San Francisco Tours bring you to iconic attractions, jubilant street festivals and cultural marvels—all with that extra city by the bay twist! With so much to see and experience, this wondrous city can feel overwhelming. But you gotta start somewhere! Here are ten activities that will blow your mind—but not your budget!
Must-See Sites in San Francisco
Family-approved fun with kids (or those friends and family that still act like children!)
The historic waterfront at PIER 39 is not-to-be-missed, and this is one stop on the Pier you want to make, especially if you have the kiddos along. The Aquarium is home to more than 20,000 marine animals—we’re talking sharks and rays, octopuses, hypnotic jellyfish, frolicking river otters—and so much more. It’s easy to see why the Aquarium of the Bay has dazzled nearly half a million visitors for two decades. Insider tip: Go upstairs above the tank to get up closer to these fantastic creatures, touch them with your bare hands in tide pools, and even feed the sharks!
This towering column rising from the top of Telegraph Hill has been a fixture of our San Francisco skyline since 1933. Take the elevator (tickets can be purchased in the gift shop) to the top of the observation deck and capture stunning 360-degree views of the city and bay—including the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. It’s the perfect vantage point to take it all in! The story of the tower’s donor Lillie Hitchcock Coit is fascinating—Google it!
The lore of Alcatraz inspired movies like “The Rock” with Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage and “Murder in the First” with Kevin Bacon, because of its fascinating history as an inescapable prison isolated on an unforgiving island.
Federal agents imprisoned Chicago’s notorious mobster Al Capone at Alcatraz so he couldn’t orchestrate a jailbreak. Interesting fact: The ruthless Capone became the banjo player in Alcatraz’s prison band, the Rock Islanders.
Insider’s Tip: There’s a small group tour (30 people or less) where a ranger leads an adventure to explore clues to the Island’s fascinating past… the stuff you don’t see on the regular tours. You’ll discover secret tunnels, underground jails, and blooming gardens with stunning views. If you enjoy little-known stories, artifacts, and hidden doorways—this is the Alcatraz tour for you. Get your tickets here: Alcatraz Island: An Inescapable Experience.
You can ride the world’s very last manually operated cable car through the scenic neighborhoods of San Francisco and “half-way to the stars!” (the signature song of Tony Bennett). There are three lines that cover different parts of the city. The Powell-Hyde line is a good one for visitors, it runs from the corner of Powell and Market Streets to the end of Hyde at the waterfront (near Ghirardelli Square)—and hits a bunch of hot spots along the way.
Love to walk? Try taking it from Union Square to the top of Lombard Street, hop off there and walk down the famous “crooked” street, then head a few blocks to the waterfront.
Shopping more your bag? (pun intended) The Powell-Hyde line passes San Francisco’s premier shopping destination: Union Square.
Into museums? There’s a cable car museum, and a Powell-Hyde cable car will get you there (Washington at Mason).
All this adventure worked up a monster appetite? Ghirardelli Square has delicious eats. Speaking of grub, get off at California or Sacramento and walk two blocks to Grant and you will find yourself in an enchanting world of exotic sights and tantalizing tastes… it’s #5 on our list.
As you enter the ornate Chinatown Gate, you are in the world’s biggest Chinatown outside of Asia. Chinatown is its own world within the city. The street signs are written in both English and Chinese, the streetlights are supported by golden dragons, and red lanterns create a matrix hanging above the streets below.
Authentic cuisine (go for the dim-sum…the best!) line Washington street between Grant and Kearny. You will notice women playing mahjong and men playing Chinese chess in the park and tons of shops with affordable souvenirs. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley) is a treat that doesn’t cost… you guessed it, a fortune! For a few dollars, you can buy fresh fortune cookies and tour a unique factory unlike any you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
Getting Fun, Festive, and Freaky in San Francisco
Festivals, Street Fairs, and Adult Entertainment
The end of May is time to shake your tail feathers at Carnaval! The Mission District sizzles with samba, salsa and more during Carnaval San Francisco’s hot parade and street fiesta on Memorial Day weekend.
This annual tradition is muy caliente! Floats decorated with colorful multicultural themes cruise by, hundreds of Brazilian performers dance through the streets in fabulous feathered headdresses and swirling Bahia skirts, and Caribbean musicians and dancers of the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad all come out in full regalia and celebration.
Mexican Aztec performers, traditional African drummers, Polynesian dancers, Japanese drummers, giant puppets and folkloric groups representing Guatemala, Honduras and Bolivia all participate in the festival that is the biggest dance party in the city!
The largest free Jazz Festival on the West Coast happens every year in San Francisco’s lively Fillmore neighborhood. More than 100,000 visitors fill the streets over Independence Day weekend on Fillmore Street between Jackson and Eddy Streets to get down and get funky!
Live music rocks multiple stages from dusk until dawn. Twelve blocks of art, crafts, delicious eats and overflowing drinks make this sprawling music and art block party one that locals look forward to every year and that makes visitors want to keep coming back.
The summer of 1967 is known as the Summer of Love when 100,000 people communed in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to kickstart the Hippie Revolution. San Francisco soon became the mecca of hippie subculture. Insider’s Fact: They were inspired by an earlier San Francisco-based cultural movement, the Beat Generation of authors of the 1950s who had flourished in the North Beach area.
Long after the Summer of Love has given way to Silicon Valley’s digital age, Haight Ashbury remains a vibrant, counter-cultural hub reminiscent of the days of peace, free love, flowers and psychedelic trips.
Insider’s fact: Our San Francisco City Insider’s small bus tour shows you the two houses, still standing today, where the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and the Grateful Dead lived right across the street from one another in the Haight-Ashbury. Rock ‘n roll is still bringing people together in Haight Ashbury!
Every Thursday Night from 6:00–10:00 p.m., the famous interactive museum goes dark… and the adult fun begins. The Exploratorium’s After Dark Thursday Nights Series turns this usually family-friendly museum into a setting for a different type of discovery.
A pitch-black dome, a fog bridge, a large-scale kaleidoscope, dazzling light displays, and mind-bending mirrors or some of the fun, hands-on, exhibits you can enjoy after the kids go home and the drinks start flowing. Adults-only programming with unique guest speakers, great music, specialty films, and one-of-a-kind activities make this series a mind-blowing experience you and your friends will talk about for years after!
Are you searching for a night-time adventure? The Speak Easy is an immersive, interactive show that puts you at the center of a 1920’s roaring good-time. After giving the secret password, you leave the present behind and enter an Illicit Bar, Crooked Casino, and Vaudeville Cabaret right out of an old movie.
A cast of 35 characters leads you on a “choose your own adventure” into the Prohibition Era. Song and dance, comedy and drama, casino-style gaming, and of course, cocktails are some of the many surprises you encounter as you explore the secret passages and hidden rooms of The Palace Theater.
Find drama in the bar, sexy spectacle in the cabaret, riotous comedy in the casino… and a few more surprises that we could tell you… but then we’d have to kill you (haha). Let’s just say, SF Magazine called The Speak Easy “A Voyeur’s Playland” for good reason!
But Wait… There’s More!
Coming back for a return trip? There are San Francisco bus tours that can take you to nearby Northern California destinations that will have you California dreaming long after your return home! Monterey and Carmel, Yosemite National Park, Wine Country and Sausalito. We got you covered on the essential beyond the city tours in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned… the fun is just starting!