San Francisco defines counter culture for the US. Starting with the gold rush through the civil rights movement and into the dotcom boom, successive waves of hopeful newcomers full of ideas and itching for a better future have infused the city with creativity and an anything-goes attitude. The city is open, liberal, creative, sexy…and kinda weird. Sure, go to Pier 39 or ride a cable car or whatever, but if you want a true taste of the city, then make time for some of these cool things to do in San Francisco.
29 Cool Things to do in San Francisco
This locals-only guide for the cool places to go in San Francisco was developed by me and other travel bloggers who are based in the Bay Area. We know what’s up in SF and we promise to deliver you a good time.
There is a LOT here and I’m sure you’ll be riveted by every word. But if you are pressed for time, use this handy table of contents to find your specific area of interest.
Cool Places to Hang Out
Unique Food & Drink
Just Plain Weird Things to do in San Francisco
Unique Things to Do in San Francisco…For Adults Only
Cool Architecture Tours in SF
Cool Things to do with a Retro Flair
Creepy & Unusual Abandoned Places
Figure out where to stay in SF with this neighborhood hotel guide.
Cool Places to Hang Out
San Francisco is a city of great neighborhoods. Pick one and you can kill an afternoon just hanging out and soaking up the vibes.
North Beach: Feed Your Brain at City Lights Bookstore & Vesuvio Bar
City Lights is an SF institution founded in 1953 as a bookstore and performance venue. They gave voice to the Beat Poet movement and the store is a touchstone for San Francisco’s ongoing counter culture. The store still gives space to ideas that are outside of the mainstream with a poetry room and an eclectic collection of staff pics. Wander around, buy a book and then go upstairs to the light filled poetry room and settle into a cushy chair for a good read.
Or…if you’re thirsty…you can take your book next door to the Vesuvio bar. On your way over there, you’ll pass Kerouac alley, where there are literary sayings embedded into the pavement. The saloon itself was established in 1948 and was the chief watering hole for Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac and other Beats. Have a beer, read your book and spend some time checking out the art on the walls.
Tips for visiting: City Lights and Vesuvio are located on Broadway in the North Beach neighborhood. The store is open daily from 10am-midnight and the bar is open for all-hours drinking everyday from 8am-2am.
“The exploring mind of the individual human is the most vulnerable thing in the world”
The Marina: Listen to the Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is an interactive sculpture located in the Marina harbor. The organ is a series of pipes sunk down into the water. The fluctuating tide and waves pulsate through the pipes, creating watery music. It is at times eerie and mesmerizing but it is also whimsical and occasionally sounds like a toilet flushing. Visually, the pipes and nearby seating area have a Dr Seuss-like quality. I went with my four year old nephew and he was the perfect guide for the experience.
Tips for visiting: The Wave Organ is a public sculpture and is “open” all the time. You can get to it by walking around the west side of the yacht harbor and past the yacht club to the jetty point.
Japan Town: Explore Kitchy Japanese Culture
(From Jessica of A Passion & A Passport)
Japantown is not to be missed on any trip to San Francisco. If you’ve ever been to the country, or want to get a small taste of Japanese culture, you’ll highly enjoy your time in this area. You’ll find kitschy gift shops, karaoke bars, specialty grocery stores, and pika pika photo booths.
Come hungry because there are loads of Japanese treats to try– from takoyaki (fried octopus balks) and red bean buns to ramen and fresh sushi. Don’t miss an adorable crepe from Belly Good Cafe and Crepes, and a taiyaki ice cream cone from Uji Time Desserts. Looking for the craziness that is Tokyo? Come visit the area during the Anime and Cosplay festival, a super geeky event where everyone dresses up in wigs and anime costumes.
Tips for Visiting: Japantown is very compact and runs between Sutter /Geary & Laguna/Fillmore. The Anime and Cosplay festival is usually in July.
The Mission: Lounge Around Dolores Park
(From Lia of Practical Wanderlust)
Dolores Park is one of the most authentic and totally unique things to do in San Francisco, and we locals absolutely love it. If SF were a college campus – and sometimes it kinda feels like one – Dolores Park would be its quad. DoLo is San Francisco’s little green patch of fun in the sun, offering gorgeous sweeping views of the city in a location that’s convenient to multiple kinds of public transit.
Dolores Park is not your typical park. Each corner caters to a different community. For instance, there’s a playground, but it’s actually in the LGBT corner. There’s a whole section for people with dogs and the style of parenting that involves letting your toddler run around completely unchecked. But most people enjoy their day at Dolores Park by popping open a bottle of booze, lighting up a few joints, plugging in an amp, and letting it all hang loose with 17 different musical varieties. It’s a giant lawn party and it’s San Francisco at its most ridiculous (which is saying a lot because San Francisco is hella ridiculous).
Tips for Visiting: The park is located in the Mission on Dolores (at 18th)—just down the street from the Dolores Cemetery (see below). Bring an open mind and if a dude with dreads down to his knees comes by with a machete and a cooler and offers you a drink, BUY IT. That’s Jesus and his rum coconuts are heaven.
Unique Fun Food & Drink in SF
San Francisco is a foodie city so if you are chasing down unusual things to do in San Francisco, then you must start with some of the unusual foods.
Breakfast: Boozy Breakfast Ice Cream
Admit it, you’ve always wanted boozy ice cream for breakfast, haven’t you? Well, you can get it at the Humphry Slocombe stall in the Ferry Building.
The Beaux Arts landmark is an actual, working ferry building. Its vaulted halls were lovingly restored in 2003 and re-purposed as a magnet for foodies and boozers. Some of their uniquely local food items include an artistically hand-poured cuppa from Blue Bottle Coffee, fresh oysters and the grilled cheese at the Cowgirl Sidekick.
But the “secret breakfast” ice cream from Humphry Slocombe is the best. The hand crafted ice cream has both bourbon and corn flakes in it and it’s the best thing going at the Ferry Building. Get a double scoop.
Tips for visiting: Humphry Slocombe is open from 11am-9:30pm everyday. If you go to the Ferry Building on Tuesday/Thursday (10am-2pm) or Saturday (8am-2pm), they also have a farmer’s market with food trucks so you can have a boozy breakfast and lunch all at once.
Click here for more info on all the ways that you can stuff yourself at the Ferry Building.
Lunch: Eat some Indian Pizza
(From Paroma of Year of the Monkey)
Trust San Francisco to put a quirky Asian spin on an European favorite. The Italian pizza gets a makeover at Zante pizza in Bernal heights where, besides the regulars, you can order some yummy vegetarian and non-vegetarian toppings on your pizza, Indian style. Think Tandoori chicken pieces strewn in with roasted veggies or bites of paneer with spinach to recreate that heavenly experience of saag-paneer on a dough.
The colors are vibrant and the taste is super yum as well. My favorite though is the vegetarian pizza with eggplant and cauliflower and other veggies. Zante delivers via Grubhub anywhere in the city and has a minimum charge of $25 for home delivery.
Tips for visiting: Zante is located in Bernal Heights on 3489 Mission and is open from 11am-3pm, 5pm-11pm everyday.
Lunch or Dinner: Go Street with Off the Grid
Off the Grid organizes food truck flash mobs all over the Bay Area. They host a massive food truck-a-rama March through October on Friday nights in Fort Mason. The food choices represent the full SF multi-culti mix with options like empanadas, pizza, barbeque, tacos and Filipino dishes. In addition to the Fort Mason event, you can find clusters of food trucks nearly every day somewhere in the SF: Wednesdays at 5th & Minna, Thursdays at the Ferry Building, or Fridays at the Civic Center.
Tips for visiting: Check their schedule for a dates and location that is convenient for you.
Do Laundry and Eat All Day at the Brainwash Café & Laundromat
(From Kayla from VagabondRN)
How does a laundromat make this list? Well, the Brainwash isn’t your ordinary washateria. It transforms a monotonous chore into a communal celebration. First, wash your clothes or relish in the luxury of drop-off service. Then, head over to the attached café for a bottomless mimosa and a comedy show.
Their calendar consists of comedy showcases and open mic nights. If you’re brave, you can even sign up to perform during amateur night. See for yourself! Their website offers a 2-view livestream video: a street view and laundromat view. However, heed my advice and take a load off in person (pun intended).
Tips for visiting: First, get your clothes dirty by visiting Dolores Park or the Seward slides (noted elsewhere in this piece), then find Brainwash in SOMA on Folsom street. The cafe is open from 7am-9pm weekdays and 8am-8pm weekends.
