100+ Things to do in San Francisco, California (From a Local)

best things to do in san francisco, california

The best things to do in San Francisco! From the best places to eat to iconic attractions and local experiences. These are my recommendations after 20+ years of visiting and living in the city. 

Known for its ridiculous hills, tech scene, and mouthwatering sourdough, San Francisco is easily one of the most eclectic cities in the world. 

It’s the place where Irish Coffee, Karl the Fog, fortune cookies, and Levi’s were born.

It’s where you’ll find third wave coffee, themed bars, colorful neighborhoods, and even more colorful locals. 

I’ve been to a lot of cities around the world, but San Francisco is the place I always come back to. 

Growing up in Santa Cruz, I often came up to the city for basketball tournaments or concerts on the weekends.

After college, during my on-and-off stints abroad, I always flew back to San Francisco and stayed for large chunks of time since my sister and some of my closest friends lived here. 

And finally, I moved more permanently to the Bay Area in 2018 and lived in San Francisco as a local for two years. 

It took me a long time to actually write this post because I knew I would have a lot to say about this city (clearly, from the length of this post), but I’m excited to finally share my tips and recommendations with you to make sure you get as much out of this city as it’s given to me. 

This post is a culmination of visiting and getting to know San Francisco for over 20 years – from the perspective of a tourist to a regular visitor to a local.

So whether you’re planning a first-time visit to San Francisco, you’re a habitual visitor, new to San Francisco, or a longtime local looking for new things to do around the city, we’ve got you covered with what to see in San Francisco. 

From foodie spots to iconic tourist destinations and local experiences, these are my picks for the best things to do in San Francisco (that everyone should experience at least once).

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

Hidden stairways in San Francisco

Table of Contents


Top Things to do in San Francisco

Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge

If you’re looking for things to do in SF, you can’t get more quintessentially San Francisco than the Golden Gate Bridge.

Built by engineer Joseph Strauss and open to the public since 1937, this is one of the most iconic sights in the city. 

Although you can easily drive over the bridge, preferably with a convertible to feel that crisp bay breeze, my favorite way to experience it is by walking across it. 

Now, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t quite as easy as it might seem. The bridge spans 1.7 miles, so you’ll need to be prepared to walk for at least 3.5 miles to go there and back. And, realistically, probably more since parking is a little further away.

Alternatively, to cut your trip in half and still get a similar experience, you can just walk halfway and back to keep it under two miles. 

If you’re willing to make the trek, it’s a beautiful way to experience one of the top sights in San Francisco. 

Golden Gate Bridge | California sights
Driving, biking, or walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is a rite of passage when you visit San Francisco.

 

Ride Bikes Around Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is one of my favorite spots in San Francisco and my backyard for a while when I was living in the Haight for two years.

As San Franciscans like to brag, Golden Gate Park is 150 acres larger than New York’s Central Park – meaning there’s a whole lot of park to explore. 

As a San Francisco local, I loved just walking around Golden Gate Park and its many gardens after work or on the weekends. And there’s plenty for non-locals to enjoy as well.

In fact, Golden Gate Park houses some of the best sights in San Francisco all within its leafy wonderland. 

My recommendation?

To get the most out of the park in a short amount of time, rent a bike and pedal around to all of the attractions you want to see. It’s one of the best activities in San Francisco and you’ll get to see a lot in a few hours. 

You’ll find bikes to rent near Stanyan and Haight Street. 

Here are a few sights that you might want to add to your Golden Gate Park itinerary: 

  • Japanese Tea Garden 
  • The de Young Museum
  • Conservatory of Flowers
  • California Academy of Sciences
  • San Francisco Botanical Garden
  • The Bison Paddock (yes, there are bison in the park) 
  • Strawberry Hill
  • Murphy Windmill 
  • Stow Lake

 

things to do in Golden Gate Park - Conservatory of Flowers
The Conservatory of Flowers – one of the many San Francisco sights to see in Golden Gate Park.

 

Ride a Cable Car

Hanging off the side of an open-air cable car as it goes up an impossibly steep hill is one of those things you must do in San Francisco at least once. 

Yes, this is one of the most touristy things to do in SF, but it’s also a historic way to see the city.

Believe it or not, cable cars have been operating in San Francisco since 1873!

Although no longer used by many locals for public transportation, they’re an institution in the city.

To ride a cable car, make sure you have small change with you, a Clipper Card, or a prepaid fare through the Muni Mobile app when you hop on.

All fares are a flat rate of $8 (unless you’re a senior or disabled, in which case it’s $4). If you’re paying with cash, you’ll pay the conductor directly as he walks down the aisle. 

There are three cable car lines throughout the city, the most scenic one (and therefore the most touristy) is the Powell-Hyde route.

Most people hop on at the intersection of Powell St and Market St, just be prepared for long lines most days.  

Local tip: If you want a more local experience without the crowds, opt to ride one of San Francisco’s historic streetcars instead.

These aren’t quite as fun as the cable cars (no hanging off the side of them and they’re not open-air), but they’re still a scenic way to cruise through the city and a historic form of transportation that’s still used by locals.

One of the more scenic places to hop on a streetcar is from the Ferry Terminal where you can ride it to Fisherman’s Wharf – the E or the F streetcars both go along this route.


Watch the Sea Lions at Pier 39

Sea lions lounging in the sun (or fog) right in the midst of a busy city? 

This is another one of the more touristy things to do when visiting San Francisco, but walking around Pier 39 and saying hello to the loud and usually smelly sea lions is a fun way to spend an afternoon in Fisherman’s Wharf. 

