Whether you’re an outdoors junkie, foodie, or nightlife connoisseur, you’ll easily be able to find a wide variety of attractions and activities to suit your tastes in San Francisco.
Perhaps the best part of taking a vacation in San Francisco is that no matter if you’re there for a weekend, a week, or even a month, you’ll be able to pack your days full of activities or just relax in one of the city’s many restaurants or cafes. Although the city stretches across a mere 49 square miles of land (that’s just about 7 miles total), there is no shortage of things to do in San Francisco.
In fact, you could spend weeks there and still not see and do everything the city has to offer. In order to make the most of your trip to San Francisco, here is a list of ten things you shouldn’t miss while you’re there.
1. Walk up Winding Lombard Street
While San Francisco boasts some of the steepest streets in the United States, no trip to the city is complete without a special stop at Lombard Street.
Located in the Russian Hill neighbourhood, Lombard Street was created as a series of hilly, steep switchbacks set off by byzantine curves full of flowers and gardens. As you wind your way down the one-way hill, admire the Victorian style architecture of the mansions and gardens that line the street.
Whether you’re in a car or on foot, a trip down Lombard Street is sure to impress—and raise your heart rate!
2. Hike the Twin Peaks
The 922 feet high twin peaks are the second highest points in San Francisco and offer not just the opportunity for stunning views of the city, but also the chance to stretch your legs on a pleasant hike.
Although you can take a cab or drive to the top of Twin Peaks, make an afternoon of it and hike your way to the top. On your way, you can admire the flora and fauna, and really take in the panoramic views of the city, its bridges, the San Francisco Bay, and everything in between.
The trails to the top are open from sunrise to sunset every day and are free to the public. There is also a limited amount of free parking available at the top of Twin Peaks Boulevard.
3. Visit the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park
With more than 1000 acres of trails, recreation areas, lakes, picnic spots, museums, and monuments to explore, Golden Gate Park offers visitors a variety of activities to fill their days.
Have a tea at the Japanese Tea Garden, reminisce as you ride the carousel, or walk to the top of Strawberry Hill on Stow Lake for a lovely view of the city’s scenery. Plant enthusiasts and general visitors alike will enjoy spending some time in the Conservatory of Flowers, which is home to over 2000 species of vibrantly colored flowers.
You can also stop by the Dahlia Festival, an annual celebration commemorating the city’s official flower. Visit the Golden Gate Park website to find out more about this and many of the other concerts and festivals that are held in the park year-round.
4. Take a Ride on a San Francisco Cable Car
Even if you’ve never visited San Francisco, chances are you’ve seen one of the city’s iconic cable cars on television, in a movie, on a postcard, or in a photograph. The city’s cable car system is the last of its kind in the United States, making it one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco.
In fact, it’s safe to say that you can’t get the full San Francisco experience without riding one of its classic cable cars, so be sure to hop on for a tour of the city, if not for a speedy mode of transportation.
One of the more popular areas for catching a cable car is the Powell-Hyde Line, which passes through the Russian Hill neighborhood and the twisty hills of Lombard Street. It only costs a few dollars to take a ride on these nationally registered historic landmarks.
5. Learn about Local Waters at the Aquarium of the Bay
Adjacent to Pier 39 is the Aquarium of the Bay, a public aquarium whose mission is to conserve and restore the marine environments and aquatic life of the San Francisco Bay area.
Although the city itself offers plenty of opportunities to explore its gorgeous beaches and waterfront areas, the Aquarium of the Bay lets visitors come face to face with some of the plant and animal life in its marine nature center. The marine nature center replicates the Bay itself: over 300 feet of clear acrylic tunnels house 700,000 gallons of Bay water, along with 20,000 animals who live in the Bay.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a sevengill shark, an octopus, or a bat ray up close and personal, you have a chance at the Aquarium of the Bay! Tickets purchased online at the aquarium’s website receive a discount ($24.95 for adults, $14.95 for seniors and children ages 4-12, or $68.00 for families of 2 adults and 2 children).
6. Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
The soaring orange arches and cables of the Golden Gate Bridge set against the rocky seascape of San Francisco Bay make this bridge the most enduring symbol of the city—as well as its most popular tourist attraction.
Whether from afar or on the bridge itself, no matter how you decide to take in this awesome landmark, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge. You can access the bridge any time for free, by car, taxi, bus, bicycle, motorcycle, or on foot.
There is limited parking available at both ends of the bridge, with free 4 hour parking at the Northeast Side Parking Lot and hourly rates ($1 per hour) at the Southeast Side Visitor Parking Lot, along with souvenir shops and restroom facilities at either end.
7. See Sea Lions at PIER 39
Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, PIER 39 is a bustling waterfront marketplace that’s home to more than some of the city’s most popular attractions and eateries.
A group of California sea lions lives on the floats in the pier’s marina; a nearby railing provides a convenient vantage point for watching the sea lions’ games.
After you’re done taking in their watery antics, grab a walk-away crab or shrimp cocktail from one of the pier’s infamous crab vendors, and take a short stroll over to the nearby San Francisco Dungeon.
8. Explore Fisherman’s Wharf
This popular waterfront neighborhood is home to a variety of sites and attractions. Besides the PIER 39 shopping district, Fisherman’s Wharf also boasts many restaurants offering fresh, delicious seafood, as well as a diverse array of shops and museums.
This is also a popular area for catching a ferry to Alcatraz. If you’re looking to go off the beaten path and explore some of San Francisco’s more authentic neighborhoods, then Fisherman’s Wharf is not for you, as it’s one of the most people-laden tourist areas in the city.
9. Take in the Views at the Legion of Honor
While it houses over 4,000 pieces of impressive ancient and European artwork, including Rodin’s Thinker, the Legion of Honor is just as famous for its setting as the masterpieces in its collections.
Situated in Lincoln Park, the Legion of Honor art museum overlooks the entire city of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean, giving visitors the opportunity to take in not just the collections but also the views of the surrounding city.
Besides its huge permanent collections, the Legion of Honor also hosts special exhibitions and galleries throughout the year. While general admission tickets are free, each exhibition ticket has its own price.
You can visit the museum’s website to purchase tickets and find out more about becoming a Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) member, which offers discounts on tickets.
10. Find Serenity at the Palace of Fine Arts
Situated between the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts was constructed in the 1950s to resemble an ancient Roman structure.
While there isn’t enough here to fill up an entire day, you can spend a couple of enjoyable hours wandering the paths that meander through the building and around its ponds and wooded areas while taking in the ducks, swans, and other wildlife that call the curious spot home.
The compact nature of the city combined with its overwhelming number of attractions, activities, and areas to eat, play, and shop make it easy to find any number of things to do in San Francisco, no matter how long (or short) your visit.
This is one of those rare cities that’s perfect for both short weekend getaways and longer stays, and visitors of all ages and inclinations will have no trouble finding something to do and somewhere to eat that matches their interests. The only problem you’ll have on your San Francisco vacation is leaving!