20 Top Things to do in San Francisco
After spending a lot of time in one of the most beautiful cities in California, if not the world, we wanted to bring our readers a list of the top things we did in San Francisco. Some are conventional touristy activities and sites, and some are relatively hidden gems, giving an all-round experience of San Fransicso, California.
Visiting Alcatraz Island is number one on our list of the top things to do in San Francisco. The former prison, which is probably the most famous prison in the world, is now owned by the US National Park Service.
Visitors who wish to visit the prison and island grounds must secure reservations that include the ferry ride over there.
Alcatraz Island is probably the most visited tourist attraction in San Francisco. It is located 1.25 miles offshore in the Bay of San Francisco surrounded by water.
The penitentiary claimed that no prisoner ever successfully escaped Alcatraz due to the surrounding conditions of cold and turbulent waters.
Juan Manuel de Ayala first documented Alcatraz Island in 1775, and he identified it as the “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates as “The Island of the Pelicans,” from the archaic Spanish alcatraz (“pelican”).
Walk around the prison at your own pace with the Alcatraz audio tour that takesyou through cells, communal areas and the outdoor grounds.
See the officer’s control room full of retro furniture and electronics.
See the cell that George Heck once resided and his original and replica drawingas and paintings.
During the Battle of Alcatraz, prisoner held a number of guards hostage and two of them were murdered in cold blood in cells 402 and 403. A memorial board is shown outside of cell 402.
ALcatraz prison had 336 cells in B & C Block as well as 36 segregation cells, and 6 solitary confinement cells (actually known as confinement chambers by many inmates) in D-Block.
The audio tour of Alcatraz takes you into the communal areas such as the canteen. It’s really eerie and cold and hthe tour helps you to imagine what life was like to the inmates over the years they were incarcerated.
A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”.
The most violent attempted escape from Alcatraz occurred on May 2, 1946, when six prisoners tried to flee the island leading to the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’.
During the 29 years the Federal Prison on Alcatraz was in use, the cells held some of the most notorious criminals in American history such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson and Rafael Cancel Miranda.
The cell house audio tour is one of the highlights of the Alcatraz Island experience, as you work your way around the ground, you’ll see real prison cells, a hole in the wall from one of the attempted escapes, some of the best views of downtown San Francisco and wonderful nature and wildlife on the outdoor grounds.
The tour is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Mandarin. It is also available in Braille in English.
Book a tour to Alcatraz for an unforgettable insight into the history of one of the world’s most famous islands.
Once home to the mansions of the Big Four railroad barons, Nob Hill is a wealthy and interesting area of San Francisco. Some of the city’s swankiest hotels are located in the area as well as mansions once owned by the big four railroad barons.
Nob Hill is also home to the Grace Cathedral and charming Huntington Park. It is here, at Nob Hill, where you will find some of the steepest streets, allowing you to capture the iconic hilly San Fran pictures.
Walking around the Nob Hill is definitely one of the top things to do in San Francisco.
Mrs. Doubtfire’s House
One of the most popular things to do in San Francisco is to take a bus down to the most famous house in the city, the filming location of the iconic classic movie, Mrs. Doubtfire.
The address of Mrs. Doubtfire’s House is 2640 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94115-1142.
The current owners of Mrs. Doubtfire’s house have been known to slam the doors on tourists and discourage them from taking pictures.
There was also an arson attack on the Mrs’ Doubtfire house back in 2015 by a disgruntled patient of a cosmetic surgeon who owned the house.
Golden Gate Tap Room
For the all-American red cup party bar experience, look no further than the Golden Gate Tap Room located right by Union Square.
With the slogan of ‘Eat and Drink Differently’, we were pleasantly surprised when we entered the bar for a swift beverage, we ended up staying all night!
The atmosphere is electric and the beer isn’t bad either!
For more information, visit the Golden Gate Tap Room website.
Not a lot of people know that San Francisco has a public beach right by the Golden Gate Bridge and it’s called Baker Beach.
Baker Beach lies on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the northwest of the city and it is only a half mile (800 m) long.
Not a lot of people know that the northern section of Baker Beach is “frequented by clothing-optional sunbathers”. As such it is considered a nude beach!
Pop by for incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Cupid’s Span is a public outdoor sculpture along the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco. The arrow sculpture was made by married artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
The 60-foot (18 m) sculpture depicts a partial bow and piece of an arrow and it is located on the backdrop of the Bay water and famous bridges of the city.
A small grassed area lies at the bottom of the sculpture making it a perfect spot to relax after a long day of walking the streets of San Francisco.
Seal Rocks is a group of small islands located on the coastal area of San Francisco by the Lands End area. The rocks sit in thePacific Ocean and can be seen from the North end of Ocean Beach.
The name ‘Seal Rocks’ derived from the population of Steller’s sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) and California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), who gather on the rocks.
Enjoy the view of the gathered wildlife on the rocks year round.
Sutro Baths Ruins
Sutro Baths was once a large, privately owned public saltwater swimming pool complex in the Lands End area of the of western San Francisco, California, not too far from Baker Beach and Seal Rocks.
The Sutro Baths were built in 1896 and the facility burned down in 1966. Visitors can walk around and climb them and capture stunning images right by Seal Rocks.
The site is now protected within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Sutro Historic District.
For More Information, Visit the Sutro Baths Official Website.
Cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge
This is our favorite of the list of top things to do in San Francisco, cycling the Golden Gate Bridge gave us one of the best experiences of our lives, more so for the views, easy riding and the hidden gems of San Francisco that we discovered on the way to Sausalito.
Hire a bike from Blazing Saddles or Sports Basement and choose from a number of routes from the easy/moderate (via Fishermen’s Wharf and Crissy Field) to the moderate/difficult via Golden Gate Park and Seal Rocks/Lands End.
The Golden Gate Bridge has ample room for cyclists on both sides as a continuation to the bike-friendly roads and parks throughout the city. It’s very easy and accessible to riders of all ages, be sure to consult with the rental firm before choosing a route.
We like cycling the Golden Gate Bridge so much, we did both the easy and the difficult routes in the space of two days covering over 40 miles after heading to Sausalito on day 1 and Tiburon on day 2.
Check out our Bike Rides of San Francisco blog for an in-depth itinerary.
One of the top things to do in San Francisco for hikers and photographers, Twin Peaks is a must-see for the best views of the cityscape.
The Twin Peaks are two hills above the city with an elevation of about 925 feet (282 m)
The North and South Twin Peaks, also known as “Eureka” and “Noe” respectively, are only 660 ft (200 m) apart and the ‘Twin Peaks Boulevard’ runs a figure eight around them.
Catch the number 52-Excelsior bus to Portola Drive and Twin Peaks Blvd and take a short hike to the top of the North Hill. Mind the gravelly terrain and pack water and snacks.
Hiking to the top takes around 5-10 minutes depending on pace, many people of all ages visit the Peaks everyday and it’s worth the journey for one of the best views in California.
An interesting fact about the Twin Peaks is that they form a divide for the infamous summer coastal fog that is pushed in from the Pacific Ocean.
The west-facing slopes often attract the fog and strong winds, while the east-facing slopes receive more sun and warmth
Then kick back, take a seat and admire the spectacular view of the city of San Francisco and the neighboring peak.
Ride the famous San Francisco Cable Car
San Francisco has the world’s oldest manually operated cable car system in the world’s and as a result, it is an iconic feature of the city.
The Cable car system initially had 23 lines that were established between 1873 and 1890 and only three remain today. The remaining routes cover downtown San Francisco near Union Square which ends at Fisherman’s Wharf, and a third route along California Street.
The famous cable cars are mostly used by tourists and rarely by commuters due to pricing and the entire system attracts over 7 million passengers a year.
The cable cars are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and taking a ride on one of the hop on hop off carriages is by far one of the most iconic things to do in San Francisco.
Visit the San Francisco Cable Car website for more.
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a wander down the waterfront area covering the piers and the infamuos Fishermen’s Wharf.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s busiest tourist areas filled with all things San Fran Souvenir shops, bars, stalls, and restaurants.
The Wharf also offers incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Pop down for a market like and vibrant atmosphere and for a chance to see a colony of sea lions and historic ships.
The most bustling pier of San Francisco’s waterfront, Pier 39, is one of the top things to do in San Francisco if you’re looking for fun, shopping, marine life and free concerts.
Pier 39 is home to the colony of sea lions that gather mostly in the winter, enjoy their behavior and sounds at one of the viewpoints from the Pier, they really are a treat to watch.
Pier 39 also offers waterfront dining, an array of street performers, live music, and entertaining attractions such as the 7D Ride Experience.
Day or night, Pier 39 will keep you entertained, there are free daily shows by local street performers at the Carousel Stage, as well as musicians at the Entrance Plaza.
Enjoy views of Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge from the Pier’s edge. The Blue and Gold Fleet’s bay cruises leave from Pier 39 who offer a wide range of cruises and day trips.
Pier 39 was opened October 4, 1978 and it has become one of the most visited attractions in San Francisco.
The famous California sea lions started to reside on the docks of Pier 39 since September 1989. There is speculation that the sea lions moved to docks because of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and it is a place where they feel most safe inside the Bay alongside Seal Rocks.
For a list of all of the attractions at Pier 39, San Francisco, visit the official website.
The city of San Francisco has dedicated a tunnel to long-standing patriot, and life-long resident of the city, Robin Williams. The vehicle tunnel was creatively named the ‘Robin Williams Tunnel’. The tunnel was unofficially known as the ‘Waldo Tunnel’ due to the street it was connected to, yes San Francisco has a street called ‘Waldo’!
