25 Ultimate Things to Do in San Francisco

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With its myriad hills and spectacular bay, San Francisco beguiles with natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods, and contagious energy. Whether or not you’ve already visited the City by the Bay, it can overwhelm visitors with its offerings. Of course there are the well-trodden spots including Alamo Square, with its Painted Ladies; Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39; and twisting Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world.” But there’s much more to see and do, so we’ve selected the 25 top things every visitor should experience in San Francisco. Whether you're visiting for the first time or the fifth, these recommendations ensure that you’ll have a great trip.

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Ferry Building

Foodies, rejoice! The historic Ferry Building is stuffed to the brim with all things tasty, including cafés, restaurants, a farmers' market, and merchants peddling everything from wine and olive oil to oysters and mushrooms. The building backs up to the bay, so the views are great—but they're even better from the decks of the departing ferries. San Franciscans flock to the street-level marketplace, stocking up on supplies from local favorites such as Acme Bread, Scharffen Berger Chocolate, Cowgirl Creamery, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Humphry Slocombe ice cream. Slanted Door, the city's beloved high-end Vietnamese restaurant, is here, along with highly regarded Bouli Bar. The seafood bar at Hog Island Oyster Company has fantastic bay view panoramas. On the plaza side, the outdoor tables at Gott's Roadside offer great people-watching with their famous burgers. On Saturday morning the plazas outside the building buzz with an upscale farmers' market where you can buy exotic sandwiches and other munchables.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Chinatown

If there’s one place in San Francisco that feels like a city unto itself, it’s Chinatown. Here, people dash between small neighborhood stores, their arms draped with plastic totes filled with groceries or souvenirs. Breathe in the scented air as you watch the nimble hands at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, then kick back with a cocktail at Li Po around the corner, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of an opium junkie still looking to score. At Tin How Temple, climb the narrow stairway to this space with hundreds of red lanterns, then step onto the tiny balcony and take in the alley scene below. And, of course, don’t skip a chance to have dim sum at Yank Sing.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Yerba Buena Gardens

There's not much south of Market Street that encourages lingering outdoors—or indeed walking at all—with this notable exception. These two blocks encompass the Center for the Arts, the Metreon, Moscone Convention Center, and the convention center's rooftop Children's Creativity Museum, but the gardens themselves are the everyday draw.Office workers escape to the green swath of the East Garden, the focal point of which is the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. Powerful streams of water surge over large, jagged stone columns, mirroring the enduring force of King's words that are carved on the stone walls and on glass blocks behind the waterfall. Atop the Moscone Convention Center perch a few lures for kids. The historic Looff carousel twirls daily 10–5. South of the carousel is the Children's Creativity Museum, a high-tech, interactive arts-and-technology center geared to children ages 3–12. Kids can make Claymation videos, work in a computer lab, check out new games and apps, and perform and record music videos. Just outside, kids adore the excellent slides, including a 25-foot tube slide, at the play circle. Also part of the rooftop complex are gardens, an ice-skating rink, and a bowling alley.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Palace of Fine Arts

Perched on a swan-filled lagoon near the Marina's yacht harbor, this stirringly beautiful terra-cotta-color domed structure has an otherworldly quality about it. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and restored in 2008, the palace is a San Francisco architect's version of a Roman ruin, and it's been eliciting gasps for almost a century. The massive columns (each topped with four “weeping maidens”), great rotunda, and swan-filled lagoon have been used in countless fashion layouts, films, and wedding photo shoots. After admiring the lagoon, look across the street to the house at 3460 Baker St. If the maidens out front look familiar, they should—they're original casts of the “garland ladies” you can see in the Palace's colonnade.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Golden Gate Park

It may be world-famous, but first and foremost the park is the city's backyard. Come here any day of the week and you'll find a microcosm of San Francisco, from the Russian senior citizens feeding the pigeons at Stow Lake and the moms pushing strollers through the botanical gardens to school kids exploring the fabulous California Academy of Sciences and arts boosters checking out the latest at the de Young Museum. Be sure to visit the park's iconic treasures, including the serene Japanese Tea Garden and the beautiful Victorian Conservatory of Flowers. If you have the time to venture farther into this urban oasis, you'll discover less-accessible gems like the Beach Chalet and the wild western shores of Ocean Beach.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Macondray Lane

San Francisco has no shortage of impressive, grand homes, but it's the tiny fairy-tale lanes that make most want to move here, and Macondray Lane is the quintessential hidden garden. Enter under a lovely wooden trellis and proceed down a quiet, cobbled pedestrian lane lined with Edwardian cottages and flowering plants and trees. Watch your step—the cobblestones are quite uneven in spots. A flight of steep wooden stairs at the end of the lane leads to Taylor Street—on the way down you can't miss the bay views. If you've read any of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books, you may find the lane vaguely familiar. It's the thinly disguised setting for part of the series' action.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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City Lights Bookstore

Take a look at the exterior of the store: the replica of a revolutionary mural destroyed in Chiapas, Mexico by military forces; the art banners hanging above the windows; and the sign that says “Turn your sell [sic] phone off. Be here now.” This place isn't just doling out best sellers. Designated a city landmark, the hangout of Beat-era writers—Allen Ginsberg and store founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti among them—and independent publisher remains a vital part of San Francisco's literary scene. Browse the three levels of poetry, philosophy, politics, fiction, history, and local zines, to the tune of creaking wood floors. Be sure to check the calendar of literary events.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Coit Tower

Most people assume that this stubby white tower atop Telegraph Hill is supposed to look like a fire-hose nozzle. And considering that a fire truck–chasing, cross-dressing 19th-century socialite donated the funds to build it, maybe it is. The tower itself is of vague interest—it does house the history of San Francisco in murals—but the parking lot at its base and tiny park out back have fantastic views of the city and the bay. The tower sits at the top of Telegraph Hill's Filbert Steps, a steep stairway through glorious gardens with vistas of transcendent beauty, an only-in-San Francisco spot locals cherish.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Hyde Street Pier

Cotton candy and souvenirs are all well and good, but if you want to get to the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf—boats—there's no better place to do it than at this pier, one of the area's best bargains. Depending on the time of day, you might see boat builders at work or children pretending to man an early-1900s ship. Don't pass up the centerpiece collection of historic vessels, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, almost all of which can be boarded. The Balclutha, an 1886 full-rigged three-masted sailing vessel that's more than 250 feet long, sailed around Cape Horn 17 times. Kids especially love the Eureka, a side-wheel passenger and car ferry, for her onboard collection of vintage cars. The Hercules is a steam-powered tugboat, and the C.A. Thayer is a beautifully restored three-masted schooner.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Mission District

The Mission has a number of distinct personalities: it's the Latino neighborhood, it's the hipster hood, it's a culinary epicenter, it’s the face of gentrification, and it's the artists' quarter. It's also the city's equivalent of the Sunshine State—this neighborhood's always the last to succumb to fog.

Keen appetites and thin wallets will meet their match here: Just try to decide between deliciously fresh burritos, garlicky falafel, thin-crust pizza, savory samosas, and more. Check out dozens of energetic, colorful public artworks in alleyways and on building exteriors. Join Mission locals and their dogs in Dolores Park, a hilly expanse of green that has a glorious view of downtown and, if you're lucky, the Bay Bridge. On sunny days the whole neighborhood comes out to play. Embrace your inner (or not-so-inner) hipster. Grab a cocktail at Trick Dog, whose mixologists mix up some of the Mission's finest drinks, then head over to the stylish Nihon Whisky Lounge or stop by the Chapel, where live music often accompanies the cocktails.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco's signature International Orange entryway is the city's majestic background, and about 10 million people a year head to the bridge for an up-close look. Walking the 1.7 miles to Marin County—inches from roaring traffic, steel shaking beneath your feet, and only a railing between you and the water 200 feet below—is much more than a superlative photo op (though it's that, too). Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge under your own power is exhilarating—a little scary, and definitely chilly. From the bridge's eastern-side walkway, the only side pedestrians are allowed on, you can take in the San Francisco skyline and the bay islands; look west for the wild hills of the Marin Headlands, the curving coast south to Lands End, and the Pacific Ocean.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Kabuki Springs & Spa

