Top Attractions 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.

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.
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.
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.
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.

900 North Point St, San Francisco, CA 94109, USA
When Domingo Ghirardelli immigrated to the United States in 1849, he planned to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush. Unsuccessful, he opened a store in Stockton selling supplies and some confections to other hopeful miners. Flash forward a few years (and failed businesses), and Ghirardelli opened another confectionary company called Ghirardely & Girard, which would lay the foundation for today’s Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. Chocolate was made on San Francisco‘s northern waterfront for many years but eventually moved out of the city. Luckily the buildings still stand, including the historic power plant with clock tower. Two floors were added to a warehouse in 1923, and atop those the famous 15-foot-high letters spelling out “Ghirardelli.” Though the company continues to make chocolate, it is no longer owned by the Ghirardelli family. Still, there are plenty of reasons to visit the brick buildings that have been transformed into a thriving marketplace with restaurants, art galleries, shops, a winetasting room, and of course, a place to taste and buy Ghirardelli chocolate, a true San Francisco original. The square also hosts some popular San Francisco events, including an annual Christmas tree lighting and a chocolate festival held each September.
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.
100 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
The Victorian-era glass and wood structure, which looks like a sugar-coated castle atop a grassy slope, is Golden Gate Park’s oldest building. It’s also one of San Francisco’s most splendid historic sites. Wander through five different galleries housing 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants along with the world’s largest public collection of high-altitude orchids. The potted plant gallery features rare flowering plants and an assortment of decorative urns and containers from all over the world, including a leftover from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Keep your eyes open for special exhibits, including the annual Butterflies and Blooms, which transforms the conservatory into a magical garden aflutter with hundreds of butterflies.
San Francisco, CA, USA
With all the gadgets and high-tech gear aimed at entertaining kids these days, it’s a welcome respite to climb aboard the jewel-encrusted dragons and ornate zoo animals of this historic carousel in Yerba Buena Gardens. It was built between 1904 and 1906 by Charles I. D. Looff, a famed creator of hand-carved carousels and amusement park rides. San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake delayed the carousel’s arrival, sending it briefly to Seattle before it finally arrived at San Francisco’s beloved Playland-at-the-Beach, where it twirled for almost 60 years. When the park closed in 1972, the carousel was on the move again, first sitting in storage in New Mexico then to Long Beach, California. In 1988, San Francisco civil rights leader LeRoy King led an effort to bring the carousel home. Why? Love! He’d taken his wife to Playland on their first date and rode the carousel in the 1930s. The city purchased the carousel, placed it next to the Children’s Creativity Museum, and renamed it for King. The carousel is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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.
Sausalito, CA 94965, USA
Get a small-town experience just a short ferry ride or an easy drive from San Francisco in Sausalito. The town is known for its seaside charm, but there are a few not-to-miss things to do while you’re there.
1. Grab lunch at one of the many restaurants and cafés with views of the San Francisco skyline.
2. Walk along Bridgeway, Sausalito’s main drag, and browse the numerous souvenir shops, boutiques, and art galleries.
3. Sausalito’s houseboat community showcases anything from renovated architectural gems to repurposed barges to vessels that need some serious TLC. These are private homes, so be respectful when wandering around. Liberty Dock and Issaquah Dock are good places to start.
4. The Bay Model Visitor Center, run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is an acre-and-a-half scale reconstruction of the Bay Area’s waterways. From an observation platform, watch tides ebb and flow every 15 minutes, and marvel at just how big the bay really is.
5. Kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Near the Bay Model, Sea Trek offers several types of classes for both, catering to all skill levels.
6. Stock up on dinnerwear made in Sausalito at Heath Ceramics. Among the houseboats and artist studios is the original 1959 factory, where the clay is made, and the plates, bowls and cups are shaped and glazed. There is also tour each Friday, and weekend tours Saturday and Sunday. The factory is slightly north of downtown.
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.

500 Avenue N, San Francisco, CA 94130, USA
Along with a great view of San Francisco, Treasure Island is home to a popular flea market, formerly Treasure Island Flea, and now called TreasureFest. Each month around 400 curated vendors set up and peddle their wares. Stalls offer antiques, originally designed art and clothing, and vintage curiosities. You will also find about two dozen food trucks, live music, kids’ games and activities, and some local wine sellers to fuel your shopping fire. The two-day flea market takes place the last weekend of every month. Launched in 2011 to support local artists and entrepreneurs, Treasure Island Flea is now a must-do Bay Area event.
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.
740 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA
When you think of a chocolate factory, a hip and airy space in the heart of one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods may not spring to mind. But therein lies the surprise that is Dandelion Chocolate: part factory, part café, part boutique, and located in the heart of the Mission. Like beans for coffee and grapes for wine, Dandelion brings the idea of single-origin sourcing to each bar it creates. Rather than add strange ingredients to alter the flavor of the chocolate, Dandelion uses just two ingredients—cocoa beans and sugar—which allows each bean’s unique flavor and terroir to shine. Drop in for hot chocolate (with handmade marshmallows) or a chocolate dessert created by Dandelion’s pastry chef, shop for gifts, and take a twirl through the factory, where beans are roasted, cracked, sorted, winnowed, ground, and tempered before being molded. Each bar is wrapped by hand in gorgeous paper and ribbon and affixed with a label that tells a story about the cocoa bean’s origin. For a deeper dive into chocolate, Dandelion has a schedule of classes for adults and kids, and even leads trips to cocoa farms.
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.
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.
1400 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA
Formerly called ‘Jammin’ on Haight,’ the beloved tie-dye boutique rebranded and reopened in 2017 as Love on Haight in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. It’s still a hippie fashion emporium and the place to pick up colorful clothing for men, women, and kids, as well as necessities like jewelry, glitter, sunglasses, hats, books, and all things tie-dye. Love on Haight is one of the few artisan shops on the street, bringing customers psychedelic creations made by locals and friends of the owners. One thing that hasn’t change at all: It’s still all about love. Check out the “peace, love, and kindness” wall, that lets buyers know that a portion of all sales is donated to a charity devoted to homeless youth, Taking It to the Streets.
4519, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
In an age when many independent bookstores have surrendered to the advance of chain stores and Amazon, City Lights is a true survivor. Since it was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1956, it has served as a gathering place for San Francisco’s literary communities. Everyone from beat poets to left-wing critics of America have found a welcome here. City Lights is also a publishing house, with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems being perhaps the single most famous book it has put out, though it counts scores of other works by some of America’s leading contemporary literary figures on its list. You can drop in anytime to find an unexpected tome, and the store also has a crowded calendar of readings.

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).
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.
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.
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