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By Eric Friend

Photograph of the top of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from low fog clouds in San Francisco.

Things to do in San Francisco

After living in the heart of San Francisco for 4 years, you could say that I’ve done it all. San Francisco is one of the most vibrant and dynamic cities in the United States, and there are endless possibilities for things to do here. So what do you choose? In this blog, we’ll explore the best things to do in San Francisco, including some great free activities.

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What to know before you visit:

  1. Bring layers: San Francisco’s weather can be unpredictable, so it’s a good idea to bring layers, even on a sunny day. The city is full of micro climates so even if one side of the city is warm, the area by the bridge is often very cold and windy, even in the warmest times of the year. 
  2. Safety: Crime is a growing issue in San Francisco. If you are carrying expensive camera gear or anything with obvious value, you may be a target. Never, I repeat – NEVER leave something in your car. Even if you are running into a gas station for 2 minutes, take it with you. I have seen many people get robbed in broad daylight so stay aware of your surroundings and hold on tight to your belongings at all times. 
  3. Transportation: I wouldn’t say that public transportation is the best in San Francisco compared to other big cities. I walked almost everywhere and learned to love it. Most people take Uber or Lyft but the Muni system works well enough if you want to save money. Depending on where you are going you can also look at the Bart (underground) or Caltrain systems especially when going outside the city.
  4. Parking: It is hard to find free parking places so it’s often easier and cheaper to grab an Uber, use public transportation, or walk.
  5. Food: You can try some of the best food you will ever have in San Francisco. Sea Food is an incredible three but don’t stop there. 
    • Burma Love – Burmese food is must have if you’ve never tried it
    • Tony’s Pizza – Get the New Yorker, best pizza ever! 
    • Fog Harbor – Fun area with good seafood! 
    • Dumpling time – Best dumplings I’ve had
    • Mamanoko – Amazing Sushi
    • Okoze Sushi – Small little sushi spot 
    • Scoma’s – Expensive but incredible Sea Food
    • New Spot on Polk – favorite brunch spot
    • Delancey Street Restaurant – Great brunch and dinner food! Their Hamburger is stupidly delicious
    • Bob’s Donuts – best donuts I’ve ever had by a landslide
    • Salt and Straw – unique delicious icecream
    • Ghiradelli – Touristy but very good shakes and desserts 
    • Halal Guys – If you know, you know
    • Umami Burger – Some of the best burgers EVVERRR
    • Poke Origin – Best poke I had in the city
    • Baan Yaai – Some of the best Thai Food i’ve had

The list could go on and on but I’ll stop here!

Things to do In the city of San Francisco

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge:

This iconic bridge is a must-see attraction in San Francisco. I’ve been to the Golden Gate Bridge countless times and still love it. You can walk across the bridge and take in stunning views of the city and the bay. If walking isn’t your thing, my favorite view point of the Golden Gate Bridge is called Battery Spencer. Be aware that if you drive over to this view point you will need to pay a toll crossing the bridge on the way back to the city. 

Biking across the Golden Gate Bridge:

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge is a popular activity for both locals and tourists. The bridge’s 1.7-mile bike path offers stunning views of the San Francisco Bay and the city skyline. Here’s what you need to know before you hit the road:

  1. Rent a bike: There are several bike rental shops near the bridge that offer hourly or daily rentals. Some popular rental options include Blazing Saddles, Bay City Bike, and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals. Many offer electric bikes which in my opinion is 100% worth the extra money.
  2. Plan your route: The Golden Gate Bridge bike path starts at the entrance of the bridge on the San Francisco side and ends in Sausalito, a picturesque town across the bay. You can bike one way and take a ferry back to the city, or bike round trip. If you plan to take the ferry back to the city, plan for a lot of extra time. The line to get on the ferry can get very long during tourist season and you might be waiting in line for a while. Even with the wait, I highly recommend riding the ferry back as it offers stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline.
  3. Stay safe: Biking the Golden Gate Bridge is a fun and memorable experience, but it’s important to stay safe. Wear a helmet, stay in designated bike lanes, and obey all traffic laws.
  4. Take your time: The Golden Gate Bridge is a world-famous landmark, so take your time and enjoy the views. There are several lookout points along the bike path where you can stop and take photos. Your bike rental shop will provide you with a map of the route and point you to some of the beautiful stops along the way.

Visiting Sausalito:

Give yourself some time to explore Sausalito if you decide to make the trip over there. This charming waterfront town is located right across the Golden Gate Bridge from the San Francisco. 

