Best things to do in San Francisco
What is it? San Fran’s quintessential dish.
Why go? It’s common knowledge that burritos as we know them today are an American invention. And no burrito is more famous than SF’s Mission-style burrito formed in the '60s. There's still some debate as to who created the first Mission-style burrito. Taqueria La Cumbre is generally credited with the creation—they 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.
Don’t miss: An all-inclusive food tour of the Mission.
What is it? That rarest of modern American metropolises, San Francisco is crisscrossed with dozens of hiking trails.
Why go? Some treks, 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.
What is it? The city’s largest farmers' market provides a scenic home for some of the region’s most beloved artisan producers.
Why go? Indoors, you’ll find merchants like Cowgirl Creamery, Dandelion Chocolate and Fort Point Beer Company. But streetside in front of the Ferry Building is where the real action is. On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am until 2pm and Saturdays from 8am until 2pm, regional farmers and ranchers take over that space to sell fresh veggies, flowers, meats and other small-batch beauties. If you're looking for an historical overview, know that San Francisco City Guides offer regular free tours of the plaza.
Don’t miss: The itinerant food stalls on market days or at brick-and-mortar restaurants like Charles Phan’s beloved Vietnamese juggernaut the Slanted Door or the crazy-popular Hog Island Oyster Company.
What is it? The Bay Area has a bevy of intoxicating options for suds savants.
Why go? Sipping your way through San Fran's famed breweries might be the best (or at least buzziest) way to spend an afternoon. There's Almanac Beer Co. (known for its farm-to-barrel brewing techniques), Anchor Brewing Company (a pioneer dating back to 1896), the Rare Barrel (for sour-beer lovers), Fort Point Beer (an expert in low-ABV brews) and many other great breweries that will keep any hops-head happy.
Don’t miss: Anchor still offers their famed daily tours ($25 for 90 minutes with beer tastings) by reservation. But Anchor Public Taps, which opened in late 2017, lets you feast on food-truck goodies and nurse a pint without a tour.
What is it? SF MOMA is the stylish go-to for top-notch modern art.
Why go? Reopened to much fanfare in May 2016, this new-and-improved institution features a ten-story 170,000 square foot addition that nearly triples the space of its original Mario Botta-designed building. On display alongside favorites from the museum’s permanent collection are sixteen special exhibition galleries, works specially commissioned for the new museum and 45,000 square feet of ground-floor exhibits that are open to the public at no charge.
Don’t miss: The more than 30,000 internationally acclaimed paintings, sculptures and pieces from contemporary and modern artists.
What is it? Once a Jewish cemetery, today Dolores Park is one of San Francisco’s favorite warm-weather destinations.
Why go? It may be miles from the ocean, but sunny Mission Dolores Park might just be the most popular beach in San Francisco. Any weekend above 60 degrees and every green inch of the park is guaranteed to be packed with family barbecues, 20-somethings lounging on inflatable couches, hula-hoopers and tightrope walkers. Recently expanded restrooms make the convergence a little more comfortable.
Don’t miss: The southwest slope offers the best views of the downtown skyline and, since it’s also known as the Fruit Shelf, a variety of manscape.
What is it? A San Francisco institution known for its house-made ice cream, concocted from high-quality, local ingredients.
Why go? 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 Street at Hayes Street) where you can get either a scoop or a pint with somewhat less effort.
Don’t miss: Best-selling flavors like ricanelas and salted caramel often sell out, so arrive early to get a taste.
What is it? A few times a year, revelers come from all around to join in parties that consume whole neighborhoods.
Why go? The season kicks off in May with Bay to Breakers, pictured, 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.
Don’t miss: If those are too tame for you, the Folsom Street Fair in September boasts 400,000 fetish enthusiasts dancing to EDM, watching erotic performances and checking out the latest gear and toys at over 200 exhibitor booths. As with a lot of SF events, clothing is optional.
What is it? The world’s most photographed bridge (for good reason).
