Top 12 Attractions in San Francisco

Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Emily Johnson


Known for its iconic landmarks, culture diversity, culinary delights and stunning natural landscapes, San Francisco never ceases to enchant visitors. The hilly city by the bay packs dozens of world-class attractions within its compact 49-square miles, making it easy to maximize your time. From the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz to colorful neighborhoods like Chinatown, the city brims with vibrant history and atmosphere around every turn.

AttractionBrief Description
Golden Gate BridgeIconic Art Deco suspension bridge offering stunning views and a museum.
Colorful Neighborhoods and ParksExplore diverse neighborhoods and parks like Chinatown, Mission District, and Golden Gate Park.
Cable CarsHistoric cable cars providing views of the city and bay.
Alcatraz IslandInfamous former prison offering tours and bird watching.
SF MOMAMuseum showcasing modern and contemporary art.
ExploratoriumInteractive science museum with hands-on exhibits.
Muir Woods National MonumentCoast redwood forest with hiking trails and ancient trees.
Ferry Building MarketplaceHub for local gourmet food producers and artisans.
Alamo SquareIconic view of Painted Ladies Victorian homes and music venue.
Twin PeaksOffers panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay.
Aquarium of the BayMarine life exhibitions and interactive experiences at Pier 39.

To help you make the most of your San Francisco trip, we compiled this guide to the 12 top attractions you simply must see. It includes major landmarks as well as some quirky local favorites. Read on for the best ways to experience the City by the Bay from scenic vantage points to fascinating museums.

Admire Iconic Architecture on the Golden Gate Bridge

Name and Location: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

History and Significance: The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic landmarks in San Francisco and the United States. Construction began in 1933 and the bridge opened in 1937 as the world’s longest and tallest suspension bridge. It has become a globally recognized symbol of San Francisco and with its distinctive orange color, the bridge is a distinctive part of the city’s skyline.

What to Expect: The Golden Gate Bridge has a sidewalk on either side that pedestrians and cyclists can access to walk or bike across the 1.7 mile span. The views of the San Francisco Bay and skyline are stunning. It can be quite windy and cold so dress appropriately. You can walk out onto the center of the bridge for some great photo opportunities.

Visitor Information: The bridge is open to pedestrians and cyclists from 5am to 9pm daily. There is no toll fee for crossing by foot or bike. You can access the pedestrian walkway on the east side via the trailhead located between the parking lots at the Toll Plaza.


No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the iconic Art Deco suspension bridge connecting the city to the wild Marin Headlands and redwood forests beyond. Walking or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge offers stunning 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay spotted with sailboats and Alcatraz Island. The 1.7-mile crossing also provides a unique vantage point looking back at the San Francisco skyline dotted with hills and skyscrapers.

After your bridge crossing, hike the coastal loop trails or stop into the visitor center’s museum to learn about how the orange landmark was constructed in 1937. On summer evenings, check out the chime concert as the bridge towers illuminate in an LED light show celebrating the structure’s engineering and history.

Wander Colorful Neighborhoods and Parks

Name and Location: Colorful San Francisco Neighborhoods and Parks

History and Significance: San Francisco is renowned for its diverse and vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own unique culture, architecture, cuisine and personality. Neighborhoods like Chinatown, The Mission, The Castro and Haight Ashbury gained prominence during various historic and social movements. The city’s hilly topography also allows for stunning parks and green spaces with majestic views.

What to Expect: Wandering the neighborhoods and parks allows you to soak in San Francisco’s culture and charm. You can explore the street art and eateries of Mission, the painted ladies and boutiques in Alamo Square, the diversity and pagodas of Chinatown. In parks like Dolores and Alta Plaza you can take in sweeping city vistas surrounded by lush landscapes. There’s so much character and life to uncover across SF’s locales.

Visitor Information: The neighborhoods and parks are very walkable and reachable by public transport. Some key sites include Mission’s Balmy Alley, Chinatown’s Grant Avenue, the Haight’s Ashbury Street, Alamo Square Park and Dolores Park. Have your camera, snacks and walking shoes ready to make the most of exploring.


One of the best ways to uncover San Francisco’s vibrant culture is simply exploring its diverse neighborhoods on foot. Stroll through Chinatown’s bustling markets and temples, sample authentic tacos in the Latin American Mission District or admire Victorian architecture in postcard-perfect Pacific Heights.

Don’t miss Golden Gate Park stretching over 1,000 acres from Haight Ashbury across museums, gardens and even a historic Dutch windmill. Or lose yourself in the exotic plant conservatories of Golden Gate Park alongside residents looking for zen in the green spaces. Each community provides insider glimpses into what makes the city so extraordinary.

Ride the Cable Cars

Name and Location: San Francisco Cable Cars

History and Significance: The San Francisco cable cars are the world’s last manually operated cable car system and have become a famed historic icon of the city. They were established as a transportation system in 1873 and have been designated a National Historic Landmark that holds major significance in American engineering. The three lines offer a fun and scenic way to explore major city landmarks and sights.

What to Expect: A ride on the rolling, wooden cable cars allows you to glide up the steep inclines that give you panoramic views as you move through the bustling streets. You can enjoy the wind in your hair from an open-air seat or standing spot on platforms at either end of the cars. The shared experience also introduces you to locals as you help operate the car.

Visitor Information: Cable car tickets can be purchased as single-ride tickets, 1-day visitor passport tickets or 3-day passport tickets. Fares range from $8-$62 depending on type and duration. Boarding queues can get quite long so arrive early if you want to secure a spot or be prepared to wait during popular times. The cable cars run daily from approximately 6am to 10pm.


No San Francisco experience is complete without hopping aboard one of the city’s iconic cable cars winding through downtown as they have since 1873. These National Historic Landmarks climb famously steep roads providing unbeatable views of the bay and cityscape. The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines start downtown near Union Square and run past landmarks like Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf.

For the most classic cable car experience, queue to ride hanging off the side down California Street for exhilarating views and breeze. Or try the secret local’s tip: hike up Nob Hill to the less crowded California Street line terminus for a better chance snagging an open spot and driver photo op when they change shift.

Tour Alcatraz Island

Name and Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay

History and Significance: Alcatraz Island is located in San Francisco Bay and was the site of a pivotal federal prison that held notorious criminals like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz). The island itself has had a long history, from its use by Native American tribes, its fortification by the military to its most infamous role as a maximum-security prison from 1934-1963. It is now a famous landmark under the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

What to Expect: A visit to Alcatraz Island allows you to learn about its complex history through self-guided audio tours of the prison cell house. You can also explore the ruins of the warden’s house and gardens, military chapels and more while taking in panoramic views of San Francisco. With its isolated location and notorious residents like Al Capone, a tour provides an intriguing glimpse into its past.

Visitor Information: Alcatraz can only be accessed via ferry. Tickets include the audio tour and typically need reserving 1-2 months in advance. Official ferries depart from Pier 33 about every half hour from 9am-4pm. Plan to spend 2.5-4 hours exploring to make the most of your visit. Dress warmly as the island can be cold and windy year-round. Food service is limited so bring snacks and water.


Once home to the nation’s most infamous prison complex housing mobsters like Al Capone along with dangerous criminals, Alcatraz Island today draws travelers hungry to learn it’s notorious history. A short ferry ride delivers guests to “The Rock” in the middle of San Francisco Bay to walk the former federal penitentiary’s grounds.

Expert docents highlight top attractions like solitary confinement, Machine Gun Kelly’s escape thwarted bedroom and the recreation yard immortalized in “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” Be sure to book prison tour tickets at least 2-3 weeks advance since slots sell out fast along with island ferry tickets. Beyond the famed prison, Alcatraz also offers outstanding bay views and bird watching since the island functions now as a marine preserve home to nesting colonies.

Explore SF MOMA’s Modern Art Collection

Name and Location: SFMOMA, 151 3rd St, San Francisco

History and Significance: SFMOMA, or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has its roots dating back to 1935 and is considered one of the world’s most influential and largest modern and contemporary art museums. Following an ambitious expansion completed in 2016, now encompassing ten floors, the museum holds renowned iconic modern paintings and sculptures along with emerging art forms like digital media, photography and installation works.

What to Expect: The museum contains a wealth of iconic modern artworks including the largest collection of Calder mobiles, landmark Rauschenberg assemblages, major pieces by Duchamp and Matisse, photography exhibits and contemporary media arts. Enjoy expanded free access to the galleries with paintings, sculptures, photos and architecture complemented by interpretative content on themes, artists and movements bringing the exhibits to life.

Visitor Information: SFMOMA is open most days 10am-5pm, and until 9pm on Thursdays. General admission tickets start at $25 for adults. Given the expansive collections, plan on spending 2-3 hours at minimum to fully experience the museum’s offerings including special exhibitions that require separate admission. Various memberships are also available providing additional benefits.


San Francisco loves art with over 30 museums and galleries scattered across the city. For an immersive look at modern and contemporary works, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) never disappoints thanks to its vast, ever-changing art installations.

The airy museum owns over 33,000 pieces in mediums like painting, sculpture and photography showcasing creative luminaries like Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and but also lesser known yet equally inspiring artists. Guests ride a mammoth 14-foot sculpture escalator through the 10-story atrium seeing masterpieces from various floors. Whether your taste runs to Matisse cut outs or futuristic video displays, SFMOMA’s collection amazes around every turn. Don’t miss the interactive living wall courtyard outdoors capped by a mesmerizing light sculpture.

Wander Through the Exploratorium’s Interactive Exhibits

Name and Location: Exploratorium, Pier 15, San Francisco

History and Significance: The Exploratorium is an interactive science and learning museum founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer in 1969 with a focus on experiential learning through hundreds of hands-on exhibits. It has pioneered the concept of participatory museums that allow visitors to interact with scientific phenomena in immersive ways that ignite curiosity, critical thinking and education. It is dedicated to science, art and human perception.

What to Expect: Be prepared to touch, build, play and explore over 650 interactive exhibits spanning science, art, perception and human behavior that have made the museum legendary. You’ll encounter displays like a glass bay observing weather patterns, artistic displays that manipulate light and shadow, language analyses and much more – all illuminating science through inquiry. Come ready to have your vision expanded and understanding enriched.

Visitor Information: General admission is $35 for an adult ticket granting access to themed galleries like Color, Seeing and Listening along with live demos and programs. Free for under 3 years old. It’s open Wednesday through Monday from 10am-5pm, allowing 3-4 hours to wander through hundreds of hands-on activities that span interests from optical illusions to marine biology.


For hands-on science fun the whole family can enjoy, the Exploratorium showcases hundreds of experiential exhibits enlightening kids and adults alike on topics spanning physics to psychology. Inside the glass bay front building, drift through a transcendental fog sculpture, turn visions into sound waves or walk an indoor tightrope while playing with balance and gravity.

Travel back in time through their pitch black immersive Tactile Dome or dare your nerves to handle the creepiness in their haunted Victorian parlor illusion. Every exhibit provides surprising “aha” moments illuminating various natural phenomenon or quirks of psychology. It easily ranks as the top science museum in the world for innovation, artistic flare and entertainment paired with learning.

Hike Through Muir Woods’ Redwood Forest

Name and Location: Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley

History and Significance: Muir Woods is a natural national monument about 12 miles north of San Francisco that preserves hundreds of awe-inspiring old-growth redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) that tower over 250 feet tall. Saved from logging in 1904, this unique ecosystem of biodiversity also provided inspiration to naturalists like John Muir who led efforts for wildlife conservation nationwide. The monument celebrates the connection of people to nature.

What to Expect: Muir Woods fosters serenity and wonder with its cathedral groves of mammoth redwoods blanketed in verdant ferns and mosses. Along its many trails and raised boardwalks that vary from easy to strenuous, you’ll encounter the tallest tree at 258 feet and breathe the refreshingly crisp forest air. It’s an easily accessible escape into profound and uplifting beauty.

Visitor Information: As a national monument, there is a $15 entry fee by foot, bike or shuttle. Arrive early as capacity is limited to 1,900 visitors per day. Pets, bikes, food and off-trail wandering are prohibited to protect the ecosystem. The monument is open daily from 8am-sunset and accessible by shuttle, bike or car – prepare for a short uphill hike from the parking lots to the base of the redwood grove.


A mere 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge transports nature lovers into a peaceful coast redwood forest brimming with hundred year old giants standing over 250 feet tall. As part of the National Park system, Muir Woods National Monument offers several miles of easy hiking trails under the lush tree canopies alongside mossy rocks and bubbling creeks. Amble along elevated wood walkways to protect the sensitive redwood root ecosystems and these ancient trees may whisper their timeless secrets.

Pay respects at the Cathedral Grove containing one of the tallest old growth coast redwoods or contemplate life standing inside a carved out tree trunk. Whether visiting solo to meditate quietly with nature or making outdoor family memories, few settings prove more magical than Muir Woods’ primeval forest.

