Whatever pleasures you might covet, you’re sure to find something to quell them in San Francisco. From world-class museums to tempting shopping spots, and leafy landscape escapes to plush global eateries, the “City by the Bay” has what it takes to captivate locals and out-of-towners alike. All that is deeply padded by distinct visual delights, like the artfully designed Victorian houses, captivating rolling hills, and the eye-popping Golden Gate Bridge, which majestically crosses the teal waters of the Pacific Ocean.
You’ll be spoilt for a choice of things to see and do once you arrive in San Francisco, so narrowing down where to begin can be a tough task. To help you experience this beauty of a destination, we’ve rounded up the 18 incredible bucket-list places you must visit in the city.
From iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge to noteworthy hidden gems like the Cable Car Museum, here are the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco.
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The 18 Best San Francisco Attractions
Golden Gate Bridge
No matter what you’re plans are in San Francisco, spare some time to marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge. Opened in 1937, this iconic bridge is known for its two 746-foot tall towers, sweeping main cables, and a signature orange color named “International Orange”. The Golden Gate majestically crosses the strait of the Golden Gate from San Francisco’s Presidio to the Marin headlands, and it’s considered an Art-Deco architectural masterpiece.
To experience the Golden Gate Bridge at its best, visitors can either marvel at it from viewpoints like the Fort Point National Historic Site, Baker Beach, or Fort Baker, or bike across the bridge, which offers the most heart-warming views of the San Francisco Bay area.
Golden Gate Park
To flee the crowds and frolic in wide-open green expanses, head over to Golden Gate Park. Encompassing over 1,000 acres of land, the park — the third most visited in the USA — is filled with manicured gardens, dreamy lakes, meadows, and groves, making it a prime spot for nature lovers.
The Golden Gate Park is also home to an array of must-visit attractions that are a feast for sore eyes. Bucket-list sites in the park include the Conservatory of Flowers, a Victorian building that houses almost 2,000 species of aquatic and tropical plants, including a 100-year-old giant Imperial Philodendron.
There, you’ll also find the San Francisco Botanical Garden, which harbors nearly 9000 different kinds of plants from around the world.
Another dreamy place in the park is The Japanese Tea Garden. This is the oldest tea garden in the United States, and it welcomes visitors with well-manicured plants, Japanese maples, cherry trees, a traditional tea house, and a towering pagoda.
Curious fact: At 1,017 acres, the Golden Gate Park is about 20% larger than New York’s Central Park.
Whether you’re spending a day or a weekend in San Francisco, take some time to stroll around Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Placed on the northern waterfront of San Francisco, this busy area is praised for boasting an array of family-friendly attractions, making it a prime spot for taking the kids.
A bucket list site in Fisherman’s Wharf is PIER 39, a 45-acre waterfront complex that offers scenic views of Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island. The pier is home to the two-level San Francisco Carousel, decorated with 1800 lights and 32 animals to ride, and to the adorable sea lions who mysteriously took over the docks after the 1989 earthquake.
Families exploring Fisherman’s Wharf will also love visiting the Aquarium of the Bay, home to aquatic animals from the San Francisco Bay area, such as green moray eels, wolf eels, juvenile swell sharks, and the orange garibaldi, which is the marine state fish of California.
Did the hunger strike? Then head over to the iconic Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory to curb your sugar cravings, to Buena Vista Cafe for the most famous Irish Coffee in San Francisco, and to The Godmother for the most delicious fish tacos in the city.
The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square
Regarded as one of the most Instagrammable places in San Francisco, the Painted Ladies are eye-popping Victorian houses featuring unique colors and details, including classical columns, spindles, balustrades, and gingerbread-style gables.
Curious fact: also known as “Postcard Row”, the Painted Ladies were featured on the opening credits of the ’90s tv show, Full House.
