San Francisco is known around the world as an iconic, must-visit destination. Its steep hills, cable cars, and pastel Painted Ladies are instantly recognizable, as is, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. But there’s more to SF than its icons. There are many things to do in San Francisco whether you’re visiting for the first time or you’ve lived there all your life.
San Francisco is an iconic, must-visit destination. The steep hills, cable cars, and pastel Painted Ladies are instantly recognizable, as is, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. But there’s more to this city than its icons. San Francisco has so many things to see and do, whether you’re visiting San Francisco for the first time or you’ve lived here all your life.
My own personal list of the best things to do in San Francisco is already so long that I can’t imagine anyone would be able to hit them all in a single visit. So relax, and don’t worry about trying to cram a lot into one long weekend or a single vacation.
By all means, grab your camera and walk over the Golden Gate Bridge and make sure you ride the cable cars at least once, but keep in mind that San Francisco also has amazing museums for art lovers, historic theaters, the famous Mission-style burrito, and lots of spots perfect for people-watching (and sea lion watching). There are dozens of hiking trails showcase the beauty of the natural landscape, and more esoteric activities, too, if that’s what you’re into.
The city may only be 7 square miles, but it’s huge when it comes to things to see and do. Check out my list of the best things to do in San Francisco below, then tell me about your favorite Fog City hangouts.
Free Things to do in San Francisco
Go Museum Hopping
A lot of the museums in San Francisco offer free admission at least once a month.
Some, like the de Young, the Legion of Honor, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Museum of Craft and Design, are free on the first Tuesday of each month while others, like the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium, have free days a couple of times a year.
You can find a list of free days for most of the museums in San Francisco here.
Visit the Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers
This is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco for lovers of the bard. In Golden Gate Park, there’s a garden hidden behind a foliage-covered wall where you can see more than 200 varieties of flowers and plants that appear in Shakespeare’s plays.
There’s a mysterious locked box in the wall that contains a valuable bronze bust of the man himself (the only statue in the park that’s locked up).
Ride the Beer Bus
Visitors 21 and up can hop on a free beer shuttle on the third Wednesday of each month that stops at five of the best San Francisco breweries. While the beer isn’t free, the ability to enjoy it without having to worry about choosing a designated driver can be priceless.
Lose Yourself in Lands End
One of the easiest free things to do in San Francisco is to enjoy the view, and the vistas at Lands End are pretty spectacular. Around every new turn in the trail you’ll see old shipwrecks, rolling hills of wildflowers, adorable beaches, and the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
Drivers have to pay the toll to cross this most iconic of San Francisco sightseeing spots, but walkers can cross (or walk the mile to the midpoint) for free and it’s worth doing at least once.
You’ll get a different perspective of the bridge on foot and a beautiful view of the city. For the best views, cross in September and October when fog is least likely.
Check Out the Fog Bridge
Some visitors come for the fog, and there’s a permanent Exploratorium exhibit by Fujiko Nakaya viewable from Pier 15 and Pier 17 just for them.
At 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. daily (and at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday), massive amounts of water are pumped at high pressure through more than 800 nozzles lining the bridge to create a thick fog that envelops anyone standing on the piers.
Climb Strawberry Hill
It does cost money to rent the paddle boats at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, but wandering around the lake at Strawberry Hill is one of the most relaxing free things to do in San Francisco.
There are birds to watch, lovely walking paths, a beautiful temple-like pavilion (a gift from Taipei to the city of San Francisco), and the fabulous artificial waterfall that crashes down from the top of the hill. Visit in the evening, and you might even spot the ghost of the White Lady.
Tour the Rose Garden
Golden Gate Park’s rose garden at Kennedy Drive has more than 60 beds of all kinds of roses, from ultra fragrant varieties to miniature climbing roses. The best time to visit is probably in summer when the bushes are bursting with blooms, but there are always some varieties blooming.
Take in a Concert
One of the best free things to do in San Francisco in summer is to catch an outdoor concert at Stern Grove in June, July, or August. This free concert series has been running for more than 80 years at the beautiful outdoor amphitheater, and the lineup is diverse and often includes internally-acclaimed soloists and groups.
The San Francisco Symphony always has a spot, but other performers range from rock to funk to jazz-rap fusion.
This bustling San Francisco neighborhood is crowded with restaurants, shops, and temples. You can visit a real fortune cookie factory, eat some of the best Dim Sum in the world, and hunt for bargains at stores that carry just about everything.
If you’re in the city between January and March, there are lots of Chinese New Year events.
Relax at Crissy Field
You’ll find this wide-open space that’s part beach, part promenade, and part lawn in the Presidio. What was once a paved over airstrip has been transformed into a sprawling recreation space that’s equally popular with fitness fanatics and people who just want to chill out.
Visit the Historic Sutro Baths
You can explore the concrete ruins of the Sutro Baths (a once-grand public saltwater swimming pool complex that was located just north of the Cliff House).
San Francisco City Guides gives free guided tours of the Sutro Baths, but you can also climb around the ruins yourself. Just be careful, as they aren’t maintained.
