The 49 best things to do in San Francisco

Your ultimate guide to things to do in San Francisco—from the city's best restaurants and shops to museums and sightseeing

Cable Cars

There are countless things to do in San Francisco, but in homage to its compact size of 49 square miles, we’ve narrowed it down to just shy of 50. From Alcatraz to vintage streetcars, the iconic San Francisco attractions lure nearly 17 million visitors every year—but that doesn’t mean they’re just for tourists. Even the most jaded locals never tire of admiring iconic landmarks like the sweeping span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Crammed with top-notch restaurants, artisanal coffee shops, sidewalk cafés, unusual and excellent museums, pocket gardens, hidden stairways, and eclectic shops, the city invites exploration. San Francisco events such as the zany Bay to Breakers race, sing-along musicals, and the colorful, cacophonous Chinese New Year parade tap into the unique local character. Whether you’re new to the city or just looking for new ideas, this list should provide plenty of inspiration.

Best things to do in San Francisco

1

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

Walking or biking across the bridge is a bucket-list must-do for locals and visitors alike. From the east side walkway, you can take in the soaring 746-foot towers, the city skyline, the Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. The most photographed bridge in the world, the Golden Gate never fails to thrill—even when it’s shrouded in a blanket of fog.

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2

Forage for fresh produce at the Ferry Building

Critics' pick

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays until 2pm, hordes of food-obsessed locals can be found combing the crowded aisles and produce stands of the Ferry Building Marketplace, where 75 regional farmers and artisan food purveyors offer a dizzying array of organic fruit and vegetables, and gourmet goodies from olive oils, meat, cheese and bread to chocolate, jams and flowers. In addition to the tri-weekly farmer's market, homegrown brands such as Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery, Hog Island Oyster Co. and Blue Bottle Coffee sell from permanent stalls.

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Downtown
3

Dine on dumplings at Yank Sing

The aromas coming from the steamed and fried dumplings at Yank Sing are so tantalizing, you'll likely gobble them down before finding out what's in them. Exceptionally fresh and flavorful dim sum is undoubtedly what keeps this longtime restaurant thriving in an unlikely corner of a massive office complex. Ordering is half the fun: Just point at what looks good as the waiters roll their carts past your table. Favorites include shanghai dumplings with pork, scallion, ginger and a shot of hot broth, stuffed crab claws, and goldfishdumplings filled with crunchy shrimp and bamboo shoot tips.

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4

Ride on a rolling landmark

A few dollars can buy you a slow rollercoaster ride on an officially designated historic landmark. San Francisco's cable cars are a relic of the pre-automotive age, built to scale the precipitous slopes that were too steep for horses. Three cable car lines leave from Union Square and the end of California Street, traveling at top speeds of 9 mph through Chinatown, Nob Hill and Russian Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf. For extra thrills, hang off on the running boards and ride Doris Day–style. You may even get a bell-ringing serenade from the conductor.

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5

Belly up for a Mission burrito

As any San Franciscan knows, the Mission District is the epicenter of the eponymous Mexican wrap. The steamed tortilla—packed with some combination of meat, cheese, beans, rice, guacamole and salsa fresca—was first introduced in the city circa 1969 at La Cumbre Taqueria (515 Valencia St at 16th St, 415-863-8205). Now dozens of taquerias have their devotees for “the best” Mission Burrito. Most people agree you can’t go wrong with Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission St near 19th St, 415-252-9560), Pancho Villa (3071 16th St at Valencia St, 415-864-8840), El Farolito (2777 Mission St at 24th St, 415-826-4870), or—our favorite—La Taqueria, where the behemoth foil-wrapped bombs are filled with beans, cheese, salsa and meats ranging from carne and pollo asada to carnitas (but no rice).

6

Feel the Beats at City Lights

Critics' pick

A bookshop and temple to the anti-authority Beat Generation, City Lights was cofounded in 1953 by bard/publisher/artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who still keeps the candle dripping over the chianti bottle well into his nineties. It was here that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems was first published and Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges, putting the Beats on the map. The nation’s first all-paperback bookstore is still a hub for progressive politics, fiction, music, philosophy, and all manner of poetry and indie literary voices. Appropriately, it’s located along Kerouac Alley and next to Vesuvio Café, the bar where Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and friends once held court.

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North Beach
7

Picnic in the Presidio

On Sundays from April through October, the food truck gathering known as Off the Grid offers Picnic at the Presidio, with dozens of food vendors, free lawn games, live music and a “bubble bar” on the expansive lawn of the Presidio’s Main Post, overlooking the Golden Gate. On Thursday nights from April through October, Twilight at the Presidio is a food truck “campout” with lantern-lit dining cabanas, cocktail service, Adirondack chairs, music and s’more fire pits. Additional Off the Grid gatherings all over the city feature food and entertainment year-round.

