Located along the ocean, with rolling hills and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and the jewel of Northern California. The city is full of history, great neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums and a whole host of entertainment options. Some of the most notable attractions, beyond the famous bridge, are the historic Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf. In the center of the city is Golden Gate Park, a huge green space with all sorts of things to do. San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest of its kind in North America, is well worth a visit. For an interesting city tour, hop on one of the historic funiculars, which stop at many of the city’s top sites.
1 Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a California icon that graces San Francisco Bay. It is the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure backed by blue water, or in many cases peaked by a low-lying cloud. At night, the illuminated structure is equally striking.
Connecting San Francisco to Marin County and other counties further north, the Golden Gate Bridge was once ranked the largest man-made sight in the United States by the US Travel Service. Opened on May 28, 1937, the bridge took four years to build and, upon its completion, was the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring approximately two miles in length.
If you want to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1, and walkways on either side of the bridge are open to pedestrians and cyclists. The hike begins at the beginning of the bridge (accessible from the Presidio shuttle) and ends at a Marin County lookout point. Many locals enjoy biking across the bridge to the nearby waterfront town of Sausalito. Pedestrian access is on the East sidewalk; bike access is on the east and west sidewalks. The bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists during the day.
Read also: San Francisco Walking Tour: 10 Highlights
For a great view of the bridge, or for anyone interested in photographing the bridge, there are a number of ideal vantage points. From the San Francisco side, Nob Hill, an area known for its posh old mansions, offers a beautiful view over the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, in Marin County, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another good spot. Also, if you plan to take a tour to Alcatraz, there are completely open views from the boat and island.
2 Alcatraz Island
Located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, the historic and infamous Alcatraz Penitentiary is one of America’s most infamous prisons. It operated for nearly thirty years, ending in 1963 and reopening as a tourist attraction in 1973. Some of America’s most famous criminals were inmates here, including Al Capone and the “Birdman,” who would later form the basis for the fictional film The Birdman or Alcatraz.
You can travel to the island by ferry and see the site while listening to an exceptional sound recording that offers a glimpse into prison life, rather than just a historical list of facts. The narration is even voiced by former Alcatraz inmates and guards.
Over the course of its 30-year existence, the penitentiary received a total of 1,576 convicts. There were never more than 250 at a time, even though there were 450 cells about 10ft x 4ft. Sometimes the number of guards and staff exceeded the number of convicts.
While most people come for the history or novelty of seeing a former prison, the island is now a prominent area for seabird nesting.
An easy, convenient, and time-saving way to see Alcatraz and some of San Francisco’s other highlights, such as Fisherman’s Wharf , Chinatown , and the Golden Gate Bridge , is to take a combined Alcatraz and San Francisco City Tour. If you only have one day to explore the city and Alcatraz is on your list, this guided tour is the best option. Alcatraz regularly sells out, so booking in advance is highly recommended.
3 Fisherman’s Wharf
One of the most popular tourist areas in San Francisco is Fisherman’s Wharf. If this is your first visit to the city and you only have a day or two to see the sights, Fisherman’s Wharf is a good place to start. Once San Francisco’s Little Italy, this old section is an area known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful waterfront setting. It’s a nice place to stroll around and get a taste of the city. From here you can also take a sightseeing cruise for spectacular views of the city, or organize a fishing charter.
Some of the top sights in the area include Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Ghirardelli Square . Restored ships from the 19th and 20th centuries line the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park . A National Historic Landmark, the USS Pampanito is a World War II submarine and part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Pier 39 , located in this general area, is home to more than 130 shops and unique places to eat. It also offers a great view of the city.
Cable cars were introduced in 1873 to help locals navigate the many hills on which the city is built. Today, the few remaining cable cars provide tourists with a great way to historically explore the city. Since 1964, these tram-like vehicles have had the unique distinction of being the only public transport system to be declared a historic monument. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde are the most scenic routes. The cable cars also take you to major attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf , Ghirardelli Square , the Ferry Building , Nob Hill , and Lombard Street. If you plan to do more than a few rides or want to spend a few days sightseeing, consider purchasing a pass.
