San Francisco is one of the most vibrant cities in the United States. Between the historic Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Painted Ladies row houses, there is so much to uncover. Visit the prison that once housed the notorious Al Capone, find out where to go for the best Mai Tai in town, and discover how to get the best view of the sea lions on Fisherman’s Wharf. Read on for an introduction to some of the best things to do in San Francisco!
10. Check out the museums, murals, and MoMa
Ever feel like sticking your head in the clouds? You’ve come to the right place. Outdoor installations, street art, curated art collections – San Francisco brings the imagination to life.
Across the city, you’ll stumble across public art installations that will make you feel like you’re walking through a dream. Keep an eye out for “Cupid’s Span,” a 60-foot long cupid’s bow and arrow in Rincon Park, or “Language of the Birds,” a ‘flock’ of books in the shape of birds that illuminate at night above Broadway and Columbus in North Beach. Check out frescos like The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Mexican artist Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Art Institute in North Beach, or stroll through the Mission District for an outdoor gallery full of vibrant murals and street art.
Catch the sweetest sights at the Museum of Ice Cream, an interactive, playful, and now permanent pop-up in the historic Union Savings Bank, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building and San Francisco landmark. Dive into a sprinkle pool, stand inside a disco ball, and eat ice cream in a cash vault. Tickets are USD $38 per person and sell out fast!
9. Stop by the Tonga Room for a Mai Tai
The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is a world-famous tiki bar located inside the Fairmont San Francisco. Serving Polynesian-fusion, family-style cuisine, one of the most popular items on the menu is the Mai Tai – one of the city’s best. Originally the hotel’s terrace pool, the Tonga Room is now a lagoon, complete with a floating stage, orchestra, and tropical ‘rainstorms!’ Let the Tonga Room take you on a big night out to the Polynesia islands.
8. Ride the cable cars
We know you can easily ride-share, taxi, or drive your way across town, but would it be as fun as riding a cable car? San Francisco’s cable car system was originally invented back in 1873 out of necessity for horse-drawn carriages that struggled to make it up the steep hills. Today, locals and tourists aplenty are the ones who reap the reward, combating sore legs and steep, hilly streets. It may be the best USD$7 you spend. San Francisco’s cable car system is the last of its kind in the world, manually operated and pulled along a tramway by cables fixed into the street. In 1964, they were named a national historic landmark. Take one of the cable car’s three routes and make your way to North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Nob Hill, Chinatown, and Embarcadero. Stand in the back, sit in the front, or if you’re feeling adventurous, stand front row on the running board and hold on for the most adventurous cable car ride through San Francisco.
7. View the Painted Ladies
Alamo Square is a hilltop park with picture-perfect views of Postcard Row. Picnic in the grassy area across the Painted Ladies, a row of pastel-coloured Victorian homes with pointed rooftops that stagger uphill like stairs, and relax in the San Francisco scenery. Plan an evening stop here and watch the sun set over the city skyline in the background.
6. See what’s behind bars on Alcatraz Island
No inmate had ever successfully escaped Alcatraz. Surrounded by the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, any attempts at escape would have left felons stuck between The Rock and a cold place. Some of America’s most notorious criminals like Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud served time at this maximum security facility which operated from 1934 to 1963 before shutting down due to high operating costs. Take a tour of Alcatraz and see one of California’s most visited attractions.
5. Scooter around town
Turn sightseeing into an adventure! Relish the feeling of childhood past by dashing off from one stop to the next on the back of a scooter. These powerful little electric scooters are as easy to use as a bike-share program and do most of the work for you getting your behind up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets. Download the app, unlock your scooter, take it for a spin, and then return it anywhere within the city limit. When you’re done, end your session using the app and that’s it. Why walk when you can scoot?
4. Zig zag down Lombard Street
What looks like an insidious scheme to turn a simple walk into an arduous pilgrimage, Lombard Street’s eight unique hairpin turns were actually designed to make walking and driving down this steep hill safer. During the 1920s, many of the hills in this part of town were too steep for the types of cars that were being built at the time. The gradual zig-zag like decline design of the street helped alleviate that. It’s oddly interesting and quite a sight to check out even if you don’t plan to hike up or down “the World’s Most Crooked Street.”
3. Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
Cruise through San Francisco and take in some of the most sweeping views of the city on a self-guided bike tour. Bike rental places and bike-share programs are as easy to find as turning around and pointing your finger. Choose from a variety of itineraries and make your way from bike-friendly Golden Gate Park to Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, and of course, across the Golden Gate Bridge.
2. Party down in the city’s legendary LGBTQ-friendly Castro District
San Francisco elected Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay official, gave us the rainbow flag, and was the first city in the United States to legalize gay marriage. Here you’ll find one of the best Pride parades, the Folsom Street Fair (the world’s biggest leather ball festival), and the Castro District where you’ll find rows of LGBTQ-friendly bars and nightclubs.
The Twin Peaks Tavern was founded in 1971. It’s a historic landmark recognized as the first gay bar in the United States to feature full-length glass windows that allowed patrons to look out onto the street – and more significantly, allowed passersby on the street to look in. At a time when gay bars could be raided at any time, and when members of the gay community could even lose their jobs for being outed, the Twin Peaks Tavern has been revered by the locals as a symbol of openness and public welcome to the Castro District. Stop in for a pint and toast to that.
Wherever you fall on the scale of excitement, the Castro’s got something for everyone. Belt out a tune at Mint Karaoke Lounge, enjoy a glass of wine at Blush!, or head outside of the Castro to The Stud, a nightclub in SoMa that’s been serving the community for over 50 years. Sit front row at a drag show or just show up for a good time and you may end up rubbing elbows with some of the club’s famous past patrons like RuPaul, Lady Gaga, Ana Matronic, and Bjork.
1. Stroll through Fisherman’s Wharf
It’s as iconic to San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge. The historic Fisherman’s Wharf is where you’ll find sea lions, fresh food markets, seafood restaurants, weird museums, buskers, and a whole lotta other seaside attractions.
Along Pier 39, you’ll find California sea lions perched along the docks, sleeping, playing, hunting for anchovies. It’s one of the most flocked to visitor attractions at the Wharf, so it gets crowded sometimes. Our* solution? Sit back and relax inside the Fog Harbor Fish House with a bowl of chowder and watch the sea lions from the window at your table!
When the Ferry Building was first built in 1898 along the Embarcadero, it was the main hub for travellers and commuters arriving by train, boat, and ferry. Today, travellers visit the renowned Ferry Building Marketplace farmers market to load up on fresh fruit and vegetables, regional artisan specialties like cheeses and jams, and indulge in street food that could rival most restaurants. Inside the Marketplace, you’ll find shops, market stalls, cafes, ice creameries, and more food.
Near Pier 45, is an offbeat museum called Musee Mecanique (free admission). It features vintage pinball machines, antique games, coin-operated fortune telling machines, and perhaps the most interesting piece in this private collection – a toothpick amusement park, built by San Quentin inmates.
Take the time to explore Fisherman’s Wharf and you’ll stumble upon all kinds of seaside treasures.
The 10 best things to do in San Francisco is just an introduction to some of the amazing sites, attractions, and dining options this city has to offer. Ready to see for yourself?