Last Updated on December 15, 2022 by Helen E. White
In this post, we are going to tell you about 20 Best Things to Do in San Francisco, a beautiful Californian city that, with its famous bridge, is one of the destinations that has surprised and excited us the most in the United States. The reasons are various: hippie neighborhoods full of art, wooden houses each one of a different color, a jetty where a community of lazy sea lions lives and so much more.
- 1 Top 20 Things to See and Do in San Francisco
- 1.1 1. Golden Gate Bridge
- 1.2 2. Golden Gate Park
- 1.3 3. Union Square
- 1.4 4. Alcatraz
- 1.5 5. Fisherman’s Wharf
- 1.6 6. Pier 39
- 1.7 7. Lombard Street
- 1.8 8. San Francisco Cable Car
- 1.9 9. Painted Ladies
- 1.10 10. Chinatown
- 1.11 11. Little Italy
- 1.12 12. Sausalito
- 1.13 13. Palace of Fine Arts
- 1.14 14. Haight-Ashbury
- 1.15 15. Castro
- 1.16 16. Civic Center
- 1.17 17. Mission District
- 1.18 18. Financial District
- 1.19 19. Twin Peaks
- 1.20 20. Japan Town
- 2 Practical Information for Visiting San Francisco
Top 20 Things to See and Do in San Francisco
1. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is the great icon of the city, of course. Its construction began in 1933 to support the San Francisco Bay ferry service, unable to absorb the increased volume of vehicle traffic. Its chief engineer was Joseph Strauss, whose statue you can see next to the visitor center. The Golden Gate Bridge, with a total length of 2.7 km and a maximum height of 227 m, was the longest suspension bridge in the world from its inauguration in 1937 to 1964.
The visit to the Golden Gate Bridge can be approached in many ways, although the most common are: walk from the visitor center in Presidio Park (as far as everyone wants) or cross it by bike. The classic bike route is: Fisherman’s Wharf -> Golden Gate Bridge -> Sausalito -> return by ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf. We did an enlarged version from Golden Gate Park, as we will explain later.
2. Golden Gate Park
If you have three or more days to visit San Francisco, we suggest you take a walk through Golden Gate Park. Of course, it is 5km long (it is 20% larger than Central Park), so it is advisable to rent a bicycle. In addition to grasslands, forests and lakes, Golden Gate Park is home to many attractions including the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Garden, the De Young Museum (with a good free gazebo), the Academy of Sciences, the Shakespeare Garden, two historic mills and even a small bison reserve!
Golden Gate Park ends to the west at the huge Ocean Beach. From there you can pedal along the coastline to Baker Beach and continue towards the Golden Gate Bridge, 8 km away. We do not recommend it with children or adults due to the hard climbs unless you rent electric bikes.
Bay City Bike has an office at the east entrance of the park and several at Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can return the bike (with a surcharge) if you decide to cross the bridge, reach Sausalito (20 km from the start) and return by ferry. It is a cool plan, but it requires some physical form and a lot of time (from early in the morning until mid-afternoon to do the route and visits, eat-in Sausalito and return by boat).
3. Union Square
Union Square is the most famous square in SF. It receives its name from having been the site of multiple demonstrations supporting the Union Army during the Civil War. In the enormous central space, 140 m long x 100 m wide, stands out the 26 m column Dewey Monument (1903), dedicated to a hero of the “Cuban War” against Spain. The square is surrounded by department stores, hotels, luxury boutiques, beauty salons, etc. To have a good view, you can go up to the terrace of Macy’s (free).
Films like “The Rock”, with Sean Connery, popularized the legendary Alcatraz Federal Prison, in operation from 1934 to 1963. Considered one of the most impregnable prisons in the world, it was the “home” of Al Capone for 5 years and only witnessed two notable escape attempts: “The Battle of Alcatraz” and the famous flight of three pesos never found in the which was based on the movie “Escape from Alcatraz,” with Clint Eastwood.
