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Are you heading to San Francisco in 2024? Wondering what to do in San Francisco? You’re in for a treat!

As a travel blogger who has stayed in this creative, cultural city multiple times with friends and family, I’ve rounded up some cool things to do in San Francisco for someone who’s never been before.

I’ve also included more non-touristy things to do in San Francisco in case you aren’t into busy tourist-trap areas (like me!).

So, if you’re wondering where to start with cool things to do in San Francisco, keep reading!

The iconic horseshoe bend road and stunning sunset views from Twin Peaks in San Francisco

The iconic horseshoe bend road and stunning sunset views from a hike up Twin Peaks in San Francisco

Best Things To Do in San Francisco

San Francisco is an incredible city, a melting pot of diverse cultures that make the city feel very global.

The city never fails to impress me. It’s a stunning mix of old and new, where traditional homes coexist with cutting-edge tech companies. I have family in SF and I’ve visited quite a few times, doing touristy and more local things. Each time I’ve come away thinking “Dang, it’s cool here. I could really see myself living in San Francisco”.

…But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

There are some tough challenges, like homelessness, overt drug use, and rougher areas that can kinda take away from the city’s charm. Despite all that, San Francisco still buzzes with life and energy, showing its resilience.

Anyway – let’s get into the non-touristy San Francisco guide!

Cool Things To Do In San Francisco

Brunette girl doing a peace sign in jeans and a beige crop-top on a sunny day outside the Golden Gate Bridge with the sea in the background

Flashing my peace sign by the Golden Gate Bridge at Battery Spencer

1. See the Golden Gate Bridge: The #1 Best Thing to Do In San Francisco

You can’t visit San Francisco and not see the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, and it always takes my breath away. You can either walk it, cycle it, or sail under it. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views.

I’d recommend waking up early to beat the crowds, and doing a hike to one of its viewpoints on a non-cloudy day.

Beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge from H. Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point – Northbound

Beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge from H. Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point – Northbound

Where are the Best Viewpoints of The Golden Gate Bridge?

  1. Battery Spencer: This was my favourite viewpoint in the whole of San Francisco! Perched on the Marin Headlands, Battery Spencer offers one of the most breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Be prepared for a bit of a hike to reach this spot, but rest assured, the stunning panoramic view of the bridge against the backdrop of the city is well worth the effort. I’d recommend taking an Uber here first thing and letting it drop you at the bottom of the hike.
  2. Crissy Field: If you fancy a picturesque walk en route to a fantastic view, Crissy Field is the spot for you. This park area provides a straight-on view of the bridge, complemented by the beauty of the bay. It’s a beloved spot for picnics as well.
  3. Hawk Hill: Hawk Hill is another glorious viewing spot located in the Marin Headlands. It provides a unique, top-down view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Early mornings at Hawk Hill are simply ethereal, with the bridge often peeping through a veil of mist.

Best Tours of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco | Top-Rated Golden Gate Bridge Tours ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Brunette girl smiling in a blue cardigan and a beige crop-top on a sunny day outside the Golden Gate Bridge with the sea in the background

All smiles – having my portrait snapped at the viewpoint for the Golden Gate Bridge at Battery Spencer

How To Take Good Photos of the Golden Gate Bridge

Capturing the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge on camera is a must! Here are some pro tips to help you snap that perfect shot:

  • Time of Day: The bridge looks spectacular at all hours, but the golden hour (shortly after sunrise or before sunset) provides a magical glow that really enhances your shots.
  • Location: Several spots offer great vantage points. Battery East Park and Baker Beach offer stunning views of the bridge with the city in the background. On the Marin County side, Vista Point and Battery Spencer are excellent options.
  • Weather: The bridge is known for the famous San Francisco fog, which can either add a mystical element to your photos or completely obscure the bridge. Keep an eye on the weather forecast!
  • Be Creative: Don’t just aim for the traditional full-span shots. Try capturing different angles or focus on the details like the bridge’s towers.
  • Camera Settings: If you’re using a DSLR, try a small aperture for a larger depth of field. For smartphone users, HDR mode can help balance the often tricky lighting conditions.

