47 things to do in San Francisco
I fell in love with San Francisco straight away. Its rudest bicyclists on the planet didn’t really bother me and every day in the city I felt as newly born.
The city of technology captured my heart. It is here in San Francisco where the locals use phone apps to check out the microclimate weather in the area, Waze to duck traffic jams, what food trucks are rolling to Fort Mason for Friday night dinners or use SideCar app linking passengers with drivers driving their own cars around the city to earn some ”donation” bucks.
I tried to do as many things I could while in the sensational San Francisco to give you tips about what to do.
Here are 47 things to do in San Francisco I highly recommend:
1. Golden Gate bridge – one of the most photographed things on Earth since its opening in 1937 is crossed by around 120,000 cars every day, plus all the pedestrians and bikes. The most known bridge out of 8 bridges in San Francisco bay was designed by Joseph Strauss and definitely helps to make San Francisco one of the most appealing destinations in the world. 2.7 km long, 227 m high and 27 m wide make this steel bridge one of the Wonders of the Modern World. It cost $35 million to build the bridge.
2. Cable cars – a must do when in SF, they are probably the second most famous SF attraction since 1873 when they were inaugurated. SF city now collects cable cars from around the world so you can easily find yourself hopping on a cable car from Milan, Italy or other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and also many other US cities. A single ticket costs $6 but in my opinion the best is to get the CityPASS with which you will get free unlimited cable car and MUNI transportation for 7 days which you can use for all the cable car routes. More than 40 different cable cars now cross the San Francisco hills and in 1964 were declared a National Historic Landmark.
3. Pier 39 – the first most visited SF landmark, even more visited than the Golden Gate bridge. Millions of people visit the famous Pier 39 just to walk it through, watch the 700 protected sea lions, visit the Aquarium or just to have a delicious meal in one of the restaurants here. Pier 39, the second most visited place in California after Disneyland, is very touristy yet worth a visit.
4. Alcatraz – Alcatraz island just a few minutes from the SF piers is famous for the prison of the same name. ”The Rock”, one out of the 12 islands within the city limits, can be reached only by the Alcatraz cruises and it is definitely one of the highlights of SF visit. Very interesting to learn about the US most notorious criminals and their life in the cells there.
5. Union Square – I walked it every day when staying in SF Downtown Hostel just a block away. Surrounded by a few sky scrappers, 4 heart statues at each corner of the square and also consisting of a few boutique streets great for shopping.
6. North Beach – definitely one of my favorite places in SF. The Little Italy used to have a beach back in time, hence its name. Now to be sure you are in the North Beach district, just check out the light poles as they all have an Italian flag on them. Some of the best restaurants can be found here, such as my favorite Trattoria Pinocchio. The North Beach is home to many other European-style restaurants and cafes, some of them meeting points of the Beat Generation (Cafe Trieste or City Lights Bookstore), and also the Washington Square with the Saints Peter and Paul Church. The church’s location is the most ironic ever – 666 Filbert Street (666 means the Satan, Antichrist) and Marilyn Monroe took her photos outside of the church just after her civil wedding with Joe DiMaggio.
7. Fisherman’s Wharf – is for sure one of the city’s most visited attractions during the day. The waterfront will greet you with fresh air, fishing boats, views of the bay, mostly crab and shrimp restaurants, souvenir shops, museums and maybe even famous people (I saw the actor Paul Walker from the Fast and Furious movie walking there!) And if you like clams, you should try popular Clam Chowder Bowl at Boudin Sourdough Bakery.
8. Dining – I don’t write that much about the different cuisines I taste around the world even though I am a sucker for food (gotta be when eating 5 or 6 times a day, right?!) But San Francisco is all about the food and I had no idea until already my first night here. I was never fond of the American food so didn’t really know what to expect but the good thing about a multicultural city is its different cultures and also cuisines from around the world. It’s unbelievable but I did put on weight only during 10 days in San Fran. I tried a serious number of restaurants but would need a year to get a lunch/dinner in all the 3,600 of them! Need some recommendations? My favorite restaurants were B44 Catalan Bistro, French restaurant Plouf and Italian restaurant Trattoria Pinocchio.
9. Shopping – I don’t go shopping very much when traveling because of a simple reason – limited space in my baggage and also don’t like to carry more stuff with me than necessary. But in San Francisco I got into the shopping mood out of the blue. My definitely number one place for shopping was the Westfield San Francisco Centre, the only shopping mall in the SF downtown. It’s home to the biggest high-end Bloomingdale’s and the 2nd largest Nordstrom in the US and other 200 shops and restaurants where you can get just anything you would need. I bought natural cosmetics in the Art of Minerals and food in Bristol Farms. And also got lunch and dinner here a few times when working online using the free wifi in the mall. The Westfield is also home to a beautiful Dome with summer light shows, Christmas snow falling and acoustical performances.
10. Boating – RocketBoat (the most thrilling and adventurous ride in the SF area) and Blue and Gold Fleet (the quieter 1 hour narrated tour of the Bay leaving from Pier 39 to under the Golden Gate Bridge). You can choose one of the 2 boat rides with the San Francisco CityPASS booklet.
