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19 things do in San Francisco for first-timers

Welcome to the vibrant and dynamic city of San Francisco. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or returning after a few years, there’s an endless array of exciting things to do in San Francisco.

San Francisco City Skyline and pelican
San Francisco Pelican at Crissy Field pier

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The city of San Francisco in Northern California packs a vast number of landmarks and attractions into an area of less than 50 square miles.

From iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island to diverse neighborhoods and a delicious food scene, there’s something for everyone in the “City by the Bay.”

Let’s explore some of the best experiences that will make your visit unforgettable. Grab your walking shoes, hop on a cable car, and get ready to discover the best things to do in San Francisco.

What is San Francisco known for?

San Francisco is known for its stunning natural beauty, diverse culture, and iconic landmarks including:

  • The Golden Gate Bridge – the city’s most iconic landmark
  • Cable cars – the city’s historic symbols of transportation
  • Alcatraz – the infamous island prison, once home to criminals like Al Capone
  • Cultural diversity – San Francisco prides itself on being one of America’s most culturally diverse cities
  • Lombard Street – the most crooked street in the world
San Francisco city scape

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

The best things to do in San Francisco for first-timers

There are some things to do in San Francisco that you simply can’t miss off your itinerary. These are some of the best San Francisco attractions like getting up close to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, checking out the best views of the bay from Golden Gate Park and taking a boat ride across to the former prison on Alcatraz Island.

You’ll also want to trundle up the city’s hills on one of the iconic cable cars, both for the experience and the glorious views. And that’s just for starters.

Here’s what to see and do in San Francisco for the first time visitor.

Ride a San Francisco Cable Car

The city of San Francisco includes a whopping 43 hills and some perilously steep streets. Back in the late 1800s, cable cars were the San Franciscans’ answer to climbing these steep hills. Some of them still operate today and are designated National Historic Landmarks.

The cable cars are manually operated, and you’ll meet some real characters running them.

You can hop on at one of the turntables where the cars are rotated or at the signed stops along the route. Try and get an outside seat for the best views.

San Francisco Cable Car

The Powell-Hyde car is probably the most scenic. Its route passes Lombard Street but don’t get off there, stay on for some fabulous views of Alcatraz from the crest of Hyde Street.

You can purchase tickets from booths at the turnarounds or from the cable car conductor. Make sure you have the exact change if you want to buy your ticket on the car. A one-way ticket costs $8, or an all-day paper passport is excellent value at $24. You can also use the Clipper on the cable cars.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Check out Lombard Street

Lombard Street, San Francisco
Lombard Street, San Francisco

In San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighbourhood, you’ll find Lombard Street, famously known as the “Crookedest Street in the World”. The street slopes at a terrifying 40 degrees, and every year, millions of visitors walk or drive down the steep incline and its eight switchbacks.

Lined with gorgeous Victorian mansions, Lombard Street is one of the best-known landmarks in the city and definitely one of my top things to do in San Francisco. As you walk down Lombard Street, you can see Coit Tower in the distance.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Climb Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower

Coit Tower in San Francisco
San Francisco – view of Coit Tower and North Beach

The Coit Tower offers some of the best views of San Francisco and is also the location of some amazing murals from the 1930s. To reach the tower, you can either climb the hilly streets or climb the 400 butt-crunching Filbert Street steps.

The views of downtown San Francisco, across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and out to Alcatraz will soon make you forget the lung-busting climb, while the Art Deco elevator and murals are an added bonus.

Check out my article about Coit Tower.

Take the ferry to Alcatraz

It would be criminal to visit San Francisco without taking a ferry trip and guided tour of the former military prison on Alcatraz Island, especially as ‘the Rock’ can be seen from many parts of the city.

Alcatraz, San Francisco
Alcatraz, San Francisco

The audio tour at Alcatraz is one of the best I’ve heard and conjures up the misery of life in prison. During your visit, you can walk ‘the Yard’ and stand in the cells where Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly did time.

Listen to accounts of life on the inside and imagine the echo of footsteps along cold concrete corridors, the clunk of keys and the slamming of cell doors.

Peer through window bars and imagine how it felt to hear the sounds of New Year parties floating across the water from the city. It’s no surprise there were so many escape attempts, and you’ll learn about some of them.

You’ll also enjoy fabulous city views on the fifteen-minute boat trip back to Pier 33. Alcatraz is a national historic landmark which is another excellent reason to visit.

