The Best Things to Do in San Francisco

To really know San Francisco, explore its neighborhoods. Look for taquerias and techies in the Mission, rainbow flags above the Castro, earnest hippie vibes in the Haight, and beachy quietude in the Sunset. This walkable, welcoming city awaits.

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA, USA
Golden Gate Park was formed out of an expanse of sand dunes to the west of the city in the nineteenth century—a history that is still discernible in the rolling topography of much of the park’s more than 1,000 acres. Over 13 million people visit the array of gardens, lakes, trails, museums, and monuments each year. Some of the most popular attractions are clustered to the east, including the de Young art museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Japanese Tea Garden. A little farther on is Stow Lake, the largest body of water in the park and a good spot for boating and strolling. Just past Spreckels Lake is a bizarre sight: a herd of American bison. Generations of these iconic beasts have been kept in the park since 1892; they mostly stand around the paddock like idling, hairy bulldozers. Children enjoy seeing the Dutch Windmill at the west edge; they may not be so fussed about the nearby Tulip Garden, but they’ll like the waterfowl pond in the Botanical Garden and the carnivorous plants in the Conservatory of Flowers. There are three playgrounds, too; the Koret contains a colorful working carousel from 1914. Active visitors can tour the park by Segway or check out the golf course, the disc golf course, or the archery field. Festivals take place throughout the year, and the Music Concourse hosts free concerts on Sundays in the summer.
Steiner Street
An estimated 48,000 houses were constructed in San Francisco from 1848 to 1915 in the style typical of the day, with ornate woodwork characteristic of so-called Queen Anne design. Earthquakes and fires, most notably those of 1906, destroyed many—as did shortsighted development—but those that survived are now cherished. When these historic houses are restored and painted in a variety of bright colors to bring out their details, they are often referred to as “painted ladies.” One of the most-photographed rows of painted ladies can be found on Steiner Street, overlooking Alamo Square Park. (Yes, these are the same houses that appear in the Full House opening credits.)

Dolores St &, 19th St, San Francisco, CA 94114, USA
Mission Dolores Park, aka Delores Park, is one of the most popular parks in San Francisco, especially when the sun is out and the mercury is up. On a sunny weekend, you’ll be hard pressed to find a patch of green to plant yourself on, but that’s what makes Dolores Park so much fun. Yes there is a playground for kids, and basketball and tennis courts, too. But the real sport here is people watching. You’ll hear music booming between dog barks; people toss footballs, tightrope walk, and fling their Frisbees. Bodies slathered in oil glisten in the sun; ice cream melts down the arms of laughing children; the whiff of cut grass (and other questionable varieties) linger in the air. The abundant restaurants and markets in the area make make it easy to pack a picnic and fuel your day out. All you need to do is bring a blanket, plop down on a hill where the views reach to downtown, and chill out San Francisco-style. FYI: Dolores Park is named for Miguel Hidalgo, a priest in Dolores, Mexico who urged his countrymen to overthrow their Spanish rulers in 1810, sparking Mexico’s battle for independence.
Twin Peaks, San Francisco, CA, USA
The best views of San Francisco are from the top of Twin Peaks, the two hills that are located in the geographic center of the city. Only from Twin Peaks can you get a 360-degree view of the entire city. If you are lucky, on a clear day you can see all four Bay Area bridges—from the Golden Gate to the Richmond-San Rafael and the Bay Bridge all the way south to the San Mateo. Standing on North Peak, you can look down the tree line of Market all the way to the Ferry Building. All the city neighborhoods, scattered over up and down the hills, from Mission to Bernal Heights to Russian Hill to the Presidio are in your vista. If it’s clear, you’ll be able to see the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, Sausalito, and even Mt. Tam. From the North Peak, you can walk over to the South Peak and take in the city views from the Sunset District down to San Francisco International Airport. Tips: 1. Bring a jacket with you. Even on a warm summer’s day, it can be chilly at Twin Peaks. 2. Wear sturdy shoes, especially if you want to walk up to the Peaks and or around them. 3. Bring binoculars, if you have them. There are telescopes that you can pay to use if you don’t have binoculars.