Official Site: https://www.sfcablecar.com/
5 Golden Gate Park
Home to gardens and museums, Golden Gate Park is a fantastic green space in the heart of San Francisco, often considered the “lungs” of the city. Before development began in 1871, this was an area of barren dunes. Today, the park has a network of hiking trails and bike paths, more than 5,000 different species of plants and dozens of species of trees, several lakes, riding trails, and a buffalo paddock. Major attractions include the de Young Museum , the California Academy of Sciences Museum with Steinhart Aquarium , the Japanese Tea Garden , and the San Francisco Botanical Garden .
Golden Gate Park is one of those places that can easily take a few hours to a few days. Bicycle rentals are available, and this can be a good way to explore the park, rather than trying to do everything on foot. Or try an organized Segway Tour with a local guide and hit all the main highlights.
You may have been to Chinatown in other cities, but San Francisco’s Chinatown is an entirely different realm. It is both the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest of its kind in North America. Almost completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown was completely rebuilt in the Chinese style and was soon even more attractive than before the disaster. Now with its temples, theaters, workshops, small businesses, shops, antique and gift shops, teahouses, and traditional pharmacies, Chinatown has become one of San Francisco’s most important locations. If you’re traveling through San Francisco during a major Chinese holiday or event, expect a lavish celebration. Chinese New Year celebrations are often regarded as the best in North America. The main street in Chinatown for tourists is Grant Avenue,
7 Legion of Honor
An impressive Neoclassical Beaux-Arts building in a beautiful setting, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is San Francisco’s most magnificent museum. The Legion of Honor was the gift of the socialite, philanthropist and patron of the arts Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Because of her love of all things Parisian, the museum was designed as a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The Legion of Honor Museum has an excellent collection of European decorative arts, sculpture and paintings, and antiquities from the Mediterranean and the Near East.
The museum is within Lincoln Park , a beautiful green space with a golf course and coastal forests and a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll. Just outside the museum, visitors can follow the trail along Lincoln Highway, which offers spectacular ocean views and a picture-perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Those looking for a more adventurous hike can head to the Land’s End Trail . This winding clifftop walk in rugged, rugged terrain offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Official site: https://legionofhonor.famsf.org
8 California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, is an architectural marvel and a multifaceted museum. This state-of-the-art “green” building with a sustainable design features a 2.5-acre residential roof, covered with native plants and even rolling hills to match the natural environment. The roof also has solar panels to generate electricity, and the soil acts as natural insulation. The walls are largely made of glass and provide natural light.
Inside is an incredible natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, rainforest and more. The Steinhart Aquarium contains about 38,000 live specimens and a 25 meter deep coral reef. The rainforest is four stories high, with all kinds of animals and amphibians in a fantastic layout. You can descend in a glass elevator to the deepest depths and look up through an acrylic tunnel to see fish swimming overhead. The Kimball Natural History Museum has skeletons of a T-Rex and blue whale, along with a range of interesting exhibits.
Adres: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Official Site: https://www.calacademy.org/
9 the Young Museum of Fine Arts of San Francisco
In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a fine arts museum and one of the largest public art institutions in San Francisco. Exhibits cover different time frames and geographic locations. While art and period interiors from North America feature heavily in the collection, there are also many exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Near East. British art and folk art from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific Islands are also well represented.
Official Site: https://deyoung.famsf.org/
10 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
After an extensive renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in the spring of 2016, with 170,000 square feet of exhibit space; almost three times its previous size. The museum now has 10 floors, with 45,000 feet of ground floor gallery space open to the public for free. In addition to the new space, the museum has also acquired thousands of new pieces. The museum features a full range of exhibits, some from the museum’s permanent collection and others commissioned especially for the opening.
Adres: 151 Third Street, San Francisco
Official site: https://www.sfmoma.org/
11 Twin Peaks
These two unique and uninhabited hills, over 900 feet high, are not the tallest of San Francisco’s 43 hills, a distinction that comes with Mount Davidson, which is 33 feet higher. They have one of the best views of the city and the bay, they are undeveloped and they are easily accessible. You can drive to the north parking garage for a nice view and hike along the peaks above the north and south peaks.
