28 Things Not to Miss in San Francisco
One of the nicest things about visiting San Francisco is that, although the city is “big” in terms of attractions and amenities, it is geographically small – only 49 square miles. That make it very easy to see and do a great many things in a short period of time.
You could also spend weeks in San Francisco and still not experience everything the city has to offer. Here is a suggested list of the top 28 things not to miss in San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Travel Association:
Walk Over the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, the most famous bridge in the world, manages to impress even the most experienced travelers with its stunning 1.7-mile span. Approximately 120,000 automobiles drive across it every day. A pedestrian walkway also allows crossing on foot, and bikes are allowed on the western side. The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be one of the most photographed things on Earth, so ready your camera of choice and be sure to share with #AlwaysSF.
Ride a Cable Car
Cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. The cars run on tracks and are moved by an underground cable along three routes. Their familiar bells can be heard ringing from blocks away. Tickets ($7) may be purchased at the cable car turnarounds at the ends of each route. Each one-way ride will provide spectacular views of the city’s celebrated hills, as well as an exhilarating ride.
Visit the Rock
Alcatraz, the notorious former prison, is located on an island of the same name in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Some of the United States’ most notorious criminals were incarcerated there. Though several tried, no inmate ever made a successful escape from “The Rock.” The prison was closed in the 1960s and stories about Alcatraz are legendary. A visit to Alcatraz today is fascinating. Recorded cell-house tours are available, allowing visitors to learn about the prison as they explore the buildings and grounds. To reach the island, take an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance reservations are recommended, 415-981-ROCK (7625). www.alcatrazcruises.com
See the Sea Lions
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to PIER 39, a festive waterfront marketplace that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. A community of California sea lions has taken up residence on the docks in the PIER 39 Marina and visitors line the nearby railing to watch their antics. From there, it’s a short walk to favorite area attractions such as the San Francisco Dungeon and Madame Tussauds, the Museum of 3D Illusions, the Cartoon Art Museum, Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum, historic Boudin Bakery, and multiple favorite food options, including crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails.
Have a Picnic in a Park
It's always a great idea to picnic in the park before Karl the Fog rolls in. Dolores Park is the perfect place to enjoy sunny afternoons. With nearly 16 acres of grassy areas, you can play, lounge, and people watch, all with a gorgeous view of the city. The Presidio is another San Francisco favorite. There are so many places within its more than 2 square miles to lay down a blanket and enjoy a meal. You can also picnic in the iconic Golden Gate Park, where you'll find scenic spots at the Conservatory of Flowers and outside the California Academy of Sciences. Here are some other best places to have a picnic in San Francisco.
Go to an Outdoor Festival
Outdoor festivals have been a popular San Francisco activity for people of all ages. The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival takes place during the summer months of May-October, hosting dining, shopping and cultural activities for the whole family. The Stern Grove Festival, a San Francisco tradition since 1938, is a free outdoor music festival that has welcomed performers like The Doobie Brothers, Talib Kweli, and others. Visit Golden Gate Park for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival, which happens every October.
Go on a Walking Tour
The best way to see and experience San Francisco is on foot. Wild SF Walking Tours offers a food crawl, a tour of the Castro & Mission District, and a Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour. Go Behind the Scenes at Oracle Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. You'll have access to the player's dugout, luxury suites, and more. There are walking tours for foodies, too! Local Tastes of the City Tours lets you learn about the food history and culture in neighborhoods such as North Beach, Chinatown, and others. You'll make stops along the way to taste all of the unique foods originating from different cultures.
See a Show
From rock and pop to hip hop and jazz, San Francisco is a hub for every music genre. Venues like The Fillmore, The Warfield Theater, and The Masonic are some of San Francisco's most legendary music halls, welcoming musicians from all over the world. Past musical acts at these historic venues include MGMT, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and many more. SFJAZZ Center hosts concerts as well as classes and workshops designed for aspiring musicians.
Experience Illuminate SF
Want to know what's glowing on in San Francisco? Illuminate SF is an ongoing festival of light art that showcases over 30 installations scattered throughout 17 neighborhoods of San Francisco. Admire light art on buildings, sidewalks, restaurants, cars, and more.
Visit the historic Presidio
What was a former military base is now a national park and a National Historic Landmark District, widely known for its natural beauty, art and culture, and much more. If you're visiting with kids, don't pass on a visit to The Walt Disney Family Museum, which is full of interactive exhibits and Disney artifacts.
Known as the center of San Francisco's hippie counterculture, the Haight-Ashbury district is a haven for vintage finds and 1960s nostalgia. You can walk in the footsteps of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead on a Flower Power Walking Tour, while learning about how music shaped the vibrant history of the Haight.
Explore the Mission
Founded in 1776, the Mission is San Francisco's oldest neighborhood, with some of its newest restaurants and art galleries. Popular food joints and Dolores Park are among the most popular attractions. However, many visitors come to the Mission to admire the murals that adorn the walls of buildings.
See Sights on a Bike
Although driving around San Francisco is not encouraged, biking surely is! It's an easy way to get to different attractions that are close to one another. The best part is, you won't need to worry about parking. You can also bundle bike tours with attraction passes to make exploring San Francisco even easier.
