Things to Do in San Francisco
Walking down San Francisco’s beautiful Marina District it’s hard to believe that the area was once a marshy swampland. Dredged, developed, and beautified for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, after decades of renewal, today the Marina itself is full of joggers, bicyclists, and chic young 20-somethings either out at the numerous bars and restaurants or window shopping the upscale waterfront boutiques.
Struck hard by an earthquake in 1989, the urban renewal in years since has left the Marina with an upscale trendy feel. Combine that with great ocean views and some of the nicest parks and walkways in San Francisco and you’ve got a neighborhood with just about everything – and the price tag to match.
For sunny days, head to Crissy Field or Fort Mason and the Presidio for scenic strolling and some of the best views of the Golden Gate. For a fun night-time bar scene, head to “The Triangle” at Fillmore and Greenwich, but be prepared for a crowd.
In a select few blocks of San Francisco’s bustling downtown lies the beautiful Civic Center. Known for housing some of the city’s main governmental and cultural institutions, the Civic Center is a hub of activity and not just for municipal officials – there’s really a lot to do and see. Take a look and you’ll find the impressive City Hall and War Memorial Opera House built in the beautiful Beaux Arts style. The San Francisco Public Library houses millions(!) of books, and on Sunday mornings the UN Plaza Farmers’ Market has more fine nibbling you could hope to wish for. After touring the buildings, consider the adjacent Hayes Valley for wandering the antique shops, restaurants, art galleries, and book stores.
The finest restaurants in town can't provide views as spectacular as the picnic tables atop Alamo Square Park facing Steiner Street's Postcard Row, a row of pastel Victorian houses, known as the Painted Ladies. In fact, the lavish gingerbread detailing, look-at-me bay windows, and frosting flourishes that adorn the houses may leave you craving dessert.
This collection of candy-jar colored Victorian houses is one of San Francisco's most famous assets. Though many exist throughout the city, this is where you’ll find the greatest concentration of these restored gems. At the corner of Fulton and Steiner streets, in Alamo Square, you can see the crisp edges of the Financial District skyscrapers behind a row of Victorians - it's one of the most famous views of San Francisco. You can even see City Hall.
Imagine a botanical garden filled with the lush greenery of rare and exotic plants…in the middle of a major U.S. city. The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is exactly that, housed in a Victorian greenhouse that is oldest public wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. It was originally commissioned by a wealthy businessman in the 19th century for his estate, though later bought by a group and presented to the public. After sustaining devastating damage from years of natural disasters it has since been strengthened and restored, becoming a central spot for San Franciscans seeking a place of beauty in the city.
Educational tours are given to connect people to the hundreds of rare plants. The conservatory is organized into sections based on plant type, including aquatic plants, highland tropics, lowland tropics, and potted plants — making the collection of brightly colored flowers and buds easy to navigate.
A lively hub of vibrant activity, thrift shopping, and some fantastic Mexican eateries, San Francisco’s Mission District is also home to some of the best weather and artwork San Francisco has to offer. Multicultural and honest, a stroll through Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley will have you pointing and snapping photos, while the sun breaking through the clouds will make a picnic in popular Dolores Park a treat. For as pleasurable a walk as you’re likely to find in San Francisco, consider Mission Street on a sunny day and watch out for roving mariachi bands playing in local restaurants. This oldest of San Francisco neighborhoods completes the image of San Francisco as a truly great multicultural American city.
Perched up on a hill looking over the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Heights is a historic neighborhood considered by many to be one of the city’s most beautiful. Aside from its location and views, the many Victorian homes of Pacific Heights are some of the most elegant and historic in San Francisco. One particularly notable home is that of author Danielle Steel, who lives in Speckles Mansion, an estate that once belonged to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s also the Haas-Lilienthal House, a 19th-century Queen Anne-style Victorian home that is open to visitors and admired by passersby. The historic house has been preserved to represent the era in which it was built. High-end boutique shops and restaurants line Fillmore Street, the main pedestrian street in the mostly quiet, residential area. The neighborhood is also home to Lafayette Park and Alta Plaza Park, with its rolling grassy hills, dog walkers, playground, tennis courts and stellar city views.
Known for its vibrant culture, often busy by both day and night, Cow Hollow is a central San Francisco neighborhood that attracts many of the city’s young professionals. At the heart of the scene is Union Street, a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare lined with cafes, antique shops, wellness centers, bars, and restaurants. Before it was a trendy urban area, it was an open valley where cows grazed (hence its name!) Its proximity to the Marina and coastline also made it the place many fishermen resided.
Though now filled with boutique shops and posh apartments, the old Victorian houses lining Cow Hollow streets are reminiscent of this area’s past. If history is what you’re after, you’ll find it in the Octagon House, a 19th century home built to let in natural light from all angles. As for modern city life, a variety of cuisines and an active nightlife make this area a draw for many.
Part of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Center, Fort Mason is a historic landmark and arts center located on the city’s waterfront. It once served as the San Francisco Port of Embarkation for the US Army. Facing the San Francisco Bay, it is both a former military port and coastal defense site. It remains an example for excellent reuse of a military base, drawing more than 1 million annual visitors to its events and facilities.
