Located along the ocean, with rolling hills and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and the jewel of Northern California. The city is full of history, great neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a host of entertainment and things to do.
Some of the most famous attractions are Alcatraz Island and the Fisherman’s Wharf, but there are plenty of opportunities to visit here. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest of its kind in North America and is definitely worth a visit. For an interesting experience, climb aboard one of the historic cable cars and visit the city. Discover more things to see and do with our list of the best tourist attractions in San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a Californian icon adorning the bay of San Francisco. It is the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure supported by blue water, or in many cases, culminating in low clouds. The illuminated structure is equally striking at night. Linking San Francisco to Marin County and other districts further north, the Golden Gate Bridge was at one point designated by the US Travel Service as the largest artificial spectacle in the United States. Opened on May 28, 1937, the bridge took four years to build and, when completed, was the longest suspension bridge in the world, approximately two miles long.
If you want to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1, and the walkways on either side of the bridge are open to pedestrians and cyclists. The walk begins at the start of the bridge (accessible from the Presidio shuttle) and ends with a viewpoint in Marin County. Many locals like to cycle across the bridge to the nearby town of Sausalito, at the water’s edge. Pedestrian access is on the east sidewalk; access to bikes is on the east and west sidewalks. The bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists during the day. For a magnificent view of the bridge, or for anyone interested in photographing the bridge, there are a number of ideal views. On the San Francisco side, Nob Hill, a region known for its chic old mansions, offers beautiful views of the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, in Marin County, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another good place. Also, if you plan to take a ride to Alcatraz, there are completely open views from the boat and the island.
2. Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz’s historic and notorious penitentiary, located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, is one of the most infamous prisons in America. It operated for almost thirty years, closing in 1963 and reopening as a tourist attraction in 1973. Some of America’s best known criminals were detainees here, including Al Capone and the “Birdman”, who later formed the basis of the fiction film The Birdman of Alcatraz. You can take a ferry to the island and visit the site while listening to an exceptional audio recording that offers a glimpse of life in the prison, rather than a simple historical list of facts. The narration is even expressed by former inmates and guards of Alcatraz. During its 30 years of existence, the penitentiary received a total of 1,576 convicts. There were never more than 250 at a time, even though there were 450 cells measuring approximately 10 feet x 4 feet. Sometimes the number of guards and staff was greater than the number of convicts.
While most people come for the story or the novelty of seeing an old prison, the island is now an important area for nesting seabirds. An easy, convenient, and quick way to see Alcatraz and some of San Francisco’s other highlights, such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge
3. Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular tourist areas in San Francisco. If this is your first visit to the city and you only have a day or two to see the sights, Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the best places to visit. This old section, formerly Little Italy of San Francisco, is known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful setting along the waterfront. It’s a fun place to stroll and taste the city. From here you can also take a sightseeing cruise for spectacular views of the city, or arrange a fishing charter.
Some of the main attractions in the region are the Madame Tussauds wax museum, the Mechanical museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, And Place Ghirardelli. Restored 19th and 20th century ships line the waterfront at Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The USS Pampanito, a national historic monument, is a WWII submarine and is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Pier 39, located in this general area, is home to more than 130 unique stores and eating places. It also offers great views of the city.
4. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park, home to gardens and museums, is a fabulous green space in the heart of San Francisco, often referred to as the “lungs” of the city. Before development began in 1871, it was an area of arid dunes. Today, the park has a network of hiking and biking trails, more than 5,000 different plant species and dozens of tree species, several lakes, horseback trails and a buffalo paddock. Major attractions include Young’s Museum, the California Academy of Sciences Museum with the Steinhart Aquarium, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Golden Gate Park is one of those places that can take just a few hours or a few days. Bike rentals are available, and this can be a good way to explore the park, rather than trying to do everything on foot.
5. Legion of Honor
An impressive neoclassical building of Fine Arts in an incredible setting, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is the most exquisite museum in San Francisco. The Legion of Honor was the gift of the socialite, philanthropist and patron of the arts Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Because of his love for everything that is Parisian, the museum was designed as a replica of the Palace of the Legion of Honor in Paris.
The Legion of Honor Museum has a superb collection of European decorative arts, sculptures and paintings, as well as antiques from the Mediterranean and the Near East. Entrance to this museum also gives you same-day entry to Young’s museum.
The museum is located in Lincoln Park, a beautiful green space with a golf course and coastal woods and a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll. Just outside the museum, visitors can follow the path along Lincoln Highway, which offers spectacular ocean views and a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Those looking for a more adventurous hike can head to the Land’s End Trail. This winding cliff-side trail in rugged, rugged terrain offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge.
6. Museum of Modern Art
After a complete renovation and a multi-year closure, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in spring 2016, with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space; almost three times its previous size. The museum now has 10 floors, with 45,000 feet of gallery space on the ground floor open to the public for free.
In addition to the new space, the museum has also acquired thousands of new pieces and offers a selection of exhibitions in constant evolution. The museum is free for visitors 18 and under.
7. Twin Peaks
These two unique and uninhabited hills, over 900 feet high, are not in fact the tallest of the 43 hills of San Francisco, a distinction belonging to Mount Davidson, which is 33 feet higher. They have one of the best views of the city and the bay, they are not developed and they are easy to access. You can drive to the north peak parking area for great views and hike along the trails on the north and south peaks.
The Twin Peaks are the only hills in San Francisco that have not been rebuilt and remain in their original state. The Spanish called them “Los pechos de la Chola” or the breasts of the young Indian girl. Even in hot weather, strong and cool breezes blow from the Pacific, especially in the late afternoon.
8. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, not to be confused with Golden Gate Park, is a huge natural area located across from the Golden Gate Bridge in downtown San Francisco. This 600 square mile park in Marin County is a designated biosphere reserve and is home to a myriad of attractions. It is also simply a beautiful place to enjoy nature and relax.
The park has walking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas and beautiful beaches. Some beaches offer breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is also a place of history and is home to the historic Fort Baker, a former U.S. Army post from the early 20th century.
9. AT&T Park
Home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park is a fun place to watch a baseball game while visiting the city. If you’re not able to see a game, consider taking a basic tour for a behind-the-scenes look at most people. You can learn about the historic moments that took place here and explore the architecture. Tours are scheduled around the games and do not work every day, so check the online calendar in advance.
10. de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a fine arts museum, and one of the largest public art institutions in San Francisco. Exhibits cover a variety of time frames and geographical locations. While art and period interiors from North America feature strongly in the collection, there are also many exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East. British art and folk art from Africa, America, and the Pacific Islands, are also well represented.