San Francisco offers visitors iconic attractions, verdant gardens, colorful history, and cultural diversity—all with that extra city-by-the-bay twist! With so much to see and experience, this wondrous city can seem overwhelming at first look. But you gotta start somewhere!
Here are ten must-see sites that will blow your mind—not your budget.
- Explore Historic Fishermans’ Wharf
- Coit: The Tower with a View
- Break In To Alcatraz
- Ride a Cable Car to the Stars
- Discover Chinatown Mysteries
- Haight Ashbury Tripping
- Go Retro at the Palace of Fine Arts
- Go Green in Golden Gate Park
- Have a Peak Experience at Twin Peaks
- Snap the Perfect Golden Gate Bridge Selfie
# 10 Explore Historic Fishermans’ Wharf
San Francisco’s waterfront scene is not to be missed. There is enough here to keep you busy the whole day, but be sure to step into the Aquarium of the Bay, home to more than 20,000 marine animals. Its sharks, rays, octopuses, jellyfish, and river otters have dazzled visitors for two decades.
Insider tip: Go upstairs to get a close-up encounter with these fantastic creatures. You can even feed the sharks!
Since you are close, head down to Pier 39 to bob and weave your way through the maze of attractions, shops, arcade games, and street performers. Be sure to head over the water where you’ll find the famous napping sea lions.
# 9 Coit: The Tower with a View
This towering column rising from the top of Telegraph Hill has been a fixture of San Francisco’s skyline since 1933. Be sure to take the elevator to the observation deck and capture stunning 360-degree views of the city and bay—including the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. It’s the perfect vantage point to take it all in!
Insider tip: There is a small parking lot at the top of Telegraph Hill but if you have a little time, we suggest you get there by walking up the stunning garden maze along the Filbert Street steps.
# 8 Break In To Alcatraz
The fascinating story of Alcatraz, an inescapable prison located on an unforgiving island has inspired movies like “The Rock” with Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. Back in the day, Chicago’s notorious mobster Al Capone was imprisoned at this high-security prison. While serving out his life sentence, the ruthless Capone became the banjo player in Alcatraz’s prison band, the Rock Islanders.
Insider’s Tip: If you plan to do the Alcatraz Tour during the summer or a holiday weekend, nab your tickets at least 90 days in advance. Be careful there are many scammy sites with questionable tickets–the official site is here . If you’d like to combine your Alcatraz experience with a comprehensive city tour, check out our packages here.
#7 Ride a Cable Car to the Stars
You can ride the world’s last manually operated cable car through the scenic neighborhoods of San Francisco and, like Tony Bennett famously sang, “halfway to the stars!” Cable cars were Andrew Smith Halladie’s answer to animal cruelty. After witnessing horses struggling mightily on San Francisco’s hills, Halladie dreamt up the notion of a steam engine powering an underground cable.
The three remaining cable car routes cover different parts of the city. The Powell-Hyde line is a good one for visitors. It runs from the intersection of Powell and Market Streets to the end of Hyde Street in Fishermans’ Wharf. Along the way, you can hop off and walk down the famous “crooked” street, then head a few blocks to the waterfront. Need to do a little shopping? The Powell-Hyde line passes San Francisco’s premier shopping destination: Union Square.
Insider tip: If you’d like a deep dive into the history and workings of San Francisco’s cable cars, check out the Cable Car Museum at Washington at Mason Streets.
# 6 Discover Chinatown Mysteries
Chinatown is its own city within the city. Its streets bustle with life amid golden dragon and red lanterns create a matrix of red lanterns. Grant Street is the “Main Street” of Chinatown and location of the photogenic Dragon’s Gate. As you wander, look for women playing mahjong and men playing Chinese chess in the park.
Peek into the shops, shelves full of exotic ingredients and wares. If it’s meal time, line up for some authentic local cuisine. We love the Garden Bakery for moon cakes and the House of Dim Sum. Before leaving Chinatown, relax in one of the many Chinese tea shops where you can choose from hundreds of exotic varieties.
