11 Popular Things to Do in San Francisco, CA

There are tons of things to do in addition to the Golden Gate Bridge. Check out our favorite things to do in San Francisco while on vacation!

San Francisco is a beautiful port city in Northern California. Many vacationers and visitors flock to the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge for photo ops, but what else is there to do in San Francisco?

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

Alcatraz Tour San Francisco

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 had various purposes in the daily routine of the island.

The price for 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 definitely want to remember your tour to the Rock!


2. Visit Sausalito

Sausalito San Francisco

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 therefore a quiet place to visit in San Francisco. There is free parking outside of the neighborhood making it easily accessible.

Visiting Sausalito

Visiting Sausalito is one of those hidden gem things to do 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 and give the neighborhood a hipster vibe!

While in Sausalito, you can wander the pontoons, take in the views of the house boats and admire the details and efforts that each local put into making them a home.

Things to Do in Sausalito

If you are lucky, you might even see a house boat being installed in the neighborhood. The process is quite interesting as it requires several small boats to move it into its spot.

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


3. Pier 39 Sea Lions

Pier 39 San Francisco, California with Sealions

Recommended by Allison of California Crossroads

One of the classic icons of the San Francisco culture are the feisty sea lions who live at Pier 39! Visiting Pier 39 is one of the top things to do 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 from up to a block away! They’re quite 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 go shopping around Pier 39’s many shops selling San Francisco souvenirs!


4. Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco, California

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.

Zen-Style Gardens

The Japanese Tea Garden is a set of gardens with Zen-style architecture, as well as 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 turning 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 something unique to do San Francisco.


5. Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco, California

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 are among the most photographed sights in San Francisco and have 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 the term “Painted Ladies” wasn’t used until the 1970s. The term is also used to refer 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 known as “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 east side of the park, giving you the perfect vantage point for photos.

Alamo Square

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, make sure to add the Painted Ladies and Alamo Square to your itinerary.


6. Scenic 49 Mile Drive

49 Mile Scenic Drive San Francisco

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 a lot of 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.

Sightseeing Route

49 Mile Drive is marked by blue and white signs 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 popular 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

Coit Tower San Francisco

Recommended by Rachel of Rachel’s Ruminations

Coit Tower is the odd cylindrical tower perched on top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. It may not look like much, but the effort to get there is definitely 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 views of city and bay 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.

When you’ve finished soaking up the views, head back out and find the Filbert Street steps. Follow them down the hill, between a leafy garden and small, 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.

Popular Piers

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 lots of 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

Fishermans Wharf San Francisco

Recommended by Victoria of Guide Your Travel

The huge waterfront called 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.

There are also many other sights in this neighborhood, such as the famous Pier 39, an old boat dock where there are various restaurants, rides, and souvenir stores today. In addition, wild seals can be seen blocking the piers at Pier 39 during the midday sun.

Museum Ships

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 definitely 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 a worthwhile trip. In the summer months, there are many open-air events in Fisherman’s Wharf as well as regular flea markets.


9. Ferry Building Marketplace

Hog Island Oyster Co. dinner in San Francisco

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 some 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 visits to other local tourist attractions.


10. Visit Tiburon

View of Tiburon near San Francisco

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. In fact, it is regularly heralded as one of the cutest towns near San Francisco. The drive itself is breathtaking, taking in the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito and Marin City.

Stunning Views

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 where you will get a great shot of the Golden Gate Bridge! Shoreline Park, home to Elephant Rock is also a very photogenic spot, especially at sunset.

Shopping

For the best restaurants, Cafes and boutique stores head to Ark Row, the town’s main street. One of my favorite casual restaurants here is Lolas Taqueria, which is located 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 along the way 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 it 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 day trip from San Francisco

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 have a meal in the iconic Ahwahnee Dining Room (reservations recommended). The restaurant features stunning floor-to-ceiling windows that offer sweeping views across the valley and of 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!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexandrea Sumuel

Alexandrea Sumuel is the founder of Wander With Alex, where she provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, news, and itineraries. She travels to experience, eat, and explore-- and, on occasion, escape! Alex’s mission is to help people travel better.

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