Ultimate Guide: Top things to do in San Francisco

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I moved to the U.S. from Ireland in 2014 and first spent 5 months in San Francisco on a project before moving to Washington D.C. Leaving San Francisco in 2015, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I moved back.

The city stole my heart immediately. There are countless things to do in San Francisco so take time to plan what you want to cover on your visit before arriving.

When to visit San Francisco

Luckily San Francisco has no harsh winter and no extreme summer, so any time of the year is suitable for a visit to San Francisco. September and October have the most sunshine. Temperatures drop in the evenings so make sure to pack some warmer clothes as it is not typical Californian weather.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - evening sunsets along Baker Beach
Evening sunsets along Baker Beach

The following will keep you busy on your trip to San Francisco but keep a look out for more specific neighborhood and restaurant guides coming soon!

Top Things to do in San Francisco

#1 Cycle to Sausalito over Golden Gate Bridge

This is one of my favorite things to do in San Francisco. There are lots of companies around the city that you can rent bikes off (Blazing Saddles or Ferry Building Bike Rentals are two I have used for visitors).

The cycle to Sausalito brings you by Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Baker’s Beach and over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Sausalito is a pretty town north of San Francisco with many great cafes, restaurants and shops to explore.  

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - a local’s guide.

There are over 500 houseboats in five floating home marinas at the north end of town which is worth checking out. After exploring the town, you can travel back to Sausalito via ferry and take your bike along also.

If you are feeling extra adventurous, the trail to Tiberon is so picturesque and you can also catch a ferry back to San Francisco from here.

#2 Visit North Beach and enjoy Italian food

North Beach is the home of great Italian food in San Francisco. I am still working my way through all of the great options but love Mona Lisa, Calzones, Trieste & Tony’s Pizza.

Gelato and ice-cream are a must in North Beach with Gelateria Naia hand-making small batches of gelato and sorbets. The Baked Bear serve some great ice-cream sandwiches. North beach has countless bars to hop from and is a great going out spot.

#3 Explore the Walt Disney Family Museum

As a huge Disney fan, I have spent hours at this museum. The museum is located in the Presidio, is open daily and features the life and legacy of Walt Disney.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - Walt Disney Family Museum

#4 Take a cruise on the water

There are so many variations of cruises in San Francisco from day cruises to night cruises to party cruises. Many cruises also offer brunch, lunch or even dinner aboard.

Around Memorial, Labor Day, 4th of July, Halloween, summer and other holidays, there are lots of themed cruises to choose from. The city looks amazing from the water day or night.

#5 Visit Alcatraz

The prison that once housed Al Capone is located 1.25 miles from San Francisco and accessible via a 15 minute boat tour. Tickets book up weeks in advance so make sure you book these prior to your visit. There are day and night tours available. Wrap up if you visit on the night tour!

#6 Hike to Lands End

Lands End offers the most amazing coastal views. The trail is about 1.5 miles long and there is a path all along the route. There are great stopping points to take in the views.

It is a good walk, with rocky patches so make sure you have comfortable shoes on. Look out for the Labyrinth, Mile Rock Beach and Lands End Point along the trail.

#7 See 360 degree views from Coit Tower

Coit Tower is located in Telegraph Hill, near North Beach and offers amazing 360-views of the city. It is well known for beautiful murals and well worth a visit. Look out for the flocks of wild parrots also.

#8 Visit the Painted Ladies

The Painted Ladies are a true San Francisco landmark and are an iconic row of colorful Victorian homes. There are beautiful Victorian homes around San Francisco so make sure you schedule time for a walk around the different neighborhoods – Nob Hill, Russian Hill, the Marina and Noe Valley are my favorite places.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - Alamo Square to visit the Painted Ladies
Alamo Square to visit the Painted Ladies

#9 Relax in the Marina

The Marina is one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco. Take time during the day to explore the many boutiques and cafes on Union and Fillmore streets.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - The Marina
The Marina

By night, the bars and restaurants are alive and there are so many to choose from. Jaxson, Tipsy Pig, Palm House, The Brixton, Sabrosa and Delarosa are some of my favorite bars. Blackwood, A16, Terzo, Rose’s Café and Belga are some of my favorite restaurants nearby.