Two Brunette friends smiling at the Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco - illumelation.com

Smiling with my friend Sara at the Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco

And on the same note as Golden Gate Bridge, why not…

Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco - Best Things To Do In San Francisco

Iconic red house at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

2. Explore the Golden Gate Park

A total gem in the heart of the city, Golden Gate Park is a must-visit spot that gives you a whole new perspective of the bridge. The park itself is packed with awesome things to do, and you’ll find locals and tourists alike coming to the park for a breath of fresh air. You can…

  • Roam the stunning Japanese Tea Garden
  • Get lost in the stars at the Morrison Planetarium
  • Enjoy the vibrant flora in the Conservatory of Flowers
  • Breathe deep in the San Francisco Botanical Garden
  • Rent a pedal or row boat on Stow Lake, a man-made lake in Golden Gate Park.

Flashing our peace signs from a pedal boat on Stow Lake in the Golden Gate Park

Personally, I have great memories of strolling through the park with an iced coffee in hand, taking in the lively atmosphere.

One highlight on all my trips to San Francisco was renting a pedal boat with friends and family. It’s always a bit of fun, cruising through the park’s lush scenery by water and gaining a whole new appreciation for its natural beauty. Recommended!

Best Tours of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco | Top-Rated Experiences at Golden Gate Park ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • For a seriously unforgettable, all-out unique experience, check out the Golden Gate Helicopter Adventure. This electrifying helicopter tour gives you a bird’s-eye view of the Golden Gate Park like never before. It’s an exhilarating ride that’s worth every penny!

  • How about zooming around on a Segway in the Golden Gate Park? The Official Golden Gate Park Segway Tour is a blast, offering up a chill way to see the sights.

  • Pump up your adrenaline by hopping on a bike or e-bike with the Golden Gate Park Bike or eBike Rental. It’s a great way to enjoy the park at your own pace, and it’s got an excellent rating on GetYourGuide.

  • For the nature lovers out there, you’ll love the San Francisco’s Wild Side Ecotour with a Meteorologist. With a top-notch rating on GetYourGuide, this tour offers a deep dive into the city’s natural wonders, led by a real meteorologist. It’s a wild ride you won’t forget!

  • If you’re after a bit of an adventure but still want to go at your own pace, why not try the Golden Gate Park Self-Guided Bike Tour? It’s an absolute cracker, with a high rating on GetYourGuide. Just grab a bike and off you go – you’re sure to have a blast exploring the park in your own time!

Exploring Golden Gate Park - Best Things To Do In San Francisco This Year - California Travel Guide - illumelation

Walking through the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

What are some good coffee shops near the Golden Gate Park?

If you’re looking for a caffeine boost or a cosy place to put your feet up near Golden Gate Park, you’ve got plenty of choice. Check out The Beanery or Snowbird Coffee – local faves that take pride in their freshly roasted coffee beans.

Further out in Presidio, by the Golden Gate Bridge, Verve Coffee Roasters is a trendy cafe with sleek interiors, an artsy vibe, and a wide selection of blends and single-origin coffees sourced from all over the world.

Staring out to sea in Ocean Beach after hiking

Staring out at the roaring blue sea after a short sandy hike in Ocean Beach, San Francisco

3. Head to Ocean Beach for Chill Coastal Vibes

Soak up the surfy charms of San Francisco at Ocean Beach! This area is worlds away from downtown SF.

With rugged coastlines and chilled shop-owners bringing the stoke, exploring Ocean Beach is one of my top cool things to do in San Francisco.

You can rent a bike and take a leisurely ride or do a morning run along the picturesque boardwalk by the roaring Pacific Ocean, enjoying the cool sea breeze, roaring waves and breathtaking views. The beach itself is a gorgeous place to watch the sunrise or sunset.

If you’re a photographer, this is a good spot for photos – I’d recommend bringing a polarizing lens or ND filter.

