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Most Popular Must-see Attractions in San Francisco

The 12 most popular attractions in San Francisco including Alcatraz, Cable Cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, and 8 more must-see sights.


San Francisco is fortunate to have many major sights for visitors and locals to enjoy. There are world class performing arts, major league sports, and several great attractions. This article is about 12 hugely popular attractions in San Francisco like Alcatraz, Cable Cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, and the Exploratorium.

This is one of four articles covering must-see sights in San Francisco. The other three cover extraordinary parks and gardens, great museums, and iconic neighborhoods. I hope these help you discover sights you’d like to visit, and, if you’re using the intinerary in our 1, 2, and 3-Day San Francisco Itinerary article, these articles can help you customize the itinerary to suit your interests, time, and budget.

You’ll find these details covered for each of the 12 popular attractions:

  • Brief description and why it’s worth visiting
  • Location and typical amount of time needed
  • Links to official websites to get the latest information like operating days/hours, and tickets
  • Link to a Google map with all of the attractions pinned
  • Best time to visit
  • Links to our related articles about unique neighborhoods, extraordinary parks and gardens, and the best museums

Disclaimer: Some of our articles may contain affiliate links; when you click on these links you’ll have the option to purchase or register for a service at no extra cost to you, but doing so helps us run this blog. That’s awesome!

These San Francisco Attractions are covered here ($ attraction has an entry fee):

  1. Alcatraz $
  2. Aquarium of the Bay $
  3. Bay Cruise $
  4. Cable Cars $
  5. California Academy of Sciences $
  6. Coit Tower ($ for elevator to top)
  7. Exploratorium $
  8. Fisherman’s Wharf
  9. Golden Gate Bridge
  10. Golden Gate Park ($ for some attractions)
  11. Pier 39
  12. San Francisco Zoo $

San Francisco Attractions Locations Map

Click the map below to open the expandable, interactive Google Map:

Interactive map with pins marking the best attractions in San Francisco.
Click the map to open in Google Maps.
The notorious former federal prison on Alcatraz Island. The Alcatraz tour is the most popular tour in San Francisco.
Alcatraz Island is home to a former notorious federal prison. It’s now one of San Francisco’s most popular places to visit.

1. Alcatraz

The infamous former federal penitentiary sits on a small island in San Francisco Bay. It’s part of the National Park System and is one of the city’s top attractions. The ticket includes the roundtrip ferry ride and an excellent Cellhouse Audio Tour with stories told by former guards and inmates.

Tip 1: Buy tickets early because they often sell out days or weeks in advance.
Tip 2: ONLY buy tickets from Alcatraz City Cruises. It’s the only concessioner authorized by the National Park Service.

Location: The tour begins (and ends) at Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero. The E and F historic streetcars stop near Pier 33 (at Embarcadero and Bay Street).
Time: Allow about 3 hours for the ferry ride and tour
Links: Alcatraz National Park Service
Alcatraz City Cruises

For more about Alcatraz, see our much more detailed article: Visiting Alcatraz: How to do it right and get the most from your trip. It has a short preview video, lots more photos, details like ways to get to Alcatraz Landing to get the Alcatraz Ferry, and brief descriptions of things to see and do on the island.

Entrance sign at the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco.
Entrance to the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39.

2. Aquarium of the Bay

This popular aquarium features aquatic creatures from San Francisco Bay including sharks, jellyfish, river otters, and a lot more. It’s pretty cool to walk through the transparent tunnel as sharks, bat rays, and schools of anchovies swim above and around you.

Location: Pier 39 at the Wharf
Time: About 90 minutes
Link: Aquarium of the Bay

One of the Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise boats entering the harbor, in San Francisco.
A Blue and Gold Fleet boat returning from a bay cruise.

3. Bay Cruise

There are two bay cruise companies located at Fisherman’s Wharf: Red and White Fleet and Blue and Gold Fleet. Both are professional and highly rated and both offer a variety of cruises, including a 1-hour bay cruise that goes under the Golden Gate Bridge.

I recently took the Red and White Fleet 1-hour bay cruise with visiting family; the weather was chilly, but the cruise was great. Ticketing, check-in and boarding were all very professional and the audio narrative describing the sights was excellent.

Location: Both cruise companies are at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Red and White Fleet is at Pier 43 ½. The Blue and Gold Fleet is at Pier 41.
Time: For the 1-hour bay cruises, allow about 90-minutes to check-in, join the line/queue and board.
Links: Blue and Gold Fleet
Red and White Fleet

A red Powell-Hyde Line cable car climbs up Russian Hill in San Francisco.
Powell-Hyde Line cable car climbing Russian Hill.