Divided into upper and lower sections, Fort Mason dates back to 1864 when fortifications along the coast of the United States were built — as prompted by the Civil War. The area was also an important military base during World War II. Today it operates primarily as the home of the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, holding regular events, festivals, and performances. There is also a youth hostel, various galleries and schools, and a bar, restaurant, and coffee shop on site.
More Things to Do in San Francisco
Located at the base of San Francisco’s bustling and touristy Pier 39, Aquarium of the Bay takes you below the surface of San Francisco Bay. With 300 feet of clear acrylic tunnels holding 700,000 gallons of bay water, the view is as unique as the critters themselves. Aquarium of the Bay is home to approximately 20,000 animals, from sea stars to octopuses to native sharks.
There are three main exhibit areas to explore in the aquarium. Discover the Bay focuses on ecosystems. Touch the Bay puts critters like leopard sharks, big skates and juvenile bat rays at your fingertips. But what makes this city-sized aquarium truly unique is the Under the Bay tunnels exhibit. As you walk through the first tunnel you’ll see animals that live near shore including anchovies, sea bass and sea stars. Explore deeper water as you make your way through the second tunnel. Stop and stare as five species of local sharks and skates glides over top of your head.
The California Academy of Sciences holds a fascinating collection of 38,000 natural wonders and the occasional freak of nature. Under the wildflower-covered “living roof,” butterflies flutter through a four-story glass rainforest dome, a rare white alligator stalks a swamp, and Pierre the Penguin paddles his massive new tank in the African Hall.
Downstairs, kids are sure to enjoy the basement aquarium, where they can duck inside a glass bubble to enter an eel forest, find Nemos in tropical fish tanks, or pet starfish. Head upward in the elevator to the roof for panoramic views of Golden Gate Park, or glimpse skyward into infinity in the Planetarium. For the ecology-minded, check out the displays throughout the main floor, which show how conservation issues affect California’s ecosystem.
If you stay for lunch, the dining options at the Academy are first-rate, as both the Academy Café and Moss Room restaurant are run by two of the city's top chefs.
Madame Tussauds around the world are famously home to wax recreations of famous figures, including celebrities, politicians, and athletes. Modeled after the original Madame Tussauds in London, the San Francisco Wax Museum was converted in the 17th Madame Tussauds worldwide in 2014. Life-size wax versions of Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jackson, and Marilyn Monroe can be found here, among many others. Contemporary figures such as Barack Obama and Lady Gaga are also brought to life.
Madame Tussauds San Francisco is home in particular to an area called “The Spirit of San Francisco,” which celebrates local artists, politicians, and activists that have played a role in the city’s history. It is a chance to specifically see icons of the Bay Area in one place. The figures are set against realistic backdrops, making them all the more lifelike!
Welcome to Fisherman’s Wharf newest and spookiest attraction! Located in what formerly was the Wax Museum, the San Francisco Dungeon takes visitors on a frightening journey through the city’s gruesome past, from the Gold Rush era to Alcatraz. The experience consists of 36 enthusiastic and terrifying actors, 200 years of history, one dark boat ride and nine live shows—not to mention the screams! The Dungeon focuses on terror and ghastly stories, yet somehow manages to provoke genuine belly laughs even from those having just screamed bloody murder. Dark and claustrophobia-inducing spaces, working girls, murders, questionable surgical abilities and hair-raising stories await in company of San Francisco’s most sinister characters, like Miss Piggott, the Wild West saloon owner, and the infamous crimper, Shanghai Kelly.
The Dungeon features several attractions, including Gold Rush Greed, Lost Mines of Sutter’s Mill, the Court of San Francisco.
San Francisco has one of the only remaining historic World War II Liberty ships docked in its bay, and it is open to visitors. Named for American Revolutionary War ship captain, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien is one of only two currently operational World War II Liberty ships afloat of the 2,700 built during the war. The ship survived the storming of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, and is now a National Historic Landmark visitors can tour near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
The preserved Liberty ship is completely unaltered, allowing for an authentic and accurate historical experience of exploring the ship just as it was made. Walking through the hallways and on deck, one can truly experience a time and place of being on the ocean in wartime decades ago. Everything from the engine room to the flying bridge is accessible to visitors, allowing a rare glimpse into life at sea and at war at that time.
Once a large, privately owned indoor swimming pool complex in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, due to a fire in 1966, the ruins of this magnificent bath-house now sit seemingly forgotten by time save for a small museum and gift store atop the hill. The ruins themselves stand all-but-gone amidst the beauty of the rough Californian coast, and are a great stoic testament to the innovation of man and the humbling power of Mother Nature.
Easily accessible by the Sutro Baths Trail right off of the Lands End parking lot, this hallowed, beautiful, and eerie escape amongst the cypress-lined cliffs are a great stop for any day spent exploring the San Franciscan outdoors. And while often windy, the Sutro Baths Museum offers guests a chance to come in from the cold, sip some coffee or hot cocoa, and get a glimpse into a time when this landmark was once the largest indoor bath house in the world.
