15 Best Things to Do in San Francisco County, CA

San Francisco County, CA

San Francisco doesn’t need an introduction because more than half the world knows about the city and county!

It is the financial and commercial center of Northern California, with a population of 815,201, according to the 2021 census.

The county is known for its impressive history, cool tourist spots, and, of course, Full House! But this City of Fog is so much more than its iconic monuments.

You will find unique restaurants, peculiar streets, and neighborhoods designed to entertain you all day!

How this article was written: Our team first analyzed the scores and feedback across major platforms like Google Maps, Yelp, and Trip Advisor, considering not only the ratings but also the consistency of positive feedback. Following this, we conducted interviews with over 30 local residents who have been to these attractions and places to gather authentic, first-hand experiences. You can read more about our research process here.

While this list showcases some remarkable attractions, it's important to note there are many other exceptional places in San Francisco Countythat are not featured here. Our aim is not just to guide you to popular places but to encourage you to venture out and experience the city for yourself.

Explore the Impregnable Monolith, Alcatraz Island

Far view of Alcatraz Island
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Alcatraz Island is one of the wildest attractions San Francisco County offers. Why? It is a former maximum-security federal prison!

This 25-acre island was discovered back in the 1770s and became a military prison almost a century later.

In 1934, it was converted into Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a federal prison that housed many notable criminals.

You would know some of these names—Al Capone, Robert Stroud, Alvin Karpis, Micky Cohen, and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.

A garden at Alcatraz Island
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The prison closed in 1963 and became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Along with the prison, the island now features a lighthouse, gardens, and walking trails, as well as exhibits and books at the docks.

Thankfully, you don’t have to commit crimes to explore the place. You can hop on the Alcatraz City Cruises for exciting day and night and behind-the-scenes tours.

Interior of Alcatraz Island
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Travel on the Legendary Golden Gate Bridge

Sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge
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We have all seen the Golden Gate Bridge on TV—it’s the red one that gets destroyed in every other movie!

This spectacular 85-year-old bridge spans two miles across Golden Gate, a strait between San Francisco and Marin County.

But what is so special about this monument? It is a suspension bridge, where vertical cables—secured to the abutments—support the roadway.

That’s not all! This monument has a fascinating history attached to it, right down to its unique shade of International Orange!

Cars along the Golden Gate Bridge
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It is also the tallest bridge in the country and is one of the Wonders of the Modern World.

The bridge is open for everyone, from buses and vehicles to pedestrians and bicyclers. Much to the joy of cycling enthusiasts, it is a part of the U.S. Bicycle Route 95.

If you want to get some postcard-worthy pictures, Hawk Hill offers the best vantage to view the Golden Gate Bridge.

Visit Lombard Street, the Crookedest Street in the World

Aerial view of Lombard Street
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Lombard Street doesn’t have any entertainment venue, nor any rare restaurant. So, why is it a place visited by almost two million visitors every year?

Let me tell you about its uniqueness! This street, known as ‘the crookedest street in the world’, features eight hairpin turns on a block.

The road is surrounded by small mansions and alluring landscaping full of trees, bushes, and flowers.

Cars on Lombard Street
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Much to everyone’s surprise, it is not a straight street. It, in fact, has a gentle slope that makes driving on the switchbacks even more adventurous.

If you think the combination of a slope and sharp turns can be dangerous, you’d be surprised to know otherwise! These switchbacks are designed to make it safer to travel, may it be in a vehicle or on foot.

To make this road a fond memory, don’t forget to capture postcard-worthy pictures of Lombard Street from either end!

A person at Lombard Street
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Walk through the Enchanting Grounds of The Palace of Fine Arts

Exterior of The Palace of Fine Arts
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The Palace of Fine Arts is a timeless mansion in the Marina District neighborhood, symbolizing historical changes in the area.

Standing tall by the San Francisco Bay, the monument was built as a part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. And later rebuilt between the 1960s and 70s to what it is today.

It is the only building from the exposition that has survived all these years. That also explains why it is such an integral part of San Francisco’s history!

Structure of The Palace of Fine Arts
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The complex has many buildings, but the signature is the open Greco-Roman rotunda by the lagoon and the colonnades.

The place is one of the first choices for all types of events and parties—but tourists are welcome all year round.

You can attend shows at the theatre, do a small photoshoot, or just soak in the grandeur of The Palace of Fine Arts!

Try the Spectacular Drinks at the Pagan Idol

San Francisco is one of the prominent places to feature establishments of Tiki Culture. It is always interesting to explore these places, which include Pagan Idol.

The place was first occupied by the famous Tiki Bob’s Mainland Rendezvous. Thus, the residual charm of the previous bar still lingers in the whole space.

This bar is a magical place, transporting you from the urban bustle to the peace of a tropical island.

The front bar looks like the captain’s living quarters of a pirate ship, where you can enjoy over 150 rums and cocktails.

But the real fun is in the back room! Once you are at the back of the ship, ascend the stairs full of glowing skulls to get to the mysterious island. It features a glowing volcano, twinkling lights on the ceiling, thatched tiki huts for booths, and a bar.

