For many, San Francisco conjures images of cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge; loaves of sourdough and seafood-slinging fishmongers at Fisherman’s Wharf; Victorian houses and steep hills; a storied and sometimes tumultuous past full of beatniks, hippies, jazz musicians, and immigrants from all over the world—all of whom helped build the city into what it is today.
After living here for nearly 10 years, I’ve learned that all of those things are quintessentially San Francisco, but also that the city has a seemingly endless array of outdoor activities, a vibrant and diverse food scene, world-class museums, and plenty of quirky, smaller sights to discover (and delight), all packed into 49 square miles. On your next trip to the City by the Bay, my advice is to skip the hubbub at Fisherman’s Wharf and get down with us locals with these great things to do in San Francisco.
Spend a day at Golden Gate Park
- Neighborhood: Sunset/Richmond | Google Maps
Did you know that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is larger than New York City’s Central Park? At 1,017 acres (compared to Central Park’s 843), it’s an impressive urban green space, full of things to discover. Some of the top attractions include:
- Stowe Lake: a lake with pedal boats and a snack stand with surprisingly good local, craft beers.
- The Conservatory of Flowers: an iconic Victorian greenhouse and indoor botanical garden
- The Japanese Tea Garden: known for its cherry blossoms blooms and one of several places responsible for popularizing the Chinese Fortune cookie
- Bison Paddock: a field that’s home to the city’s resident herd of bison (yes, bison)
- de Young Museum: one of the city’s largest fine arts museums
- California Academy of Sciences: opposite the de Young is this science museum, aquarium, and planetarium—don’t miss the exhibit on the infamous 1906 earthquake.
While you could head here with a map and a plan, it’s also fun to wander this park aimlessly. To cover more ground, rent a bike at the entrance of the park and pedal the car-free stretch from Stanyan Street to Crossover Drive, which is now permanently closed to cars.
Bike or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
- Neighborhood: Presido | Google Maps
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a trip to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. To make an adventure out of it, challenge yourself to walk or bike across the 1.7-mile-long landmark. If you decide to walk across, it’s worth the extra steps to go part way up Hawk Hill in the Marin headlands for a stellar view of the bridge and city. Crossing on two wheels? Descend into Sausalito for lunch at sustainable seafood restaurant, Fish. Then take the ferry back.
Picnic at the new Presidio Tunnel Top Park
- Neighborhood: Presidio | Google Maps
In 2022, San Francisco added a new park to its roster, and it also happens to have one of the best unobstructed views of the Golden Gate Bridge. With a large, clean lawn, ample picnic tables and seating, food trucks, a kids’ play area, and even a working firepit—complete with lounge-worthy Adirondack chairs—you’ll surely want to linger.
Listen to the Wave Organ
- Neighborhood: Presidio | Google Maps
After lounging at the Tunnel Tops, wander downhill to Golden Gate Yacht Club in search of the Wave Organ, a wave-activated acoustic sculpture that produces a variety of sounds. This quirky attraction was designed by Exploratorium artist in residence Peter Richards and built in collaboration with sculptor and mason George Gonzales.
Picnic beside the Painted Ladies at Alamo Square Park
- Neighborhood: Lower Haight | Google Maps
This small, neighborhood park is popular among local picnickers and dog-owners but also a prime spot to view (and take photos of) the Painted Ladies, the row of Victorian houses made famous by the TV show Full House. For a local take, bring a picnic blanket and linger—ideally with a cup of coffee from Lady Falcon Coffee Club’s vintage truck, which sells drinks in the park each Thursday–Sunday. After, walk to the Mill, a bakery known for its over-the-top toasts. Yes, there’s an avocado option—this is California, after all—though the ricotta and seasonal jam is a personal favorite.
Hike from Glen Canyon Park to Twin Peaks
- Neighborhood: Twin Peaks | Google Maps
As long as Karl (the city’s personified fog) is taking a break, Twin Peaks is a great spot for a view of the city. With trails that lead from the neighborhoods below up to the top, it also a fine end destination for a moderate, uphill urban hike—we suggest the 3.8-mile Glen Canyon Park to Twin Peaks loop.
Party in the sun at Dolores Park
- Neighborhood: Mission | Google Maps
On weekdays, this park in one of San Francisco’s sunniest neighborhoods is a chill place for dogs and kids to run around. On weekends, especially if the sun is out, Mission Dolores Park turns into a massive party. Locals and out-of-towners alike gather here to sunbathe, enjoy a bit of bubbly, smoke pot, or simply people-watch.
For picnic supplies, head to Woods Cerveceria for craft beer to go, Bi-Rite Market for snacks and sandwiches (not to be confused with the also excellent ice cream shop, Bi-Rite Creamery, across the street), or Dolores Outpost for coffee, Japanese-style snacks, and a great selection of sake. The original Tartine Bakery is also nearby—but be prepared to wait up to an hour if you visit on a weekend (weekdays are much less busy).
While here, you might as well try a Mission burrito, which is typically larger, sometimes grilled, and often includes rice. While there’s much debate among San Francisco residents about who does it best, Taqueria El Farolito, La Taqueria, and La Palma Mexicatessen are all excellent options.
Attend a drag show brunch
- Neighborhood: Castro | Google Maps
Rainbow flags fly high in the Castro, and it’s long been the center of the city’s LGBTQ+ scene. If you happen to be in town for Pride, you’re sure to find the biggest parties here (and nearby Dolores Park). Any other time of the year, one of the most fun ways to embrace spirit of the Castro is with a drag show brunch at Beaux, the Lookout, or Midnight Sun—mimosa in hand, naturally.
Catch an art exhibit at the SFMOMA
- Neighborhood: SOMA | Google Maps
In 2016, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) completed its 10-story expansion, making it one of the largest public collections of art in the city. For art lovers, it’s an essential visit to experience a rotating collection of art exhibits, such as the upcoming Kinship: Photography and Connection (May 20–November 12, 2023), contemporary photography exploring the theme of deep relationships, and Frank Bowling: The New York Years 1966–1975 (May 20–September 10, 2023), which showcases the evolution of the Guyana-born artist’s abstract paintings after his arrival in New York City.
After, grab lunch at the nearby Jewish Museum, which has an outpost of locally loved Wise Son’s Jewish Deli, or drinks at Dirty Habit, one of a handful of rooftop bars in the city.
How to visit
The SFMOMA is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Friday–Tuesday; 1 p.m.–8 p.m. on Thursdays; closed Wednesdays. Advance tickets are recommended and cost $25 for adults. Entry for children 18 and under is free.
Hike Land’s End and visit Sutro Baths
- Neighborhood: Outer Richmond | Google Maps
There’s no shortage of parks and urban trails within the seven by seven, but Land’s End is arguably the most iconic hike in the city. Beginning in the outer Richmond and ending at the historic Sutro Baths (the ruins of a pool and bathhouse popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s), this moderate, dog-friendly, 3.4-mile trail takes hikers through cypress groves, past dog-friendly beaches, and by several views of the Golden Gate Bridge. End your hike with a well-earned drink at the Beach Chalet, either in its large outdoor garden or its indoor bar overlooking Ocean Beach.
Visit Alcatraz . . . at night
- Neighborhood: Embarcadero (Departure ferry) | Google Maps
The defunct island prison of Alcatraz isn’t exactly unknown, but for a more off-beat experience, join a night tour of the historic landmark—which is said to be especially spooky.
How to visit
Ferries to Alcatraz depart from Pier 33 on the Embarcadero. Night tours through Alcatraz City Cruises cost $56 per adult and $33 per child.
Spend an afternoon sailing
- Neighborhood: Embarcadero | Google Maps
Thanks to high winds, cold ocean temps, and frequent fog, it’s rare to see residents here flock to the beach for a day of sunshine and swimming the way you might in San Diego or L.A. If a day at the beach isn’t in the cards, one of the best ways to get in—or on, rather—the water is with a sailboat tour, such as those run by Adventure Cat Charters.
