Things to do in San Francisco, CA
San Francisco is the center of economic and cultural life in Northern California. Situated alongside cities like Oakland, San Jose, and Berkeley around the San Francisco Bay, the city of San Francisco is known as a popular tourist destination and one of the United States's most livable cities. In this guide, we'll take you through the best things to do in San Francisco, including both touristy attractions and less-known local favorites. No matter which neighborhood you choose, there are always lots of cool things to do in San Francisco!
Top Attractions in San Francisco, CA
The top things to do in San Francisco, in terms of visitor traffic, are located on the north shore of the city. The most famous landmark in the city is, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco's most iconic structure can traversed for free by foot or bicycle and can be viewed or photographed clearly from many different parks and vantage points around the city, including historic Fort Point at the bridge's southern terminus. On the north side of the bridge, visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area, featuring historic military sites, beaches, hiking trails, and wildlife areas. As you travel north, the recreation area transitions into Muir Woods National Monument, a good entry point into Northern California's beautiful redwood forests and mountains. While many of these areas are quite a drive from San Francisco, Muir Woods is conveniently located close to the city and can easily be explored on a day trip.
Two other popular attractions in San Francisco are located on islands in the Bay. Alcatraz Island is the site of the famous federal prison, which was operational between 1934 and 1963 and was once home to the organized crime kingpin Al Capone. It's accessible by ferry, and visitors can experience daytime and nighttime tours of the island, learning the history of the prison and other historical events that occurred on the site. Angel Island, the "Ellis Island of the West," was the entry point of immigration to the West Coast of the United States for approximately one million immigrants, mostly of Chinese or other East Asian origin, during the early 20th century. Today, visitors access Angel Island by ferry and can tour the immigration facility, former military encampments on the island, and trails showcasing the island's flora and fauna. Hiking and cycling are popular, and guided Segway and tram tours are available. From the summit of Mount Livermore at the center of the island, hikers can see a stunning vista of the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island.
Fisherman's Wharf is an excellent place to go if you're looking for fun things to do in San Francisco this weekend. While the area is very popular with tourists, even longtime residents can enjoy perusing all that the Wharf has to offer. Located on the north shore of downtown, the Wharf is a prime destination for retail, restaurants, and recreation. The area includes scores of restaurants and bars representing an eclectic mix of cuisines, with seafood restaurants being by far the most popular draw. While there are a variety of options, some of our favorite seafood places on the Wharf include Fog Harbor Fish House, The Codmother Fish & Chips, Franciscan Crab Restaurant, and Scoma's. Visitors can also browse many shopping locations, most of which are centered on Pier 39. Wharf visitors can try delicious chocolate and ice cream at the Ghirardelli Store, watch tall ships and visit the maritime history museum at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, book a cruise with Red and White Fleet, or take a tour on San Francisco's world-famous cable cars. Families with kids enjoy visiting the Aquarium of the Bay and its associated Sea Lion Center, Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum of oddities, and Madame Tussaud's wax figure museum.
Downtown, Chinatown, and Union Square
There are so many more fun things to do in downtown San Francisco! Downtown includes many active and vibrant neighborhoods, including North Beach, Russian Hill, the Financial District, Chinatown, Nob Hill, South of Market, Embarcadero, Mission Bay, and South Beach. While there are many places to explore downtown, we'll take you through some of the area's coolest attractions to get you started. Popular sightseeing destinations downtown include Lombard Street, with its famous hairpin turns, historic Coit Tower, offering 360-degree views of the city, the impressive San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and the unique Transamerica Pyramid skyscraper. Shoppers will love Union Square, the city's central hub for retail, as well as numerous dining options and nightlife. National brands anchored in Union Square include Gucci, Vera Wang, Chanel, Louis Vitton, Macy's, and Saks Fifth Avenue, among many others. If you've dined and shopped your way through Union Square and can't get enough, head east into nearby Yerba Buena for even more.
The South Beach neighborhood is a popular hotspot for bars and nightlife, and here, you'll find AT&T Park, home of the MLB's San Francisco Giants. Head north into the Embarcadero for dining locations on the piers and shopping at Embarcadero Center. West of the Embarcadero sits world-famous Chinatown San Francisco, one of the largest and most historic Chinatowns in the United States. Popular things to do in Chinatown, San Francisco, include photo opportunities at the Dragon's Gate entrance, browsing souvenir shops and street vendors' wares, learning the history of the community at the Chinese Historical Society of America, and, of course, eating authentic Chinese food. While there are many excellent dining options in Chinatown, a few of our top recommendations include Hong Kong Clay Pot, Sam Wo Restaurant, Good Mong Kok Bakery, Capital Restaurant, and House of Nanking.
South San Francisco
If you're looking for a quieter, less touristy experience, there are several things to do in South San Francisco that are more out-of-the-way. A largely residential area, as opposed to the commercial districts to the north, South San Francisco offers low-key shopping, restaurants, and cafés along its main thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, and at The Shops at Tanforan. Golf is very popular in the neighborhood, with some of our top recommendations in the area being the California Golf Club of San Francisco, San Bruno Golf Center, Lake Merced Golf Club, and The Olympic Club. Fans of casino gaming can have fun at the card tables of Artichoke Joe's Casino. Outdoor enthusiasts will find lots of beautiful parks, beaches, and nature areas in the South San Francisco region. Popular destinations around this area include Mussel Rock, Pacifica Pier, Mori Point, Sweeney Ridge Trails, Gray Whale Cove, San Bruno Mountain, Oyster Point Park, and Rockaway Beach.
Family-Friendly Fun for Kids and Teens
There are plenty of kid-friendly things to do in San Francisco for a family on the move. Hyde Street Pier is a popular spot for families, as kids love to see the historic ships moored there. Other awesome ships in the harbor include the USS Pampanito and the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, two World War II-era ships that can be toured. Kids, teens, and adults alike love to visit the Cable Car Museum to learn about the history of San Francisco's iconic transportation system. After your tour of the museum, hop on a cable car yourself and see the sights! Other popular things to do in San Francisco with kids include visiting the San Francisco Zoo, Children's Creativity Museum, Walt Disney Family Museum, California Academy of Sciences, and the Exploratorium interactive science museum.
Things to Do Outside
If you're looking for things to do outside, San Francisco has lots of scenic and adventurous opportunities for outdoor fun. The city has an excellent parks system and a number of hiking trails and gorgeous beaches that are sure to leave you satisfied. The Presidio, located west of North Beach near the southern terminus of the Golden Gate Bridge, is the site of the original Spanish settlement in the San Francisco Bay. Today, the area is a gorgeous and sprawling city park, where you can enjoy walking trails, Golden Gate Bridge vistas, relaxing on Baker Beach, self-guided tours of historic military structures, or a round of 18 holes at Presidio Golf Course. Take in the beautiful picnic field, restored marsh, and beach at the Presidio's Crissy Field, treat the kids to rock-climbing at Planet Granite or a bounce party at House of Air Trampoline Park, or see a show at the landmark Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. Other outdoor destinations around the city include Golden Gate Park, with its accompanying Ocean Beach and San Francisco Botanical Garden, Lake Merced Park, Buena Vista Park, and the Twin Peaks mountain trails.
Indoor Fun for Rainy Days
Sometimes, the rainy weather just won't let up. When this happens, you'll definitely need to find fun indoor things to do in San Francisco. Luckily, the city has a wealth of fascinating museums and cultural institutions. Perusing these collections at a leisurely pace is one of our favorite things to do in San Francisco when it rains. Some of our top recommendations in the area include the indoor Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, de Young Museum of art, Asian Art Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, Museum of Craft and Design, and the ever-unique Museum of Ice Cream.
Romantic Nightlife for Couples
Couples looking for fun things to do in San Francisco at night will find no shortage of trendy restaurants, hip bars, hot nightclubs, and eclectic performing arts venues. For a romantic fine-dining experience, we recommend checking out Kokkari Estiatorio, Seven Hills, or Restaurant Gary Danko. For more moderately priced dining, check out locally famous Molinari Delicatessen, Anchor Oyster Bar, La Ciccia, or Burma Superstar. After dinner, hit one of San Francisco's many trendy bars and pubs. While there are extensive options to choose from, some popular choices with locals and visitors are Smuggler's Cove, Bourbon & Branch, Rickhouse, Alchemist Bar & Lounge, and Top of the Mark. Hip nightclubs in the area include Monarch, DNA Lounge, F8 Nightclub, and Hawthorn. Live theater, music, and comedy performances are some of our favorite romantic things to do in San Francisco on a date. San Francisco is the epicenter of the performing arts in Northern California. We can confidently recommend a few of the varied and numerous venues throughout the city: The Fillmore, Cow Palace, Thee Parkside, Tourettes Without Regrets, Endgames Improv, Billy Graham Civic Auditorium, Great American Music Hall, Punch Line Comedy Club, and The Warfield.
On a budget? Free things to do in San Francisco include walking tours of famous landmarks, filming locations, and historic sites throughout the city with Free Tours by Foot (while these tours are free, donations are accepted). For a self-guided walking tour, check out famous spots like the Painted Ladies, Filbert Street Steps, 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, and Fog Bridge. Head to Treasure Island to walk along the pier, and try a free wine tasting at Fat Grape Winery. Exploring one of the locals' favorite spots, Lands End Lookout and its historic Sutro Baths, is an excellent free activity to fill up an afternoon in the sunshine.
Non-Touristy Spots and Local San Francisco Secrets
Looking for some non-touristy things to do in San Francisco? The city is filled with little local spots that are off the beaten path. The best way to find these places is to grab a bike or your best walking shoes and explore, but we'll get you started with a few underrated local favorites to check out. Japantown is a fun neighborhood often overlooked in favor of the much larger Chinatown. Take a stroll down Fillmore Street and try one of the neighborhood's many karaoke bars or ramen shops. Hang with the locals at SoMa StrEat Food Park in South of Market, where food trucks convene on a rotating basis. Try a sing-along movie night at Castro Theatre, get in the game with GameVibes at the Foundry, or check out cute cafés like Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, Jane, or Bob's Donuts in the Polk Gulch neighborhood.
Around the Bay Area
There are even more things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area outside of San Francisco proper. Head across the Bay to Oakland, where you can check out restaurants, bars, and performing arts venues that are off the beaten path and less crowded with tourists. Oakland has some excellent museum experiences, too, including the Oakland Museum of California, Chabot Space & Science Center, Pacific Pinball Museum, and Museum of Children's Arts. For sports fans, Oakland is home to the MLB's Oakland Athletics and NFL's Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and the NBA's Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Peruse Koreatown and the shopping along El Camino in Santa Clara, and end the day with some football at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. Wander the seashore in Berkeley, and go hiking at the Tilden Nature Area. In San Jose, check out family fun at the Tech Museum, Children's Discovery Museum, Happy Hollow Zoo, and Raging Waters theme park. Explore the oddities at the Winchester Mystery House, see the San Jose Sharks take to the ice at SAP Center, or head to Avaya Stadium for some soccer with the San Jose Earthquakes.