Staring out to sea in Ocean Beach after hiking

Staring out to sea after a short hike in Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Must-do things in Ocean Beach:

  • Spin some vinyls: check out Tunnel Records: a cosy record shop packed with a diverse selection of vinyl that will transport you back to the golden age of music. They’ve got cool merch – I picked up a nylon jacket and a set of Beatles playing cards.
  • Get caffeinated: head to a nearby café for a refreshing ‘snowy plow’ (espresso, sparkling water and whipped cream) at Andytown Coffee Roasters on Taraval Street.
  • Do a mini-hike: for the adventurous souls among you, there’s a fantastic hiking opportunity near Ocean Beach. The Land’s End Trail offers stunning coastal views and a good deal of history along the way. Starting at the Sutro Baths, the remnants of a once-grand public bathhouse, the trail takes you along the rugged cliffs, offering glimpses of shipwrecks and access to hidden beaches. Dress warmly as the seaside breeze can get chilly, even on sunny days.
Fresh Horchata and fresh flautas with guacamole and salad at Underdogs Too

Fresh Horchata and flautas with guacamole and salad at Underdogs Too

  • For lunch in Ocean Beach, you’ve got to check out Underdogs Too in Taraval Street: a local favourite Mexican-Californian fusion joint. Try their ‘Nick’s Way‘ style of serving tacos – crispy tortilla with generous toppings – and dive into their selection of local craft beers.

The stunning urban cityscape views from Twin Peaks in San Francisco

The stunning urban cityscape views from Twin Peaks in San Francisco

4. Head to Twin Peaks for Stunning Views of San Francisco

If you’re into hiking (or have a car), you’ve got to check out Twin Peaks!

Twin Peaks is a famous outdoor spot in San Francisco, offering an awesome view of this beautiful city. Made up of two identical hilltops, hence the name ‘Twin Peaks’, it’s one of the highest points in the city, giving you unbeatable views of the Bay Area.

You could pack a picnic and stay for sunset – or if you’re into photography, shoot some timelapses from the walls. There were quite a few photographers up there when I visited.

Brunette girl in leggings and a yellow jacket admires the stunning view from Twin Peaks in San Francisco

Admiring the stunning sunset views from Twin Peaks in San Francisco

There’s lots of different wildlife, like butterflies and birds. There are also walking trails and a parking area, so it’s ideal for a relaxed hike or a scenic drive.

Going up the trail, you’ll be treated to an amazing panorama that stretches from the bustling heart of the city to the peaceful outskirts. The views of the cityscape are stunning – you can really see the urban charm of San Francisco against its stunning natural backdrop.

Awesome tour shout-out: For you adventurous souls looking to explore the city in a new light, the Urban Jungles and City Heights Hike will take you on an insider journey through San Francisco’s hidden stairways, hilltop views, and urban jungles. It’s the best possible blend of city and nature!

The iconic colourful Women' Building in San Francisco's Mission District

The iconic colourful Women’ Building in San Francisco’s Mission District

5. Explore Mission District – A Culinary and Cultural Hub

San Francisco’s Mission District is a culinary and cultural hub.

There are so many cool shops and eateries to explore in Mission – and even the street art tells the story of the district’s history and culture. Check out Clarion Alley, a side-street filled with amazing murals painted by local artists.

  • From delicious, laid-back taco joints to inventive Chinese delicacies to fancy award-winning restaurants serving up haute Cali cuisine, there’s something for all kinds of foodies.
  • La Taqueria is where you need to go if you’re craving some seriously delicious tacos and burritos – it’s legit Mexican cuisine that will blow your mind. Did I mention they have a cheeky Michelin star?
  • My cousin brought me to Souvla for their iconic Baklava ice cream – and if you’ve got a sweet tooth, this place is heaven.

Best things to do in Mission District, San Francisco:

  • Check out Dog Eared Books – an adorable independent bookstore with a unique collection of titles.
  • End the day on a high note by heading to Dolores Park – an awesome green space with breathtaking views of the city skyline. Perfect for a picnic or a relaxed sunset stroll.
  • For any streetwear enthusiasts, peep the stock at True. They’ve got trendy sneakers for days.
  • Film buffs, check out Foreign Cinema, where you dine while watching classic films projected on their outdoor cinema.

Honestly, if there’s one area you have time to explore, Mission District in San Francisco is a great one!

Parada 22 - iconic Puerto Rican restaurant in Haight Street, San Francisco

Shopfront of Parada 22 – iconic Puerto Rican restaurant in Haight Street, San Francisco

6. Thrift & Boutique Shopping on Haight Street

Feel the vibes of the ’60s in Haight-Ashbury, home to the Summer of Love. Haight Street stands as an emblem of San Francisco’s rich and varied history, from art and literature to music and fashion, making it a haven for vintage and thrift shoppers, as well as anyone with a more alternative or bohemian kinda vibe.

