Top 36 local things to do San Francisco in 2023

As an experienced slow-traveling cat, I fancy myself a connoisseur of the world’s hidden corners. Over the past year, I’ve prowled through alleys, sauntered down boulevards, and whisked my way through many city secrets. Today, I’m ready to let the cat out of the bag about one of my favorite concrete jungles – the enchanting city of San Francisco. Nestled on the edge of the mighty Pacific, there are so many local things to do in San Francisco that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Follow my velvety pawprints, as I guide you through the local treasures that make San Francisco a playground for curious cat explorers!

How to get there

Since San Francisco is a major city, arriving by air is the most convenient option. There are three major airports in the city: San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), and San Jose International Airport (SJC).

While SFO is the largest, SJC is the newest, with more connections to other parts of the world. If possible, I recommend flying into SFO due to its proximity to the city and ease of use of the public transit system. If you need to fly SJC you can still access the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit system), however. Just be aware that your commute time will be nearly twice as long (2+ hours). The Oakland airport is small and not too much further from the city center than SFO. Just be prepared to make a few extra transfers, if you go that route.

Having one of the best public transit systems in the US and notoriously terrible traffic, it’s recommended to do this trip without a car. If you need to bring a car, however, make sure you account for parking fees. Some hotels can charge over $100 per night for parking.

If you are on a road trip, consider leaving your car in long-term parking and enjoying a break from driving. The MUNI bus and train network is extensive and covers most of the city. For example, a one-way trip on Route 49 between Fisherman’s Wharf and downtown costs between $2.00 and $2.50. You can also buy a Day Pass for $5, which allows unlimited travel on all buses and light rails until the end of the next day. For tech-savvy travelers, you can download the MuniMobile app to pay your fares online.

Finding local things to do in San Fransisco 

So, you finally made it to the city by the bay. Now it’s time to start really soaking in the culture by finding all the best local spots to explore. While San Francisco is an endless treasure trove of boutique shops and cafes, don’t forget to get outside, explore the history, and appreciate the city’s unique architecture. 

Local things to do in San Francisco - picture of the Golden Gate Bridge taken from the visitor center at The Presidio
Golden Gate Bridge

The best way to explore San Francisco is through its parks, museums, landmarks, history, and vibrant neighborhoods. The jampacked city has no shortage of things to do. Now it’s up to you to decide what local things you’ll do in the city by the bay. 

1. Attend a family-friendly sleepover at the California Academy of Sciences 

A fun place to explore for all ages, the California Academy of Science is well-loved by residents of the city. Featuring an aquarium, planetarium, indoor rainforest, and home to the Kimball Natural History Museum, there will be plenty to keep you busy.

Aside from perusing the exhibits, you can also check out a host of special events hosted here. The Night Life series of events offers special experiences after closing time, as well as, cocktails, beer, and wine. If you are looking for a unique family-friendly activity, you can also attend a sleepover event where you’ll stay the entire night in the museum. It’s easy to see why the California Academy of Science is such a beloved organization in San Francisco!

2. Watch historical cartoons at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Located in the Presidio of San Francisco, the Walt Disney Family Museum is a must-see for Disney enthusiasts. Focusing on the life of Walt Disney and the history behind the massive empire, this is a great place to see historical drawings and early cartoons that are not available anywhere else.

This unique museum also does an amazing job of telling the story behind Disney’s innovation. It also doesn’t hurt that it is surrounded by stunning nature and is located in the Presidio, providing spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay. 

3. Check out the latest rotating exhibit at the de Young Museum 

San Francisco - the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park
de Young Museum

Located in Golden Gate Park, the building itself is a sight to behold. The de Young is best known for its collection of American art, starting in the 17th century and featuring art up until the present day. During your visit, however, you’ll also find African and Oceanic art as well as costumes, textiles, and more! Finally, this museum is constantly showing new collections, so don’t forget to check out the rotating exhibits before your trip.

4. Get Lost in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A truly impressive facility, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art features 7 floors of modern art in downtown San Fransisco. Locals love to frequent this museum because its sheer size promises something new to learn each time. Some of the most popular exhibits include a group of murals by local artists and a living wall with over 19,000 plants – this is the largest living wall in the United States!

Another popular way to experience SFMOMA is to simply stop by and pursue over 45,000 square feet of admission-free public art located on the first 2 floors. 

5. Get a History lesson at the California Historical Society

One of the lesser-known museums in the city, the California Historical Society is almost always hosting a traveling exhibit or two. Located in downtown San Francisco, stopping by the California Historical Society is a great way to learn about the history of the city. 

6. See the river otters at the Aquarium of the Bay

San Fransisco - Aquarium of the Bay located in Fisherman's Wharf
Aquarium of the Bay

Located off of Embarcadero, right next to the San Francisco Bay, this aquarium is a great place to learn about the local environment.

Featuring over 200 species of marine life, here you’ll find everything from anchovies to sharks. There is even a river otter exhibit that is sure to brighten your day. What better way to really take in San Francisco than exploring the marine life that surrounds it?

7. Enjoy the Exploratorium After Dark

Another one of the beloved museums in the city, this science center has interactive exhibits, hands-on activities, and an extensive permanent collection. The Exploratorium is designed to be an engaging experience for both kids and adults. This is a great way to get out of your day-to-day rut and use all of your senses to learn about the world around you.

Similar to the California Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium offers adult-only nighttime events, complete with full museum access and beer and wine. Check out the current calendar for the Exploratorium After Dark events and purchase your tickets ahead of time. 

8. Nerd out at the Musee Mecanique in Fisherman’s Wharf

For a truly unique experience, check out the Musee Mecanique Museum in Fisherman’s Wharf. This museum exhibits over 300 coin-operated vintage and antique musical and mechanical devices, all in working condition. Family-owned and operated since 1933, you can’t get much more local than this! 

9. Lay in the grass at Mission Delores Park 

One of the most popular parks in the city, Mission Delores is situated on a hill overlooking the Mission neighborhood on one side, with views of downtown San Francisco on the other.

Known as a gathering spot for artists, you’ll often find local residents utilizing the space for creative expression. Seriously, keep an eye out for a traveling robot dance party while you’re there! On nice days, simply lying on the grass on observing the vibrant energy of the city is a popular pastime for many local residents. 

10. Find Zen at the Japanese Tea Garden 

Pagoda at the Japanese tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Fransisco
Japanese Tea Garden

A traditional Japanese garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, located in Golden Gate Park provides a serene environment to contemplate nature and life. There is a Japanese tea house located within the garden where visitors can enjoy traditional Japanese tea and snacks. Aside from taking in the manicured gardens, make sure to check out the iconic 5-story pagoda and historic drum bridge. 

11. Stop and smell the flowers at the San Francisco Botanical Garden

Offering 55 acres of gardens and constantly changing event programming, this is a great place to get involved in local culture in San Francisco. The San Francisco Botanical Garden is located within Golden Gate Park and offers several trails through its diverse gardens. Many of the plants located here are seasonal, so make sure to come back each season for a new experience. 

12. Observe the bison at Golden Gate Park

When visiting Golden Gate Park, look for the Bison Paddock on the western end of the park. Here you’ll find a small herd of female bison, which is a nod to the park’s beginnings. Originally Golden Gate Park was founded to honor the Wild West. The park hosted a captive breeding program dating back to 1881, however, eventually, the program dwindled. Today’s herd was introduced in 2011 and only accepts females to cut back on aggressive behavior. 

13. See rare plants at the Conservatory of Flowers

Located near the eastern entrance of Golden Gate Park, the Conservatory of Flowers is one of the most iconic symbols in the park. Built in 1879, this picturesque greenhouse houses 5 distinct plant galleries featuring rare and unusual plants. Located almost entirely indoors, a visit here is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon in San Francisco. 

14. Enjoy the view at Twin Peaks Park 

Unlike Delores, the dominant activity in Twin Peaks is hiking. Known for its lookout point on the North Peak, Twin Peaks offers one of the best views of the city.

Once you’ve appreciated the vastness of the city skyline, make sure to take time to hike around this 64-acre park. Keep an eye out for the Mission Blue Butterfly while you are in the area. Twin Peaks is a designated habitat for this endangered species and part of a bigger recovery plan across the county. This butterfly is light blue, about the size of a quarter, and loves hanging around the native lupine flowers. 

