Geographically speaking, San Franciso isn’t quite big. Only 49 square miles, which makes it easy to visit and discover. But in these 49 square miles, you will find a lot of attractions and things to do and to see, but, most of all, a lot of experiences to try.
The list of top things to do & places to visit in San Francisco will provide plenty of inspiration for you, the traveler who will soon discover what’s behind the famous hills covered in fog, in the city of the most beautiful bridge in the world.
Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and meet Karl the Fog
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s iconic landmark, is for sure the most popular tourist attraction (and the most photographed bridge in the world). A must-see for everyone who visits the city, Golden Gate will catch your eye. And your Instagram photos. Go to the Vista Point and just be amazed by how beautiful this bridge is.
Would you like to go deep into the history of Golden Gate? Free walking tours offered by San Francisco City Guides are available twice per week (Thursdays and Sundays) – check here the schedule.
You may also walk along the bridge for a scenic stroll and some incredible photos, or just drive and enjoy the view. But make sure to bring an extra jacket, because it can be windy and cold. And if you’re lucky (or not), you can also have the chance to meet Karl the Fog – this is the name locals gave to the dense fog rolling over the city from time to time.
Take a picture of The Painted Ladies
Painted Ladies are one of the San Francisco iconic images, along with The Golden Gate Bridge. Across from Alamo Square Park, there they are! A row of Victorian bright colored houses, Painted Ladies have been featured in many movies – do you remember them from “Full House”?
Built between 1892 and 1896, they even survived the 1906 earthquake! In one of the homes, the top floor houses a small museum and, among the displayed items, there are 100-year old wedding cake tops and tickets from the opening ceremony of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Take time in admiring these colored houses, and if you’re lucky to visit San Francisco when one of the Painted Ladies is for sale, you can sneak a peek inside. Otherwise, they are private homes and visiting it is not allowed.
Eat a fortune cookie in Chinatown
Chinatown is one of the city’s most visited neighborhoods and one of the oldest Chinatown in Northern America. It’s not as big as New York’s Chinatown, so you can discover the whole area in no more than 1-2 hours, depending on what other activities are you planning to have there. And as we speak of activities and you’re in Chinatown, you should try a fortune cookie and some Dim Sum. It’s not complicated to find fortune cookies in Chinatown, they are almost everywhere, but if you also want to see how are they made, pay a visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
After you’ve tried your luck with fortune cookies, don’t miss out on visiting the oldest Taoist temple in the USA, Tien How Temple, dedicated to the Empress of Heaven and Goddess of the Seas. The temple is located in Waverly Place, a historic street lined with temples and brick-buildings.
In case you’re looking for even more Chinatown typical sweets, go to the Golden Gate Bakery and delight yourself with their wide range of exotic cakes. Do not miss lotus cake and mooncake!
Take a ride with the Cable Car
If you ask me what’s the first image that comes to my mind when I’m thinking of San Francisco, it’s not the Bridge (yes, maybe the fog…), but a cable car full of people hanging outside, going down on the city hills. Cable cars are not just a way of moving around the city, but also an iconic symbol and, since 1964, a Historic National Landmark.
Yes, they’re crowded all the time, and a bit expensive (well, San Francisco is an expensive city), at $7 for a one-way ride. But what would a morning in the Fog City be without the familiar sound of the cable car bells ringing up and down on the hills?
To learn more about the cable car history and why are they such an important landmark for San Francisco, visit the Cable Car Museum (free entrance). Here you’ll see the large wheel turning the underground cables that power the cars and some other interesting things as well – vintage cable cars, old pictures, and associated artifacts.
Eat a clam chowder and talk with a sea lion at Pier 39
Pier 39, a festive waterfront marketplace, is located in the Fisherman’s Wharf district and it’s a popular destination for many travelers visiting San Francisco. Restaurants, shops, a carousel, the docks with sea lions – this place has something for everyone.
Once you find yourself there, try the Clam chowder, a signature San Francisco dish since the mid-1800s. The thick and creamy clam soup is available in simple bowls and cups, or in a sourdough bread bowl – this is typical for San Francisco cuisine.
