In San Francisco, you have no shortage of things to do (or eat, or drink, or see). It’s the type of place that can keep you entertained for months on end, but today I’m sharing just the top, quintessential things to do in San Francisco for new visitors to the city. Ready?
Psst: Definitely check out my San Francisco itinerary once you’re done with this post. It’s super detailed and customizable for one, two, or three days in the City by the Bay.
Golden Gate Bridge
This bright, red-orange bridge is famous worldwide as the entranceway into California. There are several ways to experience the Golden Gate Bridge. You can walk across, bike across, view it from a distance, or even take a cruise underneath it.
Fisherman’s Wharf is practically synonymous with San Francisco itself. This waterfront area is famous for clam chowder and sourdough bread, which you absolutely must try together in the form of a clam chowder sourdough bread bowl. If you do not eat fish, you can find other soup bread bowl options. There are a lot of things to do in Fisherman’s Wharf.
This unique museum features 20th-century penny arcade games and other quirky artifacts from centuries past. Even if you do not pay to enter and have the full experience, definitely stop by and take a peek.
If you prefer a sit-down option for your clam chowder bread bowl rather than purchasing from a stand, Boudin Bakery is your best bet. But I recommend you stop by regardless to see the animal-shaped sourdough breads in the window. They’re something Boudin is known for!
SS Jeremiah O’Brien
You will probably see this impressive ship without trying when in Fisherman’s Wharf. She is now based in the San Francisco Bay, but is one of the few survivors of the WW2 D-Day armada off the coast of Normandy.
San Francisco’s Embarcadero boasts many piers, but none are more famous or lively than Pier 39. You could honestly spend the better part of a day exploring Pier 39. Here, you will find endless eateries for every taste and budget, desserts and snacks galore, and the wackiest shops you could ever imagine. It’s also got a farmers’ market, merry-go-round, and is where San Francisco’s famous sea lions love to sunbathe.
San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America. I recommend spending around an hour exploring and eating your way through Chinatown, but make sure to experience the below top things to do in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Dragon’s Gate is the unofficial entryway into Chinatown. And it’s a pretty impressive entryway at that! You will definitely notice the contrast in scenery and atmosphere after crossing through this gate into Chinatown.
Good Mong Kok Bakery
Stop by Mong Kok Bakery on Stockton Street for take-away dim sum favorites. Think of dim sum like the Chinese version of brunch, but with a range of small dishes rather than one entree. From this bakery, I can recommend the egg yolk bun, the pineapple bun (which don’t actually have pineapple), and the sesame bun. The steamed pork bun is also popular here.
Fortune Cookie Factory
Did you know fortune cookies aren’t actually Chinese? They’re Chinese-American, invented in good old California. While in San Francisco Chinatown, definitely stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Here, you can watch the fortune cookies being made for free. Taking pictures requires a small fee, and you can of course purchase cookies there. Check out their collection pictures with celebrities who visited on the left wall.
Lombard Street is world-famous for one steep, curvy portion of the street. This is located between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street. Lombard street became so popular for cars to drive down, that the city has closed the street to traffic during certain times of the year or week, and are even considering imposing a toll.
This infamous prison-on-an-island has housed the likes of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. You’ll see that vendors sell tours for this around Fisherman’s Wharf. But you should purchase tickets online from the official site beforehand. Ferries to Alcatraz depart from Pier 33 on The Embarcadero. Consider taking a night tour for a unique experience.
The Transamerica Building has historically been the defining piece of San Francisco’s skyline. It was formerly the tallest building in San Francisco, until the newly-constructed Salesforce building took that title away. Nevertheless, the Transamerica Building’s unique pyramid shape still stands out from the crowd and remains a notable icon.
Coit Tower is another key part of the San Francisco skyline, especially as it stands out on a hill far away from other tall buildings. Purchase tickets ($9 for adults) at the gift shop to take the elevator up to the top, where you can enjoy 360 panoramic views over San Francisco and its bay. You can skip any lines by purchasing tickets online in advance for a surcharge. Even if you do not go to the top of the tower, the base of the tower offers lesser but still lovely views over the bay.
Union Square is the main shopping square in San Francisco. Each corner of the square has heart statues painted with different designs, which are popular places for tourists to take photographs. The designs on these hearts actually change every so often. If you are visiting San Francisco in early winter, you will find a large Christmas tree and ice rink in the middle of this square.
If you were a Full House fan, you will definitely recognize these world-famous Victorian Houses. In front of the beloved houses is a nice park, and from it, you have a very nice view of the San Francisco skyline in the distance.
San Francisco Trolley Ride
In many cities, trolley cars are a thing of the past. But not in San Francisco! Here you will find one of the world’s last manually-operated cable car systems. They’re a fun and iconic way to get around the city’s most famous spots. Check out the trolley stops and route on this awesome map.
Mission Dolores Park
Mission Dolores is San Francisco locals’ favorite park. Don’t be surprised by smells here and there of a certain newly-legalized plant, for which the park was famous far beyond legalization. This park is honestly just a great place to sit on a blanket with friends and hang out while looking out over the city.
Did you know the famous Ghirardelli Chocolates brand hails from San Francisco? They have their own square near the water, aptly named Ghirardelli Square. Here, visitors can enjoy a free sample of Ghirardelli chocolate in addition to purchasing some of the most drool-worthy Ghirardelli concoctions. The square has a couple restaurants, free public restrooms, and a lovely view over the bay. So stop by even if you are not a chocolate lover.
Oakland Bay Bridge
The Golden Gate may be the most famous, but San Francisco actually has two picturesque bridges. The other is the Oakland Bay Bridge. It runs through Treasure Island, and you can get a lovely view of both from the portion of The Embarcadero near the San Francisco Ferry Building.
If you want that postcard-perfect viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge from a beach, then Baker Beach is where to go. But be warned; clothing is optional on the northern portion of this beach.
The Salesforce Tower is the newest addition to San Francisco’s skyline. It is the tallest building not only in San Francisco, but also west of the Mississippi River. Visitors can enjoy views over San Francisco and beyond from the top floor observation deck.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is another local favorite in San Francisco. This park hosts local music festivals as well as famous ones like Outside Lands. It is also home to some buffalo (yes, you can really see buffalo in the middle of San Francisco), a few museums, and a few gardens.
Palace of Fine Arts
This beautiful San Francisco landmark feels almost out of place, smack dab in a residential neighborhood. It is a lovely area to stroll and enjoy wildlife like swans and turtles, in addition to of course taking in the stunning architecture itself. Don’t be surprised if you see some couples taking wedding or engagement photos here.
Ocean Beach feels a world away from the hustle of central San Francisco. California definitely has warmer beaches, but for those who are only visiting San Francisco and wanted to experience a large, proper beach, this one works. It faces dead west, so It’s the perfect view for a Pacific Ocean sunset. (That is, assuming Karl the Fog has left!)
What Do You Think of San Francisco?
San Francisco is one of those love it or hate it places for visitors. As a child, I really disliked it for its cold weather and grunginess in parts. But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. What do you think? Have you been? Let me know in the comments below!