Famous for its summer fogs and cable cars, San Francisco has long been a popular place to visit in California. Perched on a peninsula between the sparkling San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean, its many hills are home to delightfully diverse neighborhoods and stunning streetscapes.
Once a Spanish and Mexican mission, the fate of San Francisco changed once conquered by the United States. It was followed by a mad rush, a gold rush, that saw a virtual army of citizens and foreigners descend upon the west coast city in the hopes of striking it rich.
Today, San Francisco is a cosmopolitan metropolis at first, thanks to the hope of gold, the railroads and more recently, the rise of technology. Visitors will quickly fall in love with (and be frustrated by) the city’s steep streets, littered with historic cable cars that lead to equally celebrated waterfronts and wharves.
Alcatraz Island and Golden Gate Bridge, are the two most well known tourist attractions in San Francisco, but it also has an array of museums, fascinating Victorian architecture and wonderful waterfront areas to explore.
Add in its unique culture, panoramic vistas, and fabulous food scene and it is no wonder that San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the USA. Just don’t forget to bring warm clothing. The famous quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” isn’t from Mark Twain but it is a pretty accurate statement of San Francisco’s weather.
In this post, we'll cover:
27. Ferry Building Marketplace
As San Francisco is such a ‘foodie’ city, no visit can be complete without stopping by the lively Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero. Inside its Beaux Arts building are around fifty food vendors, local farmers, and small restaurants that offer tasty treats and delicious dishes.
Since opening in 2003, the market has been a firm favorite with locals and tourists due to its wide variety of coffee shops, snack stands, and grocery stores selling artisan products from around the world.
It also hosts a fantastic farmers market three times a week which sells fresh produce and street food.
26. Angel Island State Park
From Pier 41 visitors can hop on a ferry and find themselves immersed in the stunning scenery and nature of Angel Island State Park in no time at all. On the half-hour boat ride you can enjoy divine views over the bay, and hiking, biking or rollerblading around the island.
Now protected as a park, the bay’s second-largest island has been used as everything, from a military base and missile site to immigration station and internment camp. As such, there are some interesting old forts and bunkers to explore with picnic areas and viewpoints.
Also located alongside the Embarcadero is the Exploratorium, which offers a fun and fascinating look at how the world works. Popular with adults and children alike, the unique museum has over 600 interactive installations and hands-on exhibits that can keep you entertained for days.
Founded in 1969, it has expanded considerably and now has huge galleries dedicated to everything from light and sound to biology, engineering, and psychology. Thanks to all its activities, laboratories, and workshops, guests can engage with the fields of science and technology. In addition, the Exploratorium regularly hosts talks and cultural events.
Another massive military base that was turned into a scenic park is the Presidio which occupies the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it boasts attractive architecture, excellent outdoor activities, and epic views.
Once out-of-bounds to the public, it now has pockets of woods, rolling hills, and coastal bluffs that offer phenomenal views over Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. Visitor centres house interesting exhibits on its history and ecosystems, and you can also check out the old fort, batteries, and art projects.
23. Musee Mecanique
One of the most unique and unusual tourist attractions on the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf is the Musee Mecanique. Here you’ll find a huge collection of coin-operated arcade games—remarkably there are over 300 mechanical machines for you to play on.
Wandering around the museum is a nostalgic affair as you see antique slot machines and music boxes, alongside fortune tellers, peep shows and pinball machines. As well as testing your strength and having your fortune told, you can also watch historic moving dioramas, and try your luck at some classic carnival games.
22. Japanese Tea Garden
The gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden can be found within Golden Gate Park. Lovingly landscaped, its grounds are home to pretty ponds, a traditional tea house, and a towering pagoda.
The first Japanese garden established in the States, since 1894 it has delighted countless generations with its serene scenery, fantastic flowers, and soothing water features. While strolling its winding paths you’ll come across stone lanterns and sculptures with charming koi ponds, cherry blossoms, and a lovely Zen garden.
