November 2019: San Francisco may only measure 49 square miles, but this beautiful city offers endless options when it comes to eating, drinking, and exploring. The best way to truly see the city is to put on your most comfortable walking shoes and just get out there and explore; that’s when you’ll discover hidden tiled staircases, colorful murals, cozy cafes with tasty treats, and views upon views upon views. But while exploring on your own is always a satisfying adventure, there are certain San Francisco attractions that consistently delight and are a must-see for tourists and locals alike. Here are the top 14, all of which we think perfectly explain why this magical City by the Bay is one of the most popular places to visit in the world.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in San Francisco
Best San Francisco attractions
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 Field, Fort Point, Baker 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.
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.
A visit to the historic Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street offer 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 the city’s largest farmers market where regional farmers and ranchers sell vegetables, flowers, meats and other small batch bites. After, head inside to shop for artisanal products from merchants like Acme Bread Company, Cowgirl Creamery, Dandelion Chocolate, Glassybaby, and Frog Hollow Farm. Finally, no visit to the Ferry Building isn’t complete with 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.
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.
In a city of hills, cable cars were once one of the most efficient ways to get around town. These days, the nation's only moving national monument is still a classic 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 on Powell and Market Street. 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, but less satisfying for those looking for that iconic SF cable car photo. Stop by the Cable Car Museum at Washington 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.
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 National Maritime Historical Park’s fleet of restored vintage sailing ships and the USS Pampanito submarine. 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.
San Francisco is home to the oldest and largest enclave of Chinese immigrants outside of Asia. This neighborhood centered around Grant and Stockton Avenues is also the most densely populated area west of Manhattan and is home to a thriving community of shops, restaurants, and storied buildings rich in life and history. Head through the ornate Dragon Gate at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue (the only authentic Chinatown Gate in North America) 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 Taoist Temple. After, stop for food at one of the many fantastic restaurants and bakeries, like Hunan Home’s Restaurant, Good Mong Kok Bakery, Z & Y Restaurant, and Golden Gate Bakery (famous for its egg tarts).
Transformed in 2001 from a defunct Army airstrip to an ecologically rich recreation area, this 4.3-mile water-front promenade offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Marin Headlands. Walk or ride the groomed trail (several nearby outfitters offer bike rentals) stopping to watch the kite surfers, sailboats, and fishermen, and then continue all the way to Fort Point, a masonry seacoast fortification built just before the Civil War, but never came under enemy fire. 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 House of Air Indoor Trampoline Park or Planet Granite climbing gym, or bring a kite and try your hand at flying it.
When the fog is on the move, Land’s End can truly feel like the edge of the world. Until it was covered by a landslide in 1925, the Cliff House Steam Rail carried visitors from town out to the coast to swim at the Sutro Baths or have a meal at the scenic Cliff House restaurant. While you can still enjoy tasty provisions (and free popovers with your order) at the Cliff House, you’ll find only ruins of the railroad and former bath, begging to be explored. Walk the popular Coastal Trail to take in some of the best water views in the city and find the hidden Labyrinth at Eagle Point.
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 and 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.
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 tower’s construction, the slender art deco tower stands 210-feet tall above Telegraph Hill. At the top is the tower’s observation deck with amazing 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.
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 the beautifully patterned redwood ceiling beams and ornate Mexican altars. At the mission you’ll also find a small museum and a cemetery (one of only two remaining in the San Francisco city limits) which holds the remains of notable Spanish settlers, the city’s first mayor and the unmarked mass grave of thousands of Native Americans.
San Francisco boasts hundreds of “Painted Ladies,” Victorian and Edwardian domiciles featuring three or more colors, but there’s one row that’s so recognizable it’s simply referred to as “the Painted Ladies” (or sometimes “Postcard Row”). The houses of 710 to 720 Steiner street at the corner of Hayes street have appeared in an estimated 70 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 across the street.
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. Today you can still see the poems they carved into the walls of the barracks where they were forced to live. Take a guided tram or Segway tour to learn more about the island’s history. In addition, Angel Island also offers spectacular hikes, with over 13 miles of foot trails, including a 6-mile loop that takes you to the top of Mt. Livermore, the highest point of the island at 788 feet, and is the perfect stop to enjoy a picnic lunch while taking in views of Alcatraz, the San Francisco skyline, and both the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge.