14 Things to Do in San Francisco for First-Time Visitors

14 Best Things to Do in San Francisco for First-Time Visitors

Ready to leave your heart in the Golden City?

Welcome to San Francisco my favourite place in the world by far. Maybe it’s the year-round windy weather, the hilly landscape that makes every view worth it, or the streets lined with colourful houses you’d want to spend all day roaming. Perhaps it’s the overall vibe that I’d describe as cultured but not pretentious, laid-back but never boring, and happening but never too frenetic. Not to mention, the many exciting San Francisco attractions for every type of traveller!  

It’s relatively small compared to other major cities in the United States, which is great if you want to explore a lot in the course of one trip. That said, read on for the top things to do in San Francisco to get a feel of what the city has to offer… and hopefully convince you to come back for more.  

Best things to do in San Francisco for spectacular views

1. Marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge

 san francisco attractions

Marshall’s Beach | Image credit: Lunamarina via Canva Pro

Starting off our list is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Because if you didn’t take a photo with this, then did you even really go to SF? (Kidding, sort of). Undoubtedly the city’s most famous landmark, this 746-foot-tall suspension bridge took four years to be constructed. It’s splashed in a shade called International Orange, which was chosen so that it would remain visible even in foggy weather. 

Golden Gate Bridge North Vista Point | Image credit: beachbum4590 via Canva Pro

While you can definitely drive down (or even walk on) the Golden Gate Bridge, there are also several viewing spots. The most popular are Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Bridge North Vista Point; the former is on the bridge’s southern end and still within the city, while the latter is in Marin County, just outside the city limits. But if you want something a bit less packed, then head over to Marshall’s Beach. You’ll have to hike quite a bit to get here, but the closer views of the bridge and fewer crowds make it worth it! 

Pro tip: Leave your heels at the hotel if you’re opting for Marshall’s Beach, unless you want to risk slipping a lot. 

Also read: These Are the World’s Most-Searched “Bucket List” Travel Experiences!

2. Admire the cityscape (and surrounding areas) from a hilltop

things to do in san francisco

Twin Peaks | Image credit: Sean Pavone via Canva Pro

There’s something about overlooking views that gives travellers a thrill, especially when visiting a destination for the first time. Fortunately for you, San Francisco is the ideal place for that! Hailed the hilliest city in the United States, it’s brimming with vista points that showcase the most breathtaking panoramas. And the best part? The views are lovely no matter the time of day, as long as the weather permits! 

things to do in san francisco

Bernal Heights Park | Image credit: anouchka via Canva Pro

Twin Peaks is among the top San Francisco attractions, mainly for its central location and high elevation that allow for 360° views of not only SF but also most of the Bay Area. For something relatively underrated, the summits of Bernal Heights Park and Billy Goat Hill are crowd favourites among locals. Both feature beginner-friendly hiking trails and equally unobstructed views of the skyline. 

Pro tip: Whichever you pick, it’s best to bring a jacket or cardigan. It can get quite windy on these hilltops, even during summertime. 

3. Ride a cable car

 san francisco attractions

Image credit (L-R): James Morehead; Lisa-Blue via Canva Pro

Another of the quintessential things to do in San Francisco would be to explore the city via cable car. An integral part of its global identity, the cable car system was invented as a solution for safely traversing the city’s steep hills, particularly during the California Gold Rush. Fast forward to the present day, it’s now the only moving national historic landmark in the United States. 

There are three lines to choose from: the California Line, Powell-Mason Line, and Powell-Hyde Line. Each takes you through several picturesque areas, but if you only have time for one, then I recommend the third! My personal favourite route for this is to depart from Powell Street Station in the Financial District. You’ll pass by several popular landmarks along the way, with the last stop being in Fisherman’s Wharf neighbourhood

Note: You can either sit or stand and hold on to the poles. If you’re doing the latter, do maintain a tight grip and avoid leaning outward! 

4. Go down the city’s most scenic winding lane

things to do in san francisco

Image credit: DianeBentleyRaymond via Canva Pro

 Nestled in the quiet Russian Hill neighbourhood is Lombard Street, a narrow one-way street built on a steep hill. It features eight hairpin turns flanked by perfectly manicured flowerbeds and lavish homes. Completing this postcard-worthy scene is a gorgeous view of the city — including San Francisco Bay, Bay Bridge, and Coit Tower. Is it any wonder that it’s one of the most photographed streets in the world? 

Image credit: DianeBentleyRaymond via Canva Pro

It’s especially lovely during spring and summer when the flowers are in full bloom! However, you’ll likely have more tourists to compete with just to get a good photo. You can either drive downhill (if you’re up for the challenge!) or take your time with the stairs. 

Pro tip: Lombard Street is part of the Powell-Hyde Line route, so you can stop by here during a cable car tour. 

Also read: 13 Most Beautiful Streets in the World to Fill Your Instagram Grid!