11. Aquarium of the Bay – 20,000 local sea animals await you here, from sharks, many kinds of fish and jellyfish and sea plants. I am a huge fan of tunnel exhibits and the Aquarium of the Bay has one! You can also touch young bat rays and sharks or even a Kingsnake. The entrance is included in the CityPASS and in my opinion is one of the top things to do in San Francisco.
12. California Academy of Sciences – the one of the largest LEED Patinum-certified buildings in the world is ridiculously cool place to visit, indeed! Experience the earthquake, planetarium, rainforest sample from 4 different countries set on 4 floors, little aquarium and much more. If you are free on a Thursday night 6 – 10 pm, explore the nightlife museum with dance music, cocktails and food. Also included in the CityPASS booklet.
13. 7 Painted Ladies – ”the Postcard Row” of the seven houses beautifully painted in different colors located at 710 – 722 Steiner Street close to Alamo Square. Since the last one of them was built in 1896, the 7 Painted Sisters have appeared on many TV programs, in at least 70 movies and media photographs. Each one of the Victorian houses is of different color, varying from blue, to brown and yellow. As well, each of them is decorated in a unique way, with one having a spider door! The term ”Painted Ladies” comes from the 1978 book Painted Ladies – San Francisco Resplendent Victorians by Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada.
14. Golden Gate Park – the third most visited landmark in SF after the Pier 39 and the Golden Gate bridge. Offers several square km of green space and some favorite museums together with the Japanese Tea Garden ($7 entrance). Unfortunately, I never made it as far as to see the herd of bison in the park.
15. Mission Dolores park – although not found in many San Francisco guides, it was probably my favorite park in the city. It has amazing views of the whole city.
16. Coit Tower – 1933 art deco tower located on the Telegraph Hill, will reward you with some of the best views of the city both day and night ones. The tower was built with the money Lillie Hitchcock Coit left to the city once she died. Since her 15, Lillie was helping out local firefighters and became their mascot. The Coit tower was one of the 2 memorials built in her name in SF.
18. Beach Blanket Babylon musical was one of the funniest things I did in SF. Until then I was far away from liking musicals. This one completely changed my point of view.
19. City Sightseeing bus – a must do is both day and night bus tour as they go through different parts of the city when you will learn about most of the things to do in San Francisco I mention in this post. I really hope you get Chris as your guide on the night bus tour as he is hilarious, funny, makes you count Starbucks on the way and if you are right, he plays a harmonica for you. Chris also gives a detailed description of surrounding places so hopping on a City Sightseeing bus in San Francisco is a must do.
20. Food tour – food freak like me? Love Italian cuisine too? Go to eat your way through North Beach, the Italian neighborhood in San Francisco, with this food tour. Unforgettable, promise 🙂
21. Spa treatments in the Mandarin Oriental – I can highly recommend getting a pedicure which comes with a foot massage and also a facial treatment in Mandarin Oriental spa in San Francisco. If you wanna feel like a brand new person, this is THE thing to do in San Francisco.
22. Chinatown – the first time I walked part of the biggest Chinatown in the US on my way to the North Beach, it was early morning and the streets were empty. I walked it back late afternoon and it was still empty. Loved the silent atmosphere first. But then I visited it during the day and the 24 blocks of bustling streets with many sellers, fresh vegetables, exotic shops, temples, fortune cookies and herbs shops. The most densely populated area of SF, and the oldest US Chinatown at the same time, will definitely get you with its Dragon’s Gate, the entrance gate with 3 separate doors at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
23. Tea time – if you are a tea lover as much as I am, then spending an afternoon sipping on your favorite tea while munching on sandwiches, fruit and cakes in Lovejoy’s Tea Room.
24. Lombard street and the viewpoint – it’s supposed to be one of the best viewpoints in the city.
25. Nightlife – is supposed to be great in SF but as I am not a party person any more, I didn’t experience much of it. Remember though that the bars/discos close at 2 am. The best places to go out are according to the locals in the Mission and SOMA districts.
26. Exploratorium – since the April 17 moved to Pier 15. This acclaimed museum of science, art and human perception displays 600 incredible pieces that will make you wonder. You can try most of them yourself to see what all the machines do with your senses. This is the perfect place for your creativity and curiosity. Unbelievable! First Thursday of every month is also time for After Dark cocktails, music, playing with exhibits and adult only conversations. Get your CityPASS to enter faster.
27. Ferry Building – the marketplace reopened at the foot of the Market Street in 2003. The 1898 landmark is the home to public local food market where you can shop organic veggies and fruits, meat, wine, olive oil, handcrafts. Its clock tower was designed after the 12th century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain.
28. Yerba Buena gardens – a waterfall, a carousel, children playground, Zeum studio for children, a bowling center and much more the gardens offer. Full of life, yet relaxing place just 2 blocks from the Market Street. The gardens are named after the original name of San Francisco – Yerba Buena.
