Last updated on January 18th, 2017
On your first visit, you might find yourself overwhelmed with things to do in San Francisco. After all, it’s a large metropolitan city. It’s diverse and exciting. There are a lot of great outdoor activities, plenty of museums and art spaces, plus more eating and drinking options than you could imagine. So where to start?
While there might be more interesting corners of San Francisco to explore, everyone has to experience the top tourist destination on their first visit to the city. Once you’ve covered these top attractions in San Francisco, you’ll be ready to delve deeper, like taking a walking tour of the diverse neighborhoods.
These spots I mention below are decidedly touristy, but hey, we’re tourists, right!? Even if you’re not a big fan of touristy activities, you’ll find something worthwhile and unique about all of these locations and you’ll likely find yourself saying you were glad you did it at least once. So give these top things to do in San Francisco a try!
Union Square is the city’s premier shopping district, with tons of boutique and luxury shops, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and things to explore. Start the morning out with some window shopping on your way to breakfast at Farmerbrown or Sears Fine Food. The earlier you get your shopping fix on in this neighborhood the better, as it gets pretty packed after lunch. While there isn’t much of nightlife in Union Square, it stays busy with restaurant and theatre goers.
Historic Cable Car Ride
I’ve always wanted to ride a historic cable car in San Francisco. It looks so fun to hang from the bar while riding slowly up and down the rolling hills of the city. The cars began running in 1880 and were restored to their original luster for tourists and locals alike to enjoy once again. Being the only manually operated cable cars left in the world, you’ll want to check out the process of turning the cars around when they reach the end of the line. Watch a video of it here.
While I’ve heard that locals do use it as a means of commuting, it’s mostly packed with tourists, so get in line early to avoid the crowds that can make the wait upwards of 40 minutes. The best place to catch the cable car is at the end of a line, where you’ll queue up with dozens of others awaiting a turn to ride, but we found that waiting one stop away from the end of the line is a faster way of grabbing a spot on the car, but only if you’re willing or wanting to ride on the rail (there won’t be any free seats). A one-way ticket is just $6 and there are three different lines to choose from. Take the cable car from Union Square over to Ghiradelli Square on the Market – Hyde line to enjoy the wharf.
You’re in the heart of tourism at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s San Francisco’s #1 tourist destination and draws thousands of visitors. Jam packed with entertainment options, you’ll find street performers, the freshest seafood, waterway tours including daily tours to Alcatraz and bay cruises and sea lions barking away at Pier 39. Knickknack shops abound at which to buy souvenirs or to burn a little time before moving on to the next attraction. There’s also an aquarium and Ghiradelli Square nearby, plus a stellar view of the bay. Take public transportation or walk there though. Parking can be a nightmare.
San Francisco has the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America. While it draws a lot of tourists, especially on the weekends, it does have an authentic vibe that makes you feel a little like you’ve stepped out of San Francisco and into a backstreet in China. You’ll find the oldest Dim Sum Tea house in America, the Hang Ah Tea Room, and the fortune cookie factory, along with dozens of Chinese and Dim Sum restaurants, plus trinket stores, fish markets and dress shops.
Ferry Building Marketplace
Located along The Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, the Ferry Building Marketplace has been re-purposed into a massive marketplace showcasing some of the city’s finest produce, seafood and specialty food purveyors. The market is perpetually packed with tourists and locals (especially on Saturdays when the farmer’s market is also open) trying samples, picking out fresh meats at Golden Gate Meat Company or seafood at San Francisco Fish Company, and crowding into restaurants like Hog Island Oyster Co and Slanted Door. If you’re a foodie or a shopper, you’ll be in heaven here. There are tea shops, cafes, ice cream shops, fresh bread, salami, cheese and chocolate, etc.
Golden Gate Park
Created in 1870, Golden Gate Park is an immense public park in the center of the city. You can see from the picture how enormous it is. You can rent a bike and ride through the park on your own or take a guided tour. There’s a lot to see inside the park, including Spreckles Temple of Music, De Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, Botanical Gardens, Stow Lake, active windmills, Bison paddock, a Carousel built in 1914, the Rose Garden, and various trails for hiking, jogging, or simple leisurely walks. You could spend hours here enjoying the activities and relaxing in the grass. Bring a picnic and spend the day.
The things mentioned here are, of course, just a scratch on the surface on what there is to do and enjoy in San Francisco. For more ideas and tips on place to eat and drink, see our Shortcut Guide to San Francisco.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
If you’re planning a trip to the city, you’ll want to check out a few of our recommended places to stay. We prefer different areas of the city depending on what we’re there for. Since this guide involves the more touristy things to do in San Francisco, it’s best to stay near the action. Here are our top recommendations for places to stay during your visit. Feel free to use any of the links below for your preferred booking site.
⇒ Courtyard by Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf: Trip Advisor | Expedia | Booking.com
⇒ San Francisco Marriott Union Square: Trip Advisor | Expedia | Booking.com
⇒ Intercontinental San Francisco: Trip Advisor | Expedia | Booking.com
(Disclaimer: This post contains an affiliate link.)