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There is practically an endless number of things to do in San Francisco – even those who live there usually don’t see and do it all. You’ll find everything from iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, to Alcatraz, vintage streetcars, picturesque parks and amazing cuisine. Whether you’ve never visited, or are just looking for ideas, this list of the city’s 20 best attractions should provide you with lots of inspiration.
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The Golden Gate Bridge, once referred to as the “bridge that couldn’t be built,” is San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, and one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Opened in 1937, visiting it is a must – but don’t just drive across, walk or bike the 1.7 miles that stretches from San Francisco to the Marine headlands while taking in the spectacular city skyline, the soaring 746-foot towers and the magnificent Pacific. The most photographed bridge in the world, the Golden Gate is an unforgettable sight on a sunny day as well as when it’s surrounded in a foggy mist. The bridge’s sidewalks are open during the day to pedestrians as well as bicyclists. Nearby, you’ll find some of the city’s top attractions.
It costs just a few dollars to catch a ride on the city’s cable cars, a relic from the days before automobiles and the world’s last manually operated cable car system as well as an officially designated historic landmark. They were built to scale precipitous hills that were too steep for horses to climb. Take the California line, which includes impressive hills without the wait. If you’re lucky, you’ll even enjoy a bell-ringing serenade from your conductor.
Before hopping on a cable car, you might want to visit the Cable Car Museum to learn more about its history. The museum, set in the Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn on Nob Hill, overlooks the ginormous engines and winding wheels that pull the city’s cables. Not only can you view three antique cable cars that date back to the 1870s and learn about the challenges cable cars have faced over the years, but it’s also a working museum where you can watch the cables run and one of the best budget-friendly activities in San Francisco.
This magnificent structure on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, which was originally opened in 1898 and then renovated and reopened in 2003, is a sight to see, but the main reason to come here is for the food – or to catch the ferry to Marin County. Browse the fabulous farmers’ market or dine at any number of outstanding eateries, including the Slanted Door, one of San Francisco’s top restaurants serving nouveau Vietnamese. It’s not easy to get a table, so you may want to dine at the no-reservations bar instead.
This former military post is now a national park site and the ultimate paradise for outdoor enthusiasts with its breathtaking vistas and beautiful trails. Visitors will also find a number of historic and architectural treasures. Enjoy hiking, picnics, take a walking tour, view exhibits, or just take a stroll back through time. If you’re here on Sundays from April through October, a food truck gathering, “Off the Grid,” features Picnic at the Presidio with countless food vendors, free lawn games, live music and a “bubble bar” on the Presidio’s Main Post lawn which overlooks the Golden Gate.
This formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay was the site of the first lighthouse in the Western U.S. but became a federal penitentiary from 1934-1963, which housed the likes of Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Now, “The Rock,” as it’s often referred to, is part of the 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. While it’s haunting at any time, the night tour adds an extra eerie feel, particularly on a foggy night. Get the audio cell house tour which is narrated by former inmates and guards, recounting harrowing tales of prison life as well as the numerous tragic escape attempts.
San Francisco famously boasts some of the country’s steepest streets, but Lombard Street, known as the “crookedest” street in the world, is a must experience as one of the most unique of the city’s many vertically endowed roads. This winding road on Russian Hill features extremely tight turns that switchback down the one-way hill past beautiful Victorian mansions, brilliant gardens and incredible views of the bay, Alcatraz, and Coit Tower. There are also a number of homes that have been featured on both the big and small screen, including Scottie’s Apartment from the Alfred Hitchcock film, “Vertigo,” located at 900 Lombard Street and the “Real World” house at 949 Lombard.
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps project, located at 16th and Moraga and inspired by the Escadaria Selaron in Brazil, was a neighborhood effort in which local artists covered 163 precipitous steps with beautiful mosaic tiles that portray a shimmering path from the sea to the sky. From below, the steps look like a stairway to heaven. From Grand View Park at the top, you can admire the amazing panorama of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest in the nation and a feast for the senses. While it is crowded and chaotic, walking through the ornate Chinatown Gate with its carved foo dogs, meant to ward off evil spirits, brings the chance to experience the real, working Chinatown on Stockton Street, where residents shop for ginseng and herbal remedies, dried fish parts and delicacies like live quail and water eels. Walk up the narrow stairs to the Tien Hau Temple above Grant Avenue, on the alley known as the Street of Painted Balconies. As the oldest Taoist temple in the nation, established in 1852, it’s festooned with gold paper lanterns, calligraphy, incense, hundreds of candles and miniature shrines featuring photos of departed loved ones. You’ll also find an almost endless number of eateries as well as the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where some 20,000 fortune cookies are made every day and folded by hand as they come off an ancient-looking cookie conveyor belt.
