For a city that’s just seven miles wide by seven miles long, San Francisco, California, packs a serious punch. With iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, the best things to do in San Francisco carve out the city among some of the world’s top travel destinations. Come for the majestic bridge and cable-car rides, but stay for the vibrant communities, family-friendly attractions, cultural edginess, and stunning views that offer a glimpse at the real San Francisco.
Who can resist San Francisco’s breathtaking landscape and sparkling ocean backdrop? Back that up with historic neighborhoods, hip boutiques, mouthwatering food, and world-class museums, and you’ve got an irresistible Northern Californian package.
Want to map out the perfect vacation in the Bay Area? Check out this complete guide to the best places to visit in San Francisco, CA, and prepare to leave your heart in this beautiful city.
Best places to visit in San Francisco, CA
Golden Gate Park
Looking for San Francisco’s version of Central Park? Make a beeline for Golden Gate Park. Set close to the heart of San Francisco south of the Golden Gate Bridge, this green oasis is home to 1,000 acres of crystalline lakes, rolling lawns, and plenty of family-friendly attractions.
Choose to explore Golden Gate Park’s trails, playgrounds, gardens, and sports courts. Maybe discover the interactive science exhibits at the California Natural History Museum. Learn about the history of American art at the de Young Museum. Perhaps you lose yourself in the beauty of the Conservatory of Flowers.
Can’t resist the siren song of the ocean? Take a quick two-mile jaunt from Golden Gate Park up to Baker Beach. Set just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, this awesome location stretches below the rugged cliffs on the peninsula’s western shore.
Take in sweeping views of Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands—and don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for frolicking dolphins!
Want to jumpstart your first day in San Francisco? Take the leap at Fisherman’s Wharf. Set on the city’s northern waterfront, the wharf is one of San Francisco’s must-see attractions. Rebuilt after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake, this area has become famous for its fishing fleet.
Wander the Wharf’s neighborhood, soaking up its sights and sounds. Home to Pier 39, a vibrant waterfront marketplace, Fisherman’s Wharf is a favorite among tourists and San Franciscans alike. Enjoy superb dining, browse unique shops, hop on a San Francisco Bay cruise, or dive into fun family events.
Check out the fantastic array of pop-up stalls offering signature fresh crab or steaming clam chowder. Stroll out on the pier to watch the local sea lions at play, and snap a picture-perfect sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ready for some challenging twists and turns? Then you need to zigzag over to Lombard Street. This is one very crooked street and a hugely popular tourist attraction.
Set between North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf, this 600-foot roadway features eight hairpin turns—enough to test the skills of even the best drivers.
Don’t worry: The speed limit is just 5 mph, giving you plenty of time to take in the beautiful Victorian homes, gorgeous flower gardens, and picture-perfect vistas of San Francisco Bay.
Fun fact: the colorful landscaped flowerbeds were actually built 100 years ago to smooth out the incline for both cars and pedestrians.
Want to skip the white-knuckling? No problem! Just walk or take the cable car to the top of Lombard Street hill and enjoy the view!
Want to get the really big picture? Take it all in at Coit Tower, a San Francisco legend. Set atop Telegraph Hill, this famous landmark has been a Bay Area icon since 1933. The 210-foot-tall tower may not be the number one for height, but it’s earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
There’s plenty to make this landmark worth a visit. Inside Coit Tower, you can take in some surprising visual treats, including an array of vivid floor-to-ceiling murals. Painted in the 1930s, the murals depict scenes of life in early 20th-century San Francisco. Take a tour to learn more about the artists and their subjects.
One of the best things to do in San Francisco, though, is to grab your camera and ride the elevator to the tower’s observation deck. Drink in incomparable 360-degree views of the beautiful Bay Area and snap some Insta-worthy pics.
Mission Dolores Park
Who needs beaches? Pack up your picnic gear and stake out a spot at Mission Dolores Park. It may not be sandy, but this stretch of greenery is one of San Francisco’s most popular warm-weather hangouts.
Blow up an inflatable couch, fire up the barbecue, and kick back. Up for some action? Hit one of the fields or courts to work up a sweat while you let the kiddos loose on the playground.
Feel like exploring? Discover some gems in the nearby Mission District. This funky neighborhood is packed with bars, cafes, and restaurants.
Amble over to Castro Street, just minutes away, and revel in a unique entertainment experience at the legendary Castro Theatre, one of the oldest operating movie theaters in the US. This Grande Dame is 100 years old!
Don’t be fooled by the name. North Beach isn’t about surf and sand. It’s about jumping feet-first into the sights, sounds, and flavors of Italy.
Nestled between San Francisco’s Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, this neighborhood is home to a vibrant Italian-American community. Over the generations, “Little Italy” has packed the area with cafes, gelato sellers, and pizzerias offering irresistible treats with an authentic Italian zest.
It’s a foodie’s paradise, so why not take a delicious guided tasting tour? Grab an award-winning pizza from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, or chow down at Original Joe’s, a neighborhood gem that’s been going for over a century.