  • Explore the waterfront: Sausalito’s waterfront is packed with shops, restaurants, and art galleries. You can take a leisurely stroll along the water and enjoy the views of San Francisco Bay. This was one of the first things I did when I moved to SF and it continued to be one of my favorite spots during the 4 years living there.
  • Enjoy the local food: Sausalito has some great restaurants, especially when it comes to seafood. Scoma’s is a fantastic seafood place but is on the pricier end. If you are looking for something other than seafood, I also enjoyed eating pizza at Angelino Restaurant while watching the sunset.
  • Shopping and Browsing: there are tons of cute boutiques and lovely galleries filled with lovely artwork from talented artists. 
  • Hiking: There are tons of trails nearby to hike. Some of the best include the Marin Headlands Trail, the Tennessee Valley Trail, and the Muir Woods Trail.

Muir Woods:

These woods deserve a special shout out. This was probably the most popular thing we did when visitors came. 

  1. Plan ahead: Muir Woods is a popular destination, especially during peak tourist seasons. To avoid crowds and ensure that you get the most out of your visit, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and book your tickets and transportation in advance. Muir Woods does require reservations for all visitors, including those who arrive on foot or by bicycle. The first bookable times in the morning and last bookable times in the evening will be the least busy. 
  2. Decide how to get there: There are several ways to get to Muir Woods. You can drive yourself, take public transportation, or book a tour. If you drive yourself, you will need to reserve a parking spot if you plan to drive. Visit this site for booking transportation or parking: https://gomuirwoods.com
  3. Check the weather: Be sure to check the weather forecast since Muir Woods can be chilly and damp. Even if it feels warm in the city there may be fog that has settled into the Muir woods area which makes it very cold. Fog season is in the summer so don’t be fooled. 
  4. Follow the park rules: Muir Woods is a protected national park, and visitors are expected to follow the rules to help preserve the natural environment. Stay on designated trails, do not climb on the trees or disturb wildlife, and pack out all trash.

Visit Alcatraz Island:

You can take a ferry to Alcatraz Island and explore the infamous former prison. I was skeptical that this would be a worthwhile activity but I had a fantastic time. This is a fascinating and eerie place and I would recommend doing it at night if you are up for a spookie experience. Tickets can be sold out months in advance so this is one to plan ahead. 

** Tip: The ferry I took left at sunset and served drinks and snacks which made the ride over extra enjoyable. This also meant we got to explore Alcatraz in the dark which made the experience even more spooky. I highly recommend doing it this way! 

Explore Golden Gate Park:

This enormous park is a great place to spend an afternoon. There are gardens, lakes, museums, and a Japanese tea garden to discover. Some of my favorite things to do are: 

 

  • Check out the California Academy of Sciences: The California Academy of Sciences is a natural history museum that includes an aquarium, planetarium, and a rainforest exhibit. It’s a great place to learn about the natural world and explore the wonders of science.
  • Japanese Tea Garden: The Japanese Tea Garden is a little oasis in the heart of the park. Here you will find traditional Japanese architecture, peaceful gardens, and a teahouse. I loved feeling like I stepped out of California into a completely different part of the world. 
  • Botanical Garden: The Botanical Garden is a 55-acre garden that contains more than 8,000 different kinds of plants from around the world. It’s a great place to take a break from the fun insanity of the city and appreciate the beauty of nature. 
  • Rent a boat on Stow Lake: Stow Lake is a popular destination in Golden Gate Park, and you can rent a pedal boat or rowboat to explore the lake and its surroundings. I never got to do this but have heard great things! 
  • Exercise: I personally loved to use this park for a long walk or going on a run. There are so many trails that it never feels crowded. (unless some event was going on)
  • Festivals: Keep your eye out for events in the park. There are many festivals throughout the year, the biggest being the music festival Outside Lands. 

Take a cable car ride:

The cable cars are a San Francisco icon, and a ride on one is a fun way to experience the city.

Visit Fisherman's Wharf:

This bustling waterfront area is packed with shops, restaurants, and street performers.

  • Walk down Pier 39 
    • There are so many cute tourist shops
    • Check out the Sea Lion Viewing Area
    • Street performers next to the Carousel 
    • Left Handed shop – Lefty’s
    • Trish’s Mini Donuts are expensive but super good
  • EAT FOOD! My favorites are
    • Boudin Bakery – Fun famous place to try! The bread is amazing and I always love the Clam Chowder in one of their bread bowls 
    • Fog Harbor Fish House – Probably my favorite place on the Wharf. The seafood is delicious and the views are lovely. 
    • Franciscan Crab – A cute diner vibe on the inside and as you might have guessed, really good crab :) 
    • Cioppino’s was surprisingly good if you want an Italian spin!
    • Scoma’s has to be the best but it’s also the most expensive which is why I only went on special occasions.
  • Ghirardelli Square – if you’ve never been, you should check it out. It’s such a cute place to walk around and they have incredible desserts! 

Visit the Ferry Building Marketplace:

This foodie haven is packed with gourmet vendors selling everything from artisanal cheeses to fresh oysters.