>>> Check rates and availability for the Alcatraz ferry and tour

The Alcatraz ferry and tour is definitely one of the best things to do in San Francisco and tours get booked up well in advance. Book online before your visit, and don’t forget to take a jacket for the boat ride because it gets chilly!

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Drink Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Cafe

Buena Vista Café, or its owner, Jack Koeppler, was responsible for introducing the Irish Coffee to America. The drink was originally created by Joe Sheridan in Shannon Airport, Ireland but Koeppler wanted to serve it too. 

Sit inside and see how they’re made with hot coffee, double cream, sugar and a good slug of whiskey and lined up on the bar. It’s all part of the Irish Coffee experience and definitely one of the best things do in San Francisco on a rainy day.

Try Clam Chowder at Fishermans Wharf

Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco

Head to Fishermans Wharf, a three-mile stretch along the waterfront. Try the delicious clam chowder served in a bowl of sourdough bread or the sweet, tasty Dungeness crab.

The pier is quite touristy, but it’s also a genuine fishing hub where you’ll discover some of San Francisco’s maritime history. Some of the old warehouses have been restored and house exhibits and museums.

Check out the street performers, see the pearl shops, fish stalls and enjoy the lively atmosphere. There are also excellent view out to Alcatraz and Angel Island from Fisherman’s Wharf.

>>> Check out the Hop on Hop off bus which stops at Fisherman’s Wharf and other top San Francisco attractions.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

See the Sea Lions at Pier 39

Check out the sea lions congregating at Pier 39.

They didn’t always hang out at Pier 39. They arrived in 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake and decided to stay. Thirty years later they’re still there and number over 300. The sea lions enjoy the plentiful food, protection from storms and the fact that sharks and orcas don’t come into the bay.

Warning – they are pretty pongy.

>>> Check out the Hop on Hop off bus which stops at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Seals at Pier 39 San Francisco

Get up close to the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937 and at the time was the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world.

San Francisco’s iconic structure is stunning from a distance, but you really need to get up close and personal to appreciate its colossal size, check out the Art Deco touches, and, of course, take in the stunning views.

I’m totally fascinated by The Golden Gate Bridge. So much so that I summoned up the courage to ‘Bike the Bridge‘ over to Marin county, even though I’m a terrible cyclist!

Whether you cycle or walk, you’ll be in awe of the ‘bridge that couldn’t be built’. If you’re prepared to brave the chilly morning breeze head to the bridge at sunrise for stunning views.

>>> Check rates and availability for Golden Gate bridge and Sausalito bike tour.

Golden Gate Bridge from Presidio
The Golden Gate Bridge from the Presidio Park

If you love a US city break you might like to read Things to do in Boston for some getaway inspiration.

Feast on fabulous food at the Ferry Building

The San Francisco Ferry Building, built in 1896, is one of the city’s oldest and loved landmarks. It served as the city’s transportation hub for over forty years and survived both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.

Nowadays the renovated ferry building is a hub for regional and artisan producers and the city’s dynamic food culture.

Dozens of shops and food stalls serve cheese, wine, beer, bread and chocolate and there’re some excellent restaurants. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market operates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays where you can pick up farm fresh produce.

It’s the perfect place for foodies who will love this 2-hour tasting tour of the Ferry Building and farmers market.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Discover the Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is one of the city’s most majestic landmarks. Whether you’re an art enthusiast, history buff, or just looking for a spot of tranquility in the city you’ll find it here.

Built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts was designed by renowned architect Bernard Maybeck. The towering Corinthian columns rise against a backdrop of lush gardens and serene lagoons and make it a good spot to escape the bustle of the city.

The Palace is more of an events venue but you’ll pass it on the way to Crissy Field and its worth a look. If you fancy a drink or snack pop into the cafe.

Open Tues-Sun 10:00 – 17:00 hrs. Closed Mondays and for special events.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Check out China Town

China Town, San Francisco

San Francisco’s vibrant Chinatown is a colourful neighbourhood where you’ll delve into Chinese culture and history. A guided walking tour is a great way to see the best of Chinatown. It’s also one of my favourite things to do in San Francisco.

Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest and largest of its kind in North America with a heritage dating back to the mid-1800s. You’ll find the Dragon Gate entrance on Grant Avenue, the main thoroughfare and one of the oldest streets in Chinatown.

It’s lively streets are adorned with traditional red lanterns and are filled with authentic Chinese restaurants serving dim sum and dumplings, noodles, stir fries and rice dishes.