Pier 15 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
Ask anyone you know who grew up in the Bay Area about the Exploratorium, and they’ll likely be able to share stories of class trips and seeing their hair stand on end at an installation about electricity or fun-house mirrors that taught about optics and visual perception. This is not, however, a museum simply for kids—though curious kids will definitely be entertained while learning. Instead, its exhibits aim to raise the scientific literacy of visitors of all ages, by providing engaging, amusing, and hands-on experiences. Long housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium opened in its current, and much larger, space on Piers 15 and 17 in 2013. One advantage of the new waterfront location is the North Gallery and its outdoor spaces, focused on environmental phenomena like the wind, rain, and tides. The completely dark Tactile Dome and the disorienting Monochromatic Room may prove not just the highlights of your visit to the Exploratorium but the most memorable, or at least strangest, moments of your time in San Francisco. Photo by Xavier Sandel/Flickr.
55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
The California Academy of Sciences is an unfortunately stuffy name for an institution that is anything but staid. The country’s largest natural-history museum includes an aquarium, a planetarium, an enormous rain-forest exhibit under a 27-meter-tall (90-foot-tall) dome, and a living roof that looks like a science-fiction fantasy. A visit here can feel like a trip to an amusement park, with a series of attractions to check out, but all of them are educational. The building itself is part of the appeal of the Academy. (Like the nearby de Young, the old home of the California Academy of Sciences was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and starchitect Renzo Piano designed its very environmentally friendly replacement.) It would be easy to spend an entire day or more seeing all of the Academy’s exhibits, so be prepared to pick and choose among them.

151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
It had been a long wait for modern art lovers, but after a three-year closure and a $305 million renovation and expansion, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in May 2016, and was it ever worth the wait. A new 10-story addition from the renowned Norwegian design firm Snøhetta integrates seamlessly with the existing black-and-white-striped atrium tower, giving San Francisco‘s SoMa neighborhood some serious eye-candy. It’s also now the largest modern and contemporary art museum in America, with nearly triple its previous gallery space. New to the already impressive collection are selected works from the esteemed Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, featuring significant American and European artists of the 20th and 21st centuries such as Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Georg Baselitz, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, among many others. Gifts of painting, sculpture, drawings, media arts, and architecture made to the museum since 2009 also rotate through various galleries, while the entire third floor is dedicated to the Pritzker Center for Photography. Visitors take a breather in the tranquil sculpture garden with enormous living wall, or in the fifth floor Cafe 5. Along with offering free entry to visitors 18 years old and under, SFMOMA invites you to try In Situ, the museum’s signature 150-seat lounge and restaurant, helmed by Michelin-star chef Corey Lee, with a menu of dishes culled from the recipes of some 80 chefs from around the world.
1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
Filbert St, San Francisco, CA, USA
In a city as steep and hilly as San Francisco, it’s no surprise there are some noteworthy stairways. On the east side of Telegraph Hill, the Filbert Steps reign as some of the most popular in the city. They wend their way up to the iconic Coit Tower, a memorial to San Francisco’s firefighters built in 1933. As you pass beautiful gardens and picturesque houses, listen closely for the hill’s infamous parrot population. You can also take a break to wander down Napier Lane, a wooden walkway that’s bordered by charming homes from the late 19th century. Don’t turn back there, though: once you summit the nearly 400 steps, you’ll be rewarded with excellent panoramas of the city.
680 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121, USA
San Francisco is not only a beautiful city, but it is also home to some exquisite natural landscapes, such as Lands End. I will never forget the first time I hiked the main Coastal Trail: I couldn’t believe I was still in a city because of the gorgeous Torrey Pines surrounding me and the vast ocean below. It was so peaceful and quiet, except for the sounds of the wind rustling through the trees and the waves breaking gently below. And then I saw the iconic Golden Gate Bridge sitting in the Pacific Ocean just beyond the trail. The hike is approximately 3 miles out and back to the starting point. The site is easily accessible by MUNI using the 38 Geary line. (There is a parking lot, but it fills up quickly.) After the hike, I highly recommend relaxing and taking in the view at the Visitor’s Center just south of the trail, and then getting some food at Louis’ Restaurant next door. The trail is also great for trail running. Either way, wear comfortable shoes and bring a camera. A light jacket wouldn’t hurt either.
