Things to Do in San Francisco – a Complete Guide
Did you know that a quarter of all SF’s residents were born outside of California, while more than a third were born outside the US? If you were wondering what makes this city so appealing to outsiders, you should check out the most exciting things to do in San Francisco and see for yourself what’s all the fuss about. And if you, too, happen to be moving to San Francisco in the near future or considering it, you’ll be glad to hear that it has a lot to offer for everyone.
Being the cultural hub of Northern California, SF boasts must-visit places that, among others, make it so popular worldwide. It also offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature, spend quality time in the open, go to some unique spots, learn about other cultures, etc. The list could go on and on, so clearly it won’t be hard to avoid relocation depression.
Since you’re probably already overwhelmed by the sheer number of places to explore and things to do in this magnificent city, we would like to help you out and narrow your choice down. Every corner hides something intriguing and worth further exploration. For the time being, it’s best that you learn more about some of the major attractions and things to do that you shouldn’t miss upon your move there. Let’s get started.
Spend a Day at the Waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf offers a lot more than a beautiful waterfront where you can unwind while enjoying the beautiful view. This alone would be enough to make this destination worth visiting, so it should be even higher on your list when we add other attractions you can enjoy here.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a historic district where you can find some of the city’s major attractions and well-known sites, such as the National Maritime Museum, Anchorage Square, the Aquarium of the Bay, and many others.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also an excellent destination to enjoy delicious food and spend a pleasant evening in one of its many dining places. There are various restaurants where you can find fresh fish caught that very day. If you’re looking for a more casual option, there’s also a variety of food stands offering fresh Dungeness crab, for instance. Don’t miss to taste delicious Irish coffee, too – head to Buena Vista Café, the first place to serve Irish coffee in the entire country.
Go to Pier 39 to Have Fun Watching Sea Lions
One of the best-known attractions in Fisherman’s Wharf is, without a doubt, Pier 39, one of SF’s most visited destinations. Some time ago, this was the main place where boaters would dock, but at some point, they were outnumbered – by sea lions. Such a large group of sea lions settled here that they decided to move the boaters and let these adorable animals take their space. Ever since, people have been coming to Pier 39 just to watch the sea lions basking in the sun. Even when you’re feeling down, these playful animals will cheer you up.
While the sea lions are undoubtedly the most popular attraction at Pier 39, they’re not the only reason why you should check it out. Some of the best restaurants in San Francisco are also located here. Not only will you eat delicious food in any of them, but you also get to enjoy the magnificent views of some of the SF’s major landmarks, including Angel Island and Alcatraz.
Spend Time in Magnificent SF Parks
When you want to take a break from all the hard work or you simply feel the need to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend some time in nature, there will be plenty of options to choose from. SF boasts parks and other open spaces where you can recharge your batteries. In fact, most of them feature various attractions, too, so you can do more than walk around or have a picnic.
Compared to other US cities, SF has the greatest number of parks, covering a wide range from the most popular ones offering a variety of attractions and recreational activities to the less-known ones where you can find peace and quiet, and everything else in between. If you’re moving with kids and you want to take them to a playground, there’ll be plenty of options for that, too.
All in all, no matter what you might feel like doing, you’ll find some public open space worth exploring. If you don’t know where to start, here are a couple of top recommended parks to consider.
Explore Every Corner of Golden Gate Park
Here’s a good example of how diverse attractions a park can feature. Covering more than 1,000 acres, Golden Gate Park is more of a blend of open green spaces, gardens, museums, and art. You can row a boat, ride a carousel, and smell exotic flowers.
One of the most exotic corners is the Japanese Tea Garden, a magical place where you can sip Japanese tea in the tea house and immerse yourself in complete tranquility. This is the oldest Japanese garden in the country. To avoid large crowds, it’s advisable that you go there early in the morning and get the real feeling. Be sure to walk around the garden, too, and see native Japanese plants, as well.
Numerous walking and biking trails meander, creating a labyrinth of awe-inspiring attractions on every corner. There are so many wonders that it’s best that you take a whole day to explore them. And then one more. Even when you explore them all, there is no doubt you’ll be coming back, as it’s impossible to get tired of such a charming place.
