Nestled on a peninsula between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is a northern California port city with beauty, entertainment, culture, and history. The city is known for its iconic bridge, steep streets, a prison that housed the most dangerous villains, cable cars, a dynamic waterfront, stick houses with unique architecture, and fog. We will explore all this and more as we outline fun things to do in San Francisco.
Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
The mere mention of San Francisco conjures images of the Golden Gate Bridge. You cannot separate the city from the bridge. They are synonymous with one another.
When the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, it was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. One of the world’s most recognized and photographed bridges, the red monster, totals 1.7 miles in length. Well, it is actually orange vermillion, or “International Orange.” The Golden Gate Bridge is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, a distinction bestowed by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
With its size, color, history, and engineering significance, it is no surprise that San Francisco visitors get excited to see the massive structure. You may be surprised you can walk or ride a bicycle across the bridge. Although viewing the bridge throughout the city is a joy, crossing it is the best way to appreciate its size and beauty fully.
Julie and I walked the bridge in the rain and still had a blast. The bridge’s sheer size and the rewarding views as you cross the bay will leave you mesmerized. Remember to allow plenty of time as the total walk is 3.4 miles.
Pedestrian and bike hours vary seasonally. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge site to verify hours during your visit.
“The Rock” has lots of history, serving as a fort, military prison, and a maximum security federal penitentiary. Alcatraz is a small island where you can explore its complex history and natural beauty. The National Park Service (NPS) manages the island’s facilities as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Alcatraz City Cruises, a private company, partners with the NPS, offering ferry rides to and from the island. During the ferry ride, you gain excellent views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. The island itself delivers a surreal experience as you tour the prison facility. You can even step into a jail cell.
The NPS offers an audio tour with great insight into what the prison was like. Stories about prisoners, wardens, and security guards bring the place to life as you walk the dark, eerie halls.
To our surprise, the island abounds with natural beauty. You will discover beautiful gardens overflowing with blooming flowers and greenery. Many birds, including cormorants, gulls, herons, pigeon guillemots, and snowy egrets, inhabit the island. Alcatraz Island yields outstanding views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The NPS strongly recommends you reserve tickets in advance for your Alcatraz tour. Your ticket includes the following:
- Ferry transportation service provided by Alcatraz City Cruises
- Cellhouse audio tour provided by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
- Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act fee
Visit the Alcatraz City Cruises site for tour details and availability.
Visit Crissy Field
A public recreation area with restored tidal marshes and sandy beaches, Crissy Field is an excellent place to walk, run, or relax. You can trek along paths or on the beach as gentle waves roll ashore. Both options deliver fantastic views of the area’s natural beauty and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Many of our feathered friends hang out in the area if you enjoy birdwatching. The peaceful park is an excellent combination of natural and manufactured beauty. Walking or running through Crissy Field is the perfect way to start or end your day.
For those with dogs, Crissy Field is paradise. To our surprise, dogs did not have leashes. Yet, all the canines were so well-behaved. Seeing so many humans and dogs savoring the fresh air while playing on the beach was a delight.
Go to Fort Point
One of the best things about San Francisco is the ability to discover many unique views of the star attraction. Did you know there is a park under the Golden Gate Bridge? A trip to the city is only complete with a picture of the bridge from below. Viewing the bridge from this perspective gives you a new appreciation for the engineering marvel. You will feel small.
Fort Point National Historic Site, the park beneath the bridge, is a Civil War-era brick fort worth exploring for the unique perspective of the bridge and its rich history. It is the only brick fort on America’s West Coast. In the 1930s, engineers used the fortress as their headquarters while building the Golden Gate Bridge. The Fort Point Lighthouse, built in 1864, still stands. Its light was extinguished in 1934 because the bridge began to tower over the fort.
Exploring the fort and peering out into the bay is a fun experience. Touring the fort, you will encounter placards about its history and layout, along with some interesting facts. If you have a rainy day as we did, you can at least stay dry while exploring the fort’s lower levels.
A hub of activity and touristy attractions, Fisherman’s Wharf is nearly as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. Originally where fishermen sold the day’s fresh catch, the pier has become a popular tourist destination. You can still find plenty of fresh, tasty seafood.
From the pier, you can embark on tours by land and sea to take in the local sights. Fisherman’s Wharf also houses many shops and eateries. You have come to the right place if you need a souvenir to commemorate your trip.
Grab a sourdough bread bowl filled with steaming clam chowder, savor the bay view, and bask in the moment. Everything about the scene says San Francisco.
If you still need entertainment, check out the historical ships or watch the colony of sea lions. There is always something going on at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Stroll Through the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a remarkable monumental structure that induces serenity. It was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition to display artworks and show the world that San Francisco had fully recovered from the famous 1906 earthquake. San Francisco rebuilt the structure from 1964 to 1974.
The towering structure with exquisite details resembles ancient Roman ruins and has become a well-known San Francisco landmark. Walking under the dome, through the open rotunda, and around the beautiful colonnades along the tranquil lagoon draws a smile. It is breathtaking.
The area harbors beautiful trees and attracts various birds and ducks. It is another way the city delivers a combination of natural and manufactured beauty.
To say San Francisco is known for its steep streets is an understatement. No wonder Julie and I saw many locals with lean, fit physiques. Walking through the city is a challenge but has its rewards. When you crest the hills, not only do you get in shape, you gain excellent bay or city views.
If you explore only one street in San Francisco, make it Lombard Street. Locals claim it is the world’s most crooked street. With eight sharp turns in a one-block section, they may be right.
If you desire a challenge, drive down the zigzag avenue. Walk up if you prefer to be in agony. Julie and I regrettably chose the latter. We are glad to say we did it, but we huffed and puffed the entire way. Whether you tackle the challenge on foot or in a car, visiting Lombard Street is one of the most fun things to do in San Francisco.
San Francisco Cable Cars
Riding a cable car may sound touristy, but it is a unique experience that every San Francisco visitor should try. The city proudly boasts being the first to utilize cars pulled by cables beneath the street. Accordingly, the San Francisco cable cars achieved National Historic Landmark status in 1964.
The city offers three cable car lines. Two lines start at Powell and Market Streets and go to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. The other line starts at California and Market Streets and takes you to Van Ness Avenue.
Watching workers spin the cable car 180 degrees on the turntables is odd. It is all part of the charm. We also found it peculiar that cable cars will stop in the middle of intersections. Just as you become comfortable with these oddities, your ride is over.
The ride itself is fun. As you descend the hills, be prepared to slide next to your fellow passenger. You will become well acquainted. The cable car groans when first climbing the steep grades, leaving passengers with little confidence it can ascend the hill. Do not fret. The trusty cable car will complete its journey.
Once again, the hilltops reward you with fantastic views. Do not blink or look down as you reach the pinnacle, or you may miss those special but brief glimpses. Savor the sights and enjoy the ride. This National Historic Landmark is a blast.
Golden Gate Park
At 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is an expansive urban park with a unique assortment of attractions. Visitors often compare the park to New York’s Central Park. Golden Gate Park is more extensive and offers a broader mix of things to see and do. The park has something for everyone.
You will find tranquil lakes, sprawling meadows, lovely gardens, and lush groves where you can relax or explore. Golden Gate Park holds many places to grab a bite or enjoy a beverage. Recreational activities include everything from archery and frisbee golf to roller skating, basketball, and tennis.
Points of interest include a meadow of bison, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and two iconic windmills built in the early 1900s.
These attractions merely expose the tip of the iceberg. You can spend a day alone at the California Academy of Sciences. It comprises a planetarium, aquarium, and natural history museum. Golden Gate Park holds many more treasures for you to discover.
Located north of the city, Muir Woods National Monument is renowned for its towering old-growth redwood trees. It is a tribute to John Muir, a visitor refuge and a laboratory for park rangers and scientists.
Due to the coastal climate, sun, and fog, redwoods thrive here. Similar to Redwood National and State Parks, you can relish peaceful walks along trails through groves of giant redwoods. The beauty and stillness of the redwood forest are soul-soothing. I cannot adequately describe its beauty or how it makes you feel. However, visiting Muir Woods is a rewarding experience worth your time.
Note that Muir Woods has limited parking space, and reservations are required. Visit the Muir Woods parking and shuttle reservations site for information and availability.
The oldest and largest Chinatown in North America, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a must-see on your vacation. As soon as you enter the famous Dragon Gate on the corner of Grant Avenue and Bush Street, you recognize you are in for a treat.
The streets buzz with welcoming energy as you go into tea shops, galleries, dim sum restaurants, colorful alleys, eclectic stores, and open markets full of treasures. Enjoy an afternoon of shopping, exploring, and learning about Chinese history and culture.
Check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where they have been hand-making custom fortune cookies since 1962. The small operation cranks out as many as 10,000 cookies a day. You can see the factory and sample unique cookie flavors like strawberry, chocolate, and green tea.
