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25 Unique Things to Do in San Francisco (2024)

Stopping to lean against the bridge’s rust orange railings, we feel the vibrations of hundreds of cars thundering by.

We’re bicycling across San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge.

The sharp wind blows strong at this height, and the cold fog claws its way across the dry hilltops opposite like a living beast. Far far below, seemingly tiny sailboats skim across the choppy water.

But then – when we roll down into the quaint seaside town of Sausalito – the wind dies down, the sun shines warm and we sit outside with cappuccinos by the bay.

When it comes to cool, quirky and unique things to do in San Francisco, this activity tops our list. (Not for those with a fear of heights, though!)

Bicycling over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
Bicycling across the Golden Gate Bridge tops our list of uniquely San Francisco experiences!

Perhaps you’ll be spending a weekend in the city? Or maybe you’ll be visiting SF as part of a Northern California road trip?

Naturally, you’ll be wondering what to do in San Francisco.

If you’ve got your eye on some non-touristy things to do in San Francisco, we’ve got you covered.

After spending some time in this one-of-a-kind city, we’ve sussed out some awesome experiences and unique San Francisco activities to keep you happily busy – be it for a day in San Francisco or a longer visit.

Unique sculpture of legs in fishnet stockings in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco
Wander the Haight-Ashbury district, and you’ll come across this unique sculpture of a pair of legs in fishnet stockings

Unique things to do in San Francisco

Tied in to high-tech haven Silicon Valley, yet steeped in the 1960s hippie movement and also home to a collection of international cultures, this green forward-thinking city packs a progressive punch in all things culture, food and fun.

You’ll find skyscrapers and historic wooden buildings, an 18th-century church and award-winning modern museums – all making for a cocktail of old-meets-new that never fails to entice.

Wonderful hip boutique hotels in San Francisco also beckon you to stay. (This time, we’ve swapped out boutique for ritzy at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco.)

Okay, let’s unpack it!

1) Fall for a San Francisco love tour

Fall in love with San Francisco on a hippie love tour.
Fall in love with San Francisco on a hippie love tour

First things first. You’ll want to get a handle on San Francisco.

It’s a huge city, so a good way to kick things off is by getting the lay of the land on a sightseeing tour.

Scattered throughout the bayside metropolis are many interesting spots deeply connected to the counterculture of the 1960s.

Noted for its singers, poets, artists and alternative thinkers, San Francisco has always attracted an interesting crowd. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin used to call this city home.

Cannabis store in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district
Yes, you’ll come across cannabis stores in SF’s Haight-Ashbury district

With all this hippie heritage in mind, there’s no better way to see the sights and sounds of the city than in a colorful 1970s VW van on a San Francisco Love Tour.

This flower power-infused tour takes you from Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach and other spots.

Starting in Haight-Ashbury – the center of the hippie movement – this tour is a fun way to see a whole host of unique places in San Francisco!

2) See the iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Bicycling across the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the best things to do in San Francisco!

Speaking of unique and cool places, is there any structure more uniquely San Francisco than the Golden Gate Bridge?

Fun fact: The name “Golden Gate” also refers to the one-mile-wide strait of water that separates San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean.

The bridge crossing the Golden Gate strait opened in 1937 as the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world (at the time).

Now, more than 80 years later, the bridge is an icon of the city, firmly on the list of must-see places in San Francisco. And there are plenty of ways to see it!

Looking up at the Golden Gate Bridge
It’s one impressive bridge!

You can marvel at it from afar. Or you can cycle across, walk across or take a bus across it.

You can even get a bird’s eye view of the bridge from a seaplane!

The seaplane is a super popular way to see this awe-inspiring bridge.

You’ll take to the skies and cruise in the air over the city skyline, flying over Angel Island, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and – of course – the bridge itself.

Don’t like heights?

Then you could take in the Golden Gate Bridge from the water.

This catamaran cruise by Adventure Cat Sailing Charters, for example, allows you to see the bridge in all its glory up close and personal.