Take a Stroll Down the Presidio
The Presidio is another fantastic outdoor hub and one of SF’s exquisite destinations. Whether you feel like exploring natural areas, experience art, and culture, let the stunning Pacific Ocean views take your breath away, or go hiking – you can do all that and more in the Presidio.
The Presidio has a rich history dating back to the 18th century. To learn more about it, don’t hesitate to stop by the Presidio Officers’ Club. You can also attend various outdoor events, including music festivals. Or you’d like to enjoy the view from one of its several top-notch restaurants? You can do that, too. Your visit will be even more enjoyable and memorable if you stay until nighttime and enjoy the night lights of the Palace of Fine Arts.
Another great way to experience the Presidio is to explore its forested area and creeks. There are many fantastic trails, so you can go hiking, too, or birdwatching, if that strikes your fancy. If you’re not up for an adventure, you can still have a wonderful time tossing a Frisbee with your children or just enjoying a picnic.
Enjoy the View from Grandview Park
A small, elevated park located in the Sunset District, this one is an excellent destination to enjoy a view at a great part of SF from 666 feet elevation. Usually called the Turtle Hill by the locals, this park offers more than just jaw-dropping vistas. You can also find some rare plants here, including the endangered Franciscan wallflower, dune tansy, and others. The very top of Turtle Hill is crowned with Eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress trees.
Climbing to the Turtle Hill alone is quite a good exercise. Even though you might get tired after walking up those steep hiking trails, the experience will be worth the effort. You’ll see that for yourself when you get to the top. There is a bench there where you can catch your breath and then relax and enjoy the views before you.
This is not a major tourist attraction, so you shouldn’t worry about the crowds, especially in the morning. There will probably be only locals who come here to run the steps as a part of their exercise.
Explore SF Squares
SF has many beautiful squares and plazas that are, without a doubt, worth exploring once you’re there. You’ll be surprised to see just how much many of them have to offer and how much you can learn there. It’s not all about shopping, even when it might seem that way. Visiting any of the numerous squares becomes even more magical if you’re moving during the holidays, as all those decorations make the squares even more charming than usual.
Some of these might feel more like parks, some are more bustling than others, some are just full of history and are close to some other major attractions. All in all, you’ll be able to enjoy diversity while exploring your new home. Let’s see which of the following might seem more appealing to you.
Check out Festivals at Union Square
When someone mentions Union Square, you immediately think of shopping. But there is so much more to it and it would be a real shame if you spent the entire time in the stores without realizing just how much there is to see around here. This public plaza is located in the heart of SF, which makes it a perfect starting point when you go to explore the new destination. It is surrounded by various attractions, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to Samovar Tea Lounge and Mr. Holmes Bakehouse.
This plaza is also the venue for all kinds of cultural events and festivals, so it might be a good idea to check the calendar and plan your tour at the same time to check some of these. You can come to listen to live music, or enjoy swing and tango dance, perhaps. These festivals are always diverse and offer something for everyone, no matter their age and personal preferences.
Eat Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
Did you know that Ghirardelli Square was originally a chocolate factory? Namely, the factory was established by Domenico Ghirardelli, a coffee and chocolate merchant. Thus, even nowadays, this plaza is well-known for some of the best chocolate you can find in the world. Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you won’t be able to resist the delicacies that are luring you here from every corner.
In addition to chocolate, there are plenty of other culinary treats and top-notch wine to try here, as many exquisite restaurants are located in the vicinity. You can also attend a variety of events depending on the time of year and your interests, of course. The plaza is usually most lively in the evenings. But whenever you choose to go and even if you just go to take a walk, there’s no doubt you’ll have a good time and, if nothing else, enjoy the views of the rest of SF.
Given that SF is the cultural center of Northern California, it is safe to say that you won’t lack art and culture in any form there. Every corner hides some treasure that is worth visiting to admire it and learn more about its history, which, of course, will tell you more about the history of the city itself. From many museums and galleries, monuments and other landmarks, to street art everywhere you look, there is an endless list of spots where you can immerse yourself in art and forget about everything else.