Visit The Wok Shop for kitchen supplies, including woks, steamers, and teapots. The store holds cooking classes on Wok Wednesdays if you want to learn how to cook with a wok or further develop your stir fry skills.
Although a bustling area, it is a walkable neighborhood. Whether you want to become fully immersed in a different culture or shop and eat, there is plenty to explore.
Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building opened in 1898 as a San Francisco Bay Area transportation focal point. For years it welcomed people by train and boat until the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge provided automobile passage, rendering the building obsolete.
Today, the building with the dramatic clock tower is a San Francisco tourist attraction that houses a vibrant farmers market, shops, and restaurants where local merchants and artisans proudly display and sell their goods.
If you want to shop or savor delicious cuisine with outdoor seating, the Ferry Building is one of the best places in San Francisco. You can find everything from hot coffee, wine, and craft beer to fresh bread, honey, chocolate, pudding, donuts, empanadas, burgers, and fine dining. The offerings cover the full spectrum of foods and beverages. Accordingly, it has become one of the city’s top attractions.
Lands End Lookout
You would think peering at a bridge from different vantage points would grow old. The vistas of the bridge and the bay are so magnificent that every perspective is beautiful and unique, bordering on alluring.
Lands End is a winding trail, culminating in a splendid view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a perspective you want to take advantage of.
You will trek through lush groves of cypress and eucalyptus trees above rocky cliffs and crashing waves. The trail feels remote and wild at times. As you emerge from the shady forest, the wind makes its presence known. With strong winds, rough surf, and fog, it is no surprise many ships wrecked along the rocky shores years ago.
If you love nature and hiking, it will be a delight. The lookout makes the journey worthwhile, even for those who loathe hiking. Perspective changes everything.
Originally a chocolate factory, Ghirardelli Square is a specialty retail and dining complex. The square comprises an entire city block of 19th-century brick buildings that previously housed factories. In the 1960s, the city converted the buildings into a vibrant market with unique retail shops and tasty cuisine. To this day, it is one of the city’s top attractions. For history buffs, Ghirardelli Square earned its place of recognition on the National Historic Register in 1982.
If you love chocolate, do not panic. You have four options to taste the famous Ghiradelli chocolates:
- The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop
- Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience
- Ghirardelli On-The-Go
- Ghirardelli Pop-Up
All of these reside within the historic square.
Walt Disney Family Museum
Nestled in the Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum honors the life and legacy of Walt Disney. The spotlight shines on the man behind Disneyland, Disney World, and everything affiliated with the Disney brand. You can explore galleries, exhibits, and artifacts from Walt’s life and his work with Disney parks, television shows, and movies.
Many of the exhibits are interactive and narrated by Walt. Check out the early drawings and the incredible model of Disneyland. There is plenty of history and entertainment for kids and adults.
Mission District Murals
You may be surprised to discover San Francisco is one of the top cities in the United States for murals. Its Mission District features vibrant murals and feels like an outdoor art gallery.
Hundreds of walls and fences in the neighborhood boldly display colorful works of art. Some are playful, while others honor a cultural heritage or make social-political statements. If you enjoy art or desire a unique activity, check out the beautiful murals in the Mission District.
Admire the Painted Ladies
Head to Steiner Street, where you will find seven consecutive Victorian homes flaunting their elegant pastel colors against the backdrop of the city skyline. The often photographed area is also known as the “postcard row.” Note these are private residences, and tours inside the houses are unavailable.
This particular vista is spectacular. However, the city is chock full of stick houses with unique architectural styles, including Victorian, Edwardian, and Queen Anne. Seeing so many narrow homes wedged into small spaces along the sloped streets is fascinating. You will notice many of the tall houses feature balconies and porches while others showcase bay or bow windows.
The charming houses burst with character. Even if you do not have a passion for architecture, admiring the San Francisco houses as you tour the city streets is an enjoyable experience.
Where’s the beach? Yes, the name is misleading since the lively neighborhood does not have a beach. However, it does have heaps of Italian heritage as steep as the city’s hills. Many affectionately refer to the area as San Francisco’s “Little Italy.”
North Beach houses excellent restaurants and cafes with delicious Italian cuisine, fine wine, and rich coffee. Vintage stores, gelato shops, and charming trattorias await you. Lively bars and clubs pulse with energy at night. A stop in Little Italy will give you a zest for life.
