Famous for its summer fogs and cable cars, San Francisco has long been a popular place to visit in California. Perched on a peninsula between the sparkling San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean, its many hills are home to delightfully diverse neighborhoods and stunning streetscapes.
Alcatraz Island and Golden Gate Bridge, are the two most well known tourist attractions in San Francisco, but it also has an array of museums, fascinating Victorian architecture and wonderful waterfront areas to explore.
Add in its unique culture, panoramic vistas, and fabulous food scene and it is no wonder that San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the USA. Just don’t forget to bring warm clothing. The famous quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” isn’t from Mark Twain but it is a pretty accurate statement of San Francisco’s weather.
As San Francisco is such a ‘foodie’ city, no visit can be complete without stopping by the lively Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero. Inside its Beaux Arts building are around fifty food vendors, local farmers, and small restaurants that offer tasty treats and delicious dishes.
Since opening in 2003, the market has been a firm favorite with locals and tourists due to its wide variety of coffee shops, snack stands, and grocery stores selling artisan products from around the world.
It also hosts a fantastic farmers market three times a week which sells fresh produce and street food.
From Pier 41 visitors can hop on a ferry and find themselves immersed in the stunning scenery and nature of Angel Island State Park in no time at all. On the half-hour boat ride you can enjoy divine views over the bay, and hiking, biking or rollerblading around the island.
Now protected as a park, the bay’s second-largest island has been used as everything, from a military base and missile site to immigration station and internment camp. As such, there are some interesting old forts and bunkers to explore with picnic areas and viewpoints.
Also located alongside the Embarcadero is the Exploratorium, which offers a fun and fascinating look at how the world works. Popular with adults and children alike, the unique museum has over 600 interactive installations and hands-on exhibits that can keep you entertained for days.
Founded in 1969, it has expanded considerably and now has huge galleries dedicated to everything from light and sound to biology, engineering, and psychology. Thanks to all its activities, laboratories, and workshops, guests can engage with the fields of science and technology. In addition, the Exploratorium regularly hosts talks and cultural events.
Another massive military base that was turned into a scenic park is the Presidio which occupies the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it boasts attractive architecture, excellent outdoor activities, and epic views.
Once out-of-bounds to the public, it now has pockets of woods, rolling hills, and coastal bluffs that offer phenomenal views over Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. Visitor centres house interesting exhibits on its history and ecosystems, and you can also check out the old fort, batteries, and art projects.
One of the most unique and unusual tourist attractions on the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf is the Musee Mecanique. Here you’ll find a huge collection of coin-operated arcade games—remarkably there are over 300 mechanical machines for you to play on.
Wandering around the museum is a nostalgic affair as you see antique slot machines and music boxes, alongside fortune tellers, peep shows and pinball machines. As well as testing your strength and having your fortune told, you can also watch historic moving dioramas, and try your luck at some classic carnival games.
The gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden can be found within Golden Gate Park. Lovingly landscaped, its grounds are home to pretty ponds, a traditional tea house, and a towering pagoda.
The first Japanese garden established in the States, since 1894 it has delighted countless generations with its serene scenery, fantastic flowers, and soothing water features. While strolling its winding paths you’ll come across stone lanterns and sculptures with charming koi ponds, cherry blossoms, and a lovely Zen garden.
Also located in Golden Gate Park is the marvelous de Young Museum with an incredible collection of artworks from all around the world. Its innumerable paintings, sculptures and photos are a treat to peruse, but the building itself is just as impressive due to its distinctive design and large observation tower.
Founded in 1895, the fine arts museum encompasses over 27,000 anthropological artifacts and art pieces from Africa, Asia, and Oceania. While some of its galleries display colorful textiles and costumes, others focus on European paintings or American decorative art objects. The museum also regularly hosts temporary exhibits and concerts.
Nestled in the northwest of the peninsula is the magnificent Legion of Honor Museum, which lies amidst the nature of Lincoln Park. Housed within its beautiful neo-classical building is an eclectic collection of artworks that spans over 6,000 years of art history.