SF’s innovative art scene attracts quite a few visitors from all around the world. There’s something for everyone, from paintings and sculptures to photography and glass art. The only issue here might be deciding where to go first. To get the real feeling of SF’s diverse and eclectic art scene, you should take some time to explore as many top-ranked spots as possible. It might be a good idea to start with some of the following.
Admire the Palace of Fine Arts
One of the most iconic spots here is the Palace of Fine Arts. This gorgeous building is so valuable that it found its place on the list of the U.S National Register of Historic Places. Constructed back in 1915 and inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture, the Palace was dedicated to exhibiting works of art from the very beginning.
More than one century later, it still stands in all its glory and draws so many visitors who come to admire everything from the tiny details, cravings, and statues to gigantic pillars and the lagoon reflecting this magnificent building. In 1965, the Palace was rebuilt, which was followed by the renovation of the lagoon and walkways in 2009.
Today, it is more than a place for exhibitions. It has also become one of the most popular options for weddings, as well as one of the favorite spots inspiring photographers.
Explore San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The first museum on the entire West Coast dedicated to contemporary art is one of the top places in SF. It was built in 1935, and today, it shows over 33,000 pieces of work, from paintings, media arts, to architecture. It is one of the largest museums in the US and the world, too, covering as much as 16,000 m2 of exhibition space. Many young, emerging artists have been given the opportunity to present their works here, so you can always expect innovation.
What’s interesting to mention here is that you can find more enjoyment apart from the pieces you came for – you can also find excellent eateries within the museum itself. This is quite convenient as it means you don’t have to waste your time leaving the SFMOMA when you want to take a break and get a refreshment or grab a bite.
Asian Art Museum
For those of you who would like to learn more about some other culture, this is a must-visit destination with over 16,000 pieces of work. Some of these date back to 6,000 years ago, which makes them even more precious and intriguing. The wide range of artwork here covers areas from Turkey and India to China and the Philippines. There is so much to see and admire that you should leave the entire day to look through these outstanding collections.
Today, the AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can organize your visit yourself or join a group and enjoy a guided tour. Not only will they give you a discount when you go as part of a group, but you’ll also get to learn more about specific pieces of art. Another choice you’re given is between different tour options – special exhibition, collection, architecture, and custom tours.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
If you’re looking for some outdoor activities, you’ll find plenty of choices, and here’s one of the must-do things – walk across this iconic construction. You can’t really say you’ve been to SF if you haven’t been paid a visit to this marvelous feat of engineering. Opened in 1973, the Golden Gate Bridge connects SF Bay and Marin County. It is 1.7 miles long, one mile wide, and has six lanes of traffic. It’s already a memorable experience to enjoy the jaw-dropping view of it, so imagine just how stronger the feeling is when you walk across it!
If you’re planning on learning how car shipping works and asking for auto transport services to ship your car to the future address, you can go and drive across the bridge, too. It is also a great idea to ride a bike across it. Even if you don’t have one or you’re not going to take it with you, don’t worry – there are plenty of places nearby where you can rent one. Do check the forecast before you make a plan, though, as a foggy day can spoil the experience.
Go on Golden Gate Bridge Cruise
Another way to enjoy the views of this majestic landmark is to go on a cruise. This is an excellent thing to do because it offers you the opportunity to see much more, in fact. Namely, the departure is from Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 43½, and then you’ll cruise alongside the neighborhood of North Beach, the SF Maritime National Park, and then head west towards the iconic construction to cruise directly under its massive span. But before you get there, you’ll also have a chance to enjoy the view of the Marina District and Fort Mason, followed by Crissy Field and the Presidio. On your way back, you will cruise alongside the Marin Headlands wildlife reserves and Sausalito town. You will go straight past the famous Alcatraz Island and finally see the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge, with a glimpse of Coit Tower back in the distance. Sounds quite exciting, right?
Book a Tour to Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island and the former prison located there are, without a doubt, one of the most visited places in SF. The island is only 1.5 miles offshore, so it takes only about 15 minutes to get there. The federal prison was open from 1934 to 1963, and today stands as a major attraction that many tourists and locals enjoy visiting. Since it’s so popular, you need to make sure you book the tickets early enough, preferably several weeks before you’re planning to go. It might happen that tickets are all sold out even weeks before the departure. Luckily, they are available for purchase even 90 days before the planned date, so you can secure yourself a place well in advance if you plan well.
