Updated: 10/25/2018 | October 25th, 2018
San Francisco is one of the most eclectic cities in the United States. It’s home to liberals, hippies, hipsters, techies, immigrants, yuppies, one of the oldest gay scenes in the States, that big red bridge, Alcatraz, delicious Chinese food, seafood, well, food in general (this is a great city to be hungry in), and so much more. It’s a magical place and one of my favorite places to visit since there is so much to see and do. While it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would convince me to pack my bags and live there, I look forward to each visit with excitement (and hunger). There’s always something new and exciting going on in SF.
Yet, I remember my first time visiting San Francisco. I only had three full days to see everything, and that just wasn’t enough. It was overwhelming. Going back a few times has allowed me to see everything but what happens when you don’t know when you are going to visit SF again? What to do in San Francisco? What do you see in SF?
San Francisco’s attractions are spread out and aren’t always convenient to reach — there’s a lot of travel time involved thanks to lots of traffic and a limited subway system.
So here is my post on how to make the most of your time in San Francisco and how to see and explore the city in just three days (or less)! This post will help you figure out what to see during your visit!
What to Do in San Francisco: Day 1
Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks as well as a piece of engineering art. You can walk across the bridge if you want (recommended), drop in at the visitor’s center to be briefed on the history of the park, or just stare at it from every angle and take a stupid amount of pictures like I did. Don’t forget to make your way to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which offers a waterfront promenade, views of the bridge, and a number of hiking trails. There’s a Walt Disney museum in the park too.
Taking public transit to see the Golden Gate Bridge is highly recommended, as parking is limited and there is usually construction in the area. Public buses run regularly from different parts of the city, including downtown, the Civic Center, Union Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Visit Crissy Field
Also near the bridge, as you walk along the harbor toward the center of town is this park, which features a beautiful beach, restaurants, piers for fishing, and parks for Frisbee. You’ll find a lot of locals running, walking their dogs, or lying on the beach. It offers sweeping views of the entire harbor. There’s a small eatery at the west end of the park named the Warming Hut – you can pick up snack sand drinks there.
Visit The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a Roman-style remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The outdoor rotunda and its lagoon are one of the city’s most photographed sights. Take a leisurely stroll around the lagoon, relax under the rotunda, or enjoy a picnic on the grass. It’s also a social destination, where you can bring along a few friends to play giant jenga, cornhole, ping pong, and more. There are constantly events being held here, so check the website to see what’s going on.
3601 Lyon Street, +1 415-608-2220, palaceoffinearts.com. Open Tue-Sun (10am-5pm).
This former federal prison on Alcatraz Island was home to some of the worst criminals in the US. It was shut down in the 1970s and has since become a national landmark people can explore. I’d suggest taking a tour during your visit so the rangers can provide you with some historical context. Be sure to book the ferry to the island early if you’re going in the summer, as it gets very full!
+1 415-981-7625, alcatrazcruises.com. Alcatraz Cruises is the official provider of tour tickets and transportation to and from Alcatraz. Tours run daily year-round, starting from $38 which includes an audio tour.
Visit Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square
This area covers numerous blocks along the waterfront and is one of the most popular (touristy) things to do in the city. There are street performers, souvenir shops, and tons of spendy restaurants. Along Fish Alley you can watch fishermen at work, as they’ve done for decades. This is a good place to wander and explore for people watching, but don’t eat here. The food is overpriced and, to be honest, not that good. If you want to try some of the mouthwatering seafood that San Francisco is famous for, I really liked Waterbar and the Anchor Oyster Bar.
The best way to reach Fisherman’s Wharf is to take the F-Line streetcar that runs from the Castro neighborhood along the length of Market Street before turning west at the Ferry Terminal Building. The area is also serviced by two cable car lines: the Powell-Hyde line on Hyde Street and Beach Street, and the Powell-Mason line on Taylor Street and Bay Street.
Hang out in the Mission
After your busy day, go relax in Dolores Park for great views of the city. If you’re a history buff, head to Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) – the oldest surviving structure in the city. It was founded in 1776 and now is home to the only cemetery within city limits.
The Mission District is a fabulous place to spend your night. Be sure to check out Mission’s amazing Mexican food (and overall food scene), bars, and clubs. Grab a burrito at Taqueria Cancún or Papolete, or visit one of the cocktail bars on 16th (Dalva is good). Watch out for hipsters!
What to Do in San Francisco: Day 2
Ride the Cable Cars
Riding the cable cars is an excellent way to tour the city and experience various neighborhoods in San Francisco. Catch the cable cars from Market Street. They’re fun to ride and will save you lots of time walking up and down those hills. A one-way ticket is $7 (you can pay the conductor onboard). If you have a CityPASS, cable car rides are included.