While strolling about its grand galleries you’ll come across everything, from influential comics and soundscapes to masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rodin, and Monet among others. Founded in 1924, it contains more than 90,000 works, with the museum offering spectacular views over the city’s skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge from its grounds.
Lying alongside both the Japanese Tea Garden and de Young Museum is the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Boasting a collection of colorful flowers, plants and trees, its tranquil paths are a delight to walk along and have different areas and ecosystems for you to explore.
Since opening in 1940, the garden’s grounds have expanded considerably and now contain nearly 9,000 kinds of plants from all around the world. As such, you can be strolling amidst savanna and succulents one minute, and then suddenly find yourself surrounded by tropical trees and cloud rainforest the next.
The superb San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupies a striking modern building, not far from Union Square. While its unique architecture makes for a stunning sight, its interior is equally rewarding with impressive exhibits and artworks wherever you look.
In total, the SFMOMA displays over 33,000 art pieces across seven floors with its main focus being modern and contemporary art. As well as paintings and photos, its galleries contain digital art, industrial designs, and interactive media installations. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Henri Matisse count among its biggest names.
Occupying the northwest corner of the peninsula are the windswept coastal cliffs of Lands End. Aside from its outstanding views over Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean, the park also has numerous hiking trails and historic sights.
Dotted about its bleak shores you can spy the sites of various shipwrecks and the ruins of the Sutro Baths. The Hidden Labyrinth art installation is also well worth stopping by. After exploring its delightful beaches, coves, and cliffs, visitors can enjoy a coffee at its cafe while watching the sun set spectacularly over the ocean.
Another attraction in San Francisco that boasts some of the best views in town is the incredible Coit Tower, which is perched atop Telegraph Hill. From the top of the slender white tower you can enjoy breathtaking panoramas over the bay, city, and sites such as Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Built in 1933, it boasts exquisite Art Deco architecture with colorful frescoes in the American Social Realism style coating its interior. Located in Pioneer Park, the 210 foot-high tower is now a National Historic Landmark and iconic part of the city’s skyline, having been depicted in countless films and TV shows.
One of San Francisco’s most famous features is its charming old cable cars that lend the city such a distinctive look and feel. Aside from simply riding up and down its steep streets in one, visitors can learn all about the history and technology behind the streetcar system at this magnificent museum.
In addition to interesting exhibits, old photos and mechanical displays, the Cable Car Museum also showcases vintage streetcars that date to the 1870s. As it offers such a fascinating look into the inner workings of the transport system, the museum has long been a popular tourist drawcard and can be found in the affluent Nob Hill neighborhood.
Yet another of the Presidio’s many enticing attractions is the delightful Walt Disney Family Museum that delves into the life and legacy of the famous filmmaker. Here you’ll learn about Disney’s achievements and genre-defining animations with amazing memorabilia, film clips, and even awards, on show.
Opened in 2009, the museum and its large collection of early drawings and designs, music clips, and models sprawls over three historic buildings in the center of the park. As it looks at everything, from his early childhood and career to his iconic creations and the construction of Disneyland, it is a must-visit for any Disney aficionado.
One of the biggest and best museums in the States, the California Academy of Sciences contains a staggering 46 million specimens with incredible artifacts, animals and exhibits. Located in Golden Gate Park, the massive natural history museum boasts an aquarium and planetarium, as well as its own indoor rainforest.
Established in 1853, the academy’s captivating collection now resides within a majestic modern building that even has its own living green roof. Inside is a treat to explore as you wander past shark lagoons and coral reefs, before emerging in galleries full of fossils and minerals. One of its main highlights is the enormous rainforest exhibit which houses over 1,600 live animals, plants, and amphibians.
If you’re after yet more awe-inspiring views over San Francisco then it is well worth heading to the two towering Twin Peaks that lie near the geographic center of the city. The bare and uninhabited hills offer breathtaking panoramas with sunset a particularly special time of day to visit.
Reaching around 925 feet in height, the Twin Peaks are protected as part of a park with lovely nature and wildlife coating their slopes. While you can just simply drive to their summit, there are also some nice hiking trails to wander along that again offer some epic views.
Home to Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants, the atmospheric Oracle Park can be found in the city’s South Beach neighborhood. While watching a game is an exciting and unforgettable affair, the ballpark is also widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the States due to its picture-perfect setting.
Opened in 2000, the stadium exhibits some fine architecture with most seats offering divine views out over the bay. Discover famous features, such as the giant glove sculpture and coca-cola bottle slide, while there is also a wall of fame, cafe, and gift shop to stop by. Thanks to its exhilarating atmosphere and great games, visiting Oracle Park is one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco.
The only structure remaining from the 1915 World’s Fair, the Palace of Fine Arts features a classical Roman rotunda with curved colonnades situated in an idyllic park setting with a classical European-Style lagoon.
It’s a great place to unwind, have a picnic, and watch the swans float elegantly by. It also has a theater offering a variety of shows, musical and cultural events.
Established in 1840s, San Francisco’s Chinatown is reputed to be the oldest and one of the largest and most famous of all Chinatowns outside of Asia. Many of the Chinese who settled here were merchants or immigrant workers, working on either the transcontinental railroad or as mine workers during the Gold Rush. The tourist section of Chinatown is mainly along Grant Avenue, from Bush to Broadway.
The Alamo Square is a is a residential neighborhood and park that is best known for the famous Painted Ladies row of Victorian houses on its east side along Steiner Street. It is often the subject of many a San Francisco postcard. There are also many other pretty Victorians encircling the lovely park.
The park includes a playground and a tennis court, and is frequented by neighbors, tourists, and dog owners. On a clear day, the Transamerica Pyramid building and the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge can be seen from the park’s center.
Located in the heart of the Financial District., the Transamerica Pyramid is San Francisco’s other famous icon besides the Golden Gate. According to its architect, William L. Pereira, a pyramid is the ideal shape for skyscrapers, offering the advantage of letting more air and light in the streets below.
Finished in 1972, the Transamerica Pyramid has a height of 260 meters (853 feet) and is still the tallest building in the San Francisco skyline.
Located between Hyde and Leavenworth streets, Lombard Street is famously known as the “crookedest street in the world” although it is neither the crookedest street in San Francisco (Vermont Street is) nor the steepest.
The one-block portion of Lombard Street that contains eight hairpin turns was created to reduce the hill’s natural steep slope. The speed limit in this section is a mere 5 mph (8 km/h).
Once an area of sand dunes, Golden Gate Park is a large urban park with windmills, bison, museums, lakes and a carousel among its many attractions. At 1,017 acres, it is about 20% larger than New York’s Central Park, so unless you have a bike, you’ll want to plan which area you want to visit.
A popular tourist attraction is the Japanese Tea Garden with beautiful plants, ponds, bridges, and Japanese-style structures including a tea house.
The world-famous Cable Cars run on three lines in the steep streets of San Francisco between Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. These cars are a fun ride, especially if you get to stand on the running board, if a bit impractical for everyday use though residents do, in fact, use them on a regular basis.
The cable car is such an attraction that, especially on weekends, it takes longer to wait in line to ride up Powell Street than it does to walk the short but sloping distance.
Often referred to as The Rock, the small island of Alcatraz served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, and as a prison. It was home to some of the most notorious criminals of the time including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Surrounded by the freezing water of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was believed to be inescapable.
The most famous attempt was carried out by Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin using an inflatable raft made from several stolen raincoats. Today, the island is a popular San Francisco tourist attraction and a historic site. It is operated by the National Park Service and is open to tours.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco and even the US, Fisherman’s Wharf runs all the way from Pier 39 through to Municipal Pier at the end of Aquatic Park. For over a century its historic waterfront was the hub of San Francisco’s fishing fleet and is still famous for having some of the best seafood restaurants in the city.
Other tourist attractions at the wharf include museums, souvenir stores, historical buildings, scenic vistas over the Bay and the famous sea lions at Pier 39.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate, the strait between San Francisco and Marin County to the north. The bridge took four years to build, and was completed in 1937.
The Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge span in the world when it was completed, and has become an internationally recognized symbol of San Francisco and California. The famous red-orange color of the bridge was specifically chosen to make the bridge more easily visible through the thick fog that frequently shrouds the bridge.