The list of things to do in San Francisco is long – something for everyone.  Of the more “touristy” things, I recommend five not be missed.  I enjoy them every time I experience them.

In no particular order:

  1. Ride a cable car
  2. Go to Alcatraz Island
  3. Walk or bike across the Golden Gate Bridge
  4. Visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
  5. Spend some time exploring and people watching in Union Square

Cable Cars

I frequently rode the cable cars when I lived in San Francisco.  They are great fun, really cool, somewhat thrilling, and a practical means of transportation.  So do it for sure!

cable car

There are three cable car lines (in order of recommendation):

  • Powell-Hyde
  • Powell-Mason
  • California

Cost.  A single ride is $7 and an all day pass is $21 good on any line.

My helpful tips:

  • The best time to ride is very early in the morning or later in the evening, when the crowds are not as crazy.
  • You can board at a terminus (for example, Market and Powell) but these spots are often the longest waits.  You can also go up a few stops and board from the street.  Pay with cash or tickets on board.  Do not whip out a debit card on board.
  • Two people can ride on the running board between each pole – this is the way to ride, but hold on tight and pay attention to the brakeman.
  • No matter what a local might tell you, singing the Rice-a-Roni song does not get you a free ride.

Finally, a stop in the Cable Car Museum at Mason and Washington Streets should definitely be on your agenda.   You can learn the amazing history of the cable cars and also see how they work.  I think this is one of the more under-rated sites in the city.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island, sitting in the middle of San Francisco Bay, housed an infamous prison and a Native Americans occupation.  It is also home to seabird colonies, beautiful fauna, and amazing views.

alcatraz island

Cost.  A visit requires taking a ferry to the island and offers a nicely done self-guided walking tour plus time to explore the island.  The ferry leaves from Pier 31-33 on the Embarcadero.  Adult tickets are $37.25 which includes round trip transportation, the self guided tour and access to the island. Buy tickets from Alcatraz Cruises.


My helpful tips:

  1. Buy tickets a few weeks or more ahead of time.  Tickets often sell out well in advance.
  2. Allow plenty of time (at least 3 hours) on the island and take your time.
  3. Explore the grounds not just the prison.  The flora, the yards, and the seabird colonies are worth a visit alone.
  4. Bring a jacket as the island is often a few degrees cooler than the mainland.
  5. Go into a cell, or solitary confinement, and have the door shut.  It is a bad feeling but an interesting experience.
  6. If you are really into it, try a night cruise or a behind the scenes tour.  The standard tour is excellent, and these are even better.
  7. If you do not know much about Alcatraz, see one of the movies ahead of time. The Rock, Birdman of Alcatraz, and Escape from Alcatraz are among my favorites.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is both an engineering marvel and an opportunity for amazing views.  The best way to experience the Golden Gate Bridge is by walking or bicycling across it.  Don’t let a foggy day dissuade you from crossing – its an experience unto itself.

Lets start with a few views of the bridge.


My Helpful Tips.

  • The one way walk across the bridge is about 1.7 miles (2.7 km), but don’t forget you have to walk back.  People often turnaround at the center of the bridge.
  • The temperature at the center of the bridge is typically about 10 F cooler than on land, so wear layers.
  • Be sure to stop at the Visitors Center to learn more about the history and engineering of the bridge.
  • NEVER HOLD ANYTHING (like a camera or cell phone) over the water or even close to the edge – you drop it and its gone.
  • Look up when you are at the base of a structure – wow!
  • Don’t look down if you do not like heights or have vertigo.
  • Be sure to visit Fort Point National Historic Park under the south span of the bridge. Not only is it fascinating but you will see some unique views of the bridge.
  • Find the trailhead to the Coastal Trail (you will go under Highway 101) and explore the defensive Batteries and overlooks on the Pacific Ocean side of the bridge.  If you want an amazing view of the bridge go down to the beach here, but be aware it is a clothing optional beach so don’t stare or take pictures until you are past the nudists.
Ft Point
Fort Point National Historic Park

Getting there.  MUNI has a bus that goes to the visitors center of the bridge on a regular schedule.   If you are coming from the Wharf or downtown, find a bus (30, 47, 49) to Lombard Street west of Van Ness and pick up the 28 bus.  On the return, make sure you take a 28 bus that is going to Van Ness not to Daly City (unless of course you want to go to Daly City).

If you bike or walk, you probably want to get to the bridge from Lincoln Boulevard or from the Presidio as opposed to from Highway 101.  Look at a map and this will make sense.

Cost.  Walking or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge is free (car toll is currently $7.50). Fort Point is free also.  Views from the bridge are priceless.

Final points.

  • An occasional misconception is that the bridge is gold in color – it is not.  The Golden Gate refers to maybe the gold color hills around San Francisco, or perhaps the gateway to gold country during the gold rush era.
  • Also don’t confuse the Oakland Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge.  Both are amazing and striking – and very different.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)

SF MOMA (as is it often called) is at 3rd and Howard.  Adult admission is $25 well worth it as this is one of the world’s premier museums of modern art.

Like any high quality art museum, they have often-changing exhibitions, tours, interpretive material, and a good cafe and gift shop.

Union Square

If you like:

  • International people watching, this is your spot.
  • Shopping (including some great anchor stores), this is your spot.
  • Hotdogs that snap (Stanley’s Steamers Hot Dog Carts), this is your spot.
  • Street entertainment, this is your spot.

Union square is an epicenter of San Francisco.  It is also on two cable car lines and has easy access to the trolleys and buses of Market Street.

Union Square
The beginning of SantaCon at Union Square.

If you are in San Francisco in December, check out the city’s grand Christmas Tree in Union Square.  There are fun walking tours about the man behind this tree and many other things in San Francisco  – Emperor Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico).

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A special note about Fisherman’s Wharf.  Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf seem to be atop many visitors itinerary.  Granted it’s a fun place with a lot going on, but it does not rise to the level of the rest of this listWhat is good about it?  Watching sea lions up close, being on the pier, the street performers, the bushman (if he is still there), and energy are all great.  The ability to take cruises all over the bay, the Maritime Museum, and the views are also wonderful.  Why it did not make my list?  To me it has become almost too tourist oriented, too junk shoppy, too low quality, too national chain store.  Unlike most other places in San Francisco, the fish are chips are often made from catfish rather than halibut.  Fisherman’s Wharf has lost much of what it originally was.

In closing, if anyone would like to comment, I would like to know what you would add or delete from this list.  Please let me know.

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This travel overview is broken into 10 parts:

San Francisco Part 1 – Overview (including getting there, weather, and where to stay)

San Francisco Part 2 – Top 5 Touristy Things To Do

San Francisco Part 3 – Best Walks in San Francisco

San Francisco Part 4 – Top 5 Off the Beaten Path Things To Do

San Francisco Part 5 – Where to Eat and Drink

San Francisco Part 6 – Avoiding the Bad Side

San Francisco Part 7 – Experiencing the Wild Side 

San Francisco Part 8 – Amazing Day Hikes Around San Francisco

San Francisco Part 9 – Amazing Day Trips Around San Francisco

San Francisco Part 10 – Further Afield from San Francisco (and Worth It)