Things to do in San Francisco

It’s impossible not to have a good time in flamboyant ‘San Fran’

Laid-back, rebellious and with a raucous sense of fun, San Fran may well become your favourite Californian city (sorry LA, you’ll never be quite as cool).

  1. Ride high on Golden Gate Bridge
  2. Befriend the harbour sea lions
  3. Banged up in Alcatraz
  4. Express yourself at San Francisco Pride
  5. Drink in American history
  6. Rattle around in a cable car
  7. Campus life at UC Berkeley
  8. Silver-screen glamour at the Castro Theatre
  9. Join the buzz in Mission District

Free-spirited San Francisco burst into the world’s psyche in the Sixties’ Summer of Love – and it’s retained its bohemian spirit ever since. Extravagant LGBTQ culture, beach bonfires, harbour full of noisy sea lions, and cable-car trams on seemingly vertical streets, create a sense of adventure that’s hard to beat.

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1. Ride high on Golden Gate Bridge

You can’t come to San Francisco without seeing its iconic mile-long suspension bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge (painted orange, actually). Hiring bikes to cycle across this landmark makes for a fun and cheap day out. Cross the Goldie on a weekday morning to avoid the crowds.

Best for: Spamming your friends with photos of this famous sight.

While you're there: Hike up to the Marin Headlands, to see the peaks of the bridge rise from San Fran’s famous fog.

2. Befriend the harbour sea lions

A sure pick for chuckles is the motley crew of barking sea lions that congregate in an unceasing cacophony at Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll find these slippery characters on the floating platforms between piers 39 and 41. Pier 39 has become a lively little amusement park, featuring a carousel, souvenir retailers, street performers and seafood restaurants. Delightfully tacky, this ain’t going to be the most glamorous day of your San Francisco holiday – but you’re sure in for a fun time.

Best for: Recreating that classic ‘90s girl-befriends-sea lion movie, Andre.

While you’re there: Get a taste of the old fisherman trade with a cruise around the bay (from Piers 39, 41 and 43).

3. Banged up in Alcatraz

Imagine trying to escape Alcatraz, when the only way out is swimming 1.25 miles through the frigid, churning grey waters of San Francisco Bay. Several tried… although none exactly made it. The fascinating history at this former maximum security prison makes it one of the best things to do in San Francisco. A ferry leaves every 30 minutes to deliver you to this ominous island, then a compelling audio tour will guide you through the prison’s grim environs.

Best for: An inside look at a renowned piece of U.S. history.

While you’re there: Up the creep-factor on a night tour, which delves into parts of the prison that are normally off limits.

4. Express yourself at San Francisco Pride

Queer culture exuberantly takes over much of the city on a late June weekend, with boisterous parades, outlandish costumes and the colours of the rainbow flag all taking centre stage. You can still get a taste of Pride life at other times. Begin in the Castro district, the heart of San Francisco’s famous gay scene. Here, the GLBT History Museum offers a poignant reminder of just how hard it was to create the successful community outside.

Best for: A riotous time with a powerful message.

While you’re there: Far more fascinating than Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is the Rainbow Walk: bronze sidewalk plaques honouring movers and shakers of the LGBTQ scene.

5. Drink in American history

The diviest of dive bars, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland, just beyond San Fran city, is a real institution and worth the pilgrimage. Built in 1880 from the remains of a whaling ship, it’s since served salty sailors and locals alike. Your list of things to do in San Francisco may be long, but holidays aren’t all about running around ticking off sights. Plus, there’s a little history lesson to be had as you swig your beer – the interior is a montage of America's past, from World War Two to Vietnam.

Best for: A tastefully abrasive atmosphere.

While you’re there: At weekends, the saloon’s location of Jack London Square comes to life with a farmers’ market.

6. Rattle around in a cable car

These glorious old trolleys have rattled their way up and down San Francisco’s steepest grades since 1873. Hopping on a vintage cable car may not be the most economic way to get around ($6 a ride) but it sure is an experience, especially on a hot day when the Californian breeze rushes in through the windows. If you’re set on experiencing hair-raising thrills, the Powell-Hyde line tackles a 21-degree incline between Fisherman’s Wharf and Russian Hill.

Best for: Encountering the most entertaining public transport drivers around.

While you’re there: Get your geek on in the Cable Car Museum, which peels back the curtain on San Francisco’s signature trolleys.

7. Campus life at UC Berkeley

Tour the leafy hillside campus of one of America’s most celebrated universities. Chin-stroking Berkeley is an internationally recognized hive of intellectualism and home to the flagship campus of the University of California. Great for a break from the whirlwind on San Fran city. You can also take the shuttle bus from campus to the 34-acre Botanical Garden in the Berkeley Hills.

Best for: Youthful bohemian spirit.

While you’re there: Ascend the famous white clocktower of campus for 360-degree views of San Francisco Bay.

8. Silver-screen glamour at the Castro Theatre

This 1920s beauty is the city’s grande dame of cinema. The extravagant Castro Theatre brings in devotees from all over the Bay Area for its varied programming and spectacular architecture. It’ll catch your eye as you walk past for its flamboyant stucco and lovely window work – but you should buy a movie ticket to fully enjoy its grandiose interior, with enormous chandeliers and busts of stately figures topping the list of ornamental excesses.

Best for: A film experience with a vintage twist.

While you’re there: It’s famous for its dress-up sing-along nights. No costume? You can always cobble a look together from the thrift shops.

9. Join the buzz in Mission District

A mix of Latino and Anglo cultures make Mission one of the city’s liveliest neighbourhoods. And some say, it’s home to the best burritos and tacos in the USA. When you’re planning what to do in San Francisco, carve out one afternoon here at least. With its diverse heritage, food trucks and street art murals, it’s also become the epicentre for San Francisco hipster culture.

Best for:Margarita time!

While you’re there:Check out the big-scale murals all over the Mission, especially on Balmy Alley.

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