7 Top Things To Do in San Francisco

7 Top Things To Do in San Francisco

7 Top Things to do in San Francisco

Guest Article by Shandos Cleaver, the founder and blogger-in-chief of Travelnuity.

We have visited San Francisco in the past for work in our corporate days and unfortunately, it was only a brief drive across the Golden Gate Bridge as well as a quick stop at Fisherman’s Wharf. Shandos has put together her top 7 things to do in San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge to sea lions and crooked streets and more.  There are some great places to visit in San Francisco.

Have you visited all 7 San Francisco attractions yet?

(Editor Update 2020)

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Related Reading: Our Guide On How To Plan a Trip to the USA

What To Do in San Francisco:

7 Top Things To Do in San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco is one of the most memorable cities in the United States, with its distinctive culture and bayside location, not to mention its famous bridge. Little wonder then that many songs have been written about it, from I Left My Heart in San Francisco in the 1960s to We Built This City in the 1980s.

To ensure that you have plenty of fond memories of your time in San Francisco, make sure you add these top things to do in San Francisco to your itinerary.

  1. Take in the Golden Gate Bridge

7 Top Things To Do in San Francisco - Golden Gate BridgeView of Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach

One of the most famous bridges in the world, it’s rare to picture San Francisco without including the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning the Golden Gate Strait and over 1.5 miles long, it lies immediately north of the city.

The bridge is also one of the most photographed bridges in the world, and there is no shortage of vantage points from which to snap a photo or two. Just look at the number of photo spots marked on Google Maps!

One of the most popular spots for photos is Fort Point, almost directly under the southern end of the bridge. While the Fort itself is only open Friday to Sunday for most of the year (with free entry), the exterior with its great angles for photographs is accessible seven days a week. Occasionally, there’s even a wave break under the bridge, and it’s possible to get shots of the enthusiastic surfers from here!

Another excellent spot from which to view the bridge on the southern side is Baker Beach. This beach is located on the western edge of San Francisco and is a great spot to go for a walk in the late afternoon, staying to watch the sunset over the Pacific. The beach is also one of the best dog-friendly spots in San Francisco, so usually, there’re plenty of dogs also enjoying a walk.

Alternatively, make your way north across the bridge. There’s a couple of great viewpoints to stop at on the north side, including the Golden Gate View Point on the edge of Sausalito. Take the first exit north of the bridge. Note that there is currently a USD$7.75 toll to drive back south over the bridge, payable online or over the phone.

  1. Visit the Island of Alcatraz

San Francisco is equally well known for the prison island of Alcatraz, located in the middle of its bay. The prison on the island operated from 1934 and 1963, home to infamous inmates including Al “Scarface” Capone and the “Birman” Robert Stroud.

During that time, the official record is that no one ever successfully escaped the prison, although a few prisoners disappeared, presumed drowned, and may have actually made it to freedom.

These days, the island is a tourist attraction, housing the historical remains of the prison buildings plus some Civil War-era buildings. It’s also home to thousands of roosting and nesting sea birds.

A single ferry provider, Alcatraz Cruises, offers trips to the island. Make sure you book your visit well in advance, as the trips are very popular and can be sold out weeks in advance.

Day Tours currently cost USD$39.90. Your ticket price includes the ferry trip, plus a comprehensive audio tour, that you pick up in the prison once you arrive on the island. It’s mainly a self-guided experience and you can stay for as long as you like on the island. Most visitors stay for two to three hours.

Alternatively, there are Night Tours on offer between Tuesday and Saturday, for a more atmospheric experience. These tours are partially guided and currently cost $47.30.

Ferries for all tours depart from The Embarcadero, near the intersection with Bay Street, not far from Fisherman’s Wharf.

  1. Watch the Seal Lions

Sea Lions of Fishermans Wharf - 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoThe famous sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf

After you disembark from the Alcatraz ferry, stay a while longer at Fisherman’s Wharf to view some of the other famous residents of San Francisco. On the western side of Pier 39 is a colony of sea lions. They’ve made their home here now for nearly 30 years, since shortly after a significant earthquake hit San Francisco in October 1989.

It’s a great opportunity to see these beautiful creatures up close. There is a small year-round colony, which swells to hundreds and hundreds during the wintertime, barking and making a lot of noise!

The Fisherman’s Wharf precinct is similarly packed with tourists, visiting the many restaurants and shops, although the prices are generally more expensive than elsewhere in the city, so I recommend not staying for long.

  1. Ride a Cable Car

Ride a Cable Car 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoCable car on the streets of San Francisco © Prayitno / Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

If you’re looking for a fun and easy way to return from Fisherman’s Wharf back to the city centre of San Francisco, take one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. When you see the rather steep hill you otherwise need to climb up, it’s easy to understand why the trolley cars were built!

Choose between the Powell/Mason cable car, which departs from near the intersection of Bay Street and Taylor Street, and the Powell/Hyde cable car, which departs from the Hyde Street and Beach Street intersection. Both cable cars terminate in the same spot: the intersection of Powell Street and Market Street, not far past Union Square.

A single ride on a cable car costs USD$7.00. You can pay using the MuniMobile app, a Clipper card or with cash (use exact change). There’s also a third cable car line, the California/Van Ness line, although it’s not as handy for tourists.

For your regular transport needs, skip using the expensive cable cars and rely instead on the other public transport options available in San Francisco. Trips on the buses and metro trains cost only USD$2.50 using the MuniMobile app or a Clipper card, or USD$3.00 for cash payments from July 1, 2019.

If you plan to take more than one or two trips, it’s great value to download MuniMobile, the official ticketing app for San Francisco public transport. Only one app is required per group, plus you can purchase a USD$5.00 all-day pass on the app to use across all buses and metro trains.

  1. Zig Zag up the Crookedest Street

Lombard Street 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoThe crooked section of Lombard Street

When you see how steep some of the hills are in San Francisco, it’s no wonder that the local authorities turned to some ingenious methods to build streets up them.

Dotted around the city are multiple “crooked streets”. These streets zigzag backwards and forth to get up and down hills, with sharp curves at each bend, so that people aren’t in danger of being killed by vehicles rolling down them.

Allegedly the most crooked, and certainly the most famous, of these streets is Lombard Street. The crooked section of this street is located in between Jones and Hyde Streets. It’s not far away from Fisherman’s Wharf, just a short uphill walk, of course! If you’re driving the street, it’s one-way downhill only.

  1. Embrace Your Inner Hippy

Haight Street 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoThe colourful Haight-Ashbury district

During the 1960s, San Francisco was the epicentre of the hippy subculture. To get a taste of the lingering hippy side of San Francisco, head to Haight-Ashbury.

This district is centred around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets and was nick-named “Hashbury” during the 1960s by writer Hunter S. Thompson. These days it contains an eclectic mix of boutiques, including a range of vintage clothing, books and records stores. A great selection of alternative food is also on offer.

Murals 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoMurals in Haight-Ashbury

While walking along Haight Street, make sure you turn down some of the side streets, to check out the many murals decorating the exteriors of shops. These are often influenced by the hippie counter-culture. It’s also great to time your visit for the second Sunday of June when part of Haight Street is closed for a street fair each year.

The Painted Ladies - 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoThe “Painted Ladies” in Lower Haight

While you’re in the area, also consider heading up to Alamo Square in Lower Haight. Opposite the popular grassy park is the famous row of Victorian houses known as the “Painted Ladies”.

  1. Explore the Mission District

Balmy Alley 7 Top Things To Do in San FranciscoBalmy Alley in the Mission district

Another colourful area of San Francisco to visit is the Mission District. The district is named after the Mission San Francisco de Assis, the oldest standing building in San Francisco, located in the northwestern part of the district.

For many years the district has had a large Latino population, lending the area much of its character, although it has gentrified in recent years.

For some of the best and cheapest tacos on offer in San Francisco, head to the Taqueria El Farolito on Mission Street. This no-frills Mexican eatery is always busy until late at night. Note that it’s cash only.

Make sure you also check out Balmy Alley. The walls of this laneway in between 24th and 25th Streets are covered with murals and other artworks, with new works regularly appearing.