5. Take a breather in Mission Dolores Park

Image credit: Mattia Bericchia

In between ticking countless San Francisco attractions off your bucket list, why not spend an hour or two relaxing in a park? After all, there’s never a shortage of green spaces in this city. But if you had to pick just one, look no further than Mission Dolores Park. Situated in the vibrant and culturally diverse Mission District neighbourhood, it’s a perfect blend of lively and laid-back — especially on a sunny day!

Expect sprawling grassy fields dotted with palm trees, as well as a view of the skyline that you’ll never get bored of. You’ll find locals and tourists alike flocking here to lounge, picnic, walk their dogs, or play outdoor sports. Every now and then, some sections of the park are used as venues for festivals, live performances, and other cultural events worth sticking around for. 

San Francisco activities to immerse in culture and history

6. Start your day right in the historic Ferry Building

Image credit: JaGa

Built in the Beaux-Arts style, with a Spanish-inspired clock tower as its most prominent external feature, the San Francisco Ferry Building has certainly stood the test of time. Back in the heyday of ferry travel, it was one of the busiest transport hubs in the country. It saw several decades of decline before undergoing much-needed restoration in the early ’00s.

 san francisco attractions

Image credit (L-R): Jim Nix; Marcy Miniano

While you can definitely still take a ferry from here, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the Ferry Building Marketplace. I recommend coming here in the morning, when the skylight fills its halls with sunshine, complementing the moderately lively atmosphere. A fine example of old meets cool and new, it features locally-owned food stalls, waterfront restaurants, and various artisanal shops. You can also enjoy your coffee and snacks by the pier, and watch the boats entering and leaving the station. (Just watch out for seagulls that might steal your food!) 

7. Wander around the Palace of Fine Arts

things to do in san francisco

Image credit: Jeff Goulden via Canva Pro

The Palace of Fine Arts looks like something straight out of a Neoclassical painting; that sort of setting where a mere mortal might run into ancient mythical creatures. Well, that’s actually somewhat the intention of Bernard Maybeck: the Paris-educated architect who designed this for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. He intended for the complex to resemble a Roman temple ruin — as to showcase the “mortality of grandeur” and replicate human vanity at its peak. 

Its most prominent structure is the open rotunda, which rises up to 162ft and stands between a swan-filled lagoon and a curved exhibition centre. Nowadays, it serves as an iconic location not only for TV shows and movies, but also for photo shoots and cultural events. Or if you’re feeling extra, you can even rent it as a wedding venue! 

Pro tip: If you plan to take lots of OOTD shots here, avoid wearing pale pink and beige. Thank me later. 

8. See the splendid Painted Ladies up close

things to do in san francisco

Image credit: Joshua Sortino

A row of Victorian houses with a backdrop of modern skyscrapers: It’s easy to see why the Painted Ladies are among the most photographed San Francisco attractions. Each of the seven homes has a distinct pastel palette to accentuate its intricate asymmetrical facade. These were originally the homes of citizens who accumulated wealth from the California Gold Rush. 

While the Painted Ladies have always been a well-loved historic gem among locals, these catapulted to global fame when they were featured in the open credits of the hit sitcom, Full House. For the most optimal view of the entire row, head to Alamo Square Park, which is atop a hill right across the street. 

Fun fact: Other American cities have their own versions of these, such as New Orleans, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and St. Louis.  

9. Immerse in various artworks at SFMOMA

Image credit: Jeremy Thompson

The SoMa neighbourhood (short for South of Market) is a bustling area brimming with trendy dining spaces, craft breweries, sports venues… and some of the city’s must-visit museums! Now, I know that not all museums are created equal, with some you might have to stay and explore longer than others. That said, if you had to pick just one, then the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is the way to go! 

Image credit: Marcy Miniano

This colossal work of contemporary architecture features a jaw-dropping facade that’s already a masterpiece on its own. It’s also the first museum on the West Coast to focus on 20th-century art, although it later grew its collection to showcase contemporary art as well. Step inside and marvel at over 33,000 works ranging from painting and photography, to architecture and multimedia installations. Not to mention, SFMOMA also boasts two sleek cafes, a Michelin-starred restaurant,  and a rooftop sculpture garden. 

Pro tip: Some would say that you can tour SFMOMA within two to three hours. However, I recommend allotting around four hours to see everything it has to offer, without feeling rushed. 

10. Tour the infamous Alcatraz Island

 san francisco attractions

Image credit: Steven Ikin via Canva Pro

In the middle of San Francisco Bay lies Alcatraz Island, formerly the site of a maximum-security federal prison from 1934 to 1963. It’s mainly known for housing countless notorious criminals, with the most famous one being Prohibition-Era mobster Al Capone. However, it’s worth noting that not all the inmates were violent criminals; some were actually victims of racist and homophobic policies. 

