Top 10 Things to Do San Francisco

A guide to ten of the best tourist attractions in San Francisco.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This is one of the great collections of international modern art, housed since 1994 in an innovative building designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, with its towering central skylight. The collection has work by most of the leading names of 20th-century art, including Matisse, Magritte, Paul Klee, Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keefe and Mark Rothko. Photography includes work by many of the great American practitioners, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Anselm Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange.

Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum

Built in grand neo-classical style in the 1920s, this museum in Lincoln Park contains a notable collection of European art, with work by Fra Angelico, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco, Tiepolo, David, Monet, Degas, Rodin (70 statues, including 'The Thinker'), and so on. It also has excellent collections of works on paper, porcelain, furniture, illustrated books, and art of the ancient world (Egyptian, Greek, Roman etc).

Asian Art Museum

This supreme collection is said to be the largest outside Asia itself, with 14,000 objects made in more than 40 countries over the past 6000 years. It includes sculpture, pottery, painting, textiles, furniture, jewellery, armour, basketry and puppets. These are beautifully presented in a fine Beaux-Arts-style former library dating from 1917, recently renovated and transformed by Gae Aulenti, the Italian architect responsible for the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Haas-Lilienthal House

Much of the huge late-19th-century wealth of San Francisco was poured into grand houses, but many of these were destroyed in the disastrous earthquake and fire of 1906. A fine survivor is the Haas-Lilienthal House, a Queen Anne-style mansion built in 1886 for the merchant William Haas, and occupied until 1972 by his daughter Alice Lilienthal, who then passed it on to San Francisco Architectural Heritage. Largely intact, with authentic furniture and furnishings, it is now open to the public as a museum, offering an extraordinary insight into another age.

Fisherman's Wharf

This attractive, heavily restored dock-area overlooking San Francisco Bay is a pleasant, easy-going tourist centre, with something for everyone. It has a host of seafood restaurants (noted for Dungeness crab), plus delis, bakeries, a seafood market, shops, and a variety of amusements, concentrated particularly at the Cannery and Pier 19. You can also visit USS Pampanito, a Second World War submarine, and a branch of the chain of museums called 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not!', which includes bizarre things like a Van Gogh self-portrait made of toast, a stuffed two-headed calf, and a shrunken head from Ecuador. (Robert Leroy Ripley (1893-1949) was an illustrator, author, traveller, and splendidly colourful character who became famous for his widely syndicated cartoon strip featuring bizarre facts called 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not!'). Ferries for Alcatraz leave from Pier 41. Just to the west of Fisherman's Wharf is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, with a museum of nautical artefacts and a large collection of historic ships, including the three-masted schooner, the C.A. Thayer. (San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)


The rocky island of Alcatraz (Spanish for 'Pelican Island') in San Francisco Bay served as a top-security prison from 1934 to 1963. It was considered virtually impossible to escape from, although there were fourteen known attempts to do so - including the one possibly successful escape recounted in the 1979 film 'Escape from Alcatraz', starring Clint Eastwood. Famous inmates included the gangster Al Capone, and the killer Robert Stroud, the so-called 'Birdman of Alcatraz'. Alcatraz was also in the news in 1969-71 when it was occupied in protest by members of the Native American Movement. Tours begin with a ferry journey from Fisherman's Wharf. It's a grim, depressing and shocking - but ultimately enthralling - experience.

Lombard Street

San Francisco is a city of hills. Lombard Street, 'the crookest street in the world', rises steeply to the top of Russian Hill in a series of eight hairpin bends lined with hedges and gardens - a famous sight. There are fine views of the city from the summit.

Cable Car Ride

The trams of San Francisco are known as 'cable cars' - for that is what they are: carriages drawn along the street by cables running just below the surface. It is a historic system, dating back to 1873, when it was launched by Andrew Smith Hallidie as a way of providing public transport that did not endanger horses on the city's steep roads. The 'gripman' has the tough job of manipulating the grip handle to grab the cable, to pull the car along. Public support in the 1940s saved the historic cable cars from extinction and three lines have survived. You can ride the cars just like any member of the public, and see how the whole system works at the Cable Car Barn, which serves as the powerhouse and as a museum.


Chinese immigrants played a vital role in the development of California during the Gold Rush era and the late 19th century; they provided much of the labour for building the railways, for instance. In many larger towns and cities they established their own distinct communities. These traditions have been maintained and enhanced in San Francisco's Chinatown, which centres on Grant Avenue. This is now also an attraction for tourists, who come to enjoy the restaurants, visit the temples, and browse the markets and shops for fortune cookies, silk clothes, gems, cooking implements and kites. The Chinese Historical Society of America has a museum in Clay Street that documents the Chinese experience in California.

Golden Gate Bridge and Parks

The Golden Gate was a name coined in the 19th century to describe the entrance to the magnificent natural harbour of San Francisco Bay. It remained an obstacle for land transport until the Golden Gate Bridge was built in the 1930s, a colossal and ambitious engineering project. For more than 20 years it held the record as the world's longest suspension bridge, and for 40 years the familiar orange-red towers holding the cables - often seen rising out of the sea fog - held the record as the world's tallest suspension bridge. It remains a breathtaking sight. At its southern end is a cluster of parks, which includes the Presidio (the old Spanish military base), Lincoln Park (which contains the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum, see above), and the Golden Gate Park. The latter includes numerous attractions, such as a Japanese Tea Garden, a Buffalo Paddock (with live bison); the California Academy of Sciences (a natural history museum, under reconstruction until 2008), and also the eclectic and superb de Young Museum of fine arts, which is especially celebrated for its collection of American paintings (George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and more).

Comments on this article

Margaret Bannion 31 December, 2010

After dark on a clear day - try the central lift in the Westin St Francis Hotel,Union Square.
It is somewhat of a WOW Factor !

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