One of the largest manmade parks in the world, Golden Gate Park stretches for three miles on the western edge of San Francisco, filled with meticulously landscaped gardens, forests and meadows – without a single “Keep Off the Grass” sign. Two major museums, splendid gardens and facilities for more than 20 sports confirm that this is a playground in every sense of the word. Among the ever-evolving attractions located in the park are the California Academy of Sciences, the De Young Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Koret Children’s Quarter. On Sundays year-round and Saturdays between April and October, the park’s main road, John F. Kennedy Drive, is closed to auto traffic so that cyclists, skaters, joggers and walkers can wander freely.
The California Academy of Sciences, named one of the “New Wonders of the World” by Conde Nast Traveler is home to an aquarium, the world’s largest planetarium, four-story rain forest with an amazing coral reef ecosystem, natural history museum as well as world-class research and education programs, making it one of the city’s top must-see destinations. There are nearly 40,000 live animals housed within the 400,000 square foot structure, including everything from waddling penguins in African Hall to snakes and piranhas. At the impressive planetarium, the audience is transported through space and time for a whole new perspective on the planet we live on. Visit the Living Room, which is shaped like the hills of San Francisco but entirely green with lush native plant life and magnificent views of the park.
Taking the ferry from Pier 41 to Angel Island State Park, will bring the opportunity to discover some of the best views of the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area. The largest island in the bay, it’s truly a hidden treasure among the urban sprawl. Enjoy hiking and biking, picnicking on the beach, or take a guided tour. History buffs will really appreciate this island – some 3,000 years ago it served as a fishing and hunting site for Coastal Miwok Indians. It was also a haven for Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, a cattle ranch, and a U.S. Army post starting with the Civil War. Japanese and German POWs were held here during World War II, and it was also used as a jumping-off point for American soldiers returning from the Pacific.
This neighborhood, referred to as the Haight by locals, gained notoriety back in the 1960s, known as the birthplace of America’s counterculture and Ground Zero during the Summer of Love, aka 1967. It’s a fabulous spot for people watching – and some remainders of that flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love era can still be found, or even purchased at smoke shops and Eastern-influenced outlets like Dreams of Kathmandu and The Love of Ganesha, though most of its head shops have been replaced with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants and trendy cafes. Amoeba Music, housed in a former bowling alley, boasts one of the most extensive collections of new and used CDs in the world.
The de Young Museum, a favorite of San Francisco residents and visitors since 1895, is the oldest museum in the city, located in the heart of Golden Gate Park. While art and period interiors from North America feature strongly in the collection, there are also many exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Near East. British art, and folk art from Africa, America and the Pacific Islands, are also represented. By heading to the 144-foot high tower and observation deck, you can enjoy 360 views of the city. The tower twists as it rises – at the top it parallels the North-South streets of San Francisco.
The Musee Mecanique is one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections of coin-operated mechanical machines, with more than 300 on display. It includes coin-operated fortune tellers, player pianos, love testers and many rare and historic pieces, like the large diorama of a traveling carnival with a Ferris wheel and other rides, the only steam-powered motorcycle in the world and Laffing Sal. Described as “famously creepy,” the 6-foot-tall laughing automation gave many children nightmares as she stood at The Funhouse in San Francisco’s Playland, which began as a collection of amusement rides and concessions in the late 19th century and closed in 1972.
Situated in the heart of San Francisco, blanketing a steep hill, is one of the city’s best-kept secrets: its very own temperate cloud forest. A century-old forest of eucalyptus trees as tall as 200 feet high, grows on 80 acres of mountainside. Hiking here offers a unique San Francisco experience, especially on foggy days when the mist surrounds the treetops that tower overhead while walking the peaceful trails. During the middle of the week, you’re likely to be only one of a few people there, offering a wonderful, relaxing respite from the chaos of the city.
Even if you know nothing about baseball, seeing a game at Oracle Park is a fun, quintessential San Francisco experience. Giants games offer a fun day out for the entire family. With the stadium set on the docks of the bay, the park affords fantastic views of the waterfront along with paddle boarders and kayakers who chase each other to grab “splash hits” that head over the right-field fence. You’ll also find some of the best cuisines in all of baseball, including grilled crab sandwiches and Ghirardelli chocolate sundaes.
The Exploratorium is an educational funhouse for people of all ages who’ve wanted to get fascinating answers to questions they wanted to ask in science class but never did. This legendary science museum in the Presidio features nearly 600 hands-on exhibits along with stunning views of the city and bay in a spectacular glass-and-steel Bay Observatory. Highlights include the tactile dome, a pitch-black maze that you have to navigate by touch, blowing the world’s biggest soap bubble and dissecting a cow’s eye.
The San Francisco Zoo is the largest zoological park in California with 1,000 endangered and rescued animals representing 250 species across 100 acres of picturesque gardens in a peaceful neighborhood near the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The historic zoo’s mission is to connect visitors with wildlife, inspire caring for nature and advance conservation action. It shines a spotlight on the importance of conservation and respect for all animals and features seven main sections, including the Primate Discovery Center, the African Region, Cat Kingdom, South America, Bear Country, Outback Trail and a Children’s Zoo. Kids will especially enjoy the Little Puffer train and the carousel.