Top 8 Places to Visit in San Francisco

San Francisco is a relatively small city — at just seven miles wide by seven miles long. But for all its modest size, the list of places to visit in San Francisco is a long one. From Alcatraz Island to Ocean Beach and everywhere in between, this lively and diverse northern California mecca has a ton of attractions on offer.

Hilltop view of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise, a stunning place to visit in San Francisco.
One of the Wonders of the World, the Golden Gate Bridge is a stunning place to visit in San Francisco. Photo credit: Taryn Elliott

For first-time visitors, figuring out which places to go in San Francisco may require a fair bit of research and asking around. Rather than slog through a bunch of reviews to then narrow down your list of must-sees, take a gander at our top eight picks of San Francisco attractions guaranteed to give you a good mix of the city’s historic landmarks and cultural delights.

Alcatraz Island

Best known for its 29-year run as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island once kept murderous gangsters such as Al Capone and Arthur R. “Doc” Barker behind bars. Three dozen prisoners tried to escape from Alcatraz, but most were either caught, shot dead, or drowned.

Fast forward to today, and Alcatraz, which measures just 1,675 feet by 590 feet, now runs guided tours daily, taking visitors from Pier 33 on a short ferry ride to the docks and then inside its cellblocks. Plan ahead when booking your trip—tickets often sell out weeks in advance during the summer months.

To make things even spookier, try the night tour, which includes a guided boat ride around the island. Just be sure to bundle up against the gusty winds hitting the frigid waters of the Bay. And if you can, arrive a couple hours early. This will give you enough time to stroll through nearby tourist hotspots Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 to snap a pic of the sunbathing sea lions, shop for mementos, or grab a sourdough bowl filled with clam chowder at a restaurant with a beautiful waterfront view.

A person with windblown hair in the foreground looks across the Bay to Alcatraz Island, a spooky place to visit in San Francisco
True crime enthusiasts and history buffs alike will enjoy a tour of Alcatraz Island. Photo credit: Eric Ward

Golden Gate Park

Ten lakes, multiple gardens and groves, two windmills, a conservatory of flowers, and a bison paddock are just a few of the attractions scattered throughout the 1,000+ acres that make up Golden Gate Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also had a hand in developing New York’s Central Park, this tree-studded, grassy oasis stretches to the east into the Upper Haight and to the west, where it meets Ocean Beach.

Golden Gate Park is also home to the distinctive de Young Museum, which hosts temporary exhibits along with permanent fine arts collections, from costumes and textiles to graphic arts and photography. Across from the de Young sits the Cal Academy of Sciences, whose aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest—along with its living green roof—thrill kids of all ages.

Pro-tip: To cover as much ground as possible, take advantage of the city’s bikeshare program and go for a spin through the park.

People look through the glass of an aquarium exhibit at the Cal Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The Cal Academy of Sciences is a fun, family-friendly place to visit in San Francisco. Photo credit: Dave Schumaker

Mission Dolores

If you’re a history buff, you’ll want to drop by San Francisco’s oldest building, Mission Dolores. The Mission was founded in 1776 as part of the Franciscan order’s efforts to evangelize to the indigenous population and encourage Spanish settlement in the area. It’s one of 21 missions—all historical landmarks—sprinkled throughout California, with bookends in Sonoma and San Diego.

This humble adobe mission boasts a beautiful mural painted by Native Americans in the late 1700s. Right next door are the mission’s gardens, home to native trees and flora, along with a cemetery holding roughly 5,000 Ohlone, Miwok, and other early settlers who helped found and build Mission Dolores.

After you’ve finished touring the mission, stroll on over to nearby Mission Dolores Park, where you can take in the city skyline while people-watching to your heart’s content.

Interior shot of the chapel at Mission Dolores. Wooden pews line up facing the ornately decorated pulpit
If you only visit one place in San Francisco’s Mission District, make it Mission Dolores. Photo credit: mgstanton

Golden Gate Bridge

When it comes to places to visit in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is an absolutely can’t miss attraction. Declared one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineering, the bridge opened with great fanfare in 1937 and has been wowing tourists and locals ever since.

Could it be the brilliant International Orange color, the Art Deco walkways and tower decorations, or the gorgeous San Francisco Bay and beyond that dazzle the crowds flocking to the bridge daily? All of the above.