21. de Young Museum
Also located in Golden Gate Park is the marvelous de Young Museum with an incredible collection of artworks from all around the world. Its innumerable paintings, sculptures and photos are a treat to peruse, but the building itself is just as impressive due to its distinctive design and large observation tower.
Founded in 1895, the fine arts museum encompasses over 27,000 anthropological artifacts and art pieces from Africa, Asia, and Oceania. While some of its galleries display colorful textiles and costumes, others focus on European paintings or American decorative art objects. The museum also regularly hosts temporary exhibits and concerts.
20. Legion of Honor Museum
Nestled in the northwest of the peninsula is the magnificent Legion of Honor Museum, which lies amidst the nature of Lincoln Park. Housed within its beautiful neo-classical building is an eclectic collection of artworks that spans over 6,000 years of art history.
While strolling about its grand galleries you’ll come across everything, from influential comics and soundscapes to masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rodin, and Monet among others. Founded in 1924, it contains more than 90,000 works, with the museum offering spectacular views over the city’s skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge from its grounds.
19. San Francisco Botanical Garden
Lying alongside both the Japanese Tea Garden and de Young Museum is the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Boasting a collection of colorful flowers, plants and trees, its tranquil paths are a delight to walk along and have different areas and ecosystems for you to explore.
Since opening in 1940, the garden’s grounds have expanded considerably and now contain nearly 9,000 kinds of plants from all around the world. As such, you can be strolling amidst savanna and succulents one minute, and then suddenly find yourself surrounded by tropical trees and cloud rainforest the next.
The superb San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupies a striking modern building, not far from Union Square. While its unique architecture makes for a stunning sight, its interior is equally rewarding with impressive exhibits and artworks wherever you look.
In total, the SFMOMA displays over 33,000 art pieces across seven floors with its main focus being modern and contemporary art. As well as paintings and photos, its galleries contain digital art, industrial designs, and interactive media installations. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Henri Matisse count among its biggest names.
17. Lands End
Occupying the northwest corner of the peninsula are the windswept coastal cliffs of Lands End. Aside from its outstanding views over Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean, the park also has numerous hiking trails and historic sights.
Dotted about its bleak shores you can spy the sites of various shipwrecks and the ruins of the Sutro Baths. The Hidden Labyrinth art installation is also well worth stopping by. After exploring its delightful beaches, coves, and cliffs, visitors can enjoy a coffee at its cafe while watching the sun set spectacularly over the ocean.
16. Coit Tower
Another attraction in San Francisco that boasts some of the best views in town is the incredible Coit Tower, which is perched atop Telegraph Hill. From the top of the slender white tower you can enjoy breathtaking panoramas over the bay, city, and sites such as Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Built in 1933, it boasts exquisite Art Deco architecture with colorful frescoes in the American Social Realism style coating its interior. Located in Pioneer Park, the 210 foot-high tower is now a National Historic Landmark and iconic part of the city’s skyline, having been depicted in countless films and TV shows.
15. Cable Car Museum
One of San Francisco’s most famous features is its charming old cable cars that lend the city such a distinctive look and feel. Aside from simply riding up and down its steep streets in one, visitors can learn all about the history and technology behind the streetcar system at this magnificent museum.
In addition to interesting exhibits, old photos and mechanical displays, the Cable Car Museum also showcases vintage streetcars that date to the 1870s. As it offers such a fascinating look into the inner workings of the transport system, the museum has long been a popular tourist drawcard and can be found in the affluent Nob Hill neighborhood.
14. Walt Disney Family Museum
Yet another of the Presidio’s many enticing attractions is the delightful Walt Disney Family Museum that delves into the life and legacy of the famous filmmaker. Here you’ll learn about Disney’s achievements and genre-defining animations with amazing memorabilia, film clips, and even awards, on show.
Opened in 2009, the museum and its large collection of early drawings and designs, music clips, and models sprawls over three historic buildings in the center of the park. As it looks at everything, from his early childhood and career to his iconic creations and the construction of Disneyland, it is a must-visit for any Disney aficionado.
