Golden Gate City: Things to Do in San Francisco, California

San Francisco is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States. The city is known for its steep hills, Victorian architecture, and diverse population. You can explore world-famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island or enjoy the city’s museums and parks. San Francisco also has a vibrant food scene.

From museums and famous landmarks to boat tours and day trips, San Francisco offers a great deal to experience and explore. Check out our favorite things to do while visiting!

Alcatraz Island Tour

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
Photo Credit: [@wirestock_creators/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Francesca of Travel Heal Love

If you are in San Francisco, you cannot miss an Alcatraz Island tour– step inside the most infamous prison in the country. Visiting Alcatraz Island is one of the top things to do in San Francisco. It is a 25-acre island you can reach in 10 minutes by ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf.

Moreover, it housed prisoners who were too notorious or dangerous to be held elsewhere, like Al Capone. It was closed in 1963 due to its expense.

Upon arrival, to reach the Cell House at the top of Alcatraz Island, you walk up the steep hill on the old service road from the wharf. Car transport is available for wheelchair users and visitors with mobility needs.

Once inside Alcatraz, you can get an audio guide, which I would suggest you do, and you will hear stories from former inmates and prison guards as you walk through the cellblock.

Also, you will learn about the 1962 daring escape of 3 inmates through air vents. To this day, it’s not known if their escape was successful or not because the prisoners were never found.

Furthermore, there is also a museum, a bookshop, and many exhibits of buildings that serve various purposes in the island’s daily routine.

The price of the ferry, entrance, guided tour, and audio guide is 47.30 US$. At the end of the tour, you can enjoy the spectacular view of San Francisco’s skyline. Be sure to bring a camera because you will want to remember your tour to the Rock!

Visit Sausalito

Sausalito, Califronia
Photo Credit: [@appalachianview/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Mary of Be Right Back by Mary

Sausalito, California, is located on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. This city remains unknown to most tourists and is quiet in San Francisco. There is free parking outside of the neighborhood, making it easily accessible.

Visiting Sausalito is one of those hidden gem things you should add to your San Francisco itinerary. It is about 500 houseboats linked by a pontoon accessible by foot only. Each houseboat is decorated differently with quote signs and flowers. They are of different sizes, colors, and shapes, giving the neighborhood a hipster vibe!

While in Sausalito, you can wander the pontoons, admire the views of the houseboats, and admire the details and efforts each local put into making them home.

If you are lucky, you might even see a houseboat being installed in the neighborhood. The process is fascinating, requiring several small boats to move it into its spot.

Sausalito boardwalk also offers a great view of different San Francisco areas! So, if you’re looking for things to do in San Francisco, visit Sausalito!

Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: [@lucidwaters/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Victoria of Guide Your Travel

The vast waterfront Fisherman’s Wharf is located northeast of San Francisco. It was created in the 1900s when Italian fishermen settled there and has become a popular tourist attraction.

This neighborhood also has many other sights, such as the famous Pier 39, an old boat dock with various restaurants, rides, and souvenir stores today. During the midday sun, wild seals can be seen blocking the piers at Pier 39.

While at Fisherman’s Wharf, you can visit two museum ships that served in the Second World War. The waterfront is especially famous for its seafood, and if you visit Fisherman’s Wharf, you should not miss out on the opportunity to try the delicious lobster.

From Fisherman’s Wharf, the ferry leaves for the famous prison island Alcatraz, which is also worthwhile. In the summer months, Fisherman’s Wharf hosts many open-air events and regular flea markets.

Pier 39 Sea Lions

Pier 39 in San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: [@jewhyte/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Allison of California Crossroads

One of the classic icons of the San Francisco culture is the feisty sea lions who live at Pier 39! Visiting Pier 39 is one of the top things in San Francisco. This massive group of sea lions — several hundred, perhaps even a thousand — moved in shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the city in 1989– and they’ve never left!

These sea lions are adorable but loud and feisty. You can hear them calling out and making a ruckus up to a block away! They’re pretty popular amongst tourists, but you’ll find that even locals have a soft spot for them. They’re just so silly!

The sea lions at Pier 39 are a free activity, and many people combine visiting them with other San Francisco itinerary activities. In the Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf area, you can ride the carousel, visit the Musee Mechanique, walk around Ghirardelli Square, or shop around the many shops selling San Francisco souvenirs!

Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: [@tupungato/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by California Crossroads

One of the most peaceful places to visit in San Francisco is the little-known Japanese tea garden located in Golden Gate Park. Although many people think the park is close to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, it is a large park in the middle of the city. Visiting the Japanese Tea Garden is a must if you are looking for things to do in San Francisco.

The Japanese Tea Garden is a set of gardens with Zen-style architecture, several ponds with koi fish and bridges, a gorgeous pagoda that dates back to the historic Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 (currently under renovation), and tons of beautiful trees and plants.

In the spring, this is a great spot to find cherry blossoms, whereas, in the fall, you’ll find the Japanese maple leaves turn a brilliant red color, a rarity in a city that doesn’t get very much in the way of fall foliage.

You can also sit down at the tea house for afternoon tea. It’ll cost you at least $4 for a cup, plus your $12 admission fee and more for snacks. Still, it’s a great way to relax in a quiet place unique to San Francisco.

Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies in San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: [@serrnovik/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Sydney of A World in Reach

If you’ve ever looked at photos of iconic San Francisco locations, you’ve probably seen the Painted Ladies. The row of seven candy-colored Victorian homes is among the city’s most photographed sights and has been featured in numerous films and TV shows, including the hit sitcom Full House.

The Painted Ladies were first built in the 1890s, but “Painted Ladies” wasn’t used until the 1970s. The term also refers to similar rows of colorful houses worldwide, but the most famous instance is the row on Steiner Street in San Francisco. These San Francisco houses are sometimes called “Postcard Row” or “The Seven Sisters.”

To get the best view of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, head to the city’s famous Alamo Square Park. The houses face the park’s east side, giving you the perfect photo vantage point.

In addition, Alamo Square is the perfect place to spend a relaxing afternoon—it’s a favorite hangout for locals and tourists alike. If you’re planning a weekend trip and looking for things to do in San Francisco, add the Painted Ladies and Alamo Square to your itinerary.

Scenic 49 Mile Drive

49 Mile Scenic Drive San Francisco
Photo Credit: [@KNYCX Journeying]

Recommended by of KNYCX Journeying

While it’s been in the city for decades, Scenic 49 Mile Drive is San Francisco’s best-kept secret. The route is designed to cover most of the city’s landmarks and attractions, and surprisingly, not many tourists are aware of it. One reason may be that there aren’t many signs on the streets about this drive anymore.

Blue and white signs mark 49 Mile Drive, and one features a seagull—the winner of a design competition held by the San Francisco Down Town Association in 1955. The sign was so famous that collectors often stole it, and replacing it took a long time.

This sightseeing route was created in 1938 by the San Francisco Down Town Association for the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Later, the project was expanded to become an activity to boost tourism. The route officially lists 37 spots, including many city classics like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Powell Cable Car Station, Painted Ladies, Coit Tower, and Lombard Crooked Street.

It’s a great way to explore the city if you have a car or design your own Scenic 49-mile drive itinerary and visit the attractions you want to see by car, bike, or public transportation. Whether or not you decide to complete the route, 49 Mile Drive is a good reference guide to explore beautiful San Francisco—especially for first-timers.

Coit Tower Walk

Coit Tower in San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: [@lunamarina/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Rachel of Rachel’s Ruminations

Coit Tower is the odd cylindrical tower perched at Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. It may not look like much, but the effort to get there is worth it! Start your walk at Washington Square Park and head up the hill. When you reach the tower’s base, admire the breathtaking city and bay views while you catch your breath.

Next, go inside the Coit Tower. Around its base inside are some amazing Depression-era murals. Take the elevator to the top for a fee and admire the even better views.

After soaking up the views, head back out and find the Filbert Street steps. Follow them down the hill, between a leafy garden and tiny, charming houses, some with only boardwalks for streets. While you soak in the lush, quiet surroundings, keep an eye out for the flocks of feral parrots.

At the bottom, take a left onto Sansome, and within a few blocks, you’ll reach San Francisco’s popular piers. Walk along the water to find the various city cruise piers and other tourism-oriented activities like Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. Read this article for more details about this fun walk in San Francisco.