After you’ve had your fill of watching the sea lions (they really don’t do much), you can walk around Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Pier 39 is one of the main tourist hubs in the city so if you’re looking for souvenirs (although overpriced ones) or kitschy shops, this is the place to visit.

Sea lions at pier 39 - things to do in fisherman's wharf
Look at those cute sea lions laying out in the sun!


Taste the Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square

Over a century old now, Ghirardelli Square used to be the location of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory (RIP) in the late 1890s but was eventually turned into a square of shops and restaurants in the 1960s. 

Today, it’s a San Francisco must-see (especially if you like chocolate). You can still go sample some Ghirardelli Chocolate from the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory & Soda Fountain that’s in the square.

Once you’ve had your fill of chocolate, or at least stocked up, grab a pint from San Francisco Brewing Co. and explore the local shops.


Explore Chinatown

The largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in North America, Chinatown is a must-see in San Francisco. It’s a maze of bustling outdoor markets, colorful stores, and delicious food.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of those places to just walk around and get lost. With red lanterns floating over its main streets and a mix of Chinese and Western architecture, it’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach and nose. 

Covering 24 square blocks, you can probably guess just how much there is to explore in Chinatown. A few places to visit include: 

  • Dragon’s Gate
  • Shop along Grant Avenue 
  • Fortune Cookie Factory
  • Portsmouth Square 
  • The Tin How Temple
  • Waverly Place
  • Li Po Lounge – One of the best spots for Mai Tais in San Francisco
  • Old St. Mary’s Church
  • Golden Gate Bakery – For their egg tarts, but be prepared to wait in line


Local tip:
If you have time, try to visit Chinatown both during the day and a night.

During the day, you can enjoy the outdoor markets, bakeries, dim sum, and souvenir shops. At night, you can immerse yourself in dark cocktail bars, bustling eateries, and karaoke bars.

It’s the best way to see the different personalities of this cultural spot in the city. 


Get the Spooks on an Alcatraz Night Tour

An island located 1.25 miles off the San Francisco mainland, Alcatraz has gone through many transformations throughout the years. 

It’s most famous though for its time as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963 when it housed notorious inmates, such as Robert Stroud (“The Birdman of Alcatraz”), Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin Karpis, among others. 

Today, it’s run by the National Park Service and one of the top tourist attractions and places to visit in San Francisco.

Visitors can either go on a tour during the day or on one of the more limited night tours.

Either tour is a good way to see the island (and the only way to see it) and learn more about the history of Alcatraz, but the Alcatraz Night Tour is definitely the better option if you’re looking for something a little more creepy. 

The night tour offers a less crowded experience (it’s limited to 100 visitors per night) and a more behind-the-scenes experience with the ability to explore areas that are normally closed off during the day. 

With that said, these tickets go even faster than the day tour ticks and can be hard to find.

If the Alcatraz Day Tour is your only option, it’s still worth experiencing as it’s one of the more interesting things to do in San Francisco, especially if you’re into history.

Give yourself at least 2.5 hours for either tour – the guided audio tour is fantastic so you’ll want to listen to it all the way through. Plus, the island is much larger to walk around than most people think.  

Local tip: Alcatraz tickets usually sell out far in advance, especially in the summer. Plan to buy tickets at least a couple of months in advance if possible. 


Eat Fresh Crab at Fisherman’s Wharf

If there’s one thing San Francisco knows how to do, it’s seafood. And this is especially the case with fresh Dungeness crab.

I never realized how many crabs lived around the San Francisco Bay until I went crabbing once at Fort Baker, but there are boatloads of crustaceans here.

Although it’s one of the more touristy spots in the city, Fisherman’s Wharf is an ideal place to taste fresh San Francisco crab. 

Around the wharf, you’ll find scenic restaurants with huge windows looking out over the water, the smell of salt in the air, bayside breezes, and fresh sizzling crab served up in various ways.

A couple of the best places to try crab in Fisherman’s Wharf include the Fog Harbor Fish House and Scoma’s Restaurant

Local tip: Don’t miss out on trying a dish called cioppino – a delicious fish stew that originated in San Francisco.

fresh crab in San Francisco
That one time I went crabbing and discovered just how much fresh crab there is in the San Francisco Bay.


People Watch in Union Square

If you’re wondering where to go in San Francisco, a good place to start is Union Square. Union Square is the beating heart of the city, just steps away from the Financial District and the Theater District. 

This area of the city is where most visitors choose to stay because it’s so central to many of San Francisco’s most popular attractions and it’s the main transit hub. 

It’s also one of the best places to go shopping if you’re looking for a mix of inexpensive and upscale chain stores and retailers – everything from Bloomingdales to H&M. 

During the holidays, you can even go ice skating in the middle of the square surrounded by skyscrapers (it’s a magical experience). 

One of the best ways to take it all in is to head over to the steps next to the giant heart sculpture and watch the buzz around you.

Hanging out in Union Square allows you to get a good feel for the city through one of its most diverse areas, filled with tourists, suits, and street performers during the day. 


Drive Down Lombard Street

Some locals say Lombard Street isn’t worth the trip, but I beg to differ. Driving down the “crookedest street in the world” is a fun thing to add to your San Francisco itinerary, even when you have to go 5 mph. 

Plus, the view from the very top gives you a good look at sparkling Bay views below.

Just don’t honk and be respectful as you go down – the locals who live on this section of Lombard Street have to deal with people driving down their street at all hours of the day. 

view from the top of Lombard Street
The view from the top of Lombard Street, right before you go down.

