I just moved away from the San Francisco Bay Area to begin my traveling extravaganza, but I miss this vibrant city already. I’ve been to a total of 20 countries now, but the beauty, culture and experience of my own city still ranks it high in my heart as one of the most amazing places in the world.
I didn’t truly appreciate the city for most of the time I lived and worked there. It wasn’t until I decided I was moving away, that I finally saw the city for what it was, and began a mission to explore it as much as possible.
Here are the results of that exploration – my recommendations to visitors and new San Franciscans for the best 27 things to do in San Francisco!
1. Bike/Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
This is a must-do for locals and tourists alike. Whether you rent a bicycle and cycle across, or choose to go-it on foot, the views and experience of crossing this iconic landmark are once-in-a-lifetime. Start at the Warming Hut for fantastic photo ops and a quick coffee before you head out.
2. Ride a Cable Car
A rite-of-passage, you haven’t visited San Francisco if you haven’t ridden a cable car. My favorite route is from Embarcadero to Ghirardelli Square. It takes you through some of SF’s most beautiful neighborhoods, and drops you off just a short walk away from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.
A former Federal Penitentiary, Alcatraz has a sordid and haunted history, and is a staple tourist activity in San Francisco. Take the audio tour – it’s worth the cost – and be sure to get tickets early! Weekend tickets can sell out several weeks in advance. Take the night tour for an extra special (and creepy!) experience.
4. Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf
This vibrant, water-front area is kitschy and touristy, but oh-so-much fun! If you’re looking for an “I <3 SF” t-shirt, Pier 39 is your destination, but it also serves as just a fantastic hub for San Francisco visitors. From here, you can depart for Alcatraz or a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, visit the SF Aquarium, seal watch, indulge in a bread bowl, and so much more. Fisherman’s Wharf has even more dining and shopping options, plus fun additions like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.
5. Grab a Bread Bowl at the Boudin Bakery
Speaking of bread bowls…Sourdough bread is a San Francisco favorite, and no one does it better than Boudin Bakery. They can be found all over the city, but if you head to Fisherman’s Wharf, you can watch them make the bread and eat an authentic Clam Chowder bowl right on the water. If you’re not a seafood fan, their Chili bowls are just as delicious!
6. Climb to Coit Tower
An iconic staple of the San Francisco skyline, Coit Tower sits atop the North Beach neighborhood, just a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. There are what feels like a million stairs leading from the Embarcadero up to this icon, but you’ll be rewarded with amazing views and photo ops at the top!
7. Get an Authentic Italian Meal in North Beach
I’ve never had a bad meal in North Beach. North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy (designated by the green, white and red Italian flags painted on all of the street lamps in the district), and it’s filled with quaint shops, lively bars, and the best damn Italian food you’ll find in California. My favorite spots for a meal are Pantarei, Tony’s Pizza and Calzone’s (the handmade gnocchi at Pantarei pretty much tastes like it was made by angels). The Stinking Rose is another super-hyped spot celebrating the joy of garlic. It’s a beautiful restaurant, but I think you can find better food for the price elsewhere in the neighborhood.
8. Eat a Mission Burrito
There are few wonders in this world that compare to the Mission Burrito. While a true Mission Burrito can be found anywhere within the Mission District, the most delicious burritos (in my humble opinion) can be found at La Taqueria, Taqueria Cancun, and Pancho Villa. With layers and layers of delicious filling, you’ll be stuffed afterwards…but I can guarantee it’s worth every single calorie.
9. Go on a Coffee Quest
San Francisco has some truly amazing coffee. Each SF neighborhood has its own unique coffee gems, but if you’re a coffee lover, don’t leave town without venturing to Philz, Blue Bottle, and Four Barrel.
10. Explore Chinatown
Ah, Chinatown. This is one of my favorite haunts. If you’re looking for delicious cuisine, colorful streets, and fun shopping, this should be your next stop.
A fellow traveler asked me the other day about my favorite spots to eat in Chinatown, so here they are:
What’s better than ocean views, ultra-garlicy garlic fries and an MLB game? Well, nothing. Head to AT&T Park, home of the 2014 World Series Champions (and 2012, and 2010…), the San Francisco Giants, to take in a game — along with plenty of sunshine, and gorgeous views of the Bay Bridge.
13. Off the Grid
If you’re looking to spend the day with locals, head out to Off the Grid Picnic on the Presidio on a Sunday. Food trucks roll in from all over the city, and the picnicers break out the blankets and coolers for a day of relaxation on the water.
14. Disney Museum
The Walt Disney Family Museum is a gem of the Presidio. As a former Disneyland castmember, I’m still enthralled with “Uncle Walt’s” history and vision, and that’s exactly what this museum celebrates. It really focuses more on these facets than on the parks and cartoons, so it’s geared more towards adults than kids, despite the assumptions that accompany the Disney name.
