Beautiful “San Fran,” home to the Golden Gate Bridge and much more, is a melting pot of culture and art all wrapped into one.
There are many things to do in this city that far exceeds any list. San Francisco is known to be unique, artsy, and culture-rich, all settled right along the beautiful San Francisco Bay.
You could never run out of things to do in this vibrant, exciting city, from fresh seafood markets to art festivals, to islands to wharves.
16 Best Things to Do in San Francisco
In this article, we will discuss just twenty of the things one can do in the Golden City. From sports to entertainment, to nights out to date nights, we will explore some of the best options for you, whether this is your fifth time here or your first time.
You can take a stroll or cable car up and down the winding, twisting, steep streets the city offers, enjoy some fresh seafood at a restaurant with a view of the ocean, or even escape away to the nearby Alcatraz Island!
You can sail the bay or even go parasailing for those who truly enjoy the ocean- whichever your heart desires. Even helicopter tours are available to give you a unique view of the many sights to see.
Fly by the Golden Gate Bridge and get a birds-eye view, drift over the many city streets, observe the architecture below, and even take a flight over the ocean! You’ll become immersed in what the city offers, from nature to art to the hustle and bustle.
Known as one of the top cities known for art murals displayed throughout the city, everywhere you look, you can see street artists selling artwork, musicians playing music, and even psychics offering readings.
The city’s quirkiness is unmatched, and you’ll find nowhere else like San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
First on our list is the clearest and most well-known image of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge. The 1.7-mile bridge was built in 1937 and has been stunning visitors ever since.
It acts as a great point of entry, and when travelers from overseas see the bridge, they know they have reached the Sunshine State.
It is the longest suspension bridge globally. Walking, biking, driving, or flying over in a helicopter is a marvel. It is considered an engineering wonder, as it was the first.
You have the opportunity to go on free walking tours on the bridge that are offered by the local transportation district, allowing you to learn more about the bridge’s history. This gives you ample views of the vast Pacific Ocean that the bridge stands over and gives you the feeling of being on top of the world.
2. The Bay
The Bay area on the beautiful pacific offers many activities to guests. One of the most popular activities on the Bay is day cruising or sunset cruising, where you can lounge and sunbathe on your cruise while enjoying the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
You could even take a night cruise, perfect for hosting a party on the water to include dinner, drinks, and dancing. You can enjoy freshly caught seafood while drifting along the water.
Some other unique options for enjoying the water include paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing, and even breathtaking whale watching. You can even plan a trip to the area during a national holiday to watch the beautiful firework displays over the water.
Feel free to take a day trip on your cruise to nearby Tiburon or Sausalito towns for shopping and dining. Or enjoy a sophisticated wine-tasting cruise that offers the best of nearby Napa Valley wines to try.
3. San Francisco Beaches
Beaches in San Francisco and the surrounding area display rocky cliffs, steep inclines, and rough waters. Although San Francisco is not one of the more popular places in California to visit the beach, the beaches there offer so much beauty.
Baker Beach tops the list of famous beaches in San Fran, as it is the closest view to the Golden Gate Bridge. Nearby China Beach is rockier than Baker Beach, making it less trafficked and great for those wanting to avoid crowds.
Lands End Viewpoint beach is located inside a small, rocky cove and offers hiking trails, picnic tables, a shipwreck, and even a lighthouse to explore.
Another unique option is Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay state beach, offering pristine sand, crystal clear blue waters, and beautiful sand dunes. This is a one-of-a-kind option for beachgoers to experience that can not be found anywhere else.
4. Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island is a small island in the Bay, rich in history and infamy. The island was initially developed with facilities for a lighthouse and a military prison.
The island got converted into a federal prison in 1934, and many of the original buildings are still standing making it a great tourist destination.
You can take a ferry to the island from Pier 33, which takes about fifteen minutes to get to. The island offers a grand tour of its history there, and you can go on a self-guided or guided tour of your choice.
The island contains rough waters and strong currents that are perfect for escaping from the prison, impossible for inmates. There are many natural rock pools and seabird colonies to observe on your visit here.
5. Lombard Street
The famous Lombard Street is another well-known landmark in San Francisco. It is known as the most crooked street in the world. It is featured on many postcards of the area and draws millions of tourists every year.
The steep east-west facing street features eight sharp turns, originally constructed due to homeowners complaining of the street being too steep to drive down. The sharp turns help travel down the steep hill, but you must exercise caution when going down.
The paved bricks can be a bit slippery, and more oversized vehicles can have a more challenging time making the turns. You can rent a tony Go Car to take the drive down, making it easy and fun.