Take the challenge of finding the Waldo Street Sign decorated in red and white stripes, just like the cartoon!
Pier 1 and 1/2 Ferry Building
The Pier 1 and a Half Ferry Building is a major hub for the ferries coming into San Francisco from around the bay. The building is recognizable by the clock on the tower and it is home to an enticing collection of mostly organic food stalls and crafts.
Out at the front of the building, there’s a popular Farmers’ Market which is held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The Pier 1 and 1/2 building is a beautiful site at night on the backdrop of a wonderful Californian sunset.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park takes up a ginormous part of the city of San Francisco, take a look at the space it covers on the map below.
San Fran’s popular urban retreat takes up a whopping 1,017 acres (412 ha) of rectangular land.
Golden Gate Park is similar in shape but around 20 percent larger than Central Park in New York, to which it is often compared.
Golden Gate Park is over three miles (4.8 km) long east to west, and about half a mile (0.8 km) north to south.
The park attracts over 13 million visitors every year making it the fifth most-visited city park in the United States after Central Park in New York City, Lincoln Park in Chicago, and Balboa and Mission Bay Parks in San Diego. There are many man-made and natural attractions in the park including windmills, museums, and a Japanese Tea Garden.
There is a chain of lakes within Golden Gate Park that are home to turtles and beautiful marine and bird life.
One of the most famous streets in the city of San Francisco is the zig-zag hill that is Lombard Street. The one-way street has eight hairpin turns and it’s claimed to be one of “the most crookedest streets in the world”
Watch vehicles crawl down to reach the bottom where the iconic Stop sign also resides.
Lombard Street is a one of a kind road and probably San Francisco’s most famous streets. Lombard Street was built purposely in order to reduce the hill’s natural 27% grade, which was too steep for most vehicles.
You’ll find many tourists and a few angry drivers in the area, be sure to stay off the road for your own safety and the safety of others.
We’ve never seen anything quite like the Musee Mechanique located on Pier 45 at San Francisco’s popular Fisherman’s Wharf and the best things about the antique arcade museum, it’s completely free to enter!
The Musée Mécanique is home to one of the world’s largest (over 200) privately owned collection of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.
See hoe people entertained themselves over a hundred years ago, pop a coin into one of the antique machines and play on.
See century-old hand-cranked music boxes and models right through to modern video arcade games.
The Musee Mechanique hosts their very own ‘Laffing Sal’, ‘Susie the Can-Can Dancer’ and the Carnival which are all based on features from the historical ‘Playland at the Beach’ in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
For more information, see the official website.
The Presidio is a scenic area at the heart of San Francisco’s tourism offering some of the most spectacular views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge.
For 218 years, the Presidio served as an army post, making it rich in history and an interesting site to visit.
Walk along an historic airfield, through forests or beaches, and admire spectacular vistas which are all part of the Presido area.
Not only will you find batteries, ports and cemetaries, you will also find beautiful flora and wildlife as well as spectacular viewpoints beside the Golden Gate Bridge.
Capture those iconic poses in front of the bridge and enjoy the ciy’s rich history by visiting the World War II memorial.
For more information, visit the official Presidio website.
Union Square in San Francisco is the Times Square of New York. It’s the bustling commercial hub of the city. Department stores, malls and fancy hotels can be found around the square as well as vibrant bars, diners and restarants.
Union Square is alive day and night and it is beautifully decorated during the Christmas period where an ice skating rink is erected at the center.
The Square is also a center point for the city’s Santa Con celebration which we stumbled upon by accident!
For more, visit the Union Square website.
Haight Ashbury is the birthplace of the 1960s counterculture movement, also known as the ‘hippy movement’. The area draws a lively, diverse crowd looking to soak up the hipster vibe that never left.
Upper Haight Street is lined with vintage clothing boutiques, record shops, bookstores, dive bars and casual, eclectic restaurants.
The Haight Ashbury neighborhood is often freqented by nudists so keep an eye out for a sight that’s a little out of the ordinary.
There are many colorful and well-preserved Victorian homes in the area including the storied Grateful Dead House.
See groups of tourists flock to the culture-rich Haight Ashbury and enjoy the chilled out vibrant atmosphere.
Though the area is no longer home of VW campervans, dreamers and peaceful protesters wearing tie-dye tees and traveler pants, Haight Ashbury has kept its quirky charm and is definietly one of the top things to do in San Francisco.
Enjoy buskers, live music and the constant smell of pot as you pass through, as well as some interesting characters enjoying the ambience.
During the Summer of Love in 1967, artists from around the world flocked to the Haight by the thousands. Some of the era’s greatest resided here, from Jerry Garcia to Allen Ginsberg to Jimi Hendrix.
Visit the famous Hippie Hill, for a glimpse of what life was once like in the most colorful area of the city.
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