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
The de Young Museum, with its perforated copper facade and spiraling tower in the center of Golden Gate Park, is as dramatic outside as it is inside. Follow the widening crack in the sidewalk into the atrium. It’s an Andy Goldsworthy–created nod to the tectonic plates that carved out California, and emblematic of the museum, too: The previous building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and rebuilt by Herzog & de Meuron, opening in 2005. Inside, Gerhard Richter’s wall-size mural, made from digitally manipulated photographs, greets visitors. The museum specializes in American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania, and Africa. Visiting exhibitions often focus on modern works and draw massive crowds. Recent blockbusters include Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Hockney. Make sure to visit the observation deck at the top of the tower. (It closes one hour before the museum.) It’s a unique view over the low-lying western end of the city.
San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Alcatraz—the very name conjures dark images of impregnable prisons, infamous criminals, and daring escape attempts. But the island is not all murder and mayhem. “The Rock,” set a few kilometers offshore in the San Francisco Bay, is designated a National Historic Landmark and managed by the National Park Service. It’s an important area for nesting seabirds and the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse, and has hosted a military garrison and been occupied by American Indian activists. The main draw for visitors, of course, is the abandoned maximum-security state penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963 this almost-mythical prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous and troublesome criminals, including Al Capone. The audio tour is fascinating. Narrated by former inmates and guards, the tour ushers you down dank corridors, into cramped cells, and through common areas and staff quarters. You hear stories about the prisoners’ daily routines, escape attempts, and riots, all set to an atmospheric prison life soundtrack of echoing footfalls, clanging doors, and jangling keys. The only way to reach the island is via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance booking is recommended; during peak times tickets can sell out weeks in advance. By day you can explore the island, or combine it with a trip to Angel Island; by night you get more broody views of the Rock.
0-11, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
The ‘60s and ‘70s in San Francisco were synonymous with psychedelic “hobbies,” but tripping in the new millennium on Pier 39 is something you can now enjoy, legally, with the entire family. This labyrinth of 77 mirrors and black lights is reminiscent of a carnival fun house, and finding your way out of the 2,000-square-foot kaleidoscope of glowing twists and turns and befuddling dead-ends puts the fun in funky. While ‘80s music thumps, kids race through and into the walls, while adults feel their way down endless neon hallways. Created by Charles Magowan (who, no surprise, studied psychology at Yale), the Mirror Maze is a trip for all ages, and at just $5 it might be the cheapest one you’ll find in San Francisco.
1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941, USA
Just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge is Muir Woods National Monument, a 554-acre park; old-growth coast redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, cover 295 of those acres. Peaceful and lush, the forest is ideal for simply communing with nature, or hiking on trails that meander along Redwood Creek, past trees that are anywhere from 400 to more than 1,000 years old and soar 250 feet high. When staffing permits, guided talks are offered, or you can take a self-guided tour among the giants with a program available at the visitor center. The park is open 365 days a year. Given how beautiful it is, Muir Woods can get crowded, but it opens at 8 a.m., and the early bird does capture the best photos. If you prefer not to drive, a bus from the Sausalito Ferry landing (Route 66/66F) runs to the park every 10–20 minutes, depending on the time of year.
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
While Japanese gardens have come to be an expected feature of many botanical parks around the world, the Japanese Tea Garden, which opened in 1894, was the first public tea garden in the United States. The original plot consisted of less than half a hectare (one acre), though it gradually grew to its current size of two hectares (five acres). Unusually for its time, a Japanese landscape architect, Makoto Hagiwara, oversaw it for decades until he was interned during World War II and not allowed to return to his position after the war. His legacy lives on, however, in this meticulous garden dotted with pagodas and crossed by stone paths.

Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA, USA
It’s a street, it’s a music venue, it’s a district, and...it’s a fun way to spend a day or weekend in San Francisco. Hemmed in on the east by Japantown, on the south by the Fillmore Jazz District, and on the north by swanky Pacific Heights with its mega-mansions and killer bay views, the 10 blocks of Fillmore Street offer myriad ways to dine, drink, shop, and play. Shops like Rag & Bone, Rebecca Minkoff, and Cotelac will satisfy highbrow tastes, while antique and thrift stores let treasure hunters go wild. You’d be hard pressed to walk a block without finding a place to grab coffee, juice, wine, or a bite to eat, and dozens of the city’s favorite restaurants are found along Fillmore Street, among them State Bird Provisions, Elite Cafe, 1300 on Fillmore, Chouquet’s, and the Grove. The old-school Clay Theatre is a must for foreign- and indie-film buffs as well as Rocky Horror Picture Show devotees. The legendary Fillmore Auditorium, simply called the Fillmore, still welcomes amazing musical acts to its stage.