  • There’s plenty of eclectic shops to browse  on Haight Street. If you love music, check out the Amoeba Music Store, which is a paradise for vinyl enthusiasts. It’s got all kinds of genres available for listening to.
  • If you love street art, look out for thought-provoking murals, particularly the iconic Jim Hendrix Red House Mural that pays tribute to the legendary musician.
  • Wasteland is a favourite secondhandstore for its eclectic mix of vintage clothing and designer pieces. It’s a fantastic place to unearth treasures from past decades.
  • Buffalo Exchange is another great spot on Haigh Street, full of retro and contemporary trend pieces. Whether you’re hunting for a 60s inspired dress or a pair of retro sunglasses, Haight Street’s vintage and thrift stores are a paradise for the style-conscious and the environmentally aware.
An iconic street art mural in Haight Street, San Francisco

An iconic street art mural in Haight Street, San Francisco

As well as shopping on Haight Street, there are so many vibey restaurants, bars and cafés to try around Haight-Ashury.

Please note: Haight Street can definitely feel sketchy even in the daytime, so keep your wits about you and don’t flash the cash. There are a number of unhoused camps around the area, who usually keep themselves to themselves, but occasionally something disturbing happens.

7. Explore the Bougie Marina District

After exploring Ocean Beach, make your way over to the trendy Marina District, one of the city’s most upscale neighbourhoods.

With its elegant boutiques, beautiful art galleries, and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marina District offers plenty of fun things to do in San Francisco, underlined by chic charm. You’ll see yummy mummies decked out in Sweaty Betty pushing their prams around.

To me, the way the Marina’s streets were decorated felt a little more European.

Follow the locals to Union Street, known for designer boutiques and high-end home décor stores. The Papery is a lovely stationery store where you can find handmade papers, whereas trendsetters might enjoy Ambiance, an award-winning women’s boutique.

Sharing some delicious pasta and salad dishes at The Italian Homemade Company in the Marina, San Francisco

There’s some amazing food in the Marina District too. A standout is The Italian Homemade Company, a gem of a place where you can have authentic Italian cuisine. From their hand-rolled pastas to the mouth-watering tiramisu, every item on their menu is an ode to the rich culinary traditions of Italy. I couldn’t get enough of their tagliatelle served with slow-cooked Bolognese sauce.

City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco

Authors of colour featured at the iconic City Lights Booksellers & Publishers bookshop, a literary haven in Castro District

8. Love Reading? Head to City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in Castro

If you’re a book boffin like I am, one of the best things to do in San Francisco is browse the local bookshops. You’ll love stepping into City Lights Bookshop, an iconic independent bookstore and cultural haven in the heart of the Castro District. This amazing spot has been around since 1953, so you know it’s got some stories to tell!

One thing I love about City Lights is their commitment to inclusivity and diversity. Just like its beat poet founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was all about free speech and challenging the status quo, City Lights spotlights marginalised voices – especially immigrant authors and writers of colour, giving them a platform that they often don’t get in mainstream literature.

Their shelves honour unique voices and stories, giving us readers a chance to explore beyond our own lived experiences. They also publish local writers and really celebrate communities in San Francisco, putting on author events and book clubs. It’s this dedication to representation and diversity that really speaks to me, making ‘City Lights’ more than just a bookstore – it’s a hub of cultural understanding.

Check out whether they’ve got any exciting author events or book clubs going down while you’re over there!

Brunette girl in leather jacket and black trousers wearing a mask does a peace sign in a cell in San Francisco's historic Alcatraz Prison

Sara doing an ironic peace sign in a prison cell on the historic Alcatraz Island Prison Tour in San Francisco

9. Probe the Criminal Psyche with an Alcatraz Prison & Island Tour

OK, so this is one of the more touristy things to do in San Francisco – but hear me out!

A trip to Alcatraz Island is perfect for history buffs and crime show lovers. It’s eerie, it’s historic, it’s intriguing. Book your ferry tickets in advance though, as they sell out fast.

