San Francisco is full of character and offers many different areas to explore. It is a wonderful walkable city.
We have visited San Francisco many times over the years. Whenever we visit a city for the first time, we always take the Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour. To get acquainted with the lay of the land, we take one full loop first and then go back to the areas that interest us the most. Once you have been to San Francisco, it is easy to see why others fall in love with it returning repeatedly.
Find out more about the Hop-On Hop-Off tour or experience more with a San Francisco Sightseeing Pass.
Here is our list of top things to do in San Francisco
- Ride the famous cable cars.
- Eat fresh seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Watch for sea lions near Pier 39 near Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Take the ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito under the Golden Gate Bridge and past Alcatraz. This is a great, inexpensive way to see the harbour. Check for ferry times or buy tickets online. Adult fares are $13 each way, Children and seniors rates at $7.50 each way.
- Ride a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and then take the ferry back to San Francisco.
- Explore and eat in Chinatown or pick something up in one of the many bakeries.
- Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge on your own or with the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus.
- Discover North Beach, San Francisco’s little Italy.
- Shop on Union Square.
- Walk down the world’s crookedest street. Lombard Street is one of the stops on the Powell/Hyde cable car line. It is a very steep, one block road with eight hairpin turns.
- Lands End in Golden Gate National Recreation Area boasts stunning views of the rugged west coast and the Cliff House restaurant.
- Painted Ladies – The famous row of historic Victorian houses is located at Hayes and Steiner Streets in front of Alamo Square. Take a walk around the square to discover other Victorian beauties built during the same era. Many of the homes are on the National Registry of Historic Places. The William Westerfeld House on the northwest corner of the square looks like the Addams Family house.
- Alcatraz Island, known as The Rock, is the home of the first lighthouse on the west coast and first coastal US built fort. It is also where the most famous prison stands. Public tours are not available for the prison, but you can book a Behind the Scenes park ranger guided-tour. Reservations should be made well in advance. If the Alcatraz tour is sold out, check tour companies that offer Alcatraz as part of a combined San Francisco tour.
- Haight-Ashbury, often called the birthplace of hippie culture of the 60s, was home to famous iconic bands, singers and cult leaders of that era. The psychedelic vibe still exists. The Grateful Dead and Janice Joplin lived on Haight. View more photos of San Francisco.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are top attractions in San Francisco. Two cable car lines terminate here and the historic F-Line streetcar runs to this area. There are great views from the waterfront of the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge. Sightseeing boats, charters and ferries to Sausalito leave from here.
There are plenty of fresh seafood stalls and restaurants. See our suggestions below. At Pier 39 view an abundance of sometimes noisy sea lions relaxing on the dock. There is plenty of shopping and souvenir shops available to pick up a San Francisco t-shirt or hoodie. The Aquarium by the Bay, Madame Tussauds and other family entertainment is available. Get your chocolate fix at the original Ghirardelli Chocolates. It can be found just south of Fisherman’s Wharf on Polk Street at Ghirardelli Square, along with shops and restaurants. In front of the Square, wander the various artists’ stalls displaying their work.
Where to stay in San Francisco
We stayed in an older, reasonably priced hotel with Victorian charm, The Beresford Arms. It is within walking distance to many attractions like Union Square shopping and historic Chinatown. It is only a few blocks to catch one of the famous cable cars running to Fisherman’s Wharf. The hotel’s White Horse restaurant has a bar resembling one in an authentic old English pub. The elevators are a little slow, but the stairs provide easy access to the spacious rooms. In the morning, there is complimentary coffee, tea and pastries. There is also afternoon tea and a later wine social in the lobby. Find other accommodations.
Where to dine in San Francisco
There are so many places to choose from in every area of San Francisco. These are a few of the spots we enjoyed.
The Eno Wine Bar near Union Square is a great casual place to sip wine, eat cheese and other pairings after exploring this vibrant city. Grab a table by the window if you like to people watch.
For dinner, check out San Francisco’s Little Italy located in the North Beach district. We loved Sodini’s authentic, delicious homestyle Italian food and friendly staff. You can’t make reservations, but put your name down and then walk around the area. It’s worth the wait. Check out the latest TripAdvisor reviews
In Chinatown, Hunan Home’s serves authentic Hunanese cuisine from the Hunan Province of China. Open since 1983, it has won several awards. Nothing fancy here, but consistently good, reasonably priced food popular with the locals. We have eaten here many times throughout the years.
On Fisherman’s Wharf, grab fresh crab meat in a paper container from one of the fish mongers. You can also try a clam chowder bread bowl or check out historic Alioto’s Italian seafood restaurant right on the pier. If you are lucky, they will be offering a reasonably priced early lunch special. If you manage to get a window table, you might see a playful seal or two in the waters below.
The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar has been around since 1945. We first visited here on our honeymoon and have visited the bar many times since. We were attracted to its Polynesian atmosphere, tropical decor and drinks. The highlight is the periodic rainstorms, thunder and lightning. It is located on top of Nob Hill in the historic Fairmont San Francisco Hotel. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday. The Hurricane Bar offers Happy Hour Wednesday to Friday 5 p.m. – 7 p.m.
- The Bay Bridge opened in 1936 and was the longest bridge in the world at that time.
- The Golden Gate bridge construction began in 1933. It opened in 1937.
- Alcatraz was the home of the famous maximum security prison from 1934 – 1963.
- Eastern Bakery is the oldest bakery in Chinatown. It opened in 1924.
Be sure to visit California’s visitor information centre or San Francisco’s official tourism site for virtual trip ideas.
Top things to see near San Francisco
- Discover Carmel-by-the Sea – Head south two hours from San Francisco along the spectacular west coast Highway 101 to charming Carmel-by-the-Sea and beyond. Be sure to check out the breathtaking 17-Mile Drive and Monterey along the way. The two-hour drive will turn into a day trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea after making several tops.
- Explore the wineries of Napa Valley – Take a 47 mile jaunt to the famous California wine area of Napa Valley. You could go for the day, but it may be better to enjoy the area for at least two nights.
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