Tiburon, CA 94920, USA
Hop aboard the ferry at Pier 41 in San Francisco, or from the town of Tiburon, and spend a day on the largest and most beautiful island in the bay—Angel Island State Park. You can bring your own bike, or rent one when you arrive, and ride the paved perimeter trail around the 760-acre island. There are open-air tram tours, too, with guides recalling the island’s rich history, as well as guided hikes. Of course, you are free to roam the trails on your own, one of the best of which is the hike up to the top of 788-foot Mount Livermore, where 360-degree views take in the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. Whatever your plan, know you’ll be immersing yourself in local history in a place that has been a fishing and hunting site for Coast Miwok Indians, a haven for Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, and a U.S. Army post starting with the Civil War. From 1910 to 1940, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were processed here, and during World War II, Japanese and German POWs were held on the island. Several buildings and other relics remain as a reminder of the island’s varied history, including the United States Immigration Station museum (open March–October).
Pier 45, Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Musée Mécanique, at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf, is one of the largest privately held collections of vintage mechanical arcade machines in the world. Displaying some 200 pieces from the more than 300 acquired by Edward G. Zelinsky throughout his life, the museum is still owned and managed by the philanthropist and historian’s family. But words like museum and display are misleading: The majority of these contraptions still work. Stock up on quarters and dust off your nostalgia, because this is a chance to introduce your kids to the PlayStation of the good old days. There are music boxes, barbershop quartets, peep shows, fortune-tellers, jerky dioramas (ranging from a colorful carnival to a dingy opium den), and more; many of the items are over a century old. There are also more modern arcade machines—still ancient by today’s standards—such as pinball, Pac-Man, and Street Fighter II; those with a competitive streak can play Skee-Ball or air hockey. Presiding over it all is the life-size Laffing Sal, whose full-blooded cackling is the only thing that cuts through the cacophony of beeping and buzzing and clanging and the riot of carnival tunes. As well as a cool place to play games with your kids, it’s a fun lens through which to teach them about life in the not-so-distant past, and perhaps about your own childhood. Entry is free, and there are plenty of change machines. Photo: Gary Stevens/Flickr
1805 Geary Blvd
If walls could talk, you’d be stuck in conversation with the Fillmore for hours. The building was a dance hall when it opened in 1912 and a roller rink during the 1940s, and led its first concerts in 1952 with artists like James Brown and Ike & Tina Turner. But in the mid-1960s, the venue really had its moment. Concert promoter Bill Graham made the ballroom a hub for psychedelic music and brought would-be legends like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana to the stage. Needless to say, there’s history here. Learn it best by attending a show. The standing-room-only ballroom still brings in big-name artists—think Lorde and the 1975—at budget-friendly prices, along with a constant stream of smaller acts. There’s a full-service restaurant and a bar, and the vibrant collections of old photos, artwork, newspaper clippings, posters, and billings will school you on the club’s colorful past.
3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123, USA
Standing out in San Francisco‘s Marina District, this historic landmark is a leftover from the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Expo and was designed by Bernard R. Maybeck, a student of the École des Beaux-Arts. His vision was to give the impression of ancient Roman ruins. When the fair concluded, the Palace of Fine Arts proved too beautiful to raze. Maybeck had intended the Palace to fall into ruins (in keeping with his original vision), and it did for years. It was used as a storage depot after World War II and as a warehouse for the Parks Department. In the late 1950s, a local city official led an effort to face-lift the building. The Palace of Fine Arts was rebuilt and is now enjoyed by visitors who walk beneath the towering colonnade and the grand rotunda.
83 Marina Green Dr, San Francisco, CA 94123, USA
Head to this jetty near the Golden Gate Yacht Club in the Marina district and simply listen. The Wave Organ, a wave-activated sculpture made of granite and marble culled from the demolished Laurel Hill Cemetery, provides an enchanting experience. As waves roll in and crash against 20 pipes that extend out into the water, the sound is amplified, creating a liquid symphony of gurgles, rumbling, whooshing, and swishing. The balance of high- and low-pitched sounds is both entertaining and strangely profound. A bonus: The views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge never get old.
