What are the must do San Francisco tourist attractions to experience on your vacation?
We spent 7 days exploring the best the city has to offer and down below are the top attractions in San Francisco, plus tips on how to save money on these attractions.
These are the iconic experiences you have probably most heard about before you even visit San Francisco California.
Thankfully, we discovered many more cool things to do in San Francisco with kids that us adults love too which you can read about.
And also some San Francisco hidden gems the locals love for you to consider!
But this is the post I was least excited about writing as it feels so touristy and it’s not typically what we want to experience when visiting a destination. Our bucket list generally looks a little different.
However, I know these iconic San Francisco attractions are popular for a reason and perhaps what you are looking for.
You will really enjoy experiencing these San Francisco landmarks and what is so iconic about the bay area. We did and LOVED combining them with more local type experiences. (Check out our San Francisco neighborhood guide)
If you’re short on time, and only want to do the top attractions in San Francisco, then these would be the experiences not to miss.
Golden Gate Bridge
The striking vermillion orange golden gate is a symbol of, not just San Francisco, but California and perhaps even the USA.
This 4,200 foot suspension bridge was completed in 1937 after four years of construction. The east side offer stunning views of the city and boats in the bay.
On the west side is the large expanses of the pacific ocean, the bridge bringing you to the vantage points of Marin County and the stunning city landscape.
There are multiple ways you can experience the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the must do things in San Francisco:
- Walk across it.
- Bike ride across it. We recommend taking several hours and cycling all the way into Sausalito.
- Drive over it. If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can sit on the top deck of a Hop on Hop Off bus included in the San Francisco Sightseeing Pass. Although extremely windy, I loved seeing the bridge from this high vantage point. I also loved seeing it from the front window and sky roof of our friends luxury Audi on his private driving tour of the city. (GoCars will take you to the bottom of the bridge for views but you can’t drive across it in them. See more here.)
Be sure to experience the views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the following viewpoints:
- Baker Beach
- Battery East Vista
- Golden Gate Overlook
- North Vista Point
- Legion of Honor
- Land’s End Trail
And of course there is the nearby Golden Gate Park that’s home to the De Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, Planetarium, Arts Museum, Japanese Tea Gardens, and Conservatory of Flowers.
Sitting quietly overlooking the city skyline in the San Francisco bay lies a small island with a boatload of stories to spill onto the shores.
Tales of the most dangerous criminals who walked the dank, dark corridors of its bare halls pining for a life of freedom they chose to give away.
You can take a peek into some of those stories with a tour inside the cell house of this iconic prison home it the likes of The Birdman and Al Capone.
Visiting Alcatraz is definitely one of the top San Francisco tourist attractions, and surprisingly, one of the fun things to do in San Francisco with kids.
Yes, it may spook the bejesus out your kids, which is what you want so they do not turn to a life of crime!
Older kids will find this fascinating, like our 11 year old Kalyra did.
She was riveted to the audio and closely followed the stories as they were pointed out in each relevant spot in the jailhouse. Savannah is 7 and super sensitive so was a little more freaked out.
Be sure to watch the video which tells the story of Alcatraz before it was a prison for hardened criminals and after including its pivotal role in helping Native Americans retain the rights to their homelands.
A great view of Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park is from Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill
Video of Alcatraz Island (+private walking tour of San Francisco)
Clang, clang, clang…
There is probably no more iconic sound and top San Francisco attractions to experience than the burgundy red cable cars navigating the city’s steep streets.
It is one of the only moving National Historic Landmarks in the USA and created in 1873 by Andrew Smith Hallidie after watching many horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horsecar up Jackson Street.
His better way has survived the great San Francisco earthquakes and fires and political attempts to remove it from the city streets to become an icon of the bay area and a top bucket list attraction for tourists.
There is no better way to experience it than by hanging from the wooden poles off its sides in true San Francisco style.
As long as you are making smart choices, it’s really not that dangerous!
Both my girls rode the entire way from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square on the Powell Hyde Line hanging off the side.
I enjoyed standing behind the cable car driver for a while watching him work the lever and pedals and the bell.
When a space opened up, I joined the others to hang off the side and wave to all the people stopping to take their iconic San Francisco photo.
Alamo Square – Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies has to be one of the most iconic places to visit in San Francisco and one of the must-see San Francisco tourist attractions
Arriving at Alamo Square to hundreds of people sunning on the grass and staring at the Painted Ladies was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.
I couldn’t help but think how uncomfortable and awkward the residents inside must feel seeing that happen all day every day.
The Painted Ladies are a colorful stretch of 19th-Century Victorian Homes. If you’ve seen Full House, you’ve seen them in the opening shots.
But truth be known, none of them are even the Full House house!! You have to go somewhere in Pacific Heights for that. The location is no longer disclosed.
The prime time to visit Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies is during sunset golden hour, which is said to cast a glow over the colorful houses.
Dog lovers will enjoy the opposite side of the square which is filled with dogs of all shapes and sizes playing fetch with enamored owners.
Lombard Street – Drive or Walk Down
A must do in San Francisco is Lombard Street located in the Nob Hill District. This famous street in San Francisco has been touted as the most “crookedest street in the world.”
