With its myriad hills and spectacular bay, San Francisco beguiles with natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods, a contagious energy, and plenty of things to do and see.
What is San Francisco well known for, if not the delightful combination of fresh climate, futuristic technology, and charming relics all cozied up on seven hills? Whether you’re seeing the Golden Gate for the first time, playing tourist, haven’t been in a dozen years, or making annual pilgrimages, there are plenty of fun things to do. These recommendations ensure you get a little bit of everything great about the City by the Bay.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SAN FRANCISCO?Come from September to November for ideal weather conditions, jam-packed calendars with free cultural events, and a city you’ll find alive and kicking.
The city is widely known for being COVID-cautious; here’s where you can get COVID info for San Francisco.
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Be a Foodie at the Ferry Building
Either you’ve spent years cultivating a refined palate, or you’re curious about dishes that make SF a foodie destination, but the beauty of the historic Ferry Building is that it has something for everyone. Cafés, restaurants, a farmers’ market, and merchants peddle everything from rare mushrooms and delicate wine to perfected staples like bread and honey. San Franciscans come to stock up on local favorites such as Acme Bread, Golden Gate Meat Company, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Humphry Slocombe ice cream. You might sit at a straight-from-China black granite counter and enjoy sips from Imperial Tea Court. 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. Time your visit to catch the market on select mornings for a widely renowned forum on politics and education, along with stalls serving hothouse tomatoes, kimchi, and pâté en croute. Wing it; you’ll still be able to stop by Fog City Flea Trading Post anytime. Year-round outdoor seating means you can pair your shopping with a picturesque backdrop of the bay.
INSIDER TIPUse the Veggie Valet if you are tempted to hop on the ferries that beckon the adventurous.
San Francisco boasts the largest and oldest Chinatown, a fiercely charming neighborhood born from historical resistance. Bring or buy a grocery tote and trawl the small neighborhood stores. Brides know that Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory offers bulk custom cookies, but you don’t have to be a wedding planner to write your own fortune and walk out with a hand-made (rather tasty) souvenir. Kick back with a cocktail and toast to the tragic ghost of Li Po Cocktail Lounge. Make a solemn visit to the fragrant altar inside Tin How Temple; climb the narrow stairway to spot the names of the devoted on hundreds of red lanterns. And, of course, don’t skip a chance to dine at one of the crowded (and therefore reputable) dim sum parlors like Wing Sing or Good Mong Kok Bakery.
Play Music With the Sea at the Wave Organ
Find yourself nostalgic for childhood days of listening to secrets whispered in conch shells? What if you could swap out that natural cassette player for a concert courtesy of the Pacific Ocean by visiting the 1986 Wave Organ public sculpture? Under the Golden Gate Bridge, the ocean feeds into some of the world’s most important heritage wetlands and salt marshes. Though increasing tides make the San Francisco Bay dangerous at times, the waters are also playful. Come at high tide for an acoustic concert played by the lapping waves, and wander the nearby promenade of Crissy Field. In the morning, you’ll pass fishermen who rest on the structure, enjoying the views of the Golden Gate; like many things in the city, even the carved marble and granite of the jetty are an homage to the past. The artist, Peter Richards, repurposed tombstones from one of the four demolished cemeteries that have vanished from the peninsula. When you listen closely to the Wave Organ, it’ll make you wonder who you’re hearing.
Gaze at the 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 photoshoots. 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.
For 150 years, Golden Gate Park has served as San Francisco’s green, beating heart. The three-mile-long, half-mile-wide park that stretches from the Haight to the Pacific Ocean is riddled with nooks and crannies that are incomparable to any city park you’ve explored. In addition to hosting world-famous events like Outsidelands and Hardly Strictly, two museums inspire and delight: de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. You could live here for 30 years and still get lost wandering Golden Gate Park’s gardens and groves, including the San Francisco Botanical Garden and AIDS Memorial Grove. Steep yourself in history on a stroll in the Japanese Tea Garden or the Conservatory of Flowers, meet the ghost of Stow Lake, or greet the park’s resident bison population. If you’re lucky, this is a great place to meet local celebrity Karl, the named weather phenomenon that protects the city with a cozy blanket of fog.
Discover Macondray Lane
San Francisco has no shortage of impressive, grand homes, but the tiny fairy-tale lanes 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. You may find the lane vaguely familiar if you’ve read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books. It’s the thinly disguised setting for part of the series’ action.
Get Lost in a Good Book at City Lights Bookstore
Take a look at the store’s exterior. Note the replica of a revolutionary mural destroyed in Chiapas, Mexico by military forces, the art banners hanging above the windows, and the sign that reads: “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 publishers 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.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to check the calendar of literary events.