 

See a Show in the Theater District

One of the best things to do in downtown San Francisco, right next to the Financial District and Union Square, is exploring San Francisco’s Theater District.

Okay, it might not be as glamorous as Broadway in New York City, but seeing a show in the district is one of the top 10 things to do in the city if you’re a theater person. 

My recommendation is to grab tickets to a show at the Orpheum. Built in 1926, it’s by far the most ornate and beautiful theater in the Theater District.

I’ve seen both Hamilton and Wicked there and I was blown away by how phenomenal the shows were and how great the atmosphere was.

Besides the Orpheum, other popular theaters include the Curran, Golden Gate, Geary, and the Strand.

You can find a full list of upcoming shows for a bunch of these theaters, as well as ticket info, on the San Francisco Theater website

And if you’re looking for more than just theater, the SF Ballet, SF Opera, and the SF Symphony are all fantastic to see as well.  

San Francisco theater district - Orpheum Theater, Hamilton
Seeing Hamilton for the first time with my sister at Orpheum Theater!


Go on a San Francisco Bay Cruise

Going on a cruise around the bay is a popular San Francisco activity and one of the best ways to take in the city from the water.

Seeing the skyline at dusk or lit up at night from a boat in the bay is one of those beautiful San Francisco experiences to have in the Bay Area. 

There are a number of cruise companies that do tours around the bay, a couple of my favorites are Adventure Cat and Hornblower (specifically their dinner cruise). 

Local tip: If you can go on a tour that starts right before dusk and finishes once it’s dark, you’ll get the best of both worlds – seeing the San Francisco skyline during golden hour and when it’s all lit up at night.

San Francisco Bay Cruise
One of the many bay cruises I’ve been on – I love seeing the city skyline from the water.


Best Free Things to do in San Francisco

Hike up to Coit Tower

There are quite a few spots in San Francisco that offer panoramic views of the city and Coit Tower is one of the best. 

Situated at the edge of North Beach, this 210-foot tower was built in 1933 as a memorial to San Francisco firemen who died in the five large fires of San Francisco’s past. 

Hiking up to the tower gives you stunning views looking out over the city and the bay.

Although going to the second floor of the tower requires a paid ticket, it’s completely free to walk around the ground floor and the outdoor space around the tower (where you get the best views anyway). 

Once you’re done taking in the view, walk over to nearby Telegraph Hill to see if you can spot the famous green parrots on their usual perch or somewhere else in the city.

Although Telegraph Hill is the spot they’re known for, they can actually be found anywhere from The Embarcadero all the way down to Brisbane. 

Local tip: Don’t miss the colorful murals around the ground floor of the tower, many of which were seen as controversial at the time for their depiction of local issues that were deemed too political. 


Take in the View from Twin Peaks

Another one of the best views in San Francisco (and actually one that I like more than Coit Tower) is the view from Twin Peaks.

Looking down on the city sprawled out below from Twin Peaks is easily my favorite view of San Francisco from above.

You can see everything from afar and I like that Twin Peaks is located in a more residential neighborhood, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

You can either drive or hike up to Twin Peaks. The hike is steep but relatively short so a good option if you’re looking for a workout and you don’t have a car (or you don’t want to worry about parking). 

Local tip: Although it’s usually pretty crowded up there around golden hour, seeing the sunset from Twin Peaks is an experience you shouldn’t miss.


Discover San Francisco’s Hippie Culture in Haight-Ashbury

My home for two years, Haight-Ashbury is the neighborhood I lived in when I first arrived in San Francisco (weirdly, it seems like that’s the case for most locals). 

Besides being the popular counterculture neighborhood of San Francisco (with the least amount of Trump voters in the city), it also offers some of the most iconic Victorian architecture that San Francisco is so well known for. 

Just walking around the neighborhood, you’ll find colorful Victorian houses everywhere, as well as Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle nearby. 

Haight-Ashbury became famous for its hippie culture in the 1960s with the Summer of Love and its well-known residents, many of who were musicians, revolutionaries, and hippies.

Some of its most famous residents were Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Jimmie Hendrix. 

The Haight today is a little more toned down, but still offers quirky vintage stores, colorful locals, and delicious eateries. A few places you shouldn’t miss with a visit to the Haight include:  

  • Amoeba Music 
  • The Grateful Dead House and Janis Joplin House
  • The Booksmith – a great little local bookstore 
  • Piedmont Boutique (with its famous legs)
  • Decades of Fashion
  • Zam Zam or The Alembic for a drink 
  • Cha Cha Cha or Hippie Thai – two of my favorite restaurants in the Haight 
  • And one of my favorite things to do in the Haight – simply walk around to admire the colorful Victorians, murals, and leafy green parks

 

things to do in haight-ashbury
The Haight has some of the most colorful and unique houses in the city, it’s a fun place to just walk around and take it all in.


Go on a Street Art Hunt in the Mission District

Back in the 1980s, 90s, and even early ‘00s, the Mission District was home to a huge Hispanic population. It was the hub for Latino culture.

Today, with gentrification and rising rent prices (the Mission is now one of the more expensive places to live in SF), many of its original residents have been pushed out.

Although the neighborhood has become more hipster than anything else these days, you’ll still find remnants of some of that original culture of the neighborhood, with local Mexican markets and some of the best taquerias in the city.

Another aspect that has stuck is the thousands of beautiful murals and street art around the neighborhood, many of which include commentary on themes such as human rights and social, environmental, and economic justice. 

