San Francisco has a special place in my heart. One time my sisters and I had this kooky nanny who would pee standing up. No wait, that was the plot to Mrs Doubtfire. Well, there was this other time Sean Connery and I had to stop chemical weapons being launched from Alcatraz and I drove a yellow fe-… Anyway, you don’t need a blockbuster plot for a show-stopping itinerary fro San Francisco. Here’s how to spend an unforgettable three days in the City by the Bay.
Alongside houses on hills, some hardworking street cars, and one of the world’s most iconic bridges, there’s more to add to your itinerary for San Francisco than these regular staples.
Now to make a patriotic San Franciscan proud, it’s time to make your day. Let’s get the ball rolling.
Here’s how to make the most of your itinerary for San Francisco.
Where to stay in San Francisco
In case you haven’t booked your trip yet and are wondering where to stay, check out these hotel recommendations. These three hotels are all close to the main centers of activity.
- Feel like you’re in the heart of the city with a stay in Hotel G San Francisco in Union Square.
- Fairmont San Francisco, atop Nob Hill, is close to Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square and Chinatown.
- If you want to wake up to views of the Bay every morning, then look into the Argonaut at Fisherman’s Wharf
Itinerary for San Francisco, Day One: See the Best of the West
Watch the sunrise with the Painted Ladies
Start your itinerary for San Francisco with some eye candy and enjoy a classic San Francisco view. You’ll have an instant appreciation for the city after you see these hillside Victorian houses with skyscrapers standing high on the horizon behind them. If you’re looking for a great photo, stand at the edge of Alamo Square Park – you’ll be at a high enough vantage to see the houses and everything behind them, including the financial district and the bay.
Next stop on your itinerary for San Francisco, breakfast. Dispense with your intermittent fasting, you’re on holiday for crêpe sake! Breakfast is a big deal in San Fran, so don’t waste your dollars on dives.
When bottomless mimosas are up for grabs, it’s no wonder that cafes and restaurants fill up fast, so make sure you arrive before 10 am to your desired destination, or you could be waiting for up to an hour to secure a spot at the table.
Live life in the 21st century – Silicon Valley is only a stone’s throw away – and embrace the millennial experience by spending $8 on avocado toast at The Mill in NOPA. It’s more delicious than the price tag. With fresh bread from their partner, Josey Baker Bread, whole grain flour that’s ground onsite (hence the name The Mill), and a sourdough recipe passed down from a grandma, the smell alone will be tantalizing enough to keep you there.
If you’re after a more traditional slice of Americana – land of the free refill and home of the bravely sized portion – go big with breakfast and pile up stacks of pancakes at Zazie’s in Cole Valley.
While San Fran isn’t as spread out as other Californian cities, it can still take a while to get around, so if you see any of these cafes close to your hotel, you can take it on good advice that they’re reliable for coffee and a snack:
Tasty places with multiple locations
- Saint Frank Coffee
San Francisco → Saint Frank. Now that your mind’s been blown, get it blown again with a healthy hit of hot coffee. There’s two locations in town: one in Russian Hill not far from Lombard Street, and another in Soma not far from Union Square.
- Blue Bottle Coffee
With twelve locations sprinkled throughout the city, and even more in other Californian cities, this is a safe bet if you’re a coffee connoisseur hoping to avoid the scourge of Starbucks.
- Equator Coffees
With three locations in San Fran and one in Sausalito (plus a few others sprinkled throughout the state), the folks at Equator care about offering you the best of the bean. Check out their seasonal specials if you’re looking for a caffeine hit with an alternative twist.
Get cultured in Golden Gate Park
Burn off those calories with a gentle hike in Golden Gate Park. Alongside its hiking trails, the park – bigger than New York’s Central Park – also has its own Japanese gardens, a Dutch windmill, and even a bison paddock.
If you want some culture to go with your nature, check out the California Academy of Sciences. This fascinating museum has its own indoor rainforest and a Foucault Pendulum that demonstrates the earth’s rotation. The park is also the location of the De Young Museum, a tribute to all things American from the 17th to 21st centuries.
While you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park, remember that Richmond is close by and that plenty of great snacks (and an amazing book store) are waiting to be found.