Alcatraz Prison had a solemn atmosphere (which kind of bummed me out), but I appreciated how the tour honoured and remembered the rich history the place holds. Alcatraz wasn’t just any federal prison – it was a symbol of justice and a cornerstone of American history.

I learned so much about notorious criminals trying to escape, as well as the sociopolitical issues that the US federal prison system faces. Very interesting stuff! While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, its historical significance is undeniably deep.

Brunette girl in green turtleneck sweater and black vest smiles with a view of San Francisco's city skyline and blue ocean in the background on Alcatraz Island

Smiling with the view of San Francisco’s city skyline and blue ocean in the background on Alcatraz Island

What I did love about the tour was actually getting to Alcatraz and exploring the island outside of the prison. The ferry ride to the island was absolutely stunning, especially on the clear, blue-sky day I went. The views of the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the surrounding bay was breathtaking.

Tip: It’s worth mentioning that the place was bursting with visitors, hundreds at the same time, and the ferry only leaves at specific hourly intervals. So if you’re planning a trip, be ready for crowds, and stay flexible with your timings.

Best Tours of Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco | Top-Rated Alcatraz Tours ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • If you’re looking for great all-in-one experience, the SF Alcatraz with 2-Day Hop-On Hop-Off Tour is your ticket to adventure! With a 4.7-star rating, it’s a fan favorite. You’ll revel in the spine-chilling tales of Alcatraz, get a walking tour of Chinatown, and get to explore San Francisco at your own pace.
  • For those who love a good nautical journey, check out the San Francisco Alcatraz Inside Bay Cruise. This tour is all about capturing the beauty of the Bay Area from the water, while getting an insider’s look at the infamous Alcatraz Island.
  • Fancy a water adventure? The San Francisco Alcatraz Visit with Ferry and Bay Cruise deserves your attention! Rated 4.6 stars, this tour gives you a unique blend of history and beauty as you cruise across the bay, soaking up the stunning views and fascinating history of Alcatraz.
  • How about a guided tour that covers land and sea? The San Francisco Waterfront Guided Tour with Alcatraz Ticket, boasting a solid 4.8-star rating, enlightens you on the city’s intriguing history along the waterfront, before you sail away to the iconic Alcatraz for a tour.
  • Last but not least, why not indulge in a small group tour? The Alcatraz with Muir Woods and Sausalito Small Group Tour, rated 4.9 stars, offers a comprehensive exploration. You’ll discover the enchanting beauty of Muir Woods, the charm of Sausalito, and the chilling allure of Alcatraz, all in one day!

High-rise buildings visible from the Yerba Buena Arts District in the Cultural Corridor of San Francisco

High-rise buildings visible from the Yerba Buena Arts District in the Cultural Corridor of San Francisco

10. Cultural Corridor (Yerba Buena Arts District):

If you’re an art enthusiast, San Francisco’s Cultural Corridor should not be missed. It sits in the Yerba Buena Arts District, which is an awesome slice of the city bursting with a super rich cultural vibe.

You’ll find all kinds of cool stuff there, like museums, galleries, and places to catch live performances. There’s plenty of foodie spots from laid-back cafes to fancy restaurants. Whether you dig art, history, or just good food, the Yerba Buena Arts District is the place to be!

Check out these iconic spots:

  • MoMA: It is home to the distinguished Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), boasting an extensive collection of contemporary and modern masterpieces.
  • Museum of the African Diaspora: A stone’s throw away, you’ll find the Museum of the African Diaspora, an enriching institution celebrating African culture and history. The corridor regularly hosts a variety of cultural events, showcasing everything from photography to sculpture.
  • Yerba Buena Gardens: This peaceful oasis and home to the cultural arts center sits right in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, with amazing sculptures and beautiful landscapes.
  • Asian Art Museum: This gem of a museum houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world, offering over 18,000 objects spanning 6,000 years of history. It provides a fascinating journey through Asia’s diverse cultures and traditions.
  • Contemporary Jewish Museum: This museum, located in Yerba Buena, uses art and Jewish thought to connect people of all backgrounds. The exhibitions and educational programs here offer a unique perspective on Jewish history, culture, and ideas.

After a day of art and culture, kick it with some iconic Bloody Marys at the luxury St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco. I worked with them when I was out there and their food is amazing. Check out my review!