There is a lot of street art to discover in the Mission, but some of the best spots to start are the following: 

  • Balmy Alley (between 24th and 25th Streets)
  • Clarion Alley (between 17th and 18th Streets)
  • The Women’s Building (3543 18th St)
  • Carnaval Mural (24th St and South Van Ness Ave) 
  • La Llorona’s Sacred Waters (York St and 24th St)

 

Spend an Afternoon at Dolores Park

There’s no better place to be on a sunny day than at Dolores Park. Located in the Mission District, this huge park offers postcard-perfect views looking towards the Financial District. 

Dolores Park gets packed on nice days, but it’s a good spot for people watching and there are always a lot of cute pups running around. 

My recommendation? Grab takeout from one of the nearby cafes or get a scoop or two from Bi-Rite and have an impromptu picnic with some friends or just yourself at the park. 

Just spending a couple of hours in the sun with the views and the laid-back energy of Dolores Park is one of my favorite things to do in the city.   


Go on a Free Walking Tour

One of the best ways to get to know more about the history of San Francisco is to go on a free walking tour with Free Tours By Foot

They offer a variety of neighborhood tours, a few that I would recommend include: 

  • The Castro and the Fight for Equal Rights – to learn more about the LGBTQ history in the Castro
  • Chinatown
  • Secrets, Scandals, and Scoundrels of San Francisco 
  • San Francisco in One Day – if you just want to get a good overview of the city

 

One thing to note is that although these are “free” tours, your tour guide is a volunteer and they appreciate tips at the end of the tour. I usually recommend giving at least $20 per person if you’re able to. 


Find Hidden Staircases

Did you know that San Francisco has hundreds of staircases around the city? There’s even a book about them if you want to do a deep dive scavenger hunt. 

They’re actually a practical part of living in the city with the number of crazy hills around San Francisco, but they’ve become much more than that over the years.

Some offer expansive views, others colorful artwork, but each of them have a unique personality. While you’re exploring San Francisco, try and find a couple of hidden staircases around the city.

A few favorites to start with include:

  • 16th Avenue Tiled Steps 
  • Hidden Garden Stairs
  • Filbert Street Stairs
  • Lincoln Steps 
  • Lyon Street Steps

 

Hidden Staircases in San Francisco, California
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps – Discovering colorful hidden staircases around the city is a fun way to explore different neighborhoods.


Admire the Architecture at the Palace of Fine Arts

Another San Francisco hot spot tucked away in the Marina District and near the Presidio is the Palace of Fine Arts.

Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, this massive building is now a popular and scenic place for wedding photos and selfies. 

The lawn in front of the Palace of Fine Arts is another great place to have an afternoon picnic in the city to admire the Greek-style architecture and peaceful atmosphere. 

And if you’re lucky enough to go to an event here (I got to see Paolo Nutini perform here circa 2007), the interior is gorgeous as well. 

Local Tip: If you have the time, make this into a full afternoon adventure. After having a picnic, find the Lyon Street Steps nearby and walk down the peaceful Lover’s Lane trail in the Presidio. 

palace of the fine arts - san francisco architecture
Wandering around the Palace of Fine Arts, beautiful even when it’s not sunny out.

 

Take a Photo with The Painted Ladies

Also called “Postcard Row” or the “Seven Sisters,” the Painted Ladies are one of the top things to see in San Francisco and another popular photo spot in the city.

They first became well known to popular culture from the “Full House” intro in the 1980s and 90s, although they were visited and written about by locals decades before and they actually date back to the 1890s. 

These colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses can be found in Alamo Park, which is one of the best parks in San Francisco and well worth visiting in its own right. 

San Francisco is all about good picnic spots and Alamo Park with its view of the Painted Ladies is no exception. 

Make sure to take a selfie or pose for a picture in front of one of San Francisco’s most iconic views. I especially love this photo spot for the juxtaposition of the historic Victorians set to the backdrop of city skyscrapers. 

Local Tip: There’s an old white dude that loves to come here in nothing but a very tiny thong to do his exercises in front of the crowds of people taking pictures of the Painted Ladies. 

Let’s just say he’s part of the San Francisco experience, don’t be surprised if you see him while you’re there. 

Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies, this view really never gets old.


Find Your Favorite View of the Golden Gate Bridge

Speaking of iconic views, there are a lot of them in San Francisco. Although San Francisco hills might not always be the most fun to walk up, they do provide some pretty incredible views.

And some of my favorite views in the city are the many Golden Gate Bridge views to be found from high up as well as down below from the beach. 

Here are a few that shouldn’t be missed if you’re looking for good Golden Gate Bridge viewpoints or you’re a photographer:

  • Baker Beach or Marshall Beach 
  • Crissy Field 
  • Lands End
  • Battery East / Golden Gate Postcard Viewpoint
  • Torpedo Wharf
  • Fort Point
  • Battery Spencer – The best view from the Marin-side of the bridge
  • Fort Baker – Another good view from the other side of the bridge

 

Baker Beach picnic
Sunset picnic at the beach with pizza, champagne, and one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach? Yes, please.


Best Local Things to do in San Francisco

Cheer on the San Francisco Giants or Warriors

San Franciscans take their sports teams seriously and the Warriors (NBA) and the Giants (MLB) are the two favorites to see while you’re in the city (if you’re here in the right season). 

The Warriors used to be based in Oakland but have since moved over to San Francisco and play at Chase Center now. 

They’re incredibly fun to go see. I thankfully got to go to a Warriors game right before they shut down the season in March 2020.

And Giants Games are just as fun, even if they’re slower paced. I grew up going to Giants games with my dad when it was still AT&T Park (it’s now called Oracle Park) and it always brings back fond memories. 