4. Cable Cars

San Francisco’s cable cars are truly unique. It’s like a theme park ride except you’re on real city streets with real traffic. They’re unique, exciting, and just a bit scary as they swoop down hills and roll through busy intersections. Of the three cable car lines, the Powell-Hyde Line is the most interesting because it travels a bit further and goes higher up Nob and Russian Hills.

Tip 1: Ride early in the morning to avoid long lines and crowded cars.
Tip 2: The single ride cable car fare is $8 for everyone (with no transfer or hop-on-hop-off privileges), but the 1-day downloadable Muni Visitor Passport is only $13 and is good all day on cable cars, streetcars, Muni Metro, and buses. Download the passport on the MuniMobile app or a Clipper Card.

How cable cars work: Cable cars are unlike any other transit system; they run on rails like a streetcar, but they don’t have a motor. Instead, the Gripman operates a large grip lever, which grabs and holds onto an underground cable. Large engines and winding wheels, in the Cable Car Powerhouse, pull the cable in a giant loop beneath the streets and pull the little cars along at 9.5 mph (15.3 km/h).

Location: The 3 cable car lines are: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California. Both Powell Lines travel between Powell and Market and the Wharf, but on the Wharf end, Powell-Mason ends at Taylor and Bay; the Powell-Hyde Line ends at Hyde and Beach. The California Line runs on California between Market and Van Ness.
Time: About 15 minutes one-way
Link: Cable Cars

Path winding up and around the 90-foot-high rainforest at the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.
Path winding up and around the 90-foot (27 m) high rainforest at the California Academy of Sciences.

5. California Academy of Sciences

The Academy of Sciences is a very up-close, hands-on, science and natural history museum. It has an impressive aquarium, living rainforest, an excellent planetarium, dinosaur skeletons, live penguins, a white alligator named Claude, and more. Its mission is “to explore, explain, and sustain life.”

Everything, from the aquarium at the bottom to the living roof at the top, is first class. It’s a great place for everyone and is super popular with kids.

Tip: The Planetarium is included with the CADS ticket, but go to the Planetarium entry and pick up a Planetarium ticket for entry to a specific show and time.

Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park
Time: Allow at least 3 hours, especially if you see the Planetarium show
Link: California Academy of Sciences

Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill above North Beach.

6. Coit Tower

This tall, graceful tower atop Telegraph Hill is a monument honoring the city’s firefighters. The interior walls of the tower’s rotunda are covered with depression era murals funded by the Public Works of Art Project. The top of the tower has great 360° views of the city and bay.

Tip: Purchase tickets in the gift shop to ride the small elevator to the top.

Location: In Pioneer Park at the top of Telegraph Hill. You can take the #39 Muni bus from North Point and Stockton Streets or get some serious exercise by walking up the Greenwich steps.
Time: Allow about an hour at the tower.
Link: Coit Tower

A young boy operates a bike rope squirter in an Exploratorium style game of jump rope.
A bike rope squirter at the Exploratorium.

7. Exploratorium

According to my grandchildren, this is the #1 place to go in San Francisco. With over 650 hands-on exhibits, it’s a gold mine for inquisitive minds where visitors explore “the world through science, art, and human perception.”

Location: Pier 15 on the Embarcadero (at Green Street). The E and F Line historic streetcars stop right in front.
Time: Allow at least 3 hours. Sometimes we spend the whole day with a break for lunch in the onsite Seaglass Restaurant.
Link: Exploratorium

Colorful fishing boats docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Fishing boats at the Wharf.

8. Fisherman’s Wharf

There are lots of restaurants, shops, bike rentals, and a variety of tour operators. The wharf is also home to these sights, which are popular with Kids:

  • Musée Mécanique
  • Ripley’s Believe it or Not
  • Madame Tussauds Wax Museum

Location: Along the city waterfront between Pier 39 and Aquatic Park. The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable cars and the E and F Line historic streetcars all stop at the Wharf.
Time: As much as you have
Link: Fisherman’s Wharf

Golden Gate Bridge with the surf and fog rolling in. It’s a stunning sight and one of the free things to do in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge with the surf and fog rolling in.

9. Golden Gate Bridge

Considered one of the seven modern wonders of the world, the bridge is San Francisco’s most recognizable attraction. You can walk, run, or bike on and across the bridge, and, except for parking, it’s free.

