11 Exciting Things to Do in San Francisco – An Essential List
Updated On: September 18, 2022
San Francisco, ‘The Golden City’ or simply SF is a popular destination for tourists, students and workers alike. In this article we’ll list the unmissable experiences SF has to offer when you are in the area, so you don’t have to stress about missing out on visiting any iconic locations during your stay.
San Francisco is located in Northern California, and is the 14th most populated city in the USA. The San Francisco Bay area are centres of economic, artistic and scientific activity.
Are you trying to find the top things to do in San Francisco? Well look no further, below we have listed our favourite locations as well as some tips to help you prepare for your exciting adventure!
How to get around San Francisco
San Francisco is considered a relatively small city, so much so that it is fairly walkable. The majority of locations can be visited on foot, however a few locations listed are just outside of the city and may require additional transport!
Below we have listed all of the top attractions that feature on this article. Why not click on a section to jump ahead!
San Francisco Things To Do:
- The Golden Gate Bridge
- The Napa Valley – Wine Country
- Yosemite National Park
- Cable Car Ride
- Palace of Fine Arts
- San Francisco Stairs
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Oracle Park
- San Francisco Swings
We also have some travel tips when visiting SF at the end of this article with advice on important things to prepare for such as:
- The Weather
- Appropriate Clothing
- SF Timezone
- Airport Location
The Golden Gate Bridge
A must see for any tourist in SF, the Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic part of the cities skyline and a symbol of the city. It is one of the most famous landmarks in North America, and is quite possibly one of the main reasons that you have chosen to visit San Francisco!
As the city is quite dense you can actually see the Golden Gate Bridge from many notable locations on our list, such as Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf. There is one thing that may obstruct your view though, Karl the Fog.
History of the Bridge
Opened to the public in 1937 after four years of construction, the Golden Gate Bridge offered steady (but treacherous) work amidst the Great Depression. The San Francisco bridge is an amazing architectural and historical feat; in 1906 the San Francisco Earthquake caused immense damage, and fears arose that the bridge would not be able to withstand the strong winds, let alone another earthquake of this magnitude. Yet the bridge stands tall today, nearly a century later.
Did you know?
- The Golden Gate Bridge could have been painted black with yellow stripes for increased visibility if the US Navy had got their way. Its hard to imagine the Orange bridge looking so different!
- The colour of the bridge is called ‘International Orange‘, the name of the Bridge actually refers to the Golden Gate Strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.
- The Golden Gate bridge is actually painted continuously! Painting the bridge is considered the primary form of maintenance to prevent corrosion or rusting from the high salt content in the air.
Karl the Fog
San Francisco is a very foggy area, hot climatic conditions combined with plenty of exposure to the cold sea air create the mist and it is considered one of the foggiest places on earth!
It may be disappointing if the fog decides to show up on a day you visit and obscures your view of famous landmarks, but it is part of the cities charm and can actually create some amazing photo opportunities. An anonymous twitter account called ‘Karl the Fog’ was created in 2010 as a parody account for SF weather.
Locals lovingly adopted Karl the Fog into the zeitgeist and the twitter account has over 350 thousand followers at the time of writing. How many of them are genuine San Franciscans remains to be seen.
So if you find that on your arrival to SF the fog has obstructed any chance of a good photo of the Golden Gate bridge, you can find some solace knowing that you are one of many visitors who has encountered the fog. Be warned though, if you want to avoid Karl, the Summer months are especially foggy.
Why you should visit the Golden Gate Bridge: This is one of the easiest landmarks to spot as you can see it from many other tourist locations. So even if you don’t want to walk or drive across the bridge itself, you can still enjoy the spectacular view of the bridge from multiple locations.
A Brief History
One of if not the most famous prisons of all time is found in the SF area. Alcatraz operated as a high security prison from 1934-1969. The historic prison was the first maximum security minimum privilege penitentiary in the United States. It was home to some of the most notorious criminals of the time including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.
A rocky island surrounded by freezing waters, Alcatraz is famous for being inescapable. While 36 men attempted to leave the island, no one is believed to have actually reached the mainland and successfully escaped. This along with speculation that sharks circled the prison and Golden Gate Bridge, created a unique, almost fictional depiction of Alcatraz.
Another thing that differentiated Alcatraz from other prisons is the fact that prison showers were supplied with hot water; not for inmate comfort though. The hot water was provided to ensure prisoners would not accumulate to the freezing bay waters thereby making an escape easier.
Alcatraz was the place where non-conforming prisoners from around the country were sent. If they proved that they could follow rules after 5 years or so, they would be sent back to a mainland prison.
In 1969, the Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for 19 months in the name of freedom and Native American civil rights
Did you Know: During the operation of Alcatraz as a federal prison, almost 300 civilians lived on the island. This number was mainly comprised of women and children who were the families of prison guards. It is hard to believe that such a notorious prison island also housed a community of many families.
Opening times and ferries over to Alcatraz vary season by season. Regardless of when you are visiting the island, it is strongly encouraged that you book your ferry in advance as they frequently sell out. Avoid leaving it until you are on your trip to attempt to book a ferry as you may be disappointed.
Price: There is no entrance fee to Alcatraz, the ferry tickets are all inclusive and will set you back anywhere from $40 to $150 per adult ranging from the standard deal to night tours and behind the scene packages.
Why you should visit Alcatraz: Alcatraz island has a rich and fascinating history. It is more than just an abandoned prison, yes, it housed some of the most dangerous men in America of its time, but it was also a community, a military fort and a lighthouse. History combined with beautiful scenery and a boat ride over means that this trip has something for everyone to enjoy.
Napa Valley – Wine Country
Many tourists in San Francisco may choose to take a day trip out of the city to Napa, also known as Wine Country which is about 50 miles or an hour north from the city.
The Napa valley is one of California’s most famous wine regions, with over 400 wineries. Food lovers will enjoy the laid back experience strolling through vineyards, tasting wine and admiring the views the valley has to offer.
There are many different types of packages to choose from in the Napa Valley, from luxurious weekends away to cheaper mid-week deals, day trips and tastings individual or a combination of winery’s.
The Napa Valley is naturally quite expensive but with a bit of planning it doesn’t have to consume all of your budget. Doing your research is very important if you want to save money. It is also important to realise that the Valley is not for everyone. If you don’t appreciate fine dining, wine tasting or touring vineyards, you may be much happier skipping this day trip to do something else on this list. Your wallet will thank you!
Why you should visit Napa Valley: If you want to slow down a hectic trip and relax with good food, high quality wine and a breath taking landscape, then the Napa Valley is the perfect place to be.
Yosemite National Park
Out of all 63 National Parks in the USA, Yosemite is one of the oldest and most visited each year. While each offer unique natural attractions, Yosemite has an exciting itinerary to offer and is a literal breath of fresh air.
About 170 miles or a 4 hour drive from San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is a breath-taking experience for any nature lovers. Throughout the national park you will see waterfalls, towering granite monoliths, deep valleys and canyons, as well as interesting and unique flora and fauna, including ancient giant sequoia trees.
Did you Know: Sequoia trees are actually the biggest living things on the planet and can live for up to 3000 years!
At the park you may spot many interesting animals such as the Black Bear, Coyote, Bobcat and Mule Deer. Hiking in Yosemite will afford you the best chance of spotting a wild animal. The bighorn sheep found in Yosemite is on the endangered species list, and is quite rare around the world.
The park charges an Entrance Fee of $35/vehicle, valid to use for 7 days. There are usually 6 free admission days a year however, and there are some categories such as children under 16 and senior citizens, that receive free admission.
Nature lovers who are in SF long-term may wish to buy the $70 Yosemite Pass for unlimited access for a year. Alternatively, the $80 America the Beautiful National Park Pass offers access to all national parks, national forests and national monuments, perfect for someone wishing to travel around America and explore everything the country has to offer.
Things to do between San Francisco and Yosemite: The City of Modesto is located roughly halfway between the two locations, and is the perfect place to take a break, get some food and recharge before finishing your journey.