Shops sell herbal remedies, teas, moon cakes and there are ornate temples offering a glimpse into ancient Chinese traditions.

>>>Check rates and availability for the Chinatown food and history walking tour.

Chill at Crissy Field

Crissy Field, San Francisco with Alcatraz in the background
Crissy Field with Alcatraz in the background

This free San Francisco attraction runs along San Francisco’s northern waterfront and is a great place for chilling, taking a bike ride, having a picnic and other outdoor activities. I’ve even seen yoga classes on the beach. 

Crissy Field runs between the Marina Green, to the east, the Fort Point National Historical Site, on the west where it ends right under the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll get glorious views of the bridge walking from east to west.

The Crissy Field trail stretches for 1.5 miles and the flat trail is great for biking, walking or jogging with other paths leading on from there for a longer walk. Or you could continue by biking the Golden Gate Bridge over to Sausalito. 

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Visit San Francisco Botanical Garden

San Francisco Botanical Garden is a green oasis in the city. The lush 55-acre garden is filled with over 8000 varieties of native plants and others from all over the world.

The Great Meadow is a large grassy meadow which leads to a fountain and is a great place for a picnic. Redwood Grove is perfect if you can’t make it to see the main event at John Muir Woods across the Golden Gate bridge but obviously on a much smaller scale.

The gardens have the largest collection of Magnolia trees outside of China so visit mid-February if Magnolias are your muse.

WhereGolden Gate Park, 1199 9th Ave San Francisco, CA, 94122

The Botanical Gardens are open daily from 7:30 hrs. They close at 19:00 hrs and last entry is one hour before closing time.

Charges apply but the Botanical Gardens offer free entry before 09:00 hrs

There are two entrances to the Botanical Gardens. The Main Gate which is near the corner of Lincoln and Ninth Avenue and the North Gate which is on MLK Jr. Drive near the Japanese Tea Garden. This gate is only open weekends from 9:00-18:00 hrs

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Discover the tranquility of the Japanese Tea Garden

If you like the Botanical Gardens then you may also want to visit the Japanise Tea Garden which is near to the North Gate in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest in the United States and is a San Francisco must-see if you’re visiting the city in Spring for the cherry blossom (March-April).

The 5-acre garden was created by Mr. Hagiwara along the lines of a tradtional Japanese garden for the 1894 California Winter Exhibition. Wander along stone pathways, over wooden bridges and explore the zen garden, the pagodas, waterfalls and koi fish ponds.  

Check out these fun and unusual activities if you want to do something a little more off-beat on your visit to San Francisco.

Go wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa Valleys 

Wine tasting in Napa Valley

Sonoma and Napa valleys are the nearest wine regions to San Francisco so it’d be rude not to pay a visit. If you’re a foodie planning to get out of the city then a wine tasting day trip to Sonoma and Napa Valleys will be high on your to-do list. For nature lovers it’d be a day at Yosemite National Park.

If you’re in San Francisco without a car then a guided day tour to Sonoma and Napa makes the best sense and means nobody ends up being the designated driver. On this wine tour to Sonoma and Napa Valleys you’ll have three wine tastings at three different wineries. You’ll learn about the wine-making process, the grapes used and the region’s history, from Spanish missionaries who brought the grapevines over from Europe.

There’s time for lunch, you’ll see the historic Sonoma Plaza and there’s a stop off for an epic viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge. Travel is in an air-conditioned bus. 

Check rates and availability for this full-day wine tour.

Go for drinks at the Top of the Mark

Talking of views from high places, the Top of the Mark is a gorgeous rooftop bar at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

This stylish cocktail bar was converted from the 19th-floor penthouse in the 1930s and it’s one of the best places to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views over the city.

View from the Top of the Mark
Top of the Mark, San Francisco

Live music at the bar ranges from swing to mellow jazz, and there’s a 100+ Martini menu, a long list of cocktails and wall-to-wall windows. I found a great spot with a window seat and settled for my favourite Gin and Tonic paired with magical views of the city lights.

You’ll need to book ahead if you’re dining, but tables in the bar are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s a popular spot and you’ll have to wait for space if it’s full.

Where: Nob Hill at California and Mason Streets

We also enjoyed fantastic views from our San Francisco hotel, The Hilton on Union Square, on the 46th floor at breakfast time. But within a moment, we’d be enveloped in the cloud as the mist rolled in.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Chat to the Locals

One of my favourite memories of San Francisco was from my first time in the city. I was visiting for work and heading back to my hotel after an evening out with my friend who lives there.

I was riding the cable car back to my hotel when about five SFPD officers climbed aboard after finishing their shift. They were a friendly bunch, and we started chatting because they liked my English accent!

The next thing I knew, I saw my friend’s car pull alongside the cable car – she’d forgotten to give me some gifts to take back home to her family. She started chucking the gifts out of her car window, and the cops were catching them for me.

We laughed and joked for the rest of the journey, and they even gave me an SFPD badge kiddy sticker. A fun ride, indeed!

Catch some art at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

SFMOMA is a must-see for art lovers. The non-profit organisation shows a renowned collection of over 50,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art. The first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century it opened in 1935. 

Art lovers will enjoy contemporary art, media, paintings, sculpture and photography. The Living Wall shouldn’t be missed. It’s one of largest public living walls in the USA, measuring 4,399 square feet and located on the third floor. The wall is home to 37 different species over half of which are native to the Bay Area.

SFMOMA is currently housed in the Mario Botta designed architectural icon which opened in 1995 and was then extended by Snøhetta in 2016.

Open Friday-Tuesday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Thursday from 1-8 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. 

Plan to spend at least 2.5 hours at SFMOMA.

Located near to Union Square on 151 3rd St, San Francisco

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

When to visit San Francisco

The city of San Francisco is wonderful to visit any time of year, but the best time to visit San Francisco is between September and November. The autumn months see some of the year’s warmest temperatures, while the tourist numbers are lower than in the peak summer months.

Spring is also an excellent time to visit, as the weather is pretty mild, and you’ll miss the summer tourist rush. But if you’re looking for a budget-friendly holiday in San Francisco, you’ll find some great value hotel prices in winter, and there are fewer tourists around as well. San Francisco winters can get pretty chilly, and it’s often rainy, so pack plenty of layers and an umbrella!

The Weather in San Francisco

San Francisco sunrise on a foggy day in September

I’ve visited the city three times in the last few years, twice when the city was bathed in sparkling winter sunshine and more recently in a fabulously foggy September. Seeing the city take on a misty persona was fascinating. So, what’s the weather like in San Francisco?

Spring in San Francisco is generally mild, with average daytime highs around 16°C in March, rising to around 19°C in May. The city sees a fair amount of rain at this time of year, but there’s also plenty of sunshine – as many as 10 hours per day in May.

San Francisco summers are warm and dry, with little rain and temperatures in the low twenties. The sea breeze prevents the temperatures from getting uncomfortably hot on North America’s west coast.

There’s often some fog around as well, which develops over the cold ocean waters and drifts into the city. This fog can sometimes make summer days feel quite cool, so remember to pack some warm layers even if you’re visiting San Francisco in the summer.

As autumn progresses, the hours of sunshine drop from around 9 hours per day in September to just 6 hours per day in November. September is the warmest month in San Francisco, with average daily temperatures around 23°C.

If you visit San Francisco in late autumn, you’re more likely to see some rain during your stay.

Winter in San Francisco is cool but rarely cold, as the average daily high is around 13°C. January has the highest level of rainfall throughout the year, and there’s an average of just 5 hours of sunshine per day during December and January.

How to get to San Francisco

Most visitors to San Francisco will fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which has excellent connections to domestic and international airports. Alternatives to arriving at SFO include flying into Oakland International Airport (OAK) or San Jose Airport (SJC).

Assuming you’ve landed at SFO, there are a few ways to travel into the city.


You could take one of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) electric trains, which offer a quick and affordable way to travel. Buy a Clipper Card at the BART station at SFO airport, then upload money onto the card to cover your fares, but remember to scan your card when you start and finish your journey.

By Bus

Public buses are operated by the San Mateo County Transit Agency (SamTrans) and depart for downtown San Francisco from outside each terminal. Tickets only cost a few dollars, so it’s the best way to travel around San Francisco on a budget.

By Taxi Cab

Metered taxis leave from outside the Arrivals/Baggage Claims areas, and the journey into the city will take around 30 minutes. Alternatively, you could use a ride-sharing app like Lyft or Uber, which can work out cheaper than a cab, or travel in a shared-ride shuttle van service.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in San Francisco? Check rates and availability.

Getting around San Francisco

Explore San Francisco on foot

San Francisco is regularly recognised as one of the United States’ most walkable cities, and you can easily explore on foot. Many streets across the city are closed to vehicles on one or more days per week, and some are now permanently pedestrianised.

