For a major metropolis, San Francisco is pretty small. It spans just 47 square miles of land and has fewer than a million residents, yet it remains one of America’s most influential cities. A magnet for gold miners, a haven for hippies, a hub for tech’s elite, the City by the Bay has long drawn outsiders to its waterfront perch.
Most visitors quickly realize that, despite its size, San Francisco is dense with art, culture, open spaces, and cuisine, including some of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in California. So while getting around is easy enough to manage, there’s still a lot to navigate.
Fear not, first-timers — here’s a comprehensive guide to the best things to do in San Francisco if you’re still getting to know the city.
- Top attractions in San Francisco
- Landmark neighborhoods in San Francisco
- The best museums in San Francisco
- The best parks in San Francisco
- The best free things to do in San Francisco
- The best things to do with kids in San Francisco
- The best things to do at night in San Francisco
- Essential restaurants in San Francisco
- Essential bars in San Francisco
- Where to stay in San Francisco
Top attractions in San Francisco
Of all the islands in the Bay Area, Alcatraz is by far the most famous. The old prison where criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly were once incarcerated is a tourist attraction that sees 1.5 million visitors every year. Visits start with a 15-minute ferry ride from Pier 33 on The Embarcadero. In addition to self-guided audio tours, National Park Service rangers lead tours daily, and various sightseeing agencies organize special excursions such as night tours.
Somewhere between a landmark and an entire neighborhood, Fisherman’s Wharf hugs the San Francisco Bay between the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge. It’s home to many shops and restaurants, museums such as Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and eclectic attractions like Instagram-bait Umbrella Alley. Several family-friendly points of interest are concentrated at Pier 39, from carnival games and rides, escape rooms, and candy shops to an aquarium and a resident sea lion colony. Home to tour operators of all persuasions, Fisherman’s Wharf is an excellent launching point for greater explorations, whether you rent a GoCar or Blazing Saddles bike or book a bay cruise.
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts may be San Francisco’s most beautiful building. Designed in the image of a Roman ruin, the now-venue was constructed for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that was held in San Francisco in 1915. Its 162-foot-tall rotunda, which sits atop stately colonnades, has since become one of the most recognizable features of San Francisco’s skyline. These days, the Palace of Fine Arts is used as a theater and exhibition space for public and private events. Tours of the interior are available, but you’re better off admiring the structure and Golden Gate Bridge views on a walk around the enclosed lagoon.
Where: 3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123
Landmark neighborhoods in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Chinatown is not just a local landmark but a national one, being the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Iconic restaurants such as House of Nanking and Mister Jiu’s are the obvious lure, but there are a few attractions you’ll want to see too. At the top of the list are the Dragon Gate at the southern entrance, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where the Asian-American treat that supposedly originated in San Francisco is made, and the Great Star Theater which has operated since 1925. To catch Chinatown at its liveliest, plan your visit around the Chinese New Year parade in late January or early February.
The Haight, also known as Haight-Ashbury after the intersection of those two streets, made its name as the epicenter of San Francisco’s counterculture revolution in the mid-20th century. Some 100,000 hippies famously descended on the neighborhood during the Summer of Love in 1967 while musicians like Janis Joplin and the members of the Grateful Dead were living there. You can still see the Victorian houses that many of the great bands of that era occupied — 635 and 710 Ashbury for Joplin and the Grateful Dead, respectively — as well as visit Amoeba Music to thumb through records and see how the neighborhood’s music heritage is still going strong.
The Castro is San Francisco’s venerable gayborhood, a command post of LGBTQ+ culture and activism where Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, famously began his political career. Still an LGBTQ+ haven with the rainbow insignia to prove it, The Castro is a fun and lively neighborhood filled with great bars and restaurants. When you’re done checking out landmarks like the Castro Theatre and the GLBT History Museum, grab a drink at Twin Peaks Tavern, San Francisco’s very first gay bar. You might also consider visiting during the Castro Street Fair in October or during SF Pride in June.
The best museums in San Francisco
De Young Museum
The de Young is San Francisco’s premier fine arts museum. It’s one half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the largest public arts institution in the city — along with the Legion of Honor — and is located within Golden Gate Park. Housing artworks, textiles, and costumes from the 17th century to the present, the de Young displays creations from all over the world, notably the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. One highlight is built right into the museum: James Turrell’s Three Gems, a “skyspace with lighting that alters your perception of the sky’s color.”
Where: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
California Academy of Sciences
Right across a patch of Golden Gate Park from the de Young is the California Academy of Science, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Exhibits include an aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest, which together house more than 40,000 live animals and 45 million specimens. Every Thursday night, the museum also hosts a NightLife event from 6 PM to 10 PM for 21+ visitors to see the rainforest, planetarium, and more after dark.
