This is a long overdue guide to one of my favorite cities in the world. For a place that has less than one million people, San Francisco has definitely pushed above its weight in terms of contributions to the world. From Levi’s and Gap to UBER and Airbnb, the city has always managed to keep itself in the cutting edge. For the casual visitor, the number of things to do seems to be disproportional to the city’s land area and it’s often hard to decide how to plan a visit to San Francisco especially when it’s the first time.
This itinerary groups together attractions and places that are near or connected to each other for a more organized trip to the city by the bay. It offers a great mix between scenic spots, eating, shopping and with a few hipster areas thrown in. Without further ado, here’s a 3-day itinerary that you can follow for San Francisco.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – From Golden Gate Bridge to North Beach
Golden Gate Bridge
Start the day with a breathtaking view of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge from the lookout point at the Golden Gate Welcome Center.
Palace of Fine Arts
Take the bus (bus # 27, 30, 70, 101) to the Palace of Fine Arts. The complex was originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition and consists of a central rotunda built in a grand European style with several columns around it. It is situated just next to a lagoon that is often filled with swans. The complex itself is both pleasant in the day and at night when it is floodlit. Admission: Free; Hours: 6:00 to 21:00
Just across the entrance to the palace, there is a bus stop from where you can take bus #28 to Ghirardelli Square. If you love chocolates, this is the place to go in order to buy San Francisco’s famous Ghirardelli chocolate. Aside from that, the late 19th century style architecture is worth a look. Make sure to check out the clock tower and fountains. Although nationally recognized as a historic site, I personally found the venue to be too touristy. Or perhaps I’m just not too fond of chocolates!
Tip: If you are looking to visit a number of attractions during your visit to San Francisco, I highly suggest getting an Explorer Pass. You get to skip the lines for a price that is much cheaper than buying individual tickets to the likes of the De Young Museum, SF’s MOMA, etc. It even comes with a cruise around the bay!
You can walk the 1 mile or so distance to Fisherman’s Wharf, passing by San Francisco’s lovely seaside promenade along the way. Personally, I don’t enjoy Fisherman’s Wharf at all and I could do with a San Francisco trip without coming here. However, as a visitor, there are two things that would drive me here. First is the In N Out Burger joint at Jefferson Street – essentially a must when you are in California so do stop by here for lunch.
The second reason is the trip to Alcatraz which you can take from Pier 33. Long synonymous for a place where there is no escape, the name Alcatraz has captured the attention of the public especially with many high-profile prisoners such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Alvin Karpis. Departures from Pier 33 occur daily on half-hour intervals from around 8:45 to 15:50. Ticket price per adult is US$37.25
Coit Tower & North Beach
If it’s not yet too late when you return to the mainland, take a walk up to the Coit Tower for wonderful views of San Francisco’s hilly streets and the skyscrapers of downtown in the distance. Bring a zoom lens with you and you can take shots of the crooked part of Lombard Street when you head down. Opening hours: 10:00 to 17:00; Admission: $10 for non-resident adults
If you are feeling pecking by this time, walk to North Beach which is known as San Francisco’s Little Italy for dinner. The area surrounding Washington Square and Columbus Avenue is filled with plenty of Italian restaurants. From Columbus Avenue, you can also have a direct view of the Transamerica Pyramid, perhaps the city’s most iconic skyscraper. For something different from your usual pizza or pasta, try calzone – an oven-baked pizza that looks like an enlarged dumpling. Calzone’s Pizza Cucina (430 Columbus Avenue) serves up many types of calzone with fillings such as eggplant, spinach, various cheeses and cheesesteak.
Day 2 – Union Square, Chinatown, Mission & Castro
San Francisco Cable Car Ride
Start the day with a ride on one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. On any given day, you’ll find long lines of people waiting for a ride. There are 3 cable car lines in the city:
- Powell-Mason: Takes you from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. Due to the route, it’s very popular among tourists. You can use this ride to stop in the Financial District and Chinatown
- Powell-Hyde: By far, the most scenic of the three routes. The ride takes you past charming houses, some seriously steep hills and you’ll even pass near the crooked part of Lombard Street
- California: It’s an east to west line in contrast to the other two lines which are north to south. This is the least touristy of the lines and where the queue is usually shortest. The terrain is quite steep as well which makes for an exhilarating ride. You’ll pass by several tall buildings within the Financial District as well as Chinatown.
- You can also check out this link for a more detailed description of each of SF’s cable car lines.
Tip: If you are planning to hop on a San Francisco cable car, do note that a single ride costs $8. If you are in town for at least 3 days, it might be more worthwhile to buy a 3-day muni pass. It starts from $31 and gives you access not just to the cable cars but also to buses, streetcars and the metro.
Check out San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the largest in the United States. Most of the Chinese living in San Francisco are Cantonese and the cuisine in this area similarly reflects that. You’ll also find some of the city’s cheapest eats here. A meal consisting of rice and 2 or 3 dishes will set you back by around $5 only.
Afterwards, head further south to do some serious shopping at Union Square, San Francisco’s equivalent of a high street. You’ll find many big-name brands here including some San Francisco brands that have made it big like Levi’s, Gap and Apple (not exactly San Francisco but within Silicon Valley). A short stroll from Union Square towards Yerba Buena is SF’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). This place is huge, with 7 floors of artwork including those from Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. You can purchase discounted tickets here.
Take a late lunch in La Taqueria (open 11AM to 8:45PM except Mondays and Tuesdays) in the Mission District – personally one of my favorite areas for food in San Francisco. The area has changed so much since I lived there some 16 years ago. Back then, it was a semi-seedy place with cheap food and nightlife. When I returned last year, I found the place filled with hipster cafes and independent boutiques (not to mention sky high rents). You’ll find the bulk of the nice cafes, restaurants and boutiques at Mission Street stretching from 18th Street down to 24th Street. Similarly, Valencia Street which is parallel to Mission two streets away, is also filled with shops.
After having your fill at Mission Street, walk to Mission Dolores – said to be the oldest building in the entire city. The sloping Mission Dolores Park a few blocks away offers an alternate view of the downtown area in the distance.
End your day at Twin Peaks while passing through the Castro, San Francisco’s LGBT district, for the highest view you can get of the city. It’s best to come during sunset when the lights around the city are turned on which makes for a majestic sight. Do note that you can’t take the bus here. You either grab an UBER or walk around 40 minutes from the Castro to get here.
If you are in San Francisco during the Halloween period, you can check out the street party held every 31st of October in the Castro. You can see folks dressed in outrageous costumes and most are more than happy to get their pictures taken.
Day 3 – Haight-Ashbury & Golden Gate Park
Start your day in Haight-Ashbury – one of the focal points of San Francisco’s counterculture and hippie movement. A place that one often associates with legendary musical acts such as Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, the district is now more touristy than anything else. You still get that bohemian vibe with some outrageously beautiful Victorian houses, vintage clothing shops, vinyl record stores and the odd beatnik offering to sell weed.
Golden Gate Park
The edge of Haight Street brings you within striking distance to the entrance of Golden Gate Park. This is one of the largest urban parks in the United States and is 3 miles long. You can easily spend the rest of the day here exploring this rectangular-shaped park from one end to another. To save you time, here are the highlights:
- Conservatory of Flowers – Even if you’re not into flowers, it’s worth coming to this spot to appreciate the Victorian-style greenhouse that was built in the 1800s.
- California Academy of Sciences – A museum of natural history, come here to check out simulations of an Amazon rainforest as well as the impressive aquarium setup of Philippine marine life. Highly recommended. You can book discounted tickets here.
- De Young Museum – A fine arts museum that opened in 2005 in a modern building. Come here if you like marveling at art pieces.
- Japanese Tea Garden – In my opinion, the most picturesque area of the park, the Japanese Tea Garden is a slice of zen in San Francisco with plenty of traditional structures such as a pagoda, tea house and even a Buddha statue.
- Bison Paddock – appreciate the United States’ national mammal here. Free.
Depending on your pace, it will either be late afternoon or evening by the time you finish in Golden Gate Park. If time permits, head to Ocean Beach – just next to the western end of the park – for views of the Pacific Ocean. Alternatively, check out Alamo Square which is famous for a row of houses called painted ladies. The houses face the west so it’s best to visit in the afternoon.
In case you finish early with the sun still up in the horizon, head to Baker Beach (via bus #29 from Golden Gate Park) for an alternate view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
On your way back to downtown San Francisco, stop for dinner at Burma Superstar (309 Clement Street) for some tasty fare. I dare say the food here is even better than in Burma itself.
Excursions from San Francisco
Yosemite National Park – One of California’s must-visit spots, Yosemite National Park requires a couple of hours drive from San Francisco. If you don’t feel like driving yourself, you can also book a day trip (lasting 13.5 hours) that will bring you there and back to San Francisco in the evening.
Napa Valley – A popular day trip destination from San Francisco is Napa Valley where one can glimpse some picturesque wineries. You can come here to learn about the basics of making wine as well as taste a few kinds while doing it. Day tours are available that will take you there and back to San Francisco within the day.
Muir Woods – An easy journey from San Francisco, Muir Woods boasts of some of the oldest redwood trees in the region. The park is best visited in late afternoon when the sun’s rays pierces through the thick forest canopy, creating an ethereal feel. You can book a combined half-day tour with Sausalito here. Admission: $10 per adult / Opening hours: 8:00 to 20:00 daily
Gilroy Outlets – Shopping addicts can easily spend an entire day here shopping for bargains. You’ll find many branded items at a much cheaper price compared to high street boutiques. You’ll need a car to get here.
Santa Cruz – A laidback town known for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – an amusement park that is also a historical site. If you’re heading to Monterey, a longer but more scenic route by the coast passes through this town.
Monterey – A town that has featured prominently in John Steinbeck’s novels, it has a couple of family-oriented attractions such as the Monterey Aquarium and the scenic 17-mile drive. Complete the trip by also heading to neighboring Carmel. You can book a day tour here.
Sausalito – Just across the bay is Sausalito, a seaside town popular for yachts and sailing. While here, you can do a small cruise on your own with one of the many boat rental services around Sausalito.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Midrange – Hotel Bijou which is located in Mason Street, close to the Powell BART station is a good choice for convenience/location vis-a-vis the price. The hotel has an art deco feel and has movie screenings on some days (free for guests).
Luxury – InterContinental San Francisco is my personal choice for a San Francisco luxury hotel. The rooms are spacious and the corner rooms especially have breathtaking views of the city skyline. The club lounge here is also a highlight with several culinary presentations within a day, you won’t want to leave the hotel.
For more tips as you plan your trip, check out IHG’s Guide to Traveling to San Francisco.
Have you been to San Francisco? What are your favorite spots?