How to go
Tours depart from Pier 39 (Fisherman’s Wharf) and cost $60–$70 per person.
Kayak in the bay
- Neighborhood: South Beach | Google Maps
Looking for a more active way to get out on the water? Rent a kayak from City Kayak and paddle around the bay while enjoying views of Treasure Island, Alameda, and Oakland.
Catch a Giants game at Oracle Park
- Neighborhood: South Beach | Google Maps
Whether a Giants fan or not, baseball fans won’t want to miss the chance to see a game at Oracle Park, whose waterfront location means people get to watch the action against a beautiful backdrop of the Bay.
One pro tip? The best seats aren’t necessarily in the stadium. Fans can grab standing room only (SRO) tickets to watch from the outfield’s veggie garden, pop in for free in the right field outfield viewing area, or kayak up to the stadium’s edge in McCovey Cove for a chance of catching a splash hit. Before (or after) the game, head to nearby Public Works for a pint of Pliny the Elder, a locally loved craft beer by Russian River Brewing Company.
Go to the Saturday Farmers’ Market at the Ferry Building
- Neighborhood: Embarcadero | Google Maps
The Ferry Building is open every day of the week, but Saturdays are the most fun to visit thanks to the expansive, weekly farmers’ market (a smaller version happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Come here for stalls full of fresh produce, locally made cheeses, meat, fish, and plenty of ready-made food. Roli Roti almost always has the the longest line—and for good reason. Its porchetta sandwiches are crispy, decadent perfection. But be sure to save room for all the delightful eateries inside the building too: Hog Island Oyster Company, Fort Point Beer, Dandelion Chocolate, Humphrey Slocombe ice cream, and Reem’s Arab bakery are several highlights.
Attend an event or admire the architecture at the Palace of Fine Arts
- Neighborhood: Marina District | Google Maps
Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts is a must-visit for anyone interested in architecture. Stroll the adjacent gardens and pond while admiring the Greco-Roman inspired structure, most recognizable for its rotunda and Corinthian-syle columns, or attend a concert, comedy show, or film screening at the Palace’s theater.
Catch a free concert at Stern Grove (summers only)
- Neighborhood: Sunset | Google Maps
From June through August, the outdoor amphitheater at Stern Grove, a peaceful, eucalyptus-filled park in the Sunset district, plays host to a series of free weekend concerts. But don’t expect to see a no-name cover band, here—the organization hosts some surprisingly well-known artists, with past performances by the likes of Cat Power, Ziggy Marley, and LeAnn Rimes.
See a live jazz show
- Neighborhood: Civic Center / Tenderloin
In the early and mid-20th century, San Francisco was a major hub for jazz music, attracting well-known artists such as Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. The Fillmore (once known as “the Harlem of the West,”) and Tenderloin districts were particularly well-known for their lively clubs and nightlife. Although the scene isn’t quite what it was in its heyday (redevelopment of the area in the 1970s caused many clubs to relocate or shutter), the tradition lives on. Today, you can still enjoy world-class jazz music at SFJazz, a few blocks from the historic Fillmore district, or head to the Black Cat Jazz & Supper Club in the Tenderloin, whose leather seats and dark interiors channel moody vibes from a bygone era.
Grab a martini and piano show at Martuni’s
- Neighborhood: SOMA/Mission | Google Maps
While the downtown dueling piano shows can be fun, you’re more likely to find residents hanging around Martuni’s. Most say the establishment, which sits smack in the middle of the Mission, Hayes Valley, and SOMA neighborhoods, is the city’s only true piano bar. In operation since 1996, this LGTBQ+-friendly, San Francisco institution also serves (as the name might suggest) a mean martini.
Watch a modern circus troop at Club Fugazi
- Neighborhood: North Beach | Google Maps
From 1974 to 2019, Club Fugazi was home to Beach Blanket Babylon, the world’s longest-running revue. Although fans were saddened by its closure, a new (and dare we say, just as fun?) show, Dear San Francisco, has taken its place at Fugazi. Part circus, part spoken word, the performance uses acrobatics, music, and a touch of humor to take the audience on a journey through the city’s booms and busts. For a full evening, pair your visit with dinner at nearby Cassava, a community-minded restaurant that serves fresh Californian fare.
