The Tailor-Made Top 21 Attractions to Visit in San Francisco

Updated: Aug 10



As Tony Bennett sang, I left my heart in San Francisco and how accurate this sentiment truly is. Once visited, you will simply want to come back to San Francisco again and again. The beauty of this city is that there are so many amazing places to visit and experiences to have that you can quite conceivably visit the city multiple times, seeing different places each time. Join us in this post to find out the 21 best attractions that we think you should visit in San Francisco.



Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these attractions appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the attractions of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the US.


It is difficult to create a list of the best San Francisco attractions and is sure to be a little controversial with some, but here are our top twenty-one.

21 - 16. Japanese Tea Garden; Sutro Baths; Mission Dolores; San Francisco City Hall; Ferry Building Marketplace; and Exploratorium


The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest in the United States, having been created in 1894. Five acres of beautifully manicured gardens, bordering serene ponds, offer a peaceful oasis in the popular Golden Gate Park.


Also developed in 1894 were the Sutro Baths. This massive public bathhouse, on the shores of the Pacific boasted impressive engineering and artistic details. But today, following a fire in 1966, all that remains are the photogenic and eerie concrete ruins.


Stretching further back into San Francisco’s history, Mission Dolores (Misión San Francisco de Asís) was founded in 1776. The mission is the oldest intact building in the City of San Francisco and the cemetery is the final resting place for numerous Ohlone, Miwok, and other First Californians as well as notable California pioneers.




Easily overlooked as an attraction in its own right, San Francisco City Hall is a Beaux-Arts marvel, both inside and out. The building is dominated by its dome, which is taller than that of the United States Capitol by 42 feet (13 m), but it is the impressive rotunda which really steals the show.


The San Francisco Ferry Building is a food hall, a terminal for ferries and an office building. The architecture, especially its iconic 245-foot-tall (75 m) clock tower, immediately grab your attention, but it is the mix of regional artisan producers selling their delights on the ground floor that will have your returning over and over again.


The Exploratorium is a museum of science, technology, and arts with approximately 600 exhibits on show at any given time. Highly entertaining for youngsters and the young at heart, you can easily spend several hours at the Exploratorium, making it an ideal destination when San Francisco’s weather takes a turn for the worse!


Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is open adjacent to the Ferry Building on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The crowds come for fresh, local produce and artisan offerings including breads and cheeses. The Thursday market offers street food, and on Saturdays, a number of local restaurants come out to showcase items from their menus.




15. de Young Museum


The de Young Museum is a must for art lovers. With a collection exceeding 27,000 works of art, there is always plenty to see, whether it is in their permanent displays or their interesting exhibitions. The museum sits in the eastern half of Golden Gate Park and presents paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts from the US and the rest of the Americas, as well as Africa and Oceania. Our favourite piece, however, was to be found outside the building, near the café – the Three Gems installation by James Turrell.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Set aside 20-minutes while at the museum to visit the Hamon Observation Tower. The tower can be accessed to the right of the ticket desks, and you can get a breath-taking panoramic view of the Golden Gate Park and beyond.

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de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
de Young Museum

14. Lombard Street


One of the most famous thoroughfares in the world, Lombard Street is well known for its almost impossibly steep incline, with eight hairpin turns. Often referred to as "the most crooked street in the world," this beautifully maintained and manicured street is equally fun to walk or drive down. The street was named after Lombard Street in Philadelphia by San Francisco surveyor Jasper O'Farrell. The design, first suggested by property owner Carl Henry and built in 1922, was intended to reduce the hill's natural 27% grade, which was too steep for most vehicles.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you wish to drive down Lombard Street, be prepared to queue for the pleasure. During the day, it is a popular experience, with those driving taking an exaggerated time to descend. However, for a quieter chance to enjoy the street, go just after sunrise or, like we did, early evening before sunset.


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Lombard Street, San Francisco
Lombard Street


13. Fisherman’s Wharf


Today, Fisherman’s Wharf is a haven for tourist attractions, shopping (a mix of galleries and memorabilia stores) and seafood joints, making the area an ideal family destination. Attractions not only include family favourites like Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but the retired World War Two submarine USS Pampanito and ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien. Then there is the Musee Mecanique, where you can play on vintage and classic coin-operated arcade games, and the mind-bending Museum of 3D Illusions, with culinary highlights being the clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin Bakery.

