San Francisco Bay Area attractions and tourist stuff (all-audiences version)

A miniature compendium of some stuff that I consider worth seeing and doing in the Greater Bay Area.

This will probably always be a work in progress; I make no claims to completeness or up-to-dateness.

This is a slightly edited copy of my main list; this version is all-ages-friendly, whereas the other version has a couple of adults-only/NSFW items on it.

San Francisco

Golden Gate Park
Lots of great stuff, including museums, aquarium, planetarium, and the California Academy of Sciences. (The rays and the butterflies and the cuttlefish are especially amazing.) Also Japanese Tea Garden, AIDS Memorial Grove, a couple of lakes, the Conservatory of Flowers, a windmill, etc. Mostly a daytime thing rather than an evening thing.
The Exploratorium
World's best museum of “science, art, and human perception.” Only open 'til 5 p.m., and closed Mondays. But a must-visit for people who are into that kind of thing.
Golden Gate Bridge
There are good spots for pedestrians to view the bridge at either end, and you can even walk across it if so inclined.
Boat tour of the Bay
Daytime, of course. Spend a couple hours wandering around the Bay and seeing the sights, including Alcatraz. Neat, and fun if you like being on the water. It's also possible to do a (separate) tour of Alcatraz itself; I've never done that.
San Francisco Zoo
It's a good zoo, but maybe not especially better than most major metropolitan zoos, so if you're not into zoos, there's no particular need to see this one.
Touristy landmarks like Coit Tower and Lombard Street, the “world's crookedest street”
These are the kinds of local landmarks that I'd say are worth seeing if you want to do the tourism thing, but not the most essential thing to see. Also in a vaguely similar category is Twin Peaks, which has a nice view but takes a while to get to and once you've looked at the view for 10 minutes you'll probably be ready to leave. (Very windy up there, too.)
Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square
Restaurants, vendors, souvenir stores. Sourdough and seafood. The center of the San Francisco tourism experience. Occasional street performers (jugglers and such). Sea lions, too. There's a touristy but surprisingly good aquarium somewhere around there. Also Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum, Wax Museum, etc. Very very crowded and touristy. But at least some of it should be open in the evenings; might be worth a visit.
I've barely been there, so I can't say much about it, but I gather there are lots of good restaurants, plus cultural stuff and tours and such.
Cable cars
The other central defining piece of SF tourism. Fun to ride, if you don't mind the touristy schtick of the conductors. May require waiting in line for an hour to get on in some cases.
The Haight-Ashbury district
Still a fun little slice of counterculture history. But once you've gotten your picture taken at the Ben & Jerry's at Haight & Ashbury, there's not a lot else to do there other than shop.
Union Square
A (fairly high-end) shopping district in its own right. If you like LUSH brand soap, I think there's a LUSH store there.
There are plenty of bookstores all over the city, including City Lights (open ’til midnight every night) and Borderlands (excellent science fiction/fantasy bookstore).
Symphony and opera
If you like the symphony or the opera, SF apparently has good ones, but I don't know anything about them personally, except that Davies Symphony Hall is a fairly pretty building from the outside. There's also, I think, plenty of local small theatre, but I don't know much about that scene either.
Writers with Drinks
Monthly “spoken-word variety show,” emceed and organized by the inimitable Charlie Jane Anders, featuring a selection of interesting writers reading from their own work. If you don't want to stand through the whole evening, then either show up half an hour early or bring a small foldable camping chair.
SF in SF
Another monthly speculative-fiction reading series. I've never been, but I keep intending to go.
The Infinite Wrench
Formerly known as Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Well worth seeing. For details, see my writeup.
City Hall
Near the Symphony Hall and Opera House. Where Gavin Newsom performed the first official same-sex marriage in the US on February 14, 2004.
Max's Opera Cafe
Somewhere around the same area. Features a bunch of New York deli-style food in huge portions, plus opera-singing waitstaff.
The Presidio
A former army post. “Explore centuries of architecture. Reflect in a national cemetery. Walk through an historic airfield, forests, or to beaches, and admire spectacular vistas.”
The Castro district
The center of gay San Francisco. (Somewhat more gay-male-focused than anything else.) In addition to more adult activities, there are shops and rainbow flags, and it always makes me happy just to see same-sex couples wandering around hand-in-hand.

