itinerary by referring to the park’s website.
8. The Castro
The Castro is not only the epicenter of gay culture in San Francisco but is considered the gay capital of the world. The rich history of this neighborhood includes the rise of prominent LGBTQ politician Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay politicians in the country.
History aside, the Castro neighborhood remains an inclusive and dynamic neighborhood brimming with restaurants and nightlife.
When Chinese immigrants found themselves excluded from the gold mines during the California Gold Rush, they began building a network of businesses in a neighborhood they could call their own.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the biggest and oldest in America and is a vibrant, must-see location for any visitor to the city.
At 24 blocks, the neighborhood is easy to traverse by foot, and curious visitors will love spending an afternoon wandering through its shops and restaurants.
Whether you watch how fortune cookies are made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory or take in the Tin How Temple, America’s oldest Chinese temple, there is something for everyone in Chinatown.
10. Angel Island State Park
Nature and hiking enthusiasts should carve out enough time in San Francisco to spend a day exploring Angel Island State Park. Located in San Francisco Bay, taking a ferry across the water reveals miles of unique hiking terrain.
Whether you’re a fitness buff that wants to take on 800 feet of elevation in three miles or would rather walk the relatively flat 6-mile perimeter, Angel Island State Park will meet you at your level.
Ferry rides to the island cost $9.75. The tickets are only sold one way at a time, so travelers will pay the same price to get back. A guided tour of Angel Island is also available for $15.50.
11. City Lights Bookstore
History and literature fans should visit City Lights, the half-century-old bookstore and publisher founded by iconic Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The shop is world-famous as a purveyor and publisher of creative and progressive prose and remains a popular gathering space for intellectuals. Taking in the historic landmark by browsing is a delight on its own, and readers will revel in the history packed into each shelf.
Also, be sure to check City Lights’ calendar for a list of upcoming readings, as the store regularly hosts book readings and conversations with writers from across the world.
12. Burritos in the Mission District
But this much is certain: you won’t find a bad burrito in San Francisco’s Mission District.
While the Mission-style burrito will be familiar to travelers as the dominant burrito style in America, getting one from a taqueria in the Mission District is getting a straight shot of steamed tortilla and flavorful filling directly from the source.
Revel in the history of hippies and America’s turbulent ’60s while strolling through the vibrant Haight-Ashbury district. While it has undergone its fair share of change since the Summer of Love, the vibes emanating from the area are still thick with peace and love.
Pose for a peace sign photo in front of the iconic intersection street signs and take your time browsing the mix of exotic head shops and high-end boutiques while soaking in the aura of an era that changed American history.
Music fans should carve out enough time to visit Amoeba Records. This 24,000 square-foot mecca of music has graced Haight St. with record stuffed shelves and hundreds of live performances for over two decades.
14. Musee Mecanique
Travelers touring the city with children in tow will love the look of wonder in their eyes when they set their sights upon the wildly quirky collection of 20th-century penny arcade games in Musee Mecanique.
Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, the museum is free to enter. Its 200 machines, most over a century old, are all available to play, though they’ll cost you more than the penny they used to!
From typewriters that mysteriously write your fortune by themselves to games that test your love personality, the Musee Mecanique is a delight for adults and kids. Show your kids just how far arcades have come!
15. California Academy of Sciences
Nestled in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is one of the most expansive natural history museums worldwide. Its 400,000 square feet house more than 46 million specimens!
The architecture of the building is a sight to behold, with its award-winning environmentally progressive design highlighting the importance of environmental science.
The price of admission starts at $29.95 for children and $39.95 for adults, though customers get more than their money’s worth.
16. Coit Tower
Situated at the top of Telegraph Hill in Pioneer Park is the 210-foot Coit Tower. Opening in 1933, the tower has become an iconic San Franciscan destination for its sweeping, 360-degree views of the city.
Art aficionados and history buffs will enjoy the tower’s murals before ascending to the observation deck. These paintings were some of the first art projects funded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Admission to the tower is $9 for adults and $6 for children, and guided tours start at an additional $5. Expect the Coit Tower to be slightly busy as it is a popular, family-friendly destination.
17. The Fillmore
For music fans, a stop by the historic Fillmore venue is a required stop. Opening in 1912, the music hall became a flashpoint for the psychedelic rock scene in San Francisco during the ’60s.
Hosting pioneering musical acts like Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane helped put the Fillmore’s name on the map. These acts, and the colorful posters that advertised their performances, defined a generation of Bay Area art.
The venue continues to host modern musical acts in its intimate space. Concert goers will love seeing the next big thing on a small stage under chandeliers and flanked by the historic rock posters of musical pioneers.
18. The Exploratorium
The Exploratorium is one of the best places to visit in San Francisco for travelers with children due to its 600 exhibits that encourage interaction.
With hands-on lessons in biology, geography, psychology, and more, both young and old will lose themselves in learning through sight, sound, and touch.
While the Exploratorium is highly effective in engaging with children, adult travelers will enjoy their time here just as much as kids.
For travelers that want to experience the Exploratorium without kids running around, the interactive museum offers 18+ attendance every Thursday from 6 pm to closing time.
19. Muir Woods National Monument
A mere 16 miles outside of the city lies Muir Woods National Monument, host to 6 miles of trails dotted by hundreds of redwood trees over 600 years old!
Visitors will be in awe of the impressive Californian topography at Muir Woods National Monument, with its tallest redwood tree stretching over 258 feet in height. Its proximity to several beaches makes this a quiet and low-cost tourist spot for families.
Parking is sparse here, so travelers should take care to arrive early. There is also a shuttle that runs from Sausalito, which is on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
20. Fisherman’s Wharf
Though Fisherman’s Wharf is about the most touristy thing to do in all of San Francisco, visitors that don’t mind braving the crowds will love spending the day exploring the nooks and crannies of this San Francisco institution.
Fisherman’s Wharf also boasts some of the city’s finest food exports. Hungry visitors should stop by Boudin’s, the city’s oldest bakery, for fresh sourdough bread or satisfy their sweet tooth by grabbing a hot fudge sundae from the nearby Ghirardelli Square.
21. Museum of 3D Illusions
In this age of social media, every traveler is looking for the perfect spot for an Instagram selfie. San Francisco’s Museum of 3D Illusions is designed exactly for this purpose.
The museum is full of interactive exhibits that use visual illusions to create mind-bending and highly photographable backdrops.
The Museum of 3D Illusions is a unique experience that all ages will appreciate, though parents with teenagers should take special note of the vibrant and interactive space.
This museum is a place that will light up the imagination of even the most angsty teenage travelers, finally giving them a reason to pull out their phones!
Things to Consider
Here are a few of the most important things to consider when visiting San Francisco.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
A good pair of athletic shoes will make your visit infinitely more comfortable. San Francisco is a highly walkable city, but a lot of that walking will be uphill or take you through expanses of grassy parks or sandy shores.
So make sure that you’re wearing comfortable sneakers – your feet will thank you at the end of the day!
Despite being the fourth largest city in California, visitors will be surprised to find that San Francisco has a very mild climate.
Temperatures rarely break ninety degrees or drop below forty, though the weather can swing wildly between these poles. Wearing light layers with a hood or a hat ensures you’ll be comfortable come rain or shine.
Like most metropolitan areas that attract heavy tourist traffic, San Francisco has its fair share of panhandlers and pickpockets.
Though the city is relatively safe for its size, visitors should be mindful of their surroundings and belongings. Pay particular attention in heavily trafficked areas like Fisherman’s Wharf or busy public transportation hubs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the most frequently asked questions for travelers visiting San Francisco.
What is San Francisco famous for?
Along with its stunning Golden Gate Bridge and infamously hilly streets, San Francisco is widely known for the hippie movement of the ’60s and the tech companies of the new Millenium.
The city has a rich history of diversity thanks to its Asian population and reputation as a haven for the LGBTQ community.
Can you walk across the Golden Gate Bridge?
Yes, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most popular tourist activities in the city, and it’s free!
The walk across is 1.7 miles and is usually fairly busy, so we recommend budgeting 90 minutes for the trip across and back. The hours for the bridge’s walkways vary by season, so check the hours before departing.
Do you need a car in San Francisco?
Unless you’re planning a trip to destinations outside of the city like Muir Woods, a car isn’t necessary for San Francisco.
The city is highly walkable, offers multiple public transportation options, and is the headquarters of rideshare giants Lyft and Uber. It also has the unfortunate distinction of having an unusually high amount of car break-ins.
Does Pier 39 have sea lions?
Pier 39 is famous for its sea lions that began taking over the pier in the ’90s. At the advice of The Marine Mammal Center, the Marina staff acquiesced to the sea lions’ residency, and they’ve remained ever since.
While their numbers fluctuate throughout the year, there are always scores of the playful sea lions barking and basking in the sun on the dock.
Is San Francisco expensive?
San Francisco is famously one of the most expensive cities to live in, and these costs also transfer to visitors to the city.
The good news is that despite higher than average prices for food and lodging, there are many free things to do in San Francisco. The city’s proximity to parks and beaches is a selling point for all tourists and will cost you nothing!
How many days should I spend in San Francisco?
With so much to do in San Francisco, it would be impossible to experience the glory of the Golden Gate City in just one day.
With the days worth of attractions at Fisherman’s Wharf, the vibrant restaurant and bar scene, and the beautiful hiking trails and beaches, visitors will appreciate having multiple days to explore. A long weekend is an excellent place to start for visitors wanting to soak in all of the city.
So, What’s the Best Place to Visit in San Francisco?
Whether visitors want to spend the day noshing on Mission burritos or peering through the bars of Alcatraz, San Francisco is a city brimming with sights, sounds, and flavors to satisfy every traveler’s tastes.
The city’s picturesque views and unique neighborhoods are labyrinths of culture that reward adventurous visitors with memories to last a lifetime!