Where to eat in Richmond
If you’re looking for breakfast on the go, then get ready to lurch your body forward and avoid the gentle descent of crumbs landing on your shirt when you bite into the city’s best croissant at Arsicault Bakery. It’s simple, but this mouthful of buttery goodness, combined with a coffee in your hand and the Californian sunshine on your neck make for the ultimate breakfast trifecta.
There’s more to come on Chinatown later, but the dim sum in Inner Richmond’s Good Luck Dim Sum may hit an even sweeter spot than on their home turf.
Once you’ve munched on crumbly calories, burn ’em off with a stroll to the far end of the park and arrive at the western coast of San Francisco.
Get intellectual in Inner Richmond
Find some charm in the pages of a novel at Green Apple Books in Inner Richmond. If you’re on a bookstore pilgrimage make sure to check out City Lights in Jackson Square and the Booksmith in the Haight too.
Watch the sunset at Lands End
When you exit Presidio, close to the Dutch Windmill, you’ll be ideally situated to start a sunset stroll along the coastal trail toward Land Ends Labyrinth and Mile Rock Beach. If you’re hunting an unforgettable sunset to add to your itinerary for San Francisco, you’re in the right place.
Your path will take you past a little bit of history at Sutro Baths. You can’t swim in them anymore, but this old, burned-down bathhouse is the closest you’ll get to old ruins in California.
See the city lights from Twin Peaks
If the idea of all that walking isn’t doing it for you, then take a ride up to Twin Peaks which offers up an equally impressive end to the day. Drink in the entirety of the city from the crest of these dual hills.
You can expect less weird goings-on than the fictional town in Washington state, but one damn fine view. From atop Twin Peaks you can drink in the city’s skyline and the bay. At 282 meters above sea level, it’s worth the journey.
If you want to avoid the tourists at Twin Peaks, then drive a little further to Mount Davidson. Like a Price is Right contestant who guesses one dollar higher, Mount Davidson rises up to a mighty 283 metres above sea level. There’s also great hiking here (although it’s probably best to save that for daylight).
Itinerary for San Francisco, Day Two: Alcatraz and the East Side
After enjoying what’s on offer in the city’s west side, it’s time to get your bearings in San Fran’s main tourist spots. Walk some key neighbourhoods, breakfast by the bay, and enjoy plenty of walking in that fresh ocean air.
Breakfast in the Ferry Building
You’ll be able to spend an entire morning walking around the building and enjoying the multitude of merchants inside. Start your day on the right foot with a caffeine boost from the folks at Blue Bottle Coffee. They have two cafes in the building, so finding their bright blue logo shouldn’t be an issue, even with jet-lagged eyes.
Get the ferry to Alcatraz
If you didn’t go to an offshore prison, did you really go to San Francisco? What other city can make so bold a claim? Alcatraz was home (that might be too kind a word) to some of the United States’ most notorious criminals, including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Featured in films and romanticised for the inmates that had to fight against high tides and hungry sharks to breakout, you’ll be stepping onto a big piece of 20th-century history.
If you’re booking tickets to Alcatraz, combine it with a Golden Gate Bridge bike tour. Not only will you get to take a self-guided tour of The Rock’s cells with an audio guide full of tantalising tidbits, you’ll also cycle the Bay’s coast and the bridge itself.*
* The bike tour is automatically booked on the day before Alcatraz, so get in contact with the supplier to schedule the same day, or a date that suits you.
Have seafood at Pier 39
Once your ferry has taken you back to Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll be ready to fill up on something more substantial than facts. Head to Bistro Boudin for a bowl of clam chowder served inside a cob bun.
With your hunger satiated, spend the afternoon playing games at an old school arcade in the Musee Mecanique (including an arm-wrestling machine that only costs a quarter).
After that you can head west and enjoy more of the coast, or venture down the east side of the city to the Embarcadero where more earthly delights await (pop back into the Ferry Building, the burgers from Gott’s Roadside come highly recommended).
Go topsy turvy at Lombard Street
If you head west after lunch, you won’t be far from the world’s windiest road – Lombard Street – made up of eight hairpin turns, all situated on a steep 27% grade. Learner drivers in San Francisco break into a cold sweat at its mere mention.
Make sure to hear nature’s music at the Wave Organ – where pipes have been laid through the shore to make music. Take another five-minute walk and arrive at architecture akin to ancient Greece at the Palace of Fine Arts. Dating back to 1915 it has appeared in classic San Fran films like Vertigo and The Room.
See the city from Coit Tower and ride the cable car
If you head east, you’ll hit more highlights.
See the city while staying downtown at Coit Tower. The views are top notch and the trip to the top is full of artistic ambition with frescoes decorating the interior. Located in North Beach, not far from Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower provides a 360° view of the city and its coast. The 64-meter-tall tower shows off the financial district, Alcatraz and the famous curves of Lombard Hill.
Finish up with the Financial District and and Rincon Park, where you’ll see Cupid’s Span. Once you’ve finished your walk, head on over to Union Square to see the city’s main hub for shops.
Union Square is also the nexus for cable cars, so if you’ve been hoping to hop on for a ride, then here’s where to head.
Sightseeing in San Francisco made easy
If you’re hoping to drink in the city’s views in one fell swoop, then the Hop-On Hop-Off bus is the answer to your prayers. Aboard the double-decker open-top bus you’ll pass by Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, and more!
Get the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge
First of all, it’s time to get dinner. Check out The Italian Homemade Company in North Beach.
If you decided to walk westward earlier in the day, then you’re in the prime position to continue your trail around the coast and spend some time in the Presidio. If you went down to Union Square, then hop on a cable car back north.
Finish the day at Marshall’s Beach. This vista is worth the journey. Situated beneath the bluffs of the Golden Gate Bridge you’re guaranteed incredible views and a true sense of scale of just how big the bridge is. Crissy Field is closer to the North Beach area where you’ve spent the day, and still offers an exquisite end to the evening.
Itinerary for San Francisco, Day Three: Venture North of the Golden Gate Bridge
Make today about the Golden Gate Bridge and what lies north of it in Marin County.
Bike over the Golden Gate Bridge
Get your blood pumping with a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. With 1.2 kilometers above water and a total span of nearly two kilometers, it won’t take too long to cross, but the ocean breeze will wake you up and provide a valuable memory if you’re usually landlocked.
Once you’re across, take a stroll through Sausalito. Grab an early lunch at one of the many waterside restaurants and pick up your souvenirs.
See Redwoods in Muir Woods
If you don’t have the time to venture as far afield as Yosemite or Sequoia National Park to see enormous California Redwoods, then Muir Woods is a solid option to add to your itinerary for San Francisco. While these giant sequoias aren’t as freakishly large as those in the neighbouring parks, the tallest still rises to a mighty 79m – that’s 30 meters larger than the statue section of Lady Liberty in NYC.
If you’ve got a hiking itch that you’ve been dying to scratch, then venture a little farther north to Mount Tamalpais. There’s hiking trails that will take you from the shores of beaches to ravines, with the chance to climb beside a waterfall (that’s the Dipsea, Steep Ravine, and Matt Davis Loop if you want the name). And if you’re looking for an even more comprehensive read up, then check this out. Just keep an eye out for poison oak – that’s a hiking itch you defintely don’t want!
Have dinner in Chinatown
With your body tuckered out, it’s time for some tucker. If you haven’t been to Chinatown yet, now’s the time. Soak up the buzz of the city in a part of town that dates all the way back to 1848.
It deserves its own blog post, but it would be remiss to not delve into more detail on SF’s Chinatown (the oldest and largest in the United States). If you’re yearning for yum cha, trying to find products that you can’t buy in your hometown, or have a serious craving for Peking duck, then make sure you roam the streets of Chinatown.
If you’re after a seafood alternative, then look into Pearl 6101 in Outer Richmond. They also have dishes to suit all palates if fish isn’t your thing.
If you’re in the city on a Thursday, then the Exploratorium is open after dark. There’s a DJ, bar, and – of course – access to the interactive exhibits. Get a little tipsy and look into warped mirrors and a larger-than-life kaleidoscope before walking from a pitch-black dome to a fog bridge.
Play games North of the Panhandle
Jump in an Uber and head to Emporium SF – Arcade Bar, it’s only a 15-minute drive away.
Ideally situated near to Alamo Square, you’ll be able to see the Painted Ladies by night, before you play everything from pinball to old-school classics like Double Dragon and Metal Slug.
Day Trips from San Francisco
Sonoma and Napa
When you’re so close to wine country, it would be a shame not to explore California’s vineyards. Take a day trip from the City by the Bay and journey an hour north to the rolling hills and verdant valleys of Sonoma and Napa.
