16 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in San Francisco
Set along the ocean, with rolling hills and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and the jewel of Northern California. The city is full of history, great neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options. Some of the most notable attractions, beyond the famous bridge, are historic Alcatraz Island and Fisherman's Wharf. In the city center is Golden Gate Park, a huge green space with all kinds of things to see and do. San Francisco's Chinatown, the largest of its kind in North America, is definitely worth visiting. For an interesting tour of the city, hop on one of the historic cable cars, which stop at many of the city's top sites.
See also: Where to Stay in San Francisco
1 Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a California icon gracing San Francisco Bay. It is likely the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure backed by blue water, or in many cases, peaking through low lying cloud. The Bridge has an interesting history and adds a unique charm to San Francisco.
The Golden Gate Suspension Bridge connects San Francisco with Marin County and other districts further north. At one time, it was designated the greatest man-made sight in the United States by the U.S. Travel Service. Opened on May 28th, 1937, the bridge took four years to build and at the time of its completion it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge, flood-lit in the evening, is approximately 2 miles long.
If you want to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1. For a great view of the bridge, or for anyone interested in photographing the bridge, there are a number of great vantage points. From the San Francisco side, Nob Hill, an area known for its posh old mansions, offers some beautiful views over the bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge, in Marin County, is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Also, if you are planning on taking a tour to Alcatraz, there are completely open views from the boat and island.
2 Alcatraz Island
The historic and notorious Alcatraz penitentiary, located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, is one of America's most infamous prisons. It operated for almost thirty years, closing in 1963 and re-opening as a tourist attraction in 1973. While it operated it was known for housing some of America's most well known prisoners, including Al Capone and the "Birdman", who would later form the basis for the fictional movie The Birdman of Alcatraz.
Visitors take a ferry over to the island where they can tour the site while listening to a very well done audio recording. It offers a glimpse into life in the prison, rather than just an historical run through of the facts. The narration is even done by former inmates and guards of Alcatraz.
In the course of its 30 year existence the penitentiary received a total of 1,576 convicts. There were never more than 250 at any one time, even though there were 450 cells measuring about 10ft x 4ft. At times the number of guards and staff was greater than that of the convicts.
While most people come for the history or the novelty of seeing a former prison, the island is now a prominent area for nesting sea birds.
An easy, convenient, and time saving way to see Alcatraz and some of the other highlights of San Francisco, like Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge, is to take a combined Alcatraz and San Francisco City Tour. If you have only one day to explore the city, and Alcatraz is on your must-see list, this guided tour is the best option. Alcatraz regularly sells out, so booking in advance is strongly advised.
3 Fisherman's Wharf
One of San Francisco's most popular tourist areas is Fisherman's Wharf. This old section, once the Little Italy of San Francisco, is an area known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful setting along the waterfront. As the name suggests, there are fisherman who still operate out of here and visitors can arrange fishing charters. For something a little more relaxing there are also cruises that will take visitors on tours of the area, including sunset and evening cruises with spectacular views of the city.
Some of the main attractions in the area are the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. Restored 19th and 20th C ships line the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The USS Pampanito is a WWII submarine that is today a National Historic Landmark and part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Pier 39, located in this general area, is home to over 130 stores and many unique places to eat. There is always something going on here and a variety of entertainment options. In addition there are great views from the pier looking back onto the city.
This is usually the first place visitors head if they are new to the city. It's a fun place to stroll around and get a flavor for the city. For those with only a day or two to spend in San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf is a good place to start.
4 Cable Cars
Cable Cars were introduced in 1873 to help locals contend with the many hills the city is built on. Today, the few remaining cable cars offer tourists a great way to explore the city in historic fashion. Since 1964 these tram-like vehicles have had the unique distinction of being the only public transport system to be declared a historic monument. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde are the most scenic routes. The cable cars will also get you to the major attractions such as Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square the Ferry Building, Nob Hill, and Lombard Street. If you are planning on more than a couple rides or are going to be sightseeing for a few days you should consider buying a pass.
5 Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a fabulous green space in the heart of San Francisco, often considered the "lungs" of the city. It also contains a number of lovely gardens and museums. Before development began in 1871 this was an area of arid dunes. Nowadays visitors to the park enjoy a grand network of walking trails and cycling paths, more than 5,000 different kinds of plants and dozens of species of trees, several lakes, bridle-paths, and a buffalo paddock. The park also has three museums, a Japanese tea garden, greenhouses, a botanical garden, and considerably more besides. Golden Gate Park is one of those places that can just as easily take up a couple of hours as a couple of days. Bike rentals are available, and this can be a good way to explore the park, rather than trying to do everything on foot.
You may have been to Chinatown in other cities but San Francisco's Chinatown is a whole other realm. It is both the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest of its kind in North America. Almost completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown was rebuilt entirely in the Chinese style and was soon even more attractive than before the disaster. Now with its temples, theaters, workshops, small businesses, stores, antique and souvenir shops, teahouses and pharmacies with their old nostrums, Chinatown has become one of the major sites of San Francisco. If you are traveling through San Francisco during an important Chinese holiday or event you can expect an elaborate celebration to be taking place. Chinese New Year celebrations are often considered the best in North America. The main street in Chinatown for tourists is Grant Avenue. At Grant Avenue and Bush Street is the Chinatown Gateway.
7 California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, is an architectural marvel as well as a multifaceted museum. This state of the art "green" building with a sustainable design has a 2.5 acre Living Roof, covered with native plants and even rolling hills to match the natural surroundings. The roof also has solar panels to generate electricity, and the soil acts as natural insulation. The walls are largely made of glass allowing for natural light.
Inside is an incredible natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and more. The Steinhart Aquarium includes some 38,000 live specimens, and a 25 feet deep coral reef. The rainforest is four stories high with all kinds of animals and amphibians in a fantastic layout. You can descend in a glass elevator to the deepest depths where you can look up through an acrylic tunnel to see fish swimming overhead. The Kimball Natural History Museum has skeletons of a T-Rex and blue whale and all kinds of interesting exhibits.
Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park,
8 De Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
The De Young Museum is the oldest museum in San Francisco. While art and period interiors from North America feature strongly in the collection, there are also many exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Near East. British art, and folk art from Africa, America and the Pacific Islands, are also represented.
9 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is housed in the War Memorial Veterans Building on the west side of the Civic Center Plaza. Its origins go back to the 1890s, but it was set on a firm footing only in 1916, thanks to the efforts of the San Francisco Art Association. The museum has transitioned over the years and today it is devoted exclusively to the art of the 20th century.
Address: 151 Third Street
10 Twin Peaks
These two unique and uninhabited hills, almost 1,000ft high, are not in fact the highest of San Francisco's 43 hills, a distinction belonging to Mount Davidson which is 33 ft higher. However, they are easier to get to and offer what is perhaps the finest views out over the city and the bay.
Twin Peaks are the only hills in San Francisco not to have been built over and remain in their original state. The Spaniards called the twin peaks "Los pechos de la Chola" or the Breasts of the Indian Maiden. Even on warm days strong cool breezes blow in from the Pacific, especially in the late afternoon. Warm clothing is recommended.
11 Asian Art Museum
The Asian Art Museum is unquestionably one of the most important museums in San Francisco.
The museum opened in 1966, with the basis of the collection coming from art collector, Avery Brundage. Brundage, built up a private collection which, in 1959, he offered to the city of San Francisco "to bridge the gap between East and West". A museum building was constructed. On his death in 1975 at the age of 88, the museum also received the rest of his collection of works of art in the form of a legacy. Building on this, the museum has continued to amass various pieces and now contains an extensive collection of sculptures, paintings, bronzes, ceramics, jade carvings, and architectural fragments from Japan, Korea, China, India, Iran and other Asiatic cultures. The works cover a span of more than 6,000 years. Displays are rotated regularly.
Address: 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, United States
the Exploratorium is a premier science museum. It is largely targeted towards children and families but it can really be enjoyed by anyone. There are a huge number of diverse exhibits covering various areas of interest, all of which are designed to educate and entertain. Children tend to rate this museum very highly, with all kinds of experiments and interesting things to do. Surprisingly, whether they have kids or not, most adults also rave about the Exploratorium.
Address: Pier 15
13 Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is the last remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. The palace has been restored, along with the grounds. The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre seats approximately 1,000 patrons.
Address: 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA 94123-1002, United States
14 Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a huge area located across the Golden Gate Bridge from downtown San Francisco. Due to the similarity of the name, some visitors confuse this area with Golden Gate Park in the downtown area. Golden Gate Recreation Area, in Marin County, is home to a myriad of attractions but is also just a beautiful space to enjoy nature and relax. There are walking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and beautiful beach areas. Some of the beaches have fabulous views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is also a place of history. Fort Baker was a US Army post in the early 20th Century with many historic buildings. It is also the location of a children's museum and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, among other things. Similarly, Fort Barry contains a number of historic batteries. Overall, with some 600 square miles of park land there is lots to explore.
