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.
Situated on a rocky and windswept point at the tip of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area lies the beautiful Lands End. With great views of the Bay and the magnificent Golden Gate, this park-within-a-park offers those who visit its dusty trails an unparalleled experience unlike any other in San Francisco.
Lands End has several hiking trails, the longest of which is an easy three-mile round-trip hike from Point Lobos to Eagles’ Point. You’ll pass the ruins of the Sutro Baths and the USS San Francisco Memorial, as well as getting some great shots of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Along the way, be sure to keep an eye out for the rocky labyrinth, located on a small plateau along the way, and, conservatively speaking, one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Well worth the time and effort to see all that Lands End has to offer, easier hikes can also be had by parking closer to the point itself.
At once both a place of peace and relaxation and a museum housing collections spanning more than 6,000 years of ancient and European Art, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is a museum that always takes precedence on any visit to San Francisco. Easily identifiable by the classical façade, its grand fountain, and the statue of El Cid in front of the museum, the Legion of Honor is hailed as a great representation of some of the most iconic art of the early Renaissance. In addition, the Legion of Honor houses the Skinner Organ, an organ of such amazing capacity and diversity that its concerts routinely sell out to people who come to hear the colors of a full symphony, echoed by one magnificent instrument.
Once a large, privately owned indoor swimming pool complex in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, due to a fire in 1966, the ruins of this magnificent bath-house now sit seemingly forgotten by time save for a small museum and gift store atop the hill. The ruins themselves stand all-but-gone amidst the beauty of the rough Californian coast, and are a great stoic testament to the innovation of man and the humbling power of Mother Nature.
Easily accessible by the Sutro Baths Trail right off of the Lands End parking lot, this hallowed, beautiful, and eerie escape amongst the cypress-lined cliffs are a great stop for any day spent exploring the San Franciscan outdoors. And while often windy, the Sutro Baths Museum offers guests a chance to come in from the cold, sip some coffee or hot cocoa, and get a glimpse into a time when this landmark was once the largest indoor bath house in the world.
Perched on rocks overlooking Ocean Beach, the Cliff House sits on the coast along on the western end of San Francisco. It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban national parks in the world, and was first built in 1863 before becoming a San Francisco landmark. Restored in 2004, it sits right next to the historic Sutro Baths with views of the ocean and rocky coastline that forms the Lands End trail.
Grab a bite at one of its two restaurants, enjoy views of the Pacific, or take a look at the room-sized Camera Obscura. Choose from the more casual Bistro Restaurant or get more formal at Sutro’s. On Sundays, it’s hard to beat the brunch served in the Terrace Room. Be sure to take a seat near the wide windows or walk out onto the large verandah and feel the proximity to the ocean, looking and listening for seals on the Seal Rocks below.
Sandwiched between San Francisco’s Civic Center and Alamo Square, Hayes Valley has grown into one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. Both residential and commercial, with its main drag Hayes Street, the area is full of custom shops and gourmet restaurants. There are also several Victorian and Queen Anne style townhouses in the surrounds, as well as numerous playgrounds and art-filled parks.
Though the area has been historically neglected, it has emerged as one of the most desirable areas in the city. Recent openings of coffee shops, craft cocktail bars, upscale boutiques, and even a beer garden have made this a hot spot of local activity. It seems that the city’s best new restaurants are opening in Hayes Valley on a regular basis. Its proximity to nearby arts and culture means it is often a pre- or post-show spot for dinner and drinks. It is also home to the new SJ Jazz Center.
On a quiet street in the Haight district of San Francisco, this purple painted Victorian house stands as the former dwelling of the band Grateful Dead. Street art depicting guitarist Jerry Garcia can be found on the sidewalks in front of the house. The timing was such that the band lived there from 1965-68, including during the famed “Summer of Love” in 1967. San Francisco was the center of the “flower power” hippie movement, and the Haight became known for its Bohemian lifestyle and the birth of several new musical genres.
All five members of the rock band lived in the house, which became known after the drug raid in 1967 for the possession of marijuana. It is claimed that it was in this house that the Grateful Dead’s distinctive musical style was born, as well as its naming by Jerry Garcia. Fans of the band, or “Deadheads,” can often be found making a pilgrimage to pay their respects to the musicians.
Though it gets its name from a Russian cemetery dating back in the Gold Rush era, Russian Hill is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in contemporary San Francisco. It is most famous for “the crookedest street in the world,” the winding Lombard Street. Most of its streets curve up and down hills, with Russian Hill itself being one of the “Seven Hills” of San Francisco. Yet the many steep hills grant some the best views of the city, the bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The famous Ghirardelli Square and Buena Vista Cafe, home of the original Irish coffee, are both on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Locals dine along Hyde Street or Polk Street, or stroll past the small French area of restaurants and boutiques near Green Street. Russian Hill is a pleasant part of the city to take a walk, pausing to rest in one of the many parks with views of the city below.
