The 10 Best Experiences in San Francisco

San Francisco has many beautiful neighborhoods to explore
San Francisco has many beautiful neighborhoods to explore | © Bluejayphoto / Getty Images
Photo of Anita Isalska
22 January 2020

San Franciscans have a high-energy approach to life, and they apply it to hiking, partying and everything in between. There are no bystanders in this all-sensory city, so getting active is the key to experiencing San Francisco.

The city’s kaleidoscopic history and monumental art scene deserve total immersion, while its beautiful landscapes are best enjoyed on an invigorating hike, cycle or Segway ride. You’ll be buffeted by high winds on the Golden Gate Bridge, dazzled by murals and Art Deco splendor, then revived by the salty tang of margaritas. Tiring? Never – these 11 experiences will energize your explorations of the City by the Bay.

Sail around the island of Alcatraz

Building, Natural Feature
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Alcatraz island with Golden Gate bridge on san Francisco
© Franck Reporter / Getty Images

Just 1¼ miles (2km) offshore from San Francisco, Alcatraz once housed 302 inmates, some of whom made daredevil attempts to escape the fort-turned-prison. Nowadays, visitors queue to gain access to these 22 windblown acres, riding the ferry to see forlorn cells and learn about famous former residents like Al Capone and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. With a history of gangsters and prison escapes that inspired Hollywood classics like Escape from Alcatraz, it’s no wonder ‘The Rock’ remains a symbol of hope against all odds. Sail around Alcatraz Island to escape the crowds and delve deeper into the city’s history. You’ll spend 90 minutes cruising around the island and listening to your captain as they tell you all about the history of this fascinating landmark.

Make the climb to Coit Tower then feast on a picnic in Pioneer Park

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Fresco Murals inside Coit Tower showing a scene of city life, San Francisco, California, United States
‘City Life’, 1934 by Victor Arnautoff | © EmmePi Travel / Alamy
Crowning Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is like a lighthouse beckoning to lovers of Art Deco. It’s a brisk, steep walk to reach the tower; listen out for the chatter of parrots as you follow the path snaking uphill. From the top there’s a 360-degree panorama across the bay, but the highlight is seeing socialist realist artwork, showing industrious workers, gold panners and strikers in rich detail. Explore Pioneer Park after the climb and feast on a picnic prepared with fresh, local produce. Everything is set out for you and cleaned up after, so you can simply feast and soak up the views without any hassle.

Eat your way around the Ferry Building and Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

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Ferry Building
© Hal Bergman / Getty Images
San Francisco’s Ferry Building is a great place to go to check out the best the SF food scene has to offer, as well as to take a peek at some new up-and-comers. Follow your local guide and sample delicious produce to really experience the best the area has to offer. The spacious building is home to Acme Bread Co., Hog Island Oyster Co., Humphry Slocombe, Cowgirl Creamery and Blue Bottle Coffee. Bonus: the view of the bay from the Ferry Building is fantastic.

Enjoy murals and margaritas in the Mission

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View Of Clarion Alley Mural Paintings, Mission District, San Francisco, California
© Federica Grassi / Getty Images

The centerpiece of this historic neighborhood is the Mission Dolores, San Francisco’s oldest building, completed in 1776. Adding to the district’s colorful charms are mural-splashed lanes like Balmy Alley, a public-art site dating back to the 1980s, and Clarion Alley, which has an ever-changing collection of community-focused street art. Feet tired? You’ve earned a margarita! Locals argue for hours over the Mission’s best, but we keep going back for the massive margs at Latin American Club.

Take a PHAT Scooter Golden Gate Bridge and Back Tour

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Courtesy of PHAT Scooter Tours

Landscaped lawns, Japanese tea gardens, plus windmills and a bison paddock: Golden Gate Park is no ordinary green space. With so much to see across its 1,017 acres (412 hectares), it’s worth renting a bike or Segway to zip easily from the rose garden to Ocean Beach and back again. Too energetic? Join the impromptu song and dance that still erupts around Hippie Hill, where Janis Joplin once strummed. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can hire a fat-tired electric scooter and see the city sights on two wheels. Whizz through Presidio Park, down zig-zagging Lombard Street and past many more iconic sights with your group. The pace of the tour is reasonably slow, so you’ll have plenty of time to stop off and explore.

Hike to the top of Twin Peaks

Park, Theater, Movie Theater, Theatre
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Aerial view of San Francisco, California
© Ershov Maks / Getty Images

Who killed Laura Palmer? You won’t unravel David Lynch’s mystery at the top of Twin Peaks (925ft/282m), but the hike to this lofty spot is well worth the sweat. Start at the southwestern stretch of Market Street, the city’s main artery, before taking a meandering route to the top via stairs and residential streets. An urban hiking tour takes the stress out of navigating, and you’ll take in landmarks in the Castro, the city’s historic LGBTQ hub, along the way.

Ride a Segway from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marina

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STREET SCENE FISHERMAN?S WHARF WHEEL SIGN SAN FRANCISCO CALIFORNIA USA
© Russell Kord / Alamy
Located at San Francisco’s northern waterfront, Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. Extending from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35, the wharf has a storied history and iconic food specialities, including the freshest of seafood caught fresh in nearby waters and offered in a number of restaurants in the area. Hop on a Segway from Fisherman’s Wharf and ride on two wheels through Ghirardelli Square all the way to the Marina District. Learn about the history of the area, soak up the city culture and see the Palace of Fine Arts, as well as other interesting sights, along the way.

Catch waves in Pacifica

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Surfer riding waves in the Ocean Beach of San Francisco during the sunset.
© Artur Debat / Getty Images
California surf culture encapsulates a lifestyle, an aesthetic and a soundtrack that’s famous worldwide. But don’t just hum along to the Beach Boys, get in on the action. Just south of San Francisco, Pacifica is a sweet spot to catch some waves. Take a beginner lesson to help you scour the surf for ride-worthy waves and get you standing up on that board.

Experience the largest Chinatown in the West

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San Francisco's Chinatown at sunrise, California, USA
© Bluejayphoto / iStock / Getty Images Plus
While not a specific venue per se, Chinatown is worth a visit, whether you’re a native to San Francisco or a visiting tourist. Covering more than 24 blocks of shops and restaurants, there is always somewhere new to discover. Granted, it may be crowded most of the time, but all anyone needs to get around is two feet. Here, visitors can find authentic fortune cookies, herb shops and classic dim sum. Discover the main highlights on a guided tour of Chinatown and North Beach. Wander for 2.5 hours and learn about the local history and food scene. Feast on sweet treats, sip on authentic Chinese tea and marvel at San Franciscan landmarks along the way.
These recommendations were updated on January 22, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.