The Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands

The Golden Gate Bridge (©Kirke Wrench/NPS)

Top Things to Do in San Francisco

By Rachel Ward on 04/28/15, updated 05/25/16

When you visit San Francisco, one thing’s certain: You’ll never run out of things to do. If it’s your first trip to the city or if you’re short on time, deciding on a manageable sightseeing checklist can be a challenge. We’ve picked out the essential San Francisco attraction highlights that have stood the test of time and should be on any visitor’s itinerary.

The Golden Gate Bridge will never disappoint, and it’s worth the effort to book tickets in advance for a cruise to Alcatraz Island, the unexpectedly picturesque site of an infamous former maximum-security prison.

Exploring the top sights will take you all around the city, which occupies about 49 square miles of the tip of the peninsula that separates the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Be sure to wear comfortable footwear to navigate the hills and to dress in layers. (Temperatures can fluctuate wildly depending on the neighborhood and time of day, and summers are famously chilly, while the fall months bring warmer temperatures and sun.)

Golden Gate Brige

Golden Gate Bridge

One of the world's most recognizable landmarks, the glorious international orange Golden Gate Bridge represents San Francisco. Walking, running, biking or driving across it is a thrill. The sleek Bridge Pavilion features a gift store, historical and interpretive displays, viewpoints, restrooms and a cafe.

Alcatraz Island

(©SF Travel)


Alcatraz Cruises

Buy tickets early to visit “The Rock,” the beautifully isolated site of a former maximum-security federal prison that housed notorious criminals and is now one of the city's most popular visitor attractions. Only accessible by ferry, the island offers striking city views, and the 45-minute cellhouse audio tour is truly compelling.

Ferry Building Marketplace

(©Evan Gray)


Ferry Building Marketplace

The striking historic Beaux Arts structure anchoring Market Street on the waterfront is an active ferry hub for commuters and visitors. Today it's also a bustling artisan marketplace offering a taste of San Francisco's rich local food culture, with a number of independent eateries and shops and a world class, tri-weekly farmers market.

Cable Car

(©Scott Chernis/SF Travel)


Cable Cars

San Francisco's most fascinating form of transportation, these historical cars still chug up and down the city's remarkable hills, taking passengers to and from Union Square, the Financial District, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, North Beach, Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf. And yes, you can really hang off the side.

Walk up or down this absurdly crooked, ornately landscaped street in the lovely Russian Hill neighborhood. (Waiting in line to drive down is not recommended.)

Muir Woods

(©Adam Kazmierski/iStock)


Muir Woods National Monument

This famous grove of virgin redwoods, filled with trees that are 400-800 years old and more than 250 feet high, feels worlds away from busy San Francisco, although it's just 12 miles outside the city. Paved walking trails take visitors up close to the giant trees.

Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

(©Scott Chernis/SF Travel)


Coit Tower

Climb the Filbert Street Steps up to Telegraph Hill, listening for the wild parrots and smelling the flowers from the surrounding gardens. At the top, admire panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay and the European-style tumble of buildings on the surrounding hills. Enter Coit Tower to admire the Depression-era murals on the first floor.

Alamo Square

(©Scott Chernis/SF Travel)


Painted Ladies

Standing in Alamo Square Park, you can see the downtown skyline peeking out behind this row of exceptionally picturesque Victorian homes in Alamo Square, which famously appeared in the opening credits of the sitcom "Full House."

Golden Gate Park

(©SF Travel)


Golden Gate Park

This vast rectangle of green slicing through the city is larger than Central Park. It's home to two of the city's best museums and a host of recreational activities. Join the locals and go for a walk, run or bike ride, keeping your eye out for the gorgeous Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake, the bison herd (really) and the Dutch Windmill.

Map of Top Things to Do in San Francisco

The Where® Travel Guide to San Francisco