As I touched on in my Ultimate Guide to San Francisco, the city has so much to offer.
Featuring some of the most iconic sites in California, if not the entire United States, it’s no wonder that San Francisco is such an iconic tourist destination
Let’s take a look at everything you must see and do when visiting San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge
Probably the most famous icon of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is a world-famous suspension bridge spanning the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.
Completed in 1937, Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its construction, spanning 1.7 miles (2.7km). While it gets it distinctive orange colour is a result of the paint used to protect the steel from the salty sea air.
While you could simply see and photograph the bridge from a number of amazing locations around the city, the best way to experience the bridge is to cross over it yourself.
Both walking and cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge are popular amongst visitors over San Francisco, and there are several viewpoints along the way where you can take in the stunning views of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, and the city skyline.
If that all sounds a little too strenuous, may I also recommend a hop-on hop-off bus tour like Big Bus with an open-top bus.
Just keep in mind it is extremely windy crossing the bridge, so make sure you hold onto your hat (or any other loose items you might be carrying).
Pro Tip: Don’t confuse the Golden Gate Bridge with the Oakland Bay Bridge; while Oakland Bay Bridge is also impressive (possibly more so, given its size), it’s not orange.
Pier 39 & Fishermans Wharf
Technically these are two separate attractions, Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions, located right next to each other northern waterfront.
Pier 39 is a shopping and entertainment complex, home to a number of touristy shops, restaurants, and attractions. But the most famous residents of Pier 39 are the California Sea Lions that sunbathe and frolic on and around the docks.
Fisherman’s Wharf, located just a short walk from Pier 39, is a historic waterfront district that dates back to the mid-19th century. This area was once the centre of San Francisco’s fishing industry, but now it is home to several seafood restaurants, including the famous clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.
In addition to the shops, restaurants, and attractions, both Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf offer stunning views of San Francisco Bay, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour
I’ve already mentioned hop on hop off bus tours a couple of times in this post, and for good reason. I personally find it’s the best way to get orientated in a new city that you’ve never been to before.
This is especially the case for San Francisco, given the hills that the city is also famous for. Plus, everything else I’ve already mentioned.
My personal suggestion in San Francisco is Big Bus Tours. They offer a couple of routes and package options, but the main Red Route is all you really need as it covers all of the city.
I would recommend dedicating a full day to do the complete tour. While you can go back to see most of the key attractions during the rest of your stay in San Francisco, a couple of the stops will save you from having to organise another mode of transport later.
In particular, the stop crossing the Golden Gate Bridge so you can explore the lookouts on the northern side of the bay. Also, Lombard Street, which we’ll get to later in this post.
The Ferry Building is a historic landmark located on the San Francisco waterfront.
Built back in 1898, it was once the main transportation hub for commuters and travellers arriving in the city by ferry from other parts of the Bay Area.
Today, the Ferry Building has been transformed into a bustling marketplace and food hall featuring a variety of artisan food vendors, specialty shops, and restaurants. Despite the changes, the architecture of the building has been beautifully preserved, including its clock tower, which remains a distinctive feature of the San Francisco skyline.
In addition to the permanent vendors, the Ferry Building also hosts a farmers market three days a week: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for those looking for an authentic local food experience.
Matching the unique and quirky vibe of San Francisco, the Musée Mécanique features one of the world’s largest collections of antique arcade games and mechanical instruments, including vintage pinball machines, fortune tellers and old-timey music boxes.
Located large warehouse-like space at Fisherman’s Wharf and features over 300 machines, many of which are fully functional and available for visitors to play.
Musée Mécanique is a fascinating, fun and nostalgic destination that offers a glimpse into the history of arcade games and mechanical amusements made famous by carnivals and side shows.
It’s also where you’ll find the USS Pampanito, a World War Two submarine credited with sinking six Japanese ships. These days it’s a memorial and museum that you can also visit right next door to Musée Mécanique.
Best known as the site of the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, which operated from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz has served many purposes over the years.
Made famous for housing some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone and Robert Stroud, this small, rocky island is in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The popular belief is that the island was inescapable, but it’s the escape attempts that add to the history of the island.
Today, Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and for a good reason. Tours to the island allow you to explore the prison ruins and other historic buildings and landmarks on the island. Allowing you to get an in-depth understanding of how Alcatraz has been used over the years.
The audio tour through the prison section provides an immersive experience, with commentary from former inmates and guards, walks you through the entire prison and details the entire history (even beyond being a prison) and daily life for the inmates. This alone makes the tour worthwhile.
Video game fans, particularly players of the Call of Duty franchise, might recognise some of the features of the island as a couple of the gameplay maps over the years have been based on Alcatraz. The island has also been featured in several movies.
One thing I will mention, given the limited number of ferries to the island, tours tend to book up very quickly. If you are keen on seeing Alcatraz while you are in San Francisco, I would strongly recommend you book a tour once you’ve locked in your dates of travel.
Check out the Alcatraz City Cruises website for availability and costs; as far as I’m aware, they are the only operator approved by the National Park Service who manage the island to provide access.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a massive urban park located in San Francisco. Covering over 1,000 acres, it’s one of the largest urban parks in the United States.
Originally established in the late 19th century, Golden Gate Park is home to a number of the city’s popular tourist attractions as well as being a beloved recreational area for locals.
Within the grounds of the park, you will find the famous Japanese Tea Garden, a traditional Japanese garden featuring a koi pond, and a tea house. It’s also home to San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Stow Lake Boathouse, and the Dutch Windmill.
Golden Gate Park is also where you will find the de Young Museum, one of San Francisco’s most famous art museums, and the amazing California Academy of Sciences. But we’ll get to those shortly.
Known as the world’s crookedest street, Lombard Street is a famous street in San Francisco with its steep incline and winding switchback design.
While Lombard Street stretches from the waterfront to the Presidio, the famous section is a single block between Hyde and Leavenworth streets in the Russian Hill neighbourhood.
Popularised in movies and TV shows set in San Francisco, visitors will often line up in traffic to drive down this unique section of road. While many others will walk up and/or down the stairs on the side of the street, taking in the views of the city and the queue of cars slowly making their way down the hill.
It’s a bit gimmicky, but you have to do it while you are in San Francisco. Make sure you take in the views from the top before making your way down.
Pro Tip: Tick off two unique experiences by taking The Powell/Hyde Cable Car to the top of Lombard Street, but I’ll get into more detail about that later in this post.
California Academy of Sciences
In my personal opinion, the California Academy of Sciences is one of the best things to do in San Francisco.
A world-class natural history museum located in Golden Gate Park. The California Academy of Sciences is home to a wide range of exhibits and attractions, including several incredibly immersive experiences, notably its aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest dome.
The aquarium is one of the best in California, with over 40,000 live animals from around the world, including sharks, rays, and penguins. The planetarium is equally amazing and explores the wonders of the universe. At the same time, the rainforest dome showcases the incredible biodiversity of tropical forests with its own lush and vibrant ecosystem. All must-dos while you are in San Francisco.
In addition to these major attractions, the California Academy of Sciences also features numerous other exhibits detailing the geology and ecology of the region.
de Young Museum
While San Francisco has a rich and diverse art culture, the de Young Museum stands out as one of the city’s most celebrated art museums, with an amazingly diverse collection.
Originally founded in 1895 as the Memorial Museum, it was later renamed in honour of Michael H. de Young, a newspaper publisher who played a significant role in the museum’s early history.
These days the de Young Museum is home to a diverse collection of American art dating back to the 17th century. In addition, it also features a permanent collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the rest of the Americas.
Best known for the art collection inside, the museum’s building is also a work of art. The current building, which opened in 2005, was designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron and features a striking copper facade meant to evoke the natural beauty of the surrounding Golden Gate Park.
Keep an eye out for temporary exhibitions that visit the de Young Museum. There is always something new to explore.
Between the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, you could easily spend a full day in this part of Golden Gate Park. Especially handy if you have a rainy day during your time in San Francisco.
San Francisco Cable Car
A prominent mode of transport in the city’s early days, cable cars are synonymous with San Francisco and a quintessential tourist attraction.
Invented in San Francisco in the 1870s to transport people up and down the city’s steep hills, there were over 20 cable car lines across the city, but today, only three of these historic lines remain in operation, mostly to the benefit of tourists.
Given their popularity, it’s best to ride the cable cars early in the morning (they commence services at 7am); otherwise, you could end up stuck in a lengthy queue of other tourists also out to have the same experience.
The Powell/Hyde Cable Car is easily the most popular linking the waterfront to Powell Station and Market Street. Not only does it start right next to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. It also connects other popular attractions in the city, including Lombard Street (which I mentioned earlier) and the Cable Car Museum.
Slightly less busy is the Powell/Mason Cable Car, which links the Fishermans Wharf precinct to Powell Station and Market Street.
While my recommendation is if you are just purely looking to experience the Cable Car on its own. Take the California Cable Car, which links Market Street and Van Ness Avenue, as it is usually the least busy of the three lines.
Riding a cable car is a great way to experience a piece of San Francisco’s rich history and culture.
Listen out to the conductors and gripmen who operate the cars as they often interact with passengers and share interesting facts and stories about the city.
The Painted Ladies
Icons of San Francisco, this row of Victorian and Edwardian houses located on Steiner Street, was made famous by being the intro to the popular TV show Full House.
They’ve subsequently been featured in several other TV shows and movies centred around San Francisco, leading to their popularity as a tourist attraction in the city.
Beyond their pop culture fame, the Painted Ladies are significant for their historical and architectural value. They were built between the 1890s and 1910s and represent a unique and distinctive style of residential architecture that was popular in San Francisco during that time.
For the best view of the Painted Ladies, make your way to Alamo Square. This park not only offers the best views of the houses but stunning views out over the city as well.
Also, just remember that the Painted Ladies are people’s homes. So there is nothing more to see than what you can see from the street.
Founded in San Francisco in 1852 by Italian chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli, Ghirardelli Chocolate has become an iconic part of the city’s culinary heritage.
Established during the gold rush era of the city, Ghirardelli built its name by producing high-quality chocolate. Constructing an impressive factory in the Fisherman’s Wharf district, overlooking the bay, as the company grew.
While the business operations have long since moved, the company’s historic factory has been repurposed and become a tourist attraction in its own right – Ghirardelli Square.
With the famous name in lights, it’s hard the miss this iconic location. This is where you will also find the flagship Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience and The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. It’s also home to a number of other restaurants and stores.
By simply entering either of these stores, you’ll be given a free sample of the famous chocolate. But the real star of the show is their World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae. People will queue around the building just to buy one. If you only have one ice cream while you are in San Francisco, make sure it’s this one!
Want a unique experience while in San Francisco? Why not stay in the former chocolate factory? While most of the premises were repurposed as shops and restaurants, the main factory area has been converted into a hotel – The Fairmont Heritage Place Ghirardelli Square.
Want to get hands-on with science? The Exploratorium is the experience for you.
Located in San Francisco’s waterfront district, The Exploratorium features many interactive exhibits that cover a wide range of scientific topics. The combination of indoor and outdoor exhibits are designed to be engaging and interactive, allowing visitors to touch, manipulate, and experiment with various scientific concepts and principles.
The brainchild of Dr Frank Oppenheimer, it’s a fun experience that combines education and entertainment. Encouraging visitors to ask questions, make observations, and draw their own conclusions about the scientific concepts they encounter throughout the museum.
If for no other reason than curiosity, I’d definitely recommend a visit to The Exploratorium.
San Francisco City Hall is a historic landmark located in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center.
One of the largest municipal buildings in the United States, San Francisco City Hall was built in Beaux-Arts style featuring a grand dome and completed in 1915.
While the architecture of the building is impressive, it’s the history of the building that is probably the most significant. In 1945 it is where the United Nations Charter was signed.
The best way to find out more about this impressive building is to do one of the organised tours.
Originally established by the Spanish in 1776, the Presidio served as a military post for over two centuries.
Today, this national historic landmark is a large park managed by the National Park Service. Best known for its several historic buildings and structures, including the Officers’ Club, the Presidio Chapel, and several former military barracks and residences, the park also incorporates a large green space with several hiking trails and lookouts.
The Presidio is also home to several cultural institutions, including the Walt Disney Family Museum (which I’ll get to shortly), the Presidio Theatre, and the San Francisco Film Centre. These institutions offer a variety of educational and cultural programs, including film screenings, art exhibitions, and performances.
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a popular destination in San Francisco due to its stunning architecture and picturesque setting.
The palace was originally built to celebrate San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire ahead of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and was designed to showcase art and culture from around the world. And has served as a symbol of the city’s resilience and creativity ever since.
A popular destination for wedding photos, the Palace of Fine Arts is actually a large event space, but most people just visit to appreciate the building’s classical design, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture and get their own photos.
It’s well worth a quick visit while exploring the rest of the Presidio.
Walt Disney Family Museum
While Anaheim and Orlando might be the first places, you think of when I say Walt Disney, you can discover more about the life and legacy of Walt Disney at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
Located within the Presidio, the museum features a variety of artifacts and memorabilia from Walt Disney’s life, including original sketches, drawings, and storyboards from classic Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia.
One of the museum’s main attractions is a series of interactive exhibits that allow visitors to explore the creative process behind Disney’s work.
If your trip to the United States also includes visits to either of the Disney resorts, or you are just a lifelong fan of Disney, then I would highly recommend visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum.
An iconic landmark of the San Francisco skyline, Coit Tower stands 210 feet tall on Telegraph Hill, offering stunning views out over the city and the bay.
Access to the observation deck at the top of the tower is via elevator; however, given that the elevator is 90 years old, you may be required to climb the stairs up the 13 stories to the top.
In addition to the views, the tower is also known for its beautiful fresco murals created during the Great Depression by a group of artists hired by the Public Works of Art Project.
If you want to get a stunning panoramic view over the entirety of the city, Twin Peaks is your best option.
Located in the centre of San Francisco, the two peaks rise to an elevation of approximately 922 feet and provide a stunning panoramic view of the city and the Bay Area.
While there are hiking trails to the top, my best suggestion would be to take an Uber (or any other ride-sharing service) to the top to take in the views. There is a roadway that will take you all the way to the top, including a car park at the main viewpoint.
Given that it gets super windy at the peaks, being the most exposed point in San Francisco, being able to quickly get your photos and leave is a good idea unless you are 100% confident in the weather for the day.
If you happen to be visiting San Francisco during a rainy winter, then Madame Tussauds is a good indoor option.
Famous for its amazingly lifelike wax figures of celebrities and historical figures, Madame Tussauds is well worth a visit if you haven’t been to any of its worldwide locations before.
What makes the San Francisco location unique is the local sports stars section and leaders and entrepreneurs section which features prominent personalities from Silicon Valley. However, overall it isn’t dramatically different from any of the other Madame Tussauds locations you may have visited.
If you have never been to Madame Tussauds, then I’d strongly recommend it. But if you have, then I wouldn’t prioritise it in your travel plans. There are plenty of other things I’ve already mentioned, specific to San Francisco that I would make sure you do first.
Aquarium of the Bay
Located at Pier 39, the Aquarium of the Bay gives you an up-close look at the diverse marine life of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Aquarium of the Bay is a relatively small aquarium very specifically focused on the ecosystems of the Bay Area. As with all good aquariums, its main attraction is its tunnel that allows you to walk through the underwater environment. That said, I found the most interesting thing to be the most interesting enclosure to be the North American River Otters.
To be honest, Aquarium of the Bay is ok, but I actually preferred the one within the California Academy of Sciences that I mentioned earlier in this post. Given the other extra experiences that the California Academy of Sciences has to offer, it’s much better value as well.
Bonus: Secret Roof Top Gardens
Something many people don’t know – the city of San Francisco has legislation in place mandating that buildings need to incorporate gardens and public spaces in their construction. As a result, there are several amazing rooftop gardens open to the public that offer amazing views over the city and great places to relax.
While I won’t list all of them, a couple of noteworthy ones to consider visiting are:
- 343 Sansome Rooftop Deck – Located on the 15th floor and offers great views of the Transamerica Pyramid.
- One Kearny Building (23 Geary St) – Located on the 11th floor with great views over Market St.
- Crocker Galleria Roof Terrace (50 Post St) – Accessible via escalator and then stairs on the fourth floor, this rooftop garden offers plenty of quiet space to sit down and relax for a little bit.
- Salesforce Park – The best-known and easiest to access, located above the Salesforce Transit Center, this garden stretches four blocks.
For more information to help plan your trip to and around the United States of America, check out the rest of my tips, advice and guides for visiting the USA.
And if you have a travel-related question, you would like me to answer, head on over to my contact page to get in touch and let me know.