Why go? The expanse's 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 when passing over this span, with cityscapes on one side, nature on the other and a beautiful shock of blue below. Bikes and cars are permitted access across the bridge 24-hours a day, and walkers can cross using the east sidewalk between 5am and 6:30pm.
Don’t miss: Come prepared wearing extra layers; Karl the Fog doesn’t mess around when it comes to the Golden Gate.
What is it? Colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses that feature three or more colors.
Why go? The most famous ones—there are hundreds—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 Street. These gals have appeared in an estimated 70 movies, ads and TV shows including, yes, Full House.
Don’t miss: You 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.
What is it? Whether you’re a classical music connoisseur or can’t tell Bach from Beethoven, you’ll find something to love about the San Francisco Symphony’s film nights.
Why go? Watching a Hollywood movie on the big screen while a full orchestra performs the score is the ultimate surround sound and a glimpse of movie magic. It’s also a high-wire act for the musicians who have to stay in perfect sync scene to scene while channeling adrenaline and shmaltz.
Don’t miss: The 2018-2019 season features classics like Jurassic Park and Mary Poppins and new hits like La La Land.
What is it? An amazing showcase for all things science.
Why go? The academy offers a bit of everything for science-lovin' folks. The Morrison Planetarium is state-of-the-art, which is great for aspiring astronomers. For the marine biology set, the Steinhart Aquarium takes up the museum’s entire lower floor with exhibits like the world’s deepest living coral reef display. Are you into ecology? Check out a four-story living rainforest that boasts butterflies, birds and a variety of tropical plants.
Don’t miss: The “living roof” that is home to 1.7 million native plant species.
What is it? A chance to take in Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill and the Bay while hanging off the running boards Doris-Day-style.
Why go? In the late 1800s, San Francisco’s cable cars ran 23 routes to move people around the city’s 49 square miles. Today, though most locals have switched to more efficient modes of public transportation to get around, a ride on one of the three remaining cable car lines is still a classic San Francisco treat. Hop aboard one of these and a National Historic Landmarks and shoot back to simpler times.
Don’t miss: Make a stop at the Cable Car Museum at Mason and Washington Streets to learn more about the cars’ history and get a glimpse of the giant wheels turning the underground cables that power 'em.
What is it? Home of the San Francisco Giants with the best damn waterside views in baseball.
Why go? You don’t have to be a fan of America's pastime 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.
Don’t miss: 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.
What is it? A short boat ride out of San Francisco Bay affords you a front-row seat to one of the most spectacular wildlife migrations, when some 20,000 gray whales traveling south in January and back north in the early spring months.
Why go? From May through November, humpbacks and blue whales—the largest animals to have ever lived—frequent these anchovy-rich waters. San Francisco Whale Tours and the Oceanic Society both offer 2.5-hour whale-watching tours ($45) led by expert naturalists.
Don’t miss: For the more seaworthy, full-day expeditions circle the Farallon Islands ($99–$128), home to massive breeding colonies of sleek Common Murres and clownish Tufted Puffins. Round that out with seals and sea lions, dolphins, killer whales, and the peculiar mola mola, and you’ll feel like David Attenborough for a day.
What is it? For more than 60 years, City Lights bookstore has been a beacon of free-speech and radical ideas.
Why go? Co-founded in 1953 by poet-artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is where Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems was first published, putting the Beat Generation on the map. The creaky wooden shop 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.
Don’t miss: You’ll find the shop on the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley (so named after being renovated and reopened to the public in 2007) and across from Vesuvio Cafe, the bar where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat heavyweights once held court.
What is it? A former maximum security prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Why go? 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.
Don’t miss: To get a more creepy bang for your buck, try a night tour. Plan to spend about three-hours round trip and bring a jacket to protect you from heavy year-round fog and the agonized spirits of the island’s former residents.
What is it? The oldest and most storied enclave of Chinese immigrants outside of Asia.
