Most visitors want to tick off the top attractions in the city, stroll its unique neighborhoods and enjoy its vast cultural offerings. These are some of the best, plus some ways to explore.
Golden Gate Bridge. This magnificent suspension bridge, painted orange to protect it from rust, spans 4,200 feet and crosses the link between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. You can enjoy dramatic views from several locations throughout the city. Pedestrians are allowed to access the east sidewalk of the bridge, or you can rent bikes or take a bus tour that stops on both sides of the bridge and allows you to walk out on the toll plaza. The span has been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world, is the tallest bridge in the United States at 746 feet, carries about 3 million vehicles a month and is the No. 1 attraction on every San Francisco sightseeing list.
Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz once housed the most notorious criminals in America. This federal penitentiary, sitting on an island in San Francisco Bay, was in full operation between 1934 and 1963 and garnered the nickname “The Rock.” Legendary prisoners Al “Scarface” Capone and “Birdman” Robert Stroud were just two of the notorious inmates. Tours of the facility give visitors insights into the 19th-century surroundings, subterranean rooms, cannons and Civil War era architecture.
Fisherman’s Wharf. One of San Francisco’s busiest tourist attractions, the wharf offers historic-ship tours, a throng of souvenir shops and a string of restaurants serving steaming crabs, clam chowder and sourdough bread bowls. There are also colonies of sea lions on display and picturesque views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.
Ghirardelli Square. A landmark public square, Ghirardelli Square has three levels of shops and restaurants with five-star luxury hotels nearby. Originally a chocolate factory built by Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli in 1852, the factory was transformed to accommodate unique shops, fine dining and the latest in retail in 1964 and still features the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Store.
Celebrating and cultivating art is a part of San Francisco’s DNA, going back to the founding of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1871. For museum lovers, San Francisco’s Big Six are the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the largest modern art museum in the country; M.H. de Young Museum, Legion of Honor Museum; Asian Art Museum; Exploratorium; and California Academy of Sciences.
Have a passion? Yes, there’s probably a museum for that — from the Cartoon Art Museum to the Cable Car Museum, from the Contemporary Jewish Museum to the Mexican Museum and more. The Beat Museum celebrates Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other writers, artists and dreamers who created the counterculture of the 1950s. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, which published many of the original Beats, is a beguiling bookstore-cum-museum that attracts literary pilgrims year round.
As befits an art-loving, politically progressive city, the Mission District is a sprawling open-air museum that showcases hundreds of social- and political-themed murals. For a compact sampling, walk along Balmy Alley between 24th and 25th streets, and Clarion Alley between Valencia and Mission streets. Also visit the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center, which has been steward of the Mission’s mural movement for four decades.
Ways to save: Most San Francisco museums, including the Exploratorium, California Academy of Sciences, Museum of Modern Art, Asian Art Museum and de Young, offer senior discounts; the Cable Car Museum and Railway Museum are free for everyone. All are wheelchair accessible.
Many museums offer one free admission day a month. For the Legion of Honor and de Young, it’s the first Tuesday of the month; for the Asian Art Museum, the first Sunday. For a comprehensive list of free museum days and other bargains, check out FunCheap SF MOMA features more than 45,000 square feet of art-filled public spaces that are free all the time.
Hop-on, hop-off open-air bus tours are a great — and economical — way to get an overview of the city. Big Bus San Francisco and City Sightseeing San Francisco offer multiple one- and two-day packages. Wheelchair users should contact the companies 48 hours in advance.
Want to relive the Summer of Love? Break out your bell-bottoms, wear some flowers in your hair and hop a Magic Bus for a two-hour tour — mixing theater, film, music and sightseeing — that will take you straight back to 1967. For a different kind of high, board a Blue & Gold or Red and White ferry for an exhilarating excursion to that big International Orange icon that spans the bay. Both are wheelchair accessible.
If you favor a two-wheeled tour, Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours offers a local’s view of the city's most popular neighborhoods. Tours last from four to six hours and start at $55 per person. Bikes and helmets are provided.
Ways to save: Save 10 percent on Big Bus tours when you book online. The Blue & Gold Fleet offers older adults a $5 discount.
While it’s justifiably famed for its hills, San Francisco is a wonderful walking town, with a pedestrian-friendly patchwork of distinctive neighborhoods. To savor the city’s spirit, choose one of these — North Beach, say, or Union Street, Fillmore Street, Chinatown, the Mission, Japantown, Chestnut Street — and simply wander. You’ll find all kinds of singularly San Franciscan treasures, from exquisite, closet-sized vintage clothing shops and artisanal jewelry makers to blackboard-menu eateries and art gallery cafes. Strike up a conversation with the locals tapping on laptops over lattes or ask the jeweler what she loves about the City by the Bay. You’ll find that San Franciscans are united by a fierce love for their hometown.
San Francisco packs a plethora of green and glorious parks into its compact 47 square miles. Golden Gate Park is a 1,017-acre walker’s paradise, housing the elegant Japanese Tea Garden (free before 10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday), the steamy Conservatory of Flowers, and the tranquil and flower-filled Shakespeare Garden. The delightful diversity of San Francisco is on full display at Mission Dolores Park, where all ages and ethnicities gather to spread blankets on the grass, throw Frisbees in the air, and sigh at the sight of the heart-plucking skyline.
Hundreds of walking tours are available, from history to food to architecture. Food lovers salivate over Foodie Adventures’ 3.5-hour tours of the Mission, North Beach and Chinatown. Wild SF Walking Tours feature Haunted SF, Radical SF and Free Love (Haight-Ashbury) tours as well as a pay-what-you-want Free SF Tour. On the Level San Francisco Walking Tours specializes in excursions for older adults and mobility-impaired travelers.
Ways to save: Check out the more than 80 free walking tours offered by San Francisco City Guides. Ranging from “Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco” to “West Side Whimsy Walks,” they are led by local volunteers who share their passion for the city’s history, legends and lore. Fourteen tours are especially recommended for wheelchair users.
Maybe it’s the dramatic setting on the edge of the continent, or maybe it’s the intoxicating allure of instant wealth — from the 1849 gold miners to the 2018 tech disrupters — but for whatever reason, San Francisco has long embraced drama. The city’s first theater, the California Theatre, opened in 1869. San Francisco today hosts a cornucopia of live performances: traditional to avant-garde theater and dance, opera, music from classical to jazz to rock to hip-hop, lectures, improv, stand-up and more.
The historic Club Fugazi is now the place where death-defying acrobatics meet awe-inspiring choreography on stage. Other notable venues for both classical and contemporary theater include the Orpheum, Curran and A.C.T. Geary Theatre, the San Francisco Playhouse (ADA compliant) and Magic Theater. Opera and ballet reign at the majestic War Memorial Opera House, and symphony takes center stage at elegant Davies Symphony Hall. Both are wheelchair accessible and provide assisted listening devices.
San Francisco is also home to many diverse music venues, such as the SFJAZZ Center, the first performing arts center in the country completely dedicated to jazz. Among many other unique spots: Cafe du Nord, in the basement of the Swedish American Hall, is an iconic speakeasy with a full calendar of diverse musicians.
Ways to save: Theatre Bay Area, a nonprofit arts service organization, sells half-price tickets from a booth in Union Square. Many theater box offices also sell discounted rush tickets on performance day. If you’re visiting in summer, the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival presents free outdoor performances in city parks; the festival staff reserves space for wheelchairs. SF Ballet offers $32 rush tickets for adults 65 and older from the Opera House Box Office up until one hour prior to curtain or by calling. Finally, with some advance planning, you may be able to volunteer to usher at the opera, symphony or ballet, and view the performance for free.