40 Best Things to Do in San Francisco
The italics mean that yes, it's that time for a guest writer again. I enjoyed having my friend Krista Gray share her top travel apps last month so much that I asked her back to share another thing she knows well, San Francisco. Krista seems to have made it her mission to explore every inch of San Francisco, leaving no stone unturned, and this post is proof of just that. So today she's sharing her take on the best things to do in San Francisco.
The City by the Bay is special for so many reasons, including the diverse range of people, insanely gorgeous landscape, and range of culture and activities. Well perhaps you can say that about a lot of the major metros in America, but San Francisco is different. Let me show you. Here, I share a sample of some of my favorites and the best things to do in San Francisco.
Best Things to Do in San Francisco
1. Be part of the show at the Castro Theater. The historic Castro Theatre is smack-dab in the center of one of San Francisco’s best-known neighborhoods, the Castro District, and the sing-a-longs that take place here simply can’t be missed. Sing-a-longs not your jam? No problem. The awesome San Francisco theater also hosts inspiring speakers and other special events.
2. Taste test at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building may just be heaven on Earth. While official tours are sometimes available on sites like LivingSocial, a self-guided tour is your best bet so you won't be left wanting. Do you care to dip endless pieces of bread at Stonehouse California Olive Oil? Go for it. Perhaps try every California almond until you’ve tried ‘em all? Your choice. Don’t miss the rest of the San Francisco food staples as you make your way through that includes Blue Bottle Coffee, Cowgirl Creamery, Prather Ranch Meat Co., and Pepples, which may just be the best vegan donuts you’ll ever taste in your life.
3. Take a trip to Coit Tower. Intended at one time to be San Francisco’s tallest peak, Coit Tower was erected to honor firefighters from any vantage point. Today, it’s still a fantastic sight to see, as well as a great place to capture the city’s Financial District - especially at night. Just be sure to put on your walking shoes if you plan on walking to it and taking the stairs to the top.
4. "Brown bag it" at the Seward Street Slides. This isn’t your average picnic lunch! Perched in the hills above the Castro, the Seward Street Slides is one of San Francisco's most underrated attractions. Crafted as narrow concrete tubes, you’ll pick up speed as you coast down on the sack that once held your lunch. Once you catch wind, you’ll be off like a rocket, so be prepared to nail that Olympic-style landing.
5. Brave the line at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. All pizza-loving people should experience the delight that is Tony’s, a North Beach neighborhood favorite pizza joint in San Francisco. With New York, Roman, and Sicilian pizza (and a limited number of award-winning Margherita pies) available daily, there’s truly something for everyone to enjoy. The bread and dipping sauces served beforehand aren’t too shabby, either.
6. Spend a day in Dolores Park. What is perhaps San Francisco’s most loved park, Dolores Park boasts some of the most peculiar (yes, peculiar) views you’ll see anywhere, from people dressed up in costume to pets, who are also donned in costume (and not just on Halloween). Easter brings an entirely different spectacle, complete with a wheel rolling event and what's referred to as the Hunky Jesus Contest.
7. Boat the bay. Nope, sailing experience isn’t required to get out on the Bay. Options for water transportation range from standard ferries to small, independently operated boats. You'll find most of these across from Joe’s Crab Shack near Fisherman’s Wharf, where for as little as $15, you’ll sail through the San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and around Alcatraz Island. Plus, you can often bring your own food and drink!
8. Philosophize at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. It can be hard to find quiet in a bustling metro, but the Palace of Fine Arts offers solitude during evening hours. The glowing dome is part of a beautiful scene with a pond, swans, grassy area, and bevy of benches. Whether you’re with your special someone or aiming for some quality time ridin' solo, you’re not likely to leave feeling unimpressed at the Palace of Fine Arts, which feels more like a retreat you'd find along the water of Europe and not America.
9. Break a sweat on the Lyon Street Steps. Sure, you could take any number of unique, alternative exercise classes in the upscale Marina neighborhood or you could just hit to the streets at the Lyon Street Steps. Nestled between the Presidio and famed residence of romance writer Danielle Steele, the multiple flights of stairs are a pretty place to huff and puff your way to a more fit state.
10. Have Bourbon for breakfast (seriously). Ever wondered what it would be like to make a bowl of cornflakes mixed with bourbon? Well it's much more appetizing than you may think! Get a sense of how good it can be in frozen form at Humphrey Slocombe, a Northern California staple, and one of the best ice cream shops in San Francisco. Secret Breakfast is one of dozens of unique flavors available for consumption at the Ferry Building or Mission Street location.
11. Learn about Fort Point. Often overlooked, this former military base, Fort Point, is a cool place to learn about San Francisco’s role in 20th century battles. Not to mention it makes for an even more awesome structure to climb. With several flights of stairs inside, you’ll be able to ascend to various floors and the roof, which has a spectacular view of the city skyline and Golden Gate Bridge.
12. Bike the bridge. I'm just going to be honest here. This is what I believe is the single best way to experience and capture the Golden Gate Bridge. Grab a bike at Blazing Saddles and ride along the famous Marina waterfront, Crissy Field, and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only will you score amazing photos, but the ride is a beautiful journey (and mostly flat, which is hard to come by in San Francisco) and more memorable than just about every other bridge you'll ever ride across.