To fully appreciate the Golden Gate Bridge’s towering grandeur, head first to Crissy Field, a waterfront park on the east side of the bridge. From there, you can walk to the bridge—and across it, all the way to the Marin headlands, for a 3.4-mile roundtrip bridge walk with breathtaking views everywhere you look.

People jog, walk, and ride bikes along a path at Crissy Field in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge towering in the background.
For the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head over to Crissy Field. Photo credit: Mike McBey

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

If you only have time to hit one museum during your stay, then make it the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The first West Coast museum dedicated to 20th century art, SFMOMA underwent a $305 million facelift that resulted in 170,000 square feet of new and improved galleries.

According to the New York Times, SFMOMA’s 2013-2016 renovation “bumps this widely respected institution into a new league, possibly one of its own.” The near-tripling in gallery space allows SFMOMA to display upwards of 33,000 works of art.

Give yourself enough time to slowly wind your way through the museum’s bright and airy halls and sweeping staircases. Then head over to nearby Yerba Buena Gardens or Union Square to rest your weary dogs while sipping on a refreshing beverage, purchased at one of the many cafes or shops in the area.

Interior shot of a gallery in SFMOMA. The room has white walls and wooden floors, with a wooden bench in the middle of the room and abstract art on the walls made up of brightly colored shapes.
Lose yourself in SFMOMA’s massive collection. Photo credit: rocor


It’s no surprise that Chinatown has a spot on the list of top San Francisco tourist attractions. Established in 1848, it’s said to be the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest outside of China. Covering 24 blocks in downtown San Francisco, the district has managed to preserve and celebrate the Chinese culture, cuisine, and language.

Enter through the Dragon Gate, flanked by two guardian lions, at Bush and Grant, then browse the tea, noodle, herbal medicine, and dress shops as well as dim sum and dumpling restaurants in the neighborhood. And be sure to take a tour of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which pumps out up to 10,000 fortune cookies a day.

If you’re in the mood for a Michelin-star meal, then book ahead for a table at Empress by Boon (838 Grant Avenue) or Mister Jiu’s. Or if you’re short on time, get a quick but filling bite (of BBQ pork buns, shrimp and chive dumplings, and more) at Good Mong Kok Bakery (1039 Stockton Street) or Dim Sum Bistro (675 Broadway).

The green and white Dragon Gate at the entrance of Chinatown in San Francisco, with a blue sky with wispy white clouds above
The Dragon Gate welcomes you to San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest one in America. Photo credit: Kae Ng

Ferry Building Marketplace

The majestic Beaux-Arts style Ferry Building, with its iconic clock tower, is home to dozens of regional artisan vendors including Acme Bread, Carmel Honey, Heath Ceramics, Dandelion Chocolate, and Miette Patisserie. The Ferry Building Marketplace also hosts one of California’s largest farmers markets every Saturday, with food stalls selling fruits, vegetables, breads, cheeses, meats, and jams surrounding the sprawling building.

Located at the junction of the Embarcadero and Market Street, the Ferry Building Marketplace is easy to get to by bus, streetcar, subway, or ferry. Head there with a big appetite, preferably on a Saturday, so you can sample all of the delicious savory and sweet treats, while shopping for one-of-a-kind wares.

Interior shot of people shopping at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco
Shop alongside locals at the Ferry Building Marketplace. Photo credit: Gary Stevens

Lands End

If you’re up for a hike along some of San Francisco’s most dramatic cliffs, then check out Lands End national park, located in the northwest corner of the city. From Lands End Lookout, wander over to the remains of the Sutro Baths. Built in 1894, the baths once housed seven massive swimming pools complete with slides, springboards, and a high dive.

Choose from one of the many trails crisscrossing Lands End, and enjoy sweeping vistas of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, in particular at Eagle’s Point Overlook on the eastern edge of the park.

Take some time to visit the park’s palatial Legion of Honor, which is a replica of the Palais de Legion d’Honneur in Paris. The fine arts museum has amassed an enormous collection of ancient and European art, including close to 100 Rodin sculptures, for your viewing pleasure.

Big rocks in the water and tree-covered cliffs of Lands End National Park with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Enjoy nature, dramatic cliffs, and gorgeous views at Lands End National Park. Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus