Painted Ladies Houses, San Francisco, California
Photograph: Shutterstock

The best attractions in San Francisco to put on your bucket list

These amazing attractions in San Francisco showcase the city’s unique history and incredible beauty

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Stretch those calves, because boy are you about to get those steps in! This Northern Californian city boasts more than 50 inclines and they're so steep that you can't see the other side of the street from the bottom of most of them. But don't let that put you off. Given San Francisco's position at the tip of a peninsula, it's actually very walkable. In fact, it's only seven miles wide and seven deep, so you can easily take it in on foot. Of course, if you'd rather not, there's the Muni (public transport network), bikes and three cable cars. Parking is nigh on impossible, so don't bother with the wagon.

Plan your days right, and you can tick off all these top attractions, from the Golden Gate in the north to the beautiful Bay in the east and everything in between. The city has Michelin-starred dining and hole-in-the-wall winners alike, as well as museums, surprising architecture, sports teams, and diverse neighborhoods. You might even feel an earthquake while you’re here (there are hundreds of small ones each year). Here’s our pick of the unmissable bits of San Francisco to put on your bucket list—whether you're a tourist or a local. Enjoy.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in San Francisco

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Best San Francisco attractions

  • Things to do
  • Presidio

When people think of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is usually the first thing that comes to mind and for good reason. The iconic suspension bridge famous for its art deco elements, 746-foot tall towers, and distinct International Orange color (which would have been black and yellow stripes had the Navy had its way when it was completed in 1937), is just as stunning when glistening in the sunlight as it is when peeking out of the fog. There’s nothing quite like walking over the bridge, which pedestrians can do between 5am and 6:30pm/9pm depending on the season.But it’s also impressive when viewed from afar; Crissy FieldFort PointBaker Beach, and the Marin Headlands all offer excellent vantage points to take pictures and help keep its status as the most photographed bridge in the world.

  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • San Francisco

One of the most famous prisons in the world, the rocky island of Alcatraz was once home to well-known criminals like Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud, and other convicts who were considered violent, dangerous, or escape risks. Converted from a lighthouse station to a military prison and then a federal prison in 1934, these days ‘The Rock’ is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions with tours frequently selling out weeks in advance. It’s worth planning ahead though in order to be able to take a quick ferry ride to the island where you can take a self-guided audio tour narrated by former inmates and guards sharing stories about escape plans and prison riots, or opt for a professionally guided tour where you’ll explore less traveled areas. For a more intimate and slightly creepy experience, take a night tour, which includes a guided boat tour around the island, as well as behind-the-scenes tours that aren’t offered during the day. 

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  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Presidio

Transformed in 2001 from a defunct Army airstrip to an ecologically rich shoreline national park, this 100-acre waterfront offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Marin Headlands. You’ll enjoy easy hiking, beaches, beautiful picnic areas, and wild open spaces like Crissy Marsh where you can birdwatch. You can walk or ride the Bay Trail all the way to Fort Point at the foot of the bridge, a masonry seacoast fortification built just before the Civil War. On foggy days, make a pit stop at the Warming Hut for warm beverages, organic soups and sandwiches, and one of the best selections of unique San Francisco souvenirs around. If you’re eager for more activities along the route, check out the Movement climbing gym in a former airplane hangar, or bring a kite and get it soaring.

4. California Academy of Sciences

This unique attraction in San Francisco features an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and a natural history museum all in one place. Inside the California Academy of Sciences lies the 'world's largest all-digital planetarium', so there's no doubt you'll be spoilt for choice when it comes to your visit here. From Claude, the American alligator with albinism to the African Penguin exhibit, there's also plenty to see in the aquarium. It's an ideal day out for the whole family – just don't forget the snacks. 

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  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • SoMa

A visit to the historic Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street offers something for everyone, especially those looking to indulge in some of the city’s most delicious food. Go on Tuesday or Thursday from 10am to 2pm or Saturday from 8am to 2pm to experience a huge farmers market where regional farmers and ranchers sell vegetables, flowers, meats and other small batch bites. Then head inside to shop for artisanal products from merchants like Acme Bread Company, Donut Farm, El Porteño Empanadas, Far West Fungi, and Heath Ceramics. Finally, no visit to the Ferry Building is complete without a meal at one of the food stalls or restaurants, like Charles Phan’s favored Vietnamese restaurant the Slanted Door, the popular Hog Island Oyster Company, or beloved burger spot Gott’s Roadside.

  • Things to do
  • Golden Gate Park
Twenty percent larger than New York’s Central Park and just as iconic, Golden Gate Park is 1000+ acres of rolling hills, groves of trees, gardens and hidden treasures. Stretching from the “Panhandle”—the long, skinny section of the park that once served as an experimental planting area—to the edge of Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park contains a number of San Francisco’s best landmarks including the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers (a Victorian-era glass greenhouse) and the ultra-green, ultra-brainy Academy of Science. Recreational options in the park include hiking trails, a disk golf course and bocce ball courts. Kids will go crazy for the enchanting playground at Koret Children’s Quarter and its century-old carousel.
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  • Things to do
  • Event spaces
  • Mission Dolores

The sixth of 21 California missions built along El Camino Real (the King's Highway), Mission Dolores has withstood two major earthquakes (in 1906 and 1989) to take the title of San Francisco’s oldest building. The old church is all that remains of the original 1776 Catholic compound, but almost everything in the interior is original, including beautifully repainted redwood ceiling beams and ornate Spanish-style altars. At the mission you’ll also find historic gardens and a cemetery which holds the remains of some 5,000 Miwok, Ohlone and other First Californians, including many who built the mission, as well as notable Spanish settlers and the first Mexican governor.

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  • Fisherman's Wharf

Yes, Fisherman’s Wharf caters almost entirely to the city’s visitors but there are good reasons for even the most hardened San Francisco resident to visit—including the charming vintage arcade Musée Mécanique, the USS Pampanito World War II submarine and the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s fleet of restored vintage sailing ships. At Pier 39, visit the vocal and adorable sea lions, ride the merry-go-round or shop for classic San Francisco gifts, candy and fudge. When you’ve had enough harbor excitement, indulge in clam chowder in a bread bowl or a seafood dinner at one of the historic restaurants just feet from where commercial fishermen bring in their daily catch. Afterward, treat yourself to a decadent dessert at Ghirardelli Square, home of the famed chocolatier.

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9. Barbary Coast

Once the land of the lawless where gambling, vigilante justice, and prostitution reigned, today’s Barbary Coast, though considerably less raucous, still feels reminisent of its early days. Overlapping the neighborhoods of Jackson Square, North Beach and Chinatown, a meander down the Barbary Coast Trail places you at the doorstep of a number of historical sites including Beat-era hangouts City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe, as well as Saints Peter and Paul Church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were photographed in 1954 after getting hitched at City Hall. If you’re on the lookout for something a little more adult, a number of strip clubs and other mature entertainments continue to carry the torch. 

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  • North Beach

Added to the San Francisco skyline in 1933, this monumental love letter to the city remains a welcome sight for people traveling westbound across the Bay Bridge. Named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric whose $118,000 bequest to the city resulted in the slender Art Deco tower’s construction, it stands 210 feet tall on Telegraph Hill. At the top is the tower’s observation deck with amazing 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay. An interior 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 more than two dozen artists, some of whom were disciples of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

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  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Tenderloin

In a city of hills, cable cars were once one of the most efficient ways to get around town. Invented here a century and a half ago, these days the cable cars are a National Historic Landmark still in operation with three remaining lines. Two of the lines, the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde, connect downtown with Fisherman’s Wharf and are therefore the most popular with tourists who line up at the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets. Of those two, the Powell-Hyde is the most impressive, offering views of the bay and Alcatraz. The California line goes up and over Nob Hill, which is thrilling because of the steep route. Stop by the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street to learn more about the history of this unique form of transport and to get a glimpse of the giant underground workings that power the cars.

  • Things to do
  • Alamo Square

San Francisco boasts hundreds of Painted Ladies: fancy, turreted Victorian and Edwardian homes featuring three or more paint colors. You’ll want to swing by one row of seven that are so recognizable they’re called the ‘Seven Sisters’ (or sometimes ‘Postcard Row’). The houses of 710 to 720 Steiner Street at the corner of Hayes Street have appeared in many movies, ads and television shows, including the '90s juggernaut Full House. You can’t enter any of the Painted Ladies since real people live in them, but you can get a great view and photo from the windy east-facing hillside of Alamo Square Park across the street.

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San Francisco is home to a large, historic enclave of Chinese immigrants. The Chinatown neighborhood centered around Grant Avenue and Stockton Street boasts a thriving array of shops, restaurants and storied buildings rich in life and history. Head through the ornate Gateway to Chinatown at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue with its three portals and explore the many colorful alleyways, including Ross Alley, which is home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, and Waverly Place, which has some beautiful buildings, including Tin How Temple. After, stop for food at one of the many fantastic restaurants and bakeries, like Good Mong Kok Bakery, Z & Y Restaurant and Wong Lee Bakery with its glorious egg tarts.

Though Angel Island is clearly visible in the Bay, it remains one of San Francisco’s hidden gems, which makes spending the day there (or even camping overnight) that much more special. The island (accessible only by ferry) has a fascinating and important history, notably the time from 1910 to 1940 when it was an immigration station where many Chinese immigrants were detained thanks to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Today you can still see the poems they carved into the walls of the barracks where they were forced to live. This state park was also once home to a Nike missile base. Take a guided open-air tram or jump on a Segway to explore the island. In addition, Angel Island also offers spectacular hikes, including a 5-mile loop from Ayala Cove that takes you to the top of Mount Caroline Livermore, the highest point of the island at 788 feet. Enjoy a picnic lunch while taking in views of Alcatraz, the San Francisco skyline, and three bridges: the Bay, Golden Gate and Richmond-San Rafael.

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  • Things to do
  • Parkside

Whether or not you've got kids—or big kids—in tow, there's no place quite like the zoo and San Francisco Zoo is a particular corker. Situated in the southwestern corner of the city, this 100-acre space is home to more than 2,000 exotic, endangered and rescued animals. Highlights include the meerkat habitat, three-acre African Savanna and expansive Lemur Forest. Combine your visit with a walk along Ocean Beach.

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