22 amazing things to do in San Francisco
Hip, quirky and still wonderful, San Francisco has a wealth of unique opportunities for visitors to explore
From the beatniks of the 50s to Haight-Ashbury hippies, to billionaire tech pioneers, San Francisco has always attracted those who think out of the box. And as the second most densely-populated city in the USA after New York, it’s no surprise that there’s plenty to do here.
1. Escape to Alcatraz
San Francisco’s island prison was where the worst of the worst were incarcerated – gangsters and bank robbers like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and “Whitey” Bulger. Although many escapes were attempted, all were thwarted by the currents and cold waters of San Francisco Bay. These days, getting to and from Alcatraz is rather easier thanks to a regular ferry service. Day and night tours are available – it’s worth booking your trip to Alcatraz well in advance, as there’s a reservation system in place and they sell out quickly. As well as looking back at the island’s time as a prison, the tours also take in its less well-known history as a 19th-century harbour fort and a military prison.
2. Chew on some San Francisco sourdough
San Francisco sourdough dates back to the days of the California Gold Rush, when the Forty-Niners used natural yeast and bacteria to create a long-lasting, durable bread (so iconic is the city’s sourdough that the bacteria used for the starters is called Lactobacillus sanfrancisco). For a taste of the Gold Rush era, head over to the Boudin Bakery at Fisherman’s Wharf for a tour – the bakery has set aside a piece of mother dough each day for the next day’s batch since its inception, even during the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
More recently, the city’s become famous – or notorious – for its artisan toast. The Mill bakery will sell you a slab-like slice for a whopping $4, with toppings including, but not limited to, homemade Nutella, maple syrup and almond butter. If those moreish pricey slices are starting to eat into your bank balance, you can take the DIY approach and learn from the master. The Mill’s baking maestro Josey Baker – an example of nominative determinism in action – offers classes throughout the year.
3. Journey to a galaxy far, far away
Star Wars creator George Lucas has long-standing ties with San Francisco; he grew up in nearby Modesto, lived in the city while writing the first film, and his production company Lucasfilm is based in the Presidio National Park. The lobby area of Lucasfilm’s HQ at The Letterman Digital Arts Center is a public space, showcasing a collection of props from the films; the Yoda fountain outside is a point of pilgrimage for Star Wars fans.
For dedicated Jedi Masters, Rancho Obi-Wan offers tours of the world’s biggest collection of Star Wars merchandise (you’ll need to book well in advance). Further afield – a four-hour drive north of the city – you’ll find Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, where scenes set in the Endor forest were shot for Return of the Jedi.
4. See the city from the top of Coit Tower
Jutting up from Telegraph Hill, the art deco Coit Tower pays tribute to socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit and the city’s firefighters. The views of the city from the top of the tower are stunning – but the real highlight is the collection of murals decorating the tower’s interior. Paying tribute to the social realist work of artist Diego Rivera, they paint a picture of a bygone Depression-era California. For most of the tower’s lifetime, only the first floor of murals, depicting the world of industry and agriculture, were visible; in recent years the second floor’s frescoes, illustrating home life and leisure, have been restored and are now open to public view. (Photo by Sasha on Unsplash)
5. Meet the Emperor of the United States
Joshua Abraham Norton was one of the great eccentrics; a failed businessman who in 1859 declared himself Emperor of the United States. San Francisco was willing to indulge his fantasy, humouring his decrees, letting him eat for free in the city’s finest restaurants and allowing him to use his own coinage. The Emperor Norton Walking Tours of historical San Francisco – led by a guide in Norton’s full imperial regalia – take in the Emperor's 19th-century haunts, as well as covering other famous events in the city’s history such as the 1906 earthquake.
6. Join the Gold Rush
An hour and a half’s drive north-east of San Francisco is Sacramento – a town created during the Gold Rush of 1849, as miners hurried up the river to seek their fortune in Gold Country. These days, Old Sacramento is a national historic landmark, preserving the 19th-century buildings in all their grandeur. Coach rides and walking tours highlight the area’s history, while an Underground Tour explores how the city was raised to prevent flooding in the 1860s and 70s.
Nearby, the California State Railroad Museum explores how railways connected the east and west coasts, turning the state into the powerhouse it is today – and you can see a vintage locomotive in action yourself, on a six-mile trip aboard the Sacramento Southern Railroad running alongside the Sacramento River.
7. Help to save the world with your dinner
With livestock contributing as much as 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s clear that the food on our plates is a major contributor to climate change. Fortunately, restaurants like The Perennial are springing up to offer meals with a conscience. Everything in the restaurant is geared towards sustainability, from the decor – recycled and reclaimed – to the food. Vegetables are cultivated using aquaponics – in which plants are grown over fish tanks, with the fish waste fertilising the plants and the plants oxygenating the water. Even the menus and napkins are composted, fed to worms and turned into fish food.