15 Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square is located in a restored factory area, surrounded by shops, galleries, and restaurants in renovated industrial buildings. The square was inaugurated in 1964 and was the first of a number of projects designed to give new life to abandoned factory complexes. Ghirardelli's old red-brick chocolate factory has been turned into a center for shoppers, art-lovers and those in search of entertainment or a good meal. Its belfry (built in 1916) is modeled on that of the Château of Blois in France. Later additions are rose gardens decorated with fountains and terraces with fine views.
16 Napa Valley
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are the two best-known and largest grape-growing areas in California. Situated at the southern end of the valley of the same name, some 52 miles from San Francisco, Napa is one of the largest Californian towns north of San Francisco. This is an incredibly scenic area with a drier climate than the coastal regions. It was founded in 1848 and bears the name of the long extinct Napa Indians. The western boundary is formed by the Napa Mountains. The Howell Mountains form the eastern boundary of Napa County and they also protect the valley from storms.
Where to Stay in San Francisco for Sightseeing
If you're planning to see the top tourist attractions in San Francisco, the best place to stay is near Union Square. You'll will find plenty of upscale shops, restaurants, galleries, theaters, and hotels here. San Francisco's famous Chinatown lies within walking distance, and Union Square is a major transport hub, so it's easy to venture further afield to other attractions via cable car, bus, BART, or taxi. Fisherman's Wharf is also a popular place to stay with its fun holiday feel and misty bay - especially for families who might prefer a more peaceful mood in the evenings. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations for sightseeing:
- Luxury Hotels: A 12-minute stroll from Union Square, Loews Regency San Francisco, in the financial district, is one of the city's top hotels, with beautiful views of San Francisco Bay and the city skyline. Other luxury options within walking distance of Union Square include the plush Four Seasons Hotel and The Ritz-Carlton in a colonnaded historic building on exclusive Nob Hill.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Chancellor Hotel on Union Square offers excellent value in the heart of all the Union Square action, while the boutique Cornell Hotel de France exudes Parisian style in a convenient location between Union Square and Nob Hill. In a salt-tinged setting by the water, Courtyard by Marriott Fisherman's Wharf is a fantastic option - especially for families seeking accommodation in this popular tourist spot a short stroll from Ghirardelli Square.
- Budget Hotels: If you're on a budget, the Baldwin Hotel and the Herbert Hotel in the heart of downtown offer excellent value a short walk from Union Square. For those who can't choose between staying in Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square, the Castle Inn sits between both; you can walk to Fisherman's Wharf in about 25 minutes and Union Square in 30 minutes.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to San Francisco
There are several interesting tours in San Francisco that make exploring the city easy and hassle-free. Since San Francisco is a large city built on hills, with many uphill climbs and stairs, tours are an especially good idea for anyone with mobility issues but also for people who have only a couple of days and want to see as much of the city as possible without the challenges of driving or trying to find parking. The following tours are some excellent options for saving time, seeing the sights, and exploring some of the areas outside the city. These also guarantee the lowest prices.
- See the sights. The best option for the traditional, no fail, explore-at-your-own-pace sightseeing tour is the San Francisco Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour. This double decker bus tour, with guided narration, allows you to get on and off at the major tourist spots and is a great way to get acquainted with the city while learning a little history and seeing the highlights. To add a splash of fun to your sightseeing and save your legs some extra walking, book a San Francisco Waterfront Segway Tour and cruise around Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and other popular areas.
- Cruise the Bay. To get out on the water and enjoy the city skyline in the evening, hop on a San Francisco Bay Sunset Catamaran Cruise. This 1.5-hour cruise sails past Alcatraz Island and under the Golden Gate Bridge while the sun sets and the city lights begin to glow.
Get out of the city. San Francisco lies within easy striking distance of some fantastic scenery. To see some of the fabulous coastline, shop Monterey's Cannery Row, see the charming seaside town of Carmel, and drive along the well-known 17 Mile Drive, try the Monterey, Carmel, 17 Mile Drive Day Trip from San Francisco. Another very popular trip, offering a chance to see one of America's great national treasures, is a Tour to Yosemite National Park. This is a must for nature lovers who want to see the famous sites of El Capitan and Half Dome and walk among the Giant Sequoias of Mariposa Grove. This tour offers pickup and drop-off from some San Francisco hotels and offers free time inside the park. For a half-day tour that covers a little of everything, the Muir Woods, Giant Redwoods, and Sausalito Half-Day Trip is a good mix of nature, sightseeing, and shopping. This tour is available in the morning or afternoon and offers pickup and drop-off at hotels for the morning tour.