However, there is a street that is actually more crooked than Lombard Street. Vermont Street isn’t as pretty so doesn’t get the visitors, nor the acknowledged title.
Lombard’s 27 degrees was too dangerous for cars to drive down it so they added in a series of 8 hairpin turns.
It’s now filled with tourists driving, walking and biking down to get their pretty Instagrammable photos of the quarter mile downhill stretch lined with gorgeous gardens.
You’ll also get great views of Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz from the top of the street.
It’s much harder to take photos and videos when you drive down it, although it is a cool experience not to miss.
You may experience long lines waiting to go down. Photos will probably be better if you can walk it but watch out for cars.
It’s one of the San Francisco top attractions for a reason so expect a lot of people.
Ultimately, you’ll want to walk and drive Lombard Street. Fingers crossed you can get parking down the bottom once you have driven it.
There is a cable car stop right near here at the top on the Hyde-Powell line and the Hop on Hop Off Bus can drop you nearby.
Sea Lions at Pier 39
Lazing around on the wooden docks of the waterfront are the world-famous residents of Pier 39, and another of the top things to see in San Francisco.
These adorable barking animals are ready for the many clicking tourist cameras. Some may even wrestle or splash about for you. Most will just sunbathe and lie on top of each other.
If you’re looking for other things to do in Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 is a retail, dining, and attraction space. Have a look around after checking out the sea lions.
It’s definitely not one of my favorite places to go in San Francisco to hang out being that old style kitschy tourist stuff.
But we did Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, which was actually quite a lot of fun and very quick. It’s $5, but for us it was included in our sightseeing Pass, so we thought why not?
We also did the 7D Flyer which was included in our Sightseeing Pass. If you’ve done theses flyovers before, you know what to expect and will like it.
We also did the 7D experience included in the Sightseeing Pass. This was one of those simulated shoot them up kinda thing. We were fighting against scary clowns. The girls loved it. It was fun but I wouldn’t have paid to do it outside of the City Sightseeing Pass inclusion.
Video: top attractions in San Francisco with Kids
Click play to watch the fun we had visiting the Top attractions in San Francisco. You’ll love the Museum of 3D Illusions.
Eat Clam Chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf
A bowl of delicious creamy clam chowder soup in a sourdough bread bowl is a San Francisco highlight.
I remember it being one of my favorite things to do in San Francisco when I first visited in 2006. I missed out on our recent San Francisco trip as I avoid gluten and my body no longer believes it to be an exquisite experience.
There are several hawker type stands set up in Fisherman’s Wharf which sells clam chowder bowls to the lines of tourists, as well as the famous Dungeness Crabs.
But, the most popular and original is Boudins Bakery & Cafe, which now has a massive storefront and café in Fisherman’s Wharf.
For a more elegant seafood dining experience head to Scoma’s Restaurant which specializes in pier to plate seafood on the wharf.
I like some of the modernization happening on Fisherman’s Wharf with the Hotel Zephyr strip of stores which includes the Fire and Brew Brewery Restaurant (be sure to stop in and check happy hour times!)
And Museum of 3D Illusions. Although expensive, we did have fun here posing with the murals created by artists from around the world. Instagrammers will love it.
We also enjoyed Madame Tussauds as it was on our Sightseeing Pass. This was worth it though. I loved how it told the San Francisco story and who doesn’t want to jam with Joplin and Hendrix.
We also experienced the San Francisco Dungeon, which is also on the Sightseeing Pass. It is recommended for age 10 and above so 11 year old Kalyra and I went as Savannah was too young. She absolutely loved it.
I was feeling sick at the time and thought I was going to pass out so couldn’t connect to it fully, although there was one part that woke me up with a scare that had me screaming that was a lot of fun!
There is a drop ride at the end of it, which if you have done a drop ride before you’ll find to be quite lame. It’s small and lasts a couple of seconds. Keeping it real for you.
Chocolates & Wine at Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square was my favorite part of the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
With the refurbished brick it felt more modern and tasteful. There are other shops and restaurants here, including the San Francisco Brewing Co which is a good spot to taste some local craft brew or pub food.
What makes it one of the top attractions in San Francisco is Ghirardelli Chocolates, a brand that is recognized worldwide.
Want my insider secret? Especially if visiting San Francisco with kids?
Well, after you’ve sampled the Ghirardelli Chocolate, head over to The Cheese School on the opposite side of Ghirardelli Square. Get a cheese board and a glass of wine and enjoy the views of the bay.
You’ve been walking around all day so you’ve earned that wine! The kids should be happy enough with their chocolate indulging to let you indulge with your feet up and a nice view.
Across the street is the cable car turnaround and Buena Vista. Grabbing an Irish Coffee here is also meant to be one of the top San Francisco attractions. We didn’t do that so can’t comment too much except to say, why not? I love Irish coffees!
Read More: San Francisco in a Day: A solo Mother’s Relaxed Adventures
San Francisco Top Attractions Map
How To Save on San Francisco Attractions
For a lot of these top attractions in San Francisco CA you could easily walk to them.
