A miniature compendium of some stuff that I consider worth seeing and doing.
This will probably always be a work in progress; I make no claims to completeness or up-to-dateness.
This version of this list includes one or two adults-only/NSFW items. If you don't want to see those, then try the all-audiences version of the list.
- Golden Gate Park
- Lots of great stuff, including museums, aquarium, planetarium, and the impressive new 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, 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. Key ones include City Lights (open 'til midnight every night), Modern Times (mainly leftist-political-focused bookstore), and Borderlands (right near Modern Times, excellent science fiction/fantasy bookstore). Modern Times and Borderlands are on Valencia, which at least used to be the lesbian district, though never quite to the same degree as the Castro is the gay district.
- Good Vibrations
- The famous sex-toy store, also on Valencia.
- 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.
- 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.) Not so much to do there unless you want to go to the bars or gay sex clubs, but there are shops, and rainbow flags, and it always makes me happy just to see same-sex couples wandering around hand-in-hand.
- 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
- 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; just something to notice along the way.
South of San José
- Redwoods: Henry Cowell
- Monterey Bay Aquarium
- 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
- 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.