Not every city has as many niche museums, scenic views or lush parks as San Francisco, so taking in the city’s unique sights is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for travelers. Whether you have just a quick pit stop or a week-long vacation planned to San Francisco, here are six attractions you must visit at least once.
Perched on a slab of rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was once known as one of America’s most notorious maximum-security prisons. Today, tours operate both during the day and at night, with a ferry that shuttles visitors to and from the island. Ideal for a glimpse into San Francisco’s history and for photo-worthy views of the city, Alcatraz is a must-do experience.
Though the Golden Gate Bridge’s splash of color against the San Francisco skyline is beautiful, venturing out onto the landmark on bike or foot is an experience unlike any other. The key to traversing the bridge is to be aware of your surroundings and stay in your designated lane whether you’re a pedestrian or on a bike. Both the dizzying heights of the suspension bridge and the views of San Francisco and the Marin Headlands make this a truly exhilarating experience.
Since San Francisco is a peninsula, one of the best ways to tour the city is by boat. Tours led by Golden Gate Bay Cruise take visitors through San Francisco Bay, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and past Alcatraz Island, hitting all major landmarks while an audio tour narrates the city’s rich history. Try to book early in the day or later in the evening to avoid the heaviest crowds. Another option is to take the California Sunset Cruise tour in the evening, complete with live music and drinks.
Located in SoMa, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art underwent a massive Snøhetta-led renovation in 2016, and it has since been attracting visitors with its seven floors of contemporary art, rooftop sculpture garden (with amazing city views) and the largest living wall in the United States. The museum has three different spots for food and drink – Sightglass Coffee for a quick bite, Cafe 5 for casual Californian fare and In Situ, a Michelin-star fine-dining experience.
Located in The Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum chronicles the life of Walt Disney, his accomplishments and how his legacy lives on today. The exhibitions explore pivotal moments in Disney’s history such as the inception of Mickey Mouse and the beginning of the animations of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The museum, founded by Disney’s daughter, explores the filmmaker’s early works and his shift into the legendary entrepreneur he became. Smaller than some of San Francisco’s other museums, the Walt Disney Family Museum is manageable in a couple of hours, and a worthwhile stopover while exploring The Presidio or making your way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Though located about two and a half hours south of San Francisco via the famed California Highway 1, Monterey Bay Aquarium has been heralded as one of the world’s best aquariums. Known for showcasing ecosystems of Northern California and for its extensive research and conservation efforts, the oceanfront aquarium is home to thousands of species of marine life, including sea otters, penguins, octopuses and a kelp forest. Given the drive, plan to spend an entire day exploring the aquarium; the charming small towns south of San Francisco, such as Santa Cruz and Carmel; and the scenic photo opportunities along the way.