Since SF is often windy, don’t expect a gentle sightseeing granny cruise.

Catamaran cruise in San Francisco Bay
With the wind whipping our hair, our SF catamaran cruise was a true sailing experience!

We were under sail 90% of the time, blasting through white caps on the bay. It was exhilarating and gave us a real feel for being out on the unprotected Pacific.

There’s also the chance to do this boat tour at night, meaning you get city lights as part of the bargain, too.

But no matter how you soak up the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll be amazed by this remarkable engineering feat.

3) Pedal over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito

North of San Francisco proper, Sausalito is a laid-back enclave nestled in Richardson Bay.

Sausalito - pretty as a picture!
Sausalito – pretty as a picture!

A city all of its own, this undeniably charming spot is famed partly for its scenery (note the rainbow hues of houseboats in its harbor) and partly for being uber affluent.

Here, you’ll find upscale boutiques and high-end housing, of course. But there are also magnificent views to be had.

Getting to Sausalito is as easy as hopping on a bicycle and pedaling over the Golden Gate Bridge – as we’ve already mentioned.

Better yet is bicycling over the bridge with a guide.

Starting at Golden Gate Park, you’ll be led across the bridge, talked through the sights and sounds of Sausalito, and finish up with a hearty lunch.

Then you have free time before taking the ferry back.

Bicyclists stop at the Palace of Fine Arts on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge
We stopped at the Palace of Fine Arts on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge

This one is definitely tops on our list of cool things to do in San Francisco.

That’s why it’s also in the intro of this “unique San Francisco” post!

4) Climb hidden stairways

Colorful tiled Lincoln Park Steps in San Francisco
We climbed up a lot of steps in San Francisco!

When you’re on the hunt for unique things to do in San Francisco, get ready to climb stairways. Really!

There are countless steps, stairs and staircases winding their way up and down this hill-punctuated city (close to 200 public staircases, in fact). Many are beautifully adorned with colorful mosaic tiles.

Take the Hidden Garden Steps.

These 148 steps climb up 16th Avenue in the Inner Sunset district and feature mosaic designs of flowers, butterflies, bees, plants and dragonflies in a garden.

They’re just a couple of blocks away from the famous 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, but if you don’t know about them, you could easily miss them.

Many people do. (Their mosaic pattern is only visible when you climb the steps.)

16th Avenue tiled steps in San Francisco
There are many tiled staircases in SF; the most well-known is probably the famous 16th Avenue tiled steps

The best way to see the various mosaic staircases (or even find them in the first place) is by joining a San Fran local on a tour of the city’s hidden stairways.

There are so many things going for this tour.

You get to see hidden gems in San Francisco and off-the-beaten track parts of the city, soak up city views and admire pretty mosaics.

And you get to learn about the history of the city from your guide – along with the stories behind the stairways, of course.

5) Listen to the sounds of the sea at the Wave Organ

The unique Wave Organ in San Francisco
You can hear the music of the sea at this unique Wave Organ

Just a stone’s throw from Golden Gate Park, along a nondescript spit of land jutting into the Bay, is the Wave Organ.

Equal parts unassuming and mesmerizing, this public piece of art was developed by Peter Richards and sculptor George Gonzalez and unveiled in 1986.

Inspired by field recordings of waves hitting a concrete drain in Sydney, Australia, the Wave Organ features 25 PVC pipes carefully laid out at different elevations to harness the power (i.e. sound) of the sea itself.

The result is a series of bubbling and gurgling twangs and echoes as the water sloshes about at high tide.

There are benches to sit and listen to this natural music.

Maybe enjoy petting a dog or two while there. (SF is one of the most dog-friendly cities in the U.S., so you’ll likely meet all sorts of pups and pooches when you’re walking around.)

Whatever, taking a seat and watching the world go by to this intriguing soundtrack is right up there with other quirky things to do in San Francisco.

6) Cruise down Lombard Street

Lombard Street
Lombard Street

Meet Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world!

This is probably the most famous street in the whole city – and another one of the most unique places to see in San Francisco.

It’s notorious for its steep gradient, scenic shrubbery lining its eight hairpin turns and red-brick pavement.

Lined on either side with historic homes, it’s no wonder that Lombard Street (aka “Crooked Street”) has become an attraction in itself.

It draws visitors from around the world for photo opps and to cruise down the curving road themselves.

You could take it up a notch and hit Lombard Street on two side-by-side wheels – namely on a Segway.

This Segway tour is certainly one of the more unique activities in San Francisco.

It sees you freewheeling around the Russian Hill district, down Lombard Street and along the waterfront for (almost) three hours of riding joy.

7) Ride the historic San Fran cable cars

San Francisco cable car on a hilly street
When in San Francisco, you must jump on one of the cable cars!

We’ve mentioned sightseeing in San Francisco by way of a cool VW love van (see #1).

Another unique way to see the city is by jumping on one of its storied cable cars.

There aren’t too many cities in the world that still have vintage cable cars!

Beginning operation way back in 1878, the cable car network of this coastal city has been ferrying passengers up and down its hills for generations.

Today, it’s one of the last manually operated cable car systems in the entire world.

Sadly, however, only three of the original 23 cable car lines are still in use.

The Powell-Mason Line has its terminus just south of Fisherman’s Wharf, close to Pier 39. It’s been in operation since 1888.

Then there’s the Powell-Hyde Line.

It takes on steep hilly portions of the city, offering up sweeping views of Alcatraz Island.

There are multiple popular stop-offs along its route, including Lombard Street, the San Francisco Maritime Museum and Ghirardelli Square.

San Francisco Hyde Street cable car with Alcatraz Island in the distance
Can you see Alcatraz Island behind the cable car?

The third, the California Street Line, runs along its namesake street towards Market Street.

One of the best things about hopping on a cable car is that you get a double helping of culture here: The vintage cars themselves plus the chance to sit back and sightsee as you travel from A to B.

Riding them is one of the unique experiences in San Francisco you won’t want to miss.

8) Soak up the greenery at San Francisco Botanical Garden

San Francisco Botanical Garden
San Francisco Botanical Garden

If you’re a flora fan (that’s us!), cool places to visit in San Francisco don’t get much cooler than the city’s botanical garden.

Covering 55 acres, these lush beautiful gardens opened in 1940 as a place to showcase plants from around the world.

Today a whole spectrum of environments and their native species are represented at San Francisco Botanical Garden, from savannah to cloud forest.

The botanical garden is a joy to visit year-round

There are approximately 9,000 different types of plants, with a particular focus on various species of magnolia, palm trees and conifers.

In fact, the rare Asian magnolias that bloom in the winter months are one of the main draws to the year-round Garden of Fragrance. Interestingly, this garden has been specifically designed for visitors with visual impairments.

Also make sure to check out the section planted with native Californian plants. It bursts into life in early spring with a blanket of wildflowers.

If you’re visiting in July, you’ll be in luck too. A handful of pianos are scattered around the gardens during this month, available for visitors (and professionals) to play.

9) Nosh on munchies in the Mission District

With lots of colorful murals, the Mission District is one of SF's coolest hoods!
The Mission District is one of SF’s coolest hoods!

As you’ve probably figured out by now, there are many fun neighborhoods in the city.

One of the most fun and interesting places in San Francisco is the Mission District.

Taking its name from the 1776 Mission Dolores Basilica (the oldest surviving building in the city), this neighborhood has its roots in the Latin American community.

But it’s also a cultural hub for a variety of San Francisco’s communities, and is famed for its music, art and historic buildings. Oh, and food.

While many of the best restaurants in San Francisco are high-end with price tags to match, the Mission District and its down-home eateries and food trucks serve up plates worthy of Michelin recognition – but at a fraction of the cost.

Taking a walking tour of the district’s gastronomic hotspots counts among our favorite unique San Francisco experiences.

Not only do you get to dig into some mouth-watering morsels, but you also experience the eclectic culture in this corner of the city.

Spoiler alert: There are a lot of eateries in Mission. But your guide will steer you to some of the best places to taste everything from ice cream to samosas.

Once you’re done, Dolores Park is the perfect spot to kick back and digest.

10) Explore Alcatraz Island

The small island of Alcatraz is home to the former infamous federal prison.
The small island of Alcatraz is home to the former infamous federal prison

Old prisons aren’t your usual tourist attractions. Alcatraz is one exception.

Possibly the most famous federal prison in the United States, Alcatraz Island is a National Historic Landmark that is an absolute must do in San Francisco.

Beginning life as a small island with a lighthouse atop it, Alcatraz was fortified and made into a military prison in 1934, before becoming a famed high-security penitentiary.

The island, located 1.25 miles off the coast of the city, is surrounded by strong currents and cold temperatures, making escape nigh on impossible – a fact that made the island prison notorious.

Today, the prison is all but abandoned (it closed in 1963). And it’s fascinating to learn about its history and some of the infamous criminals (like Al Capone) who were incarcerated here.

The prison of Alcatraz today
The prison of Alcatraz today

Tours of Alcatraz are readily available.

This small-group city sightseeing and Alcatraz tour takes you around SF in an open-air safari jeep.

Then you take the ferry to Alcatraz Island for a self-guided audio walking tour of the former penitentiary, including old cells and the warden’s house.

Or you might like this quickie Alcatraz express visit. It combines a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, allowing you time to take photos of the bridge.

11) Check out the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is full of unusual pieces of art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is full of unusual pieces of art

San Francisco has long been known for its creativity and connection to the arts. It should come as no surprise, then, that its Museum of Modern Art is all kinds of awesome!

This contemporary art museum opened its doors in 1935, making it the first museum of its kind on the entire West Coast.

Housed inside an eye-catching modernist building, the SFMOMA (as it’s called) spans seven floors showcasing photography, paintings, film and sculpture.

It’s an enormous place that you can spend many hours exploring, with several different audio tours that immerse you in the art space.

A collection of old typewriters inside the SFMOMA
A collection of old typewriters inside the SFMOMA

You’ll find lithographs from pop art purveyor Andy Warhol, a sculpture of a woman shaving her legs by George Segal, intriguing pieces from 1960s Germany, an amazing living green wall with 19,000 plants, object art by the likes of Richard Serra and much more.

In short, you’ll find thousands of weird, wonderful and unique things to see in San Francisco all under one roof.

12) See famous silver screen locations

San Francisco may not be Los Angeles in terms of movie-making heft. But it still features in a long list of film credits!

Any movie buff worth their salt should carve out some time to find portions of the city that have appeared in a ton of blockbusters over the decades.

One of the best ways to track down these iconic filming locations is by joining a tour.

Actors-turned-guides lead you around on this fun SF movie sights tour, hitting dozens of cool spots in San Francisco on a three-hour odyssey.

You’ll be shown clips from famous films along the way, allowing you to have the locations fresh in your mind as you’re whisked around.

Locations include the family house in Mrs. Doubtfire, the school that Anne Hathaway’s character attended in The Princess Diaries and the building used for Interview with a Vampire.

13) Get your (urban) hike on

View of San Francisco from Twin Peaks
Take a hike up Twin Peaks for great views of the city

Here’s another unique way to experience San Francisco – one with a particularly local feel. Go on an urban hike.

We think we pretty well walked and hiked all around the whole city on our last visit! (At least, that’s what our aching feet told us.)

With its steep hills, quaint residential streets and coastal vistas, the city boasts a wealth of hidden spots to appreciate the heritage architecture and natural landscapes.

Many of these hidden San Francisco sights and viewpoints are secreted away from the regular tourist spots.

To access these off-the-beaten-track places, you’ll want a local to show you the way.

