Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
San Francisco is a lot more than just its iconic Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, you’ll find countless attractions along with an incredibly long list of shopping and dining options to enjoy in between. With so much to see and do, this list will give you a good head start in your explorations of the heart of the city.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
Look out for our newsletters in your inbox soon.
San Francisco’s trolley cars were originally built to scale the precipitous hills the city is so famous for, which were too steep for horses to climb. An officially designated historic landmark, they’re a relic from the days before automobiles and the last manually operated cable car system in the world. Only a few dollars to ride, hopping on one of these cable cars is really a must while exploring downtown San Francisco. While most tourists catch the Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason cars, those tend to be jam-packed. Instead, hop on the California line and you can still head up and down the impressive hills without waiting in a long line or battle thick tourist crowds.
The crown jewel of shopping districts in the city, Union Square is a famous public plaza located right downtown, offering a host of shopping, dining and more. This central gathering place hosts a variety of events like art exhibitions, theater, lectures, dance and music performances too. It’s a great place to be during the holiday season, with a popular tree lighting and ice skating rink.
AT&T Park is the home of major league baseball’s San Francisco Giants. A beautiful stadium on the water right in the city, attending a game to cheer on the home team is a great way to mingle with the locals and have a good time. All year-round all sorts of performances, concerts and shows are held here too. Public tours are offered as well, allowing visitors to go behind the scenes, accessing player facilities as well as the team’s dugout, clubhouse, indoor batting cage, press box, and a luxury suite. An on-site theater also presents a 10-minute documentary on the Giant’s franchise.
Lombard Street is an iconic landmark in the city and of the most photographed blocks in the entire country, famous for its steep, one-block section that contains eight hairpin turns. Resembling a playground slide, its edged by colorful, blooming flowers and other greenery that make it quite the site to experience. While the winding red-brick road is best experienced by driving down, you can also take a cable car that stops at the top.
There are few places in San Francisco that could be considered more touristy than Fisherman’s Wharf, but it’s still a destination that should be experienced at least once. It offers lots of cheap and even free things to do, like fantastic people watching, entertaining buskers, the opportunity to watch the countless sea lions barking and lounging on the docks, and, what many consider to be the highlight: enjoy clam chowder filled sourdough bread bowl. While you’ll have multiple options to choose from, Boudin Baker Cafe at Pier 39 is arguably the very best.
While no one really seems to know for sure how the wild parrots came to call Telegraph Hill home, the general consensus is that the flock began when wild-caught birds were imported here from South America. The cherry heads, as they’re referred to, were inexpensive, so many people bought them as pets, but the birds despised living in captivity. Rather intelligent they didn’t hesitate to show their frustration by being especially loud and sometimes biting their human companions as well. Some managed to escape and other were deliberately released. It didn’t take long before the number of parrots in the area expanded from only four in 1989 to more than 100 today. They can be seen flying overhead or perched in the trees at Telegraph Hill and often other areas, all the way to Brisbane.
Head to 16th and Morago and you’ll discover the 16th Avenue Mosaic Steps. This staircase designed by local artists and created by more than 300 area residents, includes 163 precipitous steps with beautiful mosaic tiles that portray a shimmering path from the sea to the sky. It took two years to complete, and if you gaze up at it from the below you can see the staircase really does appear to be a “stairway to heaven.” The steps lead to Grand View Park, and from there you can take in an awe-inspiring panoramic vista of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.
A historical San Francisco landmark, Castro Theater was built in 1922 and is one of the most magnificent theaters in the entire city. The popular movie palace that anchors the Castro District has a Spanish Colonial Baroque façade which pays homage to the rebuilt basilica of Mission Delores with its grand arched central window surmounted by a scrolling pediment that frames a niche. If a sing-a-long performance is scheduled while you’re in the city, don’t miss it. This is when attendees come dressed as their favorite characters and party favors are passed out at the start of the show to enhance the experience.
Once you’ve ridden a cable car, visit the lesser-known Cable Car Museum, set within the Washington-Mason powerhouse and car barn on Nob Hill. It overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the city’s cables while providing an interesting look at the history of the cable car in the city. It doesn’t cost a thing and you’ll be able to see three antique cable cars that date back to the 1870s as well as learn about the challenges the cars have faced over the years, view mechanical displays and purchase items in the gift shop.
This impressive structure on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, originally opened in 1898 and then renovated and reopened a little over a decade ago, is a sight to see, but the primary reasons to visit is the food – or to catch the ferry to Marin County. Browse the fabulous farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Saturdays until 2 p.m. or dine at one of the multiple outstanding eateries, like the Slanted Door, one of San Francisco’s most beloved restaurants, which serves nouveau Vietnamese. As tables can be hard to come by, book well in advance or dine at the no-reservations bar instead.