Tour buses can’t make the drive down the street, but a small group city tour called the San Francisco Love Tour takes you around the city in a classic VW bus.
It goes down Lombard Street and stops at all the famous locations in the city known for famous hippies, singers, and bands. San Francisco is known for the hippie vibe from the 60s, so this is a great way to spend your time here getting the whole city experience.
6. Painted Ladies
Another postcard-worthy, classic San Francisco landmark is the Painted Ladies. Affectionately named, these pastel-colored homes are a striking view against the San Francisco city backdrop. This line of quirky houses is known as “postcard row” due to its photogenic abilities.
This is a big tourism hotspot visited on many guided tours. Make sure to snap many pictures of these beautiful, quirky homes during the beautiful sunsets that offer the perfect backdrop. The homes got featured in the American sitcom “Full House.”
There is a park surrounding the homes called Alamo Square Park, where you can bring your dogs, play a ball game, or even have a picnic. Grab some coffee or food from some local coffee and food trucks and take in the views and the vibes.
7. Cable Cars
There is nothing more uniquely San Francisco than San Fran cable cars. When people think of this city, they often picture the cable cars going up and down the many winding roads. They are a symbol of the city and a world-renowned icon.
San Francisco was the first city to launch cars pulled by cables, which contributed to the cable cars in the city becoming infamous. They were invented in San Fran about 150 years ago and are considered a National Historic Landmark- a perfect visit for any history buff.
Beautiful, old, and artistic, these cars are kept in their original style, with ornate windows and doors. You can find a cable car available to you at any of the three cable car lines in the city at the white cable car signpost.
8. Pier 39
Pier 39 is another popular tourist attraction, consisting of many shops, restaurants, bars, video arcades, and street performers. You can find the Aquarium of the Bay here and even a carousel. This is a perfect place for a family vacation, as it is very kid-friendly.
You can also find California sea lions lounging out by Seal Rock here, who naturally migrate to the area. Most sea lions are found in September and peaking in November.
There are great activities to do here at Pier 39, including virtual 3D rides. You can find many family-friendly seafood restaurants, to bring your kids to try some extremely fresh-caught Pacific seafood.
9. Little Italy
San Francisco Little Italy is a portion of the city filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, and historic sights, all founded by the Italian immigrants local to the area.
You can spend some time in Washington Square Park, which happens to be one of the oldest parks in San Francisco, and enjoy outdoor festivals or even a picnic.
Walking down Columbus Avenue is a sight in itself, as you’ll admire the many ornate and historical buildings inspired by Italian architecture. You can hear the locals speaking in Italian, and feel transported directly to Italy.
Stop by some of the famous Italian bakeries, cafes, and coffee shops, including Cafe Trieste. Cafe Trieste is famous for coffee and opera. The cafe hosts liver opera performances on the weekends, which you can enjoy while sipping on some authentic Italian espresso.
10. Oracle Park
Oracle Park is home to the infamous San Francisco Giants, the major league baseball team. Enjoying a game while visiting here is the perfect pastime for baseball lovers.
Oracle Park has been in business since 2000 and is the perfect spot to grab some fantastic San Fran food while watching the game. Unlike most baseball stadiums that only offer hotdogs and funnel cakes as options for food, here you can find crab dishes and delectable porcini doughnuts.
Of course, you can still find the typical hot dogs, popcorn, and cracker jacks, but the recommendation is to branch out and find a crab sandwich to get the real San Fran experience.
11. Museum of 3D Illusions
This is an excellent place for kids and adults alike to enjoy many interactive art exhibits and take pictures of their experiences. Some examples of the exhibits offered include surviving a lava eruption, skydiving, hanging from a skyscraper, and even surfing!
Every exhibit toys with your imagination and perception, bringing out the inner kid in every adult. Many of the exhibits are San Francisco-themed, such as when you skydive you’ll be able to see the San Fran skyline.
12. Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is another unique San Francisco landmark that can’t be missed. Located in the Bay, it is an acoustic wave-activated sculpture located within a jetty.
Peter Richards developed it. He pulled inspiration from a vent pipe floating on a concrete dock in Australia. The jetty consists of granite and marble from a demolished cemetery, which adds to this installation’s obscurity.
If you are looking for something truly unique and one of a kind, you’ll have to make a stop on your trip to visit the Wave Organ.
The instrument’s pipes extend down into the water and gather sound from the waves of the Pacific. When the tide comes in, the waves cause beautiful, haunting music to flow from this organ.