Insider tip: Follow your nose to Ross Alley and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Since 1962, it has made delightful fortune cookies by hand. Watch as scratch dough is pressed into cast iron griddles, then stuffed with fortunes. Taste the piping-hot samples. Pick up a bag of chocolate-dipped cookies with sprinkles for later. It won’t cost… you guessed it, a fortune!
# 5 Haight Ashbury Tripping
The summer of 1967 was the “Summer of Love” when 100,000 people communed in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury kickstarted the Hippie Revolution. San Francisco soon became the mecca for a subculture that would influence the country for a generation. Insider’s Fact: Hippies borrowed heavily from an earlier San Francisco cultural movement, the Beat Generation of authors of the 1950s who flourished in the North Beach area.
Long after the Summer of Love gave way to Silicon Valley’s digital age, “The Haight” remains a vibrant, counter-cultural hub reminiscent of the days of peace, free love, flowers and psychedelic trips.
Insider’s tip: Our San Francisco City Insider’s tour takes you to the homes where the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and the Grateful Dead lived. Rock ‘n roll is still bringing people together in Haight Ashbury!
# 4 Go Retro at the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of the Fine Arts is the last of ten palaces constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The handsome rotunda is entirely enclosed by a super-picturesque lagoon. The Palace is a favorite spot for local couples to take their wedding pics, so be careful that you’re not photobombing someone during your visit.
As you meander through the ancient Greek-inspired colonnades, look for Bruno Zimm’s repeating panels portraying “The Struggle for the Beautiful”; then look up to spot Ulric Ellerhusen’s frieze work representing contemplation, wonderment, and meditation.
Insider tip: The Marina District, where the Palace is located, was built on a shaky mix of sand, rubble, and garbage, and suffered a good deal of damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the one that interrupted game 3 of the a World Series matchup between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.
# 3 Go Green in Golden Gate Park
Inside the 1,000+ acre Golden Gate Park there are gardens aplenty. There’s the Conservatory of Flowers, Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, Rose Garden, Shakespeare Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, Camellia Garden, Fuchsia Dell, Rhododendron Dell, Redwood Grove and several Lily ponds.
But the gold medal goes to the San Francisco Botanical Garden. The gardens are vast and host more than 8,000 varieties of flowers and plants. Stroll through a grove of coastal redwoods, a Mediterranean garden, a meso-America forest, and other spaces featuring flora from Chile, Australia, Japan, and California.
Insider tip: Escape the city and immerse yourself in the Botanical Garden’s peaceful Moon Viewing Garden. The beautiful plants and stone pagodas from Japan will be zen-sational!
# 2 Have a Peak Experience at Twin Peaks
From these 922-foot peaks, you’ll enjoy 360-degree views of San Francisco which are not to be missed. The hills sit very close to the geographic center of the city so they make for exceptional photo opportunities. If you are lucky enough to be there when the fog is below the hill tops, Twin Peaks is the place to catch a wonderful San Francisco sunrise.
Insider tip: You can drive or take a bus to the north peak parking lot and access the peaks from there, but if you’re able, hiking will treat you to incredible views and native flora and fauna, including the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly and its host plant, the Silver Lupine.
#1 Snap the Perfect Golden Gate Bridge Selfier
There are many great spots to frame up this San Francisco icon. Coit Tower, Battery Godfrey, Marin Headland, and Baker Beach all service up memorable photos. But our favorite is Fort Point. Not only has the fortress safeguarded the city for over 150 years, it is a prime spot to capture a striking profile of Golden Gate Bridge. The intricate masonry of the Fort blends nicely with the deco-inspired architecture of the bridge. Bridge architect Joseph Strauss recognized the Fort’s importance, and created a unique arch over its top.
Want more California dreamin’? Explore our San Francisco bus tours to Northern California destinations like Muir Woods, Monterey, Yosemite National Park, and Napa Valley. We got you covered on all of the San Francisco essentials!