Pier 39
At Pier 39, more than 20,000 sea creatures from the San Francisco Bay and California coastline await your visit. Walking through the aquarium’s transparent tunnels immerses you in the bay’s diverse aquatic life, as you come eye-to-eye with the native sevengill sharks, watch the hypnotic motion of the jellyfish, and even touch a grand bat ray’s wing, if you dare. Four adorable otters live here, too. The aquarium hosts daily naturalist-led animal feedings, and curators give talks about tide pools, octopi, and climate change, interactive experiments. New virtual-reality experiences allow you up-close “access” to whales and polar bears. Otters, considered watershed ambassadors, are indicators of healthy waterways. Splurge on a behind-the-scenes tour and shark-feeding tour in addition to the regular admission ticket, and you’ll have an unforgettable day at this amazing waterside habitat.
415 Geary St, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA
The American Conservatory Theater, a thriving community of artists and audiences, celebrates a tradition of live theater in San Francisco. A.C.T. was the first theater to win a Tony Award for the quality of its training program, as well as for its performances. It was also the first independent theater in the country to achieve academic accreditation and the ability to grant Master of Fine Arts degrees in acting. Its calendar of classical and contemporary productions are mounted at the historic Geary Theater (called the Columbia Theater when it was built in 1910). In 2015, A.C.T. expanded to open the 283-seat Strand Theater near the Civic Center, complete with a basement cabaret space, acting workshops, and productions connected to the conservatory’s M.F.A. program which admits only eight students per year.
419 O'Farrell Street
Sleight of hand, mind-reading, astonishing tricks, and comedy— master magician, mentalist, and comic Jay Alexander does it all four nights a week near Union Square. It was a trunk in Alexander’s grandparents’ attic that launched his magical curiosity, and at the age of 14, he was the youngest recipient of the Society of American Magicians Gold Medal of Honor. Alexander has entertained audiences on the Today Show and Good Morning America, and given special performances for U2 frontman Bono and the late Bay Area comedian, Robin Williams. Good clean fun for the whole family (though children under eight are probably not the ideal audience), the show leaves you mezmerized and wondering “How did he do that?!” Come see if you can figure it out. The intimate theater is, as the name suggests, Moroccan-themed. Guests can order pre-show snacks, drinks, and mint tea. Shows run Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Book tickets online.
201 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA
For longtime lovers of jazz, or those curious to learn about the history of America’s music, the 35,000-square-foot SFJAZZ Center in the Hayes Valley neighborhood is a do-not-miss. Opened in January 2013, the cultural center and stage is considered to be one of the greatest jazz concert halls in the world, and is the first free-standing theater for jazz performance and education in America. Drop in for concerts, held pretty much every night of the week. Take a jazz appreciation class, and attend events such as the annual SFJAZZ Festival. The center’s B-Side is a full-service restaurant and bar (featuring great live music, naturally).
934 Brannan St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
If you’d like to deck your walls with local art, then SF Open Studios can help out. Sponsored by ArtSpan,SF Open Studios is the largest and longest-running open-studio program in the U.S. The city-wide art extravaganza spreads over four weekends in October and November inviting guests to dip into the workspaces and studios of more than 800 participating artists in neighborhoods across the city. For art collectors or just curious consumers this means you can pick up one-of-a kind, made-in-San Francisco pieces and meet the artists that make up the city’s vibrant and world-class creative community. There’s even an app you can download to help navigate between different studios. Best of all, SF Open Studios is free and open to the public.
429 Castro St, San Francisco, CA 94114, USA
This single-screen movie house is not just one of San Francisco’s most beloved landmarks, it’s also one of the country’s oldest operating movie theaters. The 1922 theater’s Spanish Colonial exterior was designed to evoke a Mexican cathedral, while inside it’s all fantasy,with tassels, swags, and a ceiling that looks like a leather tent. In 2001, substantial upgrades and improvements were made to the theater’s 1400 seats as well as to the sound and screen technologies. While it’s a fabulous place to take in mainstream movies, indie and foreign films, oldies, double features, and entries from the San Francisco International Film Festival that unreels each April, the Castro’s singalongs are loved by all. Dress up (costumes are encouraged) and sing along to classic films such as Grease, The Sound of Music, and Beauty and the Beast. No need to carry a tune: Just come with a singing attitude. Check the online calendar for the next showing or singalong.
More From AFAR