Where: 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
Occupying 170,000 square feet in the SoMA neighborhood, including seven gallery floors and 45,000 square feet of free-to-enjoy art-filled public space, SFMOMA is one of the largest art museums in the country. It showcases over 33,000 artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries — local, international, and everything in between — favoring “the new, the challenging, and the unexpected” in painting, sculpture, architecture and design, media arts, photography, and film. In addition to major names like Henri Matisse and Frida Kahlo, SFMOMA is an excellent place to discover Bay Area artists whom the museum makes a point to collect and support.
Where: 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103
The best parks in San Francisco
Golden Gate Park
Running three miles east to west from the heart of San Francisco to the edge of the Pacific Ocean but a mere half-mile north to south, Golden Gate Park is a large rectangular public park that resembles Central Park in New York City but is roughly 20 percent larger. There are a number of attractions located inside the park, including the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and Kezar Stadium. There are also plenty of green spaces within the park, such as Hellman’s Hollow and Lindley Meadow, which in addition to being excellent places to picnic on a warm day are two sites of the popular annual music festivals Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
Military post turned national park, The Presidio is a sprawling park system in San Francisco that covers 1,500 acres beginning right across the Golden Gate Bridge. There are 24 miles of trails and 300 acres of forest within the park, many of which showcase views of the bridge and the San Francisco Bay. Top attractions within the park include Baker Beach, home of the very first Burning Man effigy; Civil War-era fortification that shares its name with a promontory that now opens to a legendary surf spot Fort Point; and grassy expanse Crissy Field. The presidio also hosts attractions such as a golf course, performing arts theater, bowling alley, and overnight accommodations at the Inn at the Presidio or the Lodge at the Presidio.
The best free things to do in San Francisco
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
If you only know one thing about San Francisco, it’s probably the ironically rust-red Golden Gate Bridge. Connecting the hilly Marin Headlands to San Francisco, spanning the wide-open shiny San Francisco Bay, the bridge is a beauty to behold — but it’s also a thrill to walk across. Approximately 1.7 miles one way, it takes approximately 30 minutes to walk across. The views are great from the other side, but if you’re planning on hiking in the Headlands or venturing into Marin County towns like Sausalito, you’ll need a car to navigate the highway.
Cruise down Lombard Street
Lombard Street is a main street in San Francisco with a famously crooked section. The entire street is about three miles long but the famous zig-zag block makes up just a small section, roughly eight switchbacks spanning 600 feet, between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street. Many tourists drive down, meaning traffic can get pretty backed up, but you can also walk the set of stairs on both sides, which makes it easier to take pictures.
Head to Ocean Beach
San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides, so you better believe there are some great beaches. Ocean Beach is the largest, stretching 3.5 miles along the Pacific and forming part of the city’s westernmost border. It’s a big — and sometimes brutal — surfer haunt with a wide sandy shore that’s also excellent for beach activities like sunbathing and kite-flying. At night, it’s common to see strings of bonfires lining the shore. Ocean Beach is also well connected to other free San Francisco landmarks including one end of Golden Gate Park, the disused Sutro Baths, and the Land’s End trailhead.
Hike the Crosstown Trail
San Francisco is one of the best cities in the country for urban hiking. There are several famous hikes, including Land’s End, Batteries to Bluffs, and Twin Peaks. But the ultimate walk is along the Crosstown Trail, a 17-mile route that connects all of the city’s green spaces. Whether you tackle the whole trail or do it in pieces, the Crosstown Trail is an excellent way to see a lot of San Francisco without spending a dime.
The best things to do with kids in San Francisco
The exploratorium is a fun, zany, interactive science center founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer. Originally located in the Palace of Fine Arts, it’s now at Pier 15 on The Embarcadero. There are over 600 exhibitions split between six galleries, which explore disciplines ranging from optics and anatomy to physics and geology. A hands-on and educational outing for kids, the Exploratorium is also fun for adults — even more so on Thursdays after dark when the museum becomes an 18+ venue complete with drinks and DJs.
Where: Pier 15 Embarcadero at, Green St, San Francisco, CA 94111
Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience
Chocolate factory site turned commercial complex, Ghirardelli Square has been a San Francisco landmark since 1862 and a National Register of Historic Places inductee since 1982. The square is home to several shops and restaurants, including three different Ghirardelli Chocolate storefronts: the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, Ghirardelli On-The-Go, and The Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience. More than just a chocolate shop, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience houses the largest pick-and-mix candy counter in the world, chocolate treats from sundaes to hot cocoas that you can enjoy in store, a chocolatier station where you can see chocolate-making in action, and first-rate views of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. It’s a delight to visit — whether or not you let your little ones indulge in all the sweets.