Travelbunny tip: Pack your most comfortable shoes – they’ll be doing a lot of miles.

You could either set off on your own to explore the city on foot or sign up for a guided walking tour of San Francisco. There are many different options to choose from, such as a Food and History Walking Tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown or a San Francisco Urban Hiking Tour.

Cycle around San Francisco

Cycling is a fun way to explore San Francisco, and many areas are ideal for bikes, such as the Marina, the waterfront and Ocean Beach. There’s an extensive bike network covering around 500 miles of cycle paths, and you can download a map for this from the local travel authority.

The local bike-sharing scheme, Bay Wheels, allows you to hire traditional bikes and e-bikes easily through the Lyft app or from stations throughout the area.

Helmets aren’t provided, so it’s worth taking your own if you want to cycle around San Francisco.

Hop on Hop off Bus

Explore San Francisco’s top landmarks on an open-top double-decker Big Bus with a 1 or 2 day ticket.

See the city’s history and visit the best sights like Fisherman’s Wharf, Museum of Modern Art and Embarcadero. Hop on and off and spend as much time in each spot as you wish.

Stopping points include :

  • Fishermans Wharf
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Embarcadero
  • Union Square
  • Travel across the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Muir Woods and Sausalito

>>> Check rates and availability for the Hop-on-Hop-off bus

Public Transport

Buses and streetcars in San Francisco are known as Muni, which is the name of the company that operates them.

Muni Streetcars (Muni Metro) are a great way of reaching the city’s outer regions, and you should definitely travel on the historic streetcar line F, which travels along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf.

If you’re planning to travel by public transport, it’s worth buying a Clipper Card, which allows contactless payment across the Bay Area travel network.

Muni staff check fares regularly, and the fines for non-payment are expensive, so when you scan your card at the start and end of your journey, listen for a beep to be sure that your payment has been taken.

You can also pay for tickets using the Clipper app on your phone.

How to save money in San Francisco

With so many great things to do in San Francisco, the cost of your holiday can soon add up. Buying a city card is a great way to save money on a wide range of San Francisco attractions and activities.

The Go San Francisco card gives you admission to more than 30 of the best things to do in San Francisco, and you’ll save up to 50% on the usual admission fees.

You can buy a Go San Francisco card to cover 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 days, giving you admission to attractions and world-class museums, bike rental and much more at one low pre-paid cost.

The digital pass is incredibly convenient and also makes planning and budgeting for your holiday much easier.

Another great money-saving option is the San Francisco CityPASS®, which saves you 46% on admission to four must-see San Francisco attractions.

You can visit the California Academy of Sciences, take a one-hour cruise of San Francisco Bay, and choose two from a list of four premium attractions, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Zoo and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

>>> Check to see if the San Francisco CityPASS®, is worth it for you.

Pin it for later…


Bridget @ A Traveling B

Thursday 12th of November 2015

I'm bookmarking this for when I finally make it to San Francisco (hopefully next year!). It is such a beautiful city - I've been dreaming of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for forever!

Suzanne Jones

Thursday 12th of November 2015

and I've just touched the surface - there's so much to see and do in this fabulous city :)

Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

Saturday 24th of October 2015

Such a great round up of one of my favourite cities in the US. I totally agree with mingling with the locals and I personally found them to so immensely friendly. When I was there, I was entertaining myself in the day whilst the friend I was visiting was at work and so many locals stopped to offer help and chat to me about things when they saw me looking at my map etc. Really friendly place :)

Suzanne Jones

Sunday 25th of October 2015

Could agree more - incredibly friendly. A couple of times we were looking at the map and people came and asked if we needed any help - ended up chatting for ages!


Thursday 22nd of October 2015

I loved San Francisco, but looks like I missed a few things (especially the Top of the Mark drinks) – always good to have an excuse to go back!

Suzanne Jones

Friday 23rd of October 2015

The views were amazing and the G&Ts weren't bad either!


Tuesday 20th of October 2015

A mate got married in SF and I regret not being able to go there for it. If I do make it, the Top of the Mark bar sounds right up my street - cheers!

Suzanne Jones

Wednesday 21st of October 2015

The views are great - there are some pretty good ones from Hilton Union Square 46th floor bar too :)

Suze - Luxury Columnist

Tuesday 20th of October 2015

I've yet to visit San Francisco but it's very high on my list - and I love the fact that the trams have outside seats

Suzanne Jones

Tuesday 20th of October 2015

Hope you get there soon Suze - the outside seats are the best!

Comments are closed.