Swell times last night with @djchristinasf at Bourbon & Branch 🍹🍯🍋🍊. First time at a Speakeasy and trying a Bourbon flight 😆. They have an wild range of drinks all the ones we tried were top notch 👌🏻. This was a sneaky pic taken since technically we weren't supposed to use cells 😂. #cocktails #mixology
Drinksies: Sneak into the Speakeasy at Bourbon & Branch
(from Hanna of Rated By Hanna)
Located discreetly in the Tenderloin district, Bourbon & Branch delivers an amazing speakeasy experience complete with dark ambiance and old fashioned drinks. You will need to make a reservation ahead of time to ensure you can gain access and don’t forget your passcode! Once you enter the candlelit establishment you will notice the library, bar and intimate booths. Each comes equipped with a hefty leather bound menu so that you can peruse drinks by category.
To truly immerse yourself in this prohibition-era establishment the servers encourage you to speak softly among your group and enjoy your time free from electronic distractions. I snuck in a sneaky photo of our drinks since it’s not everyday that I have the opportunity to visit a speakeasy.
Tips for visiting: Check out Bourbon & Branch’s website for times and to secure a reservation code.
Guided Foodie Tours
- 3 hour walking tour in the Union Square area fueled by artisanal chocolate. Check times and book here.
- 1/2 day beer, bites and brewery tour covering 5 neighborhoods (driver included). Check times and book here.
- Or you can do a slightly shorter beer oriented walking tour in the South of Market area. Check times and book here.
- Take a food tour in SF’s Mission neighborhood and get a culinary lesson on the Latino American experience. Check times and book here.
“San Francisco is a city of startling events”
Totally Weird Things to do in San Francisco
I don’t know why, but there is a lot of just plain weird stuff to do in San Francisco. Is it an acid hangover from the 60’s? Perhaps the legalized marijuana? Or just a culture that rewards creativity? Either way, check out some of these totally unique activities and have fun doing it.
Ahoy, Avast, it’s a Pirate Store!
Become a pirate at the 826 Valencia Pirate store. 826 is a nonprofit literacy program started by author Dave Eggers. They teach kids creative writing. They are also outlaws who run their own pirate store. You can visit the store and pick up all of the garb and gear that you’ll need to take to the high seas.
Tips for visiting: 826 Valencia is located (unsurprisingly) at 826 Valencia in the Mission. You can get your new hook and swank hat everyday from 12pm-6pm.
If you are a book lover, check out this guide to bookstores in the Mission.
Lock Yourself into an Escape Room
(from Amber of Amber’s Compass)
A bomb is strapped to your body. You must defuse it or die! That’s the premise behind Escape from the Puzzle Room. You and 10 teammates are locked in a room full of puzzles, patterns, and mysterious codes. You have 60 minutes to work together and sleuth your way out. You must pay attention because, in an escape room, everything is a clue. “10 minutes remaining!” – booms the overhead voice as your group scrambles to figure out the latest puzzle. It’s very exhilarating.
I’ve personally experienced half a dozen escape rooms. Each of them has a unique theme and win or lose, they are all fun and challenging adventures!
Tips for Visiting: The Puzzle Room is located on Geary (at Webster). They run the game nearly everyday at various times, check their calendar and book here.
In the Presidio, Find Yoda You Will
(from Emma of The Weekend Abroad)
The Yoda Statue and Fountain is a hidden San Francisco gem tucked away in the city’s Presidio National Park at the LucasFilm headquarters. This is definitely a destination not to be missed for Star Wars fans, as you will find not only a life-size Yoda statue at the park, but also a bevy of franchise memorabilia (including Darth Vadar’s costume!!) scattered about the LucasFilm lobby behind the fountain. After taking pictures with Yoda, the LucasFilm and Industrial Light & Magic grounds is a relaxing spot to stroll or read a book.
Tips for Visiting: Yoda is located at Building B courtyard, 1 Letterman Drive and can be accessed 24/7. You can see Yoda anytime but to see the memorabilia in the lobby, visit on weekdays during normal business hours. There is free 15 minute parking at the building, but you are more likely to find parking on the weekends.
Seward Street Slides
(From Paroma of Year of the Monkey)
These giant slides are made of concrete and tucked away in a small park (aptly named Seward mini park) in the vibrant neighborhood of Castro, in the southern part of the city. You’ll have to bring your own flattened cardboard boxes to slide down and perhaps a young niece/nephew/child to not look totally out of place?? (just kidding, adults also can and do have fun over here).