In spite of its recent makeover, which started in the 1970’s, keep an eye out for the small fleet of fishing boats from which the area gets its moniker. For over a hundred years, fishermen, originally Italian immigrants, have landed their catches here.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Parking at Fisherman’s Wharf can be a nightmare and expensive. Consider instead taking the Cable Car from the city centre, or perhaps the classic Street Cars that ply the Embarcadero.



12. Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley


Like street art? Then the Mission District has not one, but two spectacular and colourful areas for you to discover. Balmy Alley is an everchanging explosion of murals and art, while Clarion Alley, has hosted over 700 murals since 1992.


Set to a background of outrage against abuses of global human rights, as well as more local controversial issues, both alleys have seen eye-catching expressions of protest depicted on their walls.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: When visiting Balmy Alley, explore some of the other neighbouring alleys such as Lilac, Cypress and Horace. The street art in these alleys tends to be a little less political and organised, with more tagging and whimsical depictions, but they are equally interesting to see.




11. Anchor Brewing Tour


Having been a convert to the Craft Brewing scene for almost twenty years, the holy grail of breweries to visit, Anchor Brewing, was on the TMI bucket list for some time! The tour delivered by Anchor Brewing doesn’t disappoint. The one-and-a-half-hour tour is fascinating, informative, and entertaining, and was also the most generous in terms of the number of tasters that were offered!


Anchor Brewing, San Francisco
Anchor Brewing

Anchor Brewing was established by German brewer Gottlieb Brekle in 1871, but it was another hundred years until Anchor expanded its market by bottling its distinctive Anchor Steam brew. It should be noted that steam beer (sometimes referred to as California common beer), brewed in San Francisco without the use of refrigeration, was the first uniquely American beer style to be produced.


The change in Anchor’s direction in 1971, was spearheaded by owner Fritz Maytag (who had bought the company in 1965), and he made Anchor Brewing arguably the first craft brewery in America. The popularity of a now easily accessible steam beer led to a series of other unique beers like Liberty Ale, Anchor Porter, Old Foghorn Barleywine Ale, and its first annual Christmas Ale.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Following the tour, you can cross the road to the recently opened Anchor Public Taps and continue your beer odyssey!


Read on to find out which attractions are in our top ten.


Anchor Brewing, San Francisco
Anchor Brewing

10. Chinatown


Chinatown, centred on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. It was established in 1848 and now draws more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.


The Dragons Gate welcomes visitors to this bustling district and your senses are immediately engaged. Chinese architectural flourishes, colourful street art and vibrant lanterns catch the eye, while fruit stalls, fishmongers and tasty bakeries provide strong aromas, not to mention the sound generated by the bustling crowds going about their daily business. It is truly an enthralling experience.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: To gain more of an appreciation of this enchanting district and its people, make sure to visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, which holds regular exhibitions that explore the Chinese immigrant experience.


Exhibitions at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA)
Exhibitions at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA)


9. Legion of Honor


The Legion of Honor’s collection contains over 124,000 works of art and is recognized for its European decorative arts, sculpture, and painting, as well as ancient art from throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East. The museum building itself is a classically inspired masterpiece and challenges its collection with its beauty.


Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Legion of Honor

Highlights include The Salon Doré from the Hôtel de La Trémoille and is one of the finest examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture anywhere, but my personal favourite is the collection of Rodin sculptures. Having visited the sculptor’s museum in Paris, I was very impressed how his works were presented at the Legion of Honor.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: While planning your trip to the Legion of Honor, make sure to check its programme of wonderful exhibitions so that your visit will coincide with a display of particular interest. The exhibition of spectacular couture fashion, created by the Chinese designer Guo Pei, were on display during my visit and was a must-see spectacle!