Stop in the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and pick up a free Presidio map, which includes points of interest and trails. If you’re up for a hike, there’s a 0.5-mile (.8 km) trail down to Fort Point and/or Crissy Field. The trail begins near the Welcome Center.

Location: The bridge spans the entrance to San Francisco Bay and connects San Francisco to Marin County. Parking at the bridge is metered and limited. The #28 – 19th Avenue bus stops at the Welcome Center.
Time: Allow at least, a couple of hours to visit the bridge (including transit time), and likely more if you walk all the way across and back. It’s 1.7 miles (2.7 km) each way.
Link: Golden Gate Bridge

Water lilies and giant lily pads in the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
Water lilies and giant Amazon lily pads at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

10. Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is a 1,017-acre urban oasis packed with gardens, lakes, trails, a great children’s playground, and even a Bison Paddock. It also has two major museums and is the venue for a variety of (mostly free) concerts and festivals.

You can easily spend a whole day in the park by visiting one or both of the museums and some (or all) of the gardens and lakes recommended here. Both CADS and the de Young have cafes, and there are neighborhood restaurants outside the park, especially along 9th Avenue on the south side of the park. My favorite is the Beach Chalet on the park’s west end, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Major sights in Golden Gate Park include:

  • Botanical Garden
  • California Academy of Sciences (see attraction #5 above)
  • Conservatory of Flowers
  • De Young Museum
  • Japanese Tea Garden
  • Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill

Note: The above sights are covered in our related articles. Stow Lake and the Gardens are covered in Parks and Gardens and the de Young Museum is in our Museums article.

Location: Golden Gate Park is a long narrow strip between Fulton Street on the northside and Lincoln Way on the southside. It’s 3-miles long and half a mile wide, with the Pacific Ocean at the west end.
Time: You can easily spend an entire day
Links: Golden Gate Park
Park Map (Downloadable)
Golden Gate Park Free Shuttle

Sea lions at Pier 39 resting on floats. They’re always fun to watch.
Watching Sea Lions at Pier 39.

11. Pier 39

Food, crowds, souvenirs, more food, entertainment, public restrooms, even more food and souvenirs. Biggest attractions at Pier 39:

  • Sea Lions
  • Aquarium of the Bay
  • Double decker carousel with interesting creatures to ride

Location: The entrance is on the Embarcadero at the foot of Powell Street. Both the E and F Line historic streetcars stop right in front.
Time: as much as you have, or want
Link: Pier 39

A Koala Bear at the San Francisco Zoo.
Shy Koala at the San Francisco Zoo.

12. San Francisco Zoo

This large, well maintained zoo has more than 2000 creatures including many exotic and endangered animals. There is also a beautifully restored 1921 carousel, a train ride, and a petting zoo. No pandas, but the zoo has koalas, 7 species of lemurs, and a great Gorilla Preserve.

Location: Sloat Blvd. and the Great Highway on the Pacific Coast. The L-Taraval (Muni Metro light rail) ends about 2-blocks from the Zoo entrance.
Time: Allow at least 2-3 hours
Link: San Francisco Zoo

Best Time to Visit San Francisco

Weather-wise, mid-September through mid-November is best. The summer fog (nature’s air conditioner) doesn’t roll in as often and the winter rains haven’t yet started. The rest of the year, the weather is mixed: there are often gorgeous, sunny days in winter and overcast, chilly days in summer.

A historic streetcar arrives at Pier 39 in San Francisco. Built in 1928, this car is originally from Milan, Italy.
The historic streetcar arriving at Pier 39 was built in 1928 and came from Milan, Italy. Some of its interior signage is in Italian.

Getting to the 12 San Francisco Attractions

Links to official websites are provided for all 12 attractions in San Francisco to help you get current details like operating days/hours, tickets, parking, and ways to get there. Most of the sights are easily reachable on public transit. If you’d like more detailed public transit information about routes, apps, maps, fares, and ways to pay, see our related Getting Around San Francisco Public Transit article.

SkyStar Observation Wheel. It’s a giant Golden Gate Park Ferris wheel.
SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park.

Conclusion

This article is intended to make finding San Francisco attractions easier and sightseeing more enjoyable by helping you discover sights that match your interests. If you’re using our San Francisco Itinerary, the suggestions here can help you customize it.

To discover more sights that match your interests, check out these related articles:

About the Author

Ginny Vail is a travel writer, whose goal is to help you pack your travels with more adventure and less stress. Her posts, photos, and videos will help you discover places to visit, sights to see, sight locations, ways to get to them, and when to go. She is a native Californian, and, although she’s visited all 50 states and traveled around the world, her main focus is the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives.