Must-Visit Attractions in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco while the Sun is going down
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco while the Sun is going down | © Susanne Pommer / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Justine McGrath
9 September 2020

From the sandy shores of Baker Beach to the golden pagodas in Chinatown, San Francisco is a city full to the brim with must-see attraction. Here’s everything you can’t miss on your next trip to The Golden City.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Market, Park
Map View
Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA
© Ron Niebrugge / Alamy Stock Photo
What visitors see today at Fisherman’s Wharf is a gateway to San Francisco’s past. The Wharf is what was left after the 1906 earthquake (including major parts that were rebuilt) and served as a port for fishermen and cargo ships. The Wharf’s early days saw many Italian and Chinese immigrants, who helped shape the city and its customs. Nowadays, you’re welcome to cruise around the docks and smile on as fishermen catch crabs and clams that will likely go into your evening chowder – bonus points if you get that bad boy in a bread bowl.

Baker Beach

Bridge
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Visiting Baker Beach is like stepping inside a San Francisco postcard. Your toes will pad through soft sand down into the sweeping surf, and you’ll look up in awe at the Golden Gate Bridge behind you. Definitely one for the ‘gram. If this sounds a bit too idyllic for your liking, never fear – San Francisco wouldn’t be the same without a little bit of strangeness. Part of the beach is set aside for nude sunbathing, so you might spot a nudist or two lying out in the California sunshine.

Golden Gate Park

Botanical Garden, Museum, Park
Map View
Early Morning from Golden Gate Park
© Chris LaBasco / Alamy Stock Photo
You could spend an entire day inside Golden Gate Park and still leave stones unturned. Covering over 1,000 acres (405ha) of Northern California landscape, the park offers a green getaway from the city’s high-rises, tram tracks and multicolored houses; sometimes it’s good to decompress. The park is home to attractions such as the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden, the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, to name a few. Additionally, it’s praised across the nation for its diligent commitment to eco-friendly practices.

Exploratorium

Bookstore, Museum, Shop
Map View
The Exploratorium is a must-see attraction for visitors of all ages. Located near Pier 15, the museum offers a look inside the worlds of science, art and how we as humans interact with the world around us. Bring comfy shoes, because you’ll be here a while. With tons of hands-on exhibitions and an ever-changing list of things to see, it’ll be hard to exit the building at the end of the day without feeling like there’s more to explore. The younger members of your party will especially love it.

Chinatown

Market
Map View
Chinatown - San Francisco
© Peter Cain / Alamy Stock Photo
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest one outside of Asia. So yes, you need to see it. This particular neighborhood was created due to the large number of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco during the 1800s. With cultural elements such as the Bank of Canton and the Sing Chong Building – as well as authentic culinary wonders such as dim sum – you’ll soon lose track of time meandering through Chinatown’s streets.

Palace of Fine Arts

Building, Theater, Theatre
Map View
Inspired by early Roman architecture, the Palace of Fine Arts is a symbol of San Francisco’s cultured roots. The structure was initially built in 1915 for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition and was supposed to be torn down after the event. However, residents thought it was too beautiful to tear down, so it still stands today. Stop by during your stay in the city and snap a quick picture, or attend a live concert under the building’s historic dome. If you get inspired, you can even get married there.

Pier 39

Market, Shopping Mall
Map View
Shops and restaurants at Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, harbor, San Francisco, California, USA
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
For those travelers looking for quality seafood, kitschy buskers and sea lions galore, Pier 39 is a must on your San Francisco itinerary. The seaside area is best known for its abundance of dining and shopping options, and, of course, its resident sea lions. The sea lions only appeared in 1989 and no one quite knows why they’re there – but one thing’s for sure, you’re definitely going to want to photograph their cute, whiskered faces. Top dining options here include Izzy’s steakhouse and Luigi’s Pizzeria.

Presidio

Natural Feature, Park
Map View

If you think that San Francisco is all high-rises and gray skyline, think again. The Presidio is the city’s hidden gem, tucked between the Richmond District and Lower Pacific Heights. The area was a military base for more than 200 years, controlled by Spain, Mexico and later, the US Army. After the military departed in 1994, the Presidio became a national park, and it’s now a wooded area with towering trees that’s full of hiking and biking paths for everyone to enjoy. With a 300-acre (121-ha) historic forest to explore, you won’t run out of things to see.

Painted Ladies

Building, Park
Map View
joshua-sortino-HadloobmnQs-unsplash
© Joshua Sortino / Unsplash
Regarded as some of the finest broads in the city, the famed Painted Ladies in San Francisco aren’t so much ladies as they are houses. The Victorian-style homes can be found near Alamo Square and are probably one of the most photographed attractions in the city. If you stroll or drive by, don’t forget to sing the theme song from Full House, as the show’s opening sequence famously showed off the houses. You might have to queue to pose for a photo outside the Painted Ladies – but their beauty makes it worth it.

Alcatraz Island

Building
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One-and-a-quarter miles off the San Francisco shoreline sits Alcatraz Island. Tour what was once a federal penitentiary that held the nation’s most dubious criminals, and enjoy a picturesque boat ride off the coast to travel there and back. Although accessible from the mainland in as little as 15 minutes by ferry, Alcatraz felt exceptionally isolated for those who were imprisoned there, and it was famous for letting no prisoners escape alive. It was also the site of a 19-month-long occupation by Native Americans activists.

Grace Cathedral

Cathedral, Church
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Interior of Grace Cathedral with organist playing organ, San Francisco, California, USA, North America
© Brad Mitchell / Alamy Stock Photo
Whether or not you consider yourself a spiritual person, visiting Grace Cathedral is a unique opportunity to peer into some otherworldly architecture. The massive church traces its roots back to the late 1800s but still offers plenty up for contemporary travelers. Visit the cathedral to walk its labyrinths, to attend a yoga class at or to experience an Evensong service with musical accompaniment from the men and boys’ choir. Grace Cathedral offers something for everything, whether they’re religious or not.

Japantown

Building
Map View
While Chinatown is amazing in its own right, there’s something special about Japantown that makes it essential for any visit to San Fransisco. Feel as though you’ve been transported to Tokyo while you slurp noodles at one of the many fantastic ramen restaurants and shop for Asian-inspired trinkets at Daiso – and if you happen to be in town for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, prepare to be wowed.

California Academy of Sciences

Museum, Park
Map View
San Francisco. California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Photo copyright Lee Foster. Photo #: 24-casanf83824
© Lee Foster / Alamy Stock Photo
Situated in the grassy knolls of Golden Gate Park is the California Academy of Sciences. Whether you’re traveling with a pack of 20-somethings or with a gaggle of children in tow, you’ll find exhibits that will keep your entire group entertained for hours. The venue houses a planetarium, an aquarium and a natural history museum; therefore, you can find facts and figures on many types of scientific exploration. Housing more than 46 million specimens, you can bet you’ll find one to inspire you.

Crissy Field

Hiking Trail, Bridge, Park
Map View
Crissy Field is one of the Bay’s most beloved conservation projects, and for good reason. Located inside the Presidio, the area is home to more than 100 different types of plants and over 130 local bird species. A former US army airfield, Crissy Field was taken over by the National Parks Service in 1994 and opened to the public in 2001. Take in the beauty of nature during a bundled-up picnic, or stretch out on the adjoining beach and try your hand at spotting local crabs.

Dolores Park

Park
Map View
Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco
© Brian Coleman / Alamy Stock Photo
Dolores Park, also known as Mission Dolores Park, is a wide grassy expanse that covers 16 acres (6.5ha) of the city. If you’re in town during one of the city’s rare sunny days, you’ll find hundreds of people stretched out on the lawn picnicking, playing and praying that the clouds don’t return. Whether you enjoy sunbathing, roller skating or simply admiring the view, you can bet that you’ll love doing it at Dolores Park. It can get very busy on warmer days, so get there early to secure your spot, then soak up the atmosphere.

Haight-Ashbury

Building
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Haight-Ashbury began as little more than an inexpensive place to live and eat. However, the neighborhood transformed during the 1960s when musicians, artists and dreamers found themselves in the community and turned it into a safe haven for counter-culture. The Grateful Dead are the cornerstone that launched the Summer of Love Movement in the city, as the band originated in the neighborhood. Now, you’ll find funky thrift stores, delicious eateries and colorful street art that will capture your attention.