15. Practice your photography skills at the Palace of Fine Arts 

Local things to do in San Francisco - the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts

In a city known for picturesque architecture, it’s a bold statement to say that the Palace of Fine Arts is one of the best places to take pictures in San Francisco.

Originally built as part of the World’s Fair, held in 1915 in San Francisco, this is the last remaining structure from the event. The large open rotunda, surrounded by a lagoon and dramatic pathway was rebuilt from 1964-1975.

Aside from what feels like infinite photo opportunities, a visit to the Palace of Fine Arts is a great way to relish nature and find peace in this magnificent structure’s reflection in its serene lagoon. 

16. Spend the day in the San Francisco Presidio

The largest park in town, the Presidio is designated as a national park by the US government. An old military base, this park offers a ton of historical buildings, museums, and hiking trails. The Welcome Center is widely recognized as one of the best places to photograph the icon Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also not a bad place for a picnic!

Some other popular attractions in the area include the Letterman Digital & New Media Arts Building, where you’ll find Star Wars memorabilia, and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

17. Take the ferry to Angel Island

The largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay, a trip to Angel Island is a serene getaway just 15 minutes away from the city. To get here, take the Angel Island service on the Golden Gate Ferry. This ferry generally makes 4 round trips per day, however, you should always check the schedule for your particular day of travel. 

While getting to Angel Island is an experience in itself, once you arrive you’ll find a variety of activities focusing on outdoor exploration and the unique history of the island. Angel Island served as a main immigration port from 1910-1940 as well as a military station before that.

One of the best things to do at the park is the 5-mile walk around its perimeter. This relatively flat trail will allow you to explore all of the different historical points of interest, as well as, provide amazing views of the bay. There are also trails that transverse the island that will get you deeper into nature.

18. Relish in nature at the Golden Gate Recreation Area

Not to be confused with the more urban, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Recreation Area is located on the northwestern side of town and is your best stop for untarnished nature. A major attraction is the rugged coastline and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Experiencing the rocky, foggy coast of northern California is a great way to have a uniquely San Franciscan experience. 

19. Walk the entire length of Golden Gate Park (3.5 miles)

Local things to do in San Francisco - the AIDS Memorial at Golden Gate Park
AIDS Memorial Garden

Another well-known city park, Golden Gate Park is located on the western side of town. Starting at Stanyan Street and terminating at the iconic Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park is packed with cultural and natural attractions.

You could easily spend half a day meadering through the park stopping for museums, gardens, and bites to eat. From manicured gardens to wild groves to art museums, this urban park is a treasure trove of local things to do in San Fransisco. 

20. Watch the surfers at Ocean Beach 

Due to the chilly weather, most people do not think of visiting the beach in the city of San Francisco. However, the cool breeze and unique landscape offer a beach-going experience that you can’t get anywhere else.

Located on the western shoreline of San Fransisco, many locals flock to Ocean Beach throughout the year. Some popular activities include surfing and beach combing. Due to the city’s foggy weather patterns, the temperature at this beach stays low, averaging mid-fifties. The water is also exceptionally cold and rough, making it an area for experienced surfers only. 

With that said a day at Ocean Beach can offer a great experience. May locals enjoy walking in the cool, crisp air or bundling up with a picnic to watch the surfers take on some exceptionally large waves. 

21. Admire the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach

Due to its location on the northern side of San Francisco, you’ll find slightly calmer waters with a rockier terrain at Baker Beach. Visitors to Baker enjoy fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as nearby hiking.

Much like the other beaches in the area, the water here is cold and rough. It’s not a good idea to swim here unless you are experienced in navigating strong currents and have the correct gear for cold water swimming. Think of the ocean next to San Francisco as something to be admired from afar, and not something to experience firsthand! 

22. Take in the view from Coit Tower 

The defining feature of Pioneer Park, Coit Tower is an iconic San Francisco landmark. The 210-foot tower, completed in 1933, provides 360-degree views of San Francisco. Visitors will also enjoy a variety of murals inside the tower as well as the surrounding nature of Pioneer Park. 