Best Tours of the Cultural Corridor in San Francisco | Top-Rated Cultural Corridor Experiences ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

  • Art fanatics, this one’s for you! Dip your toes into the world of contemporary and modern art with the Entry Tickets to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) tour. This five-star tour, lets you explore over 33,000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts. From thought-provoking installations to interactive exhibits, there’s always something new to explore at SFMOMA.
Lanterns and street signs in San Francisco's iconic Chinatown District - illumelation.com

Lanterns and street signs in San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown District

11. Get Cultural at Chinatown in San Francisco

A visit to San Francisco isn’t complete without strolling through its glorious Chinatown. This neighbourhood is one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia and it’s one of the most cultural places to visit in SF.

Start at the Dragon’s Gate on the bustling Grant Avenue, which is a vibe for picking up unique trinkets, silk garments, and ornate teapots. At the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum you can delve deeper into the Chinese-American narrative.

Two award-winning eateries in Chinatown are R&G Lounge and Z & Y Restaurant. Known for its Cantonese-style seafood, R&G Lounge offers dishes like Salt and Pepper Crab that is a must-try for seafood lovers. Meanwhile, Z & Y Restaurant, a longtime neighbourhood staple, serves a wide range of Szechuan dishes. The Chicken with Explosive Chili Pepper is a hit among the locals.

Nightlife in San Francisco - illumelation

Motion-blur Shot of Nightlife in Downtown San Francisco

12. Go Bar-Hopping in Downtown San Francisco

When the sun goes down, San Francisco comes alive. Trendy concept bars, innovative cocktails and thrumming clubs make the nightlife electric over there.

  • Polk Street, running from the Tenderloin to the Bay, is known for its dive bars and hipster watering holes. Harper & Rye offers a bougie whiskey selection, if you’re into that.
  • Meanwhile over at the Marina District, you’ll find upscale night scenes teeming with wine bars and stylish lounges. Reed & Greenough is a charming piano bar with vintage decor that’ll transport you to another era.
  • In SoMa (South of Market), nightlife is a fusion of traditional bars and high-end clubs. Don’t miss the Barbarossa Lounge, a historical bar that was a jailhouse in its past life – we had a great time there, dancing to R&B and sipping great cocktails surrounded by exposed brick and caged chandeliers.

Just remember to keep your wits about you, stay in well-lit areas if you’re walking around at night, and don’t start J-walking!

Justin Bieber Concert - Nightlife in San Francisco - illumelation

Strobing lasers at the Justin Bieber Concert in San Jose Stadium

If you’re not into bar-hopping or clubbing, why not go to a concert? San Francisco always has amazing gigs going on. I went to watch Justin Bieber with my cousin, a short drive away in San Jose! Not gonna lie, he was great.

Check out what events are happening during your visit to SF and see if you can pick up a ticket.

Admiring the aquarium with my cousins at Exploratorium After Dark in San Francisco

Admiring the aquarium with my cousins at Exploratorium After Dark in San Francisco

13. Get Hands-On with Science at The Exploratorium

The Exploratorium in San Francisco a really cool spot. It’s a public learning lab where you can dive into science, art, and human perception. They have all these interactive exhibits that will blow your mind and help you see the world in a whole new way. If you’re into physics, biology, or ecology, you’ve gotta check it out.

They’re not just about exhibits, they’re all about education too. And it’s not just for kids either: adults will find The Exploratorium equally fascinating. It’s a one-of-a-kind museum that lets you get hands-on and really satisfy your curiosity. During my visit I got to touch starfish in the touch pool (which in hindsight was probably not very hygienic or kind to the starfish).

<em>Admiring fossils with my cousins at Exploratorium After Dark in San Francisco</em>

Admiring fossils with my cousins at Exploratorium After Dark in San Francisco

The Exploratorium isn’t just for daytime exploration. When the sun goes down, the museum transforms into “Exploratorium: After Dark” – an evening series exclusively for adults that mixes cocktails, conversation, and playful, innovative science and art events. I went with my cousins and had a blast. Recommended for one of your evenings – the Exploratorium is a fun thing to do in San Francisco!