13. Have brunch at Sam’s Anchor Cafe. Life is short, so eat brunch. Is that not how the saying goes? Join in the flock of boat shoe and aviator-wearing locals boarding the next ferry to Sam’s, a lively brunch spot just outside the city in Tiburon. The seaside location is prime for catching rays, and the bottomless mimosas are sure to put some pep in your step for the rest of the day.
14. Admire the houseboats.Floating homes are something you won't see in many waterfront cities, so make it a point to spend some time checking out San Francisco's houseboats. Located just north of Sausalito’s downtown center, they make a perfect post-brunch pit stop, and some of them you can even rent. Cue overplayed rap song.
15. Paddle among the seals. How many other places can you spend a day paddling around channels alongside seals? You can do that right in San Francisco with Sea Trek, which offers kayaks and a range of stand-up paddleboards, along with experienced instruction for first timers. You can paddle just about anywhere along the coast, but you can't just paddle anywhere alongside seals like you can in the San Francisco Bay.
16. See Sausalito by foot. San Francisco’s quaint northern sister town is as much of a getaway that you can get this close to the city. Just 10 minutes across the Golden Gate Bridge by car and easily accessible by ferry, Sausalito has a completely different vibe, reminiscent of a European resort town. Once you’re there, be sure to explore the coastline by foot, stopping to admire Vina del Mar Park and enjoying ice cream at Lappert’s. Want to spend the night? Casa Madrona is known for its luxe accommodations.
17. Treat yourself on Valencia Street. San Francisco is no shopping center city. Instead, you'll find the Mission District, which is home to some of San Francisco’s best shopping, with boutiques that specialize in niche and handmade goods. Among the list of my top San Francisco shopping picks is Love and Luxe, Paxton Gate, and Therapy. More likely to treat your taste buds? Then hit up Craftsman and Wolves (order the Rebel Within, a savory muffin with a soft cooked egg inside), Tartine Bakery, and Dandelion Chocolate.
18. Have Happy Hour in Hayes Valley. Hayes Valley is a neat neighborhood in a convenient location near Market Street, which makes it ideal for after-office drinks. Brass Tacks offers a laid-back vibe with craft cocktails while Absinthe is a prime pick for a drink with a side of French fare. Find yourself out late? Pop by Noir, a lounge with craft beers, cocktails from the golden era, and a screening room that shows old movies.
19. Appreciate bridge-to-bridge views at Twin Peaks. San Francisco’s landscape is nothing short of picturesque, and the best place to see it is from the top of Twin Peaks, where you can literally see it all. Hike or drive to the tip-top, which stands above San Francisco where you can pick out the Financial District, Castro (you’ll see that big rainbow flag), North Beach, Alcatraz Island, and much more.
20. Catch a show in the Stern Grove. A small, seemingly random forest, the Stern Grove is a unique wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts. The picturesque grove is home to a number of outdoor events, including the Stern Grove Music Festival, which brings live tunes in the summer, with past acts ranging from Anita Baker to Carlos Santana.
21. Spend the day inside Golden Gate Park. Perhaps this is a no-brainer among the best things to do in San Francisco. But did you know that Golden Gate Park is larger than New York City’s storied Central Park? The vast space makes it a cinch to enjoy an entire day either outside or inside, from exploring the many trails to visiting some of the main attractions. You have your choice of some of San Francisco's best museums and attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, DeYoung Museum, and Japanese Tea Garden. Don’t miss the Conservatory of Flowers and the picturesque park windmill while you’re there.
22. Go thrifting in The Haight. Perhaps best known for the hippie movement of the 1970s, Haight-Ashbury continues to be a mainstay for free thinkers and eclectic fashion. Arguably the best place to score second-hand finds, the historic neighborhood is home to Haight-Ashbury Vintage, Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads, Wasteland, and Held Over, just to name a few of its great San Francisco boutique shops. Looking to unload stuff you don’t want anymore? You can do that here too.
23. Go photo-boothing in Japantown. This isn't your everyday photo booth, but rather a photo shop with numerous photo booths. Who wouldn’t want a tangible memory from an authentic Japanese photobooth? Pika Pika is the place to create yours, complete with classic kawaii color backgrounds, props, and cute little animals that makes every other photo booth pale in comparison.
24. Drink wine at the movie theater. What’s better than a great flick? A great flick with a glass of wine, of course! Japantown’s Sundance Kabuki Theater offers both, with a range of popular screenings and your favorite beer, wine, and spirits. On a nice night, you can take the experience to the next level, literally, by making use of the roof deck. Best movie date ever?
25. Visit the world famous sea lions.Pier 39 is pretty much what it’s cracked up to be, decked out with tourist shops and largely overpriced chain eateries. But when was the last time you visited a pier where sea lions hung out with you on the pier? Pier 39 is worth a trip for these colorful San Francisco locals alone, though take your snaps quick as they may be cute to look at but their aroma is anything but cute!
26. See the REAL "Full House". Spoiler alert: Contrary to popular belief, the actual Full House home (you know, the one the Tanner family called home) isn’t among the Painted Ladies at Alamo Square shown in the opening credits. Though painted a different color today, you can still see where DJ and Steve shared a kiss on the stoop at Broderick Street.
27. Try ‘the toast’. If it's not wonuts or cronuts, then it's some other food trend, and the latest food trend in San Francisco is a controversial $4 piece of toast. Those willing to shell out a few bucks for a slice of bread should beeline for The Mill, a NoPa coffee shop that offers thick slices of toast topped with cinnamon, sugar, fruit, nut butter, and a variety of other fresh ingredients. It makes your mom's toast look like breadcrumbs.
28. Splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime meal. Gary Danko, The Slanted Door, State Bird Provisions, and the list goes on. Choices are far from limited, thanks to the number of foodie-loving folks among San Francisco's restaurant scene. The city’s most popular spots require reservations far in advance, but local insiders have been known to use TaskRabbit, Reserve, and other similar apps to snag a last-minute reservation.
29. Get lit up on the Embarcadero. No, not that kind of lit up. Pick your place along the Embarcadero for where to view The Bay Lights, such as Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta, which has been a smashing success after opening with a ton hype in 2013. The tiny Spanish stop is perfectly positioned on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, prime position for viewing The Bay Lights. Bonus points that you can do so while noshing on tasty tapas and a warm chocolate cake for dessert.
30. Go to the top of the city on a weekday. Not as inaccessible as some might imagine (due to being much busier on weekends), The Top of The Mark at Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel is a dreamy place to spend a random weekday evening. Not only will you avoid most tourists, but you’ll have a great chance at scoring a window seat, perched just above the city’s jaw-dropping skyline at sunset.
31. Practice yoga in a cathedral: One of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets, Grace Cathedral’s weekly yoga session is an om-worthy experience all yogis should have. Find your inner peace inside the gorgeous church at the top of Nob Hill, which promises to be an entirely new kind of namaste.
32. Indulge in insanely fresh, local, healthy food in the Marina. The young and fit love to dine in the Marina, and the neighborhood has catered to their fresh tastes with a smattering of places to get a top-notch salad and other healthy entrees. If you’re ready to bite the bullet and join in (or simply need some greens in your life), be sure to stop by Blue Barn, The Plant Cafe, or Seed + Salt.
33. Shop ’til you drop on Fillmore. Featuring high-end shopping without the hustle and bustle of downtown, Fillmore Street offers carefully curated mainstream boutiques and well-known designer shops. Rebecca Minkoff, Alice & Olivia, Steven Alan, Johnathan Adler, and Benefit Cosmetics are clustered together in a few short blocks, along with Joie, Marc Jacobs, and Vince.
34. Chase the sunset at Lands End. This west side story is one of sunset-colored hues, best viewed on a short walk along the Land’s End Trail. The three-mile roundtrip trek provides glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge, rugged coastline, and if you’re game to tackle extra stairs, the Labyrinth, at Eagle Point. The Sutro Baths are the ultimate end point, with rock-filled seascapes that California dreams are made of.
35. Say hi to Yoda. Star Wars lovers rejoice, Yoda is here! The Presidio, one of San Francisco’s beloved National Parks, is home to Lucasfilm Ltd., and the Yoda Fountain is one of the city’s neatest, yet overlooked, sights. The impeccably maintained property is also home to a quaint pond and quiet Starbucks (a hard to find sight in its own right)!
36. Cool down with a mint mojito at Philz. City dwellers love strong coffee, and Philz Coffee often tops the list of locals’ favorites. Be sure to taste the Mint Mojito, a mix of fresh mint leaves mixed with delightful dairy. Jonesing to feel like a real local? Order it with ice, and take it outside to enjoy in the sun (or fog).
37. Treasure hunt at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire. Get your flea market on at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire, a monthly flea market that happens just across the Bay Bridge. One of the country’s largest markets with more than 300 independent sellers, the flea market has everything from art and books to furniture and decor. If you're not in town for it on the first Sunday of the month, then there’s also Treasure Island Flea and the Alemany Flea.
38. Take a hike, literally. Two of the many things that sets San Francisco apart from other cities is its great views and urban adventure. For the best views, head up to the Marin Headlands or Mount Tamalpais, where you’ll be atop some of the region’s tallest peaks with views of San Francisco and beyond.
39. Go on a dim sum crawl. San Francisco’s enormous Asian population (home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia) has brought authentic culture and food to the city, including some of the best dim sum dishes in the U.S. Make the most of the experience in Chinatown, where Delicious Dim Sum and Good Mong Kok Bakery make delicious food from family recipes.
40. Swing above the city. It should come as no surprise that San Francisco has a secret rope swing above the bustling metropolis. Just as unique is the name of where you can find it, Billy Goat Hill. The best time to visit is in the early morning hours (with no one in sight), when you’ll be able to swing as long as you like perched above San Francisco.
What do you consider the best things to do in San Francisco?