The Best Things to do in San Francisco

The 15 Best Things to do in San Francisco

There’s so much that San Francisco is known for. From the steep hills leading to breathtaking views to the fog (whose name is Karl, by the way) that’s an ever-present blanket over the city, San Francisco looks like it popped out of a painting. 

Perhaps that’s why it makes sense that the city is such a haven for arts and culture. From the world-famous San Francisco Symphony to the Broadway shows that fill the Orpheum Theatre, those who love the arts are sure to love San Francisco.

But the city is also home to some of the most unique dining experiences around, as well as a rich history. From snacking on chocolate treats in Ghirardelli Square to exploring the eerie Alcatraz Island, San Francisco fascinates at every turn. 

With so many things to see and do in San Francisco, where should you start? We’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in San Francisco to make it easy for you. With these unique San Francisco bucket list recommendations, you’re sure to have an amazing time exploring this Bay Area gem.

The 15 Best Things to do in San Francisco

1. Spend an Afternoon at the Presidio

Cool Things to do in San Francisco: The Presidio

The Presidio is filled with some of the best things to see in San Francisco. Featuring beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s easily one of the most wonderful areas of the city.

Dip your toes in the water at Baker Beach, go for a round of golf, and visit historic sites that celebrate the Presidio’s former lives as military bases for Spain, Mexico, and the US. With tons of trails to explore, you’ll take in stunning sights you can only see here.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you should visit the Letterman Digital Arts Center, where you’ll find Lucasfilm’s home. Take a photo at the iconic Yoda Fountain and step inside the company’s lobby, where you’ll find Star Wars memorabilia you can’t find anywhere else. 

And if you’re a fan of Disney, you’ll love the Walt Disney Family Museum, where you can learn about Disney history, see the one-of-a-kind models that became Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and even take animation classes to teach you the famous Disney style.

The Presidio is also home to unique dining experiences, workout classes, and spas. One of the top dining spots in the area is Sessions at the Presidio, which has a partnership with George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, located in nearby Marin County, allowing you to dine on Skywalker Ranch’s fresh produce and sample Skywalker Vineyard’s eclectic wine list.


2. See a Show at the Palace of Fine Arts

Fun Things to do in San Francisco: Palace of Fine Arts

Checking out the Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most iconic things to do in San Francisco. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, this theater was designed to look like Roman or Greek ruins, making it seem like a piece of art that’s been lost in time and place. Though the structure was only meant to be temporary, visitors fell in love with it. San Francisco decided to keep it, allowing it to continue delighting and enthralling guests for over a century.

Walking around the Palace of Fine Arts is like visiting a unique art museum. Built on beautifully maintained grounds and around a lagoon known for its delicate swans, the Palace of Fine Arts is a perfect spot to stop for a picnic and enjoy the tranquility.

But if you’d like to go inside the palace, reserve a ticket to one of its events, which happen year-round. Step inside the historic theater and take in a diverse group of shows, ranging from opera to ballet and so much more.


3. Eat at Ghirardelli Square

What to do in San Francisco: Ghirardelli Square

It’s easy to spot Ghirardelli Square, thanks to the enormous Ghirardelli sign that illuminates the night sky above it. Located by the water at Fisherman’s Wharf, this specialty shopping and dining complex got its start as Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Factory in the late 1800s. But when the factory was sold and transferred to a new location, a group of San Franciscans purchased the land it stood on and created the Ghirardelli Square we know today!

A visit to Ghirardelli Square just wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, where Ghirardelli chocolate is turned into world-famous hot fudge. We recommend trying the Crissy Field Cookie Bits Sundae, named for the Presidio’s Crissy Field and filled with chocolate chip cookies, Ghirardelli chocolate, and three scoops of ice cream. Don’t forget to stop by the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience to take some sweet treats home with you from one of San Francisco’s best chocolate shops!

Ghirardelli Square may be named for Ghirardelli, but there are plenty of unique things to do in this bustling location. Try a flight of beers at the San Francisco Brewing Co., play mini-golf at the wonderfully named Subpar Miniature Golf, or get lost in a virtual world at Gameday VR.


4. Take a Boat to Alcatraz Island

Best Things to do in San Francisco: Alcatraz Island

San Francisco is a place with a rich history, and one of the most famous San Francisco attractions is Alcatraz Island. Known as The Rock, this island was once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, like Al Capone. Nowadays, the island is a US National Park and a unique tourist destination.

Departing from Pier 33, taking a cruise to Alcatraz means spending a day enjoying taking in the San Francisco skyline from the bay and immersing yourself in history. With a day cruise, you’ll receive passage to The Rock, where you’ll go on a self-guided tour through and around the prison. You’ll find art installations, walk through beautiful foliage, learn about the many escape attempts that happened throughout the prison’s history, and even step inside Al Capone’s cell. 

You can also book a night cruise, where you’ll watch the sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge before visiting The Rock. You’ll listen to stories about the former residents during talks led by expert historians, with topics changing every night. 

You’ll also get a demonstration of how the cell doors work. For a more in-depth look at Alcatraz, you can book a Behind-the-Scenes Tour, where you and a select group of guests will go on a guided adventure through Alcatraz’s secrets, from hidden tunnels to special gardens. Taking a Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Alcatraz is easily one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco.


5. Picnic at Alamo Square Park

Fun Things to do in San Francisco: Picnic at Alamo Square Park

There’s perhaps no better spot to picnic in San Francisco than Alamo Square Park. Just ask the cast of Full House, who picnic here in the opening credits of the show! 

Seeing the beautiful row of Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies should be on everyone’s San Francisco bucket list, and there’s no better view of the Painted Ladies than from Alamo Square Park. There’s a reason why Alamo Square is considered to be home to some of the best sights in San Francisco!

When you’re done with your picnic, take a stroll through the rest of the grounds. Featuring beautifully manicured lawns, rows of flowerbeds, and shade-giving willows, you’ll find peaceful sights all around. For little ones, there’s also a dual-level playground, and for dogs, there’s an off-leash area. Keep your eyes out for the natural springs that occur throughout the park.


6. Marvel at Wildlife at the San Francisco Zoo

What to do in San Francisco: San Francisco Zoo

Open every day of the year, the San Francisco Zoo is one of those must-do things in San Francisco for animal lovers. The zoo mixes learning with fun, making it perfect for adults and kids alike. Docents are around every corner to tell stories, but you can also pick up a keepsake Zoo Key to unlock Talking Storyboards throughout the zoo.

Stop by the Australian WalkAbout to look for a joey in its mother’s pouch, watch gentle giants play at the Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, or get up close to friendly critters at the petting zoo in the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo. You can also take a break from the animals and observe the flora in the San Francisco Zoo’s many gardens.

Keep your eyes peeled for the unique sculptures that dot the zoo’s paths. Each one represents a different creature, from the microorganism vorticella to the duck-billed platypus. 

Conservation and education are what drive the zoo, which is why they hold several programs for kids and families to learn and connect with the natural world. The zoo offers three Zoo Camp sessions per year, allowing kids aged 4 to 11 to fully immerse themselves in the wonderful world of caring for animals. 


7. Have Tea at the Japanese Tea Garden

Cool Things to do in San Francisco: Japanese Tea Garden

Located in Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is a true gem that’s one of the coolest things to do in San Francisco. This incredible location provides you with a tranquil day of experiencing the natural beauty and harmony of a Japanese-style garden. 

The 5-acre tea garden features classic elements of Japanese architecture, including an arched drum bridge, pagodas, koi ponds, stepping stone paths, a zen garden, and many native Japanese plants. Marvel at the beauty of this one-of-a-kind location as you stroll through the colorful paths. One of the best times to go is between March and April, when you’ll be able to see the cherry blossom trees in bloom.

At the heart of the garden is the Tea House. Take in the peaceful view of the garden over a pot of tea and traditional Japanese snacks. The Tea House also has a tradition of providing fortune cookies to every guest that purchases a bowl of Japanese rice crackers or arare.


8. Explore the California Academy of Sciences

Fun Things to do in San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences

Another Golden Gate Park find, the California Academy of Sciences is part aquarium, part planetarium, part living museum, and part natural history museum, ensuring that there’s truly something for everyone. Dedicated to helping the world restore its damaged ecosystems, the California Academy of Sciences is considered one of the most eco-friendly museums in the world.

