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. Visitors can explore world-famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, or enjoy the city’s many museums and parks. San Francisco is also home to a vibrant food scene.
From museums and famous landmarks to boat tours and day trips, there is a great deal for you to experience and explore. Check out our favorite things to do while visiting San Francisco, CA!
1. Alcatraz Island Tour
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 too notorious or dangerous to be held elsewhere, like Al Capone. It was closed in 1963 due to its expense.
Alcatraz Island Tour
Upon arrival, to reach the Cell House at the top of Alcatraz Island, you walk from the wharf up the steep hill on the old service road. 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.
Other Things to Do
Furthermore, there is also a museum, a bookshop, and many exhibits of buildings that have various purposes in the daily routine of the island.
The ferry, entrance, guided tour, and audio guide price 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!
2. Visit Sausalito
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 a quiet place to visit 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, take in the views of the houseboats and admire the details and efforts each local put into making them a home.
Things to Do in Sausalito
If you are lucky, you might even see a houseboat being installed in the neighborhood. The process is quite interesting, 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!
3. Pier 39 Sea Lions
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!
Loud and Feisty
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!
Things to Do at Pier 39
The sea lions at Pier 39 are a free activity, and many people combine visiting the sea lions at Pier 39 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 Pier 39’s many shops selling San Francisco souvenirs!
4. Japanese Tea Garden
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 — not close to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, as many people think, but 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.
A Quiet Place
You can also sit down at the tea house for a spot of afternoon tea. It’ll cost you at least $4 for a cup on top of your $12 admission fee and more for snacks. Still, it’s a great way to relax in a quiet place and unique in San Francisco.
5. Painted Ladies
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 most photographed sights in San Francisco and has been featured in numerous films and TV shows, including the hit sitcom Full House.
About the Painted Ladies
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 vantage point for photos.
In addition, Alamo Square is the perfect spot to spend a relaxing afternoon – it’s a favorite hangout spot 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.
6. Scenic 49 Mile Drive
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 landmarks and attractions in the city, and surprisingly, not many tourists are aware of it. One of the reasons may be because there aren’t a lot of signs on the streets about this drive anymore.
Blue and white signs mark 49 Mile Drive with a seagull featured on it – a winner of a design competition held by the San Francisco Down Town Association in 1955. The sign was so famous that collectors often stole them, and they took a long time to be replaced.
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. There are 37 spots officially listed on the route, including many city classics like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Powell Cable Car Station, Painted Ladies, Coit Tower, and Lombard Crooked Street.
Explore San Francisco
It’s a great way to explore the city if you have a car or design your own Scenic 49-mile drive itinerary and explore the attractions you want to see by car, bike, or public transportation. Whether you decide to complete the route, 49 Mile Drive is a good reference guide to explore the beautiful San Francisco – especially for first-timers.
7. Coit Tower Walk
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 base of the tower, admire the breathtaking city and bay views while you catch your breath.
Inside Coit Tower
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 nothing but boardwalks for streets. Keep an eye out for the flocks of feral parrots while you soak in the lush, quiet surroundings.
At the bottom, take a left onto Sansome, and within a couple of blocks, you’ll reach the popular piers of San Francisco. 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.
8. Fisherman’s Wharf
Recommended by Victoria of Guide Your Travel
The huge waterfront Fisherman’s Wharf is located in the 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. In addition, wild seals can be seen blocking the piers at Pier 39 during the midday sun.
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.
Ferry to Alcatraz Island
From Fisherman’s Wharf, the ferry leaves to the famous prison island Alcatraz, which is also worthwhile. In the summer months, there are many open-air events in Fisherman’s Wharf, as well as regular flea markets.
9. Ferry Building Marketplace
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 showcasing beaux-arts architecture on the waterfront, you can take a walking tour from San Francisco City Guides, spend time browsing the curated artisan shops, or visit the farmer’s market that’s offered several times per week.
Grab a Bite and a Drink
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, with parking nearby and plenty of public transportation options, including the historic trolley cars that have a stop right outside the building.
Other Things to Do
Because of its central location in San Francisco, you can visit the Ferry Building Marketplace before or after a scheduled city tour or visit other local tourist attractions.
10. Visit Tiburon
Recommended by Aimee of Snap Happy Travel
Tiburon is a small coastal town, approximately a 40-minute drive (16.9 miles) from downtown San Francisco. It is regularly heralded as one of the cutest towns near San Francisco. The drive is breathtaking, taking in the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, and Marin City.
Tiburon is famed for its stunning views over the Bay Area and the San Francisco city skyline. For the best views, take a 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.
For the best restaurants, Cafes, and boutique stores, head to Ark Row, the town’s main street. 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 has a breathtaking view over 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 – you are sure to spot some beautiful homes during your time in Tiburon.
Getting to the Town of Tiburon
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
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!
Getting to Yosemite National Park
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.
Things to Do
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!
Wrap-Up: Things To Do in San Francisco
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.
This article originally appeared on Wander With Alex. Featured Image Credit: [@dell640/DepositPhotos]
Alexandrea Sumuel is a travel writer and founder of the Wander With Alex travel blog, where she provides vacationers with trip ideas, travel guides, and news. She travels to experience, eat, explore, and escape! Alex’s mission is to help you find the perfect vacation destination.