Conquer Your Fear of Heights at Coit Tower
Most people assume that the stubby white tower atop Telegraph Hill is supposed to look like a fire-hose nozzle. It was funded by volunteer firefighter, cigar-smoker, and trouser-wearing socialite “Firebelle Lil” Coit, so maybe the lore is true. While the tower itself houses the history of San Francisco in murals, visitors come for the parking lot. That sounds improbable until you arrive at the top of Telegraph Hill and see the parking lot’s fantastic views of the city and the bay. If you are physically up for it, take the Filbert Steps, a steep stairway through glorious gardens with vistas of transcendent beauty.
INSIDER TIPListen for the flock of wild parrots who nest on Telegraph Hill.
Peer Out at Old Ships at Hyde Street Pier
The ever-busy Fisherman’s Wharf will give you sticky cotton candy, trinkets, and a chance to meet the city’s “Sea Lebrities” (the sea lions of Pier 39. If you want to get to the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s no better place to do it than at this pier, where you dip into maritime history. Depending on the time of day, you might see boat builders at work or children pretending to man an early-1900s ship. The treasure here is the centerpiece collection of historic vessels, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, almost all of which can be boarded. From the Balclutha (an 1886 full-rigged three-masted sailing vessel more than 250 feet long) to the Hercules (a classic steam-powered tug boat), a visit will have you singing sea shanties in no time.
INSIDER TIPKids can try their hand at earning a Junior Ranger badge with activities offered in both English and Spanish.
The Mission District is a dynamic and historically working-class immigrant neighborhood, plus hipsters. Peel back the layers, and you’ll find the birthplace of the Mission-style burrito, which emerged in the 1960s. There are dozens of options, but you really can’t ask a hungry crowd which burrito is best without inciting a brawl. The burrito, like the Mission, is inherently Chicano, and reading up on La Raza will show you that trying to crown a favorite is ignoring the rich variety and history of the Mission-style burrito. Instead, plan out a few to try for breakfast, lunch, and dinner over the course of a day, and let your belly fill with the warmth, portability, and joy that comes from tortillas as big as maps and foil wrapping gleaming in the San Francisco sun.
Cruise Over the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s signature International Orange entryway is the city’s majestic background, and about 6000 bicycles cross each day. You can drive, but for a magical experience, walk or bike 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. It’s 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 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.
Pamper Yourself at 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 ($45, reservations required) contain hot and cold pools, a cedarwood dry sauna, a steam room with herbal infusions, showers, and a collection of sea salts and cucumber slices. Bang the gong for quiet if your fellow bathers are speaking too loudly. The clothing-optional baths are open for men only on Thursday and Saturday; women bathe on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Cis and trans visitors alike are explicitly welcome. Bathing suits are required on Tuesday when the baths are all-gender.
Float Above the City at Salesforce Park
While you might suppose that the saga of associated failures would sour a visit to this floating park, knowing that it took so long, cost so much, opened with cracks and critics, and will lose $20 million annually heightens the paradoxical experience. The public outdoor elevators open onto a surreal block of nature plopped right atop downtown San Francisco. The amphitheater lawn hosts weekly drum circles, fitness classes, and free folk concerts. There are 13 themed ecosystems, including Fog Garden and Prehistoric Garden, along a path with a surprising water feature. Each time a bus passes alongside the transit center below, water shoots up and delights children who come to play and enjoy the Recess Cart and school bus-yellow playground. In a rare turn, no dogs are allowed (service animals okay), so consider this an upside-down version of San Francisco, the city where there are statistically more dogs than children. Just don’t mention your visit to San Franciscans; the pre-Salesforce SF skyline was a popular tattoo trend in the last decade, which shows how unpopular this project was.
It’s a fool’s errand to wonder why there are so many must-see green spaces and parks on this list because they’re all so vastly different. The Presidio is a sublime, untamed landscape compared to other manicured city parks. This was once a military base, with repurposed military barracks now housing institutions like the Walt Disney Family Museum. Pay your respects at the various war memorials and cemeteries, including one dedicated to military pets like Mr. Iguana, Heidi, and Trouble. It sounds strange to suggest that you can take a hike in a dense city, but the network of trails includes everything from accessible to challenging loops. There are a few StoryWalks from the public library, so motivate young walkers by reading a picture book page every few hundred feet. If the kiddos have more energy, take them to the House of Air to jump and fly under watchful Air Traffic Controllers.
INSIDER TIPPack a picnic or visit one of the many cafes in the area. You’ll work up an appetite in the chilly, swirling fog.
