Best things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco

10 best things to do in San Francisco

San Francisco stole our hearts with its vibrant neighborhoods, iconic landmarks, hilly streets, and gorgeous parks. It was one of our favorite cities during our 5 week road trip through the Southwest! What would a trip to San Francisco be without its world-famous Golden Gate Bridge and beautiful cable cars? But Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury and the iconic crooked Lombard Street cannot be missing either! Discover 10 best things to do in San Francisco, from first-hand experience.

1. Marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge

The best things to do in San Francisco: Golden Gate Bridge

Let’s start with a classic that everyone knows: the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the world’s most photographed bridge and the city’s most popular tourist attraction, and we totally understand why! We had seen countless photos of the iconic bridge, but seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in real life still blew us away.

There are plenty of great spots to admire the majestic bridge. But if you want a truly postcard-worthy shot, head to Baker Beach. The gorgeous beach with the legendary bridge as a backdrop, it doesn’t get more picturesque than that! We walked to the end of the beach in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge and had this spot to ourselves. We took a lot of pictures here, taking our time to take in this perfect spot. 🥹

What we didn’t know before, was that it was almost impossible to walk all the way to the bridge, especially if you’re coming from Downtown. We thought it would be a nice 30 minute walk or so, but even from Fisherman’s Wharf (where we stayed), you’re looking at at least an hour and a half. From Downtown it’s more like 2 hours. One way! So if you’re planning on visiting, we urge you to do so when you have a rental car available, or if you rent bikes. It’s a fun way to explore and visit this iconic bridge!

2. Ride a cable car

The best things to do in San Francisco: ride a cable car

Besides the Golden Gate Bridge, the famous cable cars are also a typical image of San Francisco. To fully experience San Francisco’s charm, you should hop on board! It costs $8 for a one-way ticket and in return you get to enjoy the most spectacular views of San Francisco. It is so much fun riding the cable cars up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets! In addition, it is the perfect moment to rest your legs for a while. 😉

Choose from three cable car lines – two start at Powell and Market and continue to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. The other one starts at California and Market and continues to Van Ness Avenue. Fun guaranteed!

3. Visit Alcatraz Island

Acatraz Island

The highlight of our 3 days in San Francisco was undoubtedly our visit to Alcatraz, the notorious island prison. On Kelvin’s birthday we headed to the legendary Alcatraz, full of expectations and excitement. To reach Alcatraz, we had to take a ferry from Pier 33. Less than 10 minutes later we set foot on the island.

Acatraz Island

We each got a headset on arrival and dove into the history of Alcatraz. This audioguide was included in the ticket and we highly recommend making use of it! If you keep the pace of the narrator(s), it truly becomes an immersive experience. From walking into cells to interesting stories of escape attempts, we got a glimpse into former prison life and learned a lot about the history. Big bonus point for the beautiful views of the San Francisco skyline you have from Alcatraz!

Acatraz Island wildlife

What a lot of people don’t know, is that Alcatraz has an amazing wildlife. Admittedly, it consist mainly of birds, but there are a few land animals as well. Some of those animals are slugs, deer mice, and countless salamanders. When we were there, the park ranger told us she saw a whale swimming by the day before! So keep an eye on the land and water, you never know what you’ll encounter!

Our visit to Alcatraz was truly a unique and fascinating experience! It is definitely one of the best things to do in San Francisco and cannot be missed. We recommend booking your tickets in advance to ensure your visit, as mentioned in our preparation guide.

4. Explore Chinatown

The best things to do in San Francisco: Chinatown

San Francisco is bursting with great neighborhoods, but Chinatown is a classic not to be missed. The best way to explore Chinatown is to simply stroll through the neighborhood. We really loved the atmosphere here! The streets are beautifully decorated, with shops, restaurants and food markets everywhere.

Chinatown is rather small, so even if you’re limited in time you’ll probably stumble upon some great spots in the neighborhood. Whether it’s food or some souvenir shopping, even in one hour you can do a lot! We try to visit a Chinatown in every city we visit, and it never ceases to amaze us.

Curious about our favorite spots in Chinatown? You can find our favorites here, from the best dumplings to unique Mai Tais.

5. See the sea lions at Pier 39

Sea lions at Pier 39

Fisherman’s Wharf is a waterfront neighborhood and home to Pier 39. We immediately fell in love with Pier 39! This is such a cozy and vibrant place with all kinds of restaurants and shops. Especially the fun arcade was something that stood out for us, as in Belgium arcade halls are really difficult to find.

But the real star of Pier 39 are undoubtedly the cute sea lions. You’ll see them sunbathing, napping, barking, and even fighting amongst each other. There are so many sea lions that you can easily stand and stare for an hour without getting bored! We visited Pier 39 in May, which is the perfect time to spot those cute ones. We heard from multiple friends that visited San Francisco over the summer that they only saw a handful, or sometimes none at all. Oh how lucky we were. 😍

6. Admire the views at Ina Coolbrith Park

Ina Coolbrith Park

Ina Coolbrith Park is a hidden gem offering breathtaking skyline views of San Francisco. What sets this little park apart is its relative obscurity, ensuring that visitors often have the entire place to themselves. It’s a tranquil haven where you can escape the bustling crowds and immerse yourself in the serenity of nature.