San Francisco City Hall

Building, Market, Museum
Map View
San Francisco City hall, San Francisco, California, USA
© Cultura RM / Alamy Stock Photo
The city’s original city hall was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. However, it was rebuilt with a flair for the grandeur and stands today as a symbol of hope and due political processes, and is much beloved by the city. San Francisco City Hall is worth passing by to ogle over, and hour-long tours are offered to the public if you’d like to step inside the building. At night, the building is lit up in a number of different colors to honor medical staff and first responders, and in honor of international holidays.

Cable Cars

Building
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By now, you’re already expecting to encounter many steep hills in San Francisco. Andrew Smith Hallidie faced these hills first-hand, and in 1869, he watched in horror as a horse-drawn carriage slid backwards down one of them. It was then that the idea of the cable car was born, and locals have been riding them ever since. Take a spin on one of the historic transit cars or stop and pose for a picture with one.

Ferry Building

Building, Market
Map View
The Ferry Building Marketplace is a foodie’s paradise
© Rosangela Lima / Alamy Stock Photo
Once San Francisco’s most important and well-known transport hub, the Ferry Building once saw more than 50,000 people a day pass through its doors. Since 2004, however, it’s become the city’s most interesting food market. Home to too many artisanal food producers to count, it serves as an incubator for small food businesses and promotes the area’s ethnic diversity. Pick up some first-rate San Francisco sourdough, the best cheese you’ll ever taste or some incredible beer and wine.

Union Square

Building
Map View
The go-to destination for those looking to see and be seen is Union Square. Regarded as the biggest and best shopping district in the city, Union Square is home to an assortment of restaurants and shops. Wear some comfortable shoes and tote along your credit card for a trip to this part of the city. And if you happen to be visiting during the winter months, you’ll feel the spirit of the season come to life on the pop-up Union Square Ice Rink.

Japanese Tea Garden

Park, Botanical Garden, Bridge
Map View
Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco
© zhencong chen / Alamy Stock Photo
Part of Golden Gate Park and originally built as part of the 1894 World’s Fair, this is the oldest Japanese Garden in the US. It covers 5 acres (2ha) and was mostly created by Mr Hagiwara, who poured love and his life savings into the gardens. Sadly, Mr Hagiwara lost possession of his gardens during the Second World War, but it’s still one of the most popular attractions in the city. Featuring an arched bridge, pagodas, koi ponds and a Zen garden, you’ll find peace here; and the cherry blossoms are incredible.

The de Young Museum

Building, Museum, Park
Map View
No trip to San Francisco is complete without stopping by the de Young Museum. Renowned for its extensive collection of fine art, the museum sits inside Golden Gate Park and has been a cornerstone of culture in the city since 1895. Go wide-eyed over the diverse exhibits offered and “ooh” and “aah” over the building’s architectural marvels. A huge part of the cultural fabric of the city, it offers exhibitions covering everything from Frida Kahlo to the Uncanny Valley, so you’re sure to find something that interests you.

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Museum
Map View
Walt Disney Family Museum
© Chris LaBasco / Alamy Stock Photo
Disney fans, step this way. The Walt Disney Family Museum does exactly what it says on the tin – it features the life, legacy and achievements of Walt Disney. Found in the picturesque Presidio area of San Francisco, it’s well worth a visit. Visitors can expect interactive exhibitions featuring narration from Walt’s own voice, as well as early drawings, films, cartoons, music and a model of Disneyland that will leave you hankering to visit. Don’t forget to visit the gift shop before you leave.

Lombard Street

Building
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One of the most famous streets in the world, you’d better bring your walking boots for this one. Stretching from The Presidio East to The Embarcadero, it’s part of Route 101 and is claimed to be the most crooked street in the world. A series of eight hairpin turn switchbacks ascending up a steep, picturesque hill, tourists flock here to pose for photos. You might recognize it not only from your friend’s holiday photos, but from the many TV shows and films it has starred in.

Musée Mécanique

Museum
Map View
Interior of the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco California USA
| © Curved Light USA / Alamy Stock Photo
If you prefer unusual, off-the-wall attractions rather than something more mainstream, Musée Mécanique is for you. More of a game center than a museum, it consists of a huge collection of 20th-century penny arcade games and artefacts. With more than 300 items including coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines and curiosities, it’s the ideal place to while away a foggy afternoon (and there are a lot of these in San Francisco). Don’t forget to bring some coins to play the machines with.

Additional reporting by Alice Johnston

These recommendations were updated on September 9, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.