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16 Best San Francisco Landmarks You Absolutely Must See

Katelyn van Sligtenhorst
Latest posts by Katelyn van Sligtenhorst (see all)

Seen on magazine pages and movie screens, these iconic San Francisco landmarks seem to speak for themselves.

But there’s much more to these spectacular sights than meets the eye! 

Throughout this list, you’ll discover unmissable onsite activities, fascinating histories, recommended visiting times, and maybe even a few surprises along the way.

After all, as the commercial and cultural capital of Northern California, The Golden City certainly has no shortage of fascinating things to see and do.

16 Best San Francisco Landmarks You Absolutely Must See

So whether you’re planning a trip soon, or just want to learn more about this stunning city, read ahead to get the lowdown on all the most famous landmarks in San Francisco.

1. Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman's wharf sign in San Francisco, California

Postcard-worthy views, legendary dining destinations, and unique attractions come together to make Fisherman’s Wharf one of the most popular San Francisco landmarks for locals and tourists alike.

Say hi to the sea lion colony at Pier 39, one of the best places to visit in California. Stop to watch some of the many neighborhood street artists and musicians. 

Visit the World War 2-era ship, USS Pampanito, in the Maritime National Historical Park. Explore a treasure trove of vintage tech at Musée Mécanique (free entry!).

To fuel up between sights, snag a sourdough bread bowl filled with chowder at Boudin Bistro (one of the city’s biggest culinary claims to fame) or a flavorful seafood soup at Cioppino’s.

Insider tip: Head over to their official website to steal a pre-built itinerary curated by local experts. 

They’ve got something for everyone–boat lovers, art aficionados, couples, off-the-beaten-path travelers, and more.

2. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California

For a tiny island located just 1.5 miles offshore, Alcatraz is surrounded by tall tales of infamous criminals, prisoner rebellions, and escape attempts shrouded in mystery.

The island was originally a military outpost used to protect the entrance of the bay against invasion. 

But rugged shores, ice-cold waters, and strong currents made the island a natural prison, and soldiers were holding criminals there long before it officially became a maximum security facility.

In 1912, a 600-cell holding complex, mess hall, and hospital were completed, all of which are still standing. 

On the grounds, notorious gangsters like Al “Scarface” Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly served sentences, as well as psychopath Robert “The Birdman” Stroud.

Today, tours include a boat ride across the San Francisco Bay and an exploration of the sordid history of this island, as well as its surprising natural beauty.

3. Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco is one of the best places to visit in California
San Francisco is one of the best places to visit in California

Obviously, we can’t discuss San Francisco landmarks without a mention of the most recognizable. (Think Art Deco architecture, 746-foot tall towers, sweeping main cables, and a signature orange color).

On par with Paris’ Eiffel Tower or New York’s Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge is the stuff of legend. 

More than 10 million visitors flock to admire this impressive structure each year!

Learn about the engineering and history of this suspension bridge at onsite exhibits, join free guided walking tours held every Thursday and Sunday, or enjoy picturesque trails and viewpoints in the surrounding Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Want to catch the bridge at its most photogenic? We recommend a viewing from Marshall’s Beach at sunset for sand, surf, and rocks in the foreground and fewer crowds to battle.

4. Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies, a row of colorful Victorian houses located in San Francisco, California

If you’re searching for the most picturesque of all San Francisco landmarks, look no further than the Painted Ladies.

The name comes from the pastel colors that adorn this row of traditional Victorian homes perched prettily on a sloping city street. Together, the houses are also referred to as “postcard row.”

Many movies and TV shows, most famously “Full House,” have featured this popular spot as a backdrop.

Dusk is the best time to visit; Watch the Painted Ladies soak up some gorgeous golden hour light, then enjoy the contrast of downtown’s lights coming to life in the background.

5. Lombard Street

Famous Lombard Street, San Francisco, California

San Francisco is well known for its steep streets, so much so that the wrong walking itinerary here could quickly turn into a full-blown workout.

