San Francisco is an amazing Californian city to explore! Not just fog and unpredictable weather, the city has an epic mix of the best things to do in San Francisco that are dotted all across the country. It’s one of those fun US cities that you can visit and have totally different experiences depending on what you enjoy most.
Plus, even if you’re not planning on just a trip to San Francisco itself, it’s a perfect stop-off during a wider road trip across the west coast, too. With this in mind, I wanted to share some of my favourites and easily the best things to do in San Francisco when you pop over to the city.
Honestly, each time I’ve visited San Francisco, it has been different and there are so many neighbourhoods and free things in the city to enjoy.
With that in mind, take a look at some of the best things to do in San Francisco when you visit. Have the best time.
1.) Pier 39: Make a Date with a Sea Lion
Just as visitors flock to Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, so do the sea lions! Last century, this cuddly bunch arrived and set up home right on the wharf.
Take a journey to see them and learn more about sea lions from the specialists of Nature By The Bay, too. Though, if you don’t feel like this, pop over to some of the restaurants and shops that line Pier 39. It is one of the best things to do in San Francisco, especially if you’re looking for a casual stroll around the shoreline.
Yes, it’s a little ‘touristy’ but a lovely place to wander and explore.
Oh yeah, and just remember not to get too close to the seals. No jokes, they have smelly breathe (which I smelt from about 25 metres away).
2.) Gorge on a Fudge Sundae
No visit to this west coast city would be complete without a bar of chocolate or a salted caramel sundae by Ghirardelli.
Piled high with just-baked brownies, homemade ice cream and lashings of cream, Ghirardelli makes some of the best desserts on the whole west coast. Honestly, you’ll leave in a sugar-induced haze but it’s totally worth it.
Plus, it’s probably the most famous and arguably the best thing to do in San Francisco if you want a sweet treat.
3.) Alcatraz: Head To Prison
Learn about the history, the infamous escape, Bird Man and many of America’s notorious criminals that were housed on the prison island, Alcatraz.
Take a short boat ride from the bay and explore the small island. For added atmosphere, head here on one of the city’s night tours – an eerie experience.
Just make sure to book your tickets before you arrive in San Francisco. After all, visiting Alcatraz is one of the best things to do in San Francisco and tickets fill up fast at peak times.
4.) Ride a Cable Car
Make sure you take a ride on the world’s last manually operated cable car system.
Well over 100 years old, the cable car lines that remain have become an institution and even a ‘right of passage’ for visitors to the city.
Grab yourself a ticket, hop on and ride the city in style. It’s easily one of the more historic relics of the city and one of the best things to do in San Francisco when you visit.
5.) Go Down Lombard Street
Lombard Street is the most iconic street in the city.
With its steep gradient and eight hairpin turns, this street has become a photographer’s dream (and a driver’s nightmare). Take a walk down the street and enjoy the city vista.
It’s pretty unique and worth a stroll, especially as it’s quite a quick little stop. You won’t spend longer than 30 minutes here.
Afterwards, for a tasty dinner, grab a table over at Acquerello for their confit duck. It’s so good.
Also, if it’s views you’re after, head up to Twin Peaks for some epic vistas all across the city.
6.) Explore Muir Woods
Part of the National Park network in the US, Muir Woods is a mere twelve miles from the city itself and one of only a few select places where you can still spot the crazily tall Redwood trees.
Rising around 120 metres, these trees are truly ridiculously high and sight that’s worth seeing. It is one of the best things to do in San Francisco if you fancy a little break from the city itself.
7.) Stroll Haight Street
By exploring Haight Street, the beating heart of California’s hippie culture in the ’60s and ’70s.
In so many ways this street reminded me of Camden Town in London, with a diverse set of people, experiences and foods to try as you walk along.
8.) Have a Glass of Wine in Napa Valley
The great wines of Napa Valley are meant to be sipped from a glass, not from the bottle with a straw, this is one of the many things I learned from my trip to Napa Valley.
Okay, not quite true, but Napa Valley has some of the most delicious wines and award-winning vineyards where you can learn all about the process and original taste of west coast wine.
Just make sure to have a designated driver.
9.) Gorge on Asian food in China Town
Grab a bite to eat in the largest China Town in all the US. As with Ellis Island on the east coast, Angel Island (close to San Francisco) acted as a migratory point for people travelling from the Asia region in the 19th and 20th century.
After the gold rush dried up, many people made San Francisco their home and created one of the best China Town’s. For a delicious meal, try some Gong Bao Chicken.
10.) Listen to a Drum Circle on Hippie Hill
Head to Hippie Hill on a busy weekend and listen to the lovely music of a drum circle.
Expect heavy crowds on festival days.
11.) Eat Sour Dough & Clam Chowder
Hands down, one of my favourite meals to ever eat in San Francisco.
Grab a sourdough bowl from one of the many food stalls and independent cafes across the city and enjoy. Made fresh every day, clam chowder is a hearty and delicious lunch. Honestly, for me, it’s one of the best things to do in San Francisco.
Also, if you fancy some more tasty (and totally fresh) seafood, pop over to Anchor Oyster Bar & Seafood Market. You’ll leave stuffed, their scallops are so good!
12.) Walk The Golden Gate Bridge
Spend a few hours walking the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. Interesting fact, the government never actually stopped painting the bridge – by the time they finish, they have to start all over again.
My top tip is to plan this on the same day as heading to Muir Woods, which is only nine miles from the bridge. Also, on our last visit to San Francisco, we headed over to Battery Spencer at sunrise. It was incredible.
Afterwards, if you feel like it, pop into Golden Gate Park, too. It’s great for a little wander.
13.) Watch the Sunset at Baker Beach
Head to one of San Francisco’s most famous beaches, based on the peninsula of the city, this is a perfect place to sit, walk and watch the sunset.
I didn’t realise (when I visited) that the northern part of the beach is considered a nudist section – maybe not Instagram-safe for a selfie, but a awesome beach with a really beautiful sunset.
14.) Explore Musée Mécanique
No visit to the city would be complete without a little downtime at Musée Mécanique.
This retro arcade offers its visitors a throwback to early 20th-century games that were popular during that time. My favourite is the Kiss-O-Meter, which in hindsight would either lift your ego (as a good kisser) or give you a cold sore.
If you’re an avid gamer, you’ll easily find this to be one of the best things to do in San Francisco. If not, give this spot a miss.
15.) Soak Up The Culture in Castro
Head to San Francisco’s most famous LGBTQIA+ district for some amazing places to eat and drink.
Once a working-class neighbourhood in the fight for gay and lesbian rights, this street has now become one of San Francisco’s coolest districts.
It’s such an epic part of the city to stroll around, with loads of little foodie spots and bars, too. Plus, you’ve got some incredible places to see like the; San Francisco Castro Theatre, the Pink Triangle Memorial Park and Harvey Milk’s Old Camera Shop, too.
Honestly, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a little stroll here.