There are countless things to do in this city, but in homage to its compact size of 49 square miles, we’ve narrowed it down to just shy of 50, curating a list of the very best things to do in San Francisco. From Alcatraz to vintage streetcars, iconic San Francisco attractions lure nearly 17 million visitors every year—but that doesn’t mean they’re just for tourists. Even the most jaded locals never tire of admiring iconic landmarks like the sweeping span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Crammed with top-notch restaurants, artisanal coffee shops, sidewalk cafés, unusual and excellent museums, pocket gardens, hidden stairways, and eclectic shops, the city invites exploration. San Francisco events such as the zany Bay to Breakers race, sing-along musicals, and the colorful, cacophonous Chinese New Year parade tap into the unique local character. Whether you’re new to the city or just looking for new ideas, this list should provide plenty of inspiration.
Best things to do in San Francisco
Walking or biking across the bridge is a bucket-list must-do for locals and visitors alike. From the east side walkway, you can take in the soaring 746-foot towers, the city skyline, the Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. The most photographed bridge in the world, the Golden Gate never fails to thrill—even when it’s shrouded in a blanket of fog.
For a guided tour from the Golden Gate Bridge to Baker Beach, click here.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays until 2pm, hordes of food-obsessed locals can be found combing the crowded aisles and produce stands of the Ferry Building Marketplace, where 75 regional farmers and artisan food purveyors offer a dizzying array of organic fruit and vegetables, and gourmet goodies from olive oils, meat, cheese and bread to chocolate, jams and flowers. In addition to the tri-weekly farmer's market, homegrown brands such as Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery, Hog Island Oyster Co. and Blue Bottle Coffee sell from permanent stalls.
For a private tasting and tour of Ferry Building, click here.
The aromas coming from the steamed and fried dumplings at Yank Sing are so tantalizing, you'll likely gobble them down before finding out what's in them. Exceptionally fresh and flavorful dim sum is undoubtedly what keeps this longtime restaurant thriving in an unlikely corner of a massive office complex. Ordering is half the fun: Just point at what looks good as the waiters roll their carts past your table. Favorites include shanghai dumplings with pork, scallion, ginger and a shot of hot broth, stuffed crab claws, and goldfishdumplings filled with crunchy shrimp and bamboo shoot tips.
A few dollars can buy you a slow rollercoaster ride on an officially designated historic landmark. San Francisco's cable cars are a relic of the pre-automotive age, built to scale the precipitous slopes that were too steep for horses. Three cable car lines leave from Union Square and the end of California Street, traveling at top speeds of 9 mph through Chinatown, Nob Hill and Russian Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf. For extra thrills, hang off on the running boards and ride Doris Day–style. You may even get a bell-ringing serenade from the conductor.
For a guided tour of San Francisco and its historic cable cars, click here.
Belly up for a Mission burrito
As any San Franciscan knows, the Mission District is the epicenter of the eponymous Mexican wrap. The steamed tortilla—packed with some combination of meat, cheese, beans, rice, guacamole and salsa fresca—was first introduced in the city circa 1969 at La Cumbre Taqueria (515 Valencia St at 16th St, 415-863-8205). Now dozens of taquerias have their devotees for “the best” Mission Burrito. Most people agree you can’t go wrong with Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission St near 19th St, 415-252-9560), Pancho Villa (3071 16th St at Valencia St, 415-864-8840), El Farolito (2777 Mission St at 24th St, 415-826-4870), or—our favorite—La Taqueria, where the behemoth foil-wrapped bombs are filled with beans, cheese, salsa and meats ranging from carne and pollo asada to carnitas (but no rice).
For a food tour of La Mission, click here.
A bookshop and temple to the anti-authority Beat Generation, City Lights was cofounded in 1953 by bard/publisher/artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who still keeps the candle dripping over the chianti bottle well into his nineties. It was here that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems was first published and Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges, putting the Beats on the map. The nation’s first all-paperback bookstore is still a hub for progressive politics, fiction, music, philosophy, and all manner of poetry and indie literary voices. Appropriately, it’s located along Kerouac Alley and next to Vesuvio Café, the bar where Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and friends once held court.
Picnic in the Presidio
On Sundays from April through October, the food truck gathering known as Off the Grid offers Picnic at the Presidio, with dozens of food vendors, free lawn games, live music and a “bubble bar” on the expansive lawn of the Presidio’s Main Post, overlooking the Golden Gate. On Thursday nights from April through October, Twilight at the Presidio is a food truck “campout” with lantern-lit dining cabanas, cocktail service, Adirondack chairs, music and s’more fire pits. Additional Off the Grid gatherings all over the city feature food and entertainment year-round.
Find your "rolligion" here: Founder David Miles, Jr., otherwise known as the Godfather of Skate, converted a former Catholic church into this modern-day roller disco. Strap on some skates and totter around the rink's perimeter while the Holy Rollers, a groovy, costume-wearing group of regulars, twirl beneath the mirror ball. The spot hosts open skates four nights a week: the gay-frequented Rainbow Night on Tuesdays, old-school funk on Wednesdays, date night on Thursdays, and Black Rock (Burner night) on Saturdays.
The formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as “The Rock” was once a maximum-security prison that housed notorious inmates such as Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert “the Birdman” Stroud. Haunting at any time of day, the very popular night tour adds an extra layer of chill—especially on creepy, foggy evenings. For the full effect, get the audio cellhouse tour narrated by former inmates and guards, which recounts harrowing tales of prison life, including the numerous tragic attempts at escape.
For a tour of Alcatraz and San Francisco City, click here.
Sip a handcrafted cocktail
Lychee, lemongrass, fenugreek and chrysanthemum blossoms in your cocktail? Absolut-ly. The craft cocktail movement—arguably launched, and certainly lovingly cultivated—in San Francisco, has brought fresh-squeezed citrus, market-fresh herbs and an encyclopedia of hand-muddled and artfully infused ingredients to bar menus around town. Comstock in North Beach brings fresh twists to classic cocktails such as the Sazerac, Manhattan, Blood and Sand and San Francisco’s own Pisco Punch. Bar Agricole’s extensive cocktail list draws from small-batch curated spirits, bitters, vermouths and syrups—with ice cubes tailored specifically to each drink. Trick Dog’s elaborately crafted libations, named after iconic San Francisco sights and attractions, include such offerings as the Sutro Baths: El Dorado 3, Pampero and Don Q anejo rums, Sightglass coffee, grapefruit, fenugreek and lime. Check out our full list of top spots here.