Pier 39’s K-Dock is also home to many sea-lions, since 1990, when they first arrived in San Francisco Bay (scientist suggest that happened because of the Loma Prieta earthquake) and in November 2009, the colony reached an all-time high of 1,701 sea lions. The best time to watch the noisy barking sea otters is from late Summer to late Spring, but over the past years, you will always find some of them lying on the docks.
Play a vintage game at Musée Mécanique
A 10-minute walk from Pier 39, there’s Musée Mécanique, an interactive museum consisting of 20th-century penny arcade games, in their original working condition – that means everything there can be played!
The museum is the private collection of Edward Galland Zelinsky, who began collecting his games at age 11. All the games displayed here were part of the Playland, a former seaside amusement park at Ocean Beach, closed in 1972.
It’s impressive how every single machine at Musée Mécanique still works, after all this time. When you walk through the museum’s door, you step back in time, a time when there were no video games and no cell phones, but the mechanical coin-operated games.
“Laffing Sal”, “Susie the Can-Can Dancer” and the fascinating “Carnival”, fortune tellers, many arcade games, dioramas, music boxes – there are countless options to spend few hours and to remember (or just imagine) how people had fun even before the television era. The entrance is free, but you have to pay for using every game.
Take a night tour at Alcatraz
Surely you know Alcatraz – “The rock”, the former federal prison where some of the most notorious criminals of the early 20th century, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, were incarcerated.
Different guided tours are available, but they are in high demand, and it’s better to book in advance. For a complete experience, choose the Night Tour (available from Thursday to Monday) and be prepared to feel the haunting night coming down over the infamous prison. The tour includes the ferry ride to Alcatraz Island, audio guide narrated by former prisons and guards, onboard narration and a guided site tour.
Eat The Big Donut at Bob’s Donuts
Bob’s donuts are one of the best donuts in San Francisco, but this is not the only reason I put them in this guide. At Bob, aside from their regular donuts (glazed, with chocolate, cinnamon rolls, apple fritters, Sticky Buns), something is waiting for you: The Big Donut. I honestly think it looks more like a birthday cake, but, still, is a donut. A huge glazed one the size of your head, available with any traditional ring toppings: chocolate frosting, crumbs, sprinkles, maple, or just plain ole glazed.
And they have a challenge: If you finish the Big Donut in 3 minutes, you win a Bob’s Donut’s T-Shirt and get your name listed on the Hall of Fame. In less than 2 minutes, you get all the above, plus your $10.95 refunded and a free drink. The place is open 24 hours, meaning you can have your glazed donut even in the middle of the night.
Feel the breezy air at the Ocean Beach
You can’t compare the sunny southern-California beaches with the foggy northern-beaches, but going to the beautiful Ocean Beach can be a relaxing experience.
Ocean Beach is San Francisco’s largest beach and an amazing spot to unwind. Wander around the beach, watch the surfers, make a bonfire, take beautiful photos, everything your heart desires. And because of its size, you will always feel like you have this place for yourself, no matter how many other people are on the beach. Swimming is not recommended, because of the strong, dangerous rip currents.
Take a long walk, enjoy the beautiful scenery, feel the breezy air and try to imagine how this beach looked like more than 50 years ago when it was home to the famous amusement park Playland. But don’t forget to take warm clothes, the wind is blowing almost all the time, and the weather is chilly.
Have a drink at Benjamin Cooper Bar
It is said Benjamin Cooper Bar is impossible to find. And it’s also said they have cocktails you’ve never heard of. I think it’s worth to take your map and try to find this underground place which promises amazing drinks.
Located in Downtown San Francisco, inside of the Tendernob’s Hotel G, Benjamin Cooper is a vintage bar with a modern twist and one of those hard to define super cool spaces.
The drinks are completely out-of-the-box, with a surprising mix of ingredients. They have a menu, but the bartenders will be more than happy to create for you a special cocktail with your favorite ingredients.