Some, like the Painted Ladies, will involve you catching public transport as it’s too far to walk.
City discount attraction passes are a fantastic idea when visiting the top tourist attractions in a destination. It can save you loads of money on attractions and tour fees.
There are several different companies that provide these attraction passes.
Our favorite is the Sightseeing Pass, which we’ve used before in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New Orleans. They also have a USA pass if you intend on visiting several US cities in a 30 day period.
We work in partnership with them but are under no obligation to recommend them as our preferred sightseeing pass.
We recommend them because we like them more. I love how they go beyond the traditional San Francisco tourist spots and have quite a few local experiences and unique tours as well.
They also offer things like discounts on shopping and food. And they are super flexible and give you options on either selecting a few attractions to cover on the pass, or multi day passes.
So, if you want to see the main San Francisco sights plus do a lot and fit it into a certain number of days on your trip, this is the option for you!
I like the multi-day passes for that reason. It means I often experience some pretty cool attractions and tours as they are on my pass so why not?
I probably wouldn’t have added them to the city sightseeing San Francisco pass or paid for them separately otherwise.
These surprises can sometimes make a trip awesome.
I also think the multi-day passes can be hugely beneficial for the food options in it. I don’t know why you’d add it to the attraction only pass, but if it’s included on the multi-pass then I see that as bonus cash!
For the San Francisco Sightseeing Pass, we received $30 for each pass at Burger Bar – a very expensive burger place in Macy’s at Union Square. It covered our meal for the evening which was a bonus I really enjoyed.
We also could have got a free ice cream for two of us (buy one get one free) but we ran out of time to get to the ice cream place (poor planning!)
We had the 5 Day San Francisco Pass and did a really good job of experiencing a lot on the pass so it saved us a lot of money.
- 1 Day Pass is $84 adult, $51.80 child
- 3 Day Pass is $144 for an adult and 119 for a child (current sale prices)
- And 5 Day Attraction Pass costs $109 adult and $69.30 for a child
Some other tours and attractions also included in the city Sightseeing Pass that I have not mentioned already and I think are a fantastic addition include:
- Walking Tours in San Francisco, including a haunted after dark tour.
- Bike rentals and bike tours
- It now includes a one-day Muni Pass, which I think enhances its value even more. (This was not part of it during our visit to San Francisco.)
An alternative option, which I did not like as much (we were given one by San Francisco Tourism) was the San Francisco CityPass. It’s quite limited and only includes 5 attractions, so I didn’t like how inflexible it was.
The San Francisco attractions included are:
- California Academy of Science
- 3 Day Muni Pass (this is helpful for getting around San Francisco)
It costs $94 for an adult and $74 for a child.
This would be an ultra-cool way to do a San Francisco city tour for the adventurous, to zip around the city and visit the main San Francisco tourist attractions.
We only drove a GoCar for one hour, as that was all that was included on the Sightseeing Pass. Had I known how cool it was going to be, I would have upgraded for longer.
And we set off from downtown San Francisco at the wrong time of the day too – peak hour, so didn’t really get to do and see much.
We drove around the city center and then down along the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf before returning – I can’t tell you how much fun it was to sit beside my girls low to the ground in San Francisco traffic.
This is one of the thrilling San Francisco attractions.
You can hire GoCars for full days which will get you around most of the city.
You may need to get optional insurance for the GoCars. They are considered to be a motorbike rental so check with your car/home insurance policy and your travel insurance policy to see if they cover it.
Hop On Hop Off Bus
Generally, I like doing these hop-on-hop-off buses as it gives you a good overview of the city and allows you to see some cool places you may wish to return to.
I also like how it helps you save on transportation fees as they typically take you to the most iconic San Francisco points of interest.
They are usually included in the Sightseeing Pass which is also why we jump on these buses and would add this activity to the above to make a top 10 things to do in San Francisco list to see the main sites!
But I wasn’t as impressed with the Big Bus as I have been with the hop on hop off buses in other major cities.
It was running late at the start of the day and we were waiting over 40 minutes and it should be only 20 minutes max. And for some reason we were on a bus without any commentary.
You are meant to have commentary which is a reason I love getting on these buses as I love hearing the local stories and history.
They didn’t even tell us why. It wasn’t until I asked about it twice and why it wasn’t working that they mentioned this one didn’t have it for some reason. So we missed out on several stops of commentary.
It was working again when we jumped on at another stop to continue, but I did find it very annoying and unprofessional. If I paid for that ticket separately, I might have been asking for my money back.
The only other negative with these buses is you may spend time waiting around for the next bus.
In New York City it was impossible to get on a bus at popular locations as they were always full. I wouldn’t even attempt it in New York.
The Big Bus in SF does have a tracking app, but it didn’t seem to work properly.
More California Travel Tips
Looking for more California travel tips? Start with these posts:
- 30 incredible places to visit in California
- 20 things to do in Los Angeles
- 18 amazing things to do in Yosemite National Park
- 14 best things to do in The Presidio San Francisco
- 23+ things to do with kids in San Francisco
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What do you think are the best places to visit in San Francisco? Or do you have any questions on what to see in San Francisco with limited time? Leave a comment below!