15. Spend a Morning at the Ferry Building
The Ferry Building was one of my favorite haunts when I worked on Market Street. It’s also one of the first places I take friends when they come to visit me. Filled with artisan foods, perfectly crafted coffees, unique shopping, and stunning views of the Bay, the Ferry Building is a must-see.
16. Union Square
If you’re a shop-a-holic like me, this district can’t be missed. I could spend days wandering Union Square and its surrounding streets. Just about any store you could ask for is here, plus close proximity to fantastic restaurants and sights.
17. Pay a Visit to CREAM
CREAM, which stands for Cookies Rule Everything Around Me, ice cream cookie shops began popping up around the Bay a few years ago, and now it feels like they’re everywhere! Don’t leave SF without creating your own cookie & ice cream extravaganza. (P.S. If you’re truly an ice cream buff, you’ll also want to check out Bi-Rite Creamery! They have a ton of great flavors, but their honey lavender ice cream is heavenly.)
Originally built by the US National Guard to be used as an armory and arsenal, this historical landmark is known today as just “The Armory,” and is part of San Francisco’s unique and eclectic history. It’s been used as everything from a sports arena to rehearsal space for the arts, and a few scenes from Star Wars were filmed there in the 70’s. It’s now used as a soundstage for…adult films. They now offer guided tours of the themed sets, and a behind the scenes look at the adult film industry. It’s not a tour for everyone, but paying a visit to The Armory does give you a taste of San Francisco’s bizarre and fabulous history.
20. San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
Located on the Embarcadero just before Ghirardelli Square, the Maritime Museum is a tranquil, outdoor stretch of dock, home to retired seafaring vessels of all kinds. Entrance to walk the docks is free, however there is a fee to board the vessels and explore from within.
21. Get a Ghirardelli Chocolate High
After getting its start in San Francisco over 160 years ago, this chocolate company is now a famous sweet staple of the city. Don’t leave without sampling a delicious square of Ghirardelli chocolate for free when you enter the store at Ghirardelli Square (my favorite flavors are Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt Caramel and Toffee Crunch). If you’re feeling particularly sinful, spring for a chocolately mocha, or one of their famous Ghirardelli Sundaes.
22. Twin Peaks
If you’re looking for a gorgeous place to take in a sunrise, drive or hike to the top of Twin Peaks. Be sure to check the weather first – if it’s foggy, it can be difficult to get a good view. However, when it’s clear, this spot can’t be beat!
23. Land’s End / Sutro Baths
In addition to Twin Peaks, there are many beautiful walks and mild hikes to take in the city, with my favorite being Land’s End and the Sutro Baths. As the name suggests, Land’s End is at the northwest edge of the city, and offers absolutely stunning cliff-side sunset views of the ocean.
The Sutro Baths, now ruins of their former glory, used to be the world’s largest indoor swimming complex. The complex saw it’s heyday in the early 1900’s, when it featured seven swimming pools. My grandfather tells stories of swimming here as a child, making this spot a personal favorite of mine. You can still go check out the ruins and walk up to the Cliff House to warm up with a cup of coffee – it gets chilly out there!
24. Take a Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour of the City
So this one is a bit of a cop-out, but I got to the end of the list and realized I hadn’t even mentioned a few of SF’s iconic sights! There’s so much to do in this city, a “27 Things to Do” list just wasn’t enough. So for visitors to this great city, I recommend taking a hop-on-hop-off tour to catch the remaining iconic landmarks. Hop-on-hop-offs allow you to purchase a ticket for 24 or 48 hours, meaning you can use this tour ticket as transportation to most of the city’s hot spots as well. Just get on and off the bus at different spots all around the city as you please.
Here are a few additional SF sights you’ll see with this tour:
The Palace of Fine Arts
The Painted Ladies
Lombard Street (the “World’s Crookedest Street”)
Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point (take photos of SF from the Marin side of the bridge)
San Francisco City Hall & San Francisco Symphony
– Seasonal –
These events only happen once a year, but are essential to San Francisco culture!
25. Fleet Week
Fleet Week occurs in October every year. The hero of Fleet Week in San Francisco is the multi-day air show, a completely breathtaking performance of daring formation displays and stunts by the United States Navy Blue Angels, all taking place directly overhead in San Francisco Bay. Definitely a must-see!
What better place to celebrate Pride than San Francisco? Taking place in June each year, Pride is a celebration of equality. There are activities, parties, and concerts all weekend, but the climax of the weekend is the famous Pride Parade, complete with flamboyant floats and seriously amazing costumes.
Bay-to-Breakers is *technically* a 12k race from Embarcadero to Ocean Beach, however it has become more of a parade and party for runners. Costumes abound, and a full day of partying with other runners awaits you at the finish line.
These are just 27 of the thousands of fun things to do in San Francisco. What’s your favorite thing about this city? Let me know in the comments below!
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