Characterized by its laid-back charms, San Francisco beguiles with a touch of magic realism. Constantly shifting between light drizzles, cool drafts and sunny weather from neighborhood to neighborhood, the city seems to be in perpetual drift. To help you conquer this slow but spirited city, the following checklist will have you whirling between neighborhoods and taking to the woods. Taking you high and low, this is the best things to do in San Francisco:
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
A grand visage of burnished red, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most photographed landmarks in the world. 1.7 miles of suspended steel carrying six lanes of traffic, this 1937 construct bridges San Francisco Bay and Marin County in its entire modern splendor. If you intend to walk the distance, dress warm to counter the swirling fog.
Marry your stomach to Fisherman’s Wharf
Waterfront dining has never been livelier than at Fisherman’s Wharf. Between gourmet dining and wining and the outdoor stalls touting fresh sea catches, you’ll solemnly say your vows – if you want it, you’ll eat it. Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to family-friendly attractions such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the Aquarium of the Bay.
Catch some sun at Golden Gate Park
Nature is never in San Francisco, but for cultivated landscaping, Golden Gate Park is your best bet. Encompassing over a thousand acres, visitors can dip into the lakes or picnic with the family before a pleasant garden stroll. Weddings and photoshoots are only some of the events held in this picturesque space; it’s a worthy venue for a special day. In particular, visit the Japanese Tea Gardens for a vibrant autumn viewing amid the manicured array of pagodas and stone bridges, refilling your zen meter before heading back into the city crowds.
Support local farmers at Ferry Building Market
The stunning white-stone façade of Ferry Building Market hides an airy marketplace, arching skylight inviting sunny warmth mirrored in the community of local artisan producers based here. After four years of restoration efforts, this transportation portal now serves local farmers and small food operators in bid to promote ethnic diversity and awareness of the agricultural scene. Shop for fresh produce or enjoy mouth-watering bites at food stalls on market days; if you’re in town for a wedding, pray that Ferry Building’s inviting ambiance is the backdrop for their special day.
Prison Break from Alcatraz Island
Fortified islands with a history of imprisonment are hardly attractive in theory, but Alcatraz Island’s historical precedence is a point of intrigue. Indeed, tourists willingly plunge into the depths of the island’s prisons on an unconventional tour.
Witness the Whale migration
Time your visit carefully to land around January or early spring to witness the majestic, mind-blowing view of thousands of migrating whales. Humpbacks and blue whales move currents with their gigantic mass, frequent visitors to the bay area between April to November. Join one of the whale watching tours offered by Oceanic Society or San Francisco Whale Tours for expert commentary, while readying your binoculars (not that they’re difficult to miss) for a clear view of the earth’s largest animals.
Union Square the central square
Blend into the topical crowds of Union Square and shop for what you’re worth. High-end outlets, art galleries and luxurious hotels that cater to fancy travelers (and the relaxed honeymooner) swap out past sunset for glitzier clothes; Union Square transforms into a lively event space and sleek bar scene come evening.
Snap a postcard shot of the Painted Ladies
Fascination with the Victorian era has never ebbed, and the widely photographed Painted Ladies is proof. The shoulder-to-shoulder Victorian houses along Alamo Square boast characteristic balconies, edge trimmings, pointed roofs and large porches. With light pastel shades of blues, pinks and yellows coating their exterior, the colorful fronts of these private homes sit in stunning definition against the backdrop of San Francisco’s concrete downtown.
Pick your favorite Chinatown
You’re in luck with not one but four Chinatowns celebrating the best of Chinese cuisine. Feeding culture straight into your mouth with delicious bites, Grant Avenue’s Chinatown will have you braving the throng for authentic Chinese flavor.
Lounge about Mission Dolores Park
The ocean is pretty irresistible, but the alternative of rolling hills and green space is just as enticing. Join in the barbecues at Mission Dolores Park or steal an inflatable couch for yourself, while the body-ambitious attempt tightrope walking and record-breaking hula-hooping. Or, lay out a towel and sunbathe with the fresh smell of grass relaxing your senses.
Hop on a cable car adventure
A moving relic persisting from its first operations in 1873, the manual cable car has dwindled from 23 car lines to three. Nevertheless, gaze out of its open-air sides for meandering views through the city. You can even brave the extended ledges along the exterior entry and exit points if all the seats are taken – but do keep a firm hold!
Blend history and outdoors at Lands End
A whimsical name with similarly mystical trails, Lands End offers the perfect sunset view along its rocky cliffs. Only one of Golden Gate National Recreational Areas many attractions, visitors heading to Lands End should stop at the multiple historical sites and monuments along the way. The remains of Sutro Baths and restored Cliff House are two structures not to be missed; dating from late 1800s, they are iconic landmarks that survived multiple fiery disasters.
