The iconic San Francisco attractions—toddling cable cars, Painted Lady Victorians, precipitous hills, great museums and of course, the soaring red-orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge—have given rise to dozens of monikers over the years, ranging from Paris of the Pacific and Baghdad by the Bay to Athens of the West. Spend a day exploring its nooks and crannies and you’re likely to come up with a few more of your own. Though San Francisco is crammed into 7x7 square miles, its many neighborhoods have unique personalities, ethnicities, sexual preferences, and often their own weather systems. They're also each packed with some of the very best things to do in San Francisco. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident looking for inspiration for things to do in the city, this list provides a sightseeing primer to the City by the Bay.
Essential San Francisco attractions
Alcatraz is hands-down one of the best bets for your tourist buck, starting with the scenic ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf to the island. The formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as “The Rock” started out as a lighthouse station in 1854, but its isolated location made it an ideal spot for a penal colony. Converted to a military prison in the 1870s, it became a maximum-security penitentiary in 1934, housing some of the country's most notorious and incorrigible criminals, among them Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. A tour of Alcatraz offers a fascinating look at local history and lore, including the Native American occupation of the island in the 1970s, a protest sparked by activists who, based on a treaty between the Sioux and the U.S. government, believed the island rightfully belonged to its original native inhabitants. Be sure to get the audio cellhouse tour, narrated by former inmates and guards, which offers harrowing accounts of prison riots and escape attempts. Tours sail daily from Pier 33, 8:45am–3:50pm. March–Nov; check schedule for winter hours. There's also a very popular extra-creepy night tour, which leaves in the late afternoon. Plan to spend at least two to three hours on the island and be sure to bring a warm jacket—the place is notoriously windy and fog-shrouded year round.
One of two moving National Historic Landmarks, the cable cars still climb halfway to the stars between Powell and the end of Hyde Street at Fisherman's Wharf. Hop aboard and you'll be treated to a unique 9 mph rolling tour of the city that includes views of Nob Hill, Fisherman's Wharf, the Bay and Alcatraz Island. Try to get a spot where you can hang off the running boards, Doris Day-style. You may even get a bell-ringing serenade from the conductor. It's worth jumping off at Mason and Washington streets for the Cable Car Museum, where you can learn about the history of the cable car and watch giant wheels turn the underground cables that power the cars (1201 Mason St, 415-474-1887).
Located atop Telegraph Hill, the fluted 1933 tower is the legacy of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric who left San Francisco a $125,000 bequest “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city I have always loved.” Though many believe the tower is a hose-shaped homage to San Francisco firefighters (Coit had been saved from a fire as a child and became a lifelong fan and mascot for Knickerbocker Engine Co. #5), it's merely an expression of her esteem; a memorial to firefighters lies down below in Washington Square Park. Inside the base of the tower are impressive and somewhat radical (by 1930s standards) Depression-era WPA murals depicting California agriculture, industry, and the city's leftist leanings (check out the socialist references in the library and on the newsstands). Recently restored, the frescoes are the collaborative effort of more than 25 artists, many of whom studied under Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. From the top, the observation tower offers panoramic views of the city and the bay.
Formerly an army airstrip, Crissy Field is now a restored salt marsh and recreation area, with a 4.3-mile waterfront promenade that wanders through grassy fields, past sheltered beaches, windsurfers and picnic areas, all the way to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. Start at the informative Crissy Field Center for some background history, then follow the bayfront path past the Farallones Marine Sanctuary center to Torpedo Wharf for a postcard photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. Make a pit stop at the Warming Hut for organic soups, sandwiches, and only-in-San-Francisco books, games and souvenirs. Along the way, there are also kid-friendly attractions such as the House of Air trampoline park, Planet Granite climbing gym, and La Petite Balleen swim school. The trail ends at Fort Point, a fortification built during the Civil War to defend against a battle that never happened. In addition to self-guided and ranger-led tours, there are regular cannon drills and a fascinating film about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Ferry Building Marketplace rivals in popularity, quality and variety Pike's Place Market in Seattle and Granville Island in Vancouver. Some 75 regional farmers and artisan food purveyors call the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market home. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays until 2pm, food-obsessed hordes can be found combing the crowded aisles and stalls in search of organic fruits and vegetables and gourmet goodies from olive oils, meat, seafood, cheese and bread to chocolate, jams and flowers. In addition to the tri-weekly farmers’ market, top purveyors such as Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery, Hog Island Oyster Co., Recchiuti Chocolate, and Blue Bottle Coffee offer their wares from permanent stalls. A number of popular restaurants and retailers also have branches at the Ferry Plaza, among them the Slanted Door, acclaimed chef Charles Phan's paean to Vietnamese cooking; Gott’s Roadside, the famed Napa Valley burger stand; kitchen specialist Sur La Table; Book Passage, a travel- and food-focused bookstore; and beloved Berkeley garden/home shop, the Gardener. Free walking tours are offered Tuesday and Saturday at noon by San Francisco City Guides.
While the restaurants, boat rides and souvenir shops of Fisherman's Wharf clearly cater to out-of-towners, there are plenty of uniquely San Francisco moments to be had at the Wharf, including Musée Mécanique, a charming vintage arcade, the USS Pampanito submarine, Ghirardelli Square, home of the renowned chocolatier, and National Maritime Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier where you can tour a fleet of restored historic sailing ships. Don't miss the sidewalk crab stands around Fisherman's Grotto near Pier 45, the only place in San Francisco to see the fishing fleet bringing in its daily catch. Grab a shrimp or crab cocktail and a hunk of sourdough bread and watch the boats sail in and out of the harbor.
The world's most photographed bridge, the Golden Gate is one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the World, and its 746-foot red-orange towers never fail to thrill—even when they're peeking out through a shroud of white fog. From the east side walkway, you can take in the soaring 4,200-foot spanner, the city skyline, Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. East sidewalk hours are 5am–6:30pm (5am–9pm during Daylight Saving Time). Those on two wheels can access the bridge 24 hours a day through a security gate from both the west and east sidewalks. Hours vary for east/west sides; check goldengatebridge.org/bikesbridge/bikes.php for schedule. Whichever route you choose, be sure to wear layers: Even if it's sunny in your neck of the woods, the bridge can be sub-arctic.
San Francisco's collective backyard, Golden Gate Park stretches for three miles between Haight-Ashbury and the Pacific Ocean and encompasses 1,017 acres of gardens, walking paths, lakes, recreation fields, museums, a Japanese tea garden, and innumerable areas for music events and recreational sports. The 1878 Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest building in the park and the oldest Victorian glass greenhouse in the Western Hemisphere. The Koret Children's Quarter, built in 1887, is the oldest municipal children's playground in the country, revamped a few years ago into a state-of-the-art play park. The de Young Fine Arts Museum and the California Academy of Sciences anchor the quadrant between 9th Ave. and John F. Kennedy Drive, where on Sundays the main drive is closed to cars and strollers, bicyclists and rollerskaters take over the streets. At the western edge of the park where it meets the Pacific, the popular Beach Chalet and Park Chalet are great destination dining spots offering spectacular ocean views, house-brewed ales, and local fare.
The sixth of 21 California missions built along El Camino Real (the King's Highway), Mission Dolores was founded by Spanish padres in 1776 and is the oldest building in San Francisco—its four-foot-thick adobe walls having withstood both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. The old church is all that remains of a compound that once housed more than 4,000 padres and converts (mostly Costanoan Indians). Almost everything in the interior is original, from the redwood logs that hold up the roof to the ornate altars brought here from Mexico. The small museum, which offers volunteer-led tours, includes a pretty cemetery and garden, where the city's first mayor and notable early Spanish settlers are buried, along with the unmarked mass grave of 5,000 Native Americans. For film buffs, it's also the spot where an entranced Kim Novak visits the grave of the mysterious Carlotta Valdes in Hitchcock's Vertigo.