15 Best Things to Do in Downtown San Francisco

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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With a nickname like FiDi, it’s not difficult to deduce that Downtown San Francisco is the city’s designated financial district. The central nucleus of the district covers just half a square mile which is chock-a-block with impressive skyscrapers occupied by major financial institutions and international corporations.

Without a clearly defined border, DT San Francisco also lays claim to include several of the surrounding neighborhoods such as Chinatown and San Francisco’s Little Italy, North Beach. It’s a vibrant area with more than enough day and night time activities to easily fill several lists of the best fifteen things to do in Downtown San Francisco. Whatever you do there, don’t miss these top fifteen – they’re the best of the best.

1. Coit Tower

Coit TowerSource: Matt Boyle / shutterstock
Coit Tower

The Coit Tower is an observation deck and iconic city landmark situated on Telegraph Hill in North Beach, Downtown San Francisco.

Take the elevator up to the top of the two hundred and ten-foot tower for superb, uninterrupted panoramic views of Downtown San Francisco and across to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Internally, the tower is painted with a collection of murals dating back to the mid-1930s depicting Californian life during the years of the Depression. Docent-guided tours of the tower and murals are available and last for a duration of forty minutes.

2. San Francisco Cable Car

San Francisco Cable CarSource: Tono Balaguer / shutterstock
San Francisco Cable Car

Take a tour through Downtown San Francisco on the district’s classic cable cars. Board San Francisco’s historic transport system at any of the several stops in DT to ride through FiDo, Chinatown and Nob Hill on the California Line to where it terminates at Van Ness Avenue.

There are three lines operational. The other two, Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason both end by the waterfront of Fisherman’s Wharf. To see how the cable cars function, visit the Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse on Mason Street to look down on the winding machinery from a viewing gallery. The Barn also houses the first cable car to be in service way back in 1873.

3. City Kayak

Kayaking Under The Bay BridgeSource: Seeneng, Foo / shutterstock
Kayaking Under The Bay Bridge

One of the best ways to see Downtown San Francisco is from on the waters of the bay. Join a small group tour, paddle out in a kayak and along the stunning waterfront of Downtown.

The kayak tour takes in the whole of Downtown, Bay Bridge and McCovey Cove as well as navigating past several other interesting landmarks during the two hours afloat.

For an even more spectacular kayaking experience, go out at night to see the illuminated Downtown skyline and finalize the tour by viewing the San Francisco Giants after-game fireworks from on the water.

4. Ferry Building Marketplace

Ferry Building MarketplaceSource: cdrin / shutterstock
Ferry Building Marketplace

Built in 1898, the impressive Ferry Building with its iconic clock tower once welcomed passengers arriving to the city by boat. Now the renovated Ferry Building is a social hub and lively produce market attracting over forty thousand visitors every week.

In the recreated street atmosphere of the Ferry Building Marketplace, there are specialist outlets offering organic goods, confectionists and wine merchants alongside the stalls of farmer’s produce.

There are some great eateries at the market too. Don’t miss trying some San Francisco cheesecake at Cheesequakes, the contemporary Asian-fusion menu at Delico or the Vietnamese food-to-go at Out The Door. Those three food stalls alone are a good enough reason for visiting Downtown San Francisco.

5. The Gateway Theater

The Gateway TheaterSource: 42nd Street Moon / Facebook
The Gateway Theater

The Gateway Theater on Jackson Street in Downtown San Francisco is an intimate performing arts venue which regularly showcases the city’s rising dramatic talents.

Operated for twenty-five years by the 42nd Street Moon theater company, who are invested in preserving the importance of musical theater, expect to see some singing and dancing on the theater’s stage.

Popular shows to grace the Gateway Theater boards are the country and western themed, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and with a nautical edge, Dames at Sea.

6. Kokkari Estiatorio

Kokkari EstiatorioSource: Bill in DC / Flickr
Kokkari Estiatorio

Add a Mediterranean twist to dinner in Downtown San Francisco with a visit to the Kokkari Estiatorio restaurant on Jackson Street.

The Kokkari serves up traditional Greek cuisine in a rustic farmhouse-style setting infused with the warmth and hospitality typically associated with the Hellenic nation.

Everything on the menu comes highly recommended, from the Mezethes right through to the Kirios Piato, so go with a good appetite.

7. Pier 39

Pier 39Source: Dmitry Morgan / shutterstock
Pier 39

For a real seaside atmosphere, in an urban location, head to Pier 39 in the North Beach neighborhood of Downtown San Francisco.

Pier 39, built in 1977, is DT San Fran’s version of Jersey Shore and has everything from carousels to street musicians and musical stairs. For fun food, there are pretzel stands, funnel cakes and that all-time favorite fish and chips.

Don’t miss the Dark Ride. A high-tech 7D laser game played in a twenty-seat theater or visiting the Sea Lion Center to discover fascinating facts about the marine mammals which inhabit the bay.