Feel the Wind in Twin Peaks
Swoop up to this popular vista early in the day to admire the city before it dons fine fur coats of fog each summer evening. Laugh at the name if you want; even in the Spanish days, it was named “Los Pechos de la Choca” or “Breasts of the Indigenous Maiden.” The slopes are dotted with Mission Blue Butterflies. These endangered species now live only on these peaks, relying on caretaker ants who protect the young larvae from predators in a strange symbiotic relationship. As long as you consider the strong winds and fearless coyotes, you’ll see why Twin Peaks is one of the first places San Franciscans take their visitors.
INSIDER TIPPractice vigilance; where there are busloads of tourists, pickpockets are bound to follow.
Marvel at European Art at the Legion of Honor
Where can you go on the Pacific Coast that will make you gasp, “How very European!” This art museum on a cliff overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, and a nude beach. Enjoy porcelain, photography, tapestries, sculptures, and a Hall of Antiquities with ancient Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art. Like many museums, the Legion once largely avoided confronting its troubled past. Renovations revealed that the building, dedicated to fallen Great War soldiers, was itself built atop a cemetery. During construction, grave markers were simply knocked over and buried. The excavation was abruptly halted, and there are likely many more secrets below. Skeletons and tombstones reveal themselves to nude bathers below each time it rains heavily. Still, the Legion of Honor stretches beyond the Rodin sculptures and the Louvre-esque pyramidal glass skylight that beg to cast San Francisco as the Paris of the Pacific Rim. With a recent exhibit from artist Wangechi Mutu and new exhibits continuing to set fire to its own past, the Legion of Honor positions itself as one of the most interesting and dynamic art museums in the world.
Learn a Thing or Two at the 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. Super funky 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.
Ride a Cable Car
You’ve already seen them (on the big screen, in magazines, and, admit it, on the Rice-a-Roni box). Flag down a Powell–Hyde car along Powell Street, grab the pole, and clatter up mansion-topped Nob Hill. Crest the hill, and hold on for the hair-raising descent to Fisherman’s Wharf, with the sun glittering off the bay and Alcatraz bobbing in the distance. But considering a ticket will cost you $8, do you need to ride a cable car? Well, if the waits are too long, your wallet isn’t fat, or you’re not sprightly, consider visiting the Cable Car Museum for a closer look at the powerhouse and a chance to buy your own bell.
Scream for SF Ice Cream
If you come to San Francisco in the summer, you’ll undoubtedly hear that thing Mark Twain allegedly said about how cold it gets. Still, there’s nothing like the ice cream parlors that offer a sweet reprise for kids who really do walk uphill both ways to school. Treat your inner kid to some Swensen’s, where the seasonal flavors help distinguish the months in an unchanging climate. Ghirardelli has a whole square where you can tour the chocolate and ice cream factory, and it’s much safer than Willy Wonka’s place. Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphry Slocombe, Salt & Straw, and Miyako have dandy parlors. Pick up a pint to go and add a nip of Baileys for an adult twist on the ice cream social.
Go Find a Ghost at Alcatraz
Rethink everything you know about incarceration. An audio tour introduces you to husky-throated onetime inmates and grizzled former guards with voices that bring this notorious prison rock to life. You’ll meet infamous guests like Al Capone, but while you walk the cold cement cellblock and listen to yarns about desperate escape attempts, you may grow sympathetic to the ghosts. If you want to escape the island’s dark history, try some birdwatching or stop to smell the roses in the gardens once tended by inmates. Though the man-made structures are rapidly deteriorating in the island’s harsh climate, a few survivors provide a poignant testament to the art of surviving inhospitable conditions.
Stand in Line for Hyped Pastries at Tartine Bakery & Cafe
Chad Robertson is America’s first modern cult baker, and this tiny Mission District outpost—neighboring Pizzeria Delfina—is the original place to experience the loaves of tangy country bread that sell out instantly. Brave a line of locals to get your own morning bun dusted with brown sugar, cinnamon, and orange zest, or wait until 4:30 pm when the 250 famed loaves emerge. Like all things San Francisco, critics say it just ain’t the same, but the recipe hasn’t changed, and the proof is in the bread lines.
Play Vintage Arcade Games at Musée Mécanique
There’s no place like an arcade if it’s a rainy day. A museum in name only, the Musée Mécanique, housed in the tourist-heavy neighborhood of Fisherman’s Wharf, is one of San Francisco’s most quirky institutions. The museum is full of more than 200 antique arcade games from the early days of mechanization, most rescued from San Francisco’s defunct beachside amusement park, Playland at the Beach. Coin-operated fortune tellers, moving dioramas, stereoscopes, and more will amaze and delight adults and children alike. The only ones who won’t enjoy this are sourpusses and scaredy cats who can’t handle the folksy but admittedly frightening visages inside some of the vintage games.