The Twin Peaks are the only hills in San Francisco that have not been built and remain in their original state. The Spaniards called them “Los Pechos de la Chola” or the breasts of the Indian Maiden. Even on hot days, there is a strong, cool breeze from the Pacific, especially in the late afternoon. Warm clothing is recommended.
12 Asian art museum
The Asian Art Museum is undoubtedly one of the most important museums in San Francisco. The museum opened in 1966, with the foundation of the collection coming from art collector Avery Brundage. Brundage built up a private collection, which he offered to the city of San Francisco in 1959 “to bridge the gap between East and West.” The museum building was built and after his death in 1975, at the age of 88, the museum also received the rest of his collection of works of art in the form of an estate.
Building on this, the museum has amassed several pieces and now contains an extensive collection of sculptures, paintings, bronzes, ceramics, jade carvings and architectural fragments from Japan, Korea, China, India, Iran and other Asian cultures. The work spans more than 6,000 years. There are plans for a substantial expansion, with the creation of a new pavilion.
Adres: 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
Official Site: https://www.asianart.org/
13 High Tea in a historic hotel
Enjoying high tea in a historic hotel gives tourists a sense of the grandeur of the city during the Victorian era and the turn of the century. Opened in 1907, the Fairmont San Francisco on Nob Hill is known for its lavish lobby and elegant ambiance. Fairmont’s Laurel Court offers afternoon tea service on Saturdays and Sundays. Also on Nob Hill, The Ritz-Carlton is known for its chic afternoon tea service in The Lounge, a sophisticated reception area with sweeping views of the city. One of the city’s largest historic hotels, the Palace Hotel was built in 1875 in the downtown area near Market Street. The Palace Hotel awaits visitors with its magnificent reception in the Garden Court, where a traditional afternoon tea is served, complete with fine china,
The Exploratorium is an incredibly popular science museum, with exhibits for both children and adults to enjoy. A huge number of diverse exhibits, and many with hand-on learning experiences, cover different areas of interest, all designed to teach and entertain. Kids rate this museum very highly, with all sorts of experiments and interesting things to do, and whether they have kids or not, most adults love the Exploratorium too.
Address: Pier 15
Official Site: https://www.exploratorium.edu/
15 Center for Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is the last surviving structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this classic-looking building is beautifully situated on a lagoon that reflects its mirror image on the surface of the calm water, while ducks and geese float by. The palace has been restored, along with the grounds, and today it hosts exhibitions and performances. The Palace of Fine Arts Theater seats approximately 1,000 patrons.
Address: 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco
Official Site: https://palaceoffinearts.org/
16 Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, not to be confused with Golden Gate Park, is a huge nature reserve located across the Golden Gate Bridge from downtown San Francisco. This 600-square-mile park in Marin County is home to a myriad of attractions, as well as being a wonderful place to enjoy nature and relax. Hiking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and beautiful beaches are in the park. Some of the beaches have a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is also a place of history and home to the historic Fort Baker, a former United States Army post from the early 1900s.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/goga/index.htm
17 AT & T Park
Home to the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park is a fun place to catch a baseball game while visiting the city. If you can’t see a game, consider taking a ballpark tour for a behind-the-scenes look at places off limits to most people. You can learn about the historic moments that took place here and explore the architecture. Tours are scheduled around games and do not run every day, so check the online calendar in advance.
Address: 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco
Official Site: https://sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com/sf/ballpark/
Ghirardelli Square is located in a restored factory site, surrounded by shops, galleries and restaurants in renovated industrial buildings. Inaugurated in 1964, the square was the first of a number of projects designed to revive abandoned factory complexes. Ghirardelli’s old red-brick chocolate factory has been turned into a hub for shoppers, art lovers and those looking for entertainment or a good meal. The belfry (built in 1916) is modeled after the Château de Blois in France. Later additions include rose gardens decorated with fountains and terraces with beautiful views.
19 Day trip to Napa Valley
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are the two best known and largest grape growing areas in California. Located on the south side of the valley of the same name about 32 miles from San Francisco, Napa is one of the largest cities in California north of San Francisco. This is an incredibly beautiful area with a drier climate than the coastal areas. Founded in 1848, it bears the name of the long-extinct Napa Indians. The western border is formed by the Napa Mountains. The Howell Mountains form the eastern border of Napa County and they also protect the valley from storms.