See how the grape goes from vine to vino and finally find out what exactly a tannin is. After you’ve gone through enough cellar doors, make sure you line your stomach when you’re back in the city. Wine-fueled dumpling purge around Chinatown, anyone?
Yosemite National Park
It’s a trek, but with scenery like this…
It’s easy to understand why it’s a mecca for rock climbers, campers and fathers who insist on taking their children camping.
Not exactly a hidden gem, but if you want to witness where the marvels of the 21st century were made, then make sure you venture south of the Bay and check out Silicon Valley. Hop from campus to campus on this guided tour.
Don’t be alarmed if you are caught in the judgemental glare of some Silicon Valley tech nerds. Their vision is based on movement, and percieved social status. Talk loudly into your phone and drop in key phrases like “Thanks Elon”, “Blockchain” and “No, I said lactose-intolerant-intolerant“, and you should be able to walk among them undetected.
How to travel in San Francisco
When you’re in the city responsible for Uber and Lyft’s creation, getting around needn’t be a chore. If you’re wondering how bad traffic is, well, getting around San Francisco isn’t a slog like commuting in LA. In fact, 52% of trips in the city are taken by means other than private cars.
Then again, LA City is ten times the size of San Francisco – 470 square miles compared to San Fran’s 47 square miles – so it makes sense for citizens of the Bay Area to take advantage of the city’s bike lanes and public transport systems. MUNI buses don’t cost an arm and a leg, and the underground train system, BART, is an even quicker way to reach your destination if you have considerable ground to cover.
San Francisco also helped launch the e-scooter-sharing craze that is sweeping its way across Europe. Keep an eye out for Scoot scooters if you’re looking for the nimblest way to navigate the neighbourhoods.
Best activities for your San Francisco itinerary
If you’re a serial skim reader, and you’re looking for the essentials, here they are:
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Ferry Building
- Rincon Park – Cupids Span
- Coit Tower – if you’re looking for a 360 view of the city and water
- Cable Cars – good way to get from Union Station to Fisherman’s Wharf
- Chinatown – largest and oldest in the US
- Lombard Street – the world’s windiest street
- Palace of Fine Arts
- Wave Organ – tubes that make noises when waves come in
- Painted Ladies
- Twin Peak
- Lands End
- Sutro Baths
- Marshall’s Beach
Best things to do in San Francisco from a local
If you want to make your itinerary for San Francisco more exclusive, check out these tips you wouldn’t find from the average travel blog. The list is broken down by neighbourhood to help you find the best things near you.
Get a raunchy snack in the Castro
Get the raunchiest snack in town at Hot Cookie.
Macaron? More like macabone. Order a phallus-shaped cookie; you can even get it creamed. They even have vulva shaped delicacies too. Expect a taste sensation.
Drink a rum coconut in Mission Dolores Park
If you’re there in summer, check out Dolores Park. You’ll get to hang with locals who’ll be knocking back beers – keep an eye out for the coconut man who walks around selling coconuts which he’ll cut open and immediately fill with rum to serve you.
Bi-rite ice cream
Coconuts haven’t cooled you down, or you’re not much of a drinker? Or maybe you just want ice cream, then Bi-rite is the real deal.
If rum, followed by rum-and-raisin still isn’t doing it for you, then Tartine is sure to hit the spot. It’s right beside Dolores Park for when you’re feeling peckish. Indulge your sweet tooth even more with treats from Tartine.
Unconventional for tourists, but if you love a challenge then you’ll find three of California’s highest-rated escape rooms in the Palace of Fine Arts. There’s: the Great Houdini Escape Room, the Roosevelt Escape Room, and the Edison Escape Room – so arm yourself with historical knowledge and get ready to escape from a prison of puzzles.
Not that hidden, but the debate in SF is whether Taqueria El Farolita or La Taqueria has the best Mission Burrito. They’re a block apart, so I say don’t choose – have both! Warning, it’s cash-only, and my opinion is Farolito has the better burrito but La Taqueria has better tacos – they melt cheese in between a soft and hard shell if you order it house style.
Put your golfing skills to the test at Urban Putt. This crazy golf in the Mission district is SF-themed and all indoor if the weather’s not great.
Get spiritual while staying secular. Check the yoga schedule at Grace Cathedral. Once a week they have a yoga night that’s free of charge.