23. Explore the Sutro Baths ruins

Located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Sutro Baths ruins provide a dramatic backdrop for a walk in the park. Originally built in 1894, the Sutro Baths served as the world’s biggest indoor, public swimming pool. Nestled on the cliffs of northern San Francisco, the natural beauty of the establishment attracted many visitors during its heyday.

Unfortunately, the saltwater pools were difficult to maintain and they were eventually shut down and sold to developers. Just 2 years later the main buildings were destroyed by a fire and never restored. 

Today locals enjoy exploring the ruins and taking in the dramatic views of the northern shore of the city. 

24. See the famous Painted Ladies on Postcard Row

At 710–720 Steiner Street, across from Alamo Square Park, you’ll find the best-known group of “painted ladies” in the city. Also known as Postcard Row, this group of iconic San Franciscan houses is featured in the opening credits to the television show, Full House. 

While this row of houses is commonly referred to as “The Painted Ladies”, the term actually refers to an architectural style used to describe Victorian homes that are painted in 3 or more colors. This kind of architecture is prevalent in San Fransisco and gives the city its unique aesthetic.

Most of the painted ladies throughout town were originally built between 1849 and 1915 and then painted in the 1960s as part of the colorist movement started by artist Butch Kardum. Taking some time to appreciate these unique houses is a great way to immerse yourself in the unique style and culture of San Francisco. 

25. Immerse yourself in history on Alcatraz Island 

San Francisco - Alcatraz

One of the best-known points of interest near San Francisco, do not discount a trip to Alcatraz Island as a tourist trap. Visiting Alcatraz Island starts with a gorgeous ride on the ferry featuring great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Once you arrive, you’ll have ample opportunity to explore its beautiful scenery and historical buildings.

The island is dominated by the old military prison that housed famous criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. However, you’ll also find attractions like the restored gardens, the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast, and the ruins of the warden’s house.

This is also a popular place for hundreds of sea birds and bird watchers alike. Even if you have visited before, getting out into the bay and immersing yourself in history is a great way to really appreciate life in San Francisco. 

26. Get out on the Golden Gate Bridge

The most prolific symbol of the city, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is a landmark to be appreciated. Opened in 1937, it is officially recognized as a modern wonder of the world. The dark red hue of its construction set against the blue water and perpetually shifting fog, makes this bridge not only structurally impressive but beautiful to look at as well.

A great way to really appreciate this magnificent structure is to either walk or bike across it. With a total length of 1.7 miles, you can expect a 40-minute walk to get all the way across.

If you are looking to photograph this architectural icon, there are 3 great areas in the Presidio, each with its own unique perspective.

The Welcome Center is close to eye level with the bridge and just far away enough for most cameras to capture the bridge in its entirety.

Crissy Field is closer to sea level, but still far enough away to capture most of the bridge. Located on the shoreline east of the bridge, Crissy Field allows for a beautiful angle on your shot.

If you are looking to get a little closer, then Fort Point National Historical Site is your best bet. Located directly underneath the bridge, this location provides some stunning shots that really highlight the scale of this beloved San Franciscan landmark.

27. Walk down “the crookedest street in the world”

Lombard Street, which runs east-west, has a one-block section that is well known as “the crookedest street in the world”. Located in the Russian Hill neighborhood, the segment between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets features 8 hairpin turns in just one block. This unique stretch of road attracts millions of visitors per year, who either walk or drive down this curvy route. 

28. Sample local delicacies at the Ferry Building

Opened in 1898, this historical building used to host all transbay traffic. After the main bridges were built, the ferry building was converted into a massive marketplace and has recently become a fan favorite of local foodies.

Inside you’ll find boutique markets, wine stores, and even a caviar bar. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays there is an open-air market where you can purchase fresh produce as well as a variety of creative food concoctions. Some of the most loved restaurants in the ferry building include Hog Island Oyster Company and Senor Sisig.  

29. Get your daily exercise on the Filbert Steps

These 400 wooden steps run down the eastern side of Telegraph Hill and are home to the beautiful Grace Marchant Garden. Walking the Filbert stairs is a great way to get your exercise, while also experiencing life in Telegraph Hill, a historical neighborhood that earned its name by being home to the first telegraph built in California.