Explore the ocean’s mysterious “twilight zone” in the Steinhart Aquarium, or step into a butterfly-filled wonderland in the four-story Osher Rainforest. In the Kimball Natural History Museum, you can learn how our past dictates our future as you study the one-of-a-kind species in the museum’s record-breaking scientific collection. To learn about the worlds beyond our own, you can book a seat at the Morrison Planetarium, where stunning visualizations of the cosmos are projected on a 75-foot-diameter screen.

While the California Academy of Sciences is great for adults and kids alike, the museum also holds events just for adults called NightLife, which is held every Thursday. Every NightLife is unique and features food, drinks, dancing, and so much more, surrounded by nearly 40,000 live animals and tons of exhibits to explore. 

If your little one would like to also explore the museum at night, you can book a sleepover on select days. In addition to getting a more private look at the exhibits, you and your child will get milk and cookies before you roll out your sleeping bags in different exhibit areas. 

You can even sleep right next to the famous Claude, the alligator with albinism. In the morning, you’ll get breakfast at the Academy Cafe before continuing your adventure with a complimentary day pass to the museum.


9. Visit the Sutro Baths

San Francisco Things to do: Sutro Baths

In 1894, Adolph Sutro, a self-made millionaire who designed Sutro Heights and the beloved Cliff House, developed the Sutro Baths. He constructed an ocean pool aquarium to the north of Cliff House and then expanded his complex into a massive public bathhouse that covered three acres. The bathhouse was a glass enclosure with seven swimming pools with slides, trapezes, springboards, and a high dive. 

It became a cultural haven. Not only did thousands swim there, but it also housed natural history exhibits and artifacts from around the world and was an event venue. But the Sutro family’s success came to an end with the Great Depression. A fire in 1966 destroyed what was left of the Sutro Baths, but the ruins remain today.

Now a collection of pools of saltwater and crumbling walls, the Sutro Baths’ ruins are a reminder of a forgotten time. Set in one of the most beautiful areas of San Francisco in the Outer Richmond’s Lands End, your San Francisco sightseeing journey just wouldn’t be complete without a trip to these ruins. Though the Sutro Baths may be lost to time, the ruins are a testament to the romance and wonder of days gone by. 


10. Hike the Lands End Coastal Trail

Best Things to do in San Francisco: Hike the Lands End Coastal Trail

Lands End has some of the best sights in San Francisco, and the best way to see them is by taking the Lands End Coastal Trail. Located at the westernmost point of San Francisco, this trail will provide you with hours of sightseeing.

Begin at Lands End Lookout, where you’ll find free trail maps, natural history exhibits, and other San Francisco artifacts. Then head north on the trail and step through the cypress trees to watch the waves lap against the shore. The trail will also take you through the Sutro Baths and give you a beautiful view of the Marin Headlands. If you come at low tide, you may even see the ruins of the Ohioan, a ship that wrecked here in 1937.

Once you reach the Lifesaving Station Overlook, you’ll have a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll also find the Lands End Labyrinth, a piece of stone public artwork that’s become an unofficial San Francisco landmark.


11. Play and Learn at the Exploratorium

San Francisco Bucket List: The Exploratorium

The Exploratorium can be found at Pier 15 along the Embarcadero and is one of the best things to do in San Francisco, especially if you’re traveling with kids. The Exploratorium is more than a museum. It’s an interactive play space designed to make learning fun.

With more than 600 interactive exhibits in six indoor and outdoor galleries, there’s always something to do at the Exploratorium. In many ways, the Exploratorium tests our understanding of the world around us. 

Does doubling a chair in size double its strength? How does changing the color of a light change a photo? How do circuits affect everyday objects? The Exploratorium is meant to inspire curiosity and questions. Every exhibit is designed to be hands-on, fully immersing you in these interesting experiments.

If you’re traveling with an adults-only group, check out the Exploratorium After Dark, a weekly themed event happening every Thursday. Explore the exhibits with a drink in your hand and a DJ to set the mood.

Once you’re done exploring the Exploratorium, walk along the Embarcadero to find more San Francisco attractions. Right nearby is the Ferry Building, known for its eclectic marketplace and dining experiences. 

One of the best times to go is during the farmer’s market, which happens Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Here, you’ll find fresh farm produce, artisan goods, and incredible treats. Considered one of the best farmer’s markets in America, this is one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco if you’re a food lover!