Work off that pasta as you stroll Grant Avenue and explore its colorful array of unique shops. Check out the iconic City Lights bookstore on Columbus Avenue. Polish off your day at one of the bustling bars that line the brightly-lit avenue called—what else?—Broadway.
If browsing and buying is your thing, Union Square is your kind of place. This crown jewel of California shopping districts has something for you. Whatever your taste or budget, you’ll discover something you simply must have.
Set in the heart of downtown San Francisco, Union Square boasts one of the largest collections of high-end shops and restaurants in the US. The streets around Union Square are lined with major department stores and exclusive boutiques. Browse a plethora of plum retailers ranging from Bloomingdales to Saks Fifth Avenue.
Want a change of pace? Take time to explore cultural attractions around Union Square like the Martin Lawrence Art Gallery or the American Conservatory Theater.
When hunger strikes, you’re spoiled for choice, too. Whether your taste runs to juicy burgers or fine French cuisine, Union Square will satisfy your cravings!
Love chocolate? Love history? Douse yourself with both at San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. Set on the site of the original Ghirardelli Chocolate factory, Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate is the oldest continuously-run chocolate factory in the US.
First opened in 1849, the company’s redeveloped building still displays some of the original chocolate-making equipment. Today, it’s home to a tempting three-story smorgasbord of upscale shops, restaurants, and hotels.
Browse the shops at the open-air market where you can satisfy your culinary hankering for anything from fresh seafood to steaks. For dessert, indulge yourself in a hand-churned ice cream treat, and, of course, a chunk of Ghirardelli chocolate.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
Want to absorb that San Fran vibe? A ride aboard one of its iconic cable cars is a must! Explore these icons close-up at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum to take your cable car experience to another level.
Launched in the late 1800s, the city’s cable car network is now a National Historic Landmark. Set in Nob Hill, the museum is part of the Washington-Mason powerhouse and cable car barn. Hit the museum’s deck for awesome views of the system’s huge engines and winding wheels. After, stroll along a subterranean walkway to view the giant cables in action.
Above ground, check out the trio of original cable cars on display. Browse the vast collection of fascinating historical photos and artifacts.
On your way out don’t forget to check out the gift shop for books, memorabilia, and even your own cable car bell!
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Ready to immerse yourself in visual bliss? Carve out time for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Savor some soul-satisfying hours exploring this massive, world-class treasure trove of art. Pro tip: pack your phone and headphones, download the SFMOMA audio app, and use it to navigate the museum.
SFMOMA is home to over 33,000 modern and contemporary artworks including paintings, sculptures, and photography. The first museum on the West Coast devoted entirely to 20th-century art, SFMOMA serves up masterpieces that you’ve only read about.
Drink in the works of artists ranging from Henri Matisse to Frida Kahlo to Jackson Pollack. Explore the Pritzker Center for Photography, the largest gallery devoted exclusively to photography in the US. Why not take a self-portrait while you’re there?
Take a break and a deep breath at the museum’s mesmerizing living plant wall, then take a seat at one of the on-site restaurants to recharge.
In the mood for some serene beachside rambling? Ocean Beach is the place to go for a break from the busy city scene. Set on the city’s western edge, this is San Francisco’s longest shoreline. With its white sand and impressive rocky outcrops, it’s a beaut!
This sandy stretch is so wide that it never gets crowded. Dig your toes in and stroll the 3.5 miles of beautiful undeveloped beach in (nearly) solitary splendor. It’s just you, the seabirds, and the rolling surf. Launch a kite when the wind kicks up. Pull on your kicks and go for a jog.
It can get chilly, so pack some extra layers. Don’t plan on any casual swimming, because the currents are strong and the water is frigid. A better idea is to build a bonfire at one of the 16 fire rings dotted around the beach, hang out, and let the wild natural beauty envelop you.
Want to experience one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco? Grab your walking shoes and head for the Dragon Gate, the official entrance into the city’s fabled Chinatown. Spanning over 30 blocks and dating back to the Gold Rush years, this is the oldest Chinatown in North America.
From the entrance gate on Bush Street, head for Grant Avenue to reach Chinatown’s heart. This vibrant San Francisco neighborhood is a delight for the senses. Scope out windows festooned with silk scarves and brightly colored kites. Browse bustling markets displaying everything from crackling roast duck to exotic Asian fruits.
Take in the brilliant street murals, browse an array of fascinating shops, and dip into some scrumptious authentic Chinese cuisine. Bring your appetite, and overindulge it with choices ranging from mouthwatering dim sum to fragrant pork buns to flaky pastries. Now waddle home happy.
Looking for the best public food market in the Bay Area? Hit the Ferry Building on Market Street. This delectable attraction is renowned for its amazing range of fresh produce and artisanal foods. Whether you want to just explore or dig into a meal, you’ll get your fill at this top San Francisco attraction.
Browse offerings from over 100 producers of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, breads, cheeses, and more. You’ll find goodies ranging from Mexican street food to small-batch miso. Sample from the stalls and stock up on take-home goodies.
Want some sit-down options? Treat yourself to a mouthwatering grilled cheese at the famed Cowgirl Creamery. Snag a waterfront table at Hog Island Oyster Company for fresh seafood. Cozy up with a cup of San Fran’s favorite joe at Blue Bottle. Paradise!
Lands End Lookout
Up for an oceanside adventure? Lands End Lookout is a perfect place to start. Set on the rocky, windswept shoreline near Golden Gate Bridge, it offers sweeping views of the dramatic coastline, vivid wildflowers, and majestic cypress stands. Beyond it lies the glittering water of the Pacific Ocean.
Get your bearings at the Visitor Center, where you can check out displays detailing the area’s fascinating past. Tune in to an audio tour to get the inside scoop on your destination, then hit the trail!
Take a clifftop trek through cypress groves and take in stunning vistas 30 miles up and down the California coast. Discover the intriguing remains of the Sutro Baths, the world’s first recreational swimming facility.
Venture up the cliffs—the site of many a shipwreck—to reach Cliff House, an iconic 19th-century hotel renowned for its dramatic ocean views. A delicious meal overlooking the Pacific could be the perfect way to end your day!
Once the site of an infamous federal prison, Alcatraz Island is one of the coolest places to go in San Francisco. Originally a military prison, “The Rock” operated as a prison for 30 years before closing in 1963—but not before gaining a reputation as the toughest place to do time in the US.
Set in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz claimed to be home to the worst of the worst, including legendary mobster Al Capone. Many tried to escape, but none “officially” succeeded.
Intrigued? Book your ferry tickets and hop aboard to experience this eerie outpost first-hand. Walk the historic grounds, take in extraordinary views of the city skyline, and explore the site’s museum. Plug into the audio tour to learn more about the island’s dark and intriguing history.
Muir Woods National Monument
Ready to unplug from the city buzz and reconnect with the great outdoors? Head out to the Muir Woods National Monument. Set in Mount Tamalpais State Park, it’s just minutes from the heart of downtown San Francisco, making it a perfect day trip when you’re craving a breather from busy streets.
Experience an up-close encounter with an amazing West Coast icon. This state park protects over 500 acres of an old-growth redwood grove, an important part of a vibrant ecosystem that will leave you awestruck.
Explore the sun-and-fog-dappled trails to discover an amazingly diverse population of flora and fauna. Muir Woods is a haven for hundreds of endangered species, so keep your binoculars handy!
Up for some climbing? Test your trekking skills on the high point of Mount Tamalpais State Park. Make it to the top, and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Marin County and the Pacific Ocean.
If you’re a nature lover with a taste for history, hop aboard the ferry from San Francisco and cruise across the Bay to Angel Island. Originally home to the Coast Miwok people, the island became a Civil War military base, then later an immigration station. Today, it’s home to Angel Island State Park, a pristine 740-acre setting renowned for its scenic trails.
Angel Island Park is loaded with native plants and animals, beautiful beaches, and fantastic views. It’s just 1.2 square miles, so getting around is easy by either bike or on foot. Hit the Perimeter Loop or the Mt. Livermore Trail for amazing Bay vistas. Up for a campout? Book ahead!
Experience history first-hand at the Immigration Station’s museum, where you can view fascinating historic photos and artifacts and get an intimate glimpse into the compelling stories of thousands of immigrants who passed this way.
21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant
Just took in a Giants game at Oracle Park? End your evening with some cold craft beers at 21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant. Located in the heart of the South Beach district, this popular brewpub slings all of the craft brewery’s favorites along with a slate of delicious food options.
Sip on local craft beer favorites like Brew Free! or Die West Coast IPA, Global Warming New World IPA, or The Homework Is Beer! Dark Lager. Pair your brew with elevated pub fare, including Monterey Bay calamari, Louisiana gumbo, and their piquant Diablo Burger.
The 21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant is open daily from 11 am to 10 pm.
Best places to stay in San Francisco for sightseeing
For most travelers, the best places to stay in San Francisco lie around Downtown. To get close to all the top attractions, narrow your accommodations search to the areas around Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square and city center neighborhoods like Nob Hill and North Beach.
Sitting on Union Square, this beautiful boutique hotel fuses together a prime location with comfortable modern rooms. Your accommodations will be steps away from many of the top points of interest in San Francisco and popular shopping hotspots like Tiffany’s and Macy’s.
With its graceful 1920s elegance, the Omni is a fantastic choice for mid-range luxury travelers visiting the Bay Area. Guests will enjoy spacious rooms and excellent amenities, including an on-site chophouse and fitness center.
Steps from Union Square, the Hotel Nikko brings home the charm with its elegant modern rooms and luxurious amenities. Cap off the night with a cocktail at the bar and terrace, or cool down from a day of San Francisco sightseeing in the indoor pool.