Ten Best Things to Do in San Francisco

Pacific Coast Highway Travel lists the ten best things to do in San Francisco, including Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, and Fisherman's Wharf.

San Francisco's Golden Gate BridgeSan Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

Choosing the ten best things to do in San Francisco isn't easy, in a city that's full of attractions. It's also very subjective, as our list of the ten best things will be different from someone else's. If you're traveling as a family then you'd have a different list yet again, or two different lists depending how old the children are.

Our Pick of the Guides

Lonely-Planet-San-Francisco-2023.png

Things like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Fisherman's Wharf would probably appear on everyone's list, but here, in no particular order, is our own list of the ten top things to do in San Francisco.

Ten Best Things to Do in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco's Golden Gate BridgeSan Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

Everyone wants to see the Golden Gate Bridge, the most familiar symbol of the city. Some might be happy with simply seeing it from a ferry ride or on a quick city tour, while others will want to get up close, visit the museum and Welcome Center, and walk across the bridge. All your different options are listed on our separate page on Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz Prison Island in San Francisco BayAlcatraz Prison Island in San Francisco Bay

Although this list isn't in any special order, we are putting our top three choices at the start. Visiting the former prison on the island of Alcatraz has definitely been one of the highlights of our visits to San Francisco. Let's face it, no-one likes crime, but we all love hearing and reading about it. We don't want to go to prison either, unless it's to somewhere like Alcatraz to find out what life behind bars was like in the most notorious prison in the country. Find out all you need to know on our Touring Alcatraz page.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Sign for Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

If you visit Alcatraz you have to take a ferry and book a tour at Fisherman's Wharf. You can fit both things in, as we describe on our Perfect Day in San Francisco page. So what else is at Fisherman's Wharf? Well, start with the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 and the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45.

You can rent bikes or book a bike tour, take a ferry to Sausalito and other places, or take a ferry tour around the bay. There's a carousel, other fairground attractions, and several museums in the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood. And you can't leave without having some clam chowder in a bowl made from San Francisco's own sourdough bread. Find out everything you can do on the Fisherman's Wharf website.

Chinatown

Red Paper Lanterns in San Francisco's ChinatownSan Francisco's Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown is the biggest in the USA. It began with Chinese immigrants arriving during the Gold Rush and setting up businesses, and today there's an estimated population of about 35,000. It's a fascinating place to simply wander around, and you should definitely eat in one of Chinatown's many excellent restaurants. You might want to delve a little deeper by taking an organized tour, perhaps one of the free tours offered by San Francisco City Guides.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

This one's a slight cheat as it allows us to include two museums for the price of one, the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, which do work together under the title of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The De Young Museum in San FranciscoThe De Young Museum

The de Young Museum is in Golden Gate Park, close to the California Academy of Sciences. It was founded in 1895 and its main draw is its huge collection of American Art from the 17th century to the present day. However, it also has collections of European Art, African Art, Oceanic Art, and contemporary art from around the world.

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San FranciscoThe California Palace of the Legion of Honor

The Legion of Honor is in Lincoln Park, and you'll get good views of the Golden Gate Bridge from here. It was established in 1924 and its collections span over 6,000 years of human history. There are objects from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and also a good collection of European Art including Rodin, Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and many more.

You'll learn more at the website of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park in San FranciscoGolden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park covers over 1,000 acres and is another part of the city where you could spend several hours just mooching about, especially on a sunny day. And that's without allowing time to visit some of the attractions, like the de Young Museum or the California Academy of Sciences.

Other things to see include the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, public art, windmills, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, lakes, Hippie Hill, and do check if there's a concert happening in the Music Concourse. Learn more on the Golden Gate Park official website.

The Painted Ladies

San Francisco's Painted LadiesSan Francisco's Painted Ladies

The term 'painted ladies' is now used in many US cities to describe Victorian and Edwardian houses that have been painted in brighter colors than they would have been originally. However, the term originated in San Francisco and the best examples are around Alamo Square.

The California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences in San FranciscoThe California Academy of Sciences

Located in Golden Gate Park, this is one of the city's best museums. Despite its name it's actually one of the biggest natural history museums in the world with over 46 million specimens (some of them are very small, of course!) The building was designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano and is famous for its living green roof, which was covered with 1.7 million plants, all native to California.

Inside the building there's a rainforest area, an aquarium, planetarium, an African Hall, a gems and minerals display, and of course the main natural history museum. You can easily spend all day here. Read all about it on the official website.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This is another of San Francisco's top museums. It was established in 1935, when it was the first museum on the west coast devoted to modern art. Today, with a collection of over 35,000 items, it's one of the largest modern art museums in the world. With such a vast collection it's hard to pick out highlights, but among the draws are works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and Robert Rauschenberg. Find more details on the official website.

Take a Ride in a Cable Car

San Francisco Cable CarSan Francisco Cable Car

Finally, no visit to San Francisco is complete without a ride on one of the city's famous cable cars. There are three lines to choose from but the best is the Powell Hyde line, which goes along the waterfront and then up and down San Francisco's steep streets. Get full details and plan your trip by visiting the SFMTA website.

And if you manage to do all these then you really have done ten of the best things in San Francisco!

Other San Francisco pages

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  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel's guide to visiting the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco including how to get there and free walking tours of the bridge.

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    Pacific Coast Highway Travel's guide to visiting the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco including how to get there and free walking tours of the bridge.

  • San Francisco sightseeing tours can be by helicopter, bike, walking, eating in Chinatown, touring the gay area or trips to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

    San Francisco Sightseeing Tours

    San Francisco sightseeing tours can be by helicopter, bike, walking, eating in Chinatown, touring the gay area or trips to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel's advice on visiting Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and seeing its museums, gardens, lakes, buildings, and even bison!

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  • Information about San Francisco, including what to see, where to stay, where to eat, and links to sources of information including the official visitor website.

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    Information about San Francisco, including what to see, where to stay, where to eat, and links to sources of information including the official visitor website.

  • Cheap flights to San Francisco with Southwest Airlines, Virgin America, SkyWest, JetBlue and other airlines from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle.

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  • 101 free San Francisco attractions and things to do are in the Kindle guide, 101 Free Things to Do in San Francisco, in the Travel Free eGuidebooks series.

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  • San Francisco has some of the best Chinatown restaurants in the USA, and its Chinese restaurants provide superb dining. Here are our top eating places.

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  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel's book review of Insider's Guide to San Francisco guidebook by Jill Loeffler, publisher of the San Francisco Tourism Tips website.

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  • Touring Alcatraz, the former island prison, is one of the best things to do in San Francisco and attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year.

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  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel’s advice on the best time to visit San Francisco, covering the weather and climate from month to month and season by season.

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  • A perfect day in San Francisco would include Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, and the California Academy of Sciences.

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  • Take a San Francisco Music Tour with Magic Bus, a trip through the musical past to Haight-Ashbury, the City Lights Bookstore and the Summer of Love.

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  • A selection of the best Photos of the Golden Gate Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway Travel website, for travel and photographic inspiration.

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  • The Pacific Coast Highway Travel guide to the best golf courses in San Francisco for all budgets and skill levels, including courses close to the city center.

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  • The Best Nightlife in San Francisco could be at the California Academy of Sciences where once a week it becomes a temporary nightclub.

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