Things to Do in San Francisco
Overview: With trademark hills and the Pacific Ocean a frequent backdrop across its seven square miles, San Francisco serves as a cultural melting pot where hippies and tech workers mingle over tacos, artisanal cocktails, and cold-brew coffee. With weather patterns as diverse as its neighborhoods, the City by the Bay offers international flavor: dim sum in Chinatown, cannoli in North Beach, izakaya bites in Japantown, and a bustling food hall scene in the Ferry Building, to name a few. History and culture thrive in the Castro and Mission District; Union Square—San Francisco’s premier shopping destination—showcases both world-renowned boutiques and indie designers; and open-air adventure is never hard to find in Golden Gate Park or along the fog-laced stretches of Ocean Beach. Visitors come for iconic experiences such as cable-car rides, photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, and tours of Alcatraz Island—and stick around for wine tasting trips to Napa and Sonoma wine country, visits to the giant redwoods in Muir Woods, and adventures in Berkeley, Oakland, Sebastopol, and the greater Bay Area. Keep in mind that the weather can be more temperamental than other California cities like Los Angeles, so pack a jacket for when the fog rolls in off the hills, or plan a trip to coincide with San Francisco’s Indian Summer, starting in early fall.
- Language: English
- Currency: $
- Time Zone: UTC (-08:00)
- Country Code: +1
- Best Time to Visit: Summer, Fall
When to Visit: Summer usually includes the biggest concentration of festivals, including Pride and the Outside Lands music festival, but typically cooler temperatures, whereas fall offers warmer sunny weather. Whenever you choose to visit, come prepared with layers, as the fog usually burns off by mid-morning and returns in the early evening, bringing with it up to 20-degree swings in temperature.
Getting Around: Although it’s a fairly walkable city, San Francisco is also easily traversed by MUNI’s system of buses and light-rail trains, including the iconic cable cars. BART rapid rail connects the city with the greater Bay Area to the east, and CalTrain’s commuter rail service runs along the San Francisco Peninsula. Uber and Lyft ride-sharing apps are also popular.
Tipping: For most service-industry businesses (restaurants, bars, cabs), tips are expected, and 10-20% is standard, with 15% generally sufficient. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the sales tax by two, which equals around a 17% tip.
You Might Not know…: Most of the BART light-rail trains connecting San Francisco to the surrounding Bay Area stop running shortly after midnight. If you miss the train, you can opt for Uber or Lyft to get home. If you cross a bridge, expect an additional charge for the toll.
The Castro District, known otherwise as simply, "the Castro," is widely considered the United States' gay capital. Not only is it the largest, but also the country's first.
Regardless of a visitor's sexual orientation, the Castro is full of wonderful attractions, including the Castro Theatre, one of San Francisco's more popular movie palaces, complete with a world-class interior chandelier and designed with a colonial Spanish Baroque facade.
Perhaps the area's most culturally significant landmark, the GLBT Historical Society includes a museum and archives documenting the history of the gay and lesbian communities in the U.S. Aside from its core purpose, the building also houses other interesting institutions including the Cartoon Art Museum, which features well over 6,000 different cartoons and comics, and the Catharine Clark Gallery, an exhibition including different forms of media for contemporary, living artists.
Willy Wonka would tip his hat to Domingo Ghirardelli, whose business became the West's largest chocolate factory in 1893. The square is no longer a factory, of course. Since then, it’s evolved into a handsome three-level luxury mall with spiffy boutiques, spas, and wine-tasting rooms – care for a massage and some merlot with your chocolate?
Sit in the sun and watch street performers, who regularly entertain at the West Plaza and fountain area. If your sweet tooth beckons, surrender to its desire with a "world famous" Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae at the old-fashioned soda fountain inside the mall.