The meat that goes into dishes like beef tartare and Lamb Belly and Collard Green Crépinette is sourced from farms that use rotational grazing. That encourages perennial grass growth, locking carbon in the ground and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. And yes, the drink straws are made from actual straw.
8. Discover the birthplace of Beat
Founded in 1953, the City Lights bookstore was the epicentre of the Beat movement, the postwar literary movement that upended convention and rejected conformity. Playing host to readings by the likes of Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the independent bookstore also published counterculture works such as Ginsberg’s Howl – which saw its owners drawn into an obscenity trial. Nowadays, it’s a destination for Beat pilgrims, recognised as an historic landmark; it’s also a splendid bookstore, with eclectically-ordered collections cluttering the shelves. Including, of course, Beat literature.
9. Meet the sea lions of Fisherman's Wharf
Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf is unashamedly touristy – a combination of shopping centre and amusement park, with musical stairs, mirror mazes and 7D cinemas all vying for your attention. The undoubted stars of the show, though, are the sea lions camped out on the K-Dock. Since the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, they’ve been a fixture of Fisherman's Wharf; their numbers swell in winter, but there’s usually at least a few holdouts – drawn to the area by its sheltered position and plentiful food supply. Opposite, a Sea Lion Center reveals all you could ever want to know about sea lion biology, including presentations and interactive displays.
10. Go Plane Crazy for Walt Disney
Few individuals have made as big a mark on American culture as Walt Disney – animator, innovator and creator of Mickey Mouse. The Presidio plays host to the Walt Disney Family Museum, a 40,000 sq ft space that houses ten galleries dedicated to his life and work.
You can follow Disney’s story from his early days as an animator to his innovations as a film producer, through to the utopian visions of his theme parks; exhibits on display include a 12ft model of Disneyland, the unique Academy Award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the multiplane animation camera used on many of his most famous films. There’s also a cinema playing (what else?) Disney classics daily.
11. See the greats of modern art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2016 following a massive expansion, adding 100,000 square feet of gallery space. That means there’s plenty of room to showcase works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Rene Magritte, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol, among many others. As well as iconic artworks, there’s a wealth of design, architecture, photography and media arts on display. If you’ve got an iPhone, be sure to download the SFMOMA app, which uses clever indoor positioning tech to guide you around the museum on immersive walks.
12. Discover Brenda’s crawfish beignets
The Tenderloin is the neighbourhood hotel concierges warn you about. But while it’s undoubtedly one of Downtown’s grittier areas, that doesn’t stop brunchers lining up outside Brenda’s for the best soul food this side of New Orleans. The don’t-miss dish is a savoury twist on a French Quarter classic, the beignet: these naughty fritters are stuffed with crawfish, cheddar and spring onions, then dusted with cayenne. Oo-la-la, indeed.
While you’re there, why not get the lowdown on what the Tenderloin Museum calls the city’s “most misunderstood neighbourhood”? Or check out the London Underground-themed interiors at nearby, off-the-radar bar Whitechapel.
13. Climb scenic staircases
San Francisco is renowned for its hills; one favourite way of getting from top to bottom is Filbert Street Steps, a staircase fringed with tumbling gardens that leads up a cliffside to landmark Coit Tower. But there are many more, lesser-visited picturesque stairways dotted about. The 16th Avenue staircase, in The Sunset district, is covered with brightly-painted mosaic tiles, depicting a journey from sea to stars; not only a great selfie opportunity, the view from the top sweeps over the neighbourhood, an infinite-looking Pacific and distant green headlands.
The Lyon Street steps start in wealthy Pacific Heights and end at the Marina; along the way, you’ll see manicured gardens, a sculpture from the ‘Hearts of San Francisco’ public art project, swanky mansions, blue Golden Gate strait views - plus dozens of fitness fanatics using them as a StairMaster. Fancy a challenge? Try the gruelling Baker Beach sand stairs, which give an excellent vantage over a certain red bridge. (Photo by Fabrice Florin licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
14. Tune into Stern Grove
Golden Gate Park’s annual Outside Lands festival has long been regarded one of the best music events in the US. But San Francisco has another brilliant music festival in Stern Grove - and it’s free. Every Sunday for a month, from late July to August, in-the-know locals take picnics to the meadows and wooded hillside in this pretty public park, and enjoy free concerts spanning various genres - the 2017 lineup included the San Francisco Symphony, electro-indie band Brazilian Girls and gospel legend Mavis Staples. The event also features beloved San Francisco food trucks, like bao chief The Chairman and Indian street food fusers Curry Up Now.