With whimsical décor, an extensive menu of unique drinks, and helpful staff, Pagan Idol is one of the city’s best Tiki bars.

It can get pretty crowded, especially after work hours and on weekends—so plan accordingly!

Admire the Stunning Architecture of The Painted Ladies

Daytime view of The Painted Ladies
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Painted Ladies is a term used to refer to homes with Victorian or Edwardian architectural style and colors. Moreover, there are many painted ladies across the country, from New Jersey to Cincinnati.

But the most famous one happens to be the cluster in San Francisco. This one features seven pastel houses lined up by the slope of Steiner Street.

The style is evidently Victorian, symbolizing the California Golf Rush with its adorned rooflines, turrets, and big windows.

Close view of The Painted Ladies
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But the colors are all wrong for the style—vibrant pastel shades of blue, green, and yellow. It is because these houses got those colors after The Colorist Movement!

One of the houses has a little museum on the top floor open for visitors. It features exhibits related to the city, such as photographs, century-old wedding cake tops, and clothes from the 1800s.

You can look at it from Alamo Square Park, which offers a picturesque view of the houses. If you need a close encounter, you can book the Haight Ashbury & Painted Ladies Tour!

People admiring The Painted Ladies
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Revel in the Calm Scenery of the Japanese Tea Garden

Scenic view of the Japanese Tea Garden
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Golden Gate Park has some unique facilities, including a fascinating Japanese Tea Garden.

But don’t think of this as a random, ordinary garden. It is, in fact, one of a kind—the United States’ oldest public Japanese garden!

It was built by George Turner Marsh as a part of the 1894 World’s Fair, which he later sold to the city. The work of making this temporary fair exhibit a permanent tea garden then fell on Makoto Hagiwara, a landscape designer.

A dramatic history later, the garden was made into what it is now—a Japanese paradise of trees, rocks, birds, and koi! The latest additions include the pagoda, an arched drum bridge, and a dry landscape garden.

An arched bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden
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But the garden’s highlight is the Tea House, surrounded by stunning landscape and a peaceful pond.

It serves many types of teas, from Jasmine to Genmaicha, along with sandwiches, Kuzumochi, and cheesecake.

Japanese Tea Garden offers a taste of Japan without having to travel there—and even lets you take souvenirs from their gift shop!

Unique flora at the Japanese Tea Garden
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Indulge in a Mouth-watering Adventure at Off the Grid

A food truck at Off the Grid
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Experience the local food in a fun and innovative way through the unique event of Off the Grid!

It is a mobile events platform that organizes a food event regularly, similar to a night market.

There are tons of food trucks and vendors camping in an outdoor space to sell their delicious dishes.

This concept is the brainchild of Matt Cohen, who put it into reality in 2010. His first event—featuring alcohol, music, and Latin and Asian food—made its way to the current number of 15 markets.

All these 15 markets are spread throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, where you get access to hundreds of vendors.

From barbecues and noodles to teas and cocktails, you can eat a variety of cuisines to your heart’s content!

Once you visit this place, it will simply be impossible to replace the unparalleled Off the Grid experience!

Spend an Eventful Day in the Fisherman’s Wharf Neighborhood

Signage of Fisherman’s Wharf
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When San Francisco offers a whole neighborhood as a tourist attraction, we both know it will not disappoint!

Fisherman’s Wharf overlooks the city’s northern waterfront, where you can find sea lions lounging on the wooden docks!

The name was coined in the late 1800s when Italian immigrant fishermen settled in this area for one reason—the gold rush.

These men went fishing in the waters to catch the Dungeness crab and other fish. The activity still continues to this day. You can even catch glimpses of resident fishermen in their boats far in the water!

People at Fisherman’s Wharf
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The neighborhood’s attractions lure many locals and tourists every year. Some of these are the infamous Pier 39, a handful of museums, including Madame Tussauds wax museum, and Ghirardelli Square.

There are many restaurants and café in the area, such as Eagle Café, Crab House, Blue Mermaid, Darren’s Café, and Cioppino’s.

Fisherman’s Wharf has something exciting for everyone—so don’t forget to add this place to your San Francisco itinerary!

Crab statue at Fisherman’s Wharf
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Experience the Chinese Spirit in its most Authentic Form at Chinatown

A street at Chinatown
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Your trip to San Francisco will never be complete if you don’t step foot in Chinatown.

As one of the oldest Chinatowns in the country, the traditional authentic charm exists side by side with modernization.

The area is more than a century old and perfectly self-sufficient. The houses and restaurants stand between hospitals, parks, churches, and other organizations.

Binding them all is the innate culture present in the very air of the place. And the people preserve it through the worship places, customs and traditions, and language!

Chinese lanterns at Chinatown
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One of the most visited attractions is the Dragon Gate, the infamous gate by the southern end.

The area also offers an authentic Chinese marketplace, a family-owned teahouse, handcrafted kimonos, a Chinese cookware shop, and a fortune cookie factory.