Visit Lombard Street
While riding the cable cars, make sure to get off at Lombard Street (located south of Russian Hill Park) and see one of the world’s windiest streets. Just take the Powell/Hyde line, which starts at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The history of Lombard Street is worth knowing. During the 1920s, people in San Francisco were beginning to drive around in automobiles, but many of the hills were too steep to navigate. A local man named Carl Henry came up with the idea of using a curved street to help vehicles move downhill, although it would mean several sharp turns. An engineer named Clyde Healy created the design, and overall the hill’s slope went from 27% to 16%. Now you can watch the cars and bikers navigate the sharp turns as tourists gawk at them.
Head up Coit Tower
Another major city landmark is Coit Tower, perched atop Telegraph Hill. It was built in 1933 to help beautify the city and features 27 fresco murals by different artists. From the top, you’ll get panoramic views of the city (it’s 9 USD for adults to go to the top, with discounts available for teens and children). Otherwise, you can explore the monument and murals at ground level. The murals here were painted in 1934 by local artists to depict life in San Francisco during the Depression. Back in the 30s, they were the subject of some heated controversy involving the longshoremen’s strike, and so were padlocked and protected months before being opened to the public.
1 Telegraph Hill Blvd, +1 315-249-0995, sfrecpark.org/destination/telegraph-hill-pioneer-park/coit-tower. Opening hours are daily from 10am-6pm (April-October), and 10am-5pm (November to March). Admission is $9 USD for non-residents and $6 USD for San Francisco residents.
Head to Chinatown
Next to NYC, this is the most famous Chinatown in the United States (it’s also the biggest). Chinese immigrants first came to the West Coast and set up shop in San Francisco. Due to racial segregation, this neighborhood became predominantly Chinese and has remained so, though the segregation is over. Chinatown here has some of the best places to eat Chinese food (dim sum) in the country, teahouses, bars, souvenir stalls, and fortune cookie makers. Eat your heart out here. I do.
Go on a Harbor Tour
Take an afternoon cruise of San Francisco Bay to see the city from the water. You’ll get some good photos, learn about the bay, see some wildlife, and enjoy life on the water. There are many tour companies, but a cheap way to see the bay is to take the public ferries for 7.30 USD. Same views, cheaper price. You can find prices and routes on the ferry’s website.
Hang out in the Castro
The Castro is San Francisco’s gay neighborhood and features a number of ethnic and modern restaurants, as well as a bunch that serve the locally sourced organic food the Bay Area is known for. Moreover, there’s a plethora of wild and fun clubs that cater to both gay and straight people. It’s an awesome place to go out at night.
Start at Lucky 13, where a wide selection of affordable beer makes for an ideal way to start the night, or hang out on the wrap-around balcony at The Lookout. If you want to dance, head to Q Bar on Monday night for the ultimate 90’s pop-inspired evening.
The birthplace of America’s counterculture, the Haight was ground zero during the summer of 1967, a.k.a. The Summer of Love. Hippies used to live here, but yuppies have since moved in, buying up all the colorful Victorian homes throughout Haight-Ashbury and replacing head shops with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants, and hip cafés. It’s still a fun place to visit, and Flower Power Walking Tours runs in-depth and informative tours through the neighborhood ($20 per person).
What to Do in San Francisco: Day 3
Take a walking tour
San Francisco has a number of interesting walking tours that can teach you about the history of the eclectic neighborhoods or show you all the scrumptious food the city has to offer. Two of the best companies to use are:
Eat at the ferry building
My top place to eat in San Francisco, the Ferry Building Marketplace is a foodie dream. Outside the building on weekdays are a lot of food stands and on the weekends, there’s also a big farmers market. Inside, you’ll find restaurants and food vendors selling specialty food items as well as butchers, cheesemongers, wine bars, and more.
The ferry building is located along the Embarcadero at the start of Market Street. +1 415-983-8000, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. Opening hours are from Mon-Fri (10am-7pm), Sat (8am-6pm), and Sun (11am-5pm).
Visit the city’s many museums
San Francisco has numerous museums that are worth seeing. Here are my favorites:
- The Beat Museum – Dedicated to the Beat Generation, here you’ll find a collection of original manuscripts, rare books, letters, and more from authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. (1-800-537-6822, 540 Broadway. Open daily 10am-7pm. Admission is $8 USD. Note: Some sections of this museum are currently closed for renovations.)
- Cable Car Museum – The city’s cable cars have been around since 1873, and you can learn all about them here. There’s a overlooking the huge engines and wheels that make the cars run! (1201 Mason Street, +1 415-474-1887. Open daily, but hours vary per season. Admission is free!)