To visit Alcatraz in the high season, you have to book tickets well in advance. Tickets go on sale 3 months in advance and sometimes sell out very quickly. The visit includes round trip by ferry + an audio guide in the prison (available in Spanish). On the way out, you must board at the stipulated time, but you can take any ferry back. It is advisable to reserve a minimum of 3 hours for the total activity.
5. Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf, built-in 1853, was the city’s first port and, in its early days, one of the major ports in California.
Over time, the fishing industry was leaving this port and looked for other places in which to carry out the activity. However, with the rise of tourism, Fisherman’s Wharf was reborn and became one of the must-see places in San Francisco, California.
At Pier 45 is the USS Pampanito submarine from World War II, which sank 6 enemy ships and rescued 73 men.
In this neighborhood, there is also the Maritime National Historical Park, where you can see historical boats and where there is a maritime museum, a library and a research center.
6. Pier 39
Although it is part of Fisherman’s Wharf, we wanted to give a special mention to Pier 39, one of our favorite places in San Francisco. The Pier 39 juts into the sea offering a variety of attractions: restaurants, galleries, street performers, waterwheels, shops, the Aquarium, etc. It is a spectacle in itself, although if this place is known for something, it is for its colony of sea lions, present on the pier since September 1989.
California sea lions have inhabited the San Francisco Bay since ancient times, but since that date – and the reason is still not very clear – they have definitely established themselves on the dock and roam freely. They can be seen a few meters from a bleacher installed on the pier and there is always an official volunteer willing to clarify doubts about these magnificent animals.
7. Lombard Street
The Lombard Street, in the stretch between Leavenworth and Hyde Street, is something you have to do in San Francisco, California. This street, due to its inclination, has a total of 8 curves and its entire route is decorated with flowers. It is considered one of the most beautiful streets in the city and also the steepest and most famous.
Surely, when you see it, you will not be able to avoid taking several photos of it, since it is something very typical to do in San Francisco
8. San Francisco Cable Car
The famous streetcars of San Francisco are another of the great symbols of the city. Cable trams ( cable cars ) began to circulate in 1873 and have continued to do so almost uninterruptedly since then. With the arrival of electric trams ( streetcar ) and other transport systems, cable trams gradually lost importance and almost disappeared in 1947, but the popular clamor kept them safe. They were even protected as a Historic Place.
Today there are only 3 lines in operation, with 62 stops and about 40 trams with 10 different models. Its use is mainly tourist, although some locals continue to use them in their day-to-day life. Of course, we recommend you ride them to enjoy the walk through the steep streets of Nob Hill and its surroundings. Do not miss their operation, they are the only ones in the world that still use the traditional system.
9. Painted Ladies
San Francisco is full of beautiful Victorian or Edwardian houses, built mostly between 1850 and 1915. Many of these houses have polychrome facades, with combinations of three or more colors, following fashions from the 60s and 70s of the last century. Groups several unique houses this type are known as Painted Ladies ( Painted Ladies ) and spread everywhere. They can be found in abundance in Haight-Ashbury, although the most famous Painted Ladies are those in Alamo Square.
This row of seven houses, located between 710 and 722 Steiner Street, was built by Matthew Kavanaugh between 1892 and 1896 and is often referred to as “Postcard Row.” And why are these houses so famous? Beyond their beauty (there are more beautiful ones), they are popular for having appeared in the opening credits of the series “Padres Forzosos” (“Tres por tres” in Latin America). In addition to taking the typical photo with the San Francisco skyline in the background, it is worth taking a walk around the park and seeing other houses in the area.
Although there are several Chinatowns in San Francisco, the “original”, the one that everyone knows, is the one located between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Established around 1848, Chinatown is the oldest Chinese community in the United States and one of the largest in the world outside of Asia. Ideally, enter through the Dragon Gate and go down Grant Avenue making a detour to the left and right. This is the most picturesque area, full of bazaars, restaurants, the typical red lanterns …
Among the most outstanding visits are the Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings, the Chinese Telephone Exchange, the Tin How Temple, Ross Alley street, Portsmouth Square or the Six Companies building. If you go during the day, we recommend you stroll down Stockton Street (on the section between Washington St and Pacific Ave). It is not pretty, but it has a lot of local life: fruit and vegetable stores, supermarkets, street food establishments, etc. There are few tourists and you really feel like you are in China.