Hunting down murals
Street art speaks volumes about social issues, acting beyond an artistic medium to be an expression of heritage. The hundreds of murals etched into Mission District’s buildings and alleyways are loud pieces that call to its Latino community. Balmy Alley features a love call from Mary Nash, proudly titled Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists; other mural centric streets include Caledonia Alley, Cypress and Lilac Alleys and Valencia Street. For purely aesthetic purposes, definitely snap up these bright pops and brighten up your Instagram feed.
Ask “what if” at the Exploratorium
As the name might suggest, you can answer to your imagination about alternative worlds at the Exploratorium. If the sight of a colorless world isn’t fascinating enough, try your hand at an interactive game for thought-provoking, socially driven scenarios. What makes or breaks a world? You’ll be sure to find out here.
Contemplating floating homes at Sausalito and Tiburon
There’s no need to imagine what a house on sea may look like when you can step into the bright homes of waterfront Sausalito. A daytrip of lively bay entertainment and outdoor art events, Sausalito and Tiburon are neighboring towns right across San Francisco Bay. Enjoy the nautical charms of Tiburon’s Main Street and the hush of lapping water at the marina.
Explore the grounds of Presidio
A former military base that has grown into a remembrance park, Presidio stretches from ocean-facing Crissy Field to the thicker in-land hiking trails. The sharp scent of eucalyptus will keep you energized on a hike or bike, drifting between abandoned military forts and the occasional monument. You can also take a free shuttle through the area, jumping from the Walt Disney Museum around Main Post to Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire sculpture located around the edges this recreational area.
Go craft beer hopping at Dogpatch
Industrial-cool interiors seem to be the sign of an up-and-coming bar and Dogpatch’s industrial past seems to have branded it the neighborhood for craft beers and cocktail experimentation. Breweries, wine bars and playful cocktail venues lure in hip crowds for some nighttime mingling and appreciation of San Fran’s liquor fun.
Appeal to your inner artist at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Renovated and improved, San Fran’s own MOMA features over 30,000 modern pieces of all mediums. With a ten-storey extension, the museum offers sixteen special exhibitions alongside its original galleries; visitors with less time to spare can drop by for the generous ground-floor exhibits free of charge. Let the hours pass as you brush up on international artworks and newer contemporary artists on the scene.
Hike up to Twin Peaks
Challenge the trek up to San Francisco’s second highest point for beautiful views of the city, where you can clearly spot landmarks such as Bay Bridge and other architectural highlights. At a height of almost a thousand feet, Twin Peaks can also be reached by driving for those hoping to avoid physical assertion. While the degree of beauty is unchanging whether day or night, the same can’t be said regarding temperature; dress warm as it is chillier up high.
Remembering the 60s down at Haight Street
You might spot a pair of red-heeled, fish-netted legs sticking out of a window between Haight and Ashbury Street. Still carrying the scent of sandalwood incense, marijuana dispensaries and free-flowing visuals of lingering 60s’ tendencies, Haight regularly features tie-dyes and lax attitudes of the hippie era. While there isn’t much to see per say, you will find reminders of a past era in the shop contents and Joana Zegri’s Evolution Rainbow mural.
Familiarize yourself with San Francisco’s food scene
You can only eat so much in a day (unfortunately), but you can narrow your choices to Divisadero Street for comprehensive coverage of the city’s multicultural cuisine. With six blocks teeming with light brunches, full-course Italian, a South Asia inspired wine-bar and a plethora of international restaurants; you have more choices than you know to do with. Alternatively, drop in for an afternoon tea treat at a much loved bakery or café.
Connect with the LGBT community
The neighborhood of Castro is the heart of San Francisco’s LGBTQ community, having been the home of Harvey Milk, a leading figure in gay rights movement. Friendly, laid-back, boisterous – it’s difficult to capture the spirit of Castro in just a few adjectives. Dedicate a night to the gay-friendly, all-welcoming bars of the neighborhood and let loose by catching a truly jaw-dropping drag show.
Take to nature with a trip to Angel Island State Park
Angel Island State Park may presently be an outdoor haven for active, nature junkies, but it has emerged out of a diverse history. Previously hunting grounds, then cattle ranch, then immigration station and a missile base, visitors are encouraged to take a tram tour and learn more about its fascinating transformation. If you prefer exploring on your own two feet, it is an easy 6-mile loop around its circumference.
Feel dwarfed by the trees of Muir Woods
You never feel smaller or younger than when standing beneath a grove of redwood trees. Reaching as tall as 258 feet, the dramatic trees of Muir Woods National Monument are neck-breaking silhouettes that average over 600 years old. Lose yourself in the shadowed trails and contemplate the fragility of life and strength of nature. When you have enough of hulking redwoods, slip out onto on-site beaches for open skies.