Just know that if you go to a Giants game it’s required to try the garlic fries. And if you really want to go big, don’t forget to grab an ice cream from an adorable upside-down plastic baseball cap. It’s all part of the experience. 

Seeing the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center
Seeing the Golden State Warriors play at Chase Center right before everything got shut down in 2020.


Have a Drink at a Themed Bar

Whether it’s grabbing a cocktail at a tiki bar, getting into a password-protected speakeasy, or drinking beer while shooting hoops at an arcade bar, San Francisco knows how to stick to a good theme. 

A few of my favorite themed bars in the city include: 

  • Smuggler’s Cove (my absolute favorite Tiki bar – it feels like you just stepped onto the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, but with a really strong drink). 
  • Pagan Idol – Another Tiki bar 
  • Tonga Room – Last Tiki bar, I promise 
  • Emporium SF – Huge arcade bar 
  • Bourbon & Branch – Classy speakeasy 
  • Local Edition – Newspaper-themed bar with live swing sometimes on the weekends
  • Novela – Literary-themed bar 
  • The Armory Club – BDSM-themed bar 
  • Urban Putt – Mini golf-themed bar (where you can actually play mini-golf while drinking)
  • SPIN San Francisco – Ping pong bar

 

Tiki bars in San Francisco - Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
The Tonga Room – one of the many tiki bars in the city.

And not exactly a theme, but San Francisco has a lot of really good rooftop bars too.

These are a few favorites:

  • El Techo
  • The View Lounge
  • Top of the Mark

 

If you’re looking for more nightlife recommendations, I wrote a whole post on what to do in San Francisco at night here.


Bar Hop Around Local Music Venues

Similar to themed bars, live music is another thing that is especially good in the city and where you’ll find some of the best entertainment in San Francisco. 

Being so close to LA where most of the US music industry is based has its perks, we get pretty much every big act that comes through California.

At the same time, the Bay Area has its own unique music scene that pops up around the local venues as well. 

One of the best ways to spend a night in San Francisco is going to listen to live music. At the smaller venues, tickets are fairly cheap for how talented the musicians are, even if you’ve never heard of them before. 

A few of my favorite small music venues that I love bar hopping around to include:

  • Martuni’s – A fun place to go in San Franciso if you enjoy piano bars and talented karaoke
  • Rickshaw Stop
  • The Independent 
  • The Fillmore
  • Black Cat – For live jazz

 

Live Music in San Francisco - The Independent
Seeing Hop Along at The Independent – one of my favorite live music venues in San Francisco.

 

Try Some Artisanal Ice Cream

Another one of the best things to do around San Francisco (especially if you’re visiting San Francisco with kids) is taste-testing the artisanal ice cream. 

For some reason, even though San Francisco is by no means a warm city, ice cream is a huge deal here. Like, people get real serious about it.

From classics to crazy flavors and liquid nitrogen ice cream made right in front of you, there’s something for everyone in the San Francisco ice cream scene. 

Here are a few favorites to start with: 

  • Bi-Rite Creamery – The OG, the local favorite, you really can’t go wrong with Bi-Rite 
  • Humphry Slocombe 
  • Smitten Ice Cream
  • The Ice Cream Bar – Their waffle cones are to die for 
  • Mitchell’s Ice Cream
  • Salt & Straw – Originally from Portland but still very good

 

Artisanal ice cream in san francisco - Smitten
Smitten Ice Cream, not always the fastest place to grab a scoop but they make their small-batch ice cream right in front of you.


Compare Mission-Style Burritos

Although I don’t think the burritos in San Francisco are quite as good as the ones you’ll find in San Diego, they’re still pretty good – this is California, after all. 

And San Francisco has its own style of burrito that originated in the Mission. 

Mission-style burritos have been popular in San Francisco since the 1960s. Really, the only difference between these and regular burritos is that they’re enormous and have extra rice. That’s about it. 

With that said, it’s a rite of passage if you’re visiting San Francisco to try a Mission-style burrito while you’re here. 

There are currently two taquerias that claim to have invented this style of burrito – Taqueria la cumbre and El Faro.

Go with a friend and order one from each to share and taste test with each other and you can decide which one is better. 

Or, head over to my favorite taqueria in the Mission, El Farolito, for another version.

Mission-Style Burritos
One of my favorite pastimes in San Francisco, eating burritos.


Explore the Coffee Culture

San Francisco is all about those third wave, single-origin, organic, and ethically-sourced beans. And if you’re looking for hipster things to do in San Francisco, look no further than exploring the local coffee culture. 

As someone who has been drinking coffee since I was a teenager and who was a barista for two years, San Francisco has some of my favorite coffee in the world, besides maybe Melbourne, Australia. 

My friends from New York may disagree, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the San Francisco coffee culture offers something special. 

If you’re as into coffee as I am, here are a few places to get caffeinated around the city:

  • Blue Bottle Coffee – Originally from Oakland but you’ll find Blue Bottle coffee shops all over San Francisco
  • Sightglass Coffee
  • Ritual Coffee Roasters
  • Flywheel Coffee Roasters
  • Four Barrel Coffee
  • Stanza Coffee Bar – Okay, they might not have the best coffee in town but I love the local feel of this coffee shop in the Haight

 

San Francisco coffee shops, ritual coffee
Ritual Coffee, one of the top players in the San Francisco coffee scene.


Take Advantage of the Stellar Brunch Scene

Okay okay, I know you’re probably thinking that San Francisco can’t be great at EVERYTHING, right?

Well, it sucks at weather most of the time (I’m looking at you, Karl) and the cost of living, but, otherwise, what can I say, San Francisco is pretty great. 

