The ultimate guide to San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

Zoe MacFarlane

Posted April 11, 2023

Few cities around the world are as iconic as San Francisco. From must-see landmarks to incredible dining experiences, here is everything you need to do in the City by the Bay.

In Northern California, San Francisco is a city filled to the brim with a rich history, fascinating attractions, vibrant neighbourhoods, and food so scrumptious you may never want to leave. Explore the highlights of San Francisco’s 20+ neighbourhoods on foot, by rental car, or aboard the Bart, the city’s handy subway network. 

As much as San Francisco’s neighbourhoods are varied and diverse, as is the city’s weather. The famed fog catches many visitors unaware, so dress in layers to ensure maximum comfort as you include the following attractions, landmarks, and restaurants on your perfect San Francisco itinerary.

If you’re planning to drive while you’re overseas, you may need an International Driving Permit. You can apply online but check the country you’re visiting requires one before you travel and allow time for processing.

What to see, do and eat in San Francisco

Iconic landmarks in San Francisco to see

An icon of San Francisco, the red-hued Golden Gate Bridge is a must-visit landmark. Built in 1933, this art deco suspension bridge transports vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians across its 2.4-kilometre span over 250,000 times a day! Crossing on foot is the most enjoyable way to experience the bridge, especially as you can sometimes see whales passing (in season). For an alternative vantage point, take a Golden Gate Bay cruise.

Another area worth a stop on your cable car is Fisherman's Wharf, a family-friendly hotspot with attractions galore, where you can wave at the sea lions in the bay, explore Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, take a tour of the Ghirardelli chocolate factory or explore the free performances at PIER 39.  The area is also home to a range of shopping and dining options for a bread bowl of famed clam chowder or wine tasting by the bay. 

Over the waters, is there a more famous prison in the world? While prison stops don’t feature on many tourism itineraries, in San Francisco, Alcatraz is one of its most famous attractions. Hop aboard a 15-minute ferry ride to reach Alcatraz Island before touring the prison and wandering the grounds. The evening tour is a top pick for its sunset bay views.

Another great spot for sunset (and sunrise) is atop the Twin Peaks summits, another of the Golden City’s iconic destinations. Take the easy 1-hour walking trail or drive to the summit of the north peak to experience impressive 360-degree San Francisco Bay views.

Arts and culture in San Francisco

Built to resemble Greco-Roman architecture, the Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful domed building on the northern side of San Francisco’s Marina District. Constructed for a 1915 expo, you can now watch music, comedy, and theatrical performances at this architectural landmark.

Experience the best local and global modern art at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Home to more than 33,000 works of art, SFMOMA is one of the largest contemporary art museums in the US. Housed in a cutting-edge, architecturally impressive buildings, allow 2-3 hours for your visit. 

If classic art is more of interest, be sure to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Between the permanent collections and visiting exhibits, the museum houses arts and crafts from the 17th century onwards.

For San Francisco’s best street art, head to the Mission District for a self-guided tour. The best colour-drenched murals are around 24th Avenue, Balmy Alley, and Clarion Alley.


Pier 39 in San Francisco is always bustling. Image: Brand USA.
The sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf are always ready to say hello. Image: Brand USA.
The area is one of the most-visited attractions in the United States. Image: Brand USA.
You haven't visited San Francisco without trying a famous bread bowl of clam chowder. Image: Brand USA.
The Painted Ladies in Alamo Square is a popular tourist landmark. Image: Brand USA.

Dining in San Francisco

Known for its world-class dining, a San Francisco visit is as much about the dishes sampled as the attractions attended. From iconic cheap eats to Michelin-starred restaurants, the city’s laden plates and flavourful dishes impress. 

You may think of San Francisco and the Bay Area as a breeding ground for tech innovation, and that’s true of the city’s culinary scene, too. It was the birthplace of the perfect sourdough bread (thanks to the city’s fog), the origin of the fortune cookie, and the first city to bring to life the farm-to-table concept. Visit the Waterfront Restaurant to see the latter at its best.  

Almost as synonymous with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge, sampling a clam chowder bowl is a culinary must-do. Head downtown to Boudin Bakery for one of the best. 

For Mexican flavours, stop by the Mission District, known for its delicious food scene. El Farolito has the best burritos in town, or treat yourself to tostadas washed down with passionfruit margaritas at Tacolicious.

San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown district is another culinary stop to add to your itinerary. Dungeness crab at R&G Lounge, chow mein at New Woey Loy Goey, and modern Cantonese fare (including Peking duck) at Master Jiu’s are top recommendations. 

For a fine dining splurge, book ahead at Benu, Saison, or any of Michael Mina’s restaurants. 


Alcatraz is one of San Francisco's most famous landmarks. Image: Brand USA.
The Missions District has a thriving gastronomical scene. Image: Brand USA.
Take in the glorious view at the top of Twin Peaks. Image: Brand USA.
San Francisco is known for its iconic art scene. Image: Brand USA.
Watch the tide roll away on a sail in the San Francisco Bay. Image: Brand USA.

Outdoor and Adventure in San Francisco

To balance the city’s sumptuous meals, take a very steep walk up Lombard Street, the most crooked street in the world. For a more leisurely outdoor experience, Mission Dolores Park is a popular spot for picnics on sunny weekends.

The 412-hectare Golden Gate Park is a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon. Wander the Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, and Conservatory of Flowers. Be sure to walk to the park’s best lookout point at the rocky, windswept Lands End. It has some of the best San Francisco Bay views the city has to offer.  

Join locals and visitors on a sunset kayak or SUP board around San Francisco Bay. There are numerous companies offering rentals.

If you prefer to explore on two wheels, you can also rent bikes to cycle routes to Mount Tamalpais or across the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco Day Trips

While you could easily spend a month touring the incredible attractions around San Francisco, the city is also a great hopping-off point for several exciting day trips. 

The dramatic landscape of Yosemite National Park would be a number one suggestion. Rise early to make the most of your time there (and get a parking spot); it’s a 3.5-hour one-way drive. Once there, walk the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead and head to Cook’s Meadow for the best Half Dome and Yosemite Valley views. Expect to be wowed at Glacier Point lookout, too. 

Travellers are often surprised to discover they can drive to Napa Valley, home of the region’s best vineyards, in around 80 minutes. That’s no time at all to access some of its best 500+ wineries, like the fairy tale-like Far Niente, the romantic chateau and grounds at Domaine Carneros, and historic Inglenook. 

Muir Woods is one of the closest places to see North California’s famed redwood trees. In just over 30 minutes from downtown San Francisco, you can stand amid the 600-800-year-old redwoods, some reaching as tall as 80 metres! Bridge Loop 3 is the most popular redwoods walk. If you’re keen on a longer hike, take the 4-hour return trail from Muir Woods to picturesque Stinson Beach.


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