11. Little Italy
Immediately north of Chinatown is the North Beach neighborhood, one of the cradles of the “Beat Generation.” The famous writer Jack Kerouac lived there and a reference bookstore for the movement can still be visited: City Lights (1952). In North Beach, there was an important Italian community that today is concentrated in Little Italy. There are few streets and it can be a bit disappointing, but the Italian aroma is still breathed in restaurants, ice cream parlors, cafes, etc. One of the icons of the neighborhood is the Church of San Pedro and San Pablo, where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married.
Although it does not belong to the city, the small coastal town of Sausalito is one of those places that you usually visit on a trip to San Francisco. This town became a paradise for artists and bohemians after World War II and today, it is an important summer resort. As we said, many people cross the Golden Gate Bridge by bicycle and arrive in Sausalito to see its picturesque “houseboats “, take a leisurely walk and eat on a terrace overlooking the sea before taking the ferry back.
13. Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most photogenic places in San Francisco. It is common to see it on the covers of tourist guides and is used repeatedly by wedding photographers. The Palace of Fine Arts is the only thing that survives from the constructions erected for the 1915 World Expo, although the current building was rebuilt in the 1960s. It basically consists of a large roundabout, a 340m wide pergola and a small artificial lake. By the way, the center of the roundabout was a prominent setting in the movie “The Rock.”
If San Francisco is known as an open, modern and tolerant city, it is largely because of the legendary Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the place where the hippie movement was born. After World War II, Haight-Ashbury (named after the junction of Haight and Ashbury streets) went into decline and low rents encouraged a diverse group of people to settle there: bohemians, anarchists, beatniks, etc.
The values of free love, peace, respect for nature, music and drugs caught the attention of young people from all corners of the United States, giving rise to numerous hippie communes in the neighborhood. The movement experienced its boom in 1967 with the so-called “Summer of love”.
Although the hippie spirit is no longer so present in Haight-Ashbury, today it is still one of the most alternative neighborhoods in San Francisco. Through its streets, you can see colorful facades, “flower power” murals, picturesque people, vinyl or vintage clothing stores, environmentally friendly restaurants, handicraft shops, etc. Music lovers can visit the Jimi Hendrix House Museum.
The recent history of “The Castro “, known as “Little Scandinavia” at the beginning of the 20th century, began to take shape after World War II. Thousands of soldiers expelled from the army for their sexual condition settled in the neighborhood, starting what was to be one of the largest gay communities in the world. Influenced by the countercultural hippie movement in the neighboring neighborhood and spurred on by the aforementioned “Summer of Love”, thousands of homosexuals from all over the country saw in Castro an oasis in which they could live in peace.
The neighborhood’s most famous neighbor was Harvey Milk, an LGBT rights activist murdered in 1978 and whose life was made into a movie in “My Name is Harvey Milk,” with Sean Penn. At the tourist level, the Castro Theater, from 1922 (closely linked to the LGBT + movement), the intersection of Castro Street and 18th Street, the Twin Peaks Tavern, the Harvey Milk Plaza, the “Hot Cookie” bakery and, in general, its colorful streets full of multi-colored flags.
16. Civic Center
Civic Center is a central area of the city built around 1912 around the plaza of the same name and the United Nations Plaza. It houses important government and cultural buildings, most of them classical in style. The most important is the City Hall, built-in 1916 by Arthur Brown, Jr., also responsible for the War Memorial Opera House and the Veterans Building. Nor should you miss the Herbst Theater, the Auditorium, the Asian Art Museum or the 50 UN Plaza. Civic Center is on the US Register of Historic Places.
17. Mission District
Mission District, or simply “The Mission”, is a neighborhood with a significant presence of Spanish speakers and whose name is due to the “Mission of San Francisco de Asís” or “Mission Dolores”, founded in 1776 by Spanish explorers and friars. This small settlement was the origin of the city of San Francisco, to which it also gave its name. The “Mission Dolores “, made up of a basilica and a small church is the oldest architectural complex in San Francisco and the most outstanding visit in the neighborhood along with Dolores Park.