Located on one of the seven main hills in San Francisco, Telegraph Hill is also home to Coit Tower, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. 

30. Experience the diverse and vibrant neighborhood of North Beach

The North Beach neighborhood, also known as Little Italy, is a small section of the northeastern tip of the city. With strong roots in its original Italian settlers, North Beach is home to the Italian Heritage Parade and North Beach Festival, which is widely considered one of the oldest street fairs in the country.

This neighborhood is also known as the center of the Beatnik movement in the 1960s. Many great writers like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy lived here and frequented places like City Lights Bookstore, which was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Today North Beach remains a center of activity for the city hosting some of the town’s most popular nightlife and remaining a center for art and activism. 

31. Dive into the city’s Latin roots in the Mission District

Known for its Latin roots, the Mission is an undebated hotspot for food, art, history, and music. The most prominent feature of the neighborhood is the Mission Delores, which is one of the original 21 Spanish missions in California and the oldest building in San Francisco. The Mission Delores is home to rare art, beautiful gardens, and a daily mass, which is open to visitors of all backgrounds. 

San Francisco - Mural in The Mission District
The Mission

Aside from its early roots, the Mission has become a cultural center for music, acting as the center of the American punk movement in the 1970s and 80s. This neighborhood was home to influential bands like the Dead Kennedys and The Avengers.

Today you can still find dive bars on the Valencia Street corridor and catch some up-and-coming bands performing live music. 

32. Entertain the whole family at Fisherman’s Wharf

One of the main features of the Marina district in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf is a bustling area with plenty of activities for the whole family. Here you’ll find unique attractions like the Musée Mécanique (a museum of mechanical games), Ripely’s Believe it or Not, and a local wax museum.

While you are in the area, make sure to take a ride on one of San Fransisco’s famous cable cars. Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the best locations to catch a cable car on one of their three remaining routes. 

33. See the sea lions on Pier 39

Welcome to a vibrant mix of restaurants, shops, arcades, and street performers. This is a lively strip where you can either spend an afternoon people-watching or get into the action. This is also home to a group of California sea lions, who like to lounge in plain sight and are not shy about speaking up. 

34. Get dessert at Ghirardelli Square

Located within Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find a particularly lively area called Ghirardelli Square. Featuring (you guessed it!) several chocolate stores, Ghirardelli Square offers a nice mix of specialty shops and restaurants. This is a great place to grab a glass of California wine and relax after seeing the main attractions in the area. 

35. Relive the 60s at Haight-Ashbury

Previously home to musical icons like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, “The Hiaght” as locals call it, is the birthplace of the hippie movement in the 1960s. Much of the free-spirited attitude that defined the 60s can still be found in the unique shops and whimsical colors that adorn this neighborhood.

After exploring the famous interaction of Haight St. and Ashbury St., walk downhill to the east to visit the Lower Haight. This area is known for dive bars, and record stores and is a truly local experience.

36. Shop till you drop at Union Square

Located on the edge of the Civic Center district, Union Square is a plaza featuring a large collection of department stores and boutique clothing stores. Here you’ll also find art galleries, theaters, and a large open plaza hosting free concerts, amongst other events. Spending some time at Union Square is a great way to fulfill your shopping needs (or wants!) while also spending time outside and engaging in cultural activities. 

Conclusion on Local Things to Do in San Francisco 

In conclusion, San Francisco is a city of hidden treasures. From iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Ferry Building to vibrant neighborhoods like North Beach and the Mission District, this city has something for everyone.

For those interested in history and culture, San Francisco boasts an array of fascinating museums, including the California Academy of Sciences, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. These institutions offer insights into the city’s rich heritage and creative spirit.

Nature enthusiasts can explore the city’s beautiful parks, such as Mission Dolores Park, Golden Gate Park, and Twin Peaks, each offering its own unique charm and stunning views. And if you’re craving a beach day with a twist, don’t miss Ocean Beach and Baker Beach, where the cool breeze and rugged coastline provide a quintessential San Francisco experience.

So, whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, foodie, or a combination of all three, you are sure to find plenty of local things to do in San Francisco.

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