12 Things You Can’t Leave San Francisco Without Doing

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When entering San Francisco, be prepared to say goodbye to the Hollywood glamour, Botox beach babes and endless sunshine you’ll find in the city’s Californian counterparts. San Fran is in many ways the antithesis of the Cali stereotype, which is all the more reasons to love its grittiness, hilliness, and fogginess. As liberal as it comes, the city is a hub for hipsters, hippies, punks and creatives alike. The street art will enamor you, the food will make you drool and the nightlife will keep you up dancing all night long. What’s not to love? For first time visitors, check out these 12 things you must do in San Francisco!

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1. Take a sunset cruise along the harbour

There is nothing quite like cruising under arguably the world’s most famous bridge as the sun streams and puts the ‘golden’ in Golden Gate.  Seeing this city from the water is just something you’ve got to do! Make sure you rug up- even in summer, San Francisco can get unbelievably cold, especially when you are out on the water.

Check here for tour options or here for a more luxury experience on a catamaran.

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2. Eat brunch at SF institution, Mamma’s

You can’t leave San Francisco without having a really good brunch. Expect to cue up for about an hour to get into Mamma’s, one of San Fran’s oldest, most famous brunch spots. Yes, it’s a long wait. But once you’ve had a bite of your eggs benedict and wash it down with a swig of freshly squeezed orange juice, you’ll realize what all the fuss is about.

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3. Take photos of the Golden Gate from the other side

When arriving in San Francisco, everyone seems to flock to the far side of the Golden Gate to get their token bridge shot. If you want to avoid competing with the hordes of tourists and tour buses, hop on a public bus to the end of Marine Drive. Once you get off the bus, head down the path towards the water and you’ll see a few picnic benches and the ultimate view of the Golden Gate, minus the tourists.

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4. Indulge in dessert at Ghirardelli square

Maybe skip lunch, because you won’t leave San Fran’s famous Ghirardelli Square hungry. If you haven’t got enough of a sugar rush from the free samples of delicious chocolate, head to the café and order an indulgent ice-cream sundae or a salted caramel hot chocolate.

5. Ride a cable car from the outside

You didn’t really think you were going to leave San Fran without riding in a cable car did you? Is it touristy? Yes. Is it overpriced? Yes. Is it really fun? Heck yeah! If you are going to join the tourists on the Powell & Hyde Cable Car, make sure you get a spot on the outside. Hang on for your life and enjoy that wind blowing through your hair as you brave the slopes of San Francisco!

6. Get lost in Chinatown

The largest Chinatown outside of Asia, it’s no wonder this is one of the most visited attractions in San Fran. Get lost in a maze of culture, history, delicious food, and amazing street art- it’s an absolute must do!

Check here for a walking tour of Chinatown or here for a culinary one.

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7. Watch a baseball match

There is nothing like standing in a crowd, beer and hotdog in hand, pretending you know what is going on at an American baseball match. Head to San Fran’s AT&T stadium for the true ‘Merican experience.

8. Eat Mexican in the Mission District

It may have started off as the slightly grittier side of town, but nowadays the Mission District is seriously the place to be. This area defines the meaning of gentrification, and over the past few years has become extremely popular with the hipster crowd. It’s easy to see why- the place is flooded with street art, boutique vintage stores, lively bars, and unbeatable Mexican cuisine. Don’t miss out on trying a Taco from La Taqueria.

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9. Drive down the windy road of Lombard Street

Tick it off the bucket list- drive down the windiest street imaginable, with eight hairpin turns to compete with. If you don’t have a car to drive or if you are feeling a little nervous about braving this road, hop in a taxi and ask them to take you for an extra special spin.

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10. Try the clam chowder at Boudins

It would be wrong to leave San Fran without trying its signature dish- Clam Chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl from legendary bakery Boudins. Let this delicious, steaming soup warm your soul as you sit at Fisherman’s Wharf and watch the world go by.

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11. Take a boat to Alcatraz

A key highlight of the city for many, a trip to San Fran isn’t quite complete without taking a boat ride to Alcatraz Island to see firsthand the infamous high-security prison. Make sure you book up as far in advance as possible as tours sell out very quickly!

Check here for an “Escape the Rock” cruise or here for a tour with a motorized cable car.

