Greetings from San Francisco! I’m home by the bay for the first time in two-and-a-half years, and I’m happy to be back. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from California, so I’ve spent the last week revisiting my favorite places and exploring a few new ones. It’s made me appreciate all the amazing things to do in San Francisco, so if you’re wondering what the City by the Bay has to offer, read on for my top picks.
Things to Do in San Francisco
My list includes a mix of local favorites and first-time visitor musts. Whether you’ve been to San Francisco a million times or you need inspiration to plan your first trip, I hope it gives you a good overview of what the city has to offer.
1. See the Golden Gate Bridge
In the same way that I’ll never get tired of seeing Big Ben in London, my heart gives a squeeze every time I see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The first thing I do on every trip is walk to Crissy Field to see it from the waterfront. Given the ever-changing light and weather conditions, it looks different every time I go.
There are plenty of other places to see the bridge, too. The Presidio has great vantage points, as do some of the beaches. Wherever you see it from, I hope it’s as magical for you as it is for me.
2. Go to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market
After getting my bridge fix, one of my favorite things to do in San Francisco is go to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Every Saturday the Ferry Building comes alive with local produce from around California, and on this trip a friend and I have grazed our way through crisp pears, pineapple guavas, and other seasonal specialties.
I can’t leave without having chilaquiles from Primavera and a cupcake from Miette, both of which always go down a treat.
3. Walk around Union Square
From the Ferry Building it’s a short walk to Union Square. This is the heart of San Francisco’s downtown shopping scene, and the area buzzes with people indulging in retail therapy.
I always do some myself, popping into shops as I get my fix of American brands I miss when I’m in London (and their American prices).
Chinatown isn’t far away, and while I find it a bit touristy for my taste it’s a popular place to pick up souvenirs.
4. Go to Alcatraz
Another of the most iconic places in the city is Alcatraz. Visiting this former island prison in the middle of the bay is one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco.
I’ve been many times over the years, and always love the audio tour and views of the city.
5. Ride a Cable Car
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without riding one of the city’s beloved cable cars. These historic trolleys go up and down the hills, offering great views and good fun as they go. There are multiple routes, each one with a unique perspective on the city’s landscape.
6. Head up to Coit Tower
But they don’t go everywhere, and some hills are worth climbing on foot. Walking up to Coit Tower is worth the trek, especially when it’s via the secret stairways that lead to the back of it. The mix of eclectic houses is a treat, and almost makes me forget how high I’m climbing. When I reach the tower, the views make it even more worthwhile.
7. Drive Down Lombard Street
Said to be the crookedest street in the world, curvy Lombard Street is worth driving (or walking) down. The twists and turns are fun to navigate, and the views of Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge are spectacular.
8. Go to Hayes Valley
Whenever I’m back in San Francisco I spend most of my time wandering around my favorite neighborhoods. Hayes Valley is no exception, and every time I go it gets better. I’ve been here on my current trip and can’t believe how many new shops and restaurants have popped up since my last visit.
9. Watch the Sunset from the Sutro Baths
Out by the Pacific Ocean, one of the best things to do in San Francisco is watch the sunset from the ruins of the Sutro Baths. A particularly pretty sunset I saw there a few years ago is still up there with my favorite sunset memories from all my travels.
10. Explore Golden Gate Park
Extending inland from the ocean, Golden Gate Park is one of San Francisco’s biggest and best green spaces. There’s a lot to do inside, from exploring the botanical garden to browsing the art collection at the de Young Museum and paddle boating on Stow Lake.
11. Channel Your Inner Hippie in The Haight
Locals sometimes see The Haight as cliché, but it’s always fun to go to the corner of Haight and Ashbury and discover the surrounding area. Haight Street has a lot of shops and restaurants, and given its legacy, it’s worth a special trip.
12. Walk around The Mission
The Mission is a San Francisco neighborhood that changes every time I visit. Valencia Street in particular has seen a lot of hip restaurants and bars open over the years, and the Mexican food in this part of the city is hard to beat.
13. Explore North Beach
North Beach is another great area to explore, not least because Columbus Street offers so much to see. While the restaurants can be a bit touristy, I love City Lights bookstore and the Beat Generation legacy in the area. Add to that views of the Transamerica Pyramid and streetlights that look like books, and I’m sold.
14. Go to a Giants Game
Going to a Giants game is one of the most quintessential things to do in San Francisco. The baseball stadium is right on the water and cheering on the home team is always a treat. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, the atmosphere (and garlic fries) make it worth a trip.
15. See the Painted Ladies
For something a bit more feminine, the Pained Ladies are a treat to see. This row of Victorian houses is one of the most photographed places in the city.
But make sure to keep an eye out for more like them if you’re exploring other areas, too. San Francisco is full of colorful homes from that era, and some of them are stunning.
16. Eat Ice Cream in Ghirardelli Square
One of my favorite things to do as a child was eat ice cream in Ghirardelli Square. This chocolate factory and ice cream parlor is a sweet tooth’s dream come true, and I still cherish memories of the Cable Car Sundaes my brother and I used to share as kids.
17. Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
I’m loath to include Fisherman’s Wharf on my list of things to do in San Francisco. Locals avoid it at all costs, but since visitors always go I feel like I should put it in here.
It’s touristy and doesn’t represent the rest of the city, but I had a lot of fun here as a child so I can see the area from both sides. Just promise me that if you go you’ll also explore some of the more local areas to balance out your view of San Francisco.
18. Eat. Eat. Eat Some More.
And one good way to do that is eat. Every time I travel to San Francisco I’m overwhelmed by how good the food is. The produce is some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted (thanks in no small part to California’s fertile Central Valley, where farms abound), and it’s hard to find a bad meal in the non-touristy parts of the city.
From Mexican in The Mission to Asian fusion in The Marina, I eat my way through San Francisco every time I’m here. And that’s to say nothing of the wine.
19. Go to the Beach
It always surprises me how few people know that San Francisco’s weather isn’t exactly what one might imagine for California. The fog comes and goes at will, the wind can be fierce, and there’s a reason the most famous quote about the city is “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”. Which makes going to the beach a bit tricky.
But if you get the right weather (and it’s as likely to be in January as July), heading to one of the city’s many beaches is a treat. My favorite is Baker Beach, but Ocean Beach is also beautiful.
20. Get to the Local Neighborhoods
I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about San Francisco is its local neighborhoods. From Russian Hill to Pacific Heights, Dogpatch to the Outer Richmond, this city has a lot of great areas to eat, drink, shop, and live like a local.
21. Leave Your Heart
Which is why I always leave my heart in San Francisco. But it’s a good thing, because one of the best things to do in San Francisco come back over and over again. I just hope it doesn’t take me another two years to do it.
My flight from Los Angeles to London Gatwick via Reykjavik was compliments of WOW air.
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