14 Cool Things To Do in San Francisco, California

There are cool cities, then there’s San Francisco. It’s in a league of it’s own. If I could move to another city, San Francisco would probably be it.

There are so many cool things to do, but here are my favourites!

1. Ride the Cable Car

After witnessing a terrible accident on the damp, hilly streets of San Francisco in 1859, British born Andrew Hallidie came up with the idea for a cable drawn transport system.

Riding a Cable Car in San Francisco

Today the cable cars are San Francisco icons, the oldest cable drawn system in the world and not to be missed on your trip! A whole lot of fun! There are three routes across the city and if you can, I suggest you get yourself in position on the outside of the tram. If there’s no space, just ask the conductor and he will give you a shout as and when a space becomes available. It’s quite exhilarating going down the hills, feeling the wind in your hair.We jumped on a Union Square and rode all they way down to Fisherman’s Wharf. A single ticket costs $6 (as of September 2013).


Riding the San Francisco Cable Car

2. Grab a Drink at Vesuvio

We were wandering from North Beach to Chinatown, looking for a place to have a drink when my love of street art made me drag my friends down an brightly decorated alley.

Street Art in San Francisco

As it turns out, the alley was called Jack Kerouac Alley. As you may know, Jack Kerouac wrote the poem ‘San Francisco Scene’ and amongst many other things, is famous for coining the term Beat Generation to describe a group of writers in the 1950’s. At the other end of the alley, there was a small but interesting bar called Vesuvio. It looked cool and quirky so we decided to go in.

The bar is frequented by an eclectic bunch, and also sits next door to the infamous City Lights Bookstore. We only stayed for one drink, but it had a really nice atmosphere, and even the bathrooms were cool. On selected Sundays throughout the summer, there’s also a little market in Jack Kerouac alley called ‘A Fair to Remember’. I love that film so I think the name is AMAZING!

A Fair to Remember San Francisco

They don’t do food at Vesuvio, but you can bring your own in to eat. Happy hour runs from 3 – 7pm, Monday – Thursday. We liked it so much we decided to come back later that evening before we went for some Chinese food.

3. Eat some of the Best Chinese Food in the World

With the biggest Chinese population outside of Asia, San Francisco was always going to have great Chinese food. We were hoping to go to House of Nanking, which we’d spotted earlier on and is famed for being one of the best Chinese restaurants in the city. Due to a late ‘lunch’ (see below), by the time were hungry it was around 10pm, so we decided to give the restaurant a quick call but they were closed!

Kindly, one of the staff from Vesuvio called another restaurant and they confirmed they were still open! Yay! So off we went to Brandy Ho’s, just a few doors down the road. I did a double take as I looked at the sign outside… they were serving Human food? What??? But what the sign actually said, was Hunan food, from the Hunan region in Southern China. The region has three cooking styles ‘Mountain’, ‘Lake’, and ‘Peasant’. At Brandy Ho’s the food is ‘Peasant’ aka ‘Country Style’ – simple, down-to-earth and healthy.

Hunan Food at Brandy Ho's San Francisco

The kitchen is open, so you can see the chef preparing the meals right in front of you. Hunan food is traditionally pretty spicy, but the wait staff will check how spicy you want it! I ordered a chicken dish with pancakes. It was yummy!

4. Be Wowed by the Street Art

Being such an arty and vibrant city, it’s no surprise that San Francisco street art is amazing and everywhere! Literally every neighbourhood has some. It’s so much fun to spot them as you walk around the city!

Street Art, Chinatown, San Francisco

5. Cycle the Golden Gate Bridge

Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge is number one on my list of things to do in San Francisco. We picked up our bikes from the Blazing Saddles stand at  Pier 39. Blazing Saddles are self-guided tours, so once you have your bike, safety equipment and map you’re on your way!

We headed towards the bridge along the waterfront. There are a few different routes you can take, between 3 and 20 miles long, which take you through San Francisco and the surrounding towns.

Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge

Whilst we were there, the weather in San Francisco was pretty kind to us. It was sunny in when we left the bike rental place, but fog had descended on the bridge so we could barely see if front of us at some points, and it got pretty cold and wet, but it was still great! Just wrap up warm, or chose your days more carefully than we did. I kind of liked it though and I’m glad I got to experience the famous San Francisco fog first hand.

Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge

Sausalito San Francisco

On the other side of the bridge in the pretty town of Sausalito the sun was shining again! As we started a bit later in the day, we took the  ferry back from Sausalito when the light began to fade. The cycle is pretty easy for the most part, but there are a few hills to navigate so you have to have a an intermediate level of fitness.

6. Ride the Open Air Bus

Taking an open top bus ride around the city is a lot of fun. They’re all hop on and hop from the main tourist attractions, and pretty frequent and so a great way to see all the main sights. There’s tons of companies that do the tours, but we used the blue buses.

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco

Our driver, Dave, was awesome, pointing out all the sights and telling stories. He was one of those people that is hilarious, although I’m not sure he realised it. I know a couple of things about Dave, he met his wife in 1982 on Columbus Street and his favourite cheesecake is the Vanilla Cream from the Cheesecake Factory. We had the pleasure of being on his bus randomly on three separate occasions, and he always had us laughing.