San Francisco has one of the only remaining historic World War II Liberty ships docked in its bay, and it is open to visitors. Named for American Revolutionary War ship captain, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien is one of only two currently operational World War II Liberty ships afloat of the 2,700 built during the war. The ship survived the storming of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and is now a National Historic Landmark visitors can tour near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
The preserved Liberty ship is completely unaltered, allowing for an authentic and accurate historical experience of exploring the ship just as it was made. Walking through the hallways and on deck, one can truly experience a time and place of being on the ocean in wartime decades ago. Everything from the engine room to the flying bridge is accessible to visitors, allowing a rare glimpse into life at sea and at war at that time.
The California Academy of Sciences holds a fascinating collection of 38,000 natural wonders and the occasional freak of nature. Under the wildflower-covered “living roof,” butterflies flutter through a four-story glass rainforest dome, a rare white alligator stalks a swamp, and Pierre the Penguin paddles his massive new tank in the African Hall.
Downstairs, kids are sure to enjoy the basement aquarium, where they can duck inside a glass bubble to enter an eel forest, find Nemos in tropical fish tanks, or pet starfish. Head upward in the elevator to the roof for panoramic views of Golden Gate Park, or glimpse skyward into infinity in the Planetarium. For the ecology-minded, check out the displays throughout the main floor, which show how conservation issues affect California’s ecosystem.
If you stay for lunch, the dining options at the Academy are first-rate, as both the Academy Café and Moss Room restaurant are run by two of the city's top chefs.
If ever there was a heaven for foodies, the San Francisco Ferry Building is surely it. Since 1898, it has been a transit terminal, the second-busiest in the world until the Bay and Golden Gate bridges were completed in the 30s. For well-heeled gourmet food lovers however, it began serving a different purpose when it opened as an upscale food market in 2003. The beautiful building houses small shops that sell fancy mushrooms, olive oil, sourdough bread, wine, cheese, produce and cupcakes, as well as well-known Bay Area restaurants the Slanted Door, Gott’s Roadside and Hog Island Oyster Company. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the outdoor plaza fills with farmer’s selling local, organic and seasonal produce, plus food merchants selling specialty cheeseburgers, tacos, pizzas and more. In other words, it’s mecca for the Bay Area’s sustainable food craze. The back wharf is a great spot to watch the boats passing under the Bay Bridge.
Part of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Center, Fort Mason is a historic landmark and arts center located on the city’s waterfront. It once served as the San Francisco Port of Embarkation for the US Army. Facing the San Francisco Bay, it is both a former military port and coastal defense site. It remains an example for excellent reuse of a military base, drawing more than 1 million annual visitors to its events and facilities.
Divided into upper and lower sections, Fort Mason dates back to 1864 when fortifications along the coast of the United States were built — as prompted by the Civil War. The area was also an important military base during World War II. Today it operates primarily as the home of the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, holding regular events, festivals, and performances. There is also a youth hostel, various galleries and schools, and a bar, restaurant, and coffee shop on site.
A lively hub of vibrant activity, thrift shopping, and some fantastic Mexican eateries, San Francisco’s Mission District is also home to some of the best weather and artwork San Francisco has to offer. Multicultural and honest, a stroll through Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley will have you pointing and snapping photos, while the sun breaking through the clouds will make a picnic in popular Dolores Park a treat. For as pleasurable a walk as you’re likely to find in San Francisco, consider Mission Street on a sunny day and watch out for roving mariachi bands playing in local restaurants. This oldest of San Francisco neighborhoods completes the image of San Francisco as a truly great multicultural American city.
NOTE: THE MUSEUM WILL BE CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS THROUGH EARLY 2016. CHECK BACK HERE FOR UPDATES!
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has always strived to be an eclectic, unconventional museum, since it opened in 1935, and a visit here will surely be a unique experience. After all, this is a museum that took a chance on then-unknowns like Matthew Barney and his poetic videos involving industrial quantities of Vaseline, and Olafur Eliasson's outer-space installations.
The permanent collection includes work by all the great American and European artists but is particularly strong in American abstract expressionism, with major works by Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. The permanent collection also contains several works by Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and by Bay Area artists Robert Arneson and Richard Diebenkorn. Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol are also represented.
More Things to Do in San Francisco
Welcome to Fisherman’s Wharf newest and spookiest attraction! Located in what formerly was the Wax Museum, the San Francisco Dungeon takes visitors on a frightening journey through the city’s gruesome past, from the Gold Rush era to Alcatraz. The experience consists of 36 enthusiastic and terrifying actors, 200 years of history, one dark boat ride and nine live shows—not to mention the screams! The Dungeon focuses on terror and ghastly stories, yet somehow manages to provoke genuine belly laughs even from those having just screamed bloody murder. Dark and claustrophobia-inducing spaces, working girls, murders, questionable surgical abilities and hair-raising stories await in company of San Francisco’s most sinister characters, like Miss Piggott, the Wild West saloon owner, and the infamous crimper, Shanghai Kelly.
The Dungeon features several attractions, including Gold Rush Greed, Lost Mines of Sutter’s Mill, the Court of San Francisco.
Perched up on a hill looking over the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Heights is a historic neighborhood considered by many to be one of the city’s most beautiful. Aside from its location and views, the many Victorian homes of Pacific Heights are some of the most elegant and historic in San Francisco. One particularly notable home is that of author Danielle Steel, who lives in Speckles Mansion, an estate that once belonged to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s also the Haas-Lilienthal House, a 19th-century Queen Anne-style Victorian home that is open to visitors and admired by passersby. The historic house has been preserved to represent the era in which it was built. High-end boutique shops and restaurants line Fillmore Street, the main pedestrian street in the mostly quiet, residential area. The neighborhood is also home to Lafayette Park and Alta Plaza Park, with its rolling grassy hills, dog walkers, playground, tennis courts and stellar city views.
Known for its vibrant culture, often busy by both day and night, Cow Hollow is a central San Francisco neighborhood that attracts many of the city’s young professionals. At the heart of the scene is Union Street, a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare lined with cafes, antique shops, wellness centers, bars, and restaurants. Before it was a trendy urban area, it was an open valley where cows grazed (hence its name!) Its proximity to the Marina and coastline also made it the place many fishermen resided.
Though now filled with boutique shops and posh apartments, the old Victorian houses lining Cow Hollow streets are reminiscent of this area’s past. If history is what you’re after, you’ll find it in the Octagon House, a 19th century home built to let in natural light from all angles. As for modern city life, a variety of cuisines and an active nightlife make this area a draw for many.
Located at the base of San Francisco’s bustling and touristy Pier 39, Aquarium of the Bay takes you below the surface of San Francisco Bay. With 300 feet of clear acrylic tunnels holding 700,000 gallons of bay water, the view is as unique as the critters themselves. Aquarium of the Bay is home to approximately 20,000 animals, from sea stars to octopuses to native sharks.
There are three main exhibit areas to explore in the aquarium. Discover the Bay focuses on ecosystems. Touch the Bay puts critters like leopard sharks, big skates and juvenile bat rays at your fingertips. But what makes this city-sized aquarium truly unique is the Under the Bay tunnels exhibit. As you walk through the first tunnel you’ll see animals that live near shore including anchovies, sea bass and sea stars. Explore deeper water as you make your way through the second tunnel. Stop and stare as five species of local sharks and skates glides over top of your head.
Madame Tussauds around the world are famously home to wax recreations of famous figures, including celebrities, politicians, and athletes. Modeled after the original Madame Tussauds in London, the San Francisco Wax Museum was converted in the 17th Madame Tussauds worldwide in 2014. Life-size wax versions of Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jackson, and Marilyn Monroe can be found here, among many others. Contemporary figures such as Barack Obama and Lady Gaga are also brought to life.
Madame Tussauds San Francisco is home in particular to an area called “The Spirit of San Francisco,” which celebrates local artists, politicians, and activists that have played a role in the city’s history. It is a chance to specifically see icons of the Bay Area in one place. The figures are set against realistic backdrops, making them all the more lifelike!
