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.
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 and 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 30 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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Eat All the Foods at the 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
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.
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See a Classic Film at the Castro Theater
One of the country’s last, great independent theaters, the Castro Theater has brought its particular brand of entertainment to San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood since 1922. Inside the theater’s decor is a hodgepodge of Art Deco, Spanish and Asian influences and, at the center of it all, a pipe organ rises from beneath the stage to entertain movie-goers before the show. Don’t expect to see buzzy new movies at the Castro—their programming leans more towards classic films, obscure indie darlings and Noir (the theater hosts the Noir City Film Festival each January). For a family-friendly treat, check out the Castro’s regular singalongs at which attendees are encouraged to dress up like their favorite characters from beloved musicals and Disney movies and, well, sing along.
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 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.
For nearly 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 give even New York’s Central Park a run for its money, not to mention two world-class museums, the De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. Get lost wandering Golden Gate Park’s gardens and groves, including the San Francisco Botanical Garden and AIDs Memorial Grove, and discover local favorites like the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, a century-old carousel and the park’s resident bison population. Sun can be elusive in the park thanks to regular fog, the city’s prodigal weather phenomenon known simply as Karl, but the gray mist rising from the lakes and between the Monterey cypress trees make Golden Gate Park all the more interesting.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide
Discover 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.
Get Lost in a Good Book at 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.
Conquer Your Fear of Heights at 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.
Peer Out at Old Ships at 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.
What was once a humble working class immigrant neighborhood is today the hipster core of San Francisco. The name of the game here is food—it is, after all, the birthplace of the Mission-style burrito, which emerged in the 1960s (although which taqueria first created it, Taqueria La Cumbre or El Faro, is a matter of some debate). In addition to dozens of burrito-hawking holes-in-the-wall, the Mission’s restaurants range from the Michelin starred (Al’s Place, Lazy Bear and Californios) to inexpensive favorites like the tiny Burmese kitchen Yamo and the vegan staple Gracias Madre. The city’s best drinking establishments are also largely concentrated in this southern neighborhood with classic dives like Zeitgeist, Kilowatt and the 500 Club elbowing up to shiny new and award winning cocktail lounges like The Beehive, Wildhawk and Trick Dog.
Cruise Over the 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.
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 ($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.
Lose Your Breath Climbing the Vallejo Steps
Several Russian Hill buildings survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and remain standing. Patriotic firefighters saved what’s become known as the Flag 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.
This massive green space on San Francisco’s northwest side doesn’t have as much star-power as Golden Gate Park but it should: almost 50 percent larger than its better-known central-city counterpart, the Presidio is a beautiful, untamed landscape that is a big part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Once a military base, the Presidio is still dotted here and there with repurposed military baracks housing institutions like the Walt Disney Family Museum. Less manicured than Golden Gate Park, the park is nonetheless home to a variety of public art including three Andy Goldsworthy sculptures, an extensive network of hiking trails and two cemeteries—one for lost military service members and one for lost pets. On Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, the Presido’s Main Post hosts food-truck fueled picnic events.
Feel the Wind in 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.
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Marvel at European Art at the 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.
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. 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.
Ride a Cable Car
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.
Sip a Scorpion Bowl at the 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.
Go Find a Ghost at 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
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 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.
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Play Vintage Arcade Games at Musée Mécanique
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 of which were 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.
See Your Favorite Band at 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.
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.
One of San Francisco’s most beautiful neighborhoods, North Beach (once upon a time an actual beach, before the city extended the shoreline with landfill) is a living, 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, it 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). In the ‘60s and ‘70s it became a center for debauchery with strip clubs and peep shows popping up along the main drag. And, on the steeply sloped streets that encircle the neighborhood, you’ll find two of the city’s most iconic landmarks: Coit Tower and the uber-crooked section of Lombard Street.
Discover Old San Francisco at Mission Dolores & a Local Playground at Dolores Park
Before there was a San Francisco, there was Mission Dolores, a religious outpost established as one of 21 18th century Catholic settlements in California. The original chapel, with its vividly painted wooden ceiling, remains the oldest standing building in San Francisco and, out back is one of only two remaining cemeteries in the city. Just down the road, in the park named for the mission, you’ll find a striking contrast between the San Francisco of yore and the city of today. Dolores Park is a favorite hangout for locals (especially on weekend afternoons), a place to see-and-be-seen that, thanks to the magic of microclimates, is almost always sunny.
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—staircases to nowhere, blocked passageways and a cave—to the soundtrack of pounding Pacific waves clamoring to refill the now defunct pools.
Go Roller Skating at the Church of 8 Wheels
What looks from the outside like just another Western Addition church gets its unique, funkified services rolling on Fridays and Saturdays. Inside, 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,” David G. Miles, Jr. With 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 San Francisco hills.
Check Out Street Art at the Mission Murals
Street art abounds in San Francisco but it’s at its most concentrated in the Mission District. Here, several small alleys have become magnets for artists creating colorful murals, many of which have themes of social justice and Latino heritage. The best alleys to visit include Caledonia and Clarion near the 16th Street BART station and Balmy, Horace, Cyprus, Lilac and Osage near the 24th Street BART stop. Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitor Center offers regular free tours led by muralists and, if guided visits aren’t your thing, SF Mural Arts offers an excellent online description of each of the alleys’ pieces.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide