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26 things you must do in San Francisco

Iconic American experiences and secrets are just a skip across the Pacific away

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San Francisco Skyline, transamerica
Photograph: Supplied

Golden Gate Bridge. Cable cars. Alcatraz. The Painted Ladies. San Francisco’s iconic attractions lure 17 million visitors a year, and now that the city is linked to Melbourne by direct flights, your chance to see these unmissable sights is not one to be passed up.

But the Bay Area boasts a wealth of lesser-known gems, from a church you can roller skate in to secret stairways and beautiful parks. Or perhaps you’re drawn to the city’s history as the epicentre of the 1960s counterculture, or the cradle of the gay rights movement, or the setting for some of your favourite movies. Whatever your angle, the City by the Bay is unlikely to disappoint you.

We took on the seemingly impossible task of narrowing the city's endless offerings down to a list of the top things to do. Here is your San Francisco bucket list.   

Hungry? Check out our San Francisco eating and drinking guide.

Go beyond the city with a Sonoma Country road trip

1
San Fransico bridge
Photograph: Supplied

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

The world’s most photographed bridge (sorry, Sydney) and its 746-foot tall orange towers have stood sentinel over the San Francisco Bay since 1937. Even when shrouded in fog, the bridge never fails to impress. The view is spectacular whether you get a glimpse from the city (try Crissy Field, Fort Point and Baker Beach for best vistas), the Marin Headlands or by passing over its span – bikes and cars are permitted access across the bridge 24 hours a day, walkers can cross using the east sidewalk between 5am-6.30pm. Come prepared wearing extra layers; Karl the Fog doesn’t mess around when it comes to the Golden Gate.

2
Cable Cars & Transportation
Photograph: Jack Hollingsworth

Ride on a rolling landmark

A ride on one of the three remaining cable car lines is still a classic San Francisco treat and a National Historic Landmark. Hop aboard for views of Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill and the Bay, preferably seen while hanging off the running boards, Doris-Day-style. Make a stopover at the Cable Car Museum at Mason and Washington streets to learn more about the cable cars’ history and get a glimpse of the giant wheels turning the underground cables that power the cars.

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3
City Lights Bookstore, North Beach, Books
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Feel the Beat at City Lights

For over 60 years, City Lights Bookstore has been a mainstay of free-speech and radical ideas. Co-founded in 1953 by poet-artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who, at 99, still keeps the candle dripping over the chianti bottle), it was here that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems was first published, putting the Beat Generation on the map. The creaky wooden bookstore and publishing house is still a centre of progressive politics and indie literary voices, which it stocks alongside a huge inventory of new and used fiction and nonfiction.

4
San Francisco Ferry Building
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Forage for fresh produce at the Ferry Building

A food drawcard that rivals Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market, the Ferry Building hosts both the city’s largest tri-weekly farmers’ market and provides a permanent home for some of the region’s most beloved artisan producers. Indoors, you’ll find merchants including Cowgirl Creamery, Dandelion Chocolate and Fort Point Beer Company. Behind the Ferry Building on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am-2pm and Saturdays from 8am-2pm, regional farmers and ranchers sell vegetables, flowers, meats and other edible and small-batch products. When your shopping is done, grab a bite at one of the itinerant food stalls on market days or brick-and-mortar restaurants like Charles Phan’s beloved Vietnamese juggernaut the Slanted Door or the popular Hog Island Oyster Company. San Francisco City Guides offer regular free tours of the plaza.

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5
sailing, Crissy Field, Presidio
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Picnic in the Presidio

Every Sunday afternoon from March through October, the three-hectare Main Parade Grounds at the Presidio’s Main Post come alive with dozens of food vendors, free lawn games, yoga, live music and more. Thursday evenings, you’ll find the (still kid-friendly) grown-up version, with lantern-lit cabanas, fire pits and cocktail service in addition to the games and impressive food selection offered on the weekend.

6
Photograph: Time Out

Roller skate in a church

Each weekend the Godfather of skate, D Miles, Jr, holds the “rolliest” of services at the Church of 8 Wheels. Strap on some skates (available for rent for $5) and join the Holy Rollers, the groovy costume-wearing regulars, beneath the twinkling mirror ball. Friday and Saturday nights are for adults only but Saturday afternoons, little ones can join in the fun from 3-5pm. Ten bucks buys you entrance to this most spiritual of skating experiences.

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7
Alcatraz Island
Photograph: Supplied

Take a night tour of Alcatraz Island

Converted from a lighthouse station to a military prison in the 1870s, this formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay was home to the early 20th century’s most notorious criminals. Today you’ll only make it to the 'Rock’ via ferry from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Once there, the self-guided audio cellhouse tour narrated by former inmates and guards will fill you in on harrowing escape attempts, prison riots and the 19-month-long occupation of the site by Native Americans demanding reparation for broken treaties in 1969. To get a more creepy bang for your buck, try a night tour.

8
Sound of music
Photograph: 20th Century Fox

Sing along to The Sound of Music

What started out a decade ago as an excuse for Castro District denizens to don dirndl dresses and do their best Julie Andrews impressions has blossomed into regular sing-along sessions to some of the best live-action and Disney musicals of the last 100 years including Grease, The Little Mermaid, West Side Story and Frozen. Free goodie bags filled with relevant props and karaoke-style subtitles keep the audience on point at both family-friendly matinees and alcohol-fueled evening shows. Come dressed to impress – a raucous costume contest kicks off each showing.

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9
Conservatory of Flowers, nature, Golden Gate Park, activities, family-friendly, arts, culture
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Skate or bike through Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park houses both some of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions – the Victorian-era glass-ensconced Conservatory of Flowers, the de Young Fine Arts Museum and the Academy of Sciences, among them – and less famous joys such as the bison paddock, Shakespeare’s Garden and the north and south windmills. On Sundays, the main drive is closed to cars, so bicyclists, rollerskaters and eager Lindy Hop aficionados take over the streets. Snacks can be found throughout the park but for a meal, the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet on the park’s western edge offer lovely views and house-brewed beer.

10
At&T Park
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Root for the San Francisco Giants

You don’t have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy a game at AT&T Park. From the stadium seats, attendees get a view not only of the San Francisco Bay but kayakers and paddleboarders laying in wait for ‘splash hits’ to come hurdling over the right-field fence. The food at the ballpark alone is worth a visit. Along with quintessentially SF treats like garlic fries and Ghiradelli chocolate sundaes, you’ll find everything from Caribbean barbecue to Tony’s Neapolitan-style pizza and plenty of craft beer to wash it down. SF Giants games frequently sell out, but last-minute options are almost always available through StubHub or at the ball park’s ticket office.

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11
Filbert St steps
Photograph: CC/Christopher Beland

Climb a secret stairway

Nearly 400 different stairways, some of them built over a century ago, connect San Francisco’s 42 hills. These steep passageways not only get you off the grid but offer some of the city’s best views, from the 290-step Lyon Street stairway (between Green Street and Broadway) to the delightful, garden-accented Pemberton Steps (starting at Corbett and Clay streets). On Moraga Street in the Inner Sunset, 163 mosaic tiled steps connect 15th and 16th avenues. Macondray Lane (off Leavenworth St between Union and Green streets) inspired Armistead Maupin’s secretive, leafy green Barbary Lane in his Tales of the City series. And then there’s the Filbert Street Steps, arguably the most spectacular of them all, which climbs through tropical gardens from the bottom of Sansome Street to Coit Tower in North Beach.

12
Murals in the Mission
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Tour the murals of the Mission

The Mission District’s alleys and buildings are decorated with over 200 distinct murals, many reflecting the neighborhood’s Latino heritage and themes of social justice. Thanks in large part to the efforts of artist Susan Cervantes and the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, you’ll find the most concentrated outdoor galleries at Caledonia Alley (at 15th Street), Clarion Alley (at Valencia Street), Balmy Alley (at 24th Street), Horace Alley (at 25th Street), Cypress and Lilac alleys (at 26th Street) and Osage Alley (at 25th Street). Keep an eye out for Mary Nash’s 'Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists' on Balmy, and the warriors of Lilac.

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13
Golden Gate Bridge Tower covered in fog
Photograph: Supplied

Frolic in the fog

It’s not like you need to seek out the fog in San Francisco— it’s so ever-present it even has its own name (Karl) and instagram account (@karlthefog). But there are certain vantage points in the city that will remind you of the unique beauty of San Francisco’s rolling grey mist. Get a front row seat for the city’s changing moods at Land’s End, Twin Peaks, Sutro Tower or Glen Canyon Park. For a wider view of Karl’s descent over the city, head up to the Marin Headlands on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

14
LGBT Rainbow Flag
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Feel the LGBTQIA beat

San Francisco – home of the country's first openly gay elected official (Harvey Milk), birthplace of the rainbow flag and the first city in the United States to legalise gay marriage – remains a major LGBTQIA epicentre. While the Castro serves as the community’s beloved home with plenty of music-pumping gay-friendly bars (many of which have been favorites for decades like Moby Dick and Twin Peaks Tavern), SoMa is where you can really dance like no one’s watching or catch one of the city’s best drag shows at clubs like the Stud or SF Eagle. For great live music, try Bernal Heights’ latin-themed queer bar, El Rio.

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15
Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, landmark, tourist attraction, culture, North Beach
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Admire the view from Coit Tower

Added to the San Francisco skyline in 1933, this monumental love letter to the city remains an iconic welcome for travellers westbound across the Bay Bridge. Named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric whose $118,000 bequest to the city resulted in the tower’s construction, the tapered, fluted tower stands 55 metres tall at the crest of Telegraph Hill. At the top is the tower’s observation deck with 360 degree views of San Francisco and the Bay. A rotunda at its base is covered in Depression-era WPA murals depicting not-so-subtle socialist images in scenes of California agriculture and industry painted by over two dozen artists, some of whom studied under famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

16
Vintage arcade game
Photograph: CC/Rob DiCaterino

Play a vintage arcade game at Musée Mécanique

A museum in name only, everything at the Musée Mécanique can, and should, be played with. You’ll find more than 200 coin-operated games and amusements dating back to the 1880s, many of which were salvaged from San Francisco’s now-defunct seaside amusement park, Playland at the Beach. Gypsy fortune tellers, giant moving dioramas, can-can girl stereoscopes, carnival strength testers, player pianos, and a looming Laughing Sal (the cackling Playland greeter) are just as amusing for adults as they are for kids. When you’ve had your fill of fun, check out the earthquake memorabilia and early photos of San Francisco along the walls of the arcade.

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17
Exterior city shot of Exploratorium
Photograph: Supplied

Expand your mind at the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is a museum for the child in everyone. At its massive home on the Embarcadero waterfront, this 50-year-old San Francisco institution uses play and experimentation to introduce visitors to scientific principles. From the storage lockers that play tones when you touch them to the outdoor 'fog bridge' by artist Fujiko Nakaya, everything in the museum is hands-on. New exhibits appear regularly but even the museum’s most beloved mainstays – the Sweeper's Clock, a fascinating movie loop in which two street sweepers keep time by pushing around piles of trash, the toothpick diorama of San Francisco and the Tactile Dome, a sensory-deprivation crawl-through maze (advance reservations required) – are worth returning for again and again. Upstairs on the second floor, the glass-and-steel Bay Observatory and the sustainable seafood restaurant Seaglass offer a more in-depth view of the San Francisco Bay.

18
Sea lion
Photograph: Time Out

Commune with sea lions at Pier 39

It wasn’t until after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that playful, barking California sea lions began ‘hauling out’ on K dock at Pier 39. Why they chose this location is a mystery but the protected bay, teeming with the fish and squid pinnipeds prefer, has kept them coming back for 30 years. Watch the group, which is mostly made up of younger males, frolic all year long from the wooden walkway behind Pier 39. A naturalist provides commentary and answers questions daily between 11am and 4pm, weather permitting.

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19
California Academy of Sciences Rainforest Coast Swamp
Photograph: Tim Williamson

Walk through a living rainforest

True to its name, the California Academy of Sciences is a showcase for all things science. Astronomy? Check! Their Morrison Planetarium is state-of-the-art. Marine biology? Check! The Steinhart Aquarium takes up the museum’s entire lower floor with exhibits like the world’s deepest living coral reef display. Ecology? Yup, they’ve got that too, in the form of a four-storey living rainforest which is home to butterflies, birds and tropical plants. In fact, right down to the design of its building, which is insulated with salvaged Levi’s jeans and has a “living roof” that is home to 1.7 million native plant species, the California Academy of Sciences embraces the latest in scientific research and education. Come with the kids for an afternoon or join the party on Thursday evenings when guests over 21 are invited to visit permanent exhibits and specially themed lectures and events with a cocktail in hand.

20
Alamo Square / The Painted Ladies
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Admire the city’s Painted Ladies

San Francisco boasts hundreds of ‘Painted Ladies’ – colourful Victorian and Edwardian houses featuring three or more hues that enhance elements of their architecture. The most famous can be found in NoPa, the Lower Haight, Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley neighbourhoods but there’s one row, in particular, so iconic that it’s simply referred to as 'the Painted Ladies' (or sometimes 'Postcard Row'): the houses of 710-720 Steiner street at the corner of Hayes Street. These gals have appeared in an estimated 70 movies, ads and television shows including the ‘90s juggernaut Full House. You, unfortunately, can’t enter the Painted Ladies (real people live there) but you can get a great view and a photo of your own from the east-facing hillside of Alamo Square across the street.

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21
Theatre
Photograph: Elizabeth Daniels

Bathe in sound at the Audium

The Audium Theater of Sound is the only one of its kind in the world. Throughout a two-hour performance, theatre-goers are left in darkness to be bathed in “sound sculptures” from the 176 speakers surrounding the circular 49-seat theatre. The sound calls attention to its speed and movement but any more than that is hard to explain; you’ll just have to experience it yourself.

22
Cliff House, ocean, Lands End, restaurant, waterfront, coastline, waves
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Brunch overlooking the Pacific

High above the Pacific Ocean, overlooking the historic Sutro Baths, stands the stoic Cliff House. Today’s Cliff House dates to 1937, the fifth (and hopefully final) version to be built since its establishment in 1858 thanks to two tragic fires (in 1894 and 1907) and major renovations. The Cliff House boasts two separate restaurants famous for their Ramos Fizz – a gin drink made with egg whites and cream. At the more casual Bistro, brunch on eggs San Francisco – poached eggs with dungeness crab in a brandy cream sauce. At upscale Sutro’s, classic meat and seafood dishes are perfect complements to the restaurant’s unbeatable sunset view.

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23
Seward Douglas Slide
Photograph: Creative Commons

Take a slide on Seward Street

The two concrete slides at this mini park in the Castro were designed by a 14 year old back in 1973. Today they’re still a delightful adrenaline rush not meant for little ones. Wear sturdy pants or bring a piece of cardboard to navigate the steep slopes.

24
Couple hiking in Lands End
Photograph: Scott Chernis

Go for a hike without leaving the city

San Francisco is crisscrossed with dozens of hiking trails. Some, like the Creek to Peaks trail at Glen Canyon Park, traverse steep, rocky terrain, while others, such as the Presidio’s Bay Ridge Trail, are better suited for a leisurely wander. Whatever level of difficulty you choose, your path is sure to expose you to the city’s natural landscape, which rivals in beauty the built one that made it famous. Other favourites include the trails at Mt Davidson, Lands End, Bernal Heights Park and Buena Vista Park.

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25
LGBT - Pride Parade Trio of Marchers
Photograph: Nader Khouri

Embrace debauchery at a public event

A few times a year revellers come from all around to join in parties that consume whole neighbourhoods. The season kicks off in May with Bay to Breakers, the infamous race from downtown to Ocean Beach where costume-wearing runners and walkers (and many with no clothes at all) take part in an alcohol-fuelled party across the city. In June, the Castro is draped in love and rainbows for Pride weekend, culminating in a massive parade down Market Street. And if that’s too tame for you, it’s on to the Folsom Street Fair in September when 400,000 fetish enthusiasts dance to EDM, watch erotic performances and check out the latest gear and toys at over 200 exhibitor booths. As with many SF events, clothing is optional.

26
Schein & Schein
Photograph: Supplied

Pick up a unique souvenir at Schein & Schein

Tucked away on a slow-moving strip of North Beach, Schein & Schein is worth the detour. Owners Jim and Marti Schein specialise in antique maps, particularly those of San Francisco and greater California, but you'll also find a variety of printed treasures including hotel and travel brochures; lithographs; scientific, medical, astrological and anatomical illustrations; rare atlases; and copper and steel engravings. Stepping into the quiet, sunny shop feels like entering a time warp. The walls are adorned with cartography, and maps and prints are organised in vintage produce and shipping crates and letterpress-type cabinets. Jim is a history buff and can offer up tidbits on the history of San Francisco and the art of map-making for any print you purchase. Though rare maps can run into the thousands, you can find prints for as little as $5 in the discount crates near the entryway.

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