Hike Twin Peaks
While you won’t reach the highest point in the city on this hike, you’ll get close. The biggest difference between hiking Twin Peaks and hiking Mount Davidson is that your trek up Twin Peaks will take you through residential neighborhoods.
The view from Christmas Tree Point is great, but it’s worth trekking further. You can get down Twin Peaks fast by taking one of the long and winding Seward Street Slides at Seward Mini Park.
San Francisco Attractions and Points of Interest
The Presidio of San Francisco
Visiting the Presidio is one of the most fun things to do in San Francisco with kids thanks to the awesome and innovative playgrounds. Once home to the Ohlone people, this park was a military post for two centuries.
Today, it’s a hotspot for hiking, picnicking, nature watching, building sandcastles, and seeing art. Most importantly, you can’t beat the Presidio’s views of the Golden Gate Bridge, so bring your camera.
The Palace of Fine Arts
This awe-inspiring structure was originally constructed as an art exhibition space for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and is probably one of the most photographed San Francisco attractions.
Now it’s one of the city’s landmarks and a popular spot to take pictures because its Greek-style colonnades and rotunda are absolutely breathtaking.
Alcatraz is one of the most incredible San Francisco attractions. There are bay cruises that circle around the island, as well as tours that actually take you into the infamous former prison that once housed notable criminals like Al “Scarface” Capone.
What many people don’t know about Alcatraz is that it wasn’t always a prison. It has been the site of a lighthouse built to guide ships into the harbor, a harbor defense fort that housed 200 soldiers, and the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms during the Civil War. It was only a federal prison from 1934 until 1963, and just a year after it closed was the site of the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz — and important event in the American Indian rights movement.
I would definitely recommend buying your tickets to Alcatraz in advance as part of a combination tour package like those offered by City Sightseeing (see below) because tickets tend to sell out.
Getting last-minute Alcatraz tickets can be tough, and San Francisco sightseeing companies have to submit their ticket requests four days before the tour date. Plan to buy your tickets at least a week before your visit, if not more.
Strolling around Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco. This waterfront district is known for its fresh seafood, gorgeous views, playful sea lions, and Pier 39®.
It hosts festivals all year long, and there are lots of fun little museums, kid-friendly things to do, restaurants, and shops to explore.
This bustling waterfront marketplace (which is part of Fisherman’s Wharf) is a popular San Francisco attraction for both natives and visitors. There’s great shopping, delicious food, a one-of-a-kind 7D indoor roller coaster-type ride, live music, a mirror maze, the Aquarium of the Bay with its awe-inspiring sea tunnels, and the gorgeous San Francisco Carousel.
But the biggest draw is the chatty population of sea lions that made Pier 39’s K-dock their home after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. They are cute, boisterous, and so much fun to photograph.
The San Francisco Zoo
This 100-acre zoo in the southwest corner of San Francisco near Lake Merced is home to more than 2,000 exotic and endangered animals. It is open year-round and is one of the most popular family-friendly San Francisco attractions.
On top of the regular exhibits, there are special events, zookeeper talks, guided tours, and a beautiful vintage carousel (one of the few created by famous carousel maker William H. Dentzel that’s still in operation). Check out my guide to getting discounted San Francisco Zoo tickets.
San Francisco Activities
Take a Big Bus® Tour
This San Francisco city tour is all about flexibility. These unlimited hop-on/hop-off tour buses run all day long, 365 days a year, with tours in 10 languages, stops at 20 points of interest around the city, and also gives you the option of joining a free walking tour of San Francisco’s historic neighborhoods as part of your day.
Try a Hornblower Cruise
You can see everything the City by the Bay has to offer, including its beautiful skyline, the TransAmerica Pyramid, Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge on a Hornblower Cruises tour. This is the charter company locals use when they’re planning outings and events on the bay, so you can expect more from these tours.
Do Tai Chi at the Yerba Buena Gardens
This is one of those San Francisco activities that visitors tend to love. A lot of people go to watch the practitioners (many of whom are elderly) show off their graceful moves, but you may be invited to join in.
San Francisco Museums
The California Academy of Sciences®
There are lots of fun activities here for both kids and grownups in what is probably the greenest museum in the world. Inside, you’ll find the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, a natural history museum, and research facility.
You can walk through a rainforest and watch butterflies emerge from cocoons, explore the living roof, peek into the nooks and crannies of the world’s deepest living coral reef display, see live penguins, and learn all about the world’s animals.
Aquarium of the Bay®
This sprawling waterfront aquarium at Pier 39 is home to over 20,000 marine animals, from sharks and rays to river otters and jellyfish. One of the highlights of any visit to Aquarium of the Bay is walking through the wide underwater tunnel, which is like scuba diving without getting wet.
There are daily animal encounters, guided tours, and interactive exhibits. There’s even a touch tank where the curious can reach in and touch a live starfish, stingray, or baby shark.
The Walt Disney Family Museum®
Diehard Disney® fans will love visiting this special San Francisco museum dedicated to the life of Walt Disney, his career, his creations, and the inspiration behind them.
Two of the highlights of the tour are the tale of how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs almost didn’t make it onto the screen and the results of Disney’s project with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali — which never went anywhere.
There are regularly rotating exhibits featuring Disney’s early cartoons and music, and lots of opportunities to learn more about how Disney magic comes to life.
de Young Museum and Legion of Honor Museums
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes both the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, is the largest public arts institution in the city.
What links these two museums is that all de Young tickets include same-day general admission to the Legion of Honor Museum and vice versa. At the de Young Museum, you’ll see modern and contemporary art from around the world, American art from the 17th to 21st centuries (including photography), and global textiles.
On display at the Legion of Honor Museum, there are European paintings, decorative arts, and sculpture, as well as ancient art from the Mediterranean and art on paper from around the world.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
With its bright, expansive galleries and world-class pieces on display, the SFMOMA® can be impressive to the point of being overwhelming. It is the biggest museum in the U.S. devoted to modern and contemporary art and a landmark for art and architecture lovers in the Bay Area.
There are pieces by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among other notable artists, though most of the galleries are not organized by artist. Downloading the museum’s app is a must, since it provides directions to points of the museum and audio tours (“Immersive Walks” that last for 15-45 minutes) narrated by celebrities and surprising figures.
Visiting this museum is one of the most fun things to do in San Francisco with kids. There are hundreds of exhibits in six galleries that teach solid science — like what causes earthquakes, the ins and outs of weather patterns, and how electricity works — through fun and engaging interactive experiences.
Best Beaches in San Francisco
San Francisco’s beaches aren’t necessarily known for swimming or sunbathing because the water is cold (it’s not called Fog City for nothing).
That said, the rocky, cliffside San Francisco beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, and the best San Francisco beaches for surfing have some amazing waves along with stellar views. Here are some of the best beaches in San Francisco.
This is one of the most famous beaches in San Francisco, and a hotspot for locals whenever the sun peeks out from behind the clouds. It has some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, and you might spot red-tailed hawks and brown pelicans in the air and sea stars, harbor seals, and dolphins in the surf. This beach is dog-friendly, and it’s worth noting that the north end of the beach is clothing optional.
This is San Francisco’s longest and widest beach, so it feels more remote and less popular than it actually is. You’ll have room to spread out and enjoy the waterfront views or fish, windsurf, or kiteboard.
Fort Funston Beach
You’ll see people in the water at this San Francisco beach, but if you do want to wet your feet, be aware that the rip currents can be strong and come on without warning. I prefer searching for sand dollars and fossils on the shore or hiking the trails along the bluff (a great place to watch the hang gliders soaring).
Things to Do in San Francisco at Night
Visit Historic Coit Tower
This unique architectural feature was left to the city by a wealthy, if offbeat, heiress. The tower rises 210 feet above Pioneer Park, and the structure’s observation deck is definitely a San Francisco sightseeing spot that’s worth a visit at night. Coming late also means you’ll beat the crowds.
Visit the Ghirardelli Square
Once an old chocolate factory, Ghirardelli Square has been repurposed into a shopping, dining, art gallery, and event complex that’s worth a visit even if chocolate isn’t your thing. Stop by the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop for a date night dessert, take in great views of the bay, and stop for a sit in the square.
Catch a Comedy Show
San Francisco has an amazing comedy scene and so catching a show is one of the most fun things to do in San Francisco at night. The audiences at shows are diverse and there are open mics all over the city every day of the week (including the famous Brainwash Laundromat & Cafe’s Thursday night open mic). Visit the Punch Line and Cobb’s for the best shows, but don’t be afraid to check out the indy shows at bars and other small venues.
See the Ballet
The San Francisco Ballet is the oldest ballet company in the U.S. for a reason. It’s considered one of the most talented and refined companies in the entire world, and its repertoire spans both classical and contemporary ballet. The company performs at the War Memorial Opera House from January through May, and at the Stern Grove Festival in July.
Look at Lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge
The Bay Bridge is transformed when the sun goes down into a twinkling LED sculpture powered by computer algorithms that create fascinating patterns. One of the best places to watch the show is from the Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and the bridge. You’ll also get a great view from Coit Tower.
Look into the Go San Francisco® Sightseeing Pass
When you’re thinking about which things to do in San Francisco to put on your itinerary, it’s worth looking at what San Francisco attractions Go San Francisco covers. With Go San Francisco, you can save up to 60% on admission to 37 top San Francisco attractions, and the benefits of Go San Francisco actually go beyond savings.
Pass holders typically won’t have to wait in the ticket line, and some attractions even offer priority entry for Go San Francisco passholders. Passes are available in 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-day options to accommodate the different locals and visitors, and you can build your own pass if you’re only planning on visiting a few San Francisco attractions.
It really is one of the best ways to save time and money when you’re exploring the city from your fantastic San Francisco hotel.
What are your favorite things to do in San Francisco?