20 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in San Francisco

Jul 22, 2021

One of the most famous cities in the world, San Francisco is no longer just a place to catch a ferry. Instead, San Francisco's strategic location at the tip of California's North Pacific coast has propelled it to become one of the world's premier tourist destinations.

It is the cultural, political, and economic heart of California, the place where the word "liberal" was coined, and where Jack London and James T. Farrell are buried. The city is steeped in history, from its famous Victorian homes to Fisherman's Wharf, the site of many of San Francisco's most popular attractions. And with top sights, fine shopping, and the city's lively arts scene, it's no wonder that this city attracts nine million visitors each year.

There are so many great things to do in San Francisco with so much to see that you might find yourself planning an entire vacation around visiting the top attractions in the city. But, first, you'll want to get to know it.

So, this guide is the perfect introduction to the city, offering sightseeing itineraries, popular neighborhoods, must-see attractions, and things to do. Whether you're planning a weekend break, a long vacation, or a quick city trip, this is the perfect city for inspiration and planning.

But there's so much to see, plan, and do, so this is just a short list to get you started.

Leave it up to you to add the best sights and activities that you discover in the city to this list.

Golden Gate Bridge

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge: en.wikipedia.org

One of the world's most iconic bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge has dominated the California skyline since its completion in 1937. Spanning the gateway to San Francisco Bay, it is a world-renowned attraction whose design mirrors the rustic traditions of the Northern California coastal fog. The Golden Gate Bridge offers a panoramic view from high above the water, with its walkway cutting into a vertical side, giving visitors a chance to experience the scenic views to either side. With the combination of the aesthetics and experience of such a famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge serves as a striking symbol of San Francisco, but the city itself is just as attractive to those who come.

Golden Gate Park

Photo of Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park: en.wikipedia.org

Pleasant temperatures and spacious green spaces are the hallmarks of Golden Gate Park. From green lawns to shady groves to ornate gardens, and from modest but tranquil Japanese gardens to San Francisco's beautiful scenery, Golden Gate Park is one of the most spectacular urban spaces in the United States. Some of the city's oldest and most famous landmarks are housed in the park. The 4.6-square-mile park is home to some of San Francisco's most well-known places, including Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco Zoo, California Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Sciences. Once well known for its natural and scenic attributes, San Francisco's official motto is Semper Paratus or Always Prepared.

Alcatraz Island

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Alcatraz Island: en.wikipedia.org

Alcatraz was built in the late 19th century and closed in 1963. This former prison has been host to a variety of things since, including a Navy prison until 1972. In September 1989, the Alcatraz Island National Park was founded on the island to protect the buildings and exhibits. While you cannot explore the interior of the island and visiting is closed to the public, the outside grounds can be explored and they are free. There is a chance that you can swim, but be careful of the rocks on the bottom of the waters. Alcatraz now has a permanent closure for visitors, but tours are still available.

Asian Art Museum

Photo of Asian Art Museum (San Francisco)
Asian Art Museum (San Francisco): en.wikipedia.org

San Francisco's Asian Art Museum (SAM), designed by architect Michael Graves, is one of the world's finest museums of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art. Some 2,000 objects from Asia are on permanent display, with close to 200 from China alone. The museum displays a dazzling array of vases, paintings, calligraphy, sculptures, and scrolls, as well as early examples of porcelain, and paintings by artists such as Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. The museum is housed in the 1926 Spanish Mission-style building designed by Graves and opened by Chinese-American artist W. Lambton Hepburn. Despite the "American" feel to the buildings, it is a museum that belongs to the Orient, with a museum-like atmosphere.

Fisherman's Wharf

Photo of Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

Fisherman's Wharf, in San Francisco, California, is a collection of jutting piers along the waterfront of the city. The area is the place to go for shopping and dining. Downtown is not far from here, and is a good jumping-off point for the Golden Gate Bridge. The attractions in the area include a museum dedicated to Chinese immigrant laborers who built the city, the Aquatic Park, the Pier 39 aquarium, and the Cable Car Museum. The city also hosts events like the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Great Race, a bicycle race, and a number of events related to the annual San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride festival. The San Francisco Maritime National Park is also nearby.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Photo of Presidio of San Francisco
Presidio of San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

This museum, located in San Francisco's Marina district, is on the premises of the de Young Museum, a modern art museum designed by the architect Bernard Maybeck. The de Young and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are housed within a striking Brutalist-style modernist building, whose castellated exterior contains a landscaped, modern reflecting pool. This is a large exhibition space that holds temporary exhibitions from around the world. The permanent collection focuses on modern and contemporary art, spanning the history of Western art since the beginning of the 20th century. The permanent collection also includes modern Chinese and Japanese paintings and sculptures.