Sip and Savor at the Ferry Building Marketplace

Name and Location: Ferry Building Marketplace, San Francisco

History and Significance: Situated along the city’s bustling Embarcadero, the Ferry Building Marketplace is both an iconic landmark as well as a gateway into SF’s vibrant food and craft culture scene. The elegant beaux-arts building dates to 1903 and served as San Francisco’s transportation hub. After extensive renovations unveiled in 2003, the historic site reopened as a vibrant marketplace with artisan shops and acclaimed eateries.

What to Expect: Wandering through the light-drenched, open-air halls and boutiques, you’ll discover mouthwatering cuisine running the gamut from freshly-shucked oysters, to artisan chocolates and some of the region’s finest farmers market fare. Ringed by the bayfront, outdoor seating allows you savour SF’s heady culinary bounty against postcard views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. It’s both a feasting and cultural immersion.

Visitor Information: The marketplace is open from 10am to 6pm Monday through Friday; 9am to 6pm on Saturdays; and 11am to 5pm on Sundays year-round except major holidays. No ticket is required to explore the various eateries, wines, gifts and more. Grab a bite from vendors or pack a picnic to relish alfresco against sweeping waterfront vistas of the ever-enchanting city by the Bay.


The renovated historic Ferry Building Marketplace serves as both public transit hub and temple to local gourmet food producers and artisans. The light-filled terminal features dozens of boutique eateries dishing up delectable bites showcasing regional fare and techniques. Slurp down oysters harvested just hours prior at Hog Island Oyster Bar or indulge cheers-worthy ice cream secured from a donut cone at Humphry Slocombe. Learn wine or olive oil blending from area masters alongside sweeping bay views ideal for an afternoon of indulgence with friends.

The bustling marketplace also hosts an incredible farmer’s market three days a week where food lovers drool over stalls overflowing with just-picked produce as well as breads, cheeses and cured meats crafted by makers across Northern California. For locavore food and drink, nowhere beats the Ferry Terminal.

Catch a Show at Alamo Square

Name and Location: Alamo Square, San Francisco

History and Significance: Alamo Square is a beloved residential neighborhood and iconic city park anchored by the famous “Postcard Row” of Painted Ladies Victorian homes backdropped by stunning downtown views. The area’s Victorian architecture dates largely to the reconstruction period after major fires following the 1906 earthquake leveled the city. Alamo Square enjoys protection as a designated historic district.

What to Expect: Alamo Square delights visitors with its charming row of flamboyantly-painted Victorian homes contrasted against sweeping city skyline views – an instantly recognizable San Francisco scene featured in films, photos and TV. Have your camera ready to capture the perfect postcard shot! Beyond the Instagrammable ladies, the area offers a quiet, tree-lined community vibe and hilltop lawns dotted with locals and dogs soaking up the sights.

Visitor Information: The park and its famed Postcard Row are publicly accessible year-round. It’s located in the bustling Hayes Valley area, providing easy walking access to boutiques, restaurants and bakeries when you need to rest your legs. Whether you go just for the epic photo op or to spread out a picnic while soaking up Victorian architecture against unforgettable SF views, Alamo Square always charms.


Both a beloved residential district as well as an iconic view point above the city, Alamo Square charms visitors with its post card views of downtown framed behind a perfect row of Painted Ladies Victorian homes. But it also claims famed music club The Boom Boom Room inside the historic Fillmore Auditorium that has hosted legends like the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis and The Who during concerts spanning genres from jazz to rock.

Today, music lovers queue down the block for tickets to see renowned touring bands or local jazz/blues performers while admiring Fillmore’s retro psychedelic poster-plastered interior. Stop downstairs next door at lively Blue Bottle Coffee before or after shows to sip nitro iced coffee inside a converted former pipe organ factory for an only-in-SF kind of night.

Take in 360-Degree Views from Twin Peaks

Name and Location: Twin Peaks, San Francisco

History and Significance: Rising 925 feet over the center of the city, Twin Peaks represents San Francisco’s second tallest peak and remains a beloved natural space commanding what are considered among the most stunning vistas of the City by the Bay available. Critical habitat corridors connect to Mount Sutro and other peaks via ecological reserves crucial for vulnerable butterfly species recovery. Recreation trails also welcome hikers, cyclists and nature enthusiasts.

What to Expect: Atop the windswept, rocky perches you can revel in unparalleled 360-degree panorama stretching from downtown skyscrapers to Bay views to glimpses of Mount Diablo’s imposing silhouette. Watch boats skim below along the waterfront, trace Market Street cutting between bustling neighborhoods, spot the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and absorb SF’s beauty against the rippling Bay framed by rolling hills. It’s a photographer and nature lover’s paradise beckoning discovery.

Visitor Information: The summit Loop area is accessible 7am to midnight year-round by car, bike or on foot. While viewing points and trails along the peaks are always open, fog and winds can be intense so layer clothing appropriately. Visitors can park free near the Loop summit sign to access viewing points. Whether visiting morning or night, Twin Peaks rewards with commanding vistas showcasing the City’swild beauty from on high.


Rising from the very heart of San Francisco, the two summits called Twin Peaks offer unrivaled vistas spanning the city and sweeping bay. The second highest point in town, these 922-foot peaks entice visitors to hike or drive up their slopes for panoramas including the shimmering Pacific Ocean to the towering Oakland bridges over to Treasure Island and the East Bay cities.

Watchircraft float against the blue skies and trace cars creeping across downtown towards Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill in the distance. Especially around blue hour at sunset when city lights flicker on, Twin Peaks vantage point proves nothing short of magical. Pack a bottle of wine and blanket to soak in the views as dusk falls for a quintessential San Francisco moment.

Explore Ocean and Bay Wildlife at Aquarium of the Bay

Name and Location: Aquarium of the Bay

History and Significance: Perched at the edge San Francisco’s iconic Pier 39 area along the bustling waterfront, Aquarium of the Bay immerses visitors in local aquatic life from San Francisco Bay and its estuaries. Founded in 1996, its mission focuses on conservation education and advocacy supporting Bay habitat restoration. Its waters host one of Earth’s most diverse marine ecosystems, cultivating over 23,000 plant and animal species.

What to Expect: Get ready for memorable underwater viewing including glowing jellyfish, sharks and stingrays gliding overhead from crystal-clear tunnels totaling over 100 feet in length. Beyond up-close encounters under the sea, interactive programs for kids cultivate marine science appreciation. Discover keystone species like leopard sharks or sea stars critical to balancing the Bay’s extraordinary biodiversity highlighted through cutting-edge exhibits.

Visitor Information: General admission starts at $24.95 for adults granting access to the aquatic tunnels along with opportunities to touch bat rays. Various membership options are available, with discounted rates for children, seniors military families allowing year-round entry. Typically open 9am-7pm most days, plan 1.5-2 hours to experience animal feedings, naturalist talks and explore ocean conservation displays reveal the Bay’s vital ecosystems.


Located at Pier 39 in lively Fisherman’s Wharf, the Aquarium of the Bay brings local marine life just past the Golden Gate Bridge into easily accessible viewing areas. Visitors gaze through crystal clear tunnels while sharks, bat rays and schools of silver fish swoop overhead and even underfoot. The aquarium recreates both farallon islands and San Francisco Bay biomes showing the wild creatures that make their home in the chilly Pacific.

Aside from 100s of sea creatures on display, the aquarium also runs informative behind-the-scenes tours, low sensory access programs for neurodiverse visitors and seasonal encounters with marine animals like octopi or diving birds. With the Embarcadero waterfront at its doorstep, the compact but engaging Aquarium of the Bay makes science come alive for ocean lovers.

Conclusion

From its iconic suspension bridge to vibrant multi-cultural communities to unrivaled natural beauty surrounding the bay, San Francisco packs an incredible diversity of attractions in just under 50 square miles. Foodies indulge at bountiful markets while nature enthusiasts find solace on tranquil trail past towering redwoods or along breathtaking coastal cliffs. Musuems both modern and historic unearth fascinating local history, showcases boundary-pushing art and make science interactive.

Outdoor adventures like island prison visits or climbing sloped streets on clanging cable cars get visitors’ hearts pumping as fast as the trolley wheels. No matter your interest or travel agenda, visiting San Francisco’s most beloved attractions helps unlock what makes this such a special west coast metropolis for risk-takers, nature lovers and free spirits alike. Use our guide to uncover the top things to see based on landmark status or simply local pride. Just be warned that you may never want to leave once you experience the magic!

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