This serene spa is one Japantown destination that draws locals from all over town, from hipster to grandma, Japanese-American or not. Balinese urns decorate the communal bath area of this house of tranquility. The communal baths ($25) contain hot and cold tubs, a large Japanese-style bath, a sauna, a steam room, and showers. Bang the gong for quiet if your fellow bathers are speaking too loudly. The clothing-optional baths are open for men only on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday; women bathe on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Bathing suits are required on Tuesday, when the baths are coed.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Vallejo Steps Area

Several Russian Hill buildings survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and remain standing. Patriotic firefighters saved what's become known as theFlag House when they spotted the American flag on the property and doused the flames with seltzer water and wet sand. The owner, a flag collector, fearing the house would burn to the ground, wanted it to go down in style, with “all flags flying.” The Flag House, at the southwest corner of Ina Coolbrith Park, is one of a number of California Shingle–style homes in this neighborhood, several of which the architect Willis Polk designed. Polk drew up the plans for the nearby Polk-Williams House and lived in one of its finer sections, and he was responsible for 1034–1036 Vallejo, across the street. He also laid out the Vallejo Steps themselves, which climb the steep ridge across Taylor Street from the Flag House. Though very steep, the walk up to Ina Coolbrith Park and beyond is possibly the most pleasurable thing to do while on Russian Hill, rewarding you as it does with glorious views.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

This huge, protected area encompasses the San Francisco coastline, the Marin Headlands, and Point Reyes National Seashore. It's veined with hiking trails, and many guided walks take place. You can find current schedules at visitor centers in the Presidio and Marin Headlands. One of the most popular sections is Lands End, where the views are incredible and you can see the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Head down the freshly restored Coastal Trail near the Cliff House; you'll quickly find yourself in a forest with unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Twin Peaks

Windswept and desolate Twin Peaks yields sweeping vistas of San Francisco and the neighboring East and North Bay counties. You can get a real feel for the city's layout here, but you'll share it with busloads of other admirers; in summer, arrive before the late-afternoon fog turns the view into pea soup. To drive here, head west from Castro Street up Market Street, which eventually becomes Portola Drive. Turn right (north) on Twin Peaks Boulevard and follow the signs to the top. Muni Bus 37–Corbett heads west to Twin Peaks from Market Street. Catch this bus above the Castro Street Muni light-rail station on the island west of Castro at Market Street.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Legion of Honor

The old adage of real estate—location, location, location—is at full force here. You can't beat the site of this museum of European art atop cliffs overlooking the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. A pyramidal glass skylight in the entrance court illuminates the lower-level galleries, which exhibit prints and drawings, English and European porcelain, and ancient Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art. The 20-plus galleries on the upper level display the permanent collection of European art (paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and tapestries) from the 14th century to the present day.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

California Academy of Sciences

One look at the building's monumental exterior—glass, glass, and more glass, all topped with 2½ acres of native plants on its undulating living roof—and you'll know this isn't just another science museum. Superfunky architecture and “green” everything (denim as insulation and rechargeable vehicle stations) enclose a full day's diversions. Visit Claude, the languid albino crocodile, a waddle of penguins, a four-story walk-through rain forest complete with free-flying butterflies, a planetarium, a good, old-fashioned natural-history hall, and more.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Cable Cars

You've already seen them (on the big screen, in magazines, and, admit it, on the Rice-a-Roni box). And considering a ticket costs $6 a pop, do you really need to ride a cable car? Yes, you do, at least once during your visit. Flag down a Powell–Hyde car along Powell Street, grab the pole, and clatter and jiggle up mansion-topped Nob Hill. Crest the hill, and hold on for the hair-raising descent to Fisherman's Wharf, with sun glittering off the bay and Alcatraz bobbing in the distance. Don't deny it—this would be a deal at twice the price.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar

Since the 1940s the Tonga Room has supplied its city with high Polynesian kitsch. Fake palm trees, grass huts, a lagoon (three-piece combos play pop standards on a floating barge), and faux monsoons—courtesy of sprinkler-system rain and simulated thunder and lightning—grow more surreal as you quaff the bar's signature mai tais and other too-too fruity cocktails.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Alcatraz

Considering how many movies have been set here, you might feel that you've already “been there, done that”—but you really shouldn't miss a trip to America's most infamous federal pen. Husky-throated onetime inmates and grizzled former guards bring the Rock to life on the wonderful audio tour; you'll hear yarns about desperate escape attempts and notorious crooks like Al Capone while you walk the cold cement cellblock. But it's not all doom and gloom: you'll enjoy stunning views of the city skyline on the ferry ride to and from the island.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Tartine Bakery & Cafe

Chad Robertson is America’s first modern cult baker, and this tiny Mission District outpost—neighboring Pizzeria Delfina—is where to experience the loaves of tangy country bread that sell out insanely quickly, and/or a morning bun dusted with brown sugar, cinnamon, and orange zest. Lines are long in the morning when locals need a pastry-punch to start the day, and at 4:30 pm when the 250 famed loaves emerge. The small bakery has a coffee counter, but seating can be difficult to find.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Vintage Streetcars

For a couple of dollars, you can hop on a vintage F-Line streetcar and take a grand tour of Civic Center, Downtown, and Fisherman’s Wharf by rail. The colorful retro trolleys that ttraverse Market Street came from places like Hamburg, Milan, and Philly, and there’s even an original New Orleans streetcar named Desire. The cars have been lovingly restored and each still bears the markings and design details of its native city.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

The Filmore

This is the club that all the big names, from Coldplay to Clapton, want to play. San Francisco's most famous rock-music hall presents national and local acts: rock, reggae, grunge, jazz, folk, acid house, and more. Go upstairs to view the amazing collection of rock posters lining the walls. At the end of each show, free apples are set near the door, and staffers hand out collectible posters. Avoid steep service charges by purchasing tickets at the club's box office on Sunday from 10 to 4.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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Muir Woods National Monument

Walking among some of the last old-growth redwoods on the planet, trees hundreds of feet tall and a millennium or more old, is magical, an experience like few others to clearly illustrate our tiny place in a bigger world. Ancestors of redwood and sequoia trees grew throughout what is now the United States 150,000,000 years ago. Today theSequoia sempervirens can be found only in a narrow, cool coastal belt from Monterey to Oregon. The 550 acres of Muir Woods National Monument contain some of the most majestic redwoods in the world—some more than 250 feet tall.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

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North Beach & Russian Hill

One of the city's oldest neighborhoods, North Beach continues to speak Italian, albeit in fewer households than it did when Joe DiMaggio was hitting home runs at the local playground. Columbus Avenue, North Beach's primary commercial artery, and nearby side streets boast dozens of moderately priced Italian restaurants and coffee bars that San Franciscans flock to for a dose of strong community feeling. But beware, there are a few tourist traps that are after the college crowd who flock here for cheap drinks then want to fill up on cheap food.

Despite its name, don’t expect Russian food in Russian Hill. Instead, this area bordering Nob Hill caters to the postcollege crowds, who want to live near the buzzy Polk and Larkin streets. They mix in with the upper-crust San Franciscans who live in the art-deco high-rises with views. Many romantic bistros are tucked away on tree-lined Hyde Street.

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