20 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do 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 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 the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure backed by blue water, or in many cases, peaking through low lying cloud. At night, the flood-lit structure is equally striking.
Connecting San Francisco with Marin County and other districts further north, the Golden Gate Bridge was, at one time, 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, was the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring approximately two miles in length.
If you want to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1, and walkways on either side of the bridge are open to pedestrians and cyclists. 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.
For a great view of the bridge, or for anyone interested in photographing the bridge, there are a number of ideal 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, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another good spot. 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. Some of America's most well-known criminals were inmates here, including Al Capone and the "Birdman," who would later form the basis for the fictional movie The Birdman of Alcatraz.
You can take a ferry over to the island and tour the site while listening to an exceptional audio recording that offers a glimpse into life in the prison, rather than just a historical list of the facts. The narration is even voiced 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 the number of 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 seabirds.
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. If this is your first visit to the city and you only have a day or two to see the sights, Fisherman's Wharf is a good place to start. This old section, once the Little Italy of San Francisco, is an area known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful setting along the waterfront. It's a fun place to stroll around and get a taste for the city. From here, you can also take a sightseeing cruise for spectacular views of the city, or organize a fishing charter.
Some of the main attractions in the area are Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Ghirardelli Square. Restored 19th- and 20th-century ships line the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The USS Pampanito, a national historic landmark, is a WWII submarine and part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Pier 39, located in this general area, is home to more than 130 stores and unique places to eat. It also offers great views looking back onto the city.
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 of rides or are going to be sightseeing for a few days, you should consider buying a pass.
5 Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park, home to gardens and museums, is a fabulous green space in the heart of San Francisco, often considered the "lungs" of the city. Before development began in 1871, this was an area of arid dunes. Today, the park has a 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 main attractions include the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences Museum with Steinhart Aquarium, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
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. Alternatively, try an organized Segway Tour with a local guide and hit all the major highlights.
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 traditional pharmacies, 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 to see an elaborate celebration. Chinese New Year celebrations are often considered the best in North America. The main street in Chinatown for tourists is Grant Avenue, with the Chinatown Gateway at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
7 Legion of Honor
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.
8 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 and 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, along with an array of interesting exhibits.
Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
9 de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a fine arts museum, and one of the largest public art institutions in San Francisco. Exhibits cover a variety of time frames and geographical locations. 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 well represented.
10 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
After an extensive renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in the spring of 2016, with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space; nearly three times its previous size. The museum now has 10 floors, with 45,000 feet of ground floor gallery space open to the public free of charge. In addition to the new space, the museum has also acquired thousands of new pieces. The museum features a full range of exhibitions, some from the museum's permanent collection and others specially commissioned for the opening.
Address: 151 Third Street, San Francisco
11 Twin Peaks
These two unique and uninhabited hills, more than 900 feet high, are not in fact the highest of San Francisco's 43 hills, a distinction belonging to Mount Davidson, which is 33 feet higher. They do have one of the finest views out over the city and bay, they're undeveloped, and they're easy to access. You can drive to the north peak parking area for fine views and hike along trails over the north and south peaks.
The Twin Peaks are the only hills in San Francisco not to have been built over and remain in their original state. The Spaniards called them "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.
12 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." The museum building was constructed, and 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 span more than 6,000 years. Plans are afoot for a substantial expansion, with the creation of a new pavilion.
Address: 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
13 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 San Francisco 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 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.
The Exploratorium is an incredibly popular science museum, with exhibits for both children and adults to enjoy. A huge number of diverse exhibits, and many with hand-on learning experiences, cover 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, and whether they have kids or not, most adults also rave about the Exploratorium.
Address: Pier 15
15 Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is the last remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this classical looking building is beautifully situated on a lagoon that reflects the mirror image on the surface of the calm water, while ducks and geese drift by. The palace has been restored, along with the grounds, and today hosts art exhibitions and performances. The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre seats approximately 1,000 patrons.
Address: 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco
16 Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, not to be confused with Golden Gate Park, is a huge natural area located across the Golden Gate Bridge from downtown San Francisco. This 600-square-mile park in Marin County is home to a myriad of attractions but is also a beautiful place to enjoy nature and relax. Walking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and beautiful beach areas are in the park. Some of the beaches have fabulous views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is also a place of history and home to the historic Fort Baker, a former US Army post from the early 20th century.
17 AT&T Park
Home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T park is a fun place to take in a baseball game while visiting the city. If you aren't able to see a game, consider taking a ballpark tour for a behind-the-scenes look at places off limits to most people. You can learn about the historic moments that have taken place here and explore the architecture. Tours are scheduled around games and do not run every day so check the online calendar in advance.
Address: 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco
18 Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square is 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.
19 Day Trip to 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.
20 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 island's summit, 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.
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 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
Several interesting tours in San Francisco 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.