Cable Car Museum

Photo of San Francisco Cable Car Museum
San Francisco Cable Car Museum: en.wikipedia.org

Cable cars are one of America's most iconic transport machines. They provide a fairly efficient and safe method of transporting passengers between the hilly terrain of San Francisco to the heart of the city, where shops, hotels, and museums are located. The original cable car arrived in the city in 1873 and by the turn of the century there were about 14 operating on the hills surrounding San Francisco. One of them was the first one that was equipped with a trolley car to take passengers from the first trolley up to the small building that provided a cable-car stop. By 1900 there were 21 cable cars in operation. In 2005, a partnership between the cable car company and the Cable Car Museum was formed. The museum is located just a few blocks from the Cable Car Museum and House is a reconstructed building from the first cable car company. When the museum opened in 2007 it was the first museum in the world to feature all of its exhibits inside the museum. It houses 60 different cable cars as well as over 2,000 artifacts. The museum is located at the corner of Market and Powell Street, which is a 2- to 5-minute walk from downtown. The cable car used to get to the museum is usually located nearby, at Powell and Market Streets, so walking back may be required depending on how long you spend inside the museum.

Chinatown

Photo of Chinatown, San Francisco
Chinatown, San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

Located in the western reaches of San Francisco's Financial District, Chinatown is famous for its Asian shopping and eating. After visiting the region's temples and murals, check out the opium den tunnels dug under Portsmouth Square, then head to Sen So for a bite to eat. Chinatown can be reached by cable car.

Exploratorium

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Exploratorium: en.wikipedia.org

The Exploratorium is one of the world's leading centers for the study of science, art, and technology, with ongoing research programs and installations on topics ranging from robotics to cell biology and human perception. Many of its exhibits emphasize hands-on experiences, such as the aquarium, which is home to the San Francisco Giant Pacific Octopus, the world's largest invertebrate. The campus in the Mission District of San Francisco features a main facility surrounded by a glass box full of laboratories, art galleries, a theater, and a gift shop, with admission that also includes access to some special exhibitions. Visitors can opt for a one-hour General Admission Ticket or a three-hour Resident ticket, which costs $30 more than the General Admission Ticket, but you can visit certain special exhibitions only through the Resident ticket.

Charles Bridge

Photo of San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge
San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge: en.wikipedia.org

The massive Charles Bridge (Karlův Most), located between Prague Castle and the Old Town, is one of the longest wooden bridges in the world. Its 2,236-foot length is the longest wooden bridge span in the world. Although it's not the longest wooden bridge in the world, the Charles Bridge has the best views and the most striking exterior features. At different points along its length you'll find towers, towers, and more towers, all of which are linked together by a seemingly never-ending line of stone buildings and bridges. For the best views of the bridge and Old Town, stop by the excellent Charles Bridge Visitors Center, where you can get maps and information about events and activities, including historical walks that take place on Tuesdays. Don't miss the popular Prague River boat tours in which you can board and watch the Old Town boats sail past the Charles Bridge.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

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Golden Gate National Recreation Area: en.wikipedia.org

Situated along the edge of San Francisco Bay in central California, San Francisco's most scenic National Recreation Area is home to popular beaches, rocky outcrops, and views of the historic city skyline. The most popular hiking area is along the Bay Trail, a 5.5-mile-long path that travels alongside the waterfront, following the picturesque cliff tops and beaches of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito shoreline. However, not all visitors head to the Golden Gate for hiking; the view from San Francisco's iconic cable-car cars on their ride to the Marin Headlands is an unmissable panorama, and San Francisco Bay is a popular spot for boating and kayaking.

Twin Peaks

Photo of Twin Peaks (San Francisco)
Twin Peaks (San Francisco): en.wikipedia.org

San Francisco's Twin Peaks was, at the time of the 1946 film noir classic, a busy place to be. It is still a thriving, diverse city today, yet many of its Victorian and Edwardian neighborhoods remain untouched by modern America. More than one hundred years ago, the city's rich history was recalled through the picturesque scenery in the acclaimed film noir "Dillinger," which was set in San Francisco in 1934. The city has three main areas: the rich, affluent downtown, the liberal Haight-Ashbury district, which was made famous in the 1960s by the psychedelic rock scene, and the Mission, San Francisco's former mission, which includes many artistic neighborhoods and museums.

Ocean Beach

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Ocean Beach, San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

Ocean Beach is known for its extensive beachfront, making it one of the most popular beaches in San Francisco. However, the colorful houses on the large concrete beach make it a bit shabby. Nearby Ocean Beach State Park has a zoo, many trees, and a famous lighthouse. Be sure to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium if you're interested in fish, or the Muir Beach Trail if you'd like to take a hike and visit lots of historical sites.

Mission District

Photo of Mission District, San Francisco
Mission District, San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

The San Francisco Mission District is one of the city's most eclectic and authentic neighborhoods. Its culture of architectural eclecticism is reflected in its rich diversity of restaurants and bars, bookstores and coffee shops, restaurants and bistros, and museums and galleries. This is the heart of a city that's steeped in tradition, history, and a fascinating blend of cultures.

Ferry Building

Photo of San Francisco Ferry Building
San Francisco Ferry Building: en.wikipedia.org

The Ferry Building is a shopping and dining area adjacent to San Francisco's waterfront Embarcadero on Market Street, often referred to as "the People's Plaza." San Francisco's historic waterfront has played host to America's greatest years of commerce, and the Ferry Building is a living, breathing monument to the start of the city's greatest era. The Ferry Building has an enormous vaulted interior, but what you will remember from your visit is the old-fashioned saloon, the ferry bar, where salty sea dogs josh around the clock and folks from around the world catch up. Don't miss this building's restaurant selections. They will knock your socks off.

Museum of Modern Art

Photo of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: en.wikipedia.org

MoMA is an art museum in San Francisco, with exhibitions spanning the history of modern art. Initially opened as a museum for the art of the 20th Century, it now showcases the more modern art of today. Famous galleries on the first floor include the Modern Wing, Art of Assemblage, and Igor Zirkunov. A new extension to the museum opened in 2004. The Gift of Time shop, located in the lobby, offers art in the form of postcards, posters, framed prints, original art, and clothing.

Alamo Square Park

Photo of Alamo Square, San Francisco
Alamo Square, San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

Central San Francisco's wonderful Alamo Square Park is bordered on the north by bustling Polk Street, on the west by Powell Street, on the south by Market Street, and on the east by the band shell of Golden Gate Park. It's a 10-minute walk from Union Square, a lively crossroads with great shopping, lively cafés, and nearby parkland. Alamo Square Park is a lovely spot for a leisurely stroll in the sunshine. It is home to many parks attractions, including the Japanese Tea Garden, the Decorative Arts Museum, the California African American Museum, and the Children's Creativity Museum.

San Francisco Zoo

Photo of San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco Bay Area: en.wikipedia.org

San Francisco's grandest zoo is no ordinary zoo. It's home to hundreds of animals that have been rescued from various causes, including local and tourist, all kept in large cages and given a chance to enjoy a more natural life. San Francisco Zoo was founded in 1891 and has a total of 1,700 animals at any one time, representing more than a thousand different species. Notable residents include the free-range lion, chimpanzee, Malayan tiger and the largest brown bear in captivity. There's also a 40-acre monkey forest, a 'Swiss Family Robinson' treehouse for visitors, and a small but elaborate maze. Visitors can feed and even touch the animals and their homes. A short walk will take you to the Children's Discovery Zone, which is mostly indoors but has a small hillside playground in which kids can interact with the animals. San Francisco Zoo is open daily, except for Christmas Day and New Year's Day, from 10am-5pm. San Francisco also has a number of small parks and green spaces within walking distance.

City Lights Bookstore

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City Lights Bookstore: en.wikipedia.org

City Lights is a bookstore with a unique ambience. An unexpected presence in an American city is often the place to find the world's greatest books, especially those that challenge and transform conventional thinking. The shop specializes in poetry, plays, art, literary criticism and history and has a great selection of cheap books. Enjoy a lively exchange with the owners and other readers and also with friends, visitors, the homeless and the mentally ill. At night, a blue light turns on, giving a brilliant light during the small hours.

Balboa Park

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Balboa Park, San Francisco: en.wikipedia.org

Balboa Park was built in the 1920s in an effort to combine the fresh climate of Southern California with the history of San Francisco. Notable attractions include the UC Berkeley campus, the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the ever-popular San Francisco Zoo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, among others. Balboa Park can be accessed by several public transit routes, including buses on Embarcadero and Van Ness. When on foot, explore the museum exhibits and San Francisco's best public gardens.