Therefore, it’s only fitting that one of the most famous landmarks in San Francisco is twisting, turning Lombard Street, dubbed “The Crookedest Street in the World.”

This crooked street slopes dramatically downhill in a series of 8 hairpin turns, all packed into the length of just one city block!

If you’re traveling with a car, head to the top and test your maneuvering skills (and your brake pads). Pedestrians can tackle it on foot but should be careful of errant drivers.

6. Ferry Building

Ferry port pier tower building in San Francisco, California

The Ferry Building is stunning inside and out! The restored 1898 building features a soaring clocktower and Beaux-Arts architecture. 

Up until the mid-1930s, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world.

Although it still operates in that capacity, the Ferry Building has taken on a new life as a buzzy local food hall overflowing with shops, restaurants, and a popular tri-weekly farmers market.

Snag organic bagels, award-winning pizza, hand-made Argentine empanadas, and more delicious treats, or head to the Fog City Flea Trading Post to browse artisanal goods produced in the Bay Area and beyond.

7. Ghirardelli Square

Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, California

Chocolate aficionados will certainly want to save a spot on their itinerary for the sweetest of San Francisco landmarks, a public square full of shops, food + drink destinations, and all the Ghirardelli you could ever ask for.

The space is considered “the first successful adaptive reuse project in the country.”

But what exactly does that mean? Well, the now iconic shopping complex was once a bustling chocolate factory established in the 1800s.

When the operation was up for sale in the 1960s, a group of San Franciscans jumped on the opportunity to both preserve its history and transform it into a new attraction.

Today, you can play mini golf, shop at local boutiques, and, of course, indulge in the ultimate Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience, which includes customizable gifts, handmade sweet treats, and the world’s largest Pick & Mix station full of Ghirardelli Squares. Yum!

8. Palace of Fine Arts

San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, California

Arguably one of the most stunning San Francisco landmarks, the aptly-named Palace of Fine Arts and its dramatic bayside location are certainly a sight to behold.

The 1915 structure, meant to “evoke a decaying ruin of ancient Rome,” features an open rotunda, an idyllic lagoon graced by drifting swans, and a spacious exhibition center home to many of the city’s trade shows, private galas, and weddings.

Stop here for some awesome Instagram photos, or check their calendar before you go to catch a comedy show, live band, or fun event onsite.

9. San Francisco Opera House

Opera House in San Francisco, California
Photo by Sanfranman59 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

Despite the abundance of San Francisco landmarks, this one needs no introduction. 

The Golden City has been a proud home to one of the world’s leading opera companies for more than 100 years.

The San Francisco Opera season typically includes 5 fall shows and 3 in the summer, with a line-up of largely classic productions, as well as some newer numbers.

Show up early to catch the Pre-Opera Talk, an engaging 25-minute overview of the upcoming show’s music, characters, composer, and historical background provided by a local music expert.

10. Coit Tower

Coit Tower and San Francisco Skyline, California

Rising above the rest of the city atop Telegraph Hill, the 210-foot-tall Coit Tower has long served as a recognizable symbol of the San Francisco skyline.

It was built in 1933 in honor of eccentric local patron Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who, when she died, left a substantial endowment “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.”

As you explore the hilly trails, keep an eye out for the neighborhood’s famous flock of parrots and the murals adorning the tower’s base. 

You can even head to the top to score 360-degree views of the city, North Beach, Russian Hill, Twin Peaks, and bay, including the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.

11. Chinatown

Red lanterns in Chinatown of San Francisco, California

With a long history of Chinese immigration and cultural settlements, it’s no surprise that the city’s Chinatown has fast become one of the most famous landmarks in San Francisco.

Fun fact: It’s actually the oldest Chinatown in the entire country and one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside Asia!

The area spanning from Stockton to Montgomery Street served as an early point of entry for those who arrived hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush; Many made the move permanent.

Adorned with ornate temples, antique street lights, colorful shops, and red paper lanterns, these streets are bustling day and night. 