And another one of those things the city is pretty great at is brunch. Yeah, I’m talking good ol’ basic-bitch brunch.

Although I’m not a fan of waiting in lines (which is sadly a part of brunch in SF sometimes), I do love a good brunch from time to time.

And it’s a good excuse to try some of that famous San Francisco sourdough bread that is unbelievably scrumptious. 

Here are a few of the best brunch places in San Francisco.

If you can go during the week to avoid the lines, great. But if the weekend is your only option, these places are worth the wait. 

  • Zazie – My absolute favorite brunch place in San Francisco. Not only do they have a menu filled with various eggs benedicts (the best brunch food ever created), they sometimes have specials like cinnamon swirl pancakes 
  • Kitchen Story
  • Brenda’s French Soul Food – For their beignets!
  • Sweet Maple
  • Plain Jane


Local tip:
Skip the hyped-up places like Tartine Manufactory or Mama’s on Washington Square if you’re going on a weekend. They’re not really worth the wait. 

 

San Francisco brunch - Zazie
Zazie brunch – look at that perfect eggs benedict and cinnamon roll pancake!


Go to a Museum After Dark

One of the coolest things to do, a handful of museums around the city offer after-dark nightlife experiences once a month.

There’s usually music, drinking, dancing, and open exhibits for an adults-only crowd to enjoy. It’s one of the more popular date night activities in the city and overall just a really fun time. 

I’ve been lucky enough to experience all of the after-dark museum nights in San Francisco and they’ve been a blast. 

It’s easily one of the best experiences in San Francisco. It’s also a different way to enjoy the nightlife while taking a break from the usual San Francisco sightseeing – plus, it’s educational so you really can’t go wrong!

Here are the details: 

  • California Academy of Sciences – Every Thursday from 6-10 pm 
  • Exploratorium After Dark – First Thursday of every month
  • DeYoung Museum – These are more random, but are generally on Friday nights (although right now they’re on hold)
  • Night Bloom at the Conservatory of Flowers – This only happens once per year, it usually runs for five weeks during winter  

 

San Francisco museums at night - California Academy of Sciences Nightlife
Experiencing the California Academy of Sciences “Nightlife” event. This one was drag themed in celebration of the upcoming Pride Parade.


More Fun Things to do in San Francisco

As I mentioned before, there are SO many unique things to do in San Francisco. Here are a few more San Francisco adventures that deserve a mention even if they don’t get a full write up. 

Irish Coffee from Buena Vista Cafe
Watching the famous Irish Coffees being made on a chilly afternoon at Buena Vista Cafe in North Beach.
  • Find your inner kid at the House of Air
  • Zip down the Seward Street Slides
  • See a show at Fort Mason
  • Get cultured at the Yerba Buena Gardens
  • Learn how to salsa at Cigar Bar
  • Go to an all-you-can-eat dim sum place in Richmond
  • Have a bonfire at Ocean Beach 
  • Learn about Beatnik history at City Lights Bookstore
  • Laugh out loud at a comedy show 
  • Enjoy the scenery on Treasure Island 
  • Grab lunch in Sausalito 
  • Try a sushi burrito
  • Peruse the unique finds at Paxton Gate
  • Enjoy an Asia SF show
  • Witness magic at Marrakech Magic Theater
  • Bring a date to the SF Symphony Film Night
  • Have lunch at the Ferry Building 
  • Discover the Wave Organ 
  • Roller skate at the Church of 8 Wheels
  • Camp overnight on Angel Island
  • See the Bay Bridge Lights at night
  • Grab sandwiches from Molinari’s in North Beach (and have a picnic in Washington Square Park) 
  • Go to a Sing-Along at the Castro Theatre
  • Drink an Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Cafe


Best Museums in San Francisco

With its artsy nature, it’s no surprise that San Francisco’s museum scene is on point. From the weird to the world-renowned to the interactive, these are the best museums to visit in town. 

Best San Francisco Museums - SFMOMA
Checking out the latest exhibit at the SFMoma.
  • De Young Museum
  • San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMoma) 
  • Legion of Honor
  • California Academy of Sciences 
  • Exploratorium 
  • The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Contemporary Jewish Museum
  • Museum of the African Diaspora 
  • San Francisco Cable Car Museum
  • Musee Mecanique 
  • Conservatory of Flowers 
  • Aquarium of the Bay 
  • Asian Art Museum
  • Antique Vibrator Museum

 


Where to Eat & Drink in San Francisco

I could write a 10,000-word post just on the food in San Francisco, there are so many places to eat and drink to your heart’s content.

Eating is probably in my top five activities for what to do in San Francisco and I’m sure after eating at some of these places, it will be yours too. 


EAT

  • Taqueria El Farolito 
  • Zazie
  • Brenda’s French Soul Food 
  • Sears Fine Food
  • Nopa
  • Hippie Thai 
  • Cha Cha Cha 
  • House of Prime Rib
  • Papalote 
  • Molinari Delicatessen
  • Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen 
  • Good Luck Dim Sum 
  • Burma Superstar 
  • Pakwan Restaurant
  • Crustacean Restaurant – For their crab and garlic noodles
  • Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup
  • Bi-Rite Creamery

 

All you can eat dim sum in the Richmond - where to eat in san francisco
All-you-can-eat dim sum in the Richmond – the perfect Sunday afternoon activity.


