The best things to do in San Francisco for locals and tourists

A guide to the best things to do in San Francisco—from the city's top restaurants and shops to museums and attractions
Powell California
San Francisco
By Time Out contributors and Sarah Medina |
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There's tons of fun things to do in San Francisco, but we took on the seemingly impossible task of narrowing the city's endless offerings down to a list of the top things to do. Among them are some of San Francisco’s most iconic attractions—things like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz that lure nearly 17 million visitors to the city every year. These world-renowned spots are worth visiting (or revisiting) even if you’ve lived here for years; as are the hidden gems like the Seward Slides and Jack Early Park. And then there’s the best restaurants in San Francisco that keep us coming back time and again for a taste of the best dishes SF has to offer.

Best things to do in San Francisco

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Golden Gate Bridge
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/yuyang226
Things to do

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

icon-location-pin Presidio

The world’s most photographed bridge and its iconic 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 spanbikes 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.

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Ferry Building Marketplace
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ken Lund
Shopping, Markets and fairs

Forage for fresh produce at the Ferry Building

icon-location-pin SoMa

A food mecca that rivals Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market, the Ferry Building hosts both the city’s largest tri-weekly farmer’s 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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Powell California
Things to do, Walks and tours

Ride on a rolling landmark

icon-location-pin Tenderloin

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 stop-over 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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La Taqueria
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/ stu_spivack

Belly up for a Mission burrito

There’s still some debate as to who created the first Mission-style burrito. Taqueria La Cumbre is generally credited with the creationthey introduced the tortilla wrapped combination of beans, rice, meat and cheese in 1969. Their neighborhood competitor, El Faro (2399 Folsom St), also claims have to have originated the delicacy, serving it up to local firefighters as early as 1961. If you want the best, though, head to La Taqueria (2989 Mission St), which consistently appears on top restaurant lists year after year thanks to its behemoth, rice-free foil-wrapped bombs.


For a food tour of La Mission, click here

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5
City Lights
Shopping, Bookstores

Feel the Beat at City Lights

icon-location-pin Chinatown

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 98, 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 center of progressive politics and indie literary voices, which it stocks alongside a huge inventory of new and used fiction and nonfiction. 

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Presidio
Photograph: Hans Kwiotek

Picnic in the Presidio

Every Sunday afternoon from March through October, the seven acre Main Parade Grounds at the Presidio’s Main Post comes 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.

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7
The Church of 8 Wheels
Photograph courtesy of Aimee Bruckner
Nightlife

Roller skate in a church

icon-location-pin Lower Haight

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. $10 buys you entrance to this most spiritual of skating experiences.

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Alcatraz
Things to do, Walks and tours

Take a night tour of Alcatraz Island

icon-location-pin San Francisco

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.

For a tour of Alcatraz and San Francisco City, click here

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9
Yuet Lee
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/ G M

Explore the country’s largest Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is both the oldest and largest enclave of Chinese immigrants outside of Asia. Explore its historic buildings, pocket parks and shops by passing through the Dragon Gate at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue. Considered the birthplace of American Chinese food like chop suey and fortune cookies and credited with introducing dim sum to the Western palate, you’d be remiss not to stop for a bite at an eatery like Hunan Home’s Restaurant or Good Mong Kok Bakery. Don’t miss the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley), where some 20,000 fortune cookies are made every day—folded by hand as they come off an ancient-looking cookie conveyor belt.

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Castro Theatre
Photograph: Hans Kwiotek
Movie theaters, Independent

Sing along to The Sound of Music

icon-location-pin The Castro

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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Golden Gate Park
Things to do

Skate or bike through Golden Gate Park

icon-location-pin 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.

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San Francisco Giants

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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Fisherman's Wharf
Photograph: Hans Kwiotek
Restaurants, Bistros

Discover the secrets of sourdough

icon-location-pin Fisherman's Wharf

Discovered by Gold Rush-era bakers in the 1840s, sourdough became so beloved so quickly that miners seeking their fortune in the nearby Sierra Nevadas snuggled up to their yeast starters (“mothers”) on cold nights to keep them alive. The bacteria responsible for the sour flavor, lactobacilli sanfranciscensis, has since been named after the city and the grand-”mother” of them all has been producing loaves at the flagship Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf since 1849. There you can watch the bakers wrangle the bread in the showcase kitchen and sample it for yourself. Continue on to a few of our favorite bakeries to sample other local interpretations of sourdough or learn how to make your own in a class at Sour Flour in the Mission.

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Macondray Lane
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/ Jeremy Rover

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 St and Broadway) to the delightful, garden-accented Pemberton Steps (starting at Corbett and Clay Sts). 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 Sts) 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.

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Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
Restaurants, Pizza

Try award-winning Neapolitan pizza

icon-location-pin North Beach

Tony Gemingnani, the first American to win the World Champion Pizza Maker title in Naples, has made his namesake pizzeria one of North Beach’s top destination dining spots, with crowds lining up sometimes hours to sample one of his perfectly blistered creations. Ten different kinds of pizza are baked in seven different ovens, ranging in temperature from 550 to 1,000 degrees. No reservations, so put in your name and be prepared to wait. (Or try your luck at one of the other top pie joints in town.)