The Three Shades, by Rodin, Legion of Honor, San Francisco
The Three Shades, by Rodin, Legion of Honor

8. Grace Cathedral


Grace Cathedral is one of the largest Episcopalian churches in the United States and it must be the most beautiful and detailed. The first feature to catch your eye are the intricate entrance doors and the colourful steps leading to them. The Ghiberti Doors, also called the "Gates of Paradise," are a replica of the doors designed by famed Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistry. Cast from bronze and covered with gold, the doors depict important biblical events. The details are impressive and worth studying before entering.


The Ghiberti Doors, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
The Ghiberti Doors, Grace Cathedral

The visual delights just keep coming as you walk into the sanctuary. The meditative labyrinth lays in front of you and stunning storied stained-glass windows catch the eye too. The side chapels are beautifully crafted and peaceful, while the alter area is jaw-dropping.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you are looking to eat after a visit to Grace Cathedral, the Laurel Court at the Fairmont San Francisco is an excellent choice. The meals here, as you would expect for a Fairmont hotel, are delicious, and, crucially, they are actually quite reasonably priced (which is unusual for San Francisco!).


Read on to find out which attraction tops the list.


Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Grace Cathedral


7. Asian Art Museum


The Asian Art Museum holds an exquisite collection of art spanning thousands of years across the whole continent of Asia. The second and third floors feature 2,000 pieces from the museum’s main and rotating exhibits, giving visitors a chance to experience artworks from China, Japan, India, Korea, Cambodia, India, the Philippines, the Himalayas and other cultures in the Southeast, South and West Asia regions.


Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Asian Art Museum

Must-see pieces include a 3,000-year-old bronze rhinoceros-shaped vessel, the oldest known Chinese Buddha statue, a Korea Goryeo dynasty celadon pitcher with lid, a lacquer statue of Buddhist deity Simhavaktra Dakini, a statue from the 900s depicting Buddha triumphing over Mara, and a pair of 1,000-year-old Cambodian sculptures of Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Korean inspired café at the museum is an excellent lunchtime stop.


Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Asian Art Museum

6. California Academy of Sciences


The California Academy of Sciences is a massive and engaging natural history museum, housing over 46 million specimens over 400,000 square feet (37,000 m2) and is arguably the main attraction of Golden Gate Park.


California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
California Academy of Sciences

The highlights of the museum include the Morrison Planetarium, which boasts a dome measuring 90 feet (27 m) in diameter with a 75 feet (23 m) diameter screen; the 90-foot (27 m) glass dome housing the Rainforests of the World exhibit; the Africa Hall in the Kimball Natural History area; and the massive Steinhart Aquarium, with its coral reef, tidepool, and swamp habitats.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Make sure to visit the Shake House while you are at the museum. This earthquake simulator lets you experience the strength of the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake and the 7.9-magnitude Great San Francisco quake of 1906. It will truly (after)shock you! Please note only ages 4 and upwards are allowed to enter.


Rainforests of the World exhibit, California Academy of Sciences
Rainforests of the World exhibit, California Academy of Sciences


5. Coit Tower


Immediately recognisable, the Coit Tower has graced the San Francisco skyline since 1933. Built through the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the tower symbolised her gratitude to the city’s firefighters. The tower has an uncanny resemblance to a fireman’s hose, but this is purely coincidental.


Coit Tower, San Francisco
Coit Tower, San Francisco

The tower has a vintage elevator to whisk visitors up to the observation deck at the top of the tower (note that there is a short flight of steps from the elevator to the deck). The open-air deck gives 360-degree views of the city and bay, as well as perhaps the best up-close view of the downtown skyscrapers.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Take time to view the murals which dignify the ground floor of the tower. This artwork was painted in 1934 by a group of artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project and depict life in California during the Depression.


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4. Golden Gate Bridge


Perhaps the most iconic landmark of San Francisco is the imposing 746 feet tall Golden Gate Bridge. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1964 (it is only the ninth-longest now), but it still impresses, whether you are crossing it or whether it is viewed from afar.


The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

The best way to experience the bridge is to walk it. The bridge is 1.7 miles long, so double that for a return journey. If you are really motivated, you could even carry-on walking to Sausalito, which is a further 2.5 miles (and take the ferry back to Pier 41).


Due to time constraints (and having a 4 ½ year old in tow!), we didn’t actually walk the bridge. However, we found that the facilities around the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, right at the start of the walk (south side), were an excellent place to appreciate the bridge from. Note that the Equator Coffees café is an amazing place to enjoy a brew and a view.


The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Any discussion of the bridge can’t be had unless you mention its statistics, so here are some interesting facts: the two suspension cables are each more than 7,000 feet in length and both contain 80,000 miles of wire; the bridge was more than 10 years in planning due to formidable opposition, but only four years in actual construction; it is estimated that 5,000 - 10,000 gallons of paint are used to repaint the Golden Gate Bridge each year; the colour of the bridge, International Orange, because it enhances visibility in the fog; more than 2 billion motor vehicles had passed over the bridge.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: My favourite view of the bridge is from Fort Point National Historic Site, which is at the base of the bridge.


The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco


3. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) collection of 33,000 works are solely focused on 20th and 21st century art. There is a massive 170,000 square feet (16,000 m2) of exhibition space, so plan to spend a minimum of two hours to get round this museum.

Predictably, the museum contains important works by Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Ansel Adams, as well as my personal favourite artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein. The museum also has regular temporary exhibitions, and we were lucky enough to experience the one-way colour tunnel created by Olafur Eliasson.


San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Tailor-Made Top Tip: SFMOMA is located beside the Buena Vista Gardens in downtown San Francisco. Within a block of the museum are a number of other artistic highlights, including the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, so art lovers can spend a full day visiting art museums, all within meters of each other.


Have you guessed yet which attraction tops the list?




2. Palace of Fine Arts


One of the most striking buildings in San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit works of art presented there. One of only a few surviving structures from the Exposition, it is still situated on its original site. It was rebuilt in 1965, and renovation of the lagoon, walkways, and a seismic retrofit were completed in early 2009.


The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

The palace is a great place to walk around and marvel at this monumental structure. Perfectly framed by the large pond that is positioned in front, it is a haven for newlyweds and graduates getting their photographic portraits taken.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Palace of Fine Arts is the perfect picnic location.


The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco


1. Alcatraz


The most infamous San Franciscan attraction is without doubt Alcatraz Island. The federal penitentiary held the most dangerous and violent prisoners for the short period between 1934 to 1963, but in less than thirty years, Alcatraz had become the most notorious prison in the world. A trip to the island is fascinating, with an informative audio tour of the prison and many other out-buildings open to explore.


Alcatraz
Alcatraz

The prison housed many heinous criminals, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the "Birdman of Alcatraz"), and George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and the tour allows you to see the cells used by the prisoners, as well as the exercise yard and solitary confinement.


The island, however, has an interesting history out with that of the prison. Due to its strategic position, the island operated the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast of the US and was also a military fortification. Even after the prison was shut down, due to unsustainable running costs, the island hit the headlines again in 1969 when it was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of activist Native Americans.


Alcatraz
Alcatraz

The island is managed by the National Park Service and the only way to visit the island is to go through the NPS’s partner Alcatraz City Cruises, from who’s website you can purchase a ferry ticket. The departure ticket is time bound, but you can return from the island on any of the departing ferries. The ferries depart from Pier 33 and take around 15-minutes to get to the island.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Please note that you are not allowed to bring food on the island, only water, and that there is no café or restaurant on the island. The ferry does sell snacks and drinks, but it is a good idea to have a large breakfast or early lunch when visiting Alcatraz.




Conclusion


San Francisco is an amazing city to visit, and to be honest, there are at least another 21 attractions that could have easily graced this list. It takes a bit of planning, but the majority of these attractions can be visited on an extended break to the city, making San Francisco one of the most easily traversed and explored.


Comment below and let us know what your favourite San Francisco attraction is.


Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these attractions appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the attractions of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the US.


Join us next time on our family adventures when we discover the best free things to do in San Francisco. We post every two weeks, and you can subscribe to our latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.


Barry


Contact Us: tailoritineraries@gmail.com


Tailor-Made Itineraries creates one-of-a-kind bespoke self-guided travel itineraries for adventurous and curious travelers.


Our self-guided tours deliver a personalised and exciting holiday experience that takes the effort out of trip planning.





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