San Francisco is one of the most popular places in the world to film and photograph. It is even better in the real world.

It is impossible to capture the taste of mouth-watering, farm-fresh dishes, the clang of the cable car and the truly joyous celebrations of individuality that you will find here. Here are the best things to do in San Francisco, from world-class museums to the best in LGBTQI+ culture.

Seek out inspiration and art at Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park has a lot of things San Franciscans love about their city. You can wander the park for a week and still not see everything. The California Academy of Sciences is a wonderful natural history museum with a rainforest and aquarium and the de Young Museum is a great place to see fine art. The park contains the San Francisco Botanical Garden, as well as the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of flowers.

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Jump on a cable car – and hold tight

The cable car is San Francisco's steampunk mode of public transport and can be compared to carnival rides. As the rickety wagonsm ascend notoriously steep streets, first-timers slide into strangers' laps as regulars just grip the leather hand straps and ride the downhill plunges like pro surfers. If you follow their lead, you will be able to conquer the city's hills without even breaking a sweat.

An alleyway at dusk has murals painted along the walls on each side
The Mission district is a hot spot for urban art © Enrique Moran / 500px

Admire the Mission’s showstopping street murals

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo honeymooned in San Francisco in the 1930's, when love changed the course of art. Rivera created public masterpieces that inspired generations of San Francisco muralists while Kahlo completed her first portrait commission in the city. There are more than 400 murals in the Mission District. There are depictions of community pride and political dissent in the San Francisco Women's Building.

Channel your inner mad scientist at the Exploratorium

Can you make fog or stop time? The Exploratorium is a laboratory of science and human perception in San Francisco. On Thursdays, there are kid-free hours at the Exploratorium, with drinks, technology-assisted sing-alongs and themed exhibits for adults.

Woman riding her bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, USA
When it’s not fogged over, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge offers fabulous views of San Francisco Bay and the Marin Headlands © Sabrina Dalbesio / Lonely Planet

See the Golden Gate Bridge in three dimensions

The Golden Gate Bridge is the best example of suspension bridge engineering. The American icon is made possible by the work of 28 daredevil painters who apply 1000 gallons of International orange paint each week. Even on the underside of the bridge, not a single rivet is allowed to get rusty. The Golden Gate Bridge is visible from the Marin County end of the bridge, but now you don't. It will be unveiled in time for the morning commute.

See 6000 years of traditions at the Asian Art Museum

The inspiration can be found on the third floor of the museum. Visitors can see everything from meditative Tibetans to palace-intrigue Mughal miniatures, with stops to admire intricate Islamic tile work, giddy array of Chinese snuff bottles and an entire Japanese minimalist teahouse. The Asian Art Museum is home to the largest collection of Asian art outside of Asia. Jean Shin's melted cell-phone towers are just one of the innovative installations on the ground floor.

Shoppers at the food marketplace in the historic Ferry Building on Embarcadero, San Francisco, California, USA
The market stalls and restaurants of the historic Ferry Building are where food trends begin © Ronnie Chua / Shutterstock

Savor the best of California food culture at the Ferry Building

Food trends begin in San Francisco. The Ferry Building is where you can sample tomorrow's menu. The Saturday farmers market is where top chefs compete for the first pick of rare heirloom varietals. As you overlook the sparkling bay, make a picnic from food truck finds and let lunch and life exceed expectations.

Go up the river (or at least across the bay) to Alcatraz

From its founding in the 19th century as a jail for Civil War deserters and Native American dissidents, to its closing in 1963, Alcatraz was America's most notorious penitentiary. With easy access from the city, a thrilling and unexpected history, daring tales of thwarted escape attempts and stunning views of the San Francisco skyline, "the Rock" attracts over one million visitors each year. The spooky night tour is a great way to chill out. The return ferry to San Francisco is only 1.25 miles across the bay's rip tides.

A man bicycles down Grant Ave in Chinatown, San Francisco, California, USA
Wander San Francisco’s vibrant Chinatown and discover a neighborhood that’s survived against the odds © / Shutterstock

Poke around the backstreets of Chinatown

Grant Ave. is Chinatown's main tourist drag. It's hard to believe that this pagoda-topped, souvenir-shop-packed strip was once the craziest place in the west, until you see the fascinating displays at the Chinese Historical Society of America. Waverly Place is Chinatown's soul, lined with flags and colorful temple balconies. If you want to see a neighborhood that has survived against daunting odds, go into Chinatown's historic alleyways. You can finish up with some traditional dim sum.

Trace the history of the avant-garde at SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1935. SFMOMA was an early collector of photography and other emerging media. The institution has tripled in size and ambition, dedicating entire wings to new media, room-size paintings, high tech design and monumental Richard Serra sculptures. The day should be set aside to cover all the floors.

The Castro is one of the most out-and-proud neighborhoods in the USA - and the world © ACELYA AKSUNKUR / Getty Images

Go over the rainbow in the Castro

The Castro district is the most out-and-proud neighborhood on the planet for more than half a century. You can join history at San Francisco's month-long, million-strong Pride celebrations in June by following the footsteps of pioneers along the Rainbow Honor Walk.

Take in the urban panoramas from Coit Tower and hilltop parks

The scenery on Telegraph Hill shouldn't be kept by wild parrots. The Filbert St steps lead to the Coit Tower. The art Deco monument to honor firefighters was commissioned by a fire-fighting millionaire. The panoramic viewing platform at Coit Tower shows off the city at its best.

As you scale SF's other steep hills, your calf muscles will strain, but once you reach the summit, you won't complain. With wind-sculpted trees and Victorian turrets, you will feel like you are on top of the world.

Hundreds of brown sea lions lounge in the sun on jetties under a sign that says
Sea lions take priority over boats at Pier 39 © Fred Bahurlet / EyeEm / Getty Images

Hear the sea lions bark at Pier 39

Sea lions have been making a public display of themselves ever since they took over Pier 39 in 1989. Since California law requires boats to make way for marine mammals, yacht owners have had to give up valuable slips to accommodate hundreds of sea lions. They can be found on the docks during the winter and summer. It makes me happy to watch.

Try not to get creeped out at the Musée Mécanique

There is a mind-blowing collection of vintage mechanical amusements in the museum. The best arcade west of Coney Island has a mannequin that frightens kids for over 100 years. A quarter will allow you to start brawls in Wild West saloons, see belly dancers, and get hypnotized by a Ferris wheel.

The poetry room in City Lights bookstore in North Beach, San Francisco, California, USA
City Lights has been an independent bookstore and literary landmark since 1953 © Sabrina Dalbesio / Lonely Planet

Celebrate the First Amendment at City Lights Books

Since 1957, when City Lights founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and manager Shigeyoshi Murao won a landmark ruling, free speech and free spirits have been celebrated. The Poet's Chair overlooks Jack Kerouac Alley. The new "Pedagogies of Resistance" section is where you'll find radical ideas.

Sip a cocktail at a Barbary Coast bar

Barbary Coast was a red-light district during the Gold Rush. In 1849, a night that began with smiles and a 10-cent whiskey could end two days later, waking from a drugged sleep on a ship bound for the South Pole. San Franciscans can relax over historically correct cocktails at the revived Barbary Coast saloons, which include the Comstock Saloon, Devil's Acre and 15 Romolo. The saloon scene is reminiscent of drunken sailors of yore, with iron stools, absinthe fountains, dim lighting and reassuring bar keep banter.

The article was last updated about 14 hours ago.