Bio for Shandos Cleaver

Shandos Cleaver is the founder and blogger-in-chief of Travelnuity, a travel blog focused on dog-friendly travel around the world. Shandos recently returned to Australia after spending nearly two years travelling around Europe and the USA with her Miniature Dachshund, Schnitzel. On her blog, she shares hands-on information for other people wishing to travel with their dog.

Essential Visitor Information for San Francisco

San Francisco Map

San Francisco Map

Getting In

San Francisco Airport is located 16km from the city centre.

Car Rental Information from San Francisco Airport if you would like to hire a car.

For the latest flight deals to San Francisco from your home base click here.

Private San Francisco International Airport (SFO) Transfers to/from San Francisco Click here

Where to stay in San Francisco

We use Hotels Combined for our recommended San Francisco Hotels.  They have access to over 200 websites including Booking.com, Expedia etc and list the latest deals for all areas in San Francisco.

Top Hotels in San Francisco as Recommended by TripAdvisor.

San Francisco Hotels With Free Parking

Parking costs are at a premium in cities these days.

TripAdvisor has a list of the top hotels in San Francisco that offer free parking for guests. For more information click here.

San Francisco City Tours and Information




San Francisco Weather

The best time to visit San Francisco is between September and November in the fall.  The weather is mild and there are fewer tourists, the second-best time to visit is in Spring.

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  • Mijia Eggers says:

    I enjoyed the Golden Gate and the cable cars when I was there. The streets are steep and it was fun to up and down there. But the exotic thing was the China town.

  • Summer says:

    When I visited San Francisco before I only had time to do a few touristy things like see Fisherman’s Wharf and ride a cable car. I would love to check out Haight-Ashbury and The Mission area sounds awesome too. Lombard Street is another cool one I love the photos from the top!

  • Paula says:

    Very nice guide to those who visit San Francisco for the first time. There is so much to see and to do in the city, and one can always find something new. I would maybe add also a visit to the Chinatown which is the biggest chinatown outside of Asia. It is fun to walk around and maybe have a lunch or dinner there.

  • Maureen says:

    I’ve been to San Fran several times in the past for work and have only seen Haight-Ashbury and did a cable car. I forget how beautiful the sand is while looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. Would love to so the Alcatraz tour, but I wonder how spooky it is at night… Nice article.

    • Hi Maureen
      Thanks for your comments. San Francisco has so much to offer the visitor hopefully you can return and enjoy more of the city.
      Cheers Jane and Duncan

  • Pooja says:

    Wow. Didn’t know San Francisco has so many options to explore. Would love to try the San Francisco’s cable cars. Have seen the painted ladies, European styles houses in many movies. Would love to see it in person.

  • Jackie says:

    This is an excellent list of “must-see” in San Fransisco. I haven’t visited, but have always loved the look of the moon (preferably full!) over the Golden Gate bridge. I’ve seen it in posters and would love to experience it myself! I especially appreciate the tips on where to get the best photographs of the bridge. Haight Street and the Painted Ladies are also on my San Fran Bucket List. I’ll definitely be referring back to these useful tips when I get there. Thanks!

    • Hi Jackie
      Thanks for your comments. You will have so much fun seeing all the sights that San Francisco has to offer when you travel there.
      Cheers Jane and Duncan

  • Amar Singh says:

    I have travelled the easy coast quite a bit but not visited San Francisco yet. Look to do the west coast next year so will definitely visit this great city. Some of the things you have pointed out is right on my list so great help reading more about it. The Golden Gate Bridge without a doubt is the most popular landmark and one I would visit for sure. Taking a tram ride another highlight on my trip. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ami Bhat says:

    The Crooked street is something that fascinates me – everytime I read about it. Wonder what it is to cycle around there. Personally, I am fascinated with the stories that you can get at Island of Alcatraz – I bet they are melancholic but interesting nonetheless. Golden Gate is just unmissable as are the Painted ladies. Lovely list

  • This is a great list of places to see in San Francisco. You cannot just be there without witnessing the Golden Gate Bridge. I did not know that I can watch seal lions in SF. Riding the cable car and visiting the Alcatraz Island are also in my list now. Haight-Ashbury District seems to be really hippy. I would love to visit all these places.

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