29. Wells Fargo History Room – I found this free entrance museum on 402 Montgomery Street on my way to Mandarin Oriental. It displays mining tools, maps and photos from the Gold Rush history and an original stagecoach. Pretty interesting if you are into that part of history.
30. Bay Bridge at night – to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Bay Bridge in 2011, the 25,000 LED lights were installed along the 2 km long bridge in March 2013 and are lit from dusk to 2am. The world’s largest LED sculpture is definitely worth a minute of your night time.
31. Grace Cathedral – the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of California located in Nob Hill is one of the most beautiful churches in the city, if not the number one. It has become an international pilgrimage center since it was finished in 1964 after its 36 years.
32. City Hall – standing on the same place as the old City Hall destroyed completely in 1906 earthquake, the ”new” City Hall survived the 1989 earthquake. Nowadays, the Beaux Arts building with an impressive dome taller than the US Capitol is open for public.
33. Japantown – the pagoda, Japanese restaurants and other Japanese landmarks make this location unique not only because it is the one out of only three Japantowns left in the US.
34. Pacific Heights – Victorian, Edwardian, Mission Revival and Chateau architecture lovers, this is your place! One of the most scenic affluent neighborhoods of San Francisco offering panoramic views of the Golden Gate bridge and the Alcatraz island will steal your heart. Most of the buildings you can see here now were built after the 1906 earthquake. Famous rich people have lived here since 1800’s. Even Danielle Steel had a house here she sold then for 54 million dollars!
35. Fort Mason – nice to just walk around to see that SF can be a peaceful place too. Amazing place to get sunset views of the Golden Gate Bridge (only if it is not foggy, of course!)
36. Transamerica Pyramid – the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco built in 1972, has unfortunately no oublic access to the top for panoramic views. But it is still cool to take photos of the pyramid. William Pereira really designed it in a nice way!
37. Marina – one of the parts of city fully destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, nowadays home to 2 yacht clubs and the Palace of Fine Arts with a beautiful swam lake where up to 7 weddings take place every day in summer. The he Palace building is covered with ladies statues showing their butts which was the idea of its designer inspired by the Roman and Greek architecture.
38. Battery Street – part of the old industrial district used to be underwater back in time during the Gold Rush when hundreds of vessels came to San Francisco and were abandoned by their crews who went to the gold fields looking for the fortune. With years, the ships converted into hotels, restaurants and saloons and then slowly covered by sand and buildings were raised on top of them. Every now and then parts of old vessels are discovered in this area, some just 6 – 12 m under the surface.
39. De Young Museum – situated in the Golden Gate Park just opposite the California Academy of Sciences, offers collections from North, Central and South America together with Africa and the Pacific. The museum also boats 360-view of the city from the twisting tower resembling an aircraft carrier designed by Darth Vader. Free on a Friday night? Visit the museum for lectures, live music, dancing, poetry series and art making. If you prefer not to visit the Exploratorium, then you can use your CityPASS booklet for this museum and the Legion of Honor if visited on the same day.
40. Presidio – since 1780 the Spanish army, then Mexican and finally the US army took over this area. Nowadays it is a publicly open space with beautiful brick-and-wood houses. Nice for a short walk.
41. Haight Ashbury – home to many restaurants and bars makes it still special in a way. Heard from a few people that the Haight Street is full of prostitutes and ”weirdos” smoking weed.
42. Tenderloin – San Francisco is one of the safest cities in the US and no matter how many homeless people I’ve seen there, I still felt super safe. But Tenderloin is supposed to be one of the ”dangerous” parts of the city with homeless people and drug dealers so watch out! Mid-market, part of Tenderloin, is since June 2012 home to new Twitter headquarters. Look for the old art deco furniture Mart at Market and Ninth.
43. Castro – Gay capital of the world.
44. Sausalito – a charming little town just a few minutes after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge with the views of San Francisco skyline. Yachts, galleries, trendy restaurants, cafes, handcrafted gifts and all that along the waterfront. You can get a ferry from SF, a City Sightseeing bus, drive a car or bike the Golden Gate Bridge to get to Sausalito. After my first quick visit to Sausalito I went there again for another hour a few days later.
45. Muir Woods – definitely worth a few hour visit if you are a nature lover and would like to get away from all the hustle and bustle of San Francisco city. Take a City Sightseeing bus to explore the coastal redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument.
46. Yosemite National Park – located 4 hours East of SF, offers different activities year-round. Hiking trails, waterfalls, crystal clear cold water in rivers, granite cliffs and unforgettable memories.
47. Napa – home to more than 400 wineries is ideal for wine lovers but the scenery will capture even those non-drinkers like me. I would never imagine myself in Napa but after falling in love with the Napa Valley Wine Train, I spent more time here and trust me, there is a lot to fall in love with than the train.
PS: If you happen to be in San Francisco late August to early October 2013, you should definitely check out the 34th America’s Cup Sailing Competition. SF is the first city to host the America’s Cup where the races can be viewed from the shore.
***It took me 4 days to write this post.