For a city that’s less than 50 square miles in size, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of awesome things to see and do in San Francisco. Any basic online search will turn up some of the most popular attractions in the city -- places like Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Ghiradelli Square -- which are all worth a visit, sure, but they come with long lines and big crowds. We've included some of these, but we also wanted to take you just a little farther off the beaten path. Read on for our favorite activities and experiences in San Francisco -- some of which you may not have heard of.
1. Explore what’s inside of Golden Gate Park.
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without exploring Golden Gate Park. Play tennis, rent a boat, or walk through the western end of the park to Buffalo Paddock where wild bison roam. Be sure to visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden (also located in the park), which showcases 8,500 different types of plants from around the world.
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2. Get mechanical at Musée Mécanique.
For a peek into life at the turn of the century, check out the Mechanical Museum, the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and arcade machines. When you’re done peering through history, walk to nearby Gold Dust Lounge in Fisherman’s Wharf and order one of its famous $5 Irish coffees.
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3. Visit Alcatraz.
There’s a reason this is one of the most popular activities when visiting San Francisco. Visiting Alcatraz is equal parts creepy and informative, and you’ll be fascinated to hear some of the stories of what was once one of the most notorious penitentiaries in United States history. Tours include an audio presentation featuring stories from actual officers and prisoners who lived and worked on the island. Make sure to make your reservations well in advance because this attraction fills up quickly. Night tours are particularly cool. Just be sure to wear sneakers!
4. Collect sand dollars at Ocean Beach.
In the early morning, head to Ocean Beach for a nice long walk along the shoreline. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find sand dollars here — the beach is known for producing more than a few, especially at low tide after a good storm. If you can’t find any, don’t fret. You’re still at a really lovely beach, which is always a great way to start the day. As always, use caution when swimming.
5. Grab a delicious ice cream or soda.
If it’s hot outside and you’ve been walking around all day, stop into The Ice Cream Bar for awesome diner food and the best ice cream shakes, both alcoholic and non, in the entire city. The place is newer but a throwback to the days of old — the 1930s when soda fountains were cornerstones of the social scene in many neighborhoods — and it makes its own sodas in several inventive flavors.
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6. Read up at City Lights.
Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and professor Peter D. Martin, City Lights is one of the oldest and most widely recognized independent bookstores in the country. It is particularly famous for its role in the beat poetry scene, and for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as part of its Pocket Poets Series. It’s a literary landmark, and like most independent bookstores in the United States, it needs your support and patronage. Come by for an afternoon of reading or browsing through their extensive poetry selection.
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7. Balance on the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
In 1894 a developer named Adolph Sutro created the city’s first public bath house, a spot along the rocks that was the epitome of glamour and excitement, with slides, trapezes, springboards, and a high dive. Over the years however, excitement waned. Pools that once held 10,000 patrons at a time became nearly empty during the Great Depression, and the baths no longer became profitable. These days, the concrete remains of the structures are all that’s left, and they make for great photos and views at sunset.
8. Wander through Clarion Alley for graffiti.
Yes, it’s popular, and no, you won’t be alone. But you should still go! Clarion Alley is a grassroots local organization that gives artists and muralists a space to create art. It’s located between Mission and Valencia and 17th and 18th. The artwork changes continually, so you’ll probably never see the same thing twice.
9. Hit happy hour at Tonga Room.
When it comes to tiki bars, there are few more famous or iconic than Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar. Built in 1945, this swanky staple features an indoor pool that makes you feel like you’re on an island. A band often performs on a barge within the pool. Tonga Room is located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel, and you have to book at least a few weeks in advance to have dinner here. Your best chance at experiencing this classic is during happy hour, which doesn’t require reservations. (That’s Wednesday to Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Sunday 8 p.m. to close.)
10. Visit the Disney Museum in Presidio.
For Disney fans, don’t miss the chance to learn more about the legacy of Walt Disney and his family in this museum within the Presidio district of San Francisco. Exhibits focus largely on the animator and his career up to launching Disneyland. Though informative, this museum is probably best for adults or older children, as there is quite a bit of reading throughout.
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