11 Top Things to Do in San Francisco
In just seven square miles, San Francisco offers an incredible diversity of sights and scenery, with all kinds of things to do. The glorious setting, with vertiginous hills sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Bay, inspires magnificent photo-ops and memorable adventures. Favorite tourist activities are right at the city's most famous icons: a spectacularly picturesque Golden Gate Bridge walk, an exhilarating cable car ride that feels like being on a roller coaster, and a leisurely stroll through the lush gardens of Golden Gate Park. San Francisco's most visited neighborhood, Union Square, delights with interesting boutiques and excellent restaurants. For more culture, head to the Legion of Honor museum in Lincoln Park, one of the best areas for a scenic coastal hike. Romantics can watch a sunset at Ocean Beach, and those in search of old-world elegance can enjoy afternoon tea at one of the city's historic landmark hotels.
1 Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
With its graceful and iconic twin towers, the Golden Gate Bridge is a marvelous feat of engineering. Originally, many said that the bridge couldn't be built. Defying expectations, it was constructed between 1933 and 1937, spanning the opening of the bay where it meets the Pacific Ocean. The 1.7-mile-long single-suspension bridge stands 100 feet above the water, and the towers soar 700 feet into the skyline. The emblematic International Orange paint is continuously repainted to protect the steel bridge from the corrosive high salt content in the air.
Visitors may walk along the sidewalk of the bridge to soak up stunning views of San Francisco Bay, while feeling the refreshing ocean breezes. On a typical day, sailboats, yachts, and cruise ships are seen gliding around Alcatraz and out to sea. The walk begins at the start of the bridge (accessible from the Presidio shuttle) and ends with a viewpoint in Marin County. Many locals enjoy biking across the bridge to the nearby waterfront town of Sausalito. Pedestrian access is on the East Sidewalk; bicycle access is on the East and West Sidewalks. The bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists during daylight hours.
2 Ride a Cable Car to Fisherman's Wharf
After the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable car is the most iconic sight in San Francisco. For tourists, rolling through the hills on a creaky, old-fashioned cable-car ride is an essential San Francisco experience. For first-time visitors, the best cable car route is the Powell-Mason line, which begins at the Powell Market turntable, ascends up and over Nob Hill, and then heads down to Bay Street where it ends up at Fisherman's Wharf. Another popular route is the Powell-Hyde line that also starts at the Powell Market turntable and travels through Nob Hill and Russian Hill and then ends up near Ghirardelli Square at Aquatic Park.
3 Explore the Gardens and Museums of Golden Gate Park
An oasis of calm that feels far from the urban hustle and bustle, Golden Gate Park is a gorgeous 1,017-acre green space. Before the park was created, this area was nothing more than sand dunes, but it was brilliantly landscaped by William Hammond Hall and master gardener John McLaren. The lush park is horticulturally diverse and filled with various gardens, lakes, playgrounds, picnic spots, walking trails, and museums. The Conservatory of Flowers is a Victorian-era landmark that dates to 1879. This elegant glass-domed conservatory houses around 1,700 species of plants, including a world-renowned orchid collection.
A highlight of Golden Gate Park is the de Young Museum, the oldest museum in San Francisco, renovated in 2005. The museum has a permanent collection of American paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts. A favorite stop for families with kids is the California Academy of Sciences, home to an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, along with an indoor rainforest and an enclosed habitat containing adorable penguins. The Japanese Tea Garden, created in 1894, was the first of its kind in the United States. This traditional Japanese Garden is beautifully manicured with Japanese maples, bamboo stands, magnolias, and cherry trees that blossom in the spring. Visitors are charmed by the koi ponds and a teahouse that serves Japanese tea in a lovely setting.
4 Visit the Legion of Honor and Walk along the Coast
An impressive Neoclassical Beaux-Arts building in an amazing setting, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is San Francisco's most exquisite museum. The Legion of Honor was the gift of the socialite, philanthropist, and patron of the arts Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Because of her love for all things Parisian, the museum was designed as a replica of the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris. The Legion of Honor museum has a superb collection of European decorative arts, sculpture, and paintings, along with antiquities from the Mediterranean and Near East.
The museum is in Lincoln Park, a gorgeous green space with a golf course and coastal woodlands and a wonderful place for a leisurely walk. Just outside the museum, visitors may follow the path along Lincoln Highway, which boasts spectacular ocean vistas and perfect outlooks onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Those seeking a more adventurous hike can head to the Land's End Trail. This winding cliffside trail in a wild, rugged terrain offers sweeping Pacific Ocean views and panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge.