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12. Hang out with the sea lions at Pier 39

It may be another one of the most touristy parts of town, but it’s a little hard to resist a visit to Pier 39. Take a stroll along the boardwalk, have a drink at one of the many bars lining the pier or release you inner-child and take a ride on the enchanting carousel. Then brace yourself for what you really come for- the hilarious, smelly sea lions. With the amount of noise they make, it’s impossible to miss them.

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BONUS: Discover the secret of the city’s POPOS

POPOS, or privately owned public open space (now there is a mouthful) are a phenomenon that have slowly popped up over the city of San Fran in the past thirty years. They were actually a development requirement in the city since the 1985 Downtown Plan, meaning there are over 60 spaces, varying from garden rooftops to sunny atriums that are open for you to hang out in! The problem is property owners don’t always advertise these spaces, so you have to discover them for yourself (or with the help of google). Check out this comprehensive guide of POPOS over the city.

Now, once you’ve ticked these 12 awesome (albeit touristy) things to do in San Fran off the list, it’s time to put away your inhibitions and simply lose yourself in this unique city!

Tips for Visiting San Francisco

Travel Insurance

Make sure you have travel insurance as healthcare in the US is so expensive! I recommend SafetyWings if you’re on a budget or World Nomads if you’re traveling with tech gear.

What to Wear

Even in the middle of summer, northern California can feel a bit cool. I recommend bringing a light jacket or sweater to put on if you get cold.

Also, wear comfortable walking shoes because there are a lot of hills!

Check below to compare hotels on where to stay:


  • Reply
    September 15, 2015 at 6:42 am

    I LOVE this post! San Francisco is one of my favorite cities so I always love to see the images others capture and what they love most about the city.

  • Reply
    September 16, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    This is such a great list! We are headed there in April I think, so this will be so useful. :) XO -Alexandra

    Simply Alexandra: My Favorite Things

  • Reply
    September 20, 2015 at 3:10 am

    I’ve ticked a lot of them! I encountered the line at Mamma’s but I found a very nice brunch spot next to my hotel which was equally delicious! I also loved Golden Gate Park and the view from Fillmore street steps!

  • Reply
    September 28, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Great list! I can’t wait to go back and try Mexican in the Mission District – we didn’t have time to visit there during our last trip. Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply
    Traveling Spud
    December 11, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Great list and I live here! The Mission is so great to get a nice Mexican burrito. Also your pics are soooo amazing. You did a great job shooting the true essence of SF! :)

  • Reply
    January 3, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    I am planning a visit this coming March and really appreciate your list, Thank you!

  • Reply
    Sheree - The Fashionable Backpacker
    January 5, 2016 at 6:38 am

    I LOVE YOUR PHOTOS. I’m going at he end of the year so this is great for inspo. Fab blog :)

    • Reply
      January 5, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Aw thank you so much! Really appreciate your kind words :)

  • Reply
    July 18, 2016 at 5:40 am

    A baseball match ?

    • Reply
      Hate you
      January 3, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Apparently this person has never heard of take me out to the ball game.

  • Reply
    Rhonda Long
    July 30, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    For the outdoor enthusiast, I highly recommend a bicycle tour to the top of The Golden Gate Bridge. My tour ended before the bridge was crossed but I had the option to continue the ride and I did! I biked across the bridge and down into Salsilito. There is a designated bike lane as you cross the bridge, but beware; the ride is very windy but amazing! The size of the cables on the bridge are tremendous and the views are beautifully breathtaking! Salsilito is a wonderfully different world with temps 10 to 15 degrees warmer than SF – I felt like I was in the tropics! Catch a ferry back so you don’t have to pedal the hills to return to SF. It is one of my greatest accomplishments and memories of SF!

  • Reply
    February 23, 2017 at 12:23 am

    San Francisco is home to me! And you nailed it with this post. Definitely some of the top things to do. I would also add admiring the painted ladies. So great that you added a Giants baseball game. They are my team!

  • Reply
    New Years in San Francisco – restlessbones
    February 25, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    […] had read http://polkadotpassport.com/12-things-you-cant-leave-san-fran-without-doing/ before coming to San Francisco hoping to get the most out of my trip. So my friends and I set out […]

  • Reply
    Lorian Bartle
    April 11, 2018 at 5:55 am

    San Francisco is such a walkable city; it’s so easy to see so much. These are some great suggestions!

    Lorian Bartle

    • Reply
      Nicola Easterby
      April 15, 2018 at 8:35 am

      I know, it’s great isn’t it! Glad you enjoyed the suggestions x

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