A short distance away is Kite Hill Park which provides a breath-taking view of the city and the panorama is totally worth the huffing and puffing to get to the top.
Tips for visiting: The slides are located on 30 Seward street and the park is open 9am-5pm.
Unique Ideas…For Adults Only
SF is an anything-goes city where you can let your freak flag fly and be as openly and actively sexual as you wish. Nudity at every parade- OK! An S&M themed street fair that raises money for charity- why not?! SF’s rainbow-colored Pride Parade is one of the largest in the world. The city happily embraces it’s adult-ness and offers up some interesting cultural experiences for anyone with an arched eyebrow and an open mind.
Erotic Fan Fiction Performed at Booksmith
Booksmith is a well-stocked indie bookshop happy to recommend a book by a local author. But they also exemplify how counter-culture has become the mainstream in San Francisco, because in addition to pimping books, every first Thursday, they also host readings of erotic fan fiction.
Imagine an erotic edition of the Great Gatsby…or Edgar Allen Poe poems. The fan fic is written by real authors (many that you have heard of) and performed by real actors. They have also published an anthology of recent performances. If you fancy yourself part of the literati, it’s a fun way to let your hair down.
Tips for visiting: The store is located in the Haight and you can check their event schedule here.
Good Vibrations Antique Sex Toy Museum
SF’s open attitude about sexuality makes it the perfect market for sex toys. Good Vibrations has been in business since 1977 and they’ll sell a full array of whatever you desire.
The owner had a small collection of antique sex toys and when customers learned about it, they began bringing in items to donate to the store. The collection snowballed and has now become a sort of crowd-sourced sexy museum. (Is there an app for that?)
Tips for visiting: Good Vibrations is located on Polk at Sacramento and the museum is open everyday 12:30pm-6:30pm and until 8:30pm on Thursdays.
Cool Architecture Tours in San Francisco
There is more to San Francisco than the glass bottom bus tour down Lombard street. You can take organized tours that will give you an inside look at some of SF’s architectural institutions.
AT&T Park was opened in 2000 but it has an old-school feel with its open top design and brick facade. It’s located in the SOMA neighborhood on a prime slice of the bay. Most of the seats overlook not only the ball field but they also have fine views of the bay. And the home runs hit to far right field often end up in the drink.
The park offers an insider’s tour which gets you into the dugouts, batting cages, clubhouse and press box.
Tips for Visiting: Tours cost $22 for adults and $12 for kids. Call ahead for more information- 415-972-2400.
If you are a book nerd, then the Mechanics Institute is the most cool thing to do in San Francisco. It was founded in 1864 as a learning center and library housing practical books on trades for skilled artisans. It bumped around to various locations and narrowly escaped the Great Fire of 1906 before finding its current home on Post street.
The library houses a public space for movies and events, a chess room, reading room and active library. The tour itself will take you through a tight rabbit-warren of book stacks that have been creatively crammed into the small space allotted.
The most notable feature in the building is the beautiful curved staircase leading up through the building. It’s one of the best Instagram spots in San Francisco.
Tips for visiting: The Mechanics Institute is on Post street (at Kearny). If you just want to see the staircase, you can visit the building anytime during normal business hours. They have regularly scheduled events and you can take a public tour of the building every Wednesday at noon.
Find more great spots for photography in San Francisco.
Cool Things to do with a Retro Flair
SF is a very forward looking city that’s always moving onto the next app or foodie trend. But sometimes a backward look can be a fun way to explore cool places in San Francisco.
Wear Weird Shoes at Lucky Strike Bowling Alley
This isn’t your grandma’s bowling alley of yesteryear. Lucky Strike has a full food and drink menu and lounge areas in addition to the bowling lanes. It’s located right across the street from the Giant’s stadium and is a popular place to go before the games. It’s best to reserve lanes in advance as it gets busy, particularly during happy hour.
Tips for visiting: Lucky Strike is open daily from 11am-12am (or 2am Fri/Sat).
Relive the Summer of Love at Amoeba Music
Amoeba is an old-school record store. They carry vinyl and both new and used CDs. They don’t fear the obscure and they also still stock plenty of Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison and other bands who helped create the protest music of the late ‘60’s. The staff is happy to help you find what you are looking for but they kindly ask that you refrain from dropping into the store if you have also been dropping acid.
Tips for visiting: Amoeba located on Haight street and is open Mon-Sun 11am-8pm.
Take a Spin on the Leroy King carousal
Nothing is more nostalgic and wonder-inducing than a carousal. The Children’s Creativity Museum operates the historical LeRoy King carousel. It was originally built for San Francisco but due to the 1906 earthquake and other circumstances, it wasn’t installed there until 1998. While you take your ride, squint your eyes and you can almost see 19th century San Francisco spinning by.
Tips for visiting: The carousal is located South of Market near the Moscone convention center. You can take a $4 spin daily from 10am-5pm.
San Francisco Love Tour
Hop into a psychedelic mini-bus and relive the Summer of Love with a tour of SF’s hippie culture. The two hour tour takes you to a few of the top tourist sites and is delivered with a side dish of cultural factoids and groovy 60’s music.
Tips for the tour: Check times and reviews and book on here.
Creepy & Unsual Abandoned Places
SF is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country and space is at a premium. So you may be surprised to find that there are some undeveloped and abandoned historical sites laying around. These creepily cool places in San Francisco tell a ghostly history of the city.
Go URBEX hunting on Angel Island
Angel Island is located in the middle of the bay, just north of Alcatraz. It’s now a state park, but its past is layered with military history. It was a military post during the civil war, an immigration station, a WWII Japanese internment camp and cold war missile site.
Most of the structures related to these military endeavors are abandoned. But the park itself is open for business. In addition to the military sites, you can hike nature trails and get 360’ views of the San Francisco bay.
Tips for visiting: Take the ferry from pier 39 and rent bikes on site for a self-guided tour. Bring a lunch and plan to spend the better part of a day exploring the island. Check out this Angel Island tour for more information.
Explore Fort Point and Gun Batteries
Walking or biking the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the city’s most popular tourist activities. But before heading over the bridge, spend some time underneath it and explore the Fort Point civil war fortress. Ever prepared, California was always building gun buttresses for a fight that never came (note Angel Island above).
The fortress sits just underneath the southern span of the bridge. Once you’ve explored the fort, walk up to the bridge on the battery trail and you’ll find yourself strolling past a number of former gun batteries aimed at protecting the entrance to the bay.
Tips for visiting: Fort Point is only open Friday-Sunday but you can walk the bridge and trails anytime.
See Cliffside Views of Sutro Baths
The Sutro Baths ruin is at the very western edge of the Presidio. The cliffside site offers expansive ocean views set against the eerie ponds of the ruin, making it an interesting spot for photography. The baths were originally built in 1894 by an eccentric self-made millionaire who had a dream to provide healthy, inexpensive swimming for the masses. It was built to house 10,000 people at a time.
People did use it in the beginning but the ambitious scale was its ultimate undoing. As the popularity of the baths began to wane in the early 1900’s the expenses outweighed the income and it ultimately fell to ruin.
Tips for visiting: This part of the park is best visited by car. The baths and nearby coastal views are great spots for taking pictures.
Creep Around the Mission Dolores Cemetery
Mission Dolores was founded in 1776 and is the oldest intact building in San Francisco. The mission was part of a string of Spanish settlements called the Camino Real. The settlements drove north from Mexico up through what is now the Sonoma wine country.
The site houses an active Catholic church and grounds which include the historical Mission Dolores cemetery. The cemetery pays tribute to the first nation Miwok’s who were the city’s original citizens and who, ironically, were eradicated partly due to disease and expansionism brought in by the Spanish. It also has grave-markers for other notable people who were instrumental in the development of SF as a major city.
Mission Dolores is a moody, quiet and creepy sort of oasis in what is otherwise a very busy neighborhood. If you are a photographer, visit in the late afternoon. The sun throws deep shadows onto the building walls and gravestones.
Tips for visiting: The Mission is on Dolores street. The suggested donation is $7 and the Mission is open most days from 9am-4pm(ish). Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and New Years.
Phew, that’s a lot of cool stuff in San Francisco. But we locals promise that if you do even a smattering of this list, you’ll get a feel for SF’s quirky cool vibe and counter culture ethic. Have you experienced something delightfully weird in SF? If so, please comment below and share with others.
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