Why you should visit Yosemite National Park: Hikers, nature lovers and explorers will have a great time spotting wild animals, bird watching and taking in the breath taking scenery, from mountains and waterfalls to canyons and giant sequoias.
If you want an experience that is uniquely San Franciscan, why not take a ride on the iconic cable cars, a symbol of the city.
Operating for nearly 150 years, navigating through the steep hills and busy streets of SF by cable car offers an exciting way to explore the city
History of the Cable Car
Invented in 1873 by Andrew Smith Hallidie, the San Francisco cable car would survive earthquakes, devastating fires, two world wars, and even a few political attempts to remove it.
A cable car ride currently costs $8 per person for a single journey.
Did you know
- San Francisco’s cable or trolley cars are the only national historic landmark that can move.
- While people often say that cable cars unsafe (especially standing outside the car), it is actually considered one of the safest modes of transport.
Why you should take a ride on a cable car: The cable car is as San Franciscan as the Golden Gate Bridge, and while an enjoyable novelty for tourists, represents a symbol of San Francisco identity.
Palace of Fine Arts
The grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts in SF is free to visit. Originally constructed as an art gallery for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International art exhibition it was a temporary structure inspired by roman architecture. In 1964 the structure was rebuilt as a permanent feature of San Francisco and is currently used as a venue for a variety of public and private events.
Why you should visit the Palace of Fine Arts: Lovers of architecture and fine art will appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the building that is over a century old.
San Francisco Stairs
When wandering through San Francisco you will discover many beautiful mosaic staircases. Inspired by a staircase in Rio de Janeiro, a SF resident asked artists to come together to create the beautiful design. With more than 600 public stairways around the city – more and more of which are being beautifully designed – there is so much art to discover around the city, hidden in plain sight.
What started off as a single citizens efforts to decorate a staircase near their home, has become a community effort to take pride in the way their city looks. The colourful designs help to discourage littering and graffiti and improves both the public and ground level opinion of the city. It also gives local artists a chance to gain experience and exposure by showcasing their designs for a potential staircase mosaic. Would you like to see more cities adopt these colourful steps?
Why you should visit the various San Franciscan stairs: Even if you are not an art lover, searching for different mosaics on stairs is a unique and enjoyable way to explore The City.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a family oriented neighbourhood frequented by tourists and locals alike. With indoor and outdoor dining, shopping, museums, arcades and plenty of water activities, Fisherman’s Wharf is a great way to spend a day by the coast. There’s also great seafood to enjoy!
Originally, Fisherman’s wharf was the place where Italian fishermen sold their daily catch on the waterfront. To this day you can still enjoy fresh seafood including clam chowder, oysters, crab legs and steamed mussels to name a few delicious items! If you want a truly authentic meal, why not try Cioppino, a tomato seafood stew dish created in San Francisco. Originally fishermen would combine the catch of the day leftovers with their Italian inspired tomato stew. It must be delicious as the dish has stood the test of time!
There is so much to do in Fisherman’s Wharf after you have enjoyed your fresh seafood, from shopping and museums, to cruises and old ships, an aquarium, as well as street entertainers and even resident sea lions! Its no wonder that this area of the city is so popular with tourists.
Part of Fisherman’s Wharf and one of SF’s busiest tourist areas, Pier 39 is well worth a visit. The last pier of the area doubles as a shopping centre with great food and is considered a highlight of any trip to SF, mainly because of its local guests… the resident sea lions waiting outside the fisherman’s stall! Customers often buy them some fish to enjoy, and the experience is something that’s truly unique to the pier.
You can even get a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf, ticking two suggestions off of our list at once!
Magowan’s Mirror Maze
Located on Pier 39 Magowan’s Mirror Maze is an exciting and vibrant activity to do while you’re on the pier! Would you like to try and navigate through this colourful maze?
Why you should visit Fisherman’s Wharf: The most popular tourist area in SF, you will be guaranteed fresh seafood, plenty of shops and of course, hungry sea lions.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. Its an important location both historically and culturally for Chinese immigrants in North America.
Chinatown in San Francisco is a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge!
Why you visit Chinatown San Francisco: Its easy to spend a day in Chinatown SF without running out of things to do, thanks to the many shops and authentic Asian food available in the area.
If there is a game on during your stay in San Francisco, why not watch the SF Giants at Oracle Park, the iconic seaside stadium. The Home of the famous baseball team stands along the San Francisco Bay. We’d recommend checking out what’s on in Oracle park during your stay. If your lucky you may even get to watch the Giants play in their home stadium, one of the best things to do in the San Francisco bay area!
Fans of baseball will know that many famous athletes played for the San Francisco giants, including Willie Mayes, Willie McCovey, Barry Bonds and Juan Marichal.
The bay area beyond the right field of the Oracle wall is known unofficially but affectionately as McCovey Cove after famed Giants first baseman William McCove.
If you are more of an American football fan you may choose to support the San Francisco 49ers in Levi’s stadium located in Santa Clara, in the Bay area.
Why you should visit Oracle Park: Sports fans will enjoy the lively atmosphere when attending a game here, accompanied by a few beers and iconic ballpark foods such as hotdogs and corndogs. On the other hand, if you aren’t too interested in the game pick a spot along the first base side in the upper deck so you can enjoy a perfect view of the ocean!
San Francisco Swings
Just like the colourful steps around the city, there are many spots around the edge of the San Francisco with swings for visitors to take in the spectacular views of the West Coast (and get the perfect Instagram photo).
There are many different swings around the city, where will you get the perfect photo?
While there is no charge to take a photo at the swings, visitors should be aware that they are quiet popular and can be busy at times!
Why you should visit one of the San Francisco swings: If your looking for the perfect ‘candid’ photo, the swings are the ideal spot. You may have to hike your way to many of the locations which can be an enjoyable experience in and of itself.
Some Tips for visiting San Francisco
The San Francisco Weather
When we think of California, constant sunshine naturally comes to mind. However due to its unique location and exposure to the cool winds of the pacific ocean and hot climate of the central valley, SF is typically colder than other parts of California such as LA or San Diego.
Bearing this in mind the best time of year to visit San Francisco (weather wise) is actually from September to November. On average, Autumn or Fall offers the highest temperatures year-round. It is also quieter as more tourists flood to the city during the summer months in spite of the chance of increased cool weather.
The winter months are intuitively the cheapest months to travel but from November onwards be prepared for chilly weather.
Fog is common year round. On average there are 160 sunny days during the year though! Although fog can occur sporadically year-round, it mainly blankets the coastal Bay Area in the summer when hot inland temperatures create a low-pressure zone over Northern California’s Central Valley. The Fog may obscure the San Francisco city skyline, but it is undoubtedly part its charm.
What to wear
As you now know, warm temperatures are not guaranteed in San Francisco. More accurately, the weather can change quite drastically quite frequently. So be sure to pack plenty of layers to ensure you are ready for whatever the city throws at you!
Regardless of when you visit you should wear sunscreen every day, as the breezy weather may be deceiving.
San Francisco Timezone
The San Francisco local time zone is PDT or Pacific Daylight Time, GMT / Greenwich Mean Time (or UTC / Coordinated Universal Time as it is now known) is 7 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time.
Did you know that both Lfyt and Uber have their headquarters in SF? they are an easy alternative to public transport and also have some budget friendly options.
If you choose to use the cable cars, streetcars, buses or the subway system there are day passes / visitor passports available that allow unlimited use for 1-7 days, and depending on how much you plan to use these services they can be quite the cost-effective option.
Considering the relatively small size of the city, biking or walking can be a viable option to get from point A to point B!
San Francisco Airport
The exact location of the main airport in San Francisco is San Francisco, CA 94128, USA
Located about 13 miles south of downtown SF, visitors can reach the city from the San Francisco International airport through various transport options including the BART train, taxis and Ubers. Check prices and times from official websites in advance before making your decision!
Our San Francisco things to do article is almost finished, is there anything you would like to added to this blog? If so do not hesitate to leave a comment!
Have you enjoyed our travel guide for the best things to do in San Francisco? We hope you find it useful and enjoy your vacation, weekend break or long stay in San Francisco! Why not check out other USA guides on our site such as:
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