From museums detailing the famous and symbolic cable cars to vertiginous streets and a diverse culinary scene, there are so many things to do in downtown San Francisco. This northern California city is one of the most exciting places to visit on the Pacific Coast.
Wander around bustling Fisherman’s Wharf, or feast your eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge, an architectural marvel. Sip authentic tea in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, a place to indulge in vibrant gastronomy, or take in world-class art museums.
These are the 10 best things to do in downtown San Francisco.
Explore Fisherman’s Wharf
Known as one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf shouldn’t be missed. Situated on the water in the northern part of the city and spanning Pier 35 to Ghiradelli Square, this lively spot has everything from fantastic bay views to souvenir shops.
View the resident population of sea lions that hang out on the rocky shore near Pier 39 and take photographs of the historic ships that bob in the waters of Hyde Street Pier, some of which stretch three stories high and date back to the 1800s.
Check out the Museum of 3D illusion with colorful and imaginative murals that offer a trick of the mind as you make your way through or shop in the old Cannery building, where vintage meets modern.
Browse the shops and restaurants on Pier 39, or take a ride on the Fisherman’s Wharf carousel. Play some arcade games, try the 7D film experience, watch street performers or musicians along Jefferson Street, or play a tune on the unique musical stairs, designed like a piano.
For those interested in visiting a quirky museum with nostalgia at the forefront, head over to Pier 45 where you can not only view antique penny arcade games, but get to play them first-hand at Musée Mecanique.
Whether you wander the wharf top to bottom or venture out on a boat or bike tour from here, Fisherman’s Wharf has so much to do and all the makings of a memorable day in San Francisco.
Eat Your Way Through the Historic Ferry Building Marketplace
Food is a big part of any travel experience and San Francisco elevates that with a dining opportunity in a historically significant building. Originally opened in 1898, the Ferry Building survived two major earthquakes and has remained a strong landmark building in San Francisco.
Although it was once the ferry terminal for commuters coming into the city from the north and east bay areas, and does still operate as a ferry departure point, the building now houses a gourmet food hall and marketplace.
Shop and taste local, high-end goods like artisan cheese, honey, freshly baked breads, coffee, donuts, and chocolate. Embark on your culinary journey on your own or join a guided tasting tour where you can learn about all the amazing foods sold in the Ferry Building.
You’ll find everything from fresh seafood chowder to oysters and juicy cheeseburgers from the famous Gott’s. Wine enthusiasts will be pleased too; an onsite wine bar pours vintages such as a Central California coast rosé or a smooth Tuscan red, paired with local cheeses and meats.
Make sure to visit the Ferry Building Marketplace hungry, it’s an unforgettable foodie experience that will give you a true taste of San Francisco.
Sip Beers at Local Breweries
San Francisco is celebrated as the starting place for the craft beer trend in America, and paying a visit to some of the city’s top breweries is a must for beer drinkers.
Head to Local Brewing Company for small-batch brews where you can sample IPAs, common lagers, tropical blondes, and more from their rotating tap list. Wash it all down with sandwiches and pizzettas while getting some fresh air with a table in the patio dining area.
Stop into the popular Cellarmaker Brewing Company, where you’ll never tire of tasting one of their 12 rotating brews on tap. They’re known for experimental brews like their Wild Gooseberry IPA, spiced stout, or their beer/wine hybrid.
Alternatively, you could join a brewery tour where a knowledgeable guide will take you to some of the city’s best spots for a variety of tastings.
Ride the Famous Cable Cars
Tackle the city’s hills in pure San Francisco fashion with a ride on one of the famous cable cars that California is known for, designated a National Historic Landmark. The cable car has evolved into a symbol of this Californian city and is the only manually operating system of its kind remaining in the world.
Enjoy the timeless experience of this innovative transportation method by hopping aboard one of the city’s three lines that bring riders from neighborhood to neighborhood such as Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, and more.
The three lines are the California Line, the Powell-Mason, and the Powell-Hyde. If you only ride once, make it along Powell Street, getting on at Market Street for views of historic buildings and the bustling downtown area.
And if you’re fascinated by this piece of history, check out the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street, which is dedicated to the preservation of the cable cars and includes a collection of vintage cars, as well as fascinating photographs.
Visit Lombard Street
Known as being one of the most crooked streets in the world and featured in many movies, Lombard Street is one of the uniquely San Francisco places to see when visiting the city.
With eight hairpin turns along the windy, red brick road, it’s also incredibly steep. Flowers and greenery line the entire way, making this a very photogenic spot as well.