  • My first few years living in the City I lived walking distance from the Ferry Building so I went often. 
  • I usually went on Saturday but it’s supposed to happen on Tuesday and Thursday as well.
    • Tuesday 10am – 2pm
    • Thursday 10am – 2pm
    • Saturday 8am – 2pm
  • You can walk around, get samples, and try food from all around the world! 
  • There are indoor and outdoor vendors so even in poor weather, it’s worth a visit.

Exploratorium Museum of Science:

If you are traveling with your family or if you like to nerd out a bit on science, the exploratorium was a blast. I went with me and a bunch of other friends (all in our 20’s) and we could have spent all day there. Highly recommend this activity especially if the weather is poor and you want to be indoors. 

  • Prices are general around these amounts unless you are eligible for a discount.
    • Adults ~$40 
    • Youth ~$30

Shows:

SF is a great place to see a Comedy, Improve, or even Broadway shows! There are lots of places to choose from but we always loved going to Cheaper Than Therapy for a good laugh.

Best Nightlife:

There are tons of places to bar crawl if you’re looking for a fun night. 

  • My favorite spot was Polk street, I lived up one street from here so it was convenient and always poppin on the weekends. You can not only find good bars but incredible restaurants all around. It’s an incredible place to be since it’s up in the hills with the city on one side and the ocean on the other. 
  • Other options include: 
    • Mission District – Known for its eclectic mix of bars, restaurants, and nightlife!
    • North Beach – This historic neighborhood is home to a number of classic San Francisco bars and pubs, including Vesuvio Cafe and the legendary City Lights Bookstore.
    • Castro – This is the heart of San Francisco’s LGBTQ community and home to many gay bars and clubs.
    • SoMa – Short for South of Market, this area is known for its trendy bars and nightclubs.
    • Union Square – This bustling downtown area is a popular destination for shopping, dining, and nightlife.

Go to a Giants Game:

Even if you aren’t a huge baseball fan, I would recommend giving this a try. I would often buy the cheapest tickets way in the back of the stadium on purpose because the views of this stadium are like no other. I highly recommend going to a game if you are there during baseball season.

Free Things to Do in San Francisco:

San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world but don’t let this stop you from visiting. Here are some things that can be done for free with a recap on things I’ve already mentioned that can also be done for free. 

Go to the Beach:

This might not be the warm beach experience you find in LA or other areas of California. The water will always be cold and the wind will likely be blowing. Have I convinced you to go yet? Lol 

All jokes aside, the beaches are absolutely beautiful and many have views of the city or the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Best views of the Bridge 

  • Baker Beach 
  • Crissy Field Beach
  • Kirby Beach
 

Some other close favorites

  • Aquatic Park Cove 
  • Ocean Beach – amazing for sunset 
  • Muir Beach
  • Half Moon Bay State Beach
 

Best Dog Friendly Beach 

  • Fort Funston (my personal favorite beach of all)

Explore Different Areas of the City:

  • Walk the Embarcadero: This scenic waterfront walk is a great way to take in views of the bay and the Bay Bridge.
  • Explore the Mission District: This vibrant neighborhood is packed with street art, colorful murals, and independent shops. 
  • Admire the views from Twin Peaks: This scenic lookout point offers breathtaking views of the city and the bay.
  • North Beach: Not an actual beach but rich with Italian heritage and full of parks and amazing food.
  • Explore the Castro District: This historic LGBTQ neighborhood is packed with colorful homes, independent shops, and friendly locals.
  • Visit the Ferry Building Market: Definitely worth doing even if you don’t plan to spend any money. (more info found above)

Visit Famous Landmarks:

  • Lombard Street: This is one of the most famous streets in the world and is definitely a beautiful site. It gets extremely crowded so I definitely recommend going early in the morning if possible. 
  • The Painted Ladies: These beautiful Victorian houses are an iconic San Francisco sight. You can take a walking tour or simply admire them from the park that sits directly above them.
  • Palace of Fine Arts: Built in 1915 and was built with the inspiration of Ancient Rome. It truly does feel like you are walking around Italy. 
  • Walk the Golden Gate Bridge: There is not a cost to walk across the bridge so go at it! 

Hiking/Nature:

  • Hike in the Presidio: This former military base has been transformed into a beautiful park with miles of hiking trails and stunning views. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge and views of the Ocean from here. 
  • Hiking Lands End: One of the most popular hikes in San Francisco for its incredible views. 
  • Visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden: Free from 7:30am to 9am and also free to visit on the second Tuesday of every month.
  • Hiking in the Marin Headlands: Very popular in the summer months when the fog settles on the ocean. You feel like you are on top of the world! 
  • Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park: a bit outside of the city but a beautiful free way to see the redwoods.

Conclusion

In conclusion, San Francisco is a city with endless possibilities for things to do. From iconic landmarks to hidden gems, there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re on a budget or looking to splurge, there are plenty of options for free and paid activities. So what are you waiting for? Start exploring this beautiful city :)

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