Why go? After passing through the Dragon Gate at the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, get revved to explore Chinatown's historic buildings, pocket parks and shops. Considered the birthplace of American Chinese food like chop suey and fortune cookies, as well as 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.
What is it? A former military base that boasts more than two square miles of swaying eucalyptus and gorgeous views.
Why go? Every Sunday afternoon from March through October, Off the Grid takes over the seven acre Main Parade Grounds at the Presidio’s Main Post with dozens of food vendors, free lawn games, yoga, live music and more. On Thursday evenings, you can indugle in the grown-up version, which adds lantern-lit cabanas, fire pits and cocktail service to the fun.
Don’t miss: Check out the Presidio’s two outdoor Andy Goldsworthy creations: the Wood Line, which parallels Lover’s Lane, and the Spire, which towers over the Bay Area Ridge Trail.
What is it? Local architect Bernard Maybeck's pièce de résistance, this Greco-Roman rotunda is one of the only surviving structures from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
Why go? You’ll feel like you’ve stepped onto a movie set watching the swans skim across the reflections of the Greco-Roman columns and rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts. Originally constructed of wood and burlap for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, the structures were so beloved they were preserved and rebuilt in the 1960s. Bonus: The Palace is an easy, descending walk from the also-picturesque Lyon Street Steps.
Don’t miss: For a serene stroll—that is, unless you enjoy photobombing wedding photos—visit on a weekday, or in the evenings when spotlights set the columns aglow.
What is it? Twenty percent larger than New York’s Central Park and just as iconic, Golden Gate Park is 1,000-plus acres of rolling hills, groves of trees, gardens and hidden treasures.
Why go? 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.
What is it? A massive museum for the child in everyone.
Why go? At its home on the Embarcadero waterfront, this 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—are worth returning for again and again.
Don’t miss: Upstairs on the second floor, the glass and steel Bay Observatory and the sustainable seafood restaurant Seaglass offer a more sweet views of the Bay.
What is it? 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.
Why go? 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 Street), Clarion Alley (at Valencia Street), Balmy Alley (at 24th Street), Horace Alley (at 25th Street), Cypress and Lilac Alleys (at 26th Street) and Osage Alley (at 25th Street).
Don’t miss: Keep an eye out for Mary Nash’s Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists on Balmy Alley.
What is it? The chance to dress up and belt out Hollywood hits en masse.
Why go? What started out 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 biggest 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.
Don’t miss: Come dressed to impress—a raucous costume contest kicks off each showing.
What is it? The birthplace of the famed drink, right in Fisherman’s Wharf.
Why go? 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.
Don’t miss: 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.
What is it? The chance to take in the city's rich LGBTQ culture (and a few drinks).
Why go? 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.
Don’t miss: For great live music, try Bernal Heights’ Latin-themed former Brazilian leather-cum-lesbian bar, El Rio.
What is it? A mecca for music aficionados in the Haight.
Why go? Though founders Marc Weinstein and Dave Prinz opened their first record store in Berkeley in 1990, it’s the this San Francisco location that has become a national treasure. That’s largely due to its luxurious size: It’s set in a 24,000-square-foot former bowling alley. That means you’ll find thousands of records in every genre, from hip-hop to jazz, world music to rock.
Don’t miss: The free gigs! Amoeba regularly hosts gratis in-store performances from top-tier indie rockers.
What is it? 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.
Why go? Don't come here looking for New York–style pizza. This is Gemingnani's paean to Napoli, complete with ten different kinds of pizza baked in seven different ovens, ranging in temperature from 550 to 1,000 degrees. Crowds line up sometimes hours to sample one of these perfectly blistered creations. And there are no reservations, so put in your name and be prepared to wait.
Don’t miss: Heavenly Tomato Pie, with hand-crushed tomato sauce and cooked in a coal-fired oven, and the Margherita, with San Felice-flour dough and San Marzano tomatoes.
What is it? A gem sprawling across 55 acres in Golden Gate Park that's packed with the city's microclimates.