DRINK

  • Li Po Cocktail Lounge – For their Mai Tais
  • Martuni’s 
  • Pagan Idol
  • Smuggler’s Cove
  • The Armory Club
  • Bourbon & Branch 
  • Monroe
  • Zam Zam 
  • El Techo
  • Emporium SF
  • Local Edition 
  • Black Cat
  • Rickshaw Stop
  • Mikkeller Bar

 

Themed bars in San Francisco - Smuggler's Cove
The drinks from Smuggler’s Cove are delicious (and deceptively strong because they taste so good).


Outdoor Activities & Hikes

There are so many outdoorsy locals in San Francisco because there are so many places to get outdoors within the city, as well as a short drive away.

These are some of my favorite spots to get outside in the city (if you’re looking for more outdoor activities in San Francisco and want a more detailed guide, make sure to check out my post on the best hikes in San Francisco).

  • Lands End Hike
  • Crosstown Trail
  • Batteries to Bluffs Trail 
  • Lover’s Lane 
  • Mount Sutro 
  • Glen Canyon Park
  • Bernal Heights Park
  • Grandview Park

 

best hikes in san francisco
The view from Grandview Park, tucked away in a residential part of the city.


Short Day Trips From San Francisco

One of the best things about San Francisco is the number of close day trips at your fingertips.

So if you’re looking for things to do near San Francisco, grab a rental and head to these spots to get a full picture of just how beautiful the Bay Area and Northern California can be.  

  • Muir Woods 
  • East Bay 
  • Marin Headlands 
  • Pacifica 
  • Stinson Beach 
  • Napa Valley 
  • Point Reyes National Seashore

 

If you’re looking for even more things to do in the Bay Area, check out my post on where to see the redwoods near San Francisco.

Or, if you’re looking for a longer trip, I wrote about the best weekend trips from San Francisco here

Berkeley Fire Trail - short day trips from San Francisco
Views of Berkeley from above – one of the best day trips from the city!


Seasonal Events

It seems like every weekend there’s a new event that pops up in the city – in other words, there’s a lot going on in San Francisco at any time of the year.

These are a few of the best annual events that are worth experiencing if you happen to be in the city at the right time. 

  • SF Sketchfest (January)
  • SF Indie Fest (February)
  • SF Beer Week (February)
  • Off the Grid (March-October)
  • Bay to Breakers (Usually May – although it will be in August in 2021)
  • Pride Parade (June) 
  • Outside Lands (August)
  • Fleet Week (October)
  • Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October)
  • Illuminate SF (November-January)

 

San Francisco Events - Bay to Breakers
The costumed craziness of Bay to Breakers is something to experience at least once.


What to Pack for San Francisco

“Wait, this is California?!” That’s the response most people give when they visit San Francisco for the first time.

When people think of the weather in California, they think of hot and sunny Southern California cities like LA and San Diego

Although San Francisco is still a temperate city (we don’t get snow and it rarely gets too hot), it’s much foggier and chillier than you might expect for California. San Francisco also has microclimates so layering is essential if you’re going to be visiting different parts of the city.

For example, it might be warm in the Mission, but visiting the Haight could feel about 10 degrees cooler with the heavy fog that rolls through that part of the city.

Selfie with the painted ladies
Bundled up with my friend from Montreal while showing her around the city in May.

This is what I’d recommend bringing for a trip to San Francisco (no matter what time of year you’re visiting). 

  • Light windbreaker/rain jacket/puffy jacket
  • Sweater/sweatshirt (cozy sweaters are your best friend in San Francisco)
  • Warm layers
  • Beanie
  • Sunglasses
  • Pants/jeans/leggings
  • Comfortable walking shoes 
  • Cozy socks
  • Scarf 
  • Hiking boots – if you plan to hike one of the many trails near the city

 

Really, only if you’re visiting from September-November:

  • Shorts
  • Short sleeve T-shirts/tank tops
  • Dresses 
  • Sandals

 

One thing I’ll note is that San Francisco is a very laid back city.

You really don’t need to bring fancy clothes or heels because very few locals wear anything other than a puffy jacket, pants, and comfortable shoes – even when going out to bars and restaurants (unless you’re in the Marina). 


Best Time to Visit San Francisco

Being located in California, San Francisco is good to visit year-round. With that said, some months are still better than others. 

The summer is actually sometimes the worst time to visit because we tend to have foggy days, hence why August is called “Fogust” here.

It’s also when the bulk of the crowds are in San Francisco and more things book out far in advance (e.g. Alcatraz tickets). 

Winter and spring are the second-best times to visit.

We don’t get a ton of rain in the spring, so although you might have a rainy day here or there, we usually don’t have full weeks of rain.

And winter will obviously be a chillier time to visit, but by chilly in California we mean high 40s or low 50s Fahrenheit.  

The fall is by far the best time to visit San Francisco – anytime from September through November. This is when we get our nicest weather days of the year, our summer.

There’s little fog and it usually gets pretty warm in the city, with highs going up to the 70s, 80s, and even 90s some years. 

The one unfortunate downside to visiting in the fall these days is that it’s sadly become peak fire season. In recent years, the city has become very smoky in some parts of summer and fall due to nearby fires.

So just make sure to stay up-to-date on fire alerts and warnings if you’re visiting during this time of the year. 

Seasonal Events and festivals in SF - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
There’s a reason the annual free outdoor festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, is always in October – it’s the best time of the year to visit San Francisco.


How to Get Around San Francisco

Compared to Europe and Asia, US cities aren’t known for their stellar public transit.

However, there are a few cities that have better transit than most in the US and San Francisco is one of those (definitely better than any other city in California). 

At first glance, the public transit in San Francisco can seem confusing with the number of different transit options, but let’s break them down one by one. 

Okay, not an actual BART car (this was taken at the SF Pride Parade), that would be creepy if they actually had eyes, but this is somehow my only BART-related picture.


Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)

The BART is our subway system that allows you to get around the greater Bay Area. It only goes through select areas of San Francisco, but it’s the best way to get to and from East Bay cities, such as Oakland and Berkeley. 

There are seven BART lines and route prices are based on distance, so you’ll need to know which stop you’re getting off at to buy an appropriately priced ticket from a kiosk (or you can just use a Clipper Card). 

In San Francisco, the BART goes through the Financial District, the Mission, Glen Park, and Daly City. It’s also the easiest way to get to the city from the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). 

Because BART covers a limited area, most people use a combination of BART and Muni to get around the city on public transit. 

The easiest way to purchase BART tickets is by going to one of the self-service kiosks that are inside every BART station. You can either purchase individual tickets or grab a Clipper Card (which you can also use for Muni and CalTrain). 


San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni)

The San Francisco Muni covers a much wider area of the city and includes hybrid buses, the light rail, cable cars, and streetcars. 

Unlike BART, Muni is a flat price for each ride but differs depending on which form of transportation you’re riding (e.g the bus is $2.50 and the cable car is $8 per person). 

For Muni transport, if you’re paying with cash it’s easiest to pay the driver as you get on (just make sure you have exact change).

Otherwise, you can download the MuniMobile app to purchase tickets or buy a Clipper Card from any BART station. 


CalTrain

CalTrain is a popular form of transportation for commuters who are coming into the city from around the Bay Area.

CalTrain only has two stops within the city of San Francisco, but it’s a good transit option if you want to do a day trip to another Bay Area city, like San Jose

You can use your Clipper Card for CalTrain as well, or buy tickets at the self-service kiosks located at any CalTrain station. 


Share Bikes and Scooters

Another great way to get around the city is by using one of the many bike shares or scooters that you can find in the most popular areas of the city. 

Just double-check ahead of time that you can drop off your bike or scooter near where you’re ending your trip because they have designated areas where you can leave them.

You’ll also need to have access to data on your phone to download a specific app to use these bikes and scooters. 

The most popular bike share company right now in San Francisco is Bay Wheels (via the Lyft app).


Uber and Lyft

Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft actually got their start in the Bay Area and they’ve become a popular way to get around the city quickly (and fairly cheaply). 

You can either order a private ride or a share ride (that takes a little longer but is generally cheaper if you’re traveling by yourself) by using their respective apps. 


Share Car Rentals

And lastly, if you’re looking for a car rental but only need one for a few hours while you zip around the city or go on a day trip, another popular option for transport is renting a car from a local. 

These share car rentals allow you to book someone’s car for a specific timeframe.

They’re usually a little pricier than going with a traditional rental company if you’re going to use the car for the whole day, but they can be incredibly convenient (you can pick up a car last minute in most neighborhoods) and less expensive for short term rentals. 

A few popular share car rental apps in the city include Getaround and GIG Car Share 


Local Tips for Visiting San Francisco

San Francisco Civic Center
San Francisco’s beautiful City Hall.
  • Every neighborhood has its unique personality – From quirky Haight-Ashbury to the artsy Mission, colorful Castro, and the Southern California-esque Marina, try to explore as many distinct San Francisco neighborhoods as possible. The best way to get to know each of these is to grab dinner or brunch in them or simply walk along their main streets to people watch or shop.

 

  • Be prepared for chilly weather – As mentioned above, San Francisco is notorious for its fog (aka Karl the Fog). You’ll want to bring layers and warm clothes even if you’re visiting in the summer (actually, especially if you’re visiting in the summer). 

 

  • Fire season can be brutal – We experience global warming first hand every year in California. Fire season usually shows up throughout the summer and fall these days. Most years, there’s at least a week or two (or over a month in 2020), where locals are locked up inside their homes with their air purifiers on because the air is so bad outside. It’s something to keep in mind if you’re visiting California at any time of the year, but especially during the summer and fall. Always check conditions ahead of time to be prepared. 

 

  • Car break-ins and stolen bikes are common – Like any big city, San Francisco has its share of crime and one of the biggest nuisances in the city is car break-ins and stolen bikes. I have one friend who has had his bike stolen three different times (almost one time for every year he’s lived in the city). And car break-ins are just as common if not more so. Never leave valuables in your car (not even in your trunk if possible).

 

  • San Francisco is a small big city – Even though it may feel like a big city, San Francisco is more like a big town in a lot of ways. In total, the city is just under 49 square miles. Yep, that’s it. This means it’s actually a very walkable city (minus those big hills) and very condensed. 

 

  • The income disparity is shocking – San Francisco is home to the tech world, fancy startups, and 20-something millionaires. It also has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the US. It’s shocking to walk through different neighborhoods and see how stark the difference is. There are a lot of reasons for this that would be a whole post in itself but the main takeaway is this – don’t be surprised if you come across a lot of homeless residents in the city.


Where to Stay in San Francisco

Where to Stay in San Francisco - HI San Francisco Downtown
If you’re looking for a budget stay and you don’t mind hostels, HI San Francisco is a great option.

BUDGET


MID-RANGE


LUXURY

 


 

Looking for more travel recommendations for California? Check out these related posts below!

Best Things to do in Mendocino for a Weekend Getaway 

101 Things to do in Sacramento

Best Things to do in Lake Tahoe 

30 Best California Breweries to Visit 

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Mimi McFadden
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100+ Things to do in San Francisco, California (From a Local)

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