15. See a secret 40th floor view
A city as beautiful as San Francisco isn’t short of views. But there’s one unique overlook that was off-limits to the public - until now. The Loews Regency hotel recently opened its 40th floor terrace to walk-in visitors, who can take in this dramatic, little-seen view with a tipple. The terrace faces directly onto the Financial District’s temple-like Transamerica Pyramid, with Coit Tower perched atop Telegraph Hill in the distance, backdropped by a panorama of the bay. The ‘Spirits in the Sky’ happy hour runs Thursday to Saturday during the spring and summer months and (so far) remains relatively unknown.
16. Swing from a hilltop
There are many famous green hills to climb for more sweeping views, from Twin Peaks and Buena Vista, to Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park. But venture out to some of San Francisco’s more obscure hills and there’s a bonus - a tree swing at the top. Swinging from Bernal Heights Hill gives views over the bay and all the way to Oakland; mid-way between Buena Vista and Twin Peaks, under-visited Tank Hill has knock-out 360-degree views - best admired from its crowning swing, of course.
17. Eat multicoloured croissants
While rainbow bagels just taste like bagels, Baker Doe’s amazing Technicolor croissants don’t lack flavour. The mystery pastry-makers top them with puffs of cotton candy and milk foam, and fill them with all manner of concoctions, from chile orange curd to black garlic caramel cream. But if you’re not convinced by multicoloured food, there’s plenty more to try from this pair of chefs who are, for now, keeping their identities under wraps. Adding to the mystique, you can only buy their wares at Chinatown coffee shop Enter The Cafe on Saturdays, or by catching sporadic Facebook announcements. Worth the faff? The constantly-shifting menu’s recent offerings include salted duck yolk custard croissants, and a squid ink Danish with bechamel and egg. So: Yes.
18. Find The Presidio ‘Spire’
The Presidio – 1,500 acres of trails, forests and Golden Gate Bridge views built on a former military base – is a must-see when you're visiting San Francisco. Walk the easy Bay Area Ridge Trail through its eucalyptus groves, though, and you’ll see something spooky: a witchy-looking stick temple, the kind of ominous totem teenagers stumble across in horror movies. Lucky for you, it’s actually a sculpture by British artist Andy Goldsworthy. ‘Spire’, 100ft tall and created from 37 cypress trunks, has been described as a giant steeple growing out of the Earth. Not everyone will get to see it, though - Goldsworthy also planted cypress saplings around the sculpture that will eventually grow tall enough to obscure it from view.
19. Step inside a giant camera at the edge of America
Lands End is just that – teetering at the very edge of the city, and North America itself, it’s worth making the trek here to walk the coastal trail and gaze over a seemingly endless Pacific (the next stop from here is Japan). While you’re in the area, check out the Camera Obscura, a relic of 1940s San Francisco hidden behind Cliff House restaurant. Step inside this old-school booth and you’ll see a 360-degree ocean view projected onto a 6ft table, courtesy of a small lens in the roof. Sunset is particularly lovely – though check the weather before you set off, as the area is prone to fog. Opening hours can be changeable, so call ahead. (Photo by Eugene Kim licensed under CC BY 2.0)
20. Brave bone marrow waffles
Liholiho Yacht Club has remained one of the city’s hottest restaurants since opening in 2015 - you’ll need to reserve at least a month in advance for a chance of a table before 10pm. But not everyone knows this Hawaiian-Cali fusion eatery has another restaurant in its basement, Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, where the kitchen is limited to a single waffle maker. The menu’s star item? The bone marrow butter waffle with smoked sturgeon and avocado is said to be a masterclass in umami.
21. Listen to ‘the wave organ’
At first glance, the wave organ just looks like an ungainly jumble of granite. But make your way down to this oddity at the end of a jetty in the Marina’s boat harbour, and you’ll realise it’s actually a “musical sculpture”. In 1986, artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez built the organ using materials from a demolished cemetery. They included 25 pipes that reach down into the ocean, playing different notes as the waves crash or lap into them. The sounds vary with the tides, but generally range between gurgles and burps. (Photo by Allison Meier licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
22. Sample weird and wonderful ice cream
If there's a foodstuff that San Francisco hasn't jazzed up with artisanal stylings, we'd like to see it. Ice cream is the latest dish to attract the attentions of San Francisco's hipsters. Try boutique ice cream shop Salt & Straw, with a rotating menu of bizarre flavours including salted caramel Thanksgiving turkey and bone marrow with smoked cherries. Or if you prefer more conventional flavours served up with a bit of pizzazz, pop into mini-chain Smitten – which mixes up ice cream to order using liquid nitrogen.