Where: 900 North Point St F301, San Francisco, CA 94109
The best things to do at night in San Francisco
See some live music
San Francisco’s status as a music city may have been forged by rock legends like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but the city has maintained its prolific music scene ever since. Concert venues like The Fillmore, The Warfield, Great American Music Hall, The Independent, Rickshaw Stop, and joint venture Cafe Du Nord and Swedish American Hall are to thank, ensuring that live music is available every night of the week, be it a major name or a cult-favorite indie band. Jazz enthusiasts also have their pick of venues, including Club Deluxe in The Haight and Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio in Hayes Valley.
Catch a comedy show
San Francisco’s comedy scene is no rival for that of New York City or Chicago, but it’s big enough that you can count on seeing some standup any night of the week. There are two main comedy clubs, Cobb’s and The Punch Line, as well as smaller venues like Milk Bar in The Haight that regularly stage standup shows and open-mic nights.
Essential restaurants in San Francisco
La Taq, as locals say, is one of two Mexican restaurants in the Mission District that’s credited with originating San Francisco’s signature burrito style. The restaurant’s carnitas burrito has been named America’s best more than once.
Where: 2889 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Good Luck Dim Sum
Good Luck Dim Sum is one of many dim sum spots on Clement Street in the Richmond District, which is sometimes referred to as “New Chinatown.” There’s usually a line outside the cash- and takeout-only restaurant, but it moves quickly, and the prices are outrageously generous.
Where: 736 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118
State Bird Provisions
This one-Michelin-star restaurant puts a different spin on dim sum with Asian-leaning California cuisine and family-style serving system. Sister restaurant and neighbor The Progress plates up equally outstanding dishes under the same unfussy fine-dining vision.
Where: 1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115
Lucca is a family-owned deli in the Marina District that’s been slinging hearty Italian sandwiches, prepared foods, and a wide variety of imported goods since 1929. Order a sub for pickup and go picnic at nearby Marina Green, Fort Mason, or Chrissy Field to avoid the usual line.
Where: 2120 Chestnut St, San Francisco, CA 94123
Swan Oyster Depot
Ever since Anthony Bourdain endorsed Swan Oyster Depot in “Parts Unknown” the Nob Hill seafood institution has become a target for locals and tourists alike, even though it’s been around since 1912. Get there early to snag a seat at the 18-seat counter so you can slurp down fresh oysters and crab backs. Bring cash.
Where: 1517 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Widely considered San Francisco’s best bakery, Tartine has three locations: the original bakery on Guerrero Street in the Mission, a manufactory less than a mile away, and an outpost by Golden Gate Park. Rustic country bread and other fresh loaves put the bakery on the map, but the croissants, morning buns, pastries, and sandwiches are equally worth the guaranteed wait.
Where: 600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, CA 94110
An old-school neighborhood joint in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy, Sotto Mare sports nautical decor to match its seafood-heavy menu. Heed the advice that’s highlighted on the menu and awning out front and order “the best damn crab cioppino” for two.
Where: 552 Green St, San Francisco, CA 94133
Tucked away on the top floor of the Japan Center mall in Japantown, Marufuku Ramen specializes in Hakata-style Tonotsu ramen. Rice bowls, small bites, and other ramen styles round out the menu, and the wooden minimalist interior is worth the wait to get a table.
Where: 1581 Webster St #235, San Francisco, CA 94115
Zuni’s roasted chicken for two — which is roasted in a two-story wood-fired brick oven that also serves as a decor piece — is the stuff of legends in San Francisco. The esteemed bistro on Market Street serves seasonal French- and Italian-inspired fare with a superb wine list to pair.
Where: 1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Golden Boy Pizza
Golden Boy Pizza serves square slices using a focaccia bread base in the self-proclaimed “San Francilian” style. It’s a North Beach favorite that’s been around since 1978.
Where: 542 Green St, San Francisco, CA 94133
A vegetarian restaurant that’s a favorite of many meat-eating San Franciscans, Greens has a prime perch on the water in Fort Mason. It skews pricey for a relatively casual restaurant, but dishes like grilled cabbage shawarma, cauliflower griddle cakes, and wild mushroom larb make it worthwhile. On Saturdays and Sundays, the brunch service is particularly popular.
Where: Fort Mason Center, Building A, 2 Marina Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94123
A must-eat Mexican restaurant of a different persuasion than most of the casual eateries in the Mission District, Californios is a pricey SoMa spot with two Michelin stars and a nightly tasting menu featuring contemporary California-Mexican cuisine made with seasonal ingredients.
Where: 355 11th St, San Francisco, CA 94103
One of many renowned restaurants in NoPa, Che Fico is a buzzy Cal-Italian taverna with two levels: the trendy upstairs spot that popularized the Che Fico name, and downstairs sister restaurant Che Fico Alimentari that’s more casual but no less delicious. Pasta is handmade, cocktails are fantastic, and the digs are perfect for date night or group dining.