7. Take a trip to Alcatraz aka ‘The Rock’

You can’t go to San Francisco and not visit Alcatraz. 1.5 miles off shore and now abandoned, Alcatraz still holds a real sense of mystery and is the subject of a number of films. The Native Americans in the area thought of the island as being cursed.

Alcatraz San Francisco

Once home to Al Capone, no-one has ever been known to escape from Alcatraz alive, although three prisoners who successfully escaped from the prison, have never been found. You can still see their escape holes in their cells. Deadly currents and freezing cold waters are thought to have taken them, but it is still a mystery to this day. It’s also a myth that San Francisco Bay is swarming with Great Whites that would eat escapees, there’s only bottom feeding sharks in the Bay.

An audio tour, hauntingly narrated by guards and inmates, guides you around the prison, giving insight to life on The Rock. Prisoners describe how they could teasingly hear voices and merriment drifting in from yachts out in the bay and guards tell of riots and give us an insight into living on the island.

Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco

 Alcatraz Prison San Francisco

One of the most surprising things, was that many of the prisoners took up crochet, knitting and painting to pass the time. On our way back to and from San Francisco, we also managed to get some great views of some of the boats taking part in the America’s Cup.

The Oracle America's Cup San Francisco

Tours leave often, but they often get booked up so it is advisable to buy your tickets well in advance.

8. Marvel at the Architecture

San Francisco is an architectural dream. Every house is different, and so pretty! From Alamo Square it’s a short stroll to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ and be sure to visit Haight-Asbury for some more amazingly colourful town houses!

The Painted Ladies San Francisco

9. Sample the Nightlife

There’s no shortage of good places for nightlife in San Francisco. My favourite places we visited were the historical Mission District and The Castro, one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the United States. Both are quirky, with tons of cool bars. There’s so much to write about San Francisco nightlife, I may need another post for that. But my best advice for now would be to just wander around and sample a few different places!

The Castro San Francisco

You may have noticed that there are a number of speakeasy bars popping up around the world, hidden from view and only for those in the know! We visited one such bar called Bourbon and Branch, which is reminiscent of the Prohibition era. We knocked on the unnamed door. A few seconds later the door opened and the glamorous hostess asked us for the password. She accepted and led us through the main reserved area, an intimate place to enjoy a quiet meal with a friend or loved one, and through a book case into the ‘secret’ back room.

 Bourban & Branch

Cocktails are the order of the day in this candle lit bar, made by smart bartenders in 1920’s attire. The music is as cool as the decoration… think low-key jazz sounds. The only thing missing was Billie Holiday singing the blues.

Bourban & Branch

10. Spot Sea Lions at Pier 39

Pier 39 is a great place for kids and adults alike. There’s plenty of things to keep you occupied from restaurants, shops, puppet shows, musicians, an aquarium, a carousel and you can even watch the sea lions that gather to sun themselves on the wooden decking below the pier.

Sea Lions at Pier 39 San Francisco

Pier 39 San Francisco

11. Beware of the Bushman at Fisherman’s Wharf

Just further up from Pier 39 is Fisherman’s Wharf where you’ll find more great shops and attractions. Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to the ‘World Famous Bushman’, a guy who hides behind a bush and jumps out to scare passers by. We knew to expect him, but he still got a couple of us. It is pretty funny to watch, but not everyone agrees!

World Famous Bushman

I also grabbed myself a cheeky little In N Out Burger! I especially enjoyed the Animal Fries off their secret menu.

In and Out Burger San Francisco

12. Watch the World Go By at Union Square

One of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks is Union Square. It used to be a place where rallies were held during the American Civil War. When I was there, a peace rally was being held once again. This time for Syria.

Peace Rally for Syria San Francisco

Protests aside, Union Square is a good place to catch the cable car or one of the sight seeing buses and also a place to wander and chill.

Union Square San Francisco

 Union Square San Francisco

There’s also a Macy’s with a Cheesecake Factory at the top. Quite possibly the reason that we MAY have eaten too much at lunch and missed dining at the House of Nanking. Oops. But mmm, that cheesecake was gooooooood! It was all Dave’s fault!

Cheesecake Factory San Francisco

13. See the Windy Road

Lombard Street, also known as the Windy Road (not to be confused with windy – as in “ooh it’s windy today”) is one of the most crooked streets in the world. It’s funny to watch cars as they snake their way down the street!

Lombard Street 'The Windy Road' San Francisco

13. Discover the Golden Gate Park

The Golden Gate Park is a lovely place to spend a day. Confusingly, Golden Gate Park is not the park next to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Park San Francisco

  Golden Gate Park San Francisco

We hired a four-seater surrey and a bike and navigated our way around the park on those. If we’d had longer, I may have been tempted to try out a Segway! They look fun!

Golden Gate Park San Francisco

Golden Gate Park San Francisco

14. Get Stinky at The Stinking Rose

This restaurant is an Italian-Californian cross, and almost all of the delicious food at The Stinking Rose is made with garlic.  They even have garlic ice-cream.

