With nearly a million creative types living in one of the country’s “smallest” big cities, you can bet San Francisco offers more attractions than one could ever explore — and all condensed down within 46 square miles.
Whether you have a day, a weekend, or a week or longer, take our advice — and this list — and set off to experience the best of San Francisco firsthand!
20 Best Things to Do in San Francisco
Don’t crucify me for not including the well-known and all-popular Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park, Lombard Street, or retail shopping mecca Union Square; odds are, they’re mainstream enough that you already know what they’re all about. While you may or may not have heard about some of my favorite spots in the city, I can guarantee that all are worthy of your time!
1. Wave Organ
I’ll start this list off with one of SF’s hidden treasures: the “natural” wonder of the wave organ. This monstrosity of an acoustic sculpture channels the ocean’s waves to create varying sounds resembling music. Check the tides before visiting, and try to go during hide tide for the best performance!
Only a quick ferry ride away, the infamous island prison sits just off San Francisco’s coast and is still chock-full of stories and history. You’ll need to book your guided tour well in advance (sometimes months, depending on the time of year), which will run you about $30. The tour itself is a few hours, and a really cool experience I imagine everyone would enjoy!
3. Ferry Building
The Ferry Building sits on the edge of the Embarcadero, with an awesome view of the Bay Bridge and enough culinary options to satisfy you for the entire day! The building houses various niche food stalls, including some that are only found in the Bay Area region.
Cheese fanatics will love Cowgirl Creamery, with a menu dedicated entirely to specialty macaronis and grilled cheese options and seafood lovers can get their fix at Hog Island, known for their locally-caught oysters. Don’t miss the farmers market outside on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays!
4. Japanese Tea Garden
The Golden Gate Park, located on the western side of the city, is the west coast’s Central Park — in fact, it’s actually larger than Central Park and shares a landscape designer! The beautiful park is so immense that it houses various attractions, from a golf course to a botanical garden to the fine arts de Young Museum.
However, my favorite feature by far is the Japanese Tea Gardens; the tranquility of such a beautiful, green space makes you forget you’re actually in the middle of a city!
5. Hippie Hill
Also located in the Golden Gate Park is Hippie Hill, appropriately named for its association with neighboring Haight-Ashbury. Many different events and festivals have taken place on this lawn over the years, perhaps most notably the Summer of Love in 1967.
Though it’s a bit (okay, a lot) more tame these days, you’ll still find musicians strumming guitars and playing hand drums — the perfect place to relax while experiencing a legendary spot in SF history.
6. Muir Woods
The dreamy, mystical nature wonderland that is Muir Woods is shockingly only a quick drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. Get up early and make it to the entrance by 8 a.m. — you’ll beat the crowds, and have more time to explore!
An alternative to the all-famous and massive Chinatown, you’ll find that Japantown’s mall, traditional food, Japanese spa — Kabuki Springs & Spa — and karaoke lounges will transport you to your own little Japanese haven! Whether you spend an entire day here or just a few hours, it’s a cool experience and neighborhood that should not missed.
8. Giants Game at AT&T Park
Even if you have an undying devotion to your favorite baseball team, the multi-World Series champs — the San Francisco Giants — never fail to play a great game. The state-of-the-art AT&T Park overlooks the bay, and turns an otherwise ordinary game or evening into a full-blown experience that everyone will enjoy!
9. Twin Peaks
After taking a drive through the wonderfully colorful LGBT Castro district, make your up one of those famous San Francisco hills to reach Twin Peaks: hands down the best aerial view of the city you’ll ever see. Sunset is my favorite time at Twin Peaks, though clouds of fog in the early hours and city lights at night make it a spot you can enjoy at any time of the day.
10. Golden Gate Bridge
You can drive, bike, or even walk across the Golden Gate, either just for the experience or for a day trip into the Marin headlands! There’s plenty of natural scenery to explore across the bridge, or you can venture into Sausalito for lunch and drinks by the harbor.
11. Ghirardelli Square
A quick walk from Lombard Street, Ghirardelli Square is an all-time favorite SF spot of mine (because chocolate, obviously). Not only does the Ghirardelli sweets shop serve up some desserts you’ll literally drool over, but the entire square is very picturesque and has some awesome boutique stores to window shop!
12. Boutique Shopping in Haight-Ashbury
Haight-Ashbury embodies San Francisco in a single neighborhood — funky, cool, and diverse. In its various boutique (and even consignment) stores, you can shop for trendy clothes, records, home decor, gifts, and travel-friendly plants like mini succulents! Embrace your inner bohemian and treat yourself to a little shopping spree.
13. Musée Mécanique
I first saw this curious and fun collection of antique arcade games featured in a movie, and I was instantly excited to go see them for myself! These coin-operated games are a great way to feel like a kid for a minute, and perfect precursor to a fresh sourdough bread bowl and clam chowder at Boudin down the street.
14. Painted Ladies
Ahhh, the iconic Painted Ladies — who wouldn’t want to see these beauties firsthand?! Rather than buying postcards, take your own postcard-worthy photos of this family of colorful Victorian houses built back in the 1800’s.
15. Take the Cable Cars Along the Embarcadero
San Francisco is quite well-known for its cable cars, and a trip to SF isn’t complete without riding one. And not only is it a memorable experience, but it’s also super functional!
Driving in the city can be a hassle, so park your car in a garage (parking garages are cheap on the weekends) and make your way down the bayside Embarcadero by trolley. Bring exact change for single rides, or buy a one-day MuniPassport for unlimited public transportation through the city.
What do the works of Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and the country’s largest “living wall” — 30 ft. high with nearly 20,000 plants — have in common? They can all be found at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.
Expanded, rebuilt and renovated in 2016, the new SFMOMA might be the most architecturally unique building in the city! You’ll spend hours getting lost (intentionally or not) in its seven floors, and you’ll no doubt appreciate every minute of it; there are multiple permanent pieces that have literally made my jaw drop!
17. The Palace of Fine Arts
Without the geotag, some might mistake pictures of the Palace for a far-flung European site of historical architecture. Built over 100 years go, only a few of the beautiful structures have survived — though just by looking at it, you’d think it was perfect just as it is!
The Palace theatre venue continuously houses music and performance events, while the palace itself always holds an expansive collection of art exhibits. Not into the art scene? You don’t need to be; feel free to just take a walk around the grounds and marvel.
18. Picnic on Ocean Beach
This might be the only place in SF that isn’t ever crowded, and for that reason we deem it the city’s ultimate beach retreat. Grab some firewood for the seasonal fire pits, pack some sushi or sandwiches, and hit Ocean Beach for a sunset picnic!
If you want a beach with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, try Baker Beach — while it can get a bit crowded during peak tourism season, this spot offers the ultimate photo op and a chance to see an awesome beach and the Golden Gate from a distance at the same time!
19. Attend a Pop-Up Event
Pop-up events in SF, ranging from culinary experiences to unique interactive museums, are about as common as steep hills — in fact, it even beat out NYC and LA as the “top city for pop-ups.”
Favorite events include the Color Factory, Museum of Ice Cream, and BLUD (an all-female chef collab appropriately named Bitches Liven Up Dinner)… and Every. Single. One. is something you (and your Instagram followers) will be talking about for weeks.
20. Beer, Wine & Cider Tasting
No pop-up events of interest during your visit? You can always let your taste buds guide you through the city with your own itinerary of different tastings!
The local Northern California region is known for its renowned wineries, and there’s multiple opportunities to taste some of the best reds (and whites) in the country along with other venues dedicated to ciders (e.g. UPCIDER) and beers (Cellarmaker, Triple Voodoo).