From Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz to Pier 39 and Union Square, San Francisco is home to some of the most iconic sights on the West Coast. And with so many amazing attractions, it comes as no surprise that San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in the US when it comes to tourism. As such, there are some unique things you can find only in San Francisco and nowhere else. This article is all about them! Here are some of the most interesting unique things to do in San Francisco.
The most photographed bridge in the world
Golden Gate is probably the world’s most famous bridge and its iconic orange tower has been a symbol of the city since 1937 and home to one of the most spectacular views on the West Coast. Even when Karl the Fog covers most of San Francisco, the views at the iconic bridge are spectacular with the rooftops of the city’s highest skyscrapers at one side and the giant orange tower of the bridge on the other side.
The bridge is open for cars and bicycles 24/7 and for walkers between 5 AM and 6:30 PM but my suggestion is to take some of the many trekking routes that give an amazing view of the bridge (more about this below).
The Oldest Enclave of Chinese Immigrants (Outside of Asia)
Founded in 1848, San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown is the world’s oldest Chinese enclave outside of Asia. Since its establishment, Chinatown is the biggest foreign enclave in San Francisco and arguably the most influential hub for the culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants not only in the US but in North America too. Today, Chinatown is filled with beautiful historic buildings, alleyways, temples, parks, authentic shops, and is widely accepted as the birthplace of the so-called American-Chinese food like chop suey and fortune cookies. Speaking of the latter, if you’re in the area, don’t miss the chance to check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory that makes close 25,000 fortune cookies every day! If you want to make the most out of your trip to Chinatown, check out this tour that covers the main tourist attractions in the area.
Walk Between 800-Years-Old Redwoods
How many other places in the world are there where you can walk in a forest dotted with redwoods up to 8 centuries old? Visiting Muir Woods is one of the most fun unique things to do in San Francisco. The peaceful, unfrequented trekking routes of Muir Woods are the perfect getaway from the city’s busy streets. You can take a morning tour, a half-day tour, or even combine it with a ferry trip.
Alternatively, if you want to visit independently, you can always rent a car, hire a driver, or take a shuttle bus.
Visit the world’s most notorious prison
As you probably know, Alcatraz was one of the most notorious maximum-security prisons in the world. Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was initially a lighthouse that was turned into a military prison in the second half of the 19th century, and by the end of the millennium, it was home to some of the world’s most notorious criminals. According to some people, a part of the old prison facility is haunted, while others think this is rubbish but one thing is for certain. Seeing something like Alcatraz is a thing you can do only in San Francisco.
The only way to get to Alcatraz today is via ferry.
Have a Unique Encounter With Playful California Sea Lions
Pier 39 in San Francisco is famous for many things but one of the most unique things to do in this part of San Francisco is seeing the barking, playful California sea lions you’ll find on the shore. The sea lions “occupied” Pier 39 after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that struck their previous home. We don’t know why did they choose Pier 39 in particular but apparently, they see something that keeps them coming back for more than 30 years and recreate one of the best “only in San Francisco” moments for visitors lucky enough to spot them.
Taste The Giant San Francisco Donut
In case you don’t know about it, Bob’s Donuts in San Francisco is the birthplace of the $8 giant donut that’s roughly the size of an average human head. These delicious donuts come in different flavors but what makes this shop famous is that if you can eat this donut in under two minutes, you can choose between a full refund, a free t-shirt, or a free drink. In addition, this shop also takes pride in being one of the last remaining independent donut shops that still make all of their pastries from scratch.
If you want to visit while in San Francisco, their store at 1621 Polk Street, open 24/7.
Try The Best Burrito in America
Americans love their burritos and there are over 65,000 restaurants in the US that have burritos in their menu but none can compare to Taqueria. Their carnitas burritos are always a hot topic and have been featured in many reputable magazines as the best burrito in America. While writing this post, they have a store only in San Francisco and if you get the chance to visit San Fran, you should definitely give Taqueria a visit and see what all the fuss is about.
Try San Francisco’s Legendary Ice Cream Sandwich
It’s It is a famous ice cream brand founded in San Francisco more than 90 years ago that specializes in delicious ice cream sandwiches. These ice-cream sandwiches have become so popular that they are slowly gaining the status of a tourist attraction. At the moment of writing this post, It’s It has 9 flavors customers can choose from and it’s a perfect refreshment for a hot summer day. Trying this ice cream is one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco and you simply can’t say you visited San Francisco without at least one visit to It’s It’s shop.
The Longest-Running Annual Foot Race in the World
Established in 1912, Bay to Breakers is the world’s longest-running annual foot race and one of the most exciting events in San Francisco. The event usually takes place on the Sunday that’s closest to May 20th. It includes a race that stretches from Embarcadero to Ocean Beach (around 8 miles). This race is famous for the funny costumes people wear while running (or don’t wear). In recent years, Bay to Breakers is becoming famous for its massive public nudity.
The World’s Longest Running Musical Revue
Only in San Francisco, you can see Beach Blanket Babylon, the world’s longest continuously running musical revue in theater history. The show is always up to date with the latest events and always pokes fun at literally everyone from the Kardashians to the Royal Family. Additionally, all these satirical renditions are performed by performers wearing disproportionately long hats and wings. If you’re looking for unique things to do in San Francisco, definitely check out this play next time you visit.
See the Largest Animal That Ever Lived
Taking a short boat ride from the Bay gives you the chance to experience one of the most spectacular wildlife migrations on our planet. Every year, in April and November, you can see more than 20,000 humpbacks and blue whales traveling south during winter and back north during early spring. If you’re looking for some unique things to do only in San Francisco, you really shouldn’t miss this. Furthermore, if you want to make sure you go whale-watching at the right time, consider taking some of the many whale watching tours led by expert naturalists.