Best Exploratorium Tours in San Francisco | Top-Rated California Academy of Sciences Tours ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Bonus: Active Things To Do In San Francisco If You Have A Car

Muir Woods Redwoods Lost Trail Hike - Best Things To Do In San Francisco If You Have A Car - illumelation

Triumphant with my cousins after finishing the Lost Trail Hike in the Muir Woods near San Francisco

14. Hike Around the Muir Woods National Monument

Just 17 miles north of San Francisco lies the amazing Muir Woods National Monument, an epic hike spot and one of my favourite things to do in San Francisco. About 45 minutes away from San Francisco by car, the Muir Red Woods is a real treat for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts.

Muir Red Woods San Francisco - Hiking and sitting in a tree - sporty active things to do in san francisco - illumelation

Chilling in the hollow of a 900-year-old Muir Red Wood tree on the “Lost Trail”

One sunny day, my cousins and I decided to take on the “Lost Trail” – it was quite a memorable experience! Though the hike was challenging at times, making me question my fitness and sanity, every time I looked around at the majestic redwoods, I was left in awe. These towering ancient giants reminded me of our place in the grand scheme of things.

And the views! The views were absolutely worth the uphill struggle.

The Muir Woods was actually used for the ape colony setting in the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie, which is cool.

If you’re up for an adventure and don’t mind breaking a sweat, Muir Woods National Monument is one of my top hiking and active things to do in San Francisco. Just remember, it can get crowded, so try to arrive early for parking.

Best Muir Woods Tours in San Francisco | Top-Rated Experiences in Muir Woods CA ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • If you want to make the most of your mornings, the Morning Muir Woods and Sausalito Tour is a real crowd-pleaser, boasting a stellar 4.8-star rating. Admire the towering redwoods in the morning mist before enjoying a leisurely visit to the charming town of Sausalito. So productive!
  • If you love wine and forests, then check out the Muir Woods & Wine Country Tour from San Francisco. This highly-rated tour takes you through the serene landscapes of Muir Woods before treating you to a wine tasting session at some of California’s most famous vineyards.
  • Another one for you nature and wine enthusiasts: the Redwoods & Wine Country, Napa & Sonoma Full-Day Tour tour takes you from the towering redwoods of Muir Woods to the lush vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. What a day!

Kayaking in Half Moon Bay - Best Things To Do In San Francisco if You Have a Car

Smiling while kayaking in Half Moon Bay near San Francisco – and yes, the water was freezing

15. Go Kayaking in Half Moon Bay

If you fancy being a bit more active in nature, another one of my nature-fuelled things to do in San Francisco is visit Half Moon Bay.

Just south of the city, about a 45 minute drive away, this coastal town has calm, sheltered waters that are perfect for a relaxed paddle. At Pillar Point Harbor nearby, you can catch sea lions and seals chilling in their natural habitat.

I went kayaking in Half Moon Bay on a chilly February morning, and let me tell you, the water was freezing. During the kayaking session we encountered seals – one seal baby swam under us and poked its head up inquisitively!

It was so much fun and the views were beautiful. The kayaking was hard work, even with two of us paddling against the current. We rented kayaks at a shack called HMB Kayak Co. just by the shore. I’d recommend bringing a change of clothes/keeping some spare in your car, as you’ll definitely get your bottom soaked while paddling around.

Afterwards we had some AMAZING seafood overlooking the sea at Barbara’s Fishtrap. Originally we wanted to eat at Sam’s Chowder House but the queues were really long on a Sunday afternoon. Barbara’s Fishtrap didn’t disappoint – the battered seafood and clam chowder warmed my numb cold toes right up!

Sausalito near San Francisco - Beach House by the Shore Rocks - Best Things To Do In San Francisco

Sausalito near San Francisco – Beach House by the Rocks

16. Visit Sausalito – A Bougie Coastal City

Another fun thing to do in San Francisco is to take a little trip to Sausalito, just a pebble’s throw away from San Francisco!

Sausalito is right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Imagine this: a lovely 15-minute drive over one of the most iconic bridges in the world, and voilà, you’ve reached Sausalito!

It’s a picturesque town known for its Mediterranean vibe, with stunning views of the San Francisco skyline across the bay.