From China to the Philippines, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum displays an impressive mix of historical works, rare pieces and unique objects that celebrate the astounding diversity and range of artists from across all of Asia.
Whether it’s emerald statues of Buddha, images of Indian gods like Shiva and Parvati or ornate gold pendants and other pieces of handcrafted jewelry from Indonesia, the Asian Art Museum showcases the richness of a culture, variation of beliefs and a multitude of mediums that prove Asia is one of the premier destinations for art. Dozens of masterworks line the galleries of this popular museum, and traveling exhibits on calligraphy, painting and archaeology mean there’s something new to explore.
Also known as the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, this fine arts museum is known for its creative offerings as well as its unusual exterior and prime location in Golden Gate Park. As many people in the community were unhappy with a large museum being constructed in the middle of the park, the architects covered the building -- which is made of natural materials like stone, wood and glass -- in 950,000 pounds of perforated copper in order for it to oxidize and eventually turn green, blending in with the landscape’s eucalyptus trees. Additionally, the textured copper helps the structure to imitate light shining in through a tree canopy. By doing this, the De Young Museum aims to act as a natural addition to the Golden Gate Park.
Upon first viewing the building, you’ll probably notice the striking copper exterior as well as the 144-foot twisting tower off to the side.
Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. Originally built as an exhibit for the 1894 California International Expo, it stands today as one of the cultural gems of San Francisco. Its caretaker, a Japanese immigrant to San Francisco, extended it to nearly five acres and keeps it meticulously maintained.
The garden embodies the harmony, peace, and tranquility of this exquisite Japanese tradition. It includes elements such as a zen garden and stepping stone paths, along with a five-story pagoda, a koi fish pond, stone lanterns, and an arch drummed bridge. It also contains native Japanese plants, including the famed cherry blossom trees that bloom during spring in the garden just as they do in Japan. Visitors can sit on a bench and contemplate in silence or wander the gardens while listening to the sounds of the stream. There is also a tea house and small gift shop.
More Things to Do in San Francisco
When the sun breaks through the clouds in San Francisco, the Mission District feels it first. Thus, look to Dolores Park to find the first of the fair-weather fans in the most literal sense. Tennis and basketball courts, a soccer field, a children’s playground area and a dog play area as well as public restrooms make this one of the most popular family parks in San Francisco. Also noted for its spectacular panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, Dolores Park is a highlight to any sunny day in San Francisco.
Cutting southwest across San Francisco from The Embarcadero, Market Street is one of the city's major thoroughfares. It starts in front of the Ferry Building at the northeastern edge of the city and runs through downtown, passing the Financial District, Union Square, down to Civic Center and the Castro District, and to the intersection with Corbett Avenue in the Twin Peaks neighborhood.
On the south side of the street, close to the bay, is SoMA (South of Market Street), which is filled with fancy loft residences, restaurants, and nightclubs, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens. On the north side of the street is the Union Square shopping hub and downtown attractions. The best way to see this bustling street is to jump on the F-Market antique streetcars, which run along Market Street as well as the Embarcadero.
One of Nob Hill’s many stunning highlights, Grace Cathedral holds many interesting features. Its spectacular stained-glass windows include a series dedicated to human endeavor, depicting such modern figures as Thurgood Marshall, Robert Frost, and Albert Einstein, who is uplifted in a swirl of nuclear particles. Day and night you'll notice people absorbed in thought while walking the outdoor, inlaid stone labyrinth, meant to guide restless souls through three spiritual stages: releasing, receiving and returning.
Grace Cathedral also embodies a commitment to pressing social issues in its AIDS Memorial Chapel, which has a bronze altarpiece by artist-activist Keith Haring. Here his signature figures are angels taking flight – especially powerful imagery as this was his last work before death by AIDS in 1990. Alongside this magical ambience, Grace Cathedral also lifts spirits with Sunday services and musical performances.
SoMa or South of Market, as it is sometimes known, is one of the larger neighborhoods of San Francisco. Containing the smaller micro-hoods of Yerba Buena, South Beach, and Rincon Park, it is known for its industry feel — with many warehouses, loft apartments, and offices of major and startup tech companies. The area is also home to many of San Francisco’s best museums, including SFMOMA (Museum of Modern Art,) the California Historical Society and the Museum of the African Diaspora, as well as the Yerba Buena Arts District. The Yerba Buena Gardens, surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown, is a scenic place to walk around and feel both the energy and peacefulness of the city.
Aside from the many museums and industries, SoMa is also home to AT&T Park and the San Francisco Giants, the annual Folsom Street Fair, and many of the city’s nightclubs. It is a vibrant, modern cultural hub of San Francisco that continues to evolve.
Right off Union Square lies the famous Marrakech Magic Theater. Regarded as something of a hidden gem of San Francisco, this small but intimate theatre is where Magician Peter Morrison performs his signature magic and comedy routines in a close and comfortable setting. Known for greeting his guests at the door and encouraging audience participation, Peter Morrison makes the Marrakech Magic Theater feel like a comfortable evening amongst friends. Not flashy or over-the-top, the comedy and magic are performed tastefully, and the lounge before the show offers guests a chance to try some fairly-priced wine, beer, or cocktails with some hors d’oeuvres should they please.
Amongst its famous hills and winding streets, the cable cars of San Francisco have become perhaps the most iconic part of the famous city. Though they have a historic feel, the cable cars remain both a draw for visitors and a part of the city’s public transportation today.
The subtle sound of the cables running underneath the tracks is only the first clue as to how this classic transportation system works. The city’s Cable Car Museum goes into greater depth about functionality and history of the cars. You can learn about how and when they were first developed, as well as see three original cars from the 1870s. All of the system’s mechanical parts are on display, from the brake to the grips, as well as a large collection of historic photographs that take you back in time. There’s also the chance to go underground and view a subterranean cable in operation.
Running the western strip of San Francisco, Ocean Beach is a 3.5 mile strip of white beach and beautiful ocean. Adjacent to Golden Gate Park and so straight and flat you’ll think it was drawn by a ruler, Ocean Beach is great for joggers, Frisbee players, young love, and just coming to the beach and watching the tide come in. Though the water is cold, the views are spectacular, and you’ll often find it unoccupied – great for getting out of the city while remaining firmly within its borders.
Few places offer more spectacular (and iconic) views of San Francisco’s most famous bridge than Baker Beach. Tucked below the raggedy cliffs of Presidio, this popular destination offers scenic picnic facilities, rugged beaches and a rare chance to spot harbor porpoises diving into Pacific surf.
Once the original home of Burning Man, an art and music festival that has gained a cult-like following since its inception in 1990, Baker Beach is now a quiet—if popular—destination for travelers to the San Francisco Bay. Geologically inclined globetrotters will find a rare opportunity to check out gray-green serpentine, California’s state rock, from the shores of Baker Beach. And since this rare rock produces mineral rich soil, hard to find species of plants, like Marin Dwarf Flax, also grow here.
Ever wanted to investigate the living world beyond the pages of your science books? Ever wanted to see the world without color or have a bigger sense of yourself—upside down? Head to the Exploratorium to get fascinating scientific answers to all of the questions you wanted to raise in a science class but never did. It’s an educational fun house for people of all ages!
Now open at its new home at Pier 15, the Exploratorium is the global leader in informal learning, igniting curiosity and inspiring creativity in people of all ages. Explore nearly 600 hands-on exhibits, including 150 new experiences, and enjoy breathtaking views of the city and bay in the spectacular glass-and-steel Bay Observatory.
Wander through hundreds of exhibits and art installations, uncovering the mad magic of Einstein’s theory of relativity or the secret behind creating monstrous marshmallows. Safe, interactive exhibits abound, from food science to optical illusions to astronomy.
San Francisco’s Japantown may cover a small area, but it is big on authentic Japanese culture. It’s one of only three Japantowns remaining in the United States, and San Francisco’s is the country’s oldest and largest. From architecture and shopping to events and cuisine, a walk through Japantown truly feels as if you’ve been transported to Japan.
Strolling through the neighborhood it’s hard to miss the five-storied Peace Pagoda, which was a gift from San Francisco’s sister city Osaka. It’s at the heart of the Peace Plaza, where it is easy to discover unique pieces of Japanese culture. There are a number of authentic shops and restaurants — many of which are located in the Japan Center, a large indoor shopping mall. Taste a number of different Japanese foods, or pick up ingredients from a Japanese grocer. The sights, sounds, and smells of Japantown are a rare chance to experience Japan outside of the country itself.
Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market is the place where San Francisco foodies and some of the best local chefs come to peruse stalls hawking the finest Northern California produce, breads, dairy, flowers, ready-made snacks, and complete meals by local restaurants.
Outside, you can tempt your taste buds with artisanal goat cheese, fresh-pressed California olive oil, pasture-raised beef, and organic vegetables. The gourmet action continues indoors, where select local gourmet shops sell wild-harvested mushrooms, gold-leafed chocolates, sustainably farmed oysters and caviar from Marin, and other temptations. The variety and quality is amazing, and the crowd scene itself is something to behold.
The Barbary Coast Trail connects twenty of San Francisco’s most historic locations, with bronze trail markers on the sidewalks leading the way. Many of the sites correspond to two of the most important events of the city’s history: the Gold Rush and the earthquake of 1906. The Barbary Coast refers to the red-light district of saloons, dance halls, jazz clubs, and brothels that developed in the city at the end of the 19th century.
Developed by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, the trail takes you on a walk through the different eras of the city, including the time of “beat” poetry in North Beach and Depression-era murals near Coit Tower. The first Asian temple in North America is also a stop on the trail. The four-mile path begins at the Old Mint and passes through historic museums, sailing ships, pubs, homes, and cafes that tell the story of San Francisco.
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