20 Hike and Picnic on Angel Island State Park
Angel Island State Park is a beautiful escape to nature, a 25-minute ferry ride from San Francisco’s Pier 41. Angel Island is the largest natural island in San Francisco Bay and offers astonishing views of the surrounding bay. Tourists can enjoy the beautiful scenery while walking or cycling on the well-groomed trails. It is possible to hike to the top of the island, Mount Caroline Livermore, at 788 feet, where the view is sensational. The island also has five picnic areas, eleven campgrounds, and several sandy beaches that are pleasant for walking and sunbathing. Well designed for visitors, the island has a cafe open all week most of the year (except winter) and a casual restaurant open on weekends with live music.
Where to Stay in San Francisco for Sightseeing
If you plan to see the top tourist attractions in San Francisco, the best place to stay is near Union Square. You will find many luxury shops, restaurants, galleries, theaters and hotels here. San Francisco’s famous Chinatown is within walking distance and Union Square is a major transportation hub, so you can easily travel to other attractions via cable car, bus, BART or taxi. Fisherman’s Wharf is also a popular place to stay, with its fun holiday feel and misty bay – especially for families who prefer a more peaceful atmosphere at night. Below are some highly rated hotels in convenient locations for sightseeing:
- Luxury Hotels: Loews Regency San Francisco, in the Financial District, is a 12-minute walk from Union Square and is one of the city’s top hotels with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and the city skyline. Other upscale options within walking distance of Union Square include the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel and The Ritz-Carlton in a historic colonnaded building on exclusive Nob Hill.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Chancellor Hotel at Union Square offers great value in the heart of all the Union Square action. The boutique Cornell Hotel de France exudes Parisian style in a convenient location between Union Square and Nob Hill. Located in a saltwater waterfront setting, the Courtyard by Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf is a fantastic option – especially for families seeking accommodations in this popular tourist spot, a short walk from Ghirardelli Square.
- Budget Hotels: If you’re on a budget, the Baldwin Hotel and Herbert Hotel in the center of town offer excellent value for money a short walk from Union Square. For those who can’t decide between staying in Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square, the Castle Inn sits between the two; You can walk to Fisherman’s Wharf in about 25 minutes and Union Square in 30 minutes.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to San Francisco
Several interesting San Francisco tours make exploring the city easy and hassle-free. Since San Francisco is a big city, built on hills, with many climbs and steps, tours are a particularly good idea for anyone with mobility issues, as well as for people who only have a few days and want to see as much of the city as possible without the challenges of driving or trying to find a parking space. The following tours are some excellent options for saving time, sightseeing, and exploring some areas outside of the city. These also guarantee the lowest prices.
- See the View : The best option for the traditional no-fail-explore-at-your-own-tempo sightseeing tour is the San Francisco hop-on hop-off bus tour. This double-decker bus tour, with guided narration, allows you to hop on and off at the main tourist spots and is a great way to get acquainted with the city while learning a little history and seeing the highlights. To spice up your sightseeing and stretch your legs, book a San Francisco Waterfront Segway Tour and cruise around Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and other popular areas.
- Cruise the Bay : To get out on the water at night and enjoy the city skyline, hop on a San Francisco Bay Sunset Catamaran Cruise. This 1.5-hour cruise sails past Alcatraz Island and under the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun sets and the city lights begin to glow.
- Get out of town: San Francisco is within easy reach of some great scenery. To see some of the fabulous coastline, shop Monterey’s Cannery Row, see the charming seaside town of Carmel, and drive along the well-known 17 Mile Drive, try the Monterey, Carmel, 17 Mile Drive Day Trip from San Francisco. Another very popular trip, offering a chance to see one of America’s great national treasures, is a Tour to Yosemite National Park. This is a must for nature lovers who want to see the famous sites of El Capitan and Half Dome and walk among the Giant Sequoias of Mariposa Grove. This tour offers pickup and drop-off at select San Francisco hotels and includes free time in the park. For a half day tour that covers a little bit of everything, the Muir Woods, Giant Redwoods and Sausalito Half Day Trip a good mix of nature, sightseeing and shopping. This tour is available in the morning or afternoon and offers pickup and drop-off for the morning tour.