8

Be a part of musical history

Celebrating its 40th year in 2014, wacky, saucy, and uniquely San Franciscan Beach Blanket Babylon lays claim to the title of longest running musical revue in theater history. Its pun-laden send-ups of a shifting array of public figures, pop icons and dubious celebrities are loosely tied together under the auspices of a Snow White tale, but really this is just a vehicle to poke fun at everyone from Kim Kardashian and Hillary Clinton to the British Royal Family and Lady Gaga—all while sporting hats the size of small zeppelins.

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9

Take a night tour of Alcatraz Island

The formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as “The Rock” was once a maximum-security prison that housed notorious inmates such as Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert “the Birdman” Stroud. Haunting at any time of day, the very popular night tour adds an extra layer of chill—especially on creepy, foggy evenings. For the full effect, get the audio cellhouse tour narrated by former inmates and guards, which recounts harrowing tales of prison life, including the numerous tragic attempts at escape.

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10

Sip a handcrafted cocktail

Lychee, lemongrass, fenugreek and chrysanthemum blossoms in your cocktail? Absolut-ly. The craft cocktail movement—arguably launched, and certainly lovingly cultivated—in San Francisco, has brought fresh-squeezed citrus, market-fresh herbs and an encyclopedia of hand-muddled and artfully infused ingredients to bar menus around town. Comstock in North Beach brings fresh twists to classic cocktails such as the Sazerac, Manhattan, Blood and Sand and San Francisco’s own Pisco Punch. Bar Agricole’s extensive cocktail list draws from small-batch curated spirits, bitters, vermouths and syrups—with ice cubes tailored specifically to each drink. Trick Dog’s elaborately crafted cocktails, named after iconic San Francisco sights and attractions, include such offerings as the Sutro Baths: El Dorado 3, Pampero and Don Q anejo rums, Sightglass coffee, grapefruit, fenugreek and lime.

Comments

9 comments
Lisette M
Lisette M

Rooftop gardens - parrots of Telegraph - stairs through Pacific Heights - trail from GGB to the Cliff House - the Boom Boom Room on Geary - the Tonga Room at the Fairmont.

A solid list, though anyone looking for a stairway at Corbett and Clay is going to find they don't intersect (it's Clayton).  Also, the city only has 49 square miles in mythology, the real city having 47.  What the list misses is one of the city's best treats, its diverse collection of walkable neighborhoods.   Just pick one and start walking.   Almost all have views, colorful architecture, ethnic diversity, good food, and varied shopping.   Even the tourist-trappy Haight can be fun for an afternoon of tie-dye and incense.   The Mission is a fascinating layer cake of established working class Latino life, radical leftist bookstores, and contemporary hipsters.   And the Castro is an eyeful even for straight folks (of which there are more all the time.)   Head out to the Richmond or Inner Sunset to see where the other Chinese immigrants live, the ones who can afford to move out of cramped Chinatown.   The Richmond also has the city's Russian and Korean businesses and restaurants. 


Oh, and I've lived here 27 years and always found the police amiable and helpful.   Parking can be difficult, but it is far from impossible, with plenty of garages in the most touristy areas.   The residential areas can be tougher, but a bit of patience will usually turn up a legal spot.   If not, plan your trip to park nearby and ride Muni to where you're going.   The underground is fast, reasonably clean, and very safe.   And great for people watching.   The F Market historic streetcars are also a great way to get from downtown to either the Wharf (if you must) or the Castro.   Taking the N Judah to Irving and 9th Avenue gets you within a few blocks of Golden Gate Park's major sites, including the museums, arboretum, and Japanese Tea Garden.   A worthwhile tourist destination that surprisingly few visit is Mission Dolores.   Unsurprisingly, it's in the Mission.   Of all the California missions it is one of the best preserved, if on the small side.  The adjacent churchyard is one of the very few cemeteries in San Francisco and was the setting for a scene in Vertigo.   Some of the best Mission murals are nearby and plenty of interesting shops and good restaurants (and taquerias).   You could easily spend an afternoon and evening within half a mile of Mission Dolores (hipster bar central being the stretch of 16th west of Mission St. 


Hope this gives a few more ideas.   I'm still finding new places after all these years.

Yank Sing is over priced. You can get much better dim sum for 1/2 the price in Chinatown or on Clement.

San Fran is a tourist trap cesspool with aggressive vagrants and even more aggressive cops waiting to ticket you on every corner. Any event will mean parking he**. I live an hour away and will likely never return there- the few nice restaurants are hardly worth all the trouble.

I thought your comments were spot on

Some therapy is seriously needed for you. Have you been to New York or Chicago? We have mellow cops and you can use parking garages you know. SF has the best restaurants in the US. Look it up. If you want open parking and Panda Express Chinese, go to Modesto or Fresno.

SF cops are actually the more easy going cops than any cities in the Bay Area idiot. Although, you wouldn't know that.. Probably why those "few nice restaurants" you have in mind are for the transports and hipsters. Our REAL best restaurants actually aren't in areas where parking is hard to find. Hahaha "San Fran"! Nice transport lingo.

you're an idiot