As we strolled along the park’s pathways, we encountered just a couple of locals leisurely walking their dogs. This added so much to the vibe of the park! We finished our apple fritters from Bob’s Donuts here whilst admiring the view. Even when it started raining we didn’t leave, just because it was so peaceful here. With its unmatched vistas and peaceful ambiance, Ina Coolbrith Park is a true treasure waiting to be discovered.

7. Get dizzy in Lombard Street

Lombard Street

On our first day, we were a bit jet-lagged, so we couldn’t sleep. At 6 AM we took our drone, left our hotel and started exploring the city.

We started our day with Lombard Street, the crookedest street in San Francisco. We walked all the way to the top, what an intense work out! The view was worth it though. 😉 There are some stairs right next to the street that you can take to climb it (or walk all the way down from the top) so you don’t have to walk on the road itself.

If you plan on driving through Lombard Street, we recommend doing it now rather than later. In 2019 a law passed that made it possible to ask toll and fees for driving through this amazing street. It’s not in effect yet, but might happen sooner than you think!

Pro tip
For the best experience, we recommend arriving early in the morning. We passed again during the day, but then there were so many pedestrians and cars. This made the whole experience less magical, and makes it more difficult to take shots without other people in it.

8. Feel the love in Haight-Ashbury

The best things to do in San Francisco: Haight-Ashbury

Haight-Ashbury, known as the iconic hippie district, is the most colorful neighborhood of San Francisco. As you wander through this vibrant area, you’ll find hip restaurants, cute vintage shops and music shops everywhere. We really loved the bohemian atmosphere and energetic vibes in this neighborhood! We went thrift-shopping here, but unfortunately didn’t find anything. There are countless stores to do so, so maybe you’ll have better luck!

All over the neighborhood you can find some beautiful colorful Victorian houses. Especially the Four Seasons Victorian homes were so pretty! We really love the Victorian style, and after our visit to San Francisco even more. Another hotspot that cannot be missed is the pair of fishnet-covered legs and red high heels hanging out of the window. We know, sounds a bit abstract. But the photo says it all, it’s such a legendary picture! You can see the legs dangling above Piedmont Boutique.

Apart from that, countless rainbows, colored houses, and coffeeshops (of course) can be found here. It is definitely worth a stroll!

9. Admire the Painted Ladies

The best things to do in San Francisco: the Painted Ladies

Like we just mentioned, we absolutely love the Victorian style. The most iconic Victorian houses in San Francisco are without doubt the Painted Ladies, aka Postcard Row. These gorgeous pastel-colored homes are one of the most photographed sights in San Francisco and for good reason!

You’ll find the Painted Ladies across the street from Alamo Square Park along Steiner Street. What we did was have a little picnic in the park with view of the Painted Ladies. That way we had it both, an amazing view and a date!

10. Unwind at Mission Dolores Park

Mission Dolores Park

Nestled in the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District, Mission Dolores Park is a lovely urban oasis that captivates both locals and visitors alike. It is the perfect escape from the bustling city streets! This gorgeous green space with its beautiful palm trees and picturesque skyline views is the perfect place to relax and unwind. In addition, the park provides a perfect setting for picnics, sunbathing, and social gatherings.

What we noticed is that this park is really popular! No matter the time of the day, there are a lot of people here, from any age category. We saw children playing, schools coming for a visit, elderly sitting on benches,… It really amazed us! Don’t let the crowds scare you, though, there’s plenty of space left for you. 😉

Where to stay in San Francisco

Kimpton Alton Hotel - Fisherman's Wharf

One of the best areas to stay in San Francisco is near Fisherman’s Wharf. Especially if you’re visiting for the first time and want to be close to most locations, Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to be.

We stayed at Kimpton Alton Hotel, a beautiful hotel less than 5 minutes away from Fisherman’s Wharf. Our premium room with kingsize bed was so spacious! We chose this hotel because they advertised the “San Fran vibe”, and we could see why! A record player in the room and plenty of small details really added to that vibe. We also really loved our bathroom, it had the most gorgeous shower with mosaic tiles.

The hotel itself has a fitness center, spa and restaurant. We also received € 9 voucher per night we were staying there for the roomservice, minibar, or at the restaurant of the hotel. Such a nice gesture, and we definitely made use of it!

The only downside is that this was our most expensive stay, we paid a whopping € 266 per night. Since it was Kelvin’s birthday in San Francisco, we had calculated a little more budget for our hotel here. Below are some hotel recommendations for every budget:

Now that you know 10 best things to do in San Francisco, it’s time to explore our food & drink recommendations in San Francisco!

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