5 Watch the Sunset at Ocean Beach
Just a few miles away from downtown San Francisco's urban center, Ocean Beach is a serene 3.5-mile stretch of white sand on the city's westernmost border. Visitors can enjoy the scenery of sand dunes, crashing waves, and seabirds flying overhead. The ocean is too cold and unsafe for swimmers. Only experienced surfers in wetsuits brave these waters. Often the weather is chilly, foggy, and windy, but on rare warm, sunny days, the beach is packed with sunbathers. In the late afternoons, visitors can see people setting up bonfires to keep warm as they socialize on the beach.
Ocean Beach is the perfect location to watch the sun set. A marvelous palette of rose-toned colors appear in the sky as the sun lowers into the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. For those who'd like to dine in a stunning seaside setting, a great choice is the Beach Chalet. The 1925 Spanish Revival-style building features an elegant dining room with sensational views of Ocean Beach. Just above Ocean Beach, the Cliff House is an upscale restaurant that also offers awe-inspiring panoramas of the Pacific Ocean.
Location: Point Lobos Avenue, Great Highway, San Francisco
6 Enjoy an Elegant High Tea at a Historic Hotel
Enjoying high tea at a historic hotel gives tourists a sense of the city's grandeur during the Victorian era and the turn of the century. The Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, opened in 1907, is renowned for its opulent lobby and elegant ambience. The Fairmont's Laurel Court offers afternoon tea service on Saturdays and Sundays. Also on Nob Hill, the Ritz Carlton Hotel is well-known for its fancy afternoon tea service in The Lounge, a sophisticated reception room with splendid city views. One of the city's grandest historic hotels, the Palace Hotel was built in 1875 in the downtown area near Market Street. The Palace Hotel awes visitors with its magnificent Garden Court reception area, where a traditional afternoon tea is served complete with fine china, sterling silver, and classic specialties like finger sandwiches and handmade scones.
7 Go Shopping at Union Square
One of San Francisco's top tourist destinations, Union Square is a shopping area that is packed with enticing boutiques, great dining options, and cultural attractions. At the center of Union Square is a small urban park with two outdoor cafés and a kiosk that sells tickets to theater performances around the city. Throughout the year, the park hosts live music concerts, movie screenings, and other cultural events. However, the main reason to visit Union Square is to go shopping. Union Square shops ranges from luxury to eclectic, from designer boutiques to department stores. The charming Maiden Lane pedestrian street is hidden away from the crowds and its quaint boutiques are a delightful discovery. Union Square also has a great selection of restaurants, and the nearby Westfield San Francisco Centre shopping mall boasts an array of casual fast food options as well as fine dining restaurants and a movie theater.
8 Take a Scenic Cruise around the Bay
San Francisco is famous for its picturesque setting, and one of the best ways to take in the scenery is by boat. Several tour companies offer cruises around the San Francisco Bay, leaving from Pier 39, Pier 43 in Fisherman's Wharf, and other piers along The Embarcadero. Usually around an hour long, a boat tour gives visitors the chance to see the historic waterfront and the sights of the bay including the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Visitors can choose from different types of cruises such as a historical narrative cruise, a gourmet brunch, or live entertainment.
9 Stroll along the Embarcadero
Stretching along the waterfront, The Embarcadero is arguably the most beautiful street in San Francisco. This wide avenue is lined with leafy palm trees and overlooks the Bay Bridge. The street is dotted with piers and docks that hint at the location's industrial past as a seaport in the 19th century. Today, The Embarcadero is popular with locals and tourists as a place for scenic walks on sunny days. Other draws are the bayside restaurants, the Ferry Building's gourmet food shops, and The Exploratorium museum. A top-notch Farmers Market is held in front of the Ferry Building on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings until 2pm.
10 Cycle or Sunbathe at Crissy Field
Just past the San Francisco Marina, Crissy Field is a breathtaking open space with views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Formerly a military airfield, the area was converted to a public space by the Parks Conservancy in 2001. It's a perfect place to take a walk or cycle alongside the grassy fields, tidal marshes, and beaches. Many people also like to begin their windsurfing adventures here. Crissy Field is well-equipped with public restrooms and picnic tables. Other food options include the Beach Hut Café (on the east end) and the Warming Hut snack bar (at the west end).
11 Hike and Picnic on Angel Island State Park
A 25-minute ferry ride away from Pier 41 in San Francisco, Angel Island State Park is a wonderful escape to nature. The largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island has astounding views of the surrounding bay. Tourists can enjoy the lovely scenery while hiking or biking on the well-groomed trails. It's possible to hike up to the summit of the island, Mount Caroline Livermore, at 788 feet, where the views are sensational. The island also has five picnic areas, eleven campsites, and several sandy beaches that are pleasant for walking and sunbathing. Well designed for visitors, the island has a café that is open all week long during most of the year (except winter) and a casual restaurant that's open on the weekends and features live music performances.