13. Silicon Valley
San Francisco is also known for Silicon Valley, a high-tech hub for technology innovation and entrepreneurs. It has become an infamous part of San Francisco, drawing thousands of professionals every year to make Silicon Valley their home or their business location.
It serves as a global center for technology located in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
It encompasses multiple cities, many businesses, and new start-up companies looking to take off. If you are interested in entrepreneurship, this is a must-visit spot on your trip to San Francisco.
14. San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo is a well-known, famous zoo for both tourists and locals to the area for many reasons. It offers many interactive tours and activities, perfect for bringing your little ones and the whole family.
Take a walk through the open aviary with a guide to experience up close many exotic birds from South America, or take a look at Penguin Island to observe baby penguins.
The zoo also offers the most prominent outdoor lemur habitat in the United States, where you can watch lemurs climb trees and jump from vine to vine.
Watch the giraffes and listen to the zookeepers share the stories of these majestic animals, or even eat breakfast with a grizzly bear! Every day at 10:30 am, the zookeepers will serve breakfast to the two grizzly bears which you can watch while enjoying your warm breakfast.
Read Next: The Best Zoos in the United States
15. Seafood Restaurants
San Francisco is a hub for many delicious, Michelin-star seafood restaurants as it is situated directly on the Bay. If you are looking to travel to find some fantastic oysters or freshly caught Pacific salmon, you have to try San Francisco seafood.
Visit Anchor Oyster bar to experience various varieties of briny oysters and quench your tastebuds with a craft cocktail.
You can also always enjoy the local fish markets and whip up your own fresh fish, but many of these beautiful restaurants offer an experience and a delicious plate of food. The line can be long here so make sure to prepare ahead of time for a well worth it wait.
Visit any of the seafood restaurants lined directly on the Bay, such as Scoma’s restaurant, a classic San Francisco staple.
The fish is so fresh here it is even brought to Scoma’s pier directly from the fishing boats. The restaurant also offers an award-winning wine list that includes wines from nearby Napa Valley grapes.
16. Palace of Fine Arts
The ornate Palace of Fine Arts is a faux place created as a beautiful art exhibition. It is surrounded by a beautiful pond complete with snow-white swans, making it the perfect place for weddings and pictures.
It has appeared in fashion magazines, personal photographers’ portfolios, and even on postcards for the area.
People can book usage of the area for their event, whether it be a fancy dinner party, a wedding ceremony, a wedding reception, or even a dance. This is a beautiful sight to see while visiting this magical city.
Things to Consider
When you plan your trip to San Francisco, you’ll want to keep some of the below points in mind. This will let you have the most comfortable and enjoyable vacation possible.
- Costs of transportation
- Costs of lodging
- The weather during the time of your visit
- What landmarks and locations are open during your visit
- Special events or holidays
- What types of food you want to try and if they are in season
- The walkability of your hotel or Airbnb
- What tours you want to participate in
- COVID-19 rules and restrictions
Frequently Asked Questions
Take a look at some of the most common questions regarding things to do in San Francisco:
What can I do in San Francisco for a few hours?
If you only have a few hours to visit San Francisco, the best options would include dining, walking, or stopping by a local bar for a craft cocktail. If you are near the Golden Gate Bridge, you can walk down the bridge or observe it from the nearby beach.
What is San Francisco mostly known for?
San Francisco is famously known for the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic cable cars, and the roots in hippie culture. It is known to be a very artsy, eccentric, and eclectic city. The famous buildings and streets make this city postcard-worthy.
Do’s and don’ts of San Francisco?
There are not many don’ts in San Fran, due to the fact that the weather is mild and nice year-round. The city (like the majority of the state of California) has very mild winters, and very mild summers, making it the perfect place to visit any time of year.
What should you not miss when visiting San Francisco?
You should definitely make it a point to stop at some of the most famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, take a ride on a cable car, and see the famous Lombard street if you have never visited it before. You may want to make a stop at the Painted Ladies, to see the beautiful backdrop and get some Instagram-worthy snaps. You also do not want to miss the uber-fresh seafood available to you at every turn.
What should I do on the first day?
On your first day, it is recommended to knock out as many of the main landmarks that are on your list. As the days of your trip go by, you will become more tired after all your adventure, so make sure you get as much done as possible during your first few days there.
So, What are the Best Things to Do in San Francisco?
All in all, San Francisco is a magical, unique place to visit. There are so many options for adventure to choose from that many won’t fit on this list.
You won’t be disappointed with choosing any of the 16 activities listed in this article or finding some new ones of your own. There is a surprise around every sharp corner to be found in beautiful San Fran.