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MaestraPeace
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Kate Friedman

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 St), Clarion Alley (at Valencia St), Balmy Alley (at 24th St), Horace Alley (at 25th St), Cypress and Lilac alleys (at 26th St) and Osage Alley (at 25th St). 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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17
Buena Vista Cafe
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Jeremy Marshall

Sip Irish coffee at the Buena Vista

Although the Buena Vista has been slinging drinks for seafaring folk since 1916, it wasn’t until 1952 that the cafe got its big break. That year Joe Sheridan, an Irish chef, invented the Irish Coffee. These days, the restaurant’s white-jacketed bartenders serve up to 2,000 of the frothy, whiskey concoctions daily from behind the long, mahogany bar. Alongside their specialty, the Buena Vista has a menu full featuring a variety of seafood options like clam chowder and Dungeness crab cakes befitting of its Fisherman’s Wharf location.

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Hiking Mount Davidson
Photograph: Aaron Yabes

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.

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El Rio
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Amy Halverson
Bars, Dive bars

Feel the LGBTQ beat

icon-location-pin Bernal Heights

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 legalize gay marriage—remains a major LGBTQ epicenter. 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 The Stud or SF Eagle. For great live music, try Bernal Heights’ latin-themed former Brazilian leather bar cum lesbian bar, El Rio.

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Public Works

Feel the pulse of the city’s nightlife scene

icon-location-pin Mission

Public Works opened in 2010 and has quickly become a staple of SF nightlife with a mission to “give the people what they want.” Bouncy, foot-friendly dance floors, a top-of-the-line sound system by Funktion-One, an occasional pop-up art gallery of rotating art, great drinks with or without alcohol, and an upstairs loft for a party within a party all come together for the city’s liveliest local and international underground scene.

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Ice cream in a cup
Restaurants, Ice cream parlors

Try salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite

icon-location-pin Mission Dolores

Other artisan ice cream shops have come and gone but Bi-Rite is still a favorite for San Franciscans and visitors, alike. At its original creamery in the Mission, a line cues for a taste of Bi-Rite’s most beloved flavors including salted caramel, balsamic strawberry and olive oil. If you don’t want to wait, grab a pint to go from Bi-Rite’s grocery across the street or head up to their NoPa location (Divisadero St at Hayes St) where you can get either a scoop or a pint with somewhat less effort.

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Coit Tower
Things to do, Event spaces

Admire the view from Coit Tower

icon-location-pin North Beach

Added to the San Francisco skyline in 1933, this monumental love letter to the city remains an iconic welcome for travelers 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 180 feet tall at the crest of Telegraph Hill. At 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.

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IMG_2926
Museums, Special interest

Play a vintage arcade game at Musée Mécanique

icon-location-pin Fisherman's Wharf

A museum in name only, everything at the Musée Mécanique can, and should, be played with. At this homage to turn-of-the-century mechanization, 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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Exploratorium
Museums, Science and technology

Expand your mind at the Exploratorium

icon-location-pin North Beach

The Exploratorium is a museum for the child in everyone. At its massive home on the Embarcadero waterfront, this fifty 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.

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Sea lions at Pier 39
Photograph: Courtesy Aquarium of the Bay

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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California Academy of Sciences
Museums, Science and technology

Walk through a living rainforest

icon-location-pin Golden Gate Park

True to its name, the Academy 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-story living rainforest which is home to butterflies, birds and a variety of 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.

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27
Alamo Square
Photograph: Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel
Things to do

Admire the city’s Painted Ladies

icon-location-pin Alamo Square

San Francisco boasts hundreds of “Painted Ladies,” colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses featuring three or more colors that enhance elements of their architecture. The most famous can be found in NoPa, the Lower Haight, Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley neighborhoods 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 St. 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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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, theater-goers are left in darkness to be bathed in “sound sculptures” from the 176 speakers surrounding the circular 49-seat theater. 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.

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Cliff House
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/kiltron
Things to do

Brunch overlooking the Pacific

icon-location-pin Outer Richmond

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—and soft, airy popovers. 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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Restaurants, Bakeries

Get baked at Tartine

icon-location-pin Mission Dolores

Tartine’s master bakers, husband and wife team Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt, have taken home numerous local and national awards for their rustic approach to pastry and bread. The line around the block of food lovers seeking heavenly croque monsieurs, fresh fruit bread puddings, frangipane tarts and their famous crusty country bread hasn’t budged since the bakery opened in 2002. It’s worth the wait. At their newest business endeavour, Tartine Manufactory, you’ll find Robertson and Prueitt’s beloved baked goods along with some of the city’s best artisan ice cream, coffee and more.

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Picasa 3.0

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.

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Benu
Photograph: Courtesy Benu/Andria Lo

Eat at one of the world’s best restaurants

In 2017, the prestigious organization that votes each year for the world’s 50 best restaurants selected San Francisco’s contemporary Japanese-fusion powerhouse Saison as its number 37. On the top 100 list two other SF spots make the grade: Benu (#67) and Atelier Crenn (#83). Benu and Saison, along with the California-Italian cuisine Financial District landmark Quince, each received three Michelin stars this year, the respected guide’s top honor.

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Lands End labyrinth at Mile Rock Beach
Photograph: Flickr/Aaron Harmon

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, like 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 favorites include the trails at Mt. Davidson, Lands End, Bernal Heights Park and Buena Vista Park.

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Bay to Breakers in Golden Gate Park
Photograph: Yelp/ Mark V

Embrace debauchery at a public event

A few times a year revelers come from all around to join in parties that consume whole neighborhoods. 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), rage in an alcohol fueled 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 most SF events, clothing is optional.

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