Top things to do in San Francisco: 15 beautiful sights to see [+ map]
San Francisco wows us with awesome sights. Our first impression of San Francisco blows our minds. The streets are pulsating with life, people from all over the world scurry through the canyons of houses and narrow alleys. The city reminds us strongly of Berlin Kreuzberg - exactly our thing.
When we stand in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning, which rises out of the fog, we are totally impressed. Via Lombard Street we take you on an exciting city tour through San Francisco. Of course, we'll also ride the famous Cable Car up and down the hilly streets.
Have fun with our top sights in California's fourth largest city, so beautifully situated on the Pacific Ocean. With our travel tips, you'll have an unforgettable time in this West Coast metropolis.
Hi! We are Biggi & Flo
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Our top highlights in San Francisco at a glance
Here are our San Francisco highlights at a glance:
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Lombard Street
- Telegraph Hill
- Painted Ladies
- Cable Car
- Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
- Financial District
- Mission Dolores
- City Hall
- Treasure Island
- Twin Peaks
Map: The top sights in San Francisco
Find all the top tourist attractions in San Francisco on our interactive map:
1. The most important things to do in San Francisco: The Golden Gate Bridge
The landmark of San Francisco is the Golden Gate Bridge. You simply must have been here – an absolutely stunning structure. It is one of the top sights in California and the city’s landmark. The best place to photograph the bridge is from a hill overlooking downtown (Golden Gate View Point; Google Maps) in the evening light. San Francisco, by the way, is known for its dense fog, which can occur all year round.
We found it particularly mystical in the morning, when the Golden Gate Bridge rises out of the fog. The red-painted steel monument was also illuminated by the sun from time to time. Even in July, however, the temperatures on the coast were quite cool.
Another nice alternative, from where you can see the Golden Gate Bridge super nice, is Baker Beach. The beautiful sandy beach is also a wonderful thing to do in San Francisco.
A few blocks away from the Golden Gate Bridge you will find the Golden Gate Park. It is four kilometers long and a recreational area. There you can discover not only a botanical garden, a Japanese tea garden, but also the Natural History Museum. The California Academy of Sciences includes a planetarium, as well as an aquarium. This sight is a great place to visit.
2. Lombard Street
The first stop of our sightseeing tour takes us to the famous Lombard Street – probably the curviest street in the world (at least a small part of it). And it is another famous sight in the city and probably the most photographed top attraction after the Golden Gate Bridge. The road leads directly onto the Golden Gate Bridge and becomes Highway 101 after Russian Hill.
The curvy section is located at Russian Hill. And this is also where the tourists crowd with their cell phones and cameras. You’ll find Russian Hill between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street. In the past, this section of the street was also one of the steepest in the city, with a gradient of 27 percent. Cars and pedestrians often reached their limits here.
In 1922, the city reacted and rebuilt the street. Since then, it has led down in narrow serpentines and as a one-way street. On 145 meters you count here 8 or even 10 curves. You surely know the most famous scene in a movie from The Love Bug. Here Herbie drives down Lombard Street at high speed.
We have made the experience that you prefer to use the public transport in the city. Because the parking situation in San Francisco is really difficult. In addition, you stand at a red light or a stop sign at almost every intersection.
Tip: Another amazing thing to do in San Francisco is Filbert Street, it’s located two blocks away. It is even steeper than Lombard Street used to be. With a gradient of 31.5 percent, it is extremely steep. This makes it the perfect place for jumps in movies. Bullitt, for example, was filmed here.
3. Telegraph Hill
Lombard Street ends directly at Telegraph Hill – our next stop of the top things to do in San Francisco. The hill is not particularly high with its 83 meters. But you have a great view over the city and the skyline from there.
Telegraph Hill got its name from the fact that a mechanical signal station was located here in 1849. Today you can find the Coit Tower up here (website and tickets). From the 64-meter-high observation tower, you can see as far as the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.
Besides the great view, you’ll also find the oldest houses in the city with Victorian architecture up here. On Union Street, for example, some of the houses before 1860, and the oldest Victorian building in San Francisco is on Alta Place. It was built in 1852. Also, worth seeing on Telegraph Hill are the Filbert Steps. The steep staircase leads from Colt Tower through beautiful gardens. A walk here is worthwhile.
As beautiful as the countless streets may seem, there is also a sad side to the coin: As in every major U.S. city, countless homeless people wander the streets and rummage through garbage cans. Many of them are talking crazy. We are used to a lot from Berlin, but this has a completely different dimension.
⭐ Recommended travel guide
With this San Francisco travel guide you are well equipped for your trip to the USA. Thanks to many exciting insider tips on culture, nature and gastronomy, your road trip through California will be an unforgettable experience. Have a look at Fodor’s San Francisco (get it here*) and Frommer’s EasyGuide to San Francisco (get it here*).
4. Painted ladies – top sight in San Francisco
Next stop on our sightseeing tour is Alamo Square Park with the famous Painted Ladies. These are not ladies, but beautiful Victorian houses in San Francisco. They are closely lined up and painted in bright pastel colors.