Beyond the Italian heritage and food scene, North Beach offers many other attractions, including one that is difficult to ignore. Coit Tower is a 210-foot slender white column standing tall from the top of Telegraph Hill. The tower, built in the early 1930s, delivers a spectacular 360-degree panoramic view over the bay and the city.
North Beach exudes a rock ‘n’ roll influence from the beat generation. You can feel it in the clubs and some of the shops. Check out the City Lights Bookstore, where you will discover three floors of artwork, poetry, and books featuring mainstream and lesser-known independent artists.
With so many things to do in this iconic neighborhood, you can make it a North Beach day.
Have a Picnic in Mission Dolores Park
The nearly 16-acre Mission Dolores Park comprises sprawling green lawns and towering palm trees with a stunning view of the city’s skyline. It is the perfect spot for a relaxing picnic.
The park houses a soccer field, basketball court, playground, tennis courts, and dog play areas. On a sunny day, the gorgeous park practically begs you to lounge in its oasis. You will not regret taking the offer.
The home stadium of the San Francisco Giants, Oracle Park, is considered by many sports enthusiasts as one of the best baseball stadiums in the United States. Its classic design and beautiful views make for a unique experience.
Watching a game in Oracle Park is a thrill, even for those not passionate about baseball. The park offers tours year-round for those who want a peek behind the curtain. A behind-the-scenes tour lets you see the field, dugout, luxury suite, and press box.
Shop in Union Square
Union Square, the heart of downtown, is the central shopping, hotel, and theater district. It is a gathering place for recreation, commerce, and entertainment. You can shop to your heart’s content in mainstream department stores and boutique shops. Afterward, enjoy a relaxing meal at one of the area’s many restaurants. You can find everything from a cup of coffee to sushi.
If you prefer a beach with fewer people that still provides excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Marshall’s Beach. It is one of the best spots for photographs of the bridge. The vantage point is outstanding.
Surrounded by nature’s glory, it is hard to believe you are minutes from the city. Many birds inhabit the area. In warm weather, colorful wildflowers highlight the landscape. There are also unique serpentine rock formations to explore. Marshall’s Beach is a hidden gem.
Mosaic Stairs San Francisco
You will discover something unique on Moraga Street between the 15th and 16th Avenues. Many refer to it as the “16th Avenue Tiled Steps” or the “Mosaic Stairs.”
The steps project was a neighborhood collaboration where residents partnered with artists to design a sea-to-stars mosaic flowing up a 163-step stairway. Gazing up at the lengthy stairway of art brings feelings of warmth. It is beautiful and something you must see for yourself to fully appreciate.
If you are a Star Wars fan, visit the Yoda Fountain for a few minutes. It sits outside the Lucasfilm offices in the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the gorgeous Presidio. A short walk from the Palace of Fine Arts, it is an excellent photo opportunity.
The Presidio is a lovely area well worth a stroll. Between the Presidio and the Palace of Fine Arts, you will discover perfectly manicured grounds and some of the most beautiful palm trees you will ever see. Julie and I loved this part of San Francisco and could easily spend more time there.
Coffee with a View
Please do yourself a favor and stop at Round House at the Golden Gate Bridge, where they serve Equator Coffees. The coffee is delicious, and you have an unbelievable view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Equator Coffees proudly focuses on quality, sustainability, and social responsibility.
The coffee shop serves some unique flavored espresso drinks you will likely not find elsewhere. During our visit, seasonal offerings included lavender vanilla, maple walnut, and a concoction of orange blossom, cardamom, clove, and vanilla. Our drinks were perfectly blended, smooth, and delicious. They also serve baked goods, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, soups, and salads.
It is nestled near the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and Fort Point, making it a great place to stop before or after (maybe even both) you walk across the bridge.
Wrap-Up: Fun Things To Do in San Francisco
Note that San Francisco is known for fog, especially during summer. Accordingly, you may hear people jokingly refer to “June Gloom” or “Fogust.” Personally, I enjoy a mysterious fog as I walk along a sandy beach or through a lush forest. However, fog can obstruct your views of the Golden Gate Bridge and other attractions. Normally, the fog burns off by early afternoon.
Between nature and iconic man made structures, San Francisco abounds with beauty. The vibrant West Coast port city offers a lot to explore, including something for all interests. Rice-A-Roni may be “the San Francisco Treat,” but visiting San Francisco is a treat!
Featured image credit: Ben Harritt
More Articles from Miles with McConkey
- 9 Breathtaking Columbia River Gorge Waterfalls
- Fabulous Oregon Lighthouses to Visit on Your West Coast Trip
About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.