Famously beautiful, San Francisco is one of the most filmed, photographed and Instagrammed places in the world.
And it’s even better in real life. Pictures can never capture the taste of mouth-watering, farm-fresh dishes, the clang of the cable car and the truly joyous celebrations of individuality you’ll find on any visit here. But where do you start your urban exploration? From world-class museums to the best in LGBTIQ+ culture and incredible city vistas, here are the best things to do on any visit to San Francisco.
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1. Bask in the magical glow of the Golden Gate Bridge
Other suspension bridges are impressive feats of engineering, but the Golden Gate Bridge tops them all for razzle-dazzle showmanship. On sunny days, this American icon transfixes crowds with its radiant glow (there are great views from Crissy Field), made possible by the work of 28 daredevil painters who reapply around 1000 gallons of International Orange paint each week. To inspect their work, duck under the bridge into Fort Point, make your way to the roof and look up: you’ll notice that even on the underbelly of the bridge, not a single rivet is allowed to get rusty.
Planning tip: Head to the Marin County end of the bridge as the late-afternoon fog rolls in, and you’ll witness the ultimate magic show: now you see the Golden Gate Bridge, now you don’t. Return tomorrow for its dramatic unveiling, just in time for the morning commute.
2. Seek out inspiration and art at Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park seems to contain just about everything San Franciscans love about their city, from bonsai and buffalo to flowers, free music and free spirits. With its myriad attractions, you could wander the park for a week and still not see them all. The de Young Museum offers superb exhibitions of fine art in a striking contemporary building designed by Herzog & de Meuron, while the nearby California Academy of Sciences is a research institute and fabulous natural history museum complete with its own rainforest and aquarium. The park is also home to the San Francisco Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake. Today, everything SF needs is here: inspiration, nature and murals.
Planning tip: Sip on a fresh-brewed beer at the Beach Chalet and watch the sunset over the Pacific.
The Mission district is a hot spot for urban art © Enrique Moran / 500px
3. Admire the Mission’s showstopping street murals
Love changed the course of art history in the 1930s when modern-art power couple Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo honeymooned in San Francisco. Kahlo completed her first portrait commissions during her time in the city, while Rivera created public masterpieces that inspired generations of San Francisco muralists. Today San Francisco’s Mission District is an urban-art showstopper, featuring more than 400 murals throughout the neighborhood.
Planning tip: Head to Balmy Alley for some of the oldest murals, while 24th St and the landmark San Francisco Women’s Building are covered with glorious portrayals of community pride and political dissent.
4. Get hands-on with science at the Exploratorium
Can you stop time, sculpt fog or make sand sing? At the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on laboratory of science and human perception, you’ll discover superhuman abilities you never knew you had. But the Exploratorium is not just for kids: there are kid-free hours on Thursdays offering mad-scientist cocktails, technology-assisted sing-alongs and themed exhibits for an 18-plus crowd.
Don’t miss the chance for a rickety ride on a cable car © Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock
5. Jump on a cable car – and hold tight
Carnival rides can’t compare to the time-traveling thrills of the cable car, San Francisco’s steampunk mode of public transport. As the rickety wagons ascend notoriously steep streets, first-timers slide into strangers’ laps – cable cars were invented in 1873, long before seat belts – as regulars just grip the leather hand straps, leaning back and riding the downhill plunges like pro surfers. Follow their lead, and you’ll soon master the San Francisco stance and find yourself conquering the city’s hills without even breaking a sweat.
6. See 6000 years of traditions at the Asian Art Museum
Inspiration can be found across three floors spanning 6000 years of Asian art at this inspiring museum. Visitors can take in everything from meditative Tibetan mandalas to palace-intrigue Mughal miniatures, with stops to admire intricate Islamic geometric tile work, giddy arrays of Chinese snuff bottles and an entire Japanese minimalist teahouse. Besides the largest collection of Asian art outside Asia – 18,000-plus works – the Asian Art Museum offers excellent all-ages programs, from shadow-puppet shows to DJ mixers. Expanded ground-floor galleries host groundbreaking contemporary installations, from Jean Shin’s melted cell phone towers to teamLAB’s immersive Tokyo dreamscapes.
The market stalls and restaurants of the historic Ferry Building are where food trends begin © Ronnie Chua / Shutterstock
7. Savor the best of California food culture at the Ferry Building
Global food trends start in San Francisco. To sample tomorrow’s menu today, head to the Ferry Building, the city’s monument to trailblazing local, sustainable food. Don’t miss the Saturday farmers market, where top chefs jostle for the first pick of rare heirloom varietals, and foodie babies blissfully teethe on organic California peaches.
Planning tip: Take a trip to Pier 14, where you can make a picnic from food truck finds as you overlook the sparkling bay – and let lunch and life exceed expectations.
8. Tour Alcatraz, the notorious island prison
From its 19th-century founding as a jail for Civil War deserters and Native American dissidents until its closure by Robert Kennedy in 1963, Alcatraz was America’s most notorious penitentiary. With easy access from the city, a thrilling and unexpected history, daring tales of thwarted escape attempts and stunning views of the San Francisco skyline, “the Rock” garners 1.4 million visitors each year. Freedom will never feel so good as it will on the return ferry to San Francisco, only 1.25 miles across the bay’s riptides.
Planning tip: For maximum chill factor, book the spooky night tour.
Wander San Francisco’s vibrant Chinatown and discover a neighborhood that’s survived against the odds © eddie-hernandez.com / Shutterstock
9. Poke around the backstreets of Chinatown
Enter Dragon’s Gate to saunter down Chinatown’s main tourist drag, Grant Ave. It’s hard to believe this pagoda-topped, souvenir-shop-packed strip was once the wildest spot in the West – at least until you see the fascinating displays at the Chinese Historical Society of America. Walk Waverly Place, Chinatown’s soul, lined with flag-festooned, colorful temple balconies and family-run businesses. Then duck into Chinatown’s historic alleyways to glimpse a neighborhood that’s survived against daunting odds, listening for mah-jongg tiles, temple gongs and Chinese orchestras as you wander the backstreets. Finish up by refueling with some tantalizing traditional dim sum.
10. Trace the history of the avant-garde at SFMOMA
From the moment of its founding in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art envisioned a world of radical new possibilities. SFMOMA was a forward-thinking early collector in such then-emerging media as photography, murals, film and installation. Today, the institution has tripled in size and ambition, dedicating entire wings to new media, room-size paintings, high-tech design and monumental Richard Serra sculptures.
Planning tip: If you want to visit all seven floors, it’s best to set aside a whole afternoon.
The Castro is one of the most out-and-proud neighborhoods in the USA – and the world © xavierarnau / Getty Images
11. Go over the rainbow in the Castro
Somewhere over the rainbow (crosswalk), you’ll realize you’ve officially arrived in the Castro district – the most out-and-proud neighborhood on the planet for more than 50 years. Walk in the footsteps of LGBTIQ+ trailblazers along the Rainbow Honor Walk, get to know civil-rights champions at America’s first GLBT History Museum and join history perpetually in progress at San Francisco’s month-long, million-strong Pride celebrations in June.
12. Take in the urban panoramas from Coit Tower and hilltop parks
Wild parrots might mock your progress up Telegraph Hill – but then again, they shouldn’t expect to keep scenery like this to themselves. The Filbert St Steps pass cliffside cottage gardens to reach SF’s monument to independent thinking: Coit Tower. Fire-fighting millionaire Lillie Hitchcock Coit commissioned this art deco monument to honor firefighters, while muralists captured 1930s San Francisco in its lobby frescoes. Coit Tower’s paintings and panoramic viewing platform show off the city at its best: all broad perspectives, outlandish and inspiring. With wind-sculpted trees and Victorian turrets, head for Corona Heights and Buena Vista Park. Hilltop green spaces like George Sterling Park and Ina Coolbrith Park are San Francisco’s crowning glories.
Planning tip: SF has 41 peaks, and as you scale those steep hills, your calf muscles will strain, and gravity will seem unkind – but persevere. All grumbling will end once you reach the summit and feel like you have the world at your feet.
Sea lions take priority over boats at Pier 39 © Fred Bahurlet / EyeEm / Getty Images
13. Hear the sea lions bark at Pier 39
Sea lions took over Pier 39, San Francisco’s most coveted waterfront real estate, in 1989 and have been making a public display of themselves ever since. Naturally, these unkempt squatters have become San Francisco’s favorite mascots, and since California law requires boats to make way for marine mammals, yacht owners have had to relinquish valuable slips to accommodate as many as 1000 sea lions. Night and day, they canoodle, belch, scratch and gleefully shove one another off the docks. It’s a joy to watch.
Planning tip: These giant mammals can be found on the docks between January and July (and whenever else they feel like sunbathing).
14. Try not to get creeped out at the Musée Mécanique
A flashback to penny arcades, the Musée Mécanique in Fisherman’s Wharf houses a mind-blowing collection of vintage mechanical amusements. Sinister, freckle-faced “Laffing Sal” has freaked out kids for over a century, yet don’t let this manic mannequin deter you from the best arcade west of Coney Island. A quarter lets you start brawls in Wild West saloons, peep at belly dancers through a vintage Mutoscope and get hypnotized by a Ferris wheel made from toothpicks.
Introducing San Francisco
15. Celebrate the First Amendment at City Lights Books
Free speech and free spirits have rejoiced since 1957, when City Lights founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and manager Shigeyoshi Murao won a landmark ruling defending their right to publish Allen Ginsberg’s magnificent epic poem Howl. Celebrate your freedom to read freely in the designated Poet’s Chair upstairs, overlooking Jack Kerouac Alley. Then load up on zines on the mezzanine and entertain radical ideas downstairs in the new “Pedagogies of Resistance” section.
16. Sip a cocktail at a Barbary Coast bar
Friendly bartenders were once highly suspect in Barbary Coast, San Francisco’s Gold Rush–era red-light district. Circa 1849, a night that began with smiles and a 10-cent whiskey could end two days later, waking from a drugged sleep on a vessel bound for Patagonia. Now that double-crossing barkeep Shanghai Kelly is no longer a danger to drinkers, San Franciscans can relax over historically correct cocktails at North Beach’s revived Barbary Coast saloons, including Comstock Saloon, Devil’s Acre and 15 Romolo. Today’s saloon scene is a fitting homage to drunken sailors of yore, with iron stools, absinthe fountains, dim lighting and reassuring barkeep banter.