The first time the term appeared was in 1978. That’s when the houses were called Painted Ladies for the first time in a book. Generally, the term Painted Ladies stood for prostitutes in the 19th century.
The best view of the row of houses is from the park. Here young and old meet to chill with a cup of champagne and a steak from the grill. The Painted Ladies are one of the best things to do in San Francisco.
5. Ride the cable car
Is a ride on the cable car in San Francisco worth it? Oh yes! San Francisco’s cityscape is characterized by a chessboard-like layout. But the streets here don’t run in a straight line, it’s always up and down. On the one hand, this keeps you really fit, on the other hand, you can save a lot of time with a ride on the cable car.
The special thing about the cable car in San Francisco is that the individual cars can be uncoupled. This makes it the last of its kind in the world. The cable car has been running in San Francisco since 1873.
However, an earthquake destroyed almost all the tracks. The electric train became big competition. Since 1964, after long repairs, the Cable Car still runs on the three lines The Powell-Hyde (line 60), The Powell-Mason (line 59) and The California Street (line 61). The Cable Car has since become a national monument of the United States.
For us, of course, the ride on the cable car is pure pleasure. We don’t have to worry about getting a seat, nor do we have to fight for it.
The cable cars are quite crowded and free seats consistently are in short supply as we ride the train.
Still: it’s incredibly fun to ride in the open track, to feel the wind in your hair. Since there are no doors, you could also jump out early or jump up at the last second. At least that’s what you always see in the American movies. In reality, it’s more civilized on the cable cars. For us, a ride is one of the top secret places in San Francisco.
Tip: There are always a lot of tourists at the end and initial stations. Walk a few stations further and you won’t have to wait long for the cable car.
6. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
In the northeast of San Francisco, you will find the popular waterfront Fisherman’s Wharf. The area is located between Van Ness Avenue to the west and Kearny Street to the east. The neighborhood is another fun thing to do in San Francisco that should not be missed on any trip to the city. Several attractions and activities that are worth seeing are located here.
Pier 39, for example, is a former boat landing. There are always bunches of tourists here. Because on the Pier 39 are almost always California sea lions (unfortunately we have seen during two visits to San Francisco only a few sea lions). The big, powerful animals do not let themselves be irritated by clicking cameras during their midday nap in the sun. Why they are just lying here? Well, these sea lions are smart. Instead of being exposed to their natural enemies like orcas or sharks as they used to be on Seal Rock, they have their rest on the pier. In addition, there are many fish here to easily hunt and eat without any effort.
You should definitely take a closer look at the harbor district. Especially the restaurants offer countless delicacies from the sea. In addition to Pier 39, you should also take a look at The Cannery. The company that owns the old factory is called Del Monte. Another factory, the Ghirardelli Square chocolate factory, is also located here.
Another highlight is the Madame Tussauds wax museum (address: 145 Jefferson St, Google Maps) and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (address: 175 Jefferson St, Google Maps). In the latter, you’ll find countless curiosities. Right next to Pier 39, at Pier 45, you’ll find the museum ships USS Pampanito and Jeremiah O’Brien, which are absolutely worth seeing.
7. Financial district
Part of downtown San Francisco is also the Financial District to the north – our next worthwhile thing to do in the beautiful city. The huge skyscrapers stand out in strong contrast to the pastel-colored Victorian cottages I’ve already introduced you to. This mix of modern skyline and old flair pleases you – or you find it completely awful. I think there’s little in between here. We liked it a lot.
One of the standout buildings is the Transamerica Pyramid, one of the city’s landmarks. The pyramid-like building was the tallest building in the city for years. 260 meters high, it has a proud 48 floors. Today, it’s only trumped by the 326-meter Salesforce Tower.
Not very tall, but a great photo motif is the Columbus Tower, completed in 1907, very close to the Transamerica Pyramid.
As you walk through the narrow street canyons here, the people coming toward you change. Business attire is now leading the way, you can observe stylish white shirts, suits and cufflinks. The center of the Financial District is Montgomery Street. It is also called the Wall Street of the West Coast.
Similar to New York or other cities in the USA, San Francisco also has a Chinatown. The neighborhood here is something very special, it is one of the oldest in the entire USA, making it another top thing to do in San Francisco. What’s to see there? You enter the neighborhood through the huge Dragon’s Gate. Now follows the typical Chinatown mishmash of delicious restaurants, street food vendors, dim sum stores and music.
We love strolling through Chinatown because the flair is always special. There is a lot to discover, be it in typical Chinese bakeries, herbal stores, strange animals in the fish store or merchants who offer goods for sale.
Tip: In Chinatown you can even find a real fortune cookie factory. Here you can watch the employees making fortune cookies. You can also go to the same place where Barack Obama ate his dim sum. The Great Eastern Restaurant (Google Maps) offers a great selection.
In San Francisco you can also find some temples. The most famous is the Tien How. A special museum is the museum Chinese Historical Society of America – another worthwhile sight and definitely a travel tip you should remember.
It is the most famous prison in the world: Alcatraz – a stunning thing to do in San Francisco. The old jail is today one of the most famous sights of San Francisco. A prison complex stands on a small rocky island (which gave the prison its name). From the 1930s until 1963 it was the maximum-security prison in the USA.
