Always Super: 50 Things to Do in San Francisco
In a city that is less than 49 square miles, there is surprisingly plenty to do. Unsurprisingly, it was hard to whittle this list down to 50 things. The next time you’re in San Francisco, check these things off your list.
Walk or Bike Over the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, the most famous bridge in the world, manages to impress even the most experienced travelers with its stunning 1.7-mile span. Approximately 120,000 automobiles drive across it every day. A pedestrian walkway also allows the crossing on foot, and bikes are allowed on the western side. The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be one of the most photographed things on Earth.
Eat at the Hottest Restaurant in the Country Right Now, AL’s Place
Named after the chef Aaron London (get it?), this tiny, intimate restaurant has been on our radar since the beginning of the year. The star in the casual, sun-filled room? Vegetables. London obsessives over them, from root to tip, using a variety of techniques from pickling to specific herb pairingS. In a city as picky as San Francisco, anyone with any type of dietary restriction can come here and find something absolutely delicious.
Have a Drink at the Tonga Room Tiki Bar
A Polynesian classic, this iconic San Francisco location in the Fairmont Hotel has been pouring Tonga Mai Tais since 1945. There’s a lagoon in the center of the room where the band will play on a thatched barge, and it periodically rains and thunders throughout the evening. Large (and boozy) Tiki cocktails and pupu platters will quickly get you into an island groove. www.tongaroom.com
Run the Bay to Breakers in May
Since 1912, tens of thousands of people have gathered in San Francisco to see the world's largest footrace unfold as more than 70,000 costume-clad runners and walkers push off at 8 a.m. from the bay to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, hence the title "Bay to Breakers."
Walk the Streets of North Beach During the North Beach Festival
San Francisco's oldest street fair delights with juried arts and crafts, live entertainment, pizza toss, kids fun zone with face painting, animal blessings and other surprises.
Ride a Cable Car
Cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. The cars run on tracks and are moved by an underground cable on three routes. Their familiar bells can be heard ringing from blocks away. Tickets ($7) may be purchased at the cable car turnarounds at the ends of each route and each one-way ride will provide spectacular views of the city’s celebrated hills as well as an exhilarating method of transportation.
See the Sea Lions
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to PIER 39, a festive waterfront marketplace that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. A community of California sea lions has taken up residence on the floats to the west of the pier and visitors line the nearby railing to watch their antics. From there it’s a short walk to the San Francisco Dungeon, Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the famous crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails.
Alcatraz, the notorious former prison, is located on an island of the same name in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Some of the United States’ most notorious criminals were incarcerated there. Though several tried, no inmate ever made a successful escape from “The Rock.” The prison was closed in the 1960's and stories about Alcatraz are legendary. A visit to Alcatraz today is fascinating. Recorded cellhouse tours are available, allowing visitors to learn about the prison as they explore the buildings and grounds. To reach the island, take an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance reservations are strongly recommended, 415-981-ROCK (7625). www.alcatrazcruises.com
Walk Through the Oldest Chinatown
The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the "Dragon's Gate." Inside are 24 blocks of hustle and bustle, most of it taking place along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. This city within a city is best explored on foot; exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums comprise its boundaries. Visitors can buy ancient potions from herb shops, relax and enjoy a "dim sum" lunch or witness the making of fortune cookies.
Wait in Line at Tartine Bakery for a Morning Bun
This is the mother ship of all the lines in San Francisco. Whether you’re in line for this famed Mission bakery’s pastries (the morning bun, pain au chocolat or croissants) or the lauded country bread you are going to find happiness at the end of the wait and it’s a very rainbow/pot of gold style.
Watch the Giants at AT&T Park
AT&T Park is the home of the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. Located on the city's scenic waterfront, this classic urban ballpark is a short walk from downtown San Francisco and Moscone Center and is accessible by every means of public transit.
Catch the San Francisco Symphony at the Davies Symphony Hall
Founded as an orchestra for the people just five years after the 1906 earthquake, the San Francisco Symphony has offered innovative programs that provide a mix of classical and new music for more than 100 years. With performances over 200 days per year, from Mahler to Pops, it’s easy to find a concert you’ll love that fits into your trip.
Eat Brunch at Plow (1299 18th St.)