At once both a place of peace and relaxation and a museum housing collections spanning more than 6,000 years of ancient and European Art, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is a museum that always takes precedence on any visit to San Francisco. Easily identifiable by the classical façade, its grand fountain, and the statue of El Cid in front of the museum, the Legion of Honor is hailed as a great representation of some of the most iconic art of the early Renaissance. In addition, the Legion of Honor houses the Skinner Organ, an organ of such amazing capacity and diversity that its concerts routinely sell out to people who come to hear the colors of a full symphony, echoed by one magnificent instrument.
Few places offer more spectacular (and iconic) views of San Francisco’s most famous bridge than Baker Beach. Tucked below the raggedy cliffs of Presidio, this popular destination offers scenic picnic facilities, rugged beaches and a rare chance to spot harbor porpoises diving into Pacific surf.
Once the original home of Burning Man, an art and music festival that has gained a cult-like following since its inception in 1990, Baker Beach is now a quiet—if popular—destination for travelers to the San Francisco Bay. Geologically inclined globetrotters will find a rare opportunity to check out gray-green serpentine, California’s state rock, from the shores of Baker Beach. And since this rare rock produces mineral rich soil, hard to find species of plants, like Marin Dwarf Flax, also grow here.
Running the western strip of San Francisco, Ocean Beach is a 3.5 mile strip of white beach and beautiful ocean. Adjacent to Golden Gate Park and so straight and flat you’ll think it was drawn by a ruler, Ocean Beach is great for joggers, Frisbee players, young love, and just coming to the beach and watching the tide come in. Though the water is cold, the views are spectacular, and you’ll often find it unoccupied – great for getting out of the city while remaining firmly within its borders.
Willy Wonka would tip his hat to Domingo Ghirardelli, whose business became the West's largest chocolate factory in 1893. The square is no longer a factory, of course. Since then, it’s evolved into a handsome three-level luxury mall with spiffy boutiques, spas, and wine-tasting rooms – care for a massage and some merlot with your chocolate?
Sit in the sun and watch street performers, who regularly entertain at the West Plaza and fountain area. If your sweet tooth beckons, surrender to its desire with a "world famous" Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae at the old-fashioned soda fountain inside the mall.
One of San Francisco’s original “Seven Hills,” Nob Hill gets its name from old gold-rush times when, as the bawdy waterfront offered no escape for the wealthy, the wealthy looked to build their homes on higher ground. The “nob” of Nob Hill actually is a contraction of an old Hindu word meaning, roughly, someone who has made his fortune. Today, Nob Hill is still home to some of San Francisco’s towering mansions and luxury hotels, but it’s historic feel and the eclectic neighborhoods that surround it give the area, for lack of a better phrase, a distinctly San Francisco feel.
While visiting, consider seeing some of the areas historic roots like the Huntington Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel, and Flood Mansion, all of which share in the vintage feel instilled by the old barber shops and cocktail lounges that line the streets. Popular sites of the neighborhood include the Cable Car Museum, the Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church and the Lumiere Theatre.
Situated on a rocky and windswept point at the tip of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area lies the beautiful Lands End. With great views of the Bay and the magnificent Golden Gate, this park-within-a-park offers those who visit its dusty trails an unparalleled experience unlike any other in San Francisco.
Lands End has several hiking trails, the longest of which is an easy three-mile round-trip hike from Point Lobos to Eagles’ Point. You’ll pass the ruins of the Sutro Baths and the USS San Francisco Memorial, as well as getting some great shots of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Along the way, be sure to keep an eye out for the rocky labyrinth, located on a small plateau along the way, and, conservatively speaking, one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Well worth the time and effort to see all that Lands End has to offer, easier hikes can also be had by parking closer to the point itself.
Cutting southwest across San Francisco from The Embarcadero, Market Street is one of the city's major thoroughfares. It starts in front of the Ferry Building at the northeastern edge of the city and runs through downtown, passing the Financial District, Union Square, down to Civic Center and the Castro District, and to the intersection with Corbett Avenue in the Twin Peaks neighborhood.
On the south side of the street, close to the bay, is SoMA (South of Market Street), which is filled with fancy loft residences, restaurants, and nightclubs, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens. On the north side of the street is the Union Square shopping hub and downtown attractions. The best way to see this bustling street is to jump on the F-Market antique streetcars, which run along Market Street as well as the Embarcadero.
Perched on rocks overlooking Ocean Beach, the Cliff House sits on the coast along on the western end of San Francisco. It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban national parks in the world, and was first built in 1863 before becoming a San Francisco landmark. Restored in 2004, it sits right next to the historic Sutro Baths with views of the ocean and rocky coastline that forms the Lands End trail.
Grab a bite at one of its two restaurants, enjoy views of the Pacific, or take a look at the room-sized Camera Obscura. Choose from the more casual Bistro Restaurant or get more formal at Sutro’s. On Sundays, it’s hard to beat the brunch served in the Terrace Room. Be sure to take a seat near the wide windows or walk out onto the large verandah and feel the proximity to the ocean, looking and listening for seals on the Seal Rocks below.
Things to do near San Francisco
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