A History Lover's Guide to San Francisco

Historical Sites, Museums, and Architecture in San Francisco

The City by the Bay is full of history. From the Native Americas to the first Spanish explorers to the region to the booming years of the gold rush and beyond, San Francisco has a diverse and fascinating history. The museums, historic architecture, and even some of the parks have plenty of historical information, charm, and interest for kids and adults alike. So, here's our list of the best historic sites and things to do in San Francisco for your next trip.

Museums

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island, located in the San Francisco Bay, once served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Today it is a National Historic Landmark that offers tours that cover the island's history, the former prison, and the many famous prisoners that were held here. To get here, you need to take a scenic ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf, and it's best to book ahead, especially on weekends.
West Road, SF, California, 94133-1312
Balclutha
Balclutha
This steel-hulled full rigged ship was built in 1886. It's a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is located at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
Russian Hill, SF, California, 94133-1312
Interested in more travel advice for San Francisco? Check out A Fashion-Lovers Guide To San Francisco and A Nature Lover's Guide to San Francisco.
Walt Disney Family Museum
This museum is dedicated to the life and work of Walt Disney. It was founded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation and is overseen by Diane Disney Miller. The museum features historic photographs and other paraphernalia from Walt Disney's life as well as rotating exhibits on various animators and stylists who have worked on the Disney movies.
104 Montgomery Street, Presidio, San Francisco, CA, 94129
San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design
This museum features the work of painters, textile artists, and sculptors. It's a small museum with a number of rotating exhibits.
2569 Third Street, San Francisco, CA, 94107
Oakland Aviation Museum
This large aircraft museums offers plenty to see and do for aviation lovers. Featuring a huge hangar full of historic and modern aircraft, visitors can see items from the early days of flight (Wright Brothers models), to World War II aircraft to Vietnam and modern era aircraft. Also on display are exhibits about women in aviation, Black Americans in aviation, aircraft engines, historic airlines, and more.
8252 Earhart Rd, Oakland, California, 94621
Museum of the African Diaspora
This contemporary art museum features work that highlights Black culture. The museum educates and informs visitors on the history of African culture, following through to modern times. The space is 20,000 square feet and it was created through the efforts of the former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
685 Mission St (at 3rd), San Francisco, CA, 94105
Musée Mécanique
This museum was created by local celebrity Edward Galland Zelinsky in 1933. It features his unique collection of antique mechanical creations including coin-operated musical instruments, antique arcade machines, and other unusual contraptions. If you bring your own coins, you can try out many of the machines as they still work.
Pier 45, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, CA, 94133
Legion of Honor
From it's beautiful Beaux-Arts building to its impressive collection of ancient and European art, this museum is a must-see in San Francisco. The limestone, marble, and chevron wood building is a beautiful work of art and inside there is a collection of more than 800 European paintings (with 250 available to view).
Lincoln Park | 100 34th Avenue (at Clement Street), Lincoln Park, San Francisco, CA, 94121
San Francisco has plenty more to offer, so see also our other articles: Romantic Places to Visit in San Francisco and The Best Places to Run in San Francisco.
Kimball Natural History Museum
The Kimball Natural History Museum is a fun and educational museum for kids and adults alike. It's located in the California Academy of Sciences, and it has exhibits on fossils, natural history, and our planet.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA
de Young Museum
This art museum is located in Golden Gate Park and features work from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. This museum is more than 125 years old and it's popular for its unique fashion exhibits that include everything from costumes to contemporary Muslim fashions. There's also a beautiful observation tower on the 9th floor that looks out over Golden Gate Park, downtown San Francisco, the Bay, and the Marin headlands.
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA, 94118
California Historical Society
The California Historical Society offers a variety of interesting exhibits at their downtown location. They also provide exhibits to a number of exhibits to other museums in the area.
678 Mission St., San Francisco, CA, 94105
Cable Car Museum
This free museum is all about the history of the cable car system in San Francisco, and is also home to the actual machinery that powers the cable cars themselves! Visitors can see historical exhibits about how the cable cars were once used much more frequently in the city, what they looked like, and how they work. It's also possible to go down under the street level to see the gear machinery, and gaze upon the large engines and wheels that move the cables.
1201 Mason Street, Nob Hill, SF, California, 94133
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
The Asian Art Museum has one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world. There are over 18,000 works of art, with some works over 6,000 years old.
200 Larkin Street, Civic Center, SF, California, 94102
How much does it cost to visit the museums in San Francisco?

Prices for activities, things to do, and tours range from $25 to $90. The average cost for a tour or tickets is $47. A few of the best options are below.

Historic Sites

Fort Mason
Fort Mason
Located in the northern Marina District, Fort Mason was an Army post for more than 100 years.
Funston Road, Marina District, SF, California, 14123
Interested in more travel advice for San Francisco? Check out A Nature Lover's Guide to San Francisco and A Train Lover's Guide to San Francisco.
San Francisco Cable Car System
San Francisco Cable Car System
San Francisco's famous cable car system is an iconic symbol of the city. It dates back to 1873 and at one time there were 23 lines. Today there are just 3 lines and two major routes - two lines that run between Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf and a line that runs along California Street.
854 Washington Street, Chinatown, SF, California, 94107
The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is the last building remaining from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. It's a beautiful, classical style building that sits by a lagoon that serves as a reflecting pool. Inside the palace there are regular art exhibits and performances. The theater seats about 1,000 people.
3301 Lyon Street, Marina District, San Francisco, CA
Ferry Building
Ferry Building
This historic building has been converted into a shopping area with great restaurants and local vendors who sell produce, cheese, and more. There's also a weekend farmer's market in the area that's fun to browse.
1 Ferry Building, Financial District and Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA, 94111
St. Patrick Church
Founded in 1851, this is one of the oldest churches in the city, and its cornerstones were brought from Ireland. Nestled in SoMa among modern buildings, it contains a beautiful Gothic Revival interior with gorgeous stained glass windows.
756 Mission Street, SoMa, San Francisco, California
San Francisco Railway Museum
Located by the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero, this fun and family-friendly railroad museum focuses on the history of railroading in San Francisco with a special focus on the historic street cars. After all, the city is not just home to the cable cars, but also street cars and a subway system. Visitors can get into the driver's seat of a replica street car and view a variety of exhibits about local history as it relates to transportation in the region.
77 Steuart Street, Embarcadero and Financial District, San Francisco, California
Mission Delores
Also called Mission Dolores, Mission San Francisco de Asis is the oldest remaining structure in San Francisco. The mission was founded in 1776 by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and Francisco Palóu. Regular Catholic services are offered in the larger basilica, and visitors can also see the Old Mission which contains gorgeous murals, as well as the historic cemetery on the grounds.
19 Chula Lane, Duboce Triangle, SF, California, 94114
San Francisco has plenty more to offer, so see also our other articles: Activities and Things to Do in the Fall in San Francisco and An Art Lover's Guide to San Francisco.
Lotta's Fountain
This historical fountain is located on Market Street by Geary and Kearny Streets. It was built in 1875 and served as an important meeting point following the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Union Square, SF, California
Central Embarcadero Piers Historic District
Made up of Piers 1, 1½, 3 and 5 this area is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Financial District, SF, California, 94111
How much does it cost to visit the historic sites of San Francisco?

Prices for activities, things to do, and tours range from $5 to $149. The average cost for a tour or tickets is $46. A few of the best options are below.

Religious Sites

Holy Virgin Cathedral
This is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral outside of Russia. Located in the Richmond District, the large golden domes can be seen from a distance. Regular services are offered.
6210 Geary Boulevard, Richmond, San Francisco, California, 94121
Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral on Nob Hill. The beautiful building is known for its mosaics, two labyrinths, and impressive stained glass windows.
1170 California Street, Nob Hill, SF, California, 94108
How much does it cost to visit the religious sites of San Francisco?