For those who’d like to make this trip even more adventurous, there’s the Night Tour. It might be a bit creepy to be in the former prison during nighttime, but it will be a unique experience, that’s for sure. If that spooky atmosphere doesn’t bother you, it’s an idea worth considering.
Explore the Island Outside of the Former Prison
Even though the notorious former prison makes this island this popular, that doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing to see here. There’s much more to it, actually. First of all, you should know that it is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and it has been a National Historic Landmark ever since 1986.
In addition to prison, you should also go to the Alcatraz Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in the entire West Coast, the ruins of the Warden’s House and Social Hall, as well as early military fortifications. You should also leave enough time to walk around the island and enjoy nature, from rock pools to watching a seabird colony. Learn about its historical significance, but also enjoy the natural beauties and magnificent views of SF, too.
Things to Do in San Francisco for Free
When you start getting ready for your relocation to SF, whether with professional San Francisco movers or by yourself, you’ll probably first want to explore the best places to live in San Francisco. And you should – there’s no point in taking any further steps if you don’t know where you’re going to live, right? But once you look through the best neighborhoods in San Francisco and check just how safe your chosen neighborhood is, it’s time to explore the rest of this magnificent metropolis.
If you didn’t choose the cheapest way to move out of state and you exhaust your moving budget, you can start doing some free stuff. Here in SF, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Let’s take a look at some ideas of what you could do for free to get to know SF better and immerse yourself in its many beauties.
Take a Walking Tour
Walking tours are always an excellent way to explore an unfamiliar place. If you’re up for an adventure, you can go on a self-guided walking tour and explore the town in every sense of the word. Get a map and make a plan to check out some landmarks close to one another in one day to make sense of the visit. If you’d rather have someone walk you through it and tell you more about the history of the city and each landmark specifically, you can also sign up for a variety of guided walking tours and explore SF in a group. Who knows, you might even end up making friends in a new city!
Another idea worth considering is hiking. Not only will you get to enjoy stunning views from the many SF hills, but you can also enjoy just as magnificent nature around you, from eucalyptus-scented air to redwood forests. Here are just some of the top-recommended hiking areas you shouldn’t miss:
- Lands End
- Bernal Heights Summit
- Glen Canyon
- Marin Headlands
- Redwood Regional
- Muir Woods
- Angel Island
In addition to many hills to hike, SF is full of steep streets, too, but one is, without a doubt, far steepest than any other, making it worth your time. As you can guess, we’re talking about Lombard Street. Let’s find out a bit more about this famous attraction.
Drive Down Lombard Street
You’ve probably heard about the Crookedest Street in SF. Well, this is it. The explanation for its well-known curves lies in the fact that this is also the steepest one in SF, so steep that it would be impossible to walk, let alone drive here if it weren’t for the curves. So, it was because of safety that they constructed it this way, but this eventually made it one of the most visited attractions in SF.
Enjoy the View from Twin Peaks
There are many places in SF from where you can enjoy a breathtaking view. Twin Peaks might be one of the top-ranked sites to do so, offering a spectacular 360-degree view of the city and the entire Bay area at an elevation of more than 1000 feet. It is the second-highest summit here. You can enjoy a fantastic view from the parking lot already, but it gets so much better when you climb to the very top of the summit.
Start a New Chapter in Your Life in SF
Are you already looking for answers on how to change your address when you move as you can’t wait to get here? No wonder, and given how exciting life in SF can be, there’s no need to worry about relocation anxiety. Whether you’re moving to the suburbs or moving to a smaller home somewhere closer to downtown, you’ll have plenty of places to enjoy and things to do in the entire area. The advantages of moving alone are numerous, but the cost of living in San Francisco isn’t really cheap, so it will be a good idea to relocate during the cheapest time of the year and save some money that you can spend on other stuff here. You might want to start with some of the listed sites and then continue to explore the new surroundings on your own.