- Exploratorium – Step into the fascinating world of science of at the Exploratorium, where a series of hands-on activities will keep you entertained for hours. It’s not just a kids’ museum – there are exhibits specifically for adults! (Pier 15, +1 415-528-4444. Open Tue–Sun from 10am-5pm. Thursday evenings from 6pm-10pm is adults only. Tickets are $29.95 for adults.)
- De Young Art Museum – De Young showcases excellent art from the 17th centuries onward, including contemporary, photography, textiles, and more. There is an Observation Level on the 9th floor with great views over the city and hthe Pacific. (Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, +1 415-750-3600. Open Tue-Sun from 9:30am–5:15pm, and until 8:30pm on Fridays. Tickets are $15 for adults.)
Explore Golden Gate Park
This gigantic park features a Japanese garden (skip it), a museum, an arboretum, and tons of hiking and walking trails. Three miles long and stretching about 30 blocks to the sea, it’s 20 percent bigger than New York’s Central Park. Walking from end to end will take half a day. If that’s too much for you, spend at least a few hours here exploring the park, especially if it’s an unusually warm and beautiful day in the city.
Relax with a drink
After all that traveling, you should probably explore some of the city’s amazing brewhouses. The Mission and Castro are two of the best spots for nightlife, but you’ll find amazing bars and clubs throughout the city. Here’s a quick video that features five:
Special thanks to Stuart for taking me around! Be sure to check out his website too as it’s filled with some amazing travel tips for San Francisco.
BONUS: 10 Extra Things to Do and See in San Francisco
- Explore Japantown – Come here for amazing sushi, Japanese food, Korean food, and kitchen ingredients. Shabusen has amazing ramen, while Tenroku Sushi does some of the best sushi in the city. There are also a myriad of cafes and cocktail bars to explore.
- Catch a game – San Francisco locals love their sports teams, especially the Giants, their really good baseball team. If you’re in town during a game, be sure to head to the stadium and cheer on the local team. Even if you don’t like the sport (whatever the sport), the locals will happily take you in, explain the game, and drink a beer with you.
- Visit wine country – Near the city are the world-famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions. If you love wine and have time to leave the city, you obviously need to come here. Napa is one of the world’s leading wine-producing area, and every year 3.3 million people come to taste their way around the region. Some companies run day trips to Napa Valley since it’s closer, but you’ll be a bit rushed. It’s far better to spend at least a night.
- Visit Muir Woods – Muir Woods is the closest place to the Bay Area where you can see giant redwood trees. You don’t get to encounter the huge, huge iconic redwoods (which are sequoias and farther away, at Sequoia National Park), but if you’re looking to see something close to the city, this is as good as it gets. Entrance to the area is $10 for adults, and free for children (15 years of age and younger).
- Explore Berkeley – Across the bay is the interesting city of Berkley, home to music, hippies, students, and the very left-leaning University of California, Berkeley. Here you’ll find even more vegan and vegetarian restaurants, street performers, and eclectic shops (including makeshift booths of jewelry and other goods on the streets).
- Visit Oakland – Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco (a five-minute drive away), Oakland is considered the Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Manhattan. With its own history and community (rife with arts, music, festivals, food, and popular sports teams), Oakland has become popular with hipsters and their bars and specialty restaurants. There’s a lot you can do in Oakland – consider spending a day or more here.
- Take in the view – End your trip with a visit to Twin Peaks. You can drive up to the top of these small mountains to get a sweeping view of the city. From there you can also hike the trails over the South and North peaks – from the south peak, you’ll get a perfect 360-degree view of San Francisco!
- Check out the Asian Art Museum – This is one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art in the world, with almost 20,000 items in the collection. It’s not one of my favorite museums here, but if you’re a museum buff it’s worth a visit. You can get free guided tours daily here to walk you through all the highlights and special exhibits that the museum has to offer.
- Visit City Lights – This bookstore is where Allen Ginsberg first published Howl & Other Poems. It’s a great indie bookstore if you’re searching for something new. The store been a “literary meeting place” since 1953, and still hosts special events and readings.
- Rollerskate in church – The Church of 8 Wheels is an old church that has been converted to a rollerskating arena. You can expect a good party when you show up here – including DJs and live music. Rent some skates and join the fun (there are times for both kids and adults). There are even lessons for people who have never rollerskated before!
(For suggestions on where to eat in SF, Jodi from Legal Nomads has this incredible list of restaurants!)
San Francisco has a lot of things to do, attractions to see, and places to eat. Be sure to organize your sightseeing in when you visit San Franciso so you can better get around and have more time to see all the sights and activities as, like I said, it’s hard to get around. But this city will blow your mind and, while I think I’m too east coast to live there, I love visiting and do so every year. I just can’t get enough of this city!
Book Your Trip to San Francisco: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use them all the time. My suggested place is:
- The Green Tortoise – Upbeat spot with free breakfast, pub crawls, and dinners three times a week.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!