Locally Made Gifts
If you're looking for goodies that are exclusively made in San Francisco, there are many local places to shop from. SFMade proudly works with other manufacturers that produce locally-made products, from clothing to coffee blends. At the Ferry Building Marketplace, you'll find goodies from local merchants, sourcing from our neighboring cities like Sausalito and Guerneville. Take home unique finds while supporting San Francisco small businesses.
Meet the LGBTQ Community
Since San Francisco is widely known for its diversity, it is no surprise that the Castro is a popular spot to explore. Its vibrant and lively atmosphere make it a great destination to visit day and night. If you're in San Francisco in October, be sure to check out the annual Castro Street Fair.
You'll want to be in town for annual events like SF Beer Week. You also won't need to go to the wine country to enjoy a glass of wine. San Francisco has a handful of local wineries, including TANK18, The Press Club, and many others.
San Francisco is widely known for its popular brunch spots. Places like Mama's on Washington Square (1701 Stockton St.) has been serving their famous fluffy omelettes and homemade jams for over 50 years. The Cliff House (1090 Point Lobos Ave.) has a Sunday Champagne Brunch Buffet, a San Francisco tradition that is not to be missed.
Take a nice boat ride around Stow Lake, where you'll be able to spot birds of different species and turtles along the way. Attractions like the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens and Aquarium of the Bay are perfect for families with kids who are eager to see and interact with wildlife.
Marvel at San Francisco's Scenic Beauty
Discover San Francisco's beauty on the 49-mile scenic drive, which begins at City Hall and guides you to a number of popular historic and iconic landmarks. If you're up for a hike, the Presidio has a number of art trails that are worth the stunning views. Urban Hiker SF offers itineraries for group hikes through popular urban destinations like the Castro, Twin Peaks, Coit Tower, and many more.
Learn About the History of San Francisco
There are a number of museums dedicated to the rich history of San Francisco. The Wells Fargo History Museum invites visitors to use vintage bank machines, send telegraphs, and even ride in a replica stagecoach! If you want to learn about San Francisco's transit history, the San Francisco Railway Museum and the Cable Car Museum gives visitors a chance to see and learn about the first streetcars in San Francisco. Learn about California's richly diverse past at the California Historical Society.
Get Out on the Water
Want a different perspective of San Francisco? Kayak in the bay to get amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline, have a romantic dinner on a Hornblower cruise, or take a ferry to visit Alcatraz.
Visit Famous Film and TV Locations
If you're a movie buff, these San Francisco locations are a must for your itinerary. The Rock (1996), starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, featured shots of Alcatraz, The Fairmont, and the Palace of Fine Arts. Vertigo (1958), by Alfred Hitchcock, shot scenes at the Presidio and Fort Point, where Madeleine famously jumps into the bay. The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square is also a very familiar location for Full House fans!
Shop in Union Square
Union Square is the place for serious shoppers. Major department stores and the most exclusive designer boutiques line the streets. The Westfield San Francisco Shopping Centre houses the largest Bloomingdale's outside of New York and the second largest Nordstrom in the U.S.
Explore North Beach
North Beach, the city’s Italian quarter, isn’t a beach at all. It’s a neighborhood of romantic European-style sidewalk cafes, restaurants and shops centered near Washington Square along Columbus and Grant avenues. The beautiful Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a beloved landmark. Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, offers a splendid vantage point for photos of the bridges and the Bay. Inside the tower, floor-to-ceiling murals painted in the 1930s depict scenes of early San Francisco.
The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the "Dragon's Gate." Inside are 24 blocks of hustle and bustle, most of it taking place along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. This city within a city is best explored on foot; exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums are all found within its boundaries. Visitors can buy ancient potions from herb shops, relax and enjoy a dim sum lunch or witness the making of fortune cookies.
Dine at World-Class Restaurants
Dining in San Francisco is an attraction in itself. Known as one of America’s best restaurant cities, San Francisco chefs excel at combining the freshest local ingredients, authentic international flavors and a touch of creative genius. Choose your cuisine: Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Indian, Malaysian, Mexican, Greek, Russian or “fusion,” a combination of any or all of these influences.
Celebrate In San Francisco's Nightlife
Nightlife in San Francisco is a constantly changing scene. From cocktails in Union Square, to the ultimate club scene in SoMa, there are neighborhoods to experience all types of nightlife. For a different spin on nightlife, a number of museums host 21 and up events that invite visitors to sip and see special exhibits.
A visit to San Francisco would not be complete without a cultural experience. The city is home to internationally recognized symphony, opera and ballet companies. Many playwrights introduce their works in San Francisco and avant-garde theatre and dance companies dot the city. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor and other museums and galleries are devoted to the finest of classical and contemporary arts. San Francisco is also home to the California Academy of Sciences, the only place on the planet with an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest all under one roof. For a complete museum guide, visit our museums listings.
Well, what are you waiting for? There are tons of things to do and discover in San Francisco, whether it's your first or tenth time visiting.
Photo by Louis Raphael