Ferry Building Marketplace

Ferry Building Marketplacein San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: [@lucidwaters/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Jenny of Global Game Plan

The Ferry Building Marketplace is the perfect stop to include in your San Francisco itinerary. Housed in a well-known landmark building on the waterfront, it showcases beaux-arts architecture. You can take a walking tour from San Francisco City Guides, browse the curated artisan shops, or visit the farmer’s market, which is offered several times weekly.

You can grab a coffee or a pastry in the morning, eat a delicious seafood meal (check out the famous Hog Island Oyster Co.), or enjoy some wine, beer, or dessert at the multiple food vendors.

The Ferry Building is conveniently located along the Embarcadero. Parking is nearby, and plenty of public transportation options exist, including the historic trolley cars that stop right outside the building.

Because of its central location in San Francisco, you can visit the Ferry Building Marketplace before or after a scheduled city tour or other local tourist attractions.

10. Visit Tiburon

Tiburon, CA
Photo Credit: [@PiKappa/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Aimee of Snap Happy Travel

Tiburon is a small coastal town approximately 40 minutes (16.9 miles) from downtown San Francisco. It is regularly heralded as one of the cutest towns near San Francisco. The drive is breathtaking, and it includes the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, and Marin City.

Tiburon is famed for its stunning views of the Bay Area and the San Francisco city skyline. For the best views, walk along Paradise Drive to get a great shot of the Golden Gate Bridge! Shoreline Park, home to Elephant Rock, is also a photogenic spot, especially at sunset.

Head to Ark Row, the town’s main street, for the best restaurants, Cafes, and boutique stores. One of my favorite casual restaurants is Lolas Taqueria at Ark Row Shopping Center.

One of the most popular spots in Tiburon is the uniquely named Hippie Tree, which offers a breathtaking view of the bay. To get to the Hippie Tree, park along Gilmartin Drive and walk the short dirt track opposite 100 Gilmartin Drive. Tiburon is also where the Bay area’s wealthiest live, so you are sure to spot some beautiful homes.

Of course, I recommend driving to Tiburon from San Francisco because you can stop at the scenic viewpoints, but you can catch a ferry to Tiburon from San Francisco’s Pier 41. The Blue and Gold Ferry runs a regular service here and is considered one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world! Tiburon is a must-visit if you’re looking for things to do in San Francisco!

11. Yosemite Day Trip

Yosemite National Park
Photo Credit: [@isogood/DepositPhotos]

Recommended by Jenna of Up and Away Magazine

Located roughly four hours from San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is an ambitious but worthwhile day trip from the city. The quickest way to reach the park is via the 120 East. Getting an early start, take the I-580 E to the I-205 E and then connect to Highway 120. Once in Yosemite Valley, it’s time to tick off all the highlights!

Start with a drive up to Tunnel View by following the Hwy 41 exit signs. Snag a parking spot just before Wawona Tunnel and stop to admire one of the most beautiful views in the country (seriously!).

From there, head back down to the valley and park your car at Curry Village or Yosemite Valley Lodge. Walk the 2.5-mile Cooks Meadow Loop for spectacular views of Half Dome and Lower Yosemite Falls. Pause to see if you can spot deer grazing in the meadow.

For lunch, don’t miss the opportunity to eat in the iconic Ahwahnee Dining Room (reservations recommended). The restaurant features stunning floor-to-ceiling windows offering sweeping views across the valley and Yosemite Falls.

End your day with a visit to El Cap Meadow to count the climbers on their way up El Capitan before starting your journey back to San Francisco. Or, if you decide to stay overnight, check-in at one of Yosemite’s many lodging options before continuing the adventure!

Things To Do in San Francisco on Vacation

San Francisco, California
Photo Credit: [@dell640/DepositPhotos]

San Francisco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, and it’s easy to see why. The city offers a wealth of things to do, from exploring world-famous landmarks to sampling delicious local cuisine. Whether you’re looking for culture, history, or a relaxing vacation, there are many exciting things to do in San Francisco.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandrea Sumuel - Groves is a nationally syndicated travel writer and founder of the Wander With Alex travel blog. Her work has appeared on MSN, YAHOO!, Euronews, and FOX, ABC, and NBC affiliates across the United States. 

Alex travels to experience, eat, explore, and occasionally escape! She collaborates with destinations, vacation property management companies, and hospitality technology firms to provide her readers with exclusive insights and information.