Image credit: Gary Bembridge

The only way to get here is via Alcatraz Cruises, which is stationed at Pier 33 (aka Alcatraz Landing). Once you arrive, do the self-guided Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, which provides chilling narrations from the island’s former correctional officers and former inmates. Listen to stories of escape attempts and prison riots while checking out the claustrophobic cells, recreation yard, mess hall, and other facilities. You can even opt for a night tour for a more spine-tingling experience! 

Pro tip: Bring a jacket — regardless of which season you’re visiting. It can get quite windy here even in the peak of summer. 

Other fun things to do in San Francisco

11. Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes at Pier 39

Image credit: Chris6d

Located in the neighbourhood of the same name, it’s hard to miss the Fisherman’s Wharf complex with its iconic sign featuring a large orange crab. Its most famous spot is Pier 39, a shopping, dining, and entertainment hub with lots of family-friendly attractions. Bask in the salty breeze as you go on the vibrant two-level San Francisco Carousel, or meet the colony of boisterous sea lions hanging by the dock. You can also check out Aquarium of the Bay, Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, and virtual reality games at the Flyer Thrill Zone

Don’t forget to refuel with mouth-watering fresh seafood while you’re here! If there’s one dish you shouldn’t miss, it would be the iconic San Francisco clam chowder, which is served in a house-baked sourdough bread bowl. Eateries like Fog Harbor Fish House, Pier Market, and Crab House offer not only this dish — but also waterfront views to top off your gastronomic experience! Believe me, it’s one of those touristy things to do in San Francisco that are well worth the hype. 

Pro tip: Reserve in advance if you’re planning to dine in at any of these restaurants — especially if you want to snag the best tables. 

12. Walk and shop around Union Square

Image credit: Benson Kua

Technically, Union Square is the downtown plaza with a towering statue of the Greek goddess, Nike, at its centre. During the holiday season, this park is festooned with an 83-foot-tall Christmas tree and an ice skating rink. But for year-round attractions, don’t miss the famous Hearts in San Francisco: a series of massive heart sculptures inspired by the Tony Bennett song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco. These eye-catching art installations are handpainted by various Bay Area artists and are part of a long-running hospital fundraiser. 

At the same time, Union Square refers to the area filled with retail stores, hotels, and theatres surrounding the plaza for several blocks. Shop till you drop with a selection of high-end and mid-range brands at the likes of Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. Not much for shopping? You can also catch a show at the American Conservatory Theater, visit art galleries, or join a free guided walking tour around the area! 

Pro tip: If you see someone standing on a platform by the entrance, they’re city guides whom you can ask for directions and recommendations, or even to take your photo! 

Also read: 12 Shopping Destinations Around the World You Have to Visit in Your Lifetime!

13. Sample the best coffee shops the city has to offer

things to do in san francisco

Image credit (L-R): Alejandro De La Cruz; Marcy Miniano

Besides the rolling hills, constant wind and fog, and whimsical Victorian houses — coffee is a huge part of the San Francisco experience. Its coffee culture dates all the way back to the Gold Rush, when coffee brands like Folgers and Hills Brothers emerged to cater to the working class. Centuries later, there’s a never-ending list of local coffee shops that uphold this legacy with all sorts of innovation. 

That said, cafe-hopping is an absolute must-try in San Francisco. On one hand, you have decades-old institutions like The Buena Vista and Caffe Trieste that are part of the city’s history. On the other hand, third wave cafes like Sightglass Coffee and Linea Caffe are perfect for those who want the millennial-cool indie experience. Click here to see our top picks! 

14. Snap photos of the city’s colourful mosaic stairs

Image credit (L-R): Conrad J Camit via Canva Pro; Tom Hilton

Up for the challenge of taking some extra steps — literally? As one of the world’s hilliest cities, San Francisco has over 600 public stairways, with some taking you to hard-to-reach locations with jaw-dropping views that make the climb worth it. But if it’s the best-kept secrets that you seek, look no further than the mosaic staircases: all of which are built by locals as a way to breathe in new, artsy life to their neighbourhoods. 

 san francisco attractions

Image credit: David Yu

Currently, there are four within the city: the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, Hidden Garden Steps, Arelious Walker Stairway, and Lincoln Park Steps. And the best part? Most of these kaleidoscope-esque masterpieces are hidden in residential areas, away from the more touristy San Francisco attractions; make you feel like you’re getting to know the city as a (sort of) local

Also read: My California Coastal Road Trip: What It’s Like in the Summer!

These top things to do in San Francisco might only scratch the surface, but rest assured they’ll have you falling in love with it in no time. And this is coming from someone who first visited as a kid, then went back several times in my older years! (What can I say — I think of it as the best city in the world.)

About Author

Marcy Miniano
Marcy Miniano

A fast-talking caffeine-dependent wordsmith, Marcy has never been one to shy away from sharing a good story or two. If she’s not in a quiet coffee shop somewhere, she enjoys spending afternoons in a museum or art gallery — whether it’s around Metro Manila or a foreign city she’s visiting. She wishes to retire in a winter village someday, so she can fulfil her lifelong dream of wearing turtlenecks all year round and owning a pet penguin.

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