Today Alcatraz is a tourist attraction. Everyone wants to take a boat to the island and immerse themselves in the terrifying world described in many movies or books. Escape from Alcatraz seemed impossible because of the cold water, the current and the dangerous sharks. Famous gangsters like Al Capone or Machine Gun Kelly were imprisoned here.
“The Rock” – as Alcatraz was also known – was not untouchable, however. Between 1933 and 1963, there were 14 escape attempts. Officially, none of the escapes was successful. However, there is still no trace of five prisoners. Whether they drowned in the cold water, as is suspected, is uncertain.
10. Mission Dolores
If you are a big Alfred Hitchcock fan like me, then you should watch the movie “Vertigo” again. Sequences were filmed in the oldest building in the city. The Mission Dolores dates back to 1776, and the building came through the countless earthquakes undamaged.
As the name suggests, this is a Spanish mission. It dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest. It also bears the name Mission San Francisco de Asís. As the oldest building, Mission Dolores is definitely an awesome thing to do in San Francisco and worth seeing.
Also known from movies is the Presidio. Until 1994, the Presidio was the most important military base on the west coast of the USA. In addition, a large military hospital was built here. The huge park is located directly at the Golden Gate, at the bay entrance of San Francisco.
So just before you leave San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge. Or the other way around: the first thing you see after the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, you’ll find apartments in the most spectacular locations on this huge area. We are talking about the most valuable residential locations in the world.
A particularly beautiful thing to do in San Francisco is the Palace of Fine Arts. Movies have also been filmed in the Presidio area. In the movie Star Trek universe, it is the headquarters of Starfleet. Therefore, is the Presidio one of the top attractions in San Francisco for fans.
In the 1960s, hippies danced in the streets of Haight-Ashbury, music played from loudspeakers and generally everything was quite relaxed here. The neighborhood has kept the alternative flair of that time. And because famous musicians lived here, it is still a cool thing to do in San Francisco.
The area is located east of Golden Gate Park. Famous musicians like Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix lived here. Jimmy Hendrix wrote his song Red House about the red house at 1524a Haight Street. The neighborhood’s name is made up by the intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Street. When you stand there, you are already in the middle of the flair of that time.
The oldest park in the city, Buena Vista Park, is located here. It has existed since 1867 and is bordered by The Panhandle. This is the transition to the Golden Gate Park. It got its name from its shape, which resembles a panhandle. I think in combination with Golden Gate Park it looks more like the stem of a big flyswatter 😏.
13. City Hall
Now we come to another superlative of a sight: The City Hall. San Francisco’s City Hall has always been impressive. In 1906, it was completely destroyed by an earthquake. What you see today is an absolutely accurate rebuilt building.
For architecture geeks, it is important to know that the building was built in the Beaux-Arts style of the American Renaissance period. On one side the huge complex is 119 meters long, on the other 83 meters. The dome of the City Hall is the fifth largest in the world. It has a diameter of 20 meters and is 94 meters high. You can even visit the rotunda. So, a visit there is definitely an unusual thing to do in San Francisco.
The famous 49-Mile Scenic Drive also starts and ends right near City Hall. This road leads you along several sights. You should plan about 4 hours by car. You will pass important attractions like the Civic Center, the famous Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Japantown, Union Square, Chinatown, Nob Hill, the Cable Car Barn, the Transamerica Pyramid, North Beach with Washington Square, Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf and many other famous highlights. These include the Legion of Honor, the Richmond District, Lincoln Park, the Sutro Baths, the Great Highway, the Cliff House, Seal Rock and Ocean Beach.
14. Treasure Island
Cross the imposing San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge to Treasure Island. Here you can take great sunset pictures of San Francisco. First you cross the natural island Yerba Buena Island and then you reach the artificially built Treasure Island. The island was built up with rubble from the great earthquake of 1906.
The island was built in the course of the Golden Gate International Exposition. At that time, the Treasure Island Museum also existed. Today, Treasure Island is like Presidio: it is home to residential buildings, although Treasure Island is known more for its affordable housing. By the way, movies were also filmed here. For example, Indiana Jones. As you can see: a visit to this beautiful thing to do in San Francisco is worthwhile.
15. Twin Peaks
As the last sight I introduce you to the Twin Peaks – a wonderful thing to do in San Francisco. With 276 meters in the north and 277 meters in the south they are the second highest elevations in San Francisco. Only Mount Davidson is higher. The Twin Peaks are located in the Twin Peaks Natural Area.
The best view of San Francisco is from Christmas Tree Point. But we also liked the view of the Twin Peaks. The houses settle below, behind them the two hills rise. Everything looks very symmetrical. The first settlers called the hills also Breasts of the Indian Girl (Los Pechos de la Chola) because of their image.
I hope you enjoyed our city tour through the beautiful San Francisco with our travel tips as much as we did 😊.
Für unsere Leserinnen und Leser aus Deutschland: Hier findest du die Top-Sehenswürdigkeiten in San Francisco auf Deutsch.