18. Financial District
The Financial District of San Francisco is not as spectacular as that of other North American cities, but it has several impressive skyscrapers, such as 555 California Street, 101 California Street, 345 California Center or the unique Transamerica Pyramid. The tallest building of all is the Salesforce Tower (326 m), completed in 2018. The line of boats that goes from Sausalito to the Ferry Building is ideal to see the Financial District in a panoramic way.
19. Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks are two 282 m hills located south of Golden Gate Park and the Castro neighborhood. They are known for being one of the highest points in the city and, therefore, one of the best viewpoints in San Francisco. We had to rule out this last-minute visit because of the fog (very common in SF), but we could not fail to mention its existence. You can get close to the surroundings by public transport, but no one will spare you from a short walk in the final section.
20. Japan Town
Although it is neither as big nor as authentic as Chinatown, Japan Town also has its charm. The presence of this community in the area dates back to 1906, but in the course of World War II, many Japanese were expelled. At a tourist level, the Peace Pagoda, the Peace Plaza and the Japan Center stand out, a shopping center where you will find Japanese restaurants, gift shops, beauty salons, etc. Especially recommended for otakus and any lover of Japanese culture in general.
Practical Information for Visiting San Francisco
Flights to San Francisco
- With the arrival of low-cost transatlantic flights, it has become possible to fly to San Francisco for less than € 300 (round trip, without any extras). Of course, the low-cost companies charge for food, luggage, selection of seats, etc. And yet… it pays off!
- The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) should not be confused with that of neighboring Oakland (OAK), which is the one used by the low-cost. From there, it is about 30 ′ by train to Embarcadero, in the financial district of San Francisco.
- There are direct flights from Barcelona and Madrid with Iberia or the low-cost Norwegian and LEVEL. You can compare prices with Skyscanner.
Where to sleep in San Francisco
- Our stay in San Francisco was divided in two (beginning and end of the trip). The first few nights, we slept in a modest Oakland motel: the Civic Center Lodge. It is nothing luxurious, but it was one of the cheapest, it had everything you need, free parking and a great connection with the BART (about 20 ′ to San Francisco).
- The last nights we slept in the Edwardian Hotel, one of the budget hotels in San Francisco with the best quality/price ratio. Well connected, cute … highly recommended considering the prices in the city.
- If you prefer, here you can see a list with more hotels in San Francisco.
- An interesting accommodation option is Airbnb. You can sleep in private houses or rent private apartments at a good price.
Rent a car in San Francisco
- Traffic in San Francisco is not particularly chaotic, so it could be a good option to move around the city and, above all, to do some excursions a bit further, such as the one to Muir Woods. The worst are the entrances and exits of SF, where there can be significant delays or very dense traffic.
- We rented a car on the last day to start our route through the Western USA. As always, we compare prices and book on RentalCars. This time the best option was an economy class car from the supplier Dollar (about € 20 a day). There are offices at Fisherman’s Wharf, SFO Airport, and Oakland Airport (OAK).
Transportation in San Francisco
- San Francisco has many public transportation options: subway, bus, cable cars, streetcars, and trolleybus. All local transportation (even the famous trams) are included in the price of MUNI passes. There are many rates, but the most interesting for tourists are those of 1, 3 or 7 days.
- There are also many ways to pay, including an app. We recommend that you use the Clipper Card, a card that can be recharged with loose credit and/or multi-day passes. The advantage is that you can also pay for the BART (commuter trains that are not included in the MUNI passes) and the Sausalito ferry (with a significant discount). The Clipper Card can be obtained and recharged at the vending machines or at some special lockers. We do not recommend doing any online procedure since a lot of notice is required for any operation (including recharging).
Travel insurance for the United States
- If there is a country to which you should not travel without insurance (without good insurance, in fact), it is the United States. As you know, the bill for any medical incident can be exorbitant. We suggest you compare with Mondo and decide according to your needs. If you buy through our link, you will have a 5% discount on the final price.
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