Rich in history, San Francisco is definitely a vacation destination you don’t want to miss.
From the Gold Rush to housing famous prisoners at Alcatraz to claiming “the crookedest street,” there are MANY great things to see in San Francisco.
If you only have a few days, here are some of the top attractions and must-see things to do in the San Francisco area!
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Must-See Attractions in San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
On everyone’s list of top 10 San Francisco attractions, the obvious thing one wants to do when they first arrive is to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Stop at the welcome center to learn the history of the bridge & visit the gift shop. You can walk across the bridge or rent a bike to cross it (they have electric bikes too!).
If you’re looking for a tour, Viator has several Golden Gate Bridge tours to choose from!
Tip: Hike down to Fort Point National Historic Site to get a unique, under-the-bridge view of the Golden Gate!
Golden Gate Park
Attractions, sports, a Japanese tea garden… Golden Gate Park boasts over 1,000 acres of urban park and is a great experience for the whole family. Take a segway tour through the park or attend one of the park’s many events it hosts every month. Here are just some of the things you can do at the park: botanical gardens, a conservatory, a carousel, lakes.
Visit the Cable Car Museum
Learn the back story of cable cars! Andrew Smith Hallidie tested his first cable car in 1873 and the rest is history. His idea of cable cars came from seeing horses struggle while walking on wet cobblestone. If you love cable cars, you’ll enjoy a visit to the Cable Car Museum. You will learn the history behind the invention of the cable car and how much they’ve evolved since Hallidie’s first test run in 1873.
16th Avenue tile steps
One of the things you must see in San Francisco is the tiled steps! In the early 2000s, residents collaborated on this 163-step stairway in an effort to beautify the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood. It truly is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind site to see.
While the 16th Avenue steps are the most popular tiled steps in San Francisco, there are more worth checking out. Check out two more beautiful mosaic tiled steps in the area!
See Lombard Street
Another must-see in San Francisco: Lombard Street! Dubbed “The Crookedest Street”, this steep street with 8 sharp turns is definitely a tourist attraction. It’s a steep walk but it’s worth the visit and it’s a fun photo op!
Why did they make it so crooked? In the early 1920s, the designers of the street decided it was too steep of a grade for cars. Thus, the 8 switchbacks.
Even though it’s called the “Crookedest Street”, it’s actually not the most crooked street in San Francisco. Check out Vermont Street for another bendy street! It has just 7 sharp turns, but is steeper than Lombard Street.
Location of Lombard Street: Between Leavenworth and Hyde Street. If driving, Lombard is a one-way street. You will drive from top (Leavenworth) to bottom (Hyde). Be prepared to wait in line to drive down it!
Note: Lombard can also be visited while on the Scenic 49-Mile Drive (keep scrolling to the bottom)
No trip to San Francisco is complete without touring Alcatraz Island! This former penitentiary is famous for holding some of the roughest prisoners in history like Al Capone. The audio tour will tell you stories from former inmates & prison guards.
Check out my blog post with all your need-to-know info to touring Alcatraz. Alcatraz is one of the best San Francisco attractions (in my opinion) and it was my favorite thing I did during my visit!
The Painted Ladies
Built between 1892 and 1896, this row of Victorian houses across from Alamo Square Park is a huge tourist attraction. The block of 710-720 Steiner Street has been in dozens of movies & shows. Enjoy a picnic in the park with a nice view of these beautiful houses!
Get Your Firetruck Fix
Take a tour of the city in a fire truck, fire hat and suit included! You’ll see Fisherman’s Wharf, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and visit the village of Sausalito.
Four different tours are available, all run year-round except the Holiday tour, which is in December only:
- The Classic Fire Engine Tour
- The Holiday Lights Tour
- The Winery Tour
- Fire Engine & Alcatraz Tour Package
SFFD Fire Museum
The SSFD Fire Museum is a huge collection of all things related to the history of the fire department. Currently displaying the first fire engine built in California, this museum is run purely by volunteers. The museum & gift shop are open 1pm-4pm, Thursday through Sunday, staff permitting. Visit their website to learn more.
This wave-activated sculpture can be found right in the Small Boat Harbor of the San Francisco Bay. Twenty-five PVC pipes create sounds when the ocean water waves against them. The sound isn’t as great as it once was due to lack of maintenance but it’s still a fun family-friendly thing to see in San Francisco.
Tip: Mornings are best because of the high tide.
Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Factory
Located at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, this is a chocolate and ice cream lover’s dream. While it’s no longer a working factory, you can still get your chocolate fix. The Square now has several small shops & places to eat, including the Ghirardelli Chocolate Marketplace.
Escape the city scene and visit Muir Woods National Monument! Being surrounded by giant redwoods make Muir Woods the perfect escape from city life. This park has several trails, ranging from short, 30-minute trails to longer trails. Check out my post on visiting Muir Woods & Point Reyes on the same day. It makes for a great day trip from San Francisco!
Tip: Make sure to download your parking reservation or shuttle ticket before you go since there is no cell service in the area.
Take a 49-Mile Scenic Drive
If you have the time & enjoy driving, check out the Scenic 49-mile drive! This route can be driven in about 4 hours (including a few breaks).
Scenic 49-Mile Drive will take you past:
- City Hall
- Transamerica Pyramid
- AT&T Park
- Lombard Street
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Bay Bridge
- and more!
What else is there?
There are numerous touristy things to do in San Francisco. It would take days to do them all. If you use a CityPass or Explorer Pass, you will be able to save some money on some of the attractions. If you have a few days, check out Pinnacles National Park, about 2 hours south of San Francisco. If you have even more time, you can drive a few hours east and check out Yosemite (my favorite National Park)!