Take photos of the one-way road from at the top and the bottom to capture different perspectives. It’s possible to walk down Lombard, or for the ultimate experience, try driving down it yourself.
Wander Through Chinatown
One of the oldest Chinatown establishments in the United States, this San Francisco neighborhood is a treat to explore. Food, shopping, and tea are some of the top draws of this colorful community.
Start at the famous Dragon’s Gate at the southern edge of Chinatown, located on Grant Avenue. It was built by a Chinese-American architect in 1970 and is still one of the top attractions to visit in this area of the city. Take photos of this beautiful entrance with stone pillars and dragon sculptures before making your way into the rest of the neighborhood.
Learn about and taste tea varieties from China and Taiwan at the popular Red Blossom Tea Company. Here, you can sip anything from herbal or flowering teas to black or rare teas.
No trip to Chinatown is complete without eating at the world-famous dim sum restaurants. Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal involving small plates of various dumplings and other snacks.
Stop into The Good Mong Kok Bakery for handmade dumplings like pork shumai, baked scallion, or the shrimp dumpling, or Delicious Dim Sum which serves tasty Shanghai dumplings in a pork-based soup.
Once you’ve had your fill, browse some of the shops and markets on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Wander around Canton Bazaar or Old Shanghai where you’ll find antique items, figurines, and other souvenirs.
You may also come across other interesting shops like a kite store, music shop, bookstore, tea and herbs shop, and Chinese snacks.
View Marine Life at Aquarium of the Bay
Located on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, Aquarium of the Bay is a fun destination for all interests.
More than 24,000 local marine animals reside in this aquarium, with exhibits including tunnels, from which you can observe the creatures all around you, and touch pools, always popular with kids.
Learn about the seven different animal habitats of the bay through the “Discovery of the Bay” exhibit where you’ll also see the bright orange California state fish, the Garibaldi, and other marine creatures like rockfish and moray eels.
Walk through 300 feet of tunnels surrounded by marine animals such as sharks and rays. Explore the touch pools for a hands-on experience where you can touch sea stars, anemones, rays, and even sharks.
Don’t miss the gallery of river otters and watch these playful and curious creatures interact with one another.
Shop in Union Square
San Francisco’s Union Square is retail heaven for shoppers looking to browse high-end boutiques all in one place. It’s also where you can watch one of the famous city cable cars manually turn around, at Powell and Market streets.
From clothing to housewares and everything in between, you’ll find a store suited to your needs in this area of the city. It’s not all shopping though; art galleries and restaurants as well as performance artists in the square entertain regularly too.
Stop by the historical buildings or monuments in this area as well. The Dewey monument stands in the center of the square, paying homage to Admiral George Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War.
Visit the Frank Lloyd Wright building just east of Union Square and marvel at the eye-catching work of the famous architect, which features a grand circular room and curving ramp. Chinatown is nearby as well, making Union Square a great stop before or after dropping in for a snack.
Cruise the Bay
See San Francisco from a different perspective with a sightseeing boat cruise around the bay. Hop aboard one of the scenic boat tours from Fisherman’s Wharf and soak up the views, looking back towards the downtown area, dominated by the distinctive shape of the Transamerica Pyramid, an enduring symbol of the city despite the proliferation of high rises clustered around it.
Marvel at the 4,200-foot-long Golden Gate Bridge from different vantage points, including underneath the famous architectural structure.
Take photos of the bridge’s graceful vermillion span as well as other highlights like Angel Island, Fort Mason, the Bay Bridge, and Alcatraz Island. If you’re lucky, you may even see whales, dolphins, sea lions or seals as you glide through the waters of the bay.
Picnic at Alamo Square Park
Pack a picnic lunch and head to one of San Francisco’s most popular parks. Alamo Square Park mixes the outdoors with beautiful Victorian architecture; the row houses bordering the park are famous for being extremely picturesque.
Known as the “Painted Ladies” these Victorian-style homes are located along the eastern edge of the green space and are one of the most photographed spots in the city. They’ve been featured in many movies, too.
The tightly packed pastel-colored houses can be viewed from this hilltop park where postcard-worthy scenery is the perfect backdrop to a northern California picnic. Lunch in this gorgeous park will be an unforgettable day in San Francisco.
A luxury cruise is a fantastic way to experience all of the best things to do in downtown San Francisco. From riding cable cars to indulging in authentic dim sum, downtown San Francisco has so much to offer. Browse our cruises to San Francisco and book your California vacation today.