Close your eyes and listen at The Audium
Total darkness enhances our hearing and calms thinking, and The Audium worked this sensory manipulation into a mind-blowing two hours of musical performance. A circular theatre hosting only 49 seats, it seeks to bring sound alive through blasting 176 speakers. Relaxed, eyes closed and body open, you can almost feel the varying notes pressing on your skin and reverberating through your organs.
Make some sea lion friends at Pier 39
Why should Pier 39 stand out from its peers? Well, where else would you be able to watch playful sea lions bark and roll about? Fish and squid pinnipeds may keep these California sea lions coming back, but no one is quite sure why they came swarming in after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the first place. Still, Pier 39 has drawn many tourists with these unusual inhabitants. There is even a naturalist hanging around and answering questions provided weather is pleasant.
Hit up the masses at an Off the Grid event
Doesn’t a weekly food truck food festival sound absolutely heavenly? All you need is a wallet full of cash, an empty stomach and soft towels to lie on the grass. Fire pits, cabanas and live music is on par for wilder Friday evenings, but family-friendly Sunday afternoons invite chill picnickers and lawn game fun. Held all over the bay area, two major Off the Grid events are hosted at The Presidio’s Main Post and at Fort Mason.
Winding down Lombard Street
Don’t miss out on the iconic, zig-zag formation of Lombard Street, a particular driveway famed for its snake-like design and landscaped shrubbery. It is perhaps best admired at a slight distance; the intersection of Hyde and Lombard streets at the top of the hill is a clear vantage point of cars queueing for their drive down the slope. The surrounding residential streets are also worth exploring with their white-washed home exteriors and personalized floral décor.
Pick up some science at the California Academy of Sciences
Taking you from sea to space and deep exploration of everything in between is the California Academy of Sciences. Museum and classroom combined, visitors can wander for hours in the blue-tinged caverns of Steinhart Aquarium, featuring the world’s deepest coral reef display. A rainforest has moved into a four-storey simulation space, home to diverse fauna and winged species. The space curious will feel elevated in the otherworldly Morrison Planetarium, state-of-art facilities inspiring those interested in astronomy. What really steals the show however, is the Academy’s “living roof”, carrying 1.7 million native plant species.
Catch a baseball game at AT&T Park
A grand stadium that doubles as home base for the San Francisco Giants, baseball fan or no, AT&T Park is a worthy stop. One of the perks of this gigantic ballpark is how it overlooks San Francisco Bay; you might spot kayakers and water-goers waiting for any far-flier hits to escape the bounds. If that’s not tempting enough, maybe stadium treats like garlic fries and chocolate sundaes will have you rushing over to catch a game.
Belt out your Disney favorite at Castro Theatre
Dig your inner diva out of the closet and dress to impress with your most audacious costume. It is time to celebration some of Hollywood’s best musicals, which of course, ranges from Broadway dramatic Grease and West Side Story to Disney’s mass-appealing The Little Mermaid and Frozen. Sing-along the theatre live-action with help from goodie-bag props and on-screen subtitles for a crowd-encompassing musical night.
Wine and more wine at Sonoma Wine Country
Vineyard tours followed by thorough product tasting sound like an ideal itinerary for people passing through. The size of some wineries may astound you; Jordan Winery for instance, extends a generous 1,200 acres, offering a 4-mile trail loops around the estate. For even more impressive old-age charms, visit Donum Estates for their sculpture garden famous for its collection of international artiste works, pieces nestled cozily amid winding vines and olive trees.
Get a different perspective from Coit Tower
Coit Tower crests Telegraph Hill in a smooth, flute-tapered outline standing 180 feet tall. Named after the person who donated a hefty amount to the city, this 1933 love letter to San Francisco offers an alternative viewing point of the city. Depression-era murals at its base, painted by a collective of artists, further mark Coit Tower as a historical landmark.
Be blown away with a music-backed movie screening
Classical music lovers will no doubt have a night or two scheduled at the San Francisco Symphony, but connoisseur or not, everyone will come out of a Symphony film night dazed and amazed. Watch childhood classics with the power of a live full orchestra backing the tracks, movie magic and real-time sound affecting a close-to-life experience never felt before. Thrumming music and high-resolution graphics will have you buzzing with adrenaline long after the screen draws to a close.
Rocking a hilly topography, San Francisco’s many upslope attractions offer panoramic views. Whether from ascending Coit Tower or toiling up Telegraph Hill’s open air stairway, you are always rewarded with a visual spread of the city. From up high it is easy to see the sprawl of nature, ranging from the expansive grounds of Golden Gate Park to smaller scale Dolores Mission Park.
Dwelling in the rambling streets are slow bars, expressive murals, top-tier drag shows, food trucks on the move. There are markets down by the coast and wharf, dynamic entertainments that feature food and show. Of course, one can’t mention the city without referencing the start-up heavy hub around the Bay Area, invested in sustainable technology, new monies and life-changing sciences. Say what you will about San Francisco, but there’s always something going on.