10 best things to do in San Francisco on your first visit

Often overlooked by its neighbour Los Angeles, San Francisco is one of my favourite places in the US.

A real sense of community lies in the vibrant city, which is unlike anywhere else.

Yet despite being a bustling metropolis, calmness resides over San Fran – making it a laid back destination full of hidden treasures.

Here are the top 10 things you shouldn’t miss on your first trip to the Californian city.

Golden Gate Bridge

Nothing quite prepares your first time seeing the Golden Gate Bridge.

It’s been featured in so many films and television shows that you may think it’s overhyped.

But if anything it’s under-hyped.

The beautiful structure peers out over the fog of the Bay Area whilst Slackers Hill looms in the background.

Its history is equally as interesting, particularly regarding its construction – so make sure you head to Golden Gate Bridge Visitor Area  as well.


Again, one of the iconic sights of San Francisco is Alcatraz.

Alcatraz is a national park and to get there you have to use Alcatraz Cruises, which leaves from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf.

The ferry takes around 20 minutes, whereupon landing a park ranger will briefly speak to you about the island and the prison.

As part of your ticket, you will get a free audio guide tour – this is surprisingly good and well worth using.

Whilst the main cell block is the highlight of the trip, it’s also interesting to hear about the Native American protest occupation – something I had no idea of.

Pier 39

Okay, so I’ll preface this by saying that Pier 39 will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

It’s very touristy and extremely commercial – but it’s sort of like a quaint version of Disneyland.

Effectively, it’s an outdoor complex with dining, entertainment, shopping and multiple attractions.

But it’s most famous for the sea lions that sunbathe at the pier.

Top tip – It’s also worth trying the San Francisco ‘delicacy’ of chowder bread bowls here, but be warned, it’s an acquired taste.


Visiting Chinatown in San Francisco is a new cultural experience.

As the oldest Chinatown in North America, San Francisco is full of character.

Visually, Chinatown is stunning from the traditional shops to dragon streetlights and hanging lanterns.

But it’s the community which is the real highlight of Chinatown.

You can’t miss the locals who gather at Portsmouth Square to play chess and sing karaoke – they may even let you join in!

Take a tram

Taking a tram in San Francisco is not a convenient way of travel – but it’s a novelty nonetheless.

Since 1873, the cable cars have run up and down the city and boarding, one in the 21st century is like stepping back in time.

A one-way ticket costs $7, which is not particularly economic either, but one ride won’t break the bank.

Financial district

San Francisco’s Financial District might not be as well-known as New York’s but it’s still worth visiting.

Wells Fargo is a great example of a major corporation that grew out of San Francisco.

The Transamerica Pyramid, which ironically is no longer Transamerica Corporation headquarters, is also another major landmark of the city.

Top tip – The best way to learn about the neighbourhood’s history and businesses is on a walking tour. I used this company.

Lombard Street

Who can forget the iconic car chase down Lombard Street in the 1968 film Bullitt?

The steep street with eight hairpin turns is an absolute marvel.

Whilst there’s not a lot to do when you get there, its still a major tourist attraction well worth seeing and taking a picture of.

Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral is renowned for its beautiful architecture and stained glass windows.

But its also a great place to visit in terms of seeing how a place of worship is developing in the modern world.

Despite being of Episcopal tradition all faiths are welcomed at the cathedral.

They regularly hold multiple events, some having nothing to do with religion, but to encourage communities to gather.

One experience I saw was a yoga session, which took place in between the pews and along the aisle.


The Tenderloin neighbourhood of San Francisco is by no means a tourist attraction.

Nor would I ever recommend someone to go by themselves or after dark.

But it’s important when visiting a metropolis like San Francisco to understand that not every part of the city is going to be affluent and pristine.

Tenderloin has a high number of homeless people, a real problem San Francisco struggles to deal with.

Similarly, the neighbourhood has developed a reputation for its street drug trade.

Yet despite this, it is bordered by some of the wealthiest districts in the city.

If you are going to visit the neighbourhood be on high alert at all times and be wary of aggressive panhandling.

Union Square

If you plan to do a bit of retail therapy on your trip to San Francisco, look no further than Union Square.

There are big brand department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s.

And smaller boutiques and discount stores.

But Union Square itself is the most bustling part of the city.

You’ll find plenty of street performers and pop-up cafes providing tourists with a much-needed coffee break.

And at Christmas, the square is transported into a winter wonderland with an ice rink and huge Macy’s tree.

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