The largest Chinatown outside of Asia, San Francisco’s Chinatown is filled with buzz and vibrancy. Wherever you walk, you’ll stumble upon bright neon signs, glowing red lanterns, narrow alleys, and quaint flower shops design. There, you can also tantalize your tastebuds by feasting on Chinese dishes in restaurants like Kam Po Kitchen, famous for its roast duck with rice, and the Dim Sum Bistro praised for its life-changing assorted dumplings.
The Legion of Honor
Art enthusiasts and culture buffs can’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Legion of Honor, considered one of the best museums in San Francisco. While snooping around the museum’s galleries, you’ll come across a world-class collection of precious objects, artifacts, and European masterpieces from the 14th to the early 20th centuries by artists such as Fra Angelico and Claude Monet.
Located in Lincoln Park, the Legion of Honor museum focuses on treasured works of art including Rodin’s Thinker and Monet’s Water Lilies. There are also antiquities received by Spreckels from Elisabeth, the Queen of Greece, ancient objects like Egyptian mummies, and carved ivories from the ancient site of Nimrud.
Approximately 1.25 miles offshore from San Francisco, in the San Francisco Bay, lies the famous Alcatraz Island. Established in 1934, the site was used as a fort, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary that was home to some of the US’s most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone.
While touring the abandoned prison, also known as “The Rock”, visitors will hear stories of American incarceration, as well as significant events such as when, in 1969, Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for 19 months in the name of freedom and Native American civil rights.
Alcatraz is also home to a myriad of other points of interest, all managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. After exploring the abandoned prison, make sure to visit the Alcatraz Island Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. Also, take the opportunity to walk around the island to discover its lush gardens and have close encounters with several migrating seabirds who visit the place. A must-visit historic landmark in San Francisco!
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Did the dazzling artworks at the Legion of Honor leave you wanting more? Then make sure to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Regarded as one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the United States, the institution is home to over 30,000 works, including pieces by Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Zaha Hadid.
Don’t leave San Francisco without marveling at the city’s breathtaking sunset from Twin Peaks. Accessed through a 0.7-mile trail and located 922 feet above sea level, this 64-acre hilltop park offers 360º scenic vistas of the Bay Area and the San Francisco skyline.
Palace Of Fine Arts
Located in the Marina District of San Francisco, the Palace Of Fine Arts will immediately transport you to another era. This monumental structure was built for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition to exhibit works of art and was artfully designed to evoke the decaying ruin of ancient Rome. Surrounded by lush gardens, the building boasts an alluring Greco-Roman rotunda and colonnades and it has been featured in big-name movies such as Vertigo, by Alfred Hitchcock.
While San Francisco is best known for its urban atmosphere, the city also boasts an array of delightful beaches that are perfect for those seeking to spend some time outdoors.
One of the best beaches in San Francisco is Ocean Beach, which features a 3.5-mile stretch of white sand where you can sit down and enjoy the most show-stopping views of the Pacific Ocean.
You can also spend some time at the famous Baker Beach, located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This mile-long sandy shoreline stretches beneath craggy cliffs in the southwest corner of the Presidio and treats visitors to show-stopping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Ocean, the Marin Headlands, and Lands End.
Just remember that San Francisco’s beaches are not ideal for swimming due to their dangerous riptides and currents.
The centrally-located Union Square is as much about tempting shopping spots as it is about picture-perfect places. Known for its captivating stores — some of the best in San Francisco —the square features green spaces where urbanites can take five on a bench to simply watch (and photograph) the city’s action unfold around them.
Travelers seeking a top-notch shopping experience in San Francisco must spend a few hours roaming around the bustling Union Square. Nestled in Downtown San Francisco, the area is smothered top to bottom with a myriad of stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom, as well as high-end shops such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Versace, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Giorgio Armani.
Aside from being considered one of the best places to go shopping in San Francisco, Union Square also has green spaces where pedestrians can sit and relax, as well as a selection of delicious restaurants ranging from Italian to Thai.
San Francisco Zoo
Want to treat the little ones to a fun day in San Francisco? Then take them to the San Francisco Zoo, which comprises 100 acres of gardens that are inhabited by more than 2,000 exotic, endangered, and rescued animals from all around the world. While strolling around the zoo, the little ones will be able to have wild encounters with creatures such as giraffes, zebras, grizzly bears, and gorillas. The zoo is also home to the Lipman Family Lemur Forest, the largest outdoor lemur habitat in the country, and Penguin Island, home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins outside of the wild.
California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is another gem located within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This prestigious institution is home to the Kimball Natural History Museum,
Which is home to more than 46 million specimens, making it one of the largest in the world. Treasures you’ll find at the museum include an 87-foot-long blue whale skeleton, a 4-ton cross-section of a redwood tree, 400 different types of gems and minerals, and an earthquake simulator that’ll transport the kids to the epicenter of the powerful 1906 and 1989 temblors.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
San Francisco’s cable car system is the last of its kind in the United States, given the title of a National Historic Landmark in 1964. If you want to learn everything about these iconic vehicles, which became a true landmark of San Francisco, visit the Cable Car Museum. Set within a cable car barn and powerhouse in the Nob Hill neighborhood, the museum is home to a collection of historic cable cars, as well as various mechanical devices, photographs, and detailed models.
One of the museum’s major highlights is three antique cable cars from the 1870s — the Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car, the No. 54 trailer, and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car.
Angel Island State Park
Angel Island is the largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay area and was once a hunting and gathering destination for the local native tribes, and a safe refuge stop for Spanish explorers. Considered one of the best day trips from San Francisco, the island offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Richmond Bridge, Tiburon, and the San Francisco bay.
The island is also praised for its immense natural beauty. There, you’ll come across a dazzling array of plant species from the coast of California, including typical grassy chaparral, coast-live oak trees, and native grasses.
This 740 acres site can be explored through a variety of scenic hiking trails, as well as through a tram tour that includes an audio history of the island.
Access to the island is by private boat or public ferry from San Francisco, Tiburon, or Vallejo.
Telegraph Hill is a small residential district on the northeastern side of San Francisco. The crown jewel of the area is the Coit Tower, a slender white concrete building that has been an icon of San Francisco’s skyline since 1933. Visit the observation deck of this 210-food slender building to indulge in spectacular views of the city, including landmark attractions such as the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.
After checking the stunning views from Coit Tower, head over to Filbert Street or Greenwich Street steps to catch a glimpse of the flock of feral parrots that have been calling this area home for years.
Also known as the “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street is famous for its eight sharp hairpin turns framed by Russian Hill homes and well-manicured gardens. The street stretches from The Presidio east to The Embarcadero, and thanks to its quirky aesthetic, it’s photographed by millions of people every year.
You can either drive through the crooked curves or walk down the stairs located on both sides of Lombard Street. From the highest part of Lombard Street, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge, and Coit Tower.
What is the most visited place in San Francisco?
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, with its orange arches rising above the Pacific Ocean, is the most visited tourist attraction in San Francisco.
What you should not miss in San Francisco?
When traveling to San Francisco, make sure you visit the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Union Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
What is the most famous thing about San Francisco?
San Francisco is famous for many things, but mostly for being home to iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and the Victorian houses of Alamo Street. The city is also known for its stellar museums, tempting shopping spots, and multicultural neighborhoods.
What is the best time for visiting San Francisco?
September is the best time to visit San Francisco to San Francisco, as it’s when the city experiences the “Indian Summer” — an unseasonably warm, dry weather that happens during autumn in some places in the northern hemisphere.
What are the top attractions in San Francisco?
The top attractions in San Francisco are:
- Golden Gate Bridge;
- Golden Gate Park;
- Fisherman’s Wharf;
- The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square;
- The Legion of Honor;
- Alcatraz Island;
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art;
- Twin Peaks;
- Palace Of Fine Arts;
- The Beaches;
- Union Square;
- San Francisco Zoo;
- California Academy of Sciences;
- San Francisco Cable Car Museum;
- Angel Island State Park;
- Telegraph Hill;
- Lombard Street.
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