8. Dragon’s Gate

Dragon's Gate, San FransiscoSource: photo.ua / shutterstock
Dragon’s Gate

Bamboozle your Instagram buddies with a photo of the Dragon’s Gate on Grant Avenue in Downtown San Francisco. It won’t be difficult to convince them the shot was taken in China rather than Bay City.

Adorned with two Chinese lions, the ornate columned gateway marks the southern entrance to Chinatown and is one of the most photographed spots in the neighborhood.

Pass through the Dragon’s Gate and enter the labyrinth of streets which is Chinatown itself. They’re strung with colorful lanterns and full of diverse shops, restaurants and karaoke bars.

9. Vista Helicopter Tour

Aerial helicopter view of Alcatraz IslandSource: GagliardiPhotography / shutterstock
Aerial Helicopter View Of Alcatraz Island

Be collected from Downtown San Francisco and then chauffeured to the aerodrome in Mill Valley before taking off on a spectacular helicopter flight.

The Vista Tour is a twenty-minute flight, with onboard narration by the pilot, past the Downtown cityscape and over San Francisco Bay.

It’s the fastest and most exciting way of seeing Downtown San Francisco, the amazing Alcatraz Island and the city’s two famous bridges.

10. Punch Line SF

Punch Line SFSource: Punch Line San Francisco / Facebook
Punch Line SF

The Punch Line is a comedy club on Downtown San Francisco’s Battery Street which has been making locals and visitors to the city smile for three decades.

The club, which is right in the heart of FiDo, hosts nightly comedy shows featuring top names as well as budding artists in the genre. Many a big name comedy star has graced the stage at the Punch Line including legendary Robin Williams, Ellen Degeneres and Dave Chappelle.

The Punch Line offers an extensive list of cocktails from their full-service bar and a snack food menu too.

11. Full Moon Dinner Cruise

Full Moon and San Francisco New Bay BridgeSource: Michael Warwick / shutterstock
Full Moon And San Francisco New Bay Bridge

Sail from Downtown San Francisco’s Pier 3 and out into the bay on a luxury yacht to see the DT skyline under the light of a full moon while enjoying a four-course meal. It’s an indulgent evening which includes a three-hour long cruise, first-class cuisine, music, and dancing.

If your visit doesn’t coincide with a full moon, take a sunset dinner cruise instead or for an option earlier in the day, spoil yourself with two-hour Champagne Brunch Cruise across San Francisco Bay. They are all beautiful trips.


SFMOMASource: EQRoy / shutterstock

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or SFMOMA is located on 3rd Street and houses an incredible collection of contemporary works by world-renowned artists.

The museum has over one hundred and seventy thousand square feet of gallery space dedicated solely to art from the twentieth century.

The museum, itself a contemporary work of art, also has an outdoor sculpture garden plus a terrace with great views of Downtown San Francisco.

13. Hop On Hop Off San Francisco

Hop On Hop Off San FranciscoSource: Benny Marty / shutterstock
Hop On Hop Off San Francisco

Ride around the Downtown district in style on a big red double-decker bus hopping on and off whenever the fancy takes you.

Board the bus by the Embarcadero Center on Battery Street and stay on for the full two-hour narrated tour or jump off at any of the twenty different stops along the route. Another bus will pass by at intervals of between ten and twenty minutes depending on the day’s traffic conditions.

This bus ride is twice as amazing by night when DT San Francisco glows with a million lights. The night bus also makes an extra stop at Treasure Island for photographs.

14. Exploratorium

ExploratoriumSource: Worayoot Pechsuwanrungsee / shutterstock

The Exploratorium is an interactive science museum on Pier 15 at the Downtown San Francisco Embarcadero.

Delve into the realms of human behavior in the Osher West Gallery, tinker in the workshops of the South Gallery or investigate the effects of physics on the body and the environment. The fascinating exhibitions are eye-opening, educational and fun for all ages.

Don’t miss seeing the Fog Bridge in the Outdoor Gallery which recreates the natural phenomena of San Francisco’s weather.

15. Dirty Habit

Dirty HabitSource: Dirty Habit / Facebook
Dirty Habit

Dirty Habit is an exclusive and very swanky bar-restaurant with stunning views of Downtown San Francisco from its fifth-floor rooftop terrace.

Dine on superior food prepared by top professional chefs in a dining room with décor inspired by film noir before adjourning to the terrace for after dinner cocktails or sundowners.

Dirty Habit, just like Downtown San Francisco, is modern, trendy and well worth taking the time to get to know in-depth. What they’ve both got to offer will surprise you.

15 Best Things to Do in Downtown San Francisco:

  • Coit Tower
  • San Francisco Cable Car
  • City Kayak
  • Ferry Building Marketplace
  • The Gateway Theater
  • Kokkari Estiatorio
  • Pier 39
  • Dragon's Gate
  • Vista Helicopter Tour
  • Punch Line SF
  • Full Moon Dinner Cruise
  • Hop On Hop Off San Francisco
  • Exploratorium
  • Dirty Habit