San Francisco is only seven miles long but has plenty of activities that are sure to please outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers, foodies, and curious wanderers of all ages. The Golden Gate Bridge is a must, while a trip to Alcatraz Island to visit the infamous and now-closed maximum-security federal prison should also be on your list.
Instead of spending all your time around the touristy Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, you can discover a more authentic side of San Francisco with a bite to eat at the Ferry Building Marketplace or with a walk through the bustling neighborhoods of Castro or North Beach, And whether it's climbing Twin Peaks or Coit Tower, strolling through Mission Dolores Park or admiring the redwoods of Muir Forest, the active and nature-loving will find something to enjoy fun in San Francisco.
The Golden Gate Bridge's vaulting, orange arches amidst the rocky seascape of the San Francisco Bay have made it one of the West Coast's most enduring symbols and the city's most popular tourist attraction. The bridge's name, "Golden Gate," actually refers to the body of water it spans (the Golden Gate Strait that connects the Pacific Ocean with the San Francisco Bay), and was built to make travel between San Francisco and Marin County an easier feat.
There are plenty of great spots to capture a snap of the majestic bridge. But if you want a truly postcard-worthy shot, head to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, situated high on a hill overlooking San Francisco. If you have extra time, make sure to explore the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The actual span of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses multiple places in San Mateo (south of San Francisco), San Francisco, and Marin counties (Alcatraz and Muir Woods included), but notable parts of this recreation area can be found just a stroll away from the Golden Gate. From the bridge, travelers will find some scenic, bayside trails, some of which lead to secluded beaches, including Kirby Cove and Black Sands Beach.
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If California had a Central Park equivalent, Golden Gate Park would undoubtedly be it. Though Golden Gate Park sees a small fraction of the visitors its New York counterpart does (Central Park welcomes more than 42 million, while Golden Gate sees more than 24 million yearly), it's about 174 acres bigger (Central Park is 843 acres).
The park offers so much to see and do, it could take an entire day to experience all that it has to offer. Trails, picturesque picnic spaces, playgrounds, sports courts, gardens, museums, and more can be found within its evergreen borders. With so many options available, it's best to map out what you want to do ahead of time, though some attractions warrant a visit, regardless of the traveler's taste.
The Japanese Tea Garden is one of those standout sites. This attraction is one of a kind, serving as the oldest Japanese garden in the U.S. It features 5 acres of manicured gardens outfitted with cherry trees, bamboo-lined pathways, koi ponds, a five-story pagoda, a Zen garden, a tea house, among other features.
While riding a cable car and getting a snap of the Golden Gate Bridge is a must when visiting San Francisco, both visitors and travel experts tend to argue the same for Alcatraz. This is because Alcatraz is rich in history. Sitting on a small, rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz is best known as being a former federal prison that housed some of society's biggest offenders, the most famous of which was Prohibition-era mob boss Al Capone.
Before that, it was a military prison that housed prisoners from the Spanish American War and Civil War, as well as the site of the West Coast's first operating lighthouse. The prison closed down both times due to high operating costs and was handed over to the National Park Service in 1972 after the island experienced a short occupation from Native American activists. Today, the attraction welcomes more than one million visitors per year.
This museum, or as it refers to itself, "a learning laboratory," features 600 hands-on exhibits that cover a plethora of subject matter, such as engineering, psychology, geography, and biology. The museum spreads its knowledge over six main galleries, each with its standout interactive offerings. Here, visitors can feel what it’s like to be inside a tornado, walk on an outdoor fog bridge, gaze at a bacteria terrarium, swim through the air with an antigravity mirror, and more.
Though the Exploratorium appears as if it's designed for kids, travelers say it's a great attraction for all ages. Adults report feeling just as excited and amazed at the galleries and exhibits as kids. Though if you prefer to experience The Exploratorium without having to deal with kiddos running around, a few visitors suggested stopping by on a Thursday evening, when the attraction is open to visitors 18 years and older from 6 to 10 p.m. Regardless of the time you arrive, travelers say there is so much to see and do, you could easily spend a whole day there. And though the high price of admission might turn some off, many agree that the experience is worth the price.
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If you want the best views of San Francisco, take a hike to Twin Peaks. These famous grassy peaks rise 922 feet in elevation, making them the second-highest point in the city (after Mount Davidson). From the top, travelers can view multiple San Francisco landmarks, including the Bay Bridge and the downtown skyscrapers. Whether you decide to go during the day or night (some say you should do both), numerous visitors agree that the views are stunning and worth the trek. But make sure to bring a jacket: many recent visitors said it can get windier (and subsequently chillier) up top than at sea level.
The Twin Peaks are open from 5 a.m. to midnight and it is free parking at the top of Twin Peaks Boulevard. The Castro Street station is the nearest Muni Metro stop and the Crestline Drive stop on the No. 37 is the best bus route (picks up from Market Street). The most common way that travelers visit the area is by walking or biking to the north peak parking lot. Many guided tours also stop here. If you’re up for a little more exploration, hike the nearly mile-long trail that ascends the two peaks. More trails meander along the southern and eastern slopes of the 64-acre park. Be sure to stay on marked trails, as poison ivy can be found in the area.
One of the best places in San Francisco to watch the sunset, Lands End offers quaint, winding paths through the cliffs. Located in the northwest corner of San Francisco, the park is located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park includes several historic sites, monuments, several trails, and a coastal maze with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Visitors often rave about the park's trails and views of the Golden Gate Bridge and other San Francisco landmarks. Many people enjoy the historic ruins of the Sutro Baths, which San Francisco used as a recreational swimming pool from 1898 to 1964. The baths were demolished in 1964, then destroyed by fire in 1966, leaving a structure that can be viewed by visitors today. Likewise, the park's iconic Cliff House has been destroyed by fire twice but has been rebuilt each time. Culture vultures will want to stop by the nearby Legion of Honor Museum, which showcases European paintings, European sculpture and decorative art, and ancient art from the Mediterranean basin, with other works.
True Disney fans won't be able to miss the Walt Disney Family Museum, which delves into the history surrounding the iconic creator. The museum's galleries date back to Walt Disney's childhood and trace his life through the construction of Disneyland, highlighting his legacy and various achievements along the way. Rotating exhibitions expand the museum area and offer a closer look at the artists and animators who helped inspire classic characters, such as Pinocchio and Mickey Mouse.
Previous visitors have been impressed with the depth with which the museum explains Walt Disney's early life. The Walt Disney Family Museum is an American museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Walt Disney. The museum is located in the San Francisco Presidio, part of San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
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Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Presidio Tunnel Tops is the nation's newest national park space and connects the city to the bay. The 14-acre park, designed by James Corner Field Operations (the same team behind New York's High Streets) crosses the newly dug Presidio Avenue. The boardwalk (formerly Doyle Drive) separates the historic Main Post Office from the waterfront. Connecting trails, rugged landscapes, and observatories have made the park a gathering place for locals and visitors alike.
One of the park's largest areas, the Golden Gate Meadow, is a popular spot for families to have picnics, kitesurfing, and other outdoor activities. Gardens and cliff walk line the meadow, which also offers views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay, and the Cape of Marin. The 2-acre play space called Outpost features giant play structures built from fallen tree trunks, rocks, and other nature-inspired objects, allowing children to swing, crawl and climb.
If you want to explore San Francisco's rich gay and lesbian culture, the Castro neighborhood is its beating heart. Not only is Castro the heart of the city's LGBTQ community, but it's also considered by many to be the gay capital of the world. And once you learn Castro's story, it's easy to see why. In the 1970s, Castro was home to Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay public servant and one of the first in the United States.
His tireless efforts in the gay rights movement not only earned him the title of "Mayor of Castro Street," but his political efforts helped put San Francisco at the forefront of the gay rights movement. gay people. His previous camera shop, Castro Camera, also served as campaign headquarters and is still located on Castro Street. In June 2022, the space reopened as a gay arts hub.
Visitors have found the Castro comfortable, fun, and above all colorful, citing friendly residents, extensive amenities, and striking aesthetics as its best features. This neighborhood is filled with quaint Victorian houses, formerly built by immigrants who moved to Castro in the 19th century in search of cheap land (the area was once a dairy farm). Travelers say a stop at Harvey Milk's old camera store is a must.
While New York's Chinatown tends to take center stage in the United States, San Francisco's Chinatown is no less a star. San Francisco's Chinatown is home to one of the largest Asian communities outside of Asia and is considered one of the oldest in North America.
Chinese immigrants began arriving in California to seek their fortunes during the Gold Rush. After being evicted from the gold mines (due to discriminatory laws and restrictions on Chinese immigrants), the Chinese decided to set up their businesses in what is now Chinatown, one of the most visited and loved areas in the city.
Postcard-worthy sights like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Silicon Valley may be San Francisco's most famous icons, but San Francisco is equally acclaimed for top-notch food, entertainment, sports, and culture. It's getting — considering everything from the waterfront of the bay to the bustling neighborhoods, there's always something for visitors to do and discover an array of lesser-known gems hidden around every corner.
Whether you're an outdoorsy type or staying indoors and tasting local cuisine would be the ideal getaway, San Francisco offers adventures of all kinds. If you're looking for must-see sights and activities off the beaten track, here are some of the best things to do in San Francisco to get started.