Plow is an iconic breakfast destination (or breakfastination) in Portrero Hill that has some of the best crispy breakfast potatoes in the city. This breakfastination is so good, your mind will be blown by even the simplest thing on the menu, The Plow: Farm-fresh eggs, your choice of bacon, house- made pork sausage, or chicken apple sausage, crispy breakfast potatoes and lemon ricotta pancakes. It’s a no-brainer.
Attend a Free Outdoor Concert at Stern Grove
Stern Grove Festival is San Francisco's summer music celebration. The festival presents 10 admission-free concerts featuring world-renowned artists in a stunning outdoor amphitheater surrounded by eucalyptus and redwood trees.
Explore San Francisco’s Armory
Where else can you mix early 20th century history with adult entertainment? Located at the corner of 14th and Mission streets and completed in 1914, the castle previously served as a National Guard facility until 1976. During the 1934 riots, officers used it as both a barricade and safety point. The building sat vacant for about 40 years (used only once by George Lucas to film the first "Star Wars" film) until Armory Studios, LLC acquired the Armory in 2007 for a much different purpose — adult entertainment.
Discover the Asian Art Museum
Located in the Civic Center neighborhood, this stately museum is home to one of the world’s most diverse collections of art and objects from across the Asian continent. Spanning 6,000 years of human history, visitors can enjoy beautiful paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles and armor, among other objects, originating from Turkey, China, India, Japan, the Philippines and other Asian cultures. www.asianart.org
Eat the Fried Chicken at Foreign Cinema
One of the most atmospheric venues in the city, this Mission pioneer has a huge patio where they screen films on the back wall while you dine. The industrial chic interior still impresses after 15-plus years. The Cal-Med menu includes quality charcuterie, oysters and, of course, their incredible fried chicken. www.foreigncinema.com
Enjoy a Martini and the View at Top of the Mark
Few drinks are as iconic as the martini. After a rough decade being transmogrified into a plethora of sickly sweet ‘tinis, the “only American invention as perfect as a sonnet” is finally experiencing a glorious comeback. First things first: a martini is made with gin, not vodka. It traces its roots to the classic Martinez (which allegedly was invented just up the bay in the city of the same name) which called for gin, vermouth and maraschino liqueur. There’s no better place to sip on a classic than at the Top of the Mark, where you get 360 views of San Francisco. www.topofthemark.com
Go to Dirty Water for Happy Hour
Dirty Water is on the ground floor of the Twitter building, across from The Market, San Francisco’s latest gourmet epicenter. The space is open and industrial and it looks great during the day or when the sun goes down. And this is perfect as there are so many delicious drinks offered, especially for happy hour: Moscow Mule or Old Fashioned. They don’t serve typical fare during happy hour either. Get yourself the crispy pig ear. www.dirtywatersf.com
Journey Back in Time at Fort Point
Before the Golden Gate Bridge was a twinkle in the eye, Fort Point stood at the mouth of the Golden Gate Strait in its defense. Built right before the Civil War, this fortification stands at the southern end of the bridge. These days, Fort Point is recognized as a national historic site and maintained as part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area (National Park Service).
Take a Stroll Down Lover’s Lane
Tree covered, this Presidio trail is the perfect place to hold hands with your sweetheart and walk down the Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy. Once you soak in the beauty, head to his other art structure, the Spire.
Marvel at the Palace of Fine Arts
As the last standing structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, we couldn’t keep the Palace of Fine Arts off this list. The detailed design from the reflecting lagoon to the weeping women at the top accents the Roman and Greek architecture beautifully. Also, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage shared a bench here during the film, The Rock. That’s reason enough to see it.
Picnic at Alamo Square Park
One of the most photographed locations in San Francisco, Alamo Square's famous "postcard row" at Hayes and Steiner Streets is indeed a visual treat. A tight, escalating formation of Victorian houses is back-dropped by downtown skyscrapers, providing a stunning contrast. The grassy square itself is an ideal midday break. One of 11 historic districts designated by the Department of City Planning, the area includes several bed and breakfast inns.
Climb up Coit Tower
Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill is blessed with marvelous views. The construction of the tower was funded by a bequest from Lillie Hitchcock Coit who left one third of her fortune to the City and County of San Francisco "to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved." Murals on its ground floor walls were painted in 1933 by some 30 local artists, each piece depicting a different aspect of the Great Depression.
Eat Your Way Through San Francisco on a Food Tour
One fabulous way to get out and about in San Francisco is to try a food tour. You can sample a wide variety of treats, plus go behind the scenes to learn a bit more about the folks making that perfect doughnut or incredible sandwich. What’s not to love? Here are some of the best tours in town.