I drove over to spend the day at a spa with my cousins. Sausalito is a gem, tucked away, yet brimming with lovely boutique shops, unique art galleries, and cute cafés. The panorama of San Francisco across the bay is just the cherry on top.

Fancy a bit of history? The Bay Model Visitor Center is one for geographers.

Best Tours in Sausalito | Top-Rated Experiences in Sausalito ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In my fluffy St Regis bathrobe watching a sunset view of downtown from the St Regis Hotel San Francisco - illumelation.com3

In my fluffy St Regis bathrobe watching a sunset view of downtown from the St Regis Hotel San Francisco

Where are the Best Places To Stay in San Francisco?

Best Luxury Hotels in San Francisco:

  1. The St. Regis San Francisco: Located right in the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant city centre, the 5-star St. Regis SF offers amazing amenities, exceptional service, and super luxurious rooms that will make your stay absolutely unforgettable. I stayed here during a week in San Francisco – check out my review of the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco!
  2. The Fairmont: The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, perched atop Nob Hill, is all about grace and grandeur. Mixing stunning architecture with city and bay views, the Fairmont brings the opulence of yesteryears to life. The beautifully decorated rooms effortlessly blend classic charm with modern comforts. Don’t miss their elegant afternoon tea experience!
  3. The Phoenix Hotel: Rated as a TripAdvisor’s Traveller’s Choice, this one-of-a-kind boutique hotel is famous for its funky decor and lively atmosphere. The Phoenix Hotel a favourite among artists and musicians and gives you a truly unique San Francisco experience. You’ll find it in the Tenderloin district. (Which has gone a little downhill, but the hotel is beautiful.)
  4. The Argonaut Hotel: Housed in a historic building on Fisherman’s Wharf, The Argonaut perfectly combines maritime charm with modern sophistication. Its nautical-themed rooms, industrial-chic brickwork, and breathtaking bay views offer a boutique experience like no other.
Windswept at the halfway point to the Golden Gate Bridge viewpoint in Battery Spencer, San Francicso

Windswept at the halfway point to the Golden Gate Bridge viewpoint in Battery Spencer, San Francicso

FAQ – Visiting San Francisco For The First Time

Is San Francisco expensive?

It’s pretty obvious that San Francisco is a pricey city to live in or even visit. The cost of living is sky-high, one of the highest in the US, affecting housing, dining, and transportation. According to a report from Numbeo, the cost of living (excluding rent) in San Francisco is around 17.64% higher than in London.

But hey, the high wages in San Francisco match the high cost of living, which can help locals handle the financial burden.

As a tourist, San Francisco can feel a little expensive, but not any more so than big cities like London or New York or Tokyo.

However, with the extra tax added to everything, and the tipping culture, it can feel like you’re spending more than you anticipated.

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What’s tipping culture like in San Francisco?

In San Francisco, it’s standard to tip between 15-20% on your restaurant bill. If you’re grabbing a quick coffee, a dollar or two will do. Don’t stress it too much, you’ll get the hang of it!

I’d definitely recommend factoring tax and tipping into your budget if that’s a concern.

What’s it like taking public transport in San Francisco in 2024?

When getting around this lovely city, public transport is your friend, with buses and the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) being reliable options. If you’re in a hurry or heading out late, Uber and Lyft are always available. Trust me, you’ll appreciate not having to find parking!

Brunette girl smiling with beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge from H. Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point – Northbound (San Francisco)

Smiling by the Golden Gate Bridge (H. Dana Bowers Vista Point) in San Francisco

Wrapping Up: Cool Things To Do In San Francisco

So what’s not to love about San Francisco?

(Well, apart from the rife drug abuse and mental illness on the streets… there’s no sugarcoating that.)

With its vibrant art scene and amazing food options, there are always so many cool things to do in San Francisco.

Whether you’re a local looking for a fresh experience or a first-time visitor exploring the city, San Francisco never disappoints. I hope you enjoyed this guide to non-touristy things to do in San Francisco!

Mel Legarda

Melissa Legarda is the founder of illumelation. She has worked as a travel blogger, creator and writer since 2015, and has collaborated with well-known brands worldwide. She has helped over 1,100+ students improve their travel photography skills since launching her creative courses. Her mission is to encourage and empower others to travel and create more. Find her on Instagram.