You can visit Chinatown whenever you want, but I would suggest you visit during Chinese New Year. That is the best time to experience the thriving, electrifying spirit of the neighborhood!

People at Chinatown
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Enjoy a Scrumptious Meal at Michelin Starred Thai Restaurant, Kin Khao

Kin Khao is not just any local restaurant; it is something to cherish forever, may it be the taste or the experience.

Even the Michelin Guide thinks so! Because the restaurant, owned by Pim Techamuanvivit, was awarded a Michelin star within two years of its conception.

Moreover, it is the only Thai restaurant with such a prestigious title, making it a must-visit.

The place shows minimalist décor, with wooden tables spread over the floor and a black-white-grey theme all over.

Now let’s talk about the food! The menu is short but features rarer Thai dishes made with local produce, ingredients, and love.

Many people—and I—suggest trying Kin Khao’s caramelized pork, mushroom hor mok, and yaowaraj noodles.

If you want to taste this Thai-fusion goodness, make your way to the second floor of Hotel Parc 55 Hilton!

Ride the Iconic Cable Cars of San Francisco

Cable cars on the street
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The cable cars of San Francisco are nothing short of iconic! In fact, these are the last manually operated system in the whole world.

The first car to run along the city streets was back in 1873. More than 20 lines were established, but only three are in working condition today.

The still working lines are California Line, Powell-Hyde, and Powell-Mason. These run through the neighborhoods of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and North Beach.

Locals do use cable cars to reach their destinations, but most of the commuters are tourists, tourists, getting that unique San Francisco experience.

An empty cable car
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The routes are full of cable car stops, where you can wait for the car to pick you up. Make sure to be careful while boarding the car, as there may be buses, cars, and other vehicles milling around.

The ride costs $8 for everyone, whether you are a teenager or an elder.

If you wish to find out more about this efficient system, don’t forget to visit the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street!

Passengers aboard a Cable Car
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Immerse Yourself in the Foggy Etherealness of Mount Sutro

Fog covering Mount Sutro's trail
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Who would have thought an ultra-urban city could offer a mysterious forested hill for you to explore? Not you, and certainly not me!

But Mount Sutro, the 900-foot forested hill in question, stands in all its natural glory in the heart of the city. It is owned and preserved by the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF).

Spread over 70 acres of land is the 100-year-old forest of Monterey Pine, Cypress, and Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees. You can also spot many birds, including more than 50 species of songbirds!

This historic hill is full of trails, which you can use to enter and explore the space. Some of these are the Stanyan Street trailhead by 17th Street, Christopher Trailhead on Christopher Drive, and Belgrave Entrance on Belgrave Avenue.

Now, for the cherry on top—Mount Sutro comes under the fog belt! Thus, hiking the hill on foggy days is an absolute ethereal treat!

Enjoy a Quiet Time at the Lake Merced Park

A bird at Lake Merced Park
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Lake Merced Park is not as famous as the other parks in the city, but it is beloved by the locals and whoever visits it.

It is on the southern edge of San Francisco, separated from the Pacific Ocean by a little stretch of urbanization.

The lake features four sections—North Lake, South Lake, East Lake, and Impound Lake.

A small bridge joins the first two sections, while the Impound Lake is perfect for birdwatching. Many migratory birds make sure to stop by this lake during their journey!

The lake is natural freshwater, but the salt levels always change because it is close to the sea. Thus, the lake’s fish can adapt well to saltwater and freshwater.

There is a paved pathway circling the water body, which is great for running, jogging, and walking your dog.

Other facilities include picnic tables, benches, a boat house, and docks perfect for admiring the lake and going fishing!

Study the richness of Asian Art and Culture at the Asian Art Museum

Exterior of the Asian Art Museum
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Asian Art Museum is one of the finest museums in the world to pay an exclusive tribute to Asian art.

It all started when Avery Brundage, the popular IOC President and collector, donated most of his collection to the city. San Francisco, in turn, birthed the museum in 1966 to display his Asian artworks.

The place was transferred from its original location in Golden Gate Park to the public library building in Civic Center in 2003. Now it is one of the most-visited places on Larkin Street!

A sculpture on the grounds of Asian Art Museum
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It displays over 15,000 works of art, ranging from ancient sculptures to contemporary exhibits. The artifacts come from different parts of Asia, with some of them dating back to 6000 years!

Asian Art Museum offers free guided and audio tours to help understand the history of the permanent collection and rotating exhibitions.

Conclude your visit by eating a delicious meal at the Asian Box and buying special gifts at the boutique!

Final Thoughts

Only a few cities can rival the versatile set of tourist spots San Francisco County, California offers.

Moreover, the place caters to every kind of visit. From family tours and friends’ hangouts to business trips and romantic getaways!

Ironically enough, even if I have added plenty of things to do, the list only touches a smidge of this dreamy city.

There are many more hidden cafés, offbeat trails, and places with views that will take your breath away. To know about those, I strongly suggest visiting San Francisco instead of conducting a wistful online search!

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