Take time also during the day to stroll along the marina and enjoy the bay views. Make sure to stop by the Palace of the Fine Arts which is a Greco-Roman palace and is beautiful by day in the sunshine or by night lit up by the pond.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - the Palace of the Fine Arts
The Palace of the Fine Arts

#10 Go tasting in Napa valley

No visit to San Francisco is complete without a trip to Napa Valley. It is so close and some of the wineries are only an hour away. I love both Napa and Sonoma and there are many tours available which take you to 3 or 4 of the wineries in one day.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - a trip to Napa Valley

I went on this tour a few times as there are visits to 4 wineries, transportation is via limo bus and lunch is included. There are many other tour companies that offer similar services.

My favorite wineries so far are Jacuzzi Family Vineyards and Castello di Amorosa. The wine train is also an option when in Napa which is on my to-do list!

#11 Play tourist at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf

These two bayside areas are filled with bustling shops and restaurants and have scenic views of the bay. There are so many seafood restaurants with great chowder and fresh fish.

Pier 39 has lot of touristy shops to stroll to. When you reach Fisherman’s wharf, keep strolling to Ghirardelli Square, which was a former chocolate factory. Converted into a chocolate heaven, the sundaes are not to be missed!

I live right by Ghirardelli Square and love the views of the bay here and the atmosphere in the evenings.

#12 Spend hours at Golden Gate Park

This park has a whole variety of activities including gardens, trails, museums, a polo field, tennis, cycling paths, festivals to name a few.

The park spans over 1000-acres and is a great place to escape the city. The park has music, flower and art festivals throughout the summer.

The park reintroduced horse-back riding for two months in May 2017 which I am hoping they bring back full time as the trails are beautiful!

#13 Watch some baseball at AT&T Park

AT&T park offers a fun night of baseball with magnificent views. Tickets are inexpensive and it’s always a fun American experience to attend a game.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - AT&T Park, the Giant’s Baseball Stadium
AT&T Park-The Giant’s Baseball Stadium

#14 Sample local cuisine at the Ferry Building Market place

Every day of the week this market place is bustling and is especially crowded at the weekends when the farmers market takes place.

The Ferry Building is foodie heaven with local farmers and artisan producers coming together to sell lots of amazing food and locally produced goods. There are also a couple of great restaurants here.

#15 Take a historic ride on a Cable Car

The last manually operated cable car system in the world operates in San Francisco. The cable cars start at 6am and end at midnight generally running every ten minutes. There are three routes; Powell/Hyde, Powell/Mason and California/Van Ness. The latter is a quieter route but equally as good. Fares are $7 one way and tickets can be purchased in advance or on the cable car.

For the best views, sit on the side that faces the bay – the left side for cable cars leaving from Fisherman’s wharf and the right side from cable cars leaving from downtown. The lines can be very long around Fisherman’s Wharf so try taking the cable car from downtown to the wharf to avoid waiting in lines.

#16 Hike and see views of both bridges from Twin Peaks

The views from Twin Peaks are amazing by day or night. It is quite a climb from the bottom so I would recommend driving/taking an Uber if visiting or not up for a long walk. Both the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge can be seen from the top of the hill.

Photographs don’t do the 360-degree view justice. Try go on a clear day as on foggy days, the views are not as good.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - Go on a hike to see amazing views of the city
Go on a hike to see amazing views of the city

#17 Shopping at Union Square

Union Square is a plaza surrounded by many major hotels and department stores. Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Saks, Tiffany’s, Victoria Secret, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Apple, Zara and many more can be found around Union Square.

In the winter months, there is an outdoor ice skating rink in Union Square and in the summer there are many events and festivals that pop up in the area.

#18 Polish up your driving skills on Lombard Street

A famous street that is well known for a one block section with 8 of the tightest turns I have ever seen.  The cable car stops here and the views of the bay and city are worth seeing. There is often a line of cars at the weekend to venture down through the 8 turns.

There are always lots of festivals and events going on each week so check out local event guides for even more updates. This website HERE gives lots of up to date information on different things in San Francisco this weekend or tonight so be sure to check it out for even more ideas.

Top things to do for a first time visit in San Francisco - walk along the Embarcadero & see the financial district
Walk along the Embarcadero & see the Financial District

Hope you enjoyed my blog post on the top things to do on a first time visit to San Francisco. There are so many things to do each weekend in addition to these top things to do in San Francisco.

There are many more to dos in San Francisco which I can’t wait to write about but I will save for another time. Look out for more finds on this fabulous city coming soon!

About Lorna Ryan

Lorna's fashion & beauty journey began on runways, including NYFW, which sparked her love for all things chic. Lorna spent two years as a SephoraSquad ambassador, sharing hero beauty products. Lorna unveils coveted beauty gems, the latest fashion trends, and best-kept jetsetter escapes.