How to attend
Tickets cost $49–$79 per person, depending on where you sit (try to get a seat on stage, if you can). They can be purchased online.
Catch a race down (or up) San Francisco’s hills
- Neighborhood: Potrero Hill
With San Francisco’s steep hills and windy roads come . . . races. Two annual ones worth catching are the Red Bull Bay Climb in October, where cyclists compete to ascend one of the city’s steepest hills (topping out at a near 21 percent grade), and the Bring Your Own Big Wheel Race in April, where costume-clad adults race down windy Vermont street on big-wheel trikes (the race began on Lombard Street, but was moved to the actual windiest street in the city shortly after). Both races take place in the Potrero Hill neighborhood—also home to the city’s oldest brewery, Anchor Steam—and we promise they’ll be far more exciting than a standard visit to Lombard Street.
Learn about Asian American history in Chinatown
- Neighborhood: Chinatown | Google Maps
Immigrants from China and throughout Asia have been an important part of San Francisco’s history from the beginning. There are few better places to learn about this community’s history than the city’s historic Chinatown, which was founded in 1848. Although easy to explore on your own, it’s worth it to join a walking tour with volunteer-led San Francisco City Tours (which does guided tours throughout the city) or a food tour with Stretchy Pants. Both are led by local experts who will share the area’s history as you visit iconic landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory or the Dragon Gate.
However, much of the present-day Chinese and Chinese American community’s activity is actually centered around Clement Street in the Richmond neighborhood. Sometimes dubbed the city’s “new Chinatown,” this area is home to a myriad of Asian and Asian American shops, groceries, and restaurants, like the popular dim sum spot Hong Kong Lounge.
Soak and relax at a day spa in Japantown
- Neighborhood: Japantown | Google Maps
In this small enclave of Japanese and Japanese American culture, there are of course ramen restaurants and quirky shops, but one not-to-miss highlight is Kabuki Springs. In operation since 1968, this day spa is similar to the sentos (public bathhouses) found throughout Japan, complete with hot and cold pools, saunas, and steam rooms.
Shop independent and local
- Neighborhood: Various
Malls and big brand names cluster downtown around Union Square, but it’s the smaller shops in the neighborhoods that really showcase the creative flair of the city. From shops slinging handmade leather goods (Ian James) and vinyl records (Amoeba Music) to small batch ceramics (MM Clay) and inclusively sized clothing (Curator), these are some of the best streets to wander for an afternoon of shopping for indie and artisan goods:
- Valencia Street (Mission)
- Hayes Street (Hayes Valley)
- Haight Street (Haight-Ashbury)
- Clement Street (Richmond)
- Chestnut Street (Marina)
- Divisadero Street (NoPa)
Embrace your inner beatnik at City Lights Bookstore
- Neighborhood: North Beach | Google Maps
Considered one of the best bookstores in San Francisco, City Lights is a must-visit for any bibliophile—but especially those with a love of beat literature. In addition to the usual sections, it has an entire floor dedicated to beatnik books and poetry, including some hard to find prints and works by lesser-known writers. Afterwards, head next door to Vesuvio Cafe to open your new book alongside a beer or cocktail in what was once a popular beat hangout.
Enjoy a cocktail with a view at Top of the Mark
- Neighborhood: Nob Hill | Google Maps
End your adventures with a cocktail at Top of the Mark, a historic, high-end cocktail lounge established in 1939 on the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Although its history is fascinating (in WWII it was a known spot for soldiers to have one last drink before shipping out; in the Korean War, soldiers began the “squadron bottle” tradition, sponsoring a bottle of bourbon to be kept behind the bar until their group returned), most people come here for the 360-degree, panoramic views of the city below. It may not be the hippest bar in town, but it’s an institution worth visiting at least once.