From the Golden Gate Bridge to the many fun and quirky districts that the stunning Californian city has to offer, there’s certainly no shortage of incredible things to do for all budgets, interests and itineraries when it comes to San Francisco. Here’s an insider’s guide and local travel tips for what to do in San Francisco!
Editor’s note: If you’re planning on seeing all of the major San Francisco attractions during your time in the city, then you may well consider investing in the San Francisco City Pass. This all-in-one ticket includes a 3-Day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport, entry to the California Academy of Sciences, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, and much more! Check prices and availability here.
Why you must visit San Francisco on your next California Trip
As the song goes, “I left my heart in San Francisco/High on a hill, it calls to me/To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stairs/The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care.” And how true it is! Born and raised in San Francisco, for me, the hills and fog are just as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars.
I grew up in the city and whenever I visit, there are certain places I always return to. I loved growing up in SF (you should know before you go that locals never say “San Fran”!) because it’s a place where uniqueness is married to old school charm, where Victorian homes stand next to rainbow flags and where each neighbourhood has its own quirky personality.
Just 7 miles by 7 miles, San Francisco may be considered small for a major metropolis – but the possibilities for fun are endless. While the city may be synonymous with the tech industry these days, locals know how and where to find the enduring (and off-line) delights the city has to share. Here’s a quick guide so you too will know how to have fun in San Francisco, just like a local!
Enjoy the beach of Fort Funston
Fort Funston is one of my favourite places in Northern California for a beach walk. The beach is long enough to really wander and the climb down (and back up again!) and gives spectacular views of the Northern California coastline.
There isn’t much there to do besides feel the sand beneath your toes, breath in the fresh Pacific air and feel grateful to witness the natural beauty, but of course, that just adds to the beauty of the place. So if you’re looking for a relaxing activity in San Francisco, be sure to head to Fort Funston beach!
Shop on Valencia Street (and explore the Mission District)
One of the most colourful neighbourhoods in the city is the Mission District, home to taquerias and art galleries alike. While this is always a point of debate for local, my favourite place for Mexican food is Taqueria Cancún (2288 Mission St & 3211 Mission St).
The Mission is also home to an indoor minigolf course, movie theatres, bars and music venues. In particular, Valencia Street offers some of the best dining and shopping experiences in the city. I particularly love Valencia Street because I can find all my favourite things, independent San Francisco bookshops, cafes, world cuisines, speciality stores like pirate supply and taxidermy shops and art.
Right off of Valencia, you can find the Clarion Alley Mural Project, a series of ever-changing murals painted along a skinny alleyway, and we know how I feel about murals. If all your feet hurt from walking around, take a break in Dolores Park and watch the colourful people San Francisco come together to picnic, relax and play.
Stroll around the Fillmore District
The home of San Francisco’s jazz scene until the 1970s, the Fillmore District is a historic neighbourhood. While the jazz presence is not what it used to be, the influence of the diverse communities that built the neighbourhood can still be felt.
Today, Fillmore Street is filled with fancy shops, good eateries and plenty of charm. I enjoy the lively walk down Fillmore, from California St. to Japantown, where you can find many restaurants and speciality stores.
Discover San Francisco Café Culture
You may well not know this, but SF has a thriving café scene with stores and shops that cater to every budget and taste. From stores which roast the coffee beans themselves to co-working spaces, if you’re looking for more caffeine inspiration, be sure to check out this guide on where to find the best coffee in San Francisco.
Enjoy the best view of San Francisco from Bernal Heights
Bernal Heights is my favourite neighbourhood, and it may or may not have something to do with the fact that it is also the neighbourhood I grew up in! Bernal is situated on a hill with a wonderful park at the very top. You can walk around the hill for 360-degree views of San Francisco, and on a clear day, you can even spot the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
Take flight on the rope swing to feel as if you are soaring over the city, and then work your way down the hill while stopping to pet all the dogs that gather to play. Don’t forget to keep your eyes open for the neighbourhood coyote who makes her home on the hill!
After exploring the park, you can walk down to Cortland Avenue, the main street of Bernal Heights. Cortland is the place to stop for lunch or coffee and to pick up a souvenir from one of the local shops.
Like Fort Funston, Land’s End showcases the beauty of the Northern California Coastline. Walking Land’s End from one end to the other gives moving views of the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.
One of the best San Francisco tips from a local is to go early in the morning so as to make sure to avoid some of the more popular times, that way you’ll have the trail to yourself and really feel like you’re at land’s end.
And if you want to see the iconic San Francisco sights here are my travel tips & recommendations:
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic bridges in the world. Completed in 1937, the colour of the bridge, international orange, was chosen to complement the natural surroundings. While walking across the bridge is on many of the “must-do” travel lists, I recommend seeing the bridge from the Presidio.
The Presidio is a park on a former military post, established originally by New Spain in 1776 as a northern California foothold. From the Old Coast Guard Station, you can see a spectacular view of the bridge while maintaining a sense of personal space away from the tourists.
The Ferry Building
Filled with amazing restaurants, home to a weekly farmers market and still a functioning port, the Ferry Building remains a San Francisco institution. I recommend going afternoon on a weekday, you will avoid the lunch-rush but still have plenty of time to wander the building.
Two of the most historic neighbourhoods in San Francisco are also just a short walk away from each other; North Beach and Chinatown. These two neighbourhoods are also some of the busiest in the city. Each neighbourhood has a magical ability to transport you to feeling as if you’re in a different part of the world, so leave plenty of time for eating and getting lost.