A Metropolis Criss-Crossed with Hiking Trails
How often do you see a metropolis whose streets are intertwined with dozens of hiking trails? Only in San Francisco, you’ll discover pristine natural landscapes only minutes away from the city’s busy streets. From Bernal Heights, Glen Canyon, and Mount Davidson to Lands End and Bay Ridge Trail, San Francisco’s streets are dotted with blissfully peaceful trekking routes near the heart of the city.
The World’s Largest Exhibition of 20th-Century Arcade Games
If you love the old coin-operated arcade games as I do, a trip to San Francisco’s legendary Musee Mechanique is a must. Even though we previously mention this place in our post about hidden gems in California we just have to mention it here too because it truly is one of the most unique things to do in San Francisco. The museum is home to more than 200 arcade games and artifacts most of which were salvaged from the old seaside amusement park (Playland). Today, only in Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, you’ll find can-can stereoscopes, player pianos, moving dioramas, Gypsy fortune tellers, and a creepy Laughing Sal. Overall, this museum can be just as exciting for adults as it is for kids.
The Antique Vibrator Museum
Speaking of unique things to do that you’ll find only in San Francisco, how about an antique vibrator museum? The museum claims that some of its exhibits are the world’s oldest vibrators. Some of them date back to the late 1800s! The museum is open every day from 12:30 to 6:30 PM and every 3rd Sunday, you can join a free guided tour.
The Ellis Island of the West
What Ellis Island was for New York City and the East Coast, Angel Island was for the West Coast. Over one million Chinese immigrants came to the US through this island between 1910 and 1940. and some of them were in detention here for years. If you’re a history buff and want to explore some of San Francisco’s best hidden gems, taking a tour to Angel Island is a must.
A One-Of-a-Kind Sonic Theater
If you’re looking for some quirky, unique things to do in San Francisco, a trip to the Audium is a must. This two-hour performance lets visitors “enjoy sound sculptures” coming from the facility’s 176 speakers. What’s so unusual about this, you may ask? You’ll experience all this in complete darkness. This “only in San Francisco” experience is truly unique and words do little justice to it. I guess this is just one of those things you’ll have to experience yourself.
Enjoying this post? Also check out our list of unique things to do in Los Angeles.
The World’s Most Chaotic Mirror Maze
Speaking of unique things to do in San Francisco, we just have to mention Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. What makes this mirror maze different from every other mirror maze out there is the fact that everything is covered in neon lights and your adventure is accompanied by rave music that makes the whole experience even more chaotic and confusing. Do you think you can find your way out in such circumstances?
Enjoying this post? You also might like our list of unique things to do in Sacramento.
Stairs that Connect San Francisco’s 42 Hills
Lincoln Park Steps is a system of 400 different stairways that connect San Francisco’s 42 hills. Yes, San Francisco has 42 hills; do you see know why it’s dotted with trekking routes even in the heart of the city? If you like getting off the beaten track while also discovering unfrequented spots with an amazing view of the city, this is one place you absolutely have to visit.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the Filbert Street Steps that passes through a tropical garden and connects Sansome Street to Coit Tower and North Beach.
The View from Twin Peaks
Everyone who ever visited San Francisco knows that the best viewpoint in town is Twin Peaks. From the top, you can get a mesmerizing 360-degree view that features some of the city’s most iconic sights, including Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate Bridge, the famous Haight Ashbury suburb, and the Mission District.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for a guided tour, check out this tour that takes you to Twin Peaks and some of the most amazing views in San Francisco.
In case you didn’t hear about it, Lombard Street is one of the steepest and most crooked streets in the world. In case you’re wondering why the street is so crooked, believe it or not, it’s because of safety. Namely, Lombard Street’s steepness posed a severe safety hazard throughout the years and after the suggestion of a property owner, the street was redesigned and enriched with the current scenic switchbacks to protect the pedestrians and add an aesthetic appeal.
Today, Lombard Street is one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions and it appears in numerous movies and TV shows. Whether you decide to walk the hill on foot or by car (not for people who get car sickness easily), you’re in for an adventure and you’ll surely get a few new amazing photos.
See Wild Parrots in the Heart of the City
In the end, if you read our blog, you know we never support zoos, and instead, we always try to find more ethical alternatives. In San Francisco, you can find one such alternative at Telegraph Hill not too far from the heart of the city. A large colony of parrots started inhabiting the hill in the early 1990s. It all started when a few parrots escaped the local zoo and a few more followed. Today, San Francisco has this large group of parrots that can be spotted even in the busiest parts of San Francisco.
Helpful resources for traveling to San Francisco
Are you looking for a cheap flight to San Francisco? Check out Qatar Airways’s Discover the World at a low price to save as much as 20% on your next flight.
For some great accommodation deals in San Francisco, this Booking code gets you up to 10% off on all accommodation bookings in town.
If you want to rent a car in San Francisco, use AutoEurope and compare the best deals from different local rental car providers to make sure you’re always getting the best deal.
And last but not least, don’t forget about travel insurance. Personally, I always use World Nomads. They are more expensive than most others but they cover anything that can happen to you on the road.
Are you looking for some West Coast travel inspiration? Check out some of our other articles!
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Finally, it’s your turn- let us know how did you like this list of only in San Francisco experiences? Do you know some more unique things to do in San Francisco that could make this list but we didn’t mention? Feel free to let us know in the comments!
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