Local guides who love their city lead this Castro and Twin Peaks urban hike, for example.

Starting at the landmark Castro Theater, you’ll head up to the heady heights of Twin Peaks and Tank Hill for some of the best views of San Francisco.

Along the way, you’ll see the Seward Street Slides (steep concrete children’s slides in a public park), the Kite Hill Open Space and the nearly 900-foot Sutro Tower, which is the tallest point in the city.

San Francisco's Castro Theater opened in 1922.
The Castro Theater opened in 1922

Or maybe you’d be interested in the inspirational Castro LGBTQ walking tour?

This easy walking tour takes you through the world’s largest LGBTQ community, the Castro.

When you’ve already seen the big-hitter tourist sights, urban hiking and walking tours like these are great for showing you something a little different.

14) See the Mission murals (and then some) on an electric bike tour

Mural of a dinosaur in the Mission District
Take a gander at this mural in the Mission District!

For a comprehensive way to really cover some ground in a short space of time, an electric bicycle (aka an e-bike) can’t be beat. And trust us – you’ll want a bicycle with some power-assist once you’ve seen those hills.

It’s easy enough to rent your own e-bike in San Francisco and do it solo.

But we think a better way is to go with a guide who has a wealth of knowledge about the city.

One such bicycle tour takes in eight districts of San Francisco over four hours, giving you a certifiable crash course in what makes the city tick.

You’ll take in some of the best San Francisco highlights, including Barbary Coast (known for its old-school supper clubs) and Oracle Park (home ground of the San Francisco Giants).

You’ll also pass through Mission (with its vibrant pops of rainbow-hued street art) and counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

And you’ll learn about Polk Gulch, the city’s original LGBTQ+ ‘hood.

The hippie area of Haight-Ashbury
The hippie area of Haight-Ashbury

The whole tour winds up at Fisherman’s Wharf, a popular place for clam chowder, crab and views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

15) Walk (and eat) your way around Chinatown

For unique places to visit in San Francisco with a great Asian food scene, look no further than Chinatown.

San Francisco's Chinatown
Love Asian food? Hit up San Francisco’s Chinatown

The oldest and largest in North America, San Francisco’s Chinatown hosts the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.

Established in 1848, the district is replete with architecture and even eateries with their origins in the late 1800s.

Despite many difficulties over the years, the Chinese community here has stayed strong and continues to be an important part of San Francisco’s cultural landscape.

The district and its food are also one of the city’s top tourist attractions, with a slew of famed dining options and authentic eats to try out.

Some of its hallowed haunts count among the best places to eat in San Francisco.

Barbecued ducks for sale in a Chinatown window
Barbecued ducks for sale in a Chinatown window

One of its foodie attractions is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

Established in 1962, this purveyor of fortune cookies offers various flavors and toppings. There’s even a factory tour available of this storied venue.

By far one of the best ways to experience Chinatown is by embarking on a food-focused walking tour of Chinatown. Your stomach will thank you.

16) Discover eats from the old country in North Beach and Little Italy

North Beach is the place to go for Italian food in San Francisco

Still not satisfied? There are more food options on offer in San Francisco.

And if it’s Italian food you’re looking for, mosey on down to North Beach and Little Italy.

Just next door to Chinatown, this historic home of the city’s Italian population is one of the must-visit places in San Francisco to sate a big appetite.

Here, you’ll find generations-old, family-run trattorias (complete with red-and-white checkered tablecloths), local specialty shops for everything from fresh meat to olive oil and pastries plus the chance to re-fuel with a strong espresso.

And, you guessed it, a walking food tour of Little Italy is a great way to do it justice.

Some of the most famous eateries to hunt down in this portion of San Fran include Original Joe’s  (going strong for over a hundred years), Cafe Zoetrope and Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.

Pizza at Tony's Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco
Now, this is a pizza! (Credit: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana)

North Beach also has plenty of other interesting cultural attractions that showcase both the city’s Italian heritage and California’s history in general. (It doesn’t have a beach though.)

Discover the gleaming Saints Peter and Paul Church (built in 1924), charming wooden residences, intriguing boutique shops along Grant Avenue and an endless list of entertainment options along Broadway.

17) Make a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore

The City Lights Bookstore is a landmark independent bookstore.
The City Lights Bookstore is a landmark independent bookstore – and one of the best places to go in SF for literary fans

North Beach is also the location of the City Lights Bookstore.

If you know, you know: This is a veritable stronghold of Beat Generation heritage.

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this publisher-cum-independent bookstore quickly became a hotspot for thinkers, writers of the Beat Generation and other creative types.

Unofficially one of the more unique San Francisco sights in the city, the bookstore has published a wide range of poetry and prose over the years from avant-garde authors like Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles and Allen Ginsburg.

Step through the doors and into a world of publishing history – nay, legend – across three floors of crammed-together bookshelves, with a whole room dedicated to poetry.

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
George at the City Lights Bookstore

When George saw the “books” sign in the neighborhood, he quickly made a beeline for this store.

He could have spent hours browsing inside – only the promise of a cappuccino could entice him to leave.

18) Escape the city at Muir Woods National Monument

Not all of the unique or non-touristy things to do in San Francisco are urban.

Some of them are set firmly away from the cityscape, allowing for a breath of fresh air and some peace and quiet to take stock.

So when the city feels like it’s getting a bit too much for you, maybe it’s time to head into nature.

Redwood forest at Muir Woods
Redwood forest at Muir Woods

One of the most remarkable swathes of green space close to San Francisco is Muir Woods National Monument.

It’s a mere stone’s throw (well, actually around a 30-minute drive) from the city center.

The 554-acre Muir Woods makes up part of the wider Golden Gate National Recreation Area (which spans more than 60 miles of coastal area north and south of SF).

Taking its name from John Muir – the “father” of national parks in the U.S. – Muir Woods is a slice of primeval forest that’s been federally protected by the National Parks Service since 1908.

Within the old growth coastal redwood forest, paths weave through a damp environment that’s constantly enveloped in sea fog.

San Fran is famous for this fog. But it’s integral to the growth of these trees.

There are some easy hiking trails to enjoy here. You can also step out on some more challenging routes if you’d like a more grueling trek.

It’s easy to make a day of it, too, thanks not only to its proximity to SF but also the picnic areas that dot this ancient forest.

Or check out this top-rated small group tour combining a visit to Muir Woods with Sausalito.

19) Pay a visit to California Academy of Sciences

The amazing California Academy of Sciences
The amazing California Academy of Sciences

Oooh, how to get your science on!

This natural history museum is one of the largest in the world, not just in Northern California or the U.S.

Home to over 46 million specimens, the California Academy of Sciences has been playing an important role in research of the natural world since 1853. (That’s just three years after California joined the United States.)

Located at the center of Golden Gate Park, the contemporary (and award-winning) museum building is a wonderland to explore – from its multi-level rainforest to its planetarium and aquarium.

Big kids (and small) all love the California Academy of Sciences
Big kids (and small) all love the California Academy of Sciences

There are even animals here, penguins and alligators to name a couple – giving you a real glimpse into the natural world and the part played by San Francisco’s universities and academics in studying it.

Don’t forget to check out the interactive exhibits at this natural history museum.

One of the most unique is the earthquake simulator. But there are others, like the eel garden and fog room.

This really is one of the coolest places in San Francisco!

There’s something for all ages here, however it’s a particularly good spot if you’re traveling with young children. Or if it’s a rainy day.

20) Take a trip to Angel Island

Angel Island is a fun place to visit in SF.
Angel Island is a another fun place to visit in SF

Alcatraz isn’t the only island near San Francisco worth visiting. There’s also Angel Island State Park.

It’s straightforward enough to make your way to the island in the middle of San Francisco Bay – just take the ferry to Angel Island.

The island is a great place to explore not only nature but history.