See Your Favorite Band at the Fillmore
Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, and Nico ushered in the scene at San Francisco’s most famous music hall in 1966, and since then, it’s been a sold-out gig for national and local acts. The vast range of artists who’ve relied on the ambiance to complement their music is impressive to even the most eclectic listener; it’s always worth previewing who is playing at this hot spot of music culture. Cool off upstairs and view the amazing collection of rock posters lining the walls. Remember to stop at the entrance before you leave blissed out and buzzing from Ani DiFranco or Fetty Wap. You’ll either leave with a free apple from a tub near the door or a concert poster if your show was sold-out and extra special.
Just over the Golden Gate are storied giants waiting to regale patient listeners with their ancestral stories. These are some of the last old-growth redwoods on the planet, trees seven times as tall as a telephone pole and predating the invention of toothpaste, pizza, and paper money. To rest at their feet is a blessing, an experience to humble the arrogant and embolden those lost in deep existential crises. The winding roads leading here will beguile you, so try not to overthink it. Just find a friendly red giant and remember how young you are by comparison.
One of San Francisco’s most beautiful neighborhoods, North Beach (once upon a time an actual beach before the city extended the shoreline with a landfill), is a living and breathing historical landmark. Settled by Italian immigrants displaced by the 1906 earthquake, North Beach remains San Francisco’s “Little Italy,” populated by establishments like century-old Foccacia purveyors, Liguria Bakery, and a string of rotating Italian joints along Columbus Avenue. But there’s more here than just Mediterranean heritage. In the ‘50s, this was the home of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe and the center of the Beat Movement (whose members frequently met at the still-standing Caffe Trieste). For fans of Jack Kerouac, visit Vesuvio’s. For the devout, check out where Sister Act 2 was filmed at Saints Peter and Paul Church. On the steeply sloped streets that encircle the neighborhood, there are tales of murder and socialite scandals along Lombard Street.
Daytrip in Dolores
Under the most glorious adult playground in California, beneath the feet of magic mushroom slingers and drag show hosts, there are skeletons and ghosts. Mission Dolores was an 18th-century Catholic outpost that has been remarkably preserved through murals, architecture, and a tiny cemetery you can visit on a gloomy day. Within the original chapel are murals hand-painted by the Ohlone people, 80% of whom would go on to die at the hands of Americans in the post-Gold Rush culture clash. The park’s allure is the almost-always-sunny hills where people come to see and be seen. Food trucks, paleteros, and basket-swinging hippies offer just about anything the heart desires. There’s just something in the air that makes Dolores such a relaxing place to people-watch.
Dive Into Urban Ruins at the Sutro Baths
What was once the largest indoor saltwater swimming pool in the world today lies in ruins on the rocky bluffs of San Francisco’s west coast. For seventy years, the Sutro Baths drew bathing beauties from around the region, but when it burned down in 1966, the attraction’s remains came under the protection of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Explore what’s left, including staircases to nowhere, blocked passageways, and a cave rumored to be the site of The Black Pope’s dark rituals.
Go Roller Skating at the Church of 8 Wheels
A massive church straddling a flurry of traffic greets you atop a hill. Inside, praise and play with the unique, funkified services that roll on Fridays and Saturdays. The Church of 8 Wheels is a roller-skating rink to write home about. The forty-year-old brainchild of San Francisco’s “Godfather of Skate” (AKA David G. Miles Jr) features a DJ spinning disco, funk, and R&B. The Church is open every weekend for fun-loving worshippers on two or four wheels.
Unleash Your Inner Child at Seward Street Slides
This pocket park on the edge of the Castro has a slippery secret: two steep concrete slides for grown-up kids with a need for speed. Designed by a 14-year-old kid in the 1970s, the side-by-side slides in a community garden on Seward Street remain a random pocket of joy in a rapidly changing city. For the best ride, grab a piece of cardboard as a makeshift sled and wear long pants—gravity doesn’t mess around when it comes to the San Francisco hills.
Check Out Street Art at the Mission Murals
Murals are quickly commodified, but in the Mission, priority is given to local artists. Social justice and Chicano heritage are central to this unique and historic art form. Street art abounds in San Francisco, but it’s most concentrated in the Mission District. Here, several small alleys have become inheritance passed from retiring artists to fledglings. Depending on your interests, you might visit alleys like Caledonia and Clarion near the 16th Street Bart Station. Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitor Center offers regular free tours led by muralists, or you can take a self-guided tour. SF Mural Arts offers an excellent online description of each of the pieces, but be prepared to reckon with the intertwined nature of environmental injustice, the fight for equality, and the struggles that continue in the beloved Mission District.