Monuments

Sutro Baths
Sutro Baths
Once a grand public swimming area, the Sutro Baths are now just ruins of a burned-down building, of which visitors can see the old pools built out of cement into the side of the hill overlooking the ocean. The beach here is small but beautiful. The hill above is Point Lobos which has a nice walking trail and views of the surrounding hills and coastline.
1004 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, California
Coit Tower
Coit Tower
The 210 foot Coit Tower is located on Telegraph Hill in Pioneer Park. It was built in 1932 and 1933 and offers impressive views of the city. If you're short on cash, you can explore Pioneer Park for free and enjoy comparable views to those offered at the top of the tower.
15 Telegraph Hill Boulevard, Telegraph Hill, SF, California, 94133
Planning a trip to San Francisco? You might also be interested in Best Places for Dumplings and Dim Sum in San Francisco and Best Places To Enjoy A Picnic In San Francisco.
Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square
Named after the famous chocolate maker and constructed from a historic chocolate factory, this shopping center and public square has a number of boutique shops, ice cream, cafes, and nearby restaurants. Naturally, the most visited shop is the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and ice cream cafe where you can get all sorts of yummy treats. Visitors can also find some fun activities such as mini-golf, a public fountain with outdoor seating, and great views looking out to the bay.
871 Beach Street, Marina District, San Francisco, California, 94109
Union Square
Union Square
Union Square is one of the most famous public plazas in San Francisco. It's surrounded by some of the city's best shopping, theaters, and tourist attractions and is bordered by Geary, Powell, Post, and Stockton Streets.

Union Square also has a number of high end hotels, world class restaurants, as well as green space where visitors can hang out. Fashion lovers will appreciate the area's top rated shopping. Almost any brand you can think of has a store in the area.
Union Square, SF, California, 94104
The Presidio
The Presidio
The Presidio historically served as a U.S. Army base but today it is a large green space and a public park. It's situated in the northwestern corner of the city at the gateway to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Presidio is a national park that is controlled by the National Park Service and it runs between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, ending at Baker Beach. Within the park there are stunning views of Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as a number of biking, hiking and walking paths. There are also plenty of places to enjoy a picnic or rest with a good book. The Walt Disney Family Museum as well as a golf course and several cafes are also found within the park.
The Presidio, San Francisco, CA
Treasure Island
This artificial island was built between 1936 and 1937 for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Many buildings on the island are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
449 Avenue H, SF, California, 94130
Point Bonita Lighthouse
Located at Point Bonita, this lighthouse marks the entrance to the Marin Headlands near Sausalito. It was the last manned lighthouse in California.
San Francisco, California, 94121-1545
Painted Ladies
A classic site in San Francisco, the Painted Ladies are a series of Victorian and Edwardian houses that are famed for their very detailed architecture. The houses became a household name when they played a significant role in the production of the 1980s sitcom, "Full House".
716 Steiner Street, Western Addition, SF, California, 94117
Harvey Milk Plaza
Sitting at the corner of Market Street and Castro Street, this honorary plaza was named after Harvey Milk. In the 1970's, Milk was a gay activist who was later elected to the city Board of Supervisors. He was then tragically assassinated in his office at City Hall. The plaza has a MUNI station as well as a number of shops and restaurants, and is a common entry point to the Castro Neighborhood.
Market & Castro, Castro, San Francisco, California
How much does it cost to visit the monuments in San Francisco?

Prices for activities, things to do, and tours range from $32 to $1,300. The average cost for a tour or tickets is $214. A few of the best options are below.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Budget Your Trip

Budget Your Trip has average travel costs for thousands of cities around the world, all provided by other travelers. You can also register to organize your spending by category and location with graphs, maps, charts, and tables.

Search for Travel Costs

Share This Page

Some of the links on this website are sponsored or affiliate links which help to financially support this site. By clicking the link and making a purchase, we may receive a small commission, but this does not affect the price of your purchase.