13. California Academy of Sciences
One of the biggest and best museums in the States, the California Academy of Sciences contains a staggering 46 million specimens with incredible artifacts, animals and exhibits. Located in Golden Gate Park, the massive natural history museum boasts an aquarium and planetarium, as well as its own indoor rainforest.
Established in 1853, the academy’s captivating collection now resides within a majestic modern building that even has its own living green roof. Inside is a treat to explore as you wander past shark lagoons and coral reefs, before emerging in galleries full of fossils and minerals. One of its main highlights is the enormous rainforest exhibit which houses over 1,600 live animals, plants, and amphibians.
12. Twin Peaks
If you’re after yet more awe-inspiring views over San Francisco then it is well worth heading to the two towering Twin Peaks that lie near the geographic center of the city. The bare and uninhabited hills offer breathtaking panoramas with sunset a particularly special time of day to visit.
Reaching around 925 feet in height, the Twin Peaks are protected as part of a park with lovely nature and wildlife coating their slopes. While you can just simply drive to their summit, there are also some nice hiking trails to wander along that again offer some epic views.
11. Oracle Park
Home to Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants, the atmospheric Oracle Park can be found in the city’s South Beach neighborhood. While watching a game is an exciting and unforgettable affair, the ballpark is also widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the States due to its picture-perfect setting.
Opened in 2000, the stadium exhibits some fine architecture with most seats offering divine views out over the bay. Discover famous features, such as the giant glove sculpture and coca-cola bottle slide, while there is also a wall of fame, cafe, and gift shop to stop by. Thanks to its exhilarating atmosphere and great games, visiting Oracle Park is one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco.
10. Palace of Fine Arts
In 1915, San Francisco played host to the Panama Pacific Exposition. At the time, the city built several structures to welcome almost 19 million visitors. The last of these buildings is the spectacular Palace of Fine Arts.
A palace indeed, this art gallery is now a member of the National Register of Historic Places. It stands on the edge of a shimmering lake, where ducks and snow white swans roam and old-growth trees dot the shoreline.
You could spend hours admiring the elegant neoclassical facade of the Beaux arts palace along with the surrounding archways and columns. Time your visit to coincide with an arts event to bring your experience to the next level.
Outside of New York, no American city has a larger and more vibrant Chinatown than San Francisco. At the center of this is the biggest Chinese New Year Parade outside of Asia.
The experience starts at Dragon’s Gate where the atmosphere changes at the drop of a hat. Immediately, a thoroughfare of vibrant pagoda-topped buildings welcomes you with open arms.
Visitors can take their picks between mouthwatering eateries, temples, and historic squares. At the forefront is Waverly Place, lined with flowing flags, ornate temples, and local haunts.
Extending off Waverly Place are backstreets and narrow alleys where the smell of dim sum floats through and the unexpected should be, well, expected.
8. Alamo Square
San Francisco offers travelers some gorgeous architecture to go along with its iconic steep, rolling hills. Both of those qualities combine to make Alamo Square a worthy destination.
Pack your picnic basket full of goodies, a blanket, and some yard games for the restless souls and enjoy the green expanse of Alamo Square. This isn’t your average picnic spot, however.
With your prize patch of grass secured, kick back and enjoy beautiful skyline views. At the forefront of this view are the famous Painted Ladies. These are a collection of Victorian and Edwardian homes that have each been painted in three or more colors.
7. Transamerica Pyramid
At 853 feet tall, the Transamerica Pyramid is the second tallest building in San Francisco behind onto the Salesforce Tower. Yet, it turns more heads that any other skyscraper in the city.
The Transamerica Pyramid is just that, a four-sided obelisk rising to a sharp point, like an Egyptian Pyramid stretched towards the sky. It’s a captivating site that draws together San Fran’s Financial District. The best place to admire the unique design is from yet another skyscraper, the Coit Tower.
However, unlike other major towers, there is no observation deck. Visitors can instead explore the lobby’s visitor center, which offers a live video feed from the tippy top.
6. Lombard Street
No place in San Francisco illustrates the city’s unique geography better than Lombard Street. The famous thoroughfare winds like a snake down yet another steep hill. On either side are millionaire mansions that hark back to the Victorian era and curved gardens landscaped to the hilt.
In total, there are eight switchbacks that meander down Lombard Street. From the summit of the iconic street, you’ll be afforded with picture-perfect views down towards the Northern Waterfront and Coit Tower.
Visitors have the choice to walk up and down Lombard Street, a journey that is sure to put a bead of sweat on your forehead and lead in your legs. But it gives you time to smell to roses and enjoy the gardens. Otherwise, try your hand at one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco and drive down the switchbacks.
5. Golden Gate Park
If you’re looking to take in some patented California sunshine while in San Fran, Golden Gate Park is the place to go. Once a collection of rolling dunes, the lush landscape and cultural creations leave few reminders of its humble beginnings.
Golden Gate Park harbors a collection of winding walking paths, glorious lawns, over 5,000 unique plants and several museums. Whether you’re looking for a cute date or gathering with family, the wide open lawns are great for a picnic. Meanwhile, the de Young Museum, Steinhart Aquarium, and the California Academy of Sciences promise to invigorate the senses.
To explore, bring your walking shoes or sign up for a bike rental and set out upon the 6.3 mile Golden Gate Park Loop.
4. Cable Cars
There’s perhaps nothing as timeless in San Francisco as the cable car. These rickety vehicles have withstood the test of time, transporting locals around the city since the second half of the 19th century.
Back then, without seat belts, San Franciscans would grip tight as the cable cars made their way down the city’s notoriously steep hills. Today, cars may reign supreme, but this old-fashioned mode of transport is the best way to see the city.
Take your pick between the Powell-Hyde and the Powell-Mason routes to discover some of the best attractions in San Francisco, the way locals have for 150 years. The destinations include Fisherman’s Wharf, the exciting Lombard Street, Nob Hill, and the Ferry Building.
Often referred to as The Rock, the small island of Alcatraz served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, and as a prison. It was home to some of the most notorious criminals of the time including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Surrounded by the freezing water of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was believed to be inescapable.
The most famous attempt was carried out by Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin using an inflatable raft made from several stolen raincoats. In 1963, it was closed by JFK. Before that fateful day, it housed over 1,500 prisoners, each living in tight 10×4 feet cells.
Today, the island is a popular San Francisco tourist attraction and a historic site. It is operated by the National Park Service and is open to tours.
2. Fisherman’s Wharf
One of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf runs all the way from Pier 39 through to Municipal Pier at the end of Aquatic Park. For over a century its historic waterfront was the hub of San Francisco’s fishing fleet and is still famous for having some of the best seafood restaurants in the city.
Other tourist attractions at the wharf include museums, souvenir stores, historical buildings, scenic vistas over the Bay and the famous sea lions at Pier 39.
Abuzz with activity from dawn to dusk, San Fran’s Fisherman’s Wharf combines culture, cuisine, and atmosphere into one. If you’re feeling peckish while in Frisco, Fisherman’s Wharf will leave you satisfied and smiling thanks to its range of mouthwatering foods, from fresh fish and crab to international treats.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
There is no sight more iconic in San Francisco than the Golden Gate Bridge. Stretching across the Golden Strait, the majestic bridge, at 1.7 miles long, is a captivating sight.
Whether you’re admiring it from the Presidio of San Francisco or from the Marin Headlands, the stunning piece of architecture promises to be a highlight of your local experience. The bridge is eternally busy, whether that be car, bike, or foot traffic. But crossing the strait, which combines the waters of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, is a must-do.
From the bridge, not only to you have a closeup of the spectacular construction but also gorgeous downtown views. Come at sunrise or sunset, to see the golden bridge shimmer under the sun’s low light.