The Stinking Rose San Francisco

I love San Francisco and I hope you will too! Have you ever been?

About Author

I'm a travel blogger and tour operator with a passion for Africa travel. I love the great outdoors, going on epic trips around the world and helping others travel!


  • Chloe
    November 12, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Your post is awesome…. It’s made me want to go back now to do the cool things I missed!!

    • Helen
      November 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm

      Ah cool! Let’s co back together!!!!!!! xx

  • Beatrice
    November 12, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Great post! I also liked San Francisco, but was surprised by the number of homeless people that looked like they were in such a bad state – I mean, I got spit on by a lady who asked me if she could spit on me first (!). We also saw police taking away a dead man from the sidewalk 🙁 I was NOT expecting that, so it kind of ruined a part of the SF experience for me. 

    On a positive note, loved Bourbon & Branch and the Golden Gate Bridge, too!

    • Helen
      November 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      Hey Beatrice,

      Yes for sure, there were in LA too. We saw a naked guy on the street. At the time I thought he was just enjoying the ‘it’s ok to go naked law’ but in retrospect… Homelessness is such a sad thing.


    • Alexandra Bellink
      April 25, 2017 at 9:01 am

      Super late response here, but SF is actually known for it’s homeless population. Supposedly other cities send their homeless to us :/

  • Lance | Trips By Lance
    November 12, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    What an unbelievably extensive list. I’m very impressed with it. It’s been five years since I’ve been to San Francisco. Next visit I’d like to bike the bridge. I didn’t know that was possible.

    • Helen
      November 12, 2013 at 11:42 pm

      Thanks for your comment Lance! Biking the bridge was brilliant. But wrap up warm! Hope you get to go back soon! 🙂

  • Tracy
    November 13, 2013 at 4:06 am

    Great list! We did many of the things you suggest on our trip to San Francisco a few years ago. Loved riding the trolley cars, Golden Gate Bridge & the liveliness of Fisherman’s Wharf. We also saw some great theatre while we there!

    • Helen
      November 13, 2013 at 9:20 am

      Thanks Tracy! Oh I would have loved to see some theatre! Or an opera like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman! 🙂

  • Bionic Sisters Productions
    November 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Fantastic post! We love it, we would like your permission(s) to share it to our facebookpage(s)

    Let us know

    Team at Bionic Sisters Productions

    • Helen
      November 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm

      Happy for you to share if you are happy to link back to my original post!



  • Hotel Construction Loan
    November 14, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    San Francisco is really a beautiful place to live and stop for vacation, I would like to move my office downtown SF one day 🙂

    • Helen
      November 14, 2013 at 11:38 pm

      Yes it is a great place! 🙂

  • Alena
    November 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    You did almost everything I recommend on my San Francisco travel itinerary! It seems that great travel minds think alike 🙂 Cheers!

    • Helen
      November 20, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      They sure do! These were all my fave things… I’m just surprised we packed so much in, in such a short time! I need to try some of the restaurants you recommended! 🙂

  • elaine schoch
    January 15, 2014 at 3:30 am

    I love San Francisco and you photos are great! I didn’t realize how the cable car was created, love that tidbit of history.

    • Helen
      January 15, 2014 at 4:07 pm

      Hi Elaine,

      It was actually 5 horses in the accident. They were killed when one of them lost their footing, causing them to be dragged down the slope. Very sad! Andrew witnessed the whole thing and then invented the cable car system.

  • Kayleigh
    May 13, 2015 at 10:51 am

    I’m travelling to California later in the year and your blog has given me so many tips/ideas/hints for things to do. I’ll be doing part of the drive that you did too and it’s been great to read someone else’s take on it, and helped me to make plans.
    Brilliant writing and the pictures are great too!
    Thanks for your advice!

    • Helen
      May 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Thanks for the lovely comment Kayleigh! You’ll have a great time, one of my favourite ever trips! There are some things I’d do differently, but only minor changes, and I guess you don’t know until you go! 🙂 Enjoy your trip!!! x

    • Helen
      May 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Thanks for the lovely comment Kayleigh! You’ll have a great time, one of my favourite ever trips! There are some things I’d do differently, but only minor changes, and I guess you don’t know until you go! 🙂 Enjoy your trip!!! x

  • Jayde
    June 16, 2015 at 2:45 am


    Just wondering what area you stayed in whilst in San Fran? Reading too many reviews about different areas, transport, safety etc etc – making it difficult to choose, haha.


    • Helen
      June 16, 2015 at 6:42 pm

      Hi Jade,

      We stayed in a Short Stay Apartment, 850 Fell Street, Alamo Square, San Francisco This was a nice area, it wasn’t central, but it was fine. The only problem, was getting a taxi. In the day it was fine, but going out at night we usually had to walk for a bit, but there is loads around so it never felt too secluded.

      I really liked the Mission District, and if I went again, that’s where I’d stay. That’s where my favourite bars were. But if you get taxi back at night to wherever you are staying it should be fine! 🙂 I felt pretty safe in San Francisco.

      Hope that helps!


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