Where: 838 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117
Hog Island Oyster Company
Hog Island is a beloved local oyster company with a 160-acre farm in Tomales Bay, roughly 1.5 hours north of San Francisco in West Marin, and multiple restaurants in the Bay Area. One of those restaurants is located in the city’s Ferry Building, which also hosts a Saturday farmer’s market in the plaza outside where Hog Island has a booth.
Where: Ferry Building, #11, San Francisco, CA 94111
Chinese restaurant San Tung lays claim to some of the best chicken wings in San Francisco — dry fried, spicy, and delicious. The rest of the menu is extensive, but the long lines at this Inner Sunset hotspot are primarily due to the wings — schedule an order for takeout to enjoy in nearby Golden Gate Park if you don’t want to risk a long line.
Where: 1031 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122
Essential bars in San Francisco
True Laurel is a deceptively chi-chi cocktail bar in the Mission. Creative drinks with catchy names like “Seville Disobedience” and “Quincess Bride” rotate regularly, with exactly the sort of refined dinner and brunch menus you’d expect from the team behind top-end New American restaurant Lazy Bear, which is just 10 minutes away on foot.
Where: 753 Alabama St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Say what you will about tiki bars, San Francisco has some of the best. In fairness, Smuggler’s Cove bills itself more eloquently as a “top rum and exotic cocktails destination,” but if you’re a sucker for tropical drinks and pirate-ship-style decor, Smuggler’s Cove delivers like none other.
Where: 650 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Trick Dog is exactly as hip as you’d expect a warehouse turned cocktail bar in the Mission to be. It’s the sort of place that describes its drinks list as “one part poetry anthology, two parts cocktail menu.” Everyone else describes it as a haven for great drinks, an easygoing ambiance, and a food menu that can satisfy both self-proclaimed foodies and basic munchies.
Where: 3010 20th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
The Alembic brings a touch of class to Haight Street, with handcrafted cocktails, elevated bar food, and intimate but big-enough environs. It’d make a great stop during date night, but at its core The Alembic is a neighborhood bar that’s perfect for any old night out.
Where: 1725 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117
El Rio is a large LGBTQ+ bar on Mission Street with a giant patio that makes good use of the space it has with an events calendar that includes everything from drag-queen-hosted karaoke to throwback dance parties to reproductive justice fundraisers. All are welcome as long as they’re kind and open-minded, and the crowd skews diverse and inclusive.
3158 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
First opened in 1907, and restored in 2010, this historic bar has a supremely central location between North Beach, Chinatown, and the Financial District. For an old-school spot it’s never stuffy, with live jazz every night and free lunch with every two-cocktail order on Fridays to keep things interesting.
Where: 155 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
The Page is a dive bar with character that’s named for the cross street where it’s located on Divisadero Street — Divis once you speak SF — in the Lower Haight. In addition to cocktails, wine, and 23 beers on tap, there are pool tables, foosball tables, and ample outdoor seating if you prefer that to the leather booths inside.
Where:298 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA 94117
Casual yet classy, High Treason is a wine bar in the Inner Richmond with a sleek interior and a heck of a good selection of wines, from red, white, rose, and orange to sparkling, natural, and dessert. There are other drinks and food, too, and even games to borrow for a good time.
Where: 443 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118
This botanical-themed bar in Lower Nob Hill is an oasis of greenery and innovative cocktails that prides itself on not taking reservations and not having WiFi. Stop by on a sunny day for a drink on the plant-filled patio to really lean into the Propagation vibe.
Where: 895 Post St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Royal Cuckoo is a bar unlike any other. One could describe it as a cocktail dive, where regulars come to sip expertly crafted drinks made with all sorts of bitters in a dark and eclectic setting. Vintage vinyl set the vibe although live blues and jazz performances are also common.
Where: 3202 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Where to stay in San Francisco
We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
A Nob Hill landmark, the Fairmont is a San Francisco icon dating back to 1907. Guests of the hotel are just 15 minutes from Union Square and 25 minutes from Fisherman’s Wharf on foot. Countless famous guests, from royalty to celebrities, have graced the Fairmont’s elegant rooms — 606 in total — and two award-winning restaurants.
Where: 950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108
Hotel Drisco is a boutique hotel in pricey Pacific Heights that’s designed to feel like an Edwardian hideaway. The neighborhood is equal parts residential and lively, with excellent restaurants and shops within walking distance. But with nightly wine and hors d’oeuvres receptions, guests will enjoy their time spent at the hotel just as much.
Where: 2901 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94115
Hotel del Sol
This vibrant yet folksy spot in the Marina District, located just two blocks up from buzzy Chestnut Street, got the memo that retro motor lodges are once again cool. The rooms are clean and colorful, the neighborhood views are unbeatable, and the pool is perfect for family vacationers. With rooms for as little as $76 per night, Hotel del Sol is hands down one of San Francisco’s best budget accommodations.
Where: 3100 Webster St, San Francisco, CA 94123