Watch a Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival
An extraordinary showcase of cinematic discovery and innovation, since its inception in 1957, the SFIFF has hosted hundreds of prominent guests from Spike Lee to Bette Davis and presented almost 7,000 films from more than 120 countries to nearly two million filmgoers.
Stuff Your Face at Eat Drink SF and the San Francisco Street Food Festival
In San Francisco there’s apt to be a food experience that will pique the palate of most foodies and the fare literally runs the gamut from A to Z: artichokes to Zinfandel. Chefs, wine and spirits are celebrated at Eat Drink SF, an interactive urban food and wine festival featuring local talent and regional ingredients in a series of tastings, classes, dinners and events. At San Francisco Street Food Festival, La Cocina joins with Noise Pop and Midway to produce a two-day celebration of food, music and drink.
Browse the Shelves at City Lights Bookstore
When you enter City Lights Bookstore, you enter the birthplace of the Beat movement and walk the same aisles Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg perused back in the day. Founded in 1953 by poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights has an extensive and in-depth selection of poetry, fiction, translations, politics, history, philosophy, music and more many hard-to-find titles. www.citylights.com
Witness the Commitment of Love at City Hall
City Hall is the most historical place for same-sex couples to tie the knot in the City by the Bay—in some ways the birth of the marriage equality movement (inspired in part by former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom). Say "I do" on the front lines of same-sex marriage battleground by registering online.
Eat an El Farolito Burrito at 2 A.M.
It’s a rite of passage to wait in line with all the last callers at El Farolito on Mission and 24th streets after the bars close. Nothing helps you get over that hangover faster than a Mission-style burrito. It's the best, not because we say so, but because of the lines that start forming at 8 p.m. every night.
See the Entire City in One Day on Big Bus
Regularly scheduled bus tours are a great way to experience San Francisco, especially if you are short on time. Enjoy Big Bus Tours’ open-top double-decker hop-on/hop-off tour, stopping at 20 major sites and attractions around the city, including crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. You have the option of listening to a live tour guide in English or recorded commentary offered in 10 different languages. eng.bigbustours.com
Get European at the Legion of Honor
The core of the Legion of Honor’s collection was amassed by Adolph B. and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, whose particular collecting focus was 18th- and 19th-century French art. Prior to the building’s renovation in 1995, the collection was primarily dedicated to French painting, sculpture and decorative art. Over the past century, the collection has grown and expanded to encompass more than 4,000 years of ancient and European art. Today, the Legion of Honor’s collection contains more than 124,000 works of art and is recognized for its European decorative arts, sculpture and painting; and Ancient art from throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East.
People Watch at Dolores Park
This is one of the sunnier parks in San Francisco (with a great view and prime people watching) and there are a couple spots to swing by before staking out your spot on the lawn. Bi-Rite Market is one of the city’s best markets with fantastic cheeses, fruit, bread, rosé (just be sure to keep that low), plus well-made, hearty sandwiches. You can also get a pizza to go from Pizzeria Delfina—just be sure you grab enough napkins.
Get Caffeinated at Ritual Coffee
Ritual Roasters sources their coffee beans directly from small producers throughout the world, and then roasts them lightly to maximize their delicate flavors and sweetness. Their beans can be found in cafés throughout the Bay Area, but a visit to their stylish Valencia Street flagship is well worth it, with cupping (tasting) opportunities and brewing demonstrations offered daily.
Admire the Art in Clarion Alley
Clarion Alley is an alley filled with colorful pieces from a community of artists. It was originally created from six local artists (two of which were living in the alley at the time) in 1992. On any given weekend, you're likely to see new pieces going up or current canvases being maintained. This is where creativity in San Francisco continues to flourish. When walking down the alley, please be respectful of the artists and their masterpieces.
Find Your Next Vintage Find at Treasure Island Flea
Along with a great view of San Francisco, Treasure Island Flea is a market that offers great shopping for antiques and collectibles, vintage, Indie designers, artists, San Francisco food trucks and wine vendors. www.treasureislandflea.com
Look Up at the Windmills in Golden Gate Park
Standing at 75-feet-tall, the north windmill was originally constructed in 1902 to pump water. Today it’s known for the thousands of colorful tulips that surround the historic landmark in the northwest corner of the park. The windmill is worth a visit anytime, but tulip time (February and March) is the best. A second windmill, the Murphy Windmill, is located in the southwest corner of the park but has suffered significant damage. A campaign to save the windmills set out to repair both in the early 2000s as well as build a bike path connecting the two locales.