Why go? From high-elevation cloud forests of Southeast Asia to California native wildflowers, the garden is able to support a global range of plant-life without greenhouses. You don’t have to leave the city to walk among fog-loving giant Redwoods and Sequoias—the tallest living things on Earth—then turn a corner to admire a hillside of sun-worshiping succulents.
Don’t miss: The Ancient Plant Garden, where you’ll encounter “living fossils” like giant ferns and gingko that were contemporaries of the dinosaurs.
What is it? An old church where you can roller skate to funky beats.
Why go? 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. It's the most spiritual of skating experiences.
Don’t miss: Want to take the party outside? On Fridays, the Rollers host an alfresco 12-mile skate that kicks off at Ferry Plaza.
What is it? At the flagship Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf, tangy loaves are still made from a mother dough first cultivated here in 1849.
Why go? Discovered by Gold Rush-era bakers, 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 even been named after the city—and this is the place to sample sourdough, period.
Don’t miss: Watching the bread-making process from the railing overlooking the showcase kitchen, sampling it at the café, and buying a few loaves to bring home with you.
What is it? 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.
Why go? 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.
Don’t miss: A rotunda at its base, which is covered in Depression-era WPA murals depicting socialist images that were painted by more than two dozen artists, some of whom studied under Diego Rivera.
What is it? An homage to turn-of-the-century mechanization, with more than 200 coin-operated games.
Why go? A museum in name only, everything at the Musée Mécanique can, and should, be played with. Many of of these amusements 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.
Don’t miss: 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.
What is it? Where to see a plethora of playful, barking California sea lions.
Why go? It wasn’t until after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that 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.
Don’t miss: A naturalist provides commentary and answers questions daily between 11am and 4pm, weather permitting.
What is it? A Mission bakery where you can munch on tried-and-true pie varieties baked to perfection, from the creamy pumpkin to the oat-walnut crumble-topped apple.
Why go? 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. And it’s still worth the wait.
Don’t miss: Don't have time to queue? At 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.
What is it? The Ellis Island of the West.
Why go? The lesser-known cousin of Alcatraz, Angel Island is a hidden gem that serves up a perfect mix of history and nature for an easy day-trip from the city. Tour the U.S. Immigration Station, where over a million Chinese immigrants were processed from 1910 to 1940 and sometimes detained for years. (Chinese poetry can still be seen carved into the walls of the barracks.)
Don’t miss: Afterwards, hike to the summit of Mt. Livermore, bike the 5-mile Perimeter Trail, or take a break at several picnic sites.
What is it? A one-of-a-kind theater for blowing your sonic mind.
Why go? 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.
Don’t miss: Relaxing, opening your ears and embarking on one hell of a trip.
What is it? An oasis of tranquility, right in the Tenderloin.
Why go? Onsen (the Japanese word for hot spring) offers a one-two punch of chill in the form of a traditional Japanese bath and dining experience. The bath ($35), in a converted auto body shop, has a communal tub, sauna and steam rooms, cold plunge, and a range of massage and acupuncture treatments.
Don’t miss: After a good soak, settle into the intimate dining room for carefully curated small plates, like silky egg custard with uni and mushroom dumplings with yam puree.
What is it? Nearly 400 different stairways, some of them built more than a century ago, that connect San Francisco’s 42 hills.
Why go? 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 Street and Broadway) to the delightful, garden-accented Pemberton Steps (starting at Corbett and Clay Streets). 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.
Don’t miss: The Filbert Street Steps, arguably the most spectacular of them all, climbs through tropical gardens from the bottom of Sansome Street to Coit Tower in North Beach.
What is it? A weather phenom that every visitor should experience.
Why go? 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. 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.
Don’t miss: 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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Going out and doing things satisfies our need to explore, to learn and to grow (and then to brag about it on social media). Our hope is that the DO List becomes not just your bucket list, but your inspiration to experience and appreciate the corners of magic in the world.