The best reason to go to a San Francisco Giants baseball game used to be to sit in AT&T Park, known for its ideal setting on the San Francisco Bay, with views of the water from the higher seats. But now, the best reason is to watch the 2010 World Series champions in action. There are few better ways to spend a summer evening in San Francisco than cheering on fan favorites like Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson and Cody Ross in one of the finest ballparks in the country, although “summer” is a misleading term – temperatures on a typical night at AT&T Park are not what you find at most baseball games, so bring jackets, scarves and other layers because you will need them. Welcome to San Francisco.
If you can’t get tickets to a game, you can stand at the archways along the waterfront promenade and watch a few innings for free.
There was once a time when San Francisco Bay had exactly zero bridges. Cars had yet to reach the masses of residents who stayed past the gold rush, and ferries were the only way of quickly crossing the San Francisco Bay. Boats would depart from Sausalito and motor to San Francisco, and also stop at the Berkeley Pier on the bay’s eastern shore. It was a time of spirited exploration and westward US expansion, and the frontier fervor was palpably strong on the docks of Hyde Street Pier.
Today, while the majority of visitors to San Francisco simply drive across a bridge, it’s still possible to experience this era while strolling the Hyde Street Pier. Old, historic, wooden boats are still tied to the creaking dock, and the smell of salt in the foggy air is the same as in centuries past. For an added fee, visitors can explore inside these boats that have literally sailed the globe.
Imagine a botanical garden filled with the lush greenery of rare and exotic plants…in the middle of a major U.S. city. The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is exactly that, housed in a Victorian greenhouse that is oldest public wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. It was originally commissioned by a wealthy businessman in the 19th century for his estate, though later bought by a group and presented to the public. After sustaining devastating damage from years of natural disasters it has since been strengthened and restored, becoming a central spot for San Franciscans seeking a place of beauty in the city.
Educational tours are given to connect people to the hundreds of rare plants. The conservatory is organized into sections based on plant type, including aquatic plants, highland tropics, lowland tropics, and potted plants — making the collection of brightly colored flowers and buds easy to navigate.
One of San Francisco’s original “Seven Hills,” Nob Hill gets its name from old gold-rush times when, as the bawdy waterfront offered no escape for the wealthy, the wealthy looked to build their homes on higher ground. The “nob” of Nob Hill actually is a contraction of an old Hindu word meaning, roughly, someone who has made his fortune. Today, Nob Hill is still home to some of San Francisco’s towering mansions and luxury hotels, but it’s historic feel and the eclectic neighborhoods that surround it give the area, for lack of a better phrase, a distinctly San Francisco feel.
While visiting, consider seeing some of the areas historic roots like the Huntington Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel, and Flood Mansion, all of which share in the vintage feel instilled by the old barber shops and cocktail lounges that line the streets. Popular sites of the neighborhood include the Cable Car Museum, the Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church and the Lumiere Theatre.
Tens of thousands of immigrants to the United States came through Angel Island from 1910 to 1950. Though the exact amount of people who passed through is unknown, it served as a detention site and a records office for those entering and exiting the United States. With the start of the Gold Rush in Northern California, the majority of the immigrant influx came from China — though it estimated that citizens from more than 80 countries entered the United States here.
Angel Island has been called the Ellis Island of the West Coast. It serves as a reminder of the complicated history of immigration from the Pacific, where immigrants were more often detained or excluded rather than welcomed. The building was abandoned in the 1950s and remained in a state of deterioration until nearly demolished. The discovery of Chinese poetry carved into walls ignited an interest in restoring and preserving the site, which can be toured today.
Things to do near San Francisco
- Things to do in California
- Things to do in Sausalito
- Things to do in Oakland
- Things to do in Napa & Sonoma
- Things to do in San Jose
- Things to do in Santa Rosa
- Things to do in Sacramento
- Things to do in Lake Tahoe
- Things to do in Paso Robles
- Things to do in Santa Barbara
- Things to do in Los Angeles
- Things to do in Long Beach
- Things to do in Anaheim & Buena Park
- Things to do in Nevada
- Things to do in Oregon