Splurge on Xiao Long Bao at Shanghai Dumpling King
Shanghai Dumpling King is the king of Xiao Long Bao, or XLB, a pork dumpling originating from Shanghai, China. Many dim sum places are actually Cantonese, so you will only find the best in Shanghai dim sum places and this is the best.
Slurp Down the Slushy at the Palm House
The Palm House evokes a bygone era of leisure. Nothing says relaxation like a slushy full of booze and the Palm House has the most indulgent in the city. It’s the perfect complement to a delicious brunch. www.palmhousesf.com
Enjoy the San Francisco Fog and Charcuterie at Trou Normand
Nestled inside the Yelp Building, sits a sunny tented patio that is an excellent place to eat homemade charcuterie. Leaving no part unused, Trou Normand offers 40 different types of meats. If there's a heavyweight champion of cured meats, Trou Normand is the winner.
Sip on a San Francisco Irish Coffee at Buena Visita Cafe
At the Buena Vista Café, on the corner of Hyde and Beach streets overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s no secret that they’ve perfected the San Francisco Irish Coffee. It’s such an institution that it doesn’t even need to use the full name: cable car placards say “Meet me at the BV.” And why not? After all, it’s where the drink first landed in America in 1952.
Get a Taste of Wine Country at Bluxome Street Winery
At Bluxome Street Winery, you’ll get a taste of wine and San Francisco history. A reel of old video footage shows San Francisco around the turn of the century (19th to 20th) and those behind the bar can tell you a few things about the area formerly known as “South of the Slot” before it became “SOMA.” Mostly though, there’s a slough of Russian River wines with Pinot Noir being the focus. www.bluxomewinery.com
Cruise on the Bay
Exploring San Francisco Bay is nothing short of magical, no matter what age. While there are many ways to stretch your sea legs, the most popular for families is a classic Bay Cruise. Get up close and personal with the city skyline, the Bay Bridge, and Alcatraz Island. If you're lucky you may even spot some sea life. If that doesn't take your breath away, sailing smoothly under the Golden Gate Bridge will. Take one with Blue & Gold or Red and White Fleet.
Walk the Entire City With City Guides
Join a San Francisco City Guide for a look at local history, architecture and culture. Prowl Gold Rush streets and alleyways or a neighborhood of grand Victorian houses. www.sfcityguides.org
Explore the Castro
One of the first predominantly gay neighborhoods in the United States, the Castro is iconic for its queer identity and is one of the liveliest communities in San Francisco. Vibrant and bustling with activity, the Castro is home to the historic Castro Theatre and GLBT History Museum.
Laugh Out Loud at Beach Blanket Babylon
Beach Blanket Babylon is now in its fourth decade and is the longest running revue in the U.S. with 15,000 performances. Seen by nearly six million people, BBB audiences love the show’s hilarious spoofs of pop culture, spectacular costumes and outrageously, gigantic hats. The story follows Snow White on a search for Prince Charming – meeting an ever-changing line-up of characters along the way. www.beachblanketbabylon.com
Try to Drink to the Bottom at the Vestry
If you must do bottomless brunch, then this casual comfort-food spot located next to The Chapel is the place to be. Order the Cowboy Breakfast, Shakshuka or Honey Hot Fried Chicken to go with your bottomless mimosas ($16). www.thechapelsf.com
Wander the Food Stalls at the Ferry Building Farmers Market
One of the nation’s most well known and admired markets, this is where you can truly witness the finest bounty of Northern California produce. You’ll see local chefs elbow-to-elbow with avid home cooks at the Saturday market—it’s the busiest (and biggest) of the three days. There are also live cooking demos on Saturday and a variety of food vendors where you can enjoy brunch, lunch and snacks; you’ll also find some lunchtime vendors during the week. Open Saturday 8 a.m.–2 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday 10 a.m.–2 p.m., year-round, rain or shine. www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com
Hike Through the Presidio
Formerly a military post, the Presidio is now a national park site and recreational paradise featuring spectacular vistas, beautiful trails, and historic and architectural treasures. Come for a hike, a walking tour, a picnic, to view an exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum, or take a stroll back in time.