North Bay

Mt. Tamalpais
I've never actually been there, but my parents loved it there.
Muir Woods
Lovely redwoods, but if you're in the South Bay already, then try Cowell instead (see below).
Napa and Sonoma County wineries

East Bay

Bay Model
Chabot Space & Science Center
Telegraph Ave, Berkeley

Along highway 280

Scenic views
Various rest stops along the freeway have nice views.
Pulgas Water Temple
An odd little structure/monument in Redwood City.
Little Boxes
The “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” that inspired the Malvina Reynolds song are on a hillside in Daly City, visible (I believe) from highway 280.
Junipero Serra
There's a 25-foot-high statue of Father Serra near 280 in Hillsborough. Certainly not worth making a special trip for—he was awful—but it’s a prominent landmark on 280.


The nature-museum part of this is nothing special, but they've got a small rescued-wildlife area where you can see foxes, an eagle or two, burrowing owls, otters, etc. Used to be called Coyote Point. I may have free tickets you can take.
Winchester Mystery House
The big mysterious house built by Sarah Winchester over thirty-eight years of continuous construction. Very touristy, I'm told. I went once as a kid, but I don't remember much of it.
Great America
An amusement park, focused on roller coasters (or at least it used to be), which is why I haven’t been there since high school despite living very near it.
Computer History Museum
Foothills Park
Lovely big park up in the hills. When enough people have gone in on a given day, they close the entrance for a while, so you may not be able to get in. Scene of fond high school memories (staying up all night and seeing deer in the morning meadow mist); also where my mother's ashes are scattered.
Windy Hill
Shoreline Park
Right next to Google’s main campus; a nice baylands park, with a golf course, a small lake with rental boats, a small playground, picnic areas, trails, a kite-flying area, etc.
Lots of other open-space preserves
Moffett Field Museum
A museum of aircraft and history. I particularly like the material about zeppelins and other airships.
Tiny Cars of Palo Alto
See my blog entry and the associated video.
Rodin Sculpture Garden
Lovely set of Rodin sculptures on Stanford campus, including the Gates of Hell; outdoors, so always open. Right next to the Cantor Arts Center museum, which has more Rodins inside.
Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto
Showing lovingly restored old movies, sometimes with live organ accompaniment.
Stanford Shopping Center
If you're into shopping while on vacation, I gather this is a good shopping center.
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
“Architecturally inspired by the Temple of Amon at Karnak, it houses the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on exhibit in western North America.” Check whether it’s open before visiting.
The Tech Interactive
“a science and technology center that offers hands-on activities, labs, design challenges and other STEAM education resources” in San José. Not as fun or interesting as the Exploratorium, and more screen-focused; but if you’re already in the South Bay, it’s a lot closer than the Exploratorium.
Hakone Gardens
In Saratoga. I haven’t been there.

South of San José

Redwoods: Henry Cowell
Olallieberry pie and artichoke soup at Duarte’s in Pescadero
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Kayaking (at Elkhorn Slough, for example, or in Monterey Bay)
Various wineries, including Bonny Doon
Whale-watching (in Monterey or Santa Cruz)
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
Beaches in and near Santa Cruz
Monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges, Santa Cruz
Mystery Spot

Further afield

Lick Observatory
(About 1 hour's drive from Mountain View.) Not always open.
Pinnacles National Monument
(About 2 hours' drive from Mountain View.) I haven't been, but I keep intending to go.
(2 hours away) Wineries, restaurants, spas, a couple of farms, lovely scenery.
Big Sur (2+ hours away)
Whitewater river-rafting (3ish hours away)
Yosemite (4 hours away)
(4+ hours away.) Skiing and a lake and fabulous scenery.