12. Stop and Smell the Roses at the Conservatory of Flowers

Fun Things to do in San Francisco: Conservatory of Flowers

For more than a century, the Conservatory of Flowers has been delighting Golden Gate Park visitors. With nearly 2,000 plant species inside this Victorian-era glass greenhouse, the Conservatory of Flowers is one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco. 

Across five galleries, there’s always something new in bloom with the seasons. Marvel at the Giant Water Lilies of the Aquatic Plants gallery, the delicate high-altitude orchids of the Highland Tropics gallery, and the lush flowering trees of the Potted Plants gallery. To get the whole experience, you can also download a self-guided audio tour.

The Conservatory of Flowers hosts events throughout the year, both public and private, but perhaps the best and most well-known is Night Bloom. Night Bloom typically arrives at the start of the holiday season, but be sure to check the website for exact dates. This spectacular event illuminates the flowers at night, making them burst with vibrant displays. 


13. Have an Arts-and-Culture-Filled Evening at the Yerba Buena Gardens

Cool Things to do in San Francisco: Yerba Buena Gardens

Yerba Buena Gardens is a hub for arts and culture and is filled with some of the coolest things to do in San Francisco. With so much to do, it’s easy to spend an art-filled day here.

At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, you can experience art inspired by cultures around the world. Just around the corner is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has new contemporary art exhibits being built all the time.

For more cultural experiences, you can head to the Museum of African Diaspora or the Contemporary Jewish Museum. If you have young ones with you, you’ll love spending time at the Children’s Creativity Museum, which features the LeRoy King Carousel, a San Francisco institution that’s over 100 years old.


14. See the Sea Lions at Pier 39

Must do things in San Francisco: Sea Lions at Pier 39

Pier 39 is one of San Francisco’s most famous tourist destinations, so you’ll find it crowded on most days. But if you’re comfortable with crowds, it’s worth a visit, especially to see the famous sea lions.

Though you can typically see some sea lions all year round at Pier 39, the best time to visit is from late summer to late spring, when you’ll see hundreds of sea lions basking at K-Dock. These barking beauties are truly a sight to behold.

There’s plenty more to do at Pier 39, including amusement park-style rides, virtual reality experiences, whale-watching cruises, and wine tasting. Stop by the Aquarium of the Bay to get up close and personal with the diverse marine life of the San Francisco Bay and beyond.

You can also venture further into Fisherman’s Wharf for even more San Francisco attractions, including unique dining experiences. Stopping by Boudin Bakery, home of its world-famous sourdough, is a must-do on any San Francisco bucket list. Order their iconic clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, or buy sourdough in adorable shapes like teddy bears that are almost too cute to eat.


15. Walk up the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps

What to do in San Francisco: 16th Avenue Tiled Steps

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps are hidden gems nestled in the Inner Sunset District. Beginning as a neighborhood grassroots project for Inner Sunset’s Golden Gate Heights sub-district, these mosaic steps took hundreds of hours of labor to complete and opened to the public in 2005. 

The 163 steps look like an underwater wonderland, filled with fish, shells, and other sea creatures, alongside a colorful sun and luminescent moon. The stairs are surrounded by gorgeous gardens on either side and when you reach the top, you’ll have an incredible view of Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean beyond. 

Just around the corner, you’ll also find the Hidden Garden Steps, another iconic set of stairs, this time decorated with flowers, insects, and other local creatures. There are actually several sets of tiled stairs around San Francisco, though the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps may be the most famous. It’s easy to spend a whole day hunting down these hidden treasures, which lead to some of the most beautiful San Francisco sightseeing.

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in San Francisco. What’s your favorite thing to do in San Francisco?


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Author

  • Jacqueline Gualtieri

    Jacqueline is a writer and editor pursuing the freelance life to explore the world. Born and raised in New Jersey, she spent her college years in Boston before settling down with her partner and puppy in Monterey, California.

    When she’s not writing, you can often find her planning her next trip. Road trips are her favorite, whether it’s driving across the country or simply exploring a new city in her own backyard. She loves uncovering the history of every new place she goes.

    Jacqueline has a restless passion for learning and makes it a goal to pick up a new skill every year. She’s picked up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, and cross-stitching, but she’s hoping to master more languages to help her in her travels. She’s also a published author, with short stories and poetry appearing in several anthologies.

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