Pass through the often-photographed Dragon’s Gate to access 24 city blocks of fantastic food stalls, charming alleyways, and lively karaoke and cocktail bars.

12. Fort Point National Historic Site

Golden Gate bridge with Fort Point in foreground, San Francisco, California

This Civil War-era structure is cool in its own right, but here’s what really sets it apart from other San Francisco monuments: a unique, up-close angle of the Golden Gate Bridge sprawling out ahead.

The original fort, deemed Castillo de San Joaquín, was built in 1794 to defend Spanish-occupied San Francisco. 

Throughout the next century, it was used by Mexican troops, fell into disuse, and then was rebuilt by U.S. Army Engineers in the 1850s.

Construction plans for the Golden Gate Bridge called for the fort’s removal, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss actually redesigned the bridge to keep the fort, which he believed was an important piece of history, intact.

Today, it’s free to visit, with original cannons on display, a short historical documentary to watch, and complimentary guided tours.

13. Union Square

Union Square San Francisco, California

Calling all shopaholics! One of our favorite San Francisco landmarks has to be the buzzy, upscale Union Square, which serves as the city’s primary commercial hub.

Believe it or not, this super-developed spot was once a towering sand dune. 

It was slated to become a public park in 1850 and received its name from the pro-Union rallies held there at the beginning of the Civil War.

Today, art galleries, chic boutiques, Michelin-star restaurants, manicured green spaces, and legendary hotels line these stunning city blocks, so you’ll certainly find plenty to do.

One of the must-do attractions in the area? At the intersection of Powell and Market streets, you can witness one of San Francisco’s most unique sights–the manual cable car turnaround.

14. Grace Cathedral

Beautiful view of Grace Cathedral on a summer day in San Francisco, California

Between its gold-detailed doors (called the “Gates of Paradise”), meditative labyrinths, and towering stained-glass windows, you’ll quickly understand why Grace Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in San Francisco.

The cathedral is among the largest Episcopalian churches in the United States, painstakingly built over the course of 37 years. 

When construction finally wrapped up in 1964, the opening was celebrated with a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr.

Inside, admire breathtaking murals depicting important events in the city’s history, such as the earthquake of 1906 and the drafting of the U.N. charter in 1945.

You can also climb to the top of the South Tower for some breathtaking views of downtown.

15. Baker Beach

Baker beach in California is an amazing West Coach beach that offers and incredible view of the iconic Golden Gate bridge

While many of our San Francisco landmarks are manmade, we had to give a nod to the city’s natural beauty, too.

Baker Beach is a sandy public shoreline that sprawls out below the rugged cliffs on the Presidio’s western side.

When the weather is clear, you’ll score fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, plus perhaps some local wildlife if you’re lucky. Pelicans, harbor seals, and dolphins can all be spotted here.

Keep an eye out, also, for California’s state rock, the gray-green serpentine, as well as sea stars at low tide.

Explore Battery Chamberlin, which holds a 50-ton “disappearing gun,” trek a stretch of the stunning California Coastal Trail, or simply hang out on the sand for sunbathing, picnicking, and grilling. 

Swimmers should be cautious of cold waters and strong currents.

16. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California

What sets the Museum of Modern Art apart from all our other San Francisco monuments? 

Well, not only is it a stunning building in and of itself, but it also houses many other masterpieces within its walls!

The current collection encompasses more than 33,000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts from renowned artists like Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Frieda Kahlo on display.

Don’t miss the epic vertical garden on the third floor, professed to be the “biggest public living wall of native plants in San Francisco” and host to over 19,000 plants.

More Landmarks in San Francisco

Here are some other landmarks in San Fran you need to check out on your trip:

De Young Museum at Golden Gate Park (a massive urban park that is larger than the Central Park)

Cable Car Museum in the Nob Hill neighborhood

Lands End Park

Sutro Baths

Mission Dolores

Conservatory of Flowers

The San Francisco Mint