Over the years, it’s been used for different (and some unusual) purposes – as a military base, a quarantine center for the bubonic plague in the 1890s, an immigration center, an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II and a missile station.

The island became a state park in the late 1950s.

Today, it’s a family-friendly destination for day trips and picnics in secluded coves.

Don’t miss the beautiful views out over the Pacific Ocean and back towards the city.

21) Explore the collection at de Young Museum

De Young Museum, San Francisco
De Young Museum is quite remarkable looking, don’t you think?

Calling all art lovers! Visiting the de Young Museum is arguably one of the best things to do in San Francisco for you.

Another cultural institution in Golden Gate Park, de Young Museum comprises one half of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

It’s the fifth most visited art museum in the U.S. And its many unique spaces house a treasure trove of visual goodies.

Top heavy, and clad with dimpled copper plates, the building alone is worth gawking at.

It’s one of the most unusual-looking buildings – a striking contemporary creation by the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron.

They won the competition to design a replacement for the original building (which opened in 1895 but was then badly damaged in the 1906 SF quake).

Once you’ve arrived and finished admiring (and snapping pictures of) the exterior, prepare yourself to delve into a world of design and aesthetics.

Art inside de Young Museum, San Francisco
Art and sculptures at de Young Museum

The collection at this museum has grown significantly over the years, and today it features an array of art, textiles and photography from the U.S., South and Central America, Africa and Oceania.

The permanent collection will keep you busy for hours.

Some intriguing pieces?

“Three Gems” is an immersive sculpture, where you sit on a bench inside a chamber and look up at the sky through an oculus in the ceiling.

LED lights and changing weather conditions mean that what you see will always be different from how another viewer experiences the sculpture.

“Hovor II” is a huge golden structure of liquor bottle caps.

The American art collection here boasts a selection of over 1,000 works, dating from 1670 to the present day.

All in all, you can easily spend a day at de Young – the bonus being its easy-to-digest layout and gallery text.

22) Taste some Sonoma wine

Sonoma vineyards
Vineyards in Sonoma

Among many other things, California is famous for its wine production.

One of the largest wine-producing regions in the state is Sonoma County.

In fact, grapes were planted here way back in 1812. Thousands of grape vines were planted at Mission San Francisco Solano, which is today the city of Sonoma.

It’s no surprise, then, that wine making remains a crucial aspect of this region.

The Sonoma area produces thousands of tons of grapes per year here, with grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

Wine tasting in Sonoma, California
Wine tasting in Sonoma

While picking up a bottle of Californian red or white is easily done in just about any supermarket in San Francisco, there’s nothing quite like heading to the source to sample some delicious Sonoma wine.

The wine-making region is only around an hour’s drive from the city, making a Sonoma wine tasting day trip from San Francisco very doable.

We loved bicycling around the vineyards, tasting wine at different vineyards along the way.

Driving yourself isn’t the best idea.

Instead, a wine tasting tour is the superior option here – and definitely one of the coolest and most fun things to do in San Francisco for wine aficionados.

This small group tour allows you to sit back and be whisked to the grape vines themselves, where you can spend the day sipping on wine at a selection of boutique Sonoma wineries (complete with a picnic lunch).

23) Immerse yourself in an escape room

The "Prison Break" escape room at The Escape Game San Francisco
The “Prison Break” escape room (Credit: The Escape Game San Francisco)

Okay, an escape room doesn’t exactly scream local things to do in San Francisco.

But it’s a super fun activity if you’re looking for an adventure with some friends. Especially if the weather isn’t looking great outside (and let’s be honest, that is a possibility).

At the San Francisco Escape Game facility in the Union Square area, there are a few different escape room adventures to choose from.

You and your pals could be prospectors in the Old West, looking for a lost stash of gold.

You could be sleuths trying to uncover the mystery of a stolen painting.

Or you could imagine that you’re falsely accused prisoners trying to instigate a jailbreak!

This sort of thing is perfect for an hour of imagination and intrigue – and isn’t that San Francisco all over?

24) Be Zen at the Japanese Tea Garden

The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco
The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco

Still looking for unique things to do in SF?

Well, inside the 1,000-plus-acre Golden Gate Park lies the Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.

It was created in 1894 as a temporary part of the World Fair hosted the same year in the city.

It was then transformed into a permanent fixture of the city by Makoto Hagiwara, who imported Japanese plants and even koi carp to be showcased in the garden.

Constructed by Japanese craftsmen, the buildings here include the tea house, where Japanese tea ceremonies still take place against a backdrop of manicured traditional garden.

There’s also a five-tiered Buddhist pagoda and a taiko-bashi (literally “drum bridge”), a classic portion of any Japanese garden. You’ll also find a karesansui or dry rock garden.

After the hustle and bustle of the city streets, even a moment of calm here is well worth the admission.

25) Marvel at nature in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
It’s possible to visit Yosemite National Park on a day trip from SF

The best tourist attractions in San Francisco are enough to keep you entertained for days, if not weeks (years, even).

But drive three to four hours’ away from the city and you’ll discover yet more fabulous attractions – namely, the incredible natural world of Yosemite National Park.

This storied national park is famous for its ancient towering sequoias, cascading waterfalls and unique sky-scraping gray granite cliffs.

It’s no wonder that it’s one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S., if not the whole of North America.

Spreading over 1,200 square miles, this bastion of nature is the perfect place to get a dose of nature in all its giant glory – the ideal antidote to big city living.

And if you want your outing to go as smooth as possible, opt for a day tour (with some hiking, of course) that’ll pick you up from your city digs, whisk you to the park and show you some of its best bits.

Those highlights include admiring Bridal Veil Falls (with a walk around the falls themselves), a trip to Half Dome and a picnic at the base of Yosemite Falls.

Rising 3,000 feet high, El Capitan is a vertical granite monolith at Yosemite National Park.
Rising 3,000 feet high, El Capitan is a vertical granite monolith at Yosemite National Park

There’s also the chance to see rock climbers at the imposing cliffs of El Capitan and to stop for a photo opportunity at Valley View.

And then there’s the short hike to the 1,500-year-old sequoias, which are truly remarkable.

Now you know lots of unusual, unique and secret things to do in San Francisco!

There are tons of different things to do and discover in San Francisco, whether it’s your first time visiting your or tenth.

Some of these activities are tried and true, but with a unique twist.

So get out there and experience this amazing city your way!

Discover more of the USA!

Hawaii: Which Hawaiian island is best? Maui or Kauai?

New York: The Met Museum is full of fabulous art! If you’re short on time, these are the artworks you must see at the Met.

Best hotels: For a romantic getaway, nothing beats these 25+ USA hotels with private in-room pools!

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!


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Unique things to do in San Francisco

Photo credits: 1, 6, 7, 10 to 13, 36 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Becky Padmore

Wednesday 22nd of October 2014

Love this post, takes me back to our time in San Francisco. We did the same cycle route although it was so windy we almost got blown off our bike!

Charu

Monday 18th of August 2014

I love San Francisco, especially the food tours (ever done the Mission Point or Ferry Building walking tour?)

Janice and George

Monday 18th of August 2014

No, we haven't done the food tours - something for next time :-).

Freya

Saturday 9th of August 2014

Visiting San Francisco was one of my favorite trips all time. We also biked over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, it was an incredible experience so was Alcatraz and pretty much everything we did in San Francisco. Ooh I so miss this city and the delicious seafood.

Frank

Tuesday 5th of August 2014

What a great town! And what an interesting tour you two have taken. Would absolutely love to visit San Francisco in this manner (OK, except that crazy running tour :)). Thanks for sharing!

Corinne

Sunday 3rd of August 2014

Janice, We go to SanFran almost every summer, but we skipped it this year. I haven't thought of biking the bridge. Might have to do that next time around. I do love eating there...so much good food!