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

San Francisco

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

1

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

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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Presidio
2

Forage for fresh produce at the Ferry Building

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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SoMa
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3

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 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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Tenderloin
4
Belly up for a Mission burrito

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

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 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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Chinatown
6
Picnic in the Presidio

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

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

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Lower Haight
8

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.

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

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San Francisco
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9
Explore the country’s largest Chinatown

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.

10

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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The Castro
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11

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.

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Golden Gate Park
12
Root for the 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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13

Discover the secrets of sourdough

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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Fisherman's Wharf
14
Climb a secret stairway

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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15

Try award-winning Neapolitan pizza

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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North Beach
16
Tour the murals of the Mission

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
Sip Irish coffee at the Buena Vista

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.

18
Frolic in the fog

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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19

Feel the LGBTQ 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 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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Bernal Heights
20

Feel the pulse of the city’s nightlife scene

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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Mission
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Comments

22 comments
jakky j

San Francisco is a most precious city of visit in the USA. It  has plenty most astonishing sights to  have fun to their visitors. I love this city due to its most fabulous natural and places. I also have a plan to go there after finishing my  http://www.bestbustours.com/2-days-from-new-york-to-niagara-falls-and-thousand-islands-bus-tour.html to enjoy some time with mates. We will stay there for two days. I must prefer your shared all these interesting things during my journey  I am sure that it will b a really great time for me and will came back with many pleasant memories. 

Deborah H

Tour operators and travel writers always forget the Victorians, but they are one of the most famous sights of San Francisco that are a favorite for locals. They deserve to get World Heritage listing. 


I wrote a book about the coded Victorians of Haight Ashbury with a real Holy Grail in America twist. 


www.codedhaightashbury.com


Blog http://decodedhistory.blogspot.com


Deborah Hodgson


Investigative Writer and Art Historian


tran q

btw im an sf residentzzz

Angie A

There are some great ideas here , maybe some of you can help me decide! I am coming to the city via Bart on Thursday with my 2 kids (ages 16 and 12) for the Giants game. We are staying the night in SOMA and will have until about 1:00pm on Friday before we have to head home. I would like to make the most of our time on Friday with something affordable that we can all enjoy. Please keep in mind that we will be relying on public transportation. I love the idea of a museum or the secret stairways, but am open to just about anything! Thanks in advance!

Rolo K

Playing with Bay Area Bubble Soccer in Golden Gate Park is pretty awesome too.

Joseph M

As a native I  can say most these recommendations are over rated and TOURISTY.   But, SF has become one of the most filthiest cities in America, from Golden Gate Park, Powell BART Station to the Embarcadero the city has become a cesspool of human waste, its a shame.

Eduardo S

Maybe you should live in a cave

Lisette M

Rooftop gardens - parrots of Telegraph - stairs through Pacific Heights - trail from GGB to the Cliff House - the Boom Boom Room on Geary - the Tonga Room at the Fairmont.

Mark M

A solid list, though anyone looking for a stairway at Corbett and Clay is going to find they don't intersect (it's Clayton).  Also, the city only has 49 square miles in mythology, the real city having 47.  What the list misses is one of the city's best treats, its diverse collection of walkable neighborhoods.   Just pick one and start walking.   Almost all have views, colorful architecture, ethnic diversity, good food, and varied shopping.   Even the tourist-trappy Haight can be fun for an afternoon of tie-dye and incense.   The Mission is a fascinating layer cake of established working class Latino life, radical leftist bookstores, and contemporary hipsters.   And the Castro is an eyeful even for straight folks (of which there are more all the time.)   Head out to the Richmond or Inner Sunset to see where the other Chinese immigrants live, the ones who can afford to move out of cramped Chinatown.   The Richmond also has the city's Russian and Korean businesses and restaurants. 


Oh, and I've lived here 27 years and always found the police amiable and helpful.   Parking can be difficult, but it is far from impossible, with plenty of garages in the most touristy areas.   The residential areas can be tougher, but a bit of patience will usually turn up a legal spot.   If not, plan your trip to park nearby and ride Muni to where you're going.   The underground is fast, reasonably clean, and very safe.   And great for people watching.   The F Market historic streetcars are also a great way to get from downtown to either the Wharf (if you must) or the Castro.   Taking the N Judah to Irving and 9th Avenue gets you within a few blocks of Golden Gate Park's major sites, including the museums, arboretum, and Japanese Tea Garden.   A worthwhile tourist destination that surprisingly few visit is Mission Dolores.   Unsurprisingly, it's in the Mission.   Of all the California missions it is one of the best preserved, if on the small side.  The adjacent churchyard is one of the very few cemeteries in San Francisco and was the setting for a scene in Vertigo.   Some of the best Mission murals are nearby and plenty of interesting shops and good restaurants (and taquerias).   You could easily spend an afternoon and evening within half a mile of Mission Dolores (hipster bar central being the stretch of 16th west of Mission St. 


Hope this gives a few more ideas.   I'm still finding new places after all these years.

David C

I thought your comments were spot on

Gregory W

Yank Sing is over priced. You can get much better dim sum for 1/2 the price in Chinatown or on Clement.

Richard J

San Fran is a tourist trap cesspool with aggressive vagrants and even more aggressive cops waiting to ticket you on every corner. Any event will mean parking he**. I live an hour away and will likely never return there- the few nice restaurants are hardly worth all the trouble.

Justin D

SF cops are actually the more easy going cops than any cities in the Bay Area idiot. Although, you wouldn't know that.. Probably why those "few nice restaurants" you have in mind are for the transports and hipsters. Our REAL best restaurants actually aren't in areas where parking is hard to find. Hahaha "San Fran"! Nice transport lingo.

yana K

Some therapy is seriously needed for you. Have you been to New York or Chicago? We have mellow cops and you can use parking garages you know. SF has the best restaurants in the US. Look it up. If you want open parking and Panda Express Chinese, go to Modesto or Fresno.

Rachel A

@Justin D Where are the REAL best restaurants?  I am visiting soon and LOVE SF and would love to know some great local retreats.