Birds flying by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Destinations

San Francisco Itinerary: 2, 3, and 4 Days

Keri Bridgwater

Keri Bridgwater

November 29, 2023

12 min read

Table of Contents

With Gold Rush–era and ‘60s counterculture roots in addition to its modern claim to fame as a booming tech hub, San Francisco is arguably one of the most storied and eclectic cities in the US. According to the San Francisco Travel Association, 14.8 million people visited the city in 2021 (down from a record high of 26.2 million in 2019), with iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Fisherman’s Wharf being major draws. It also has a renowned culinary scene—it was named the fourth-best foodie city in the country by Travel + Leisure, and 28 restaurants hold Michelin stars. Plus, there are world-class galleries and theaters housed within the city’s 7x7-mile peninsula. 

Diverse and LGBTQIA+-friendly neighborhoods with music venues, street art murals, cool cocktail dens, and craft coffee shops appeal to younger crowds, while the city’s museums, scenic lookouts, and tranquil parks are favorites among families with kids of all ages. Thanks to walkable streets and easy-to-use public transport, you can ditch the car and easily spend several days seeing classic sights and discovering hidden gems while zipping around on the BART system and Muni bus—and making at least one journey on the historic F-Line Streetcar. Should your schedule allow, ride a morning ferry across the bay to nearby Marin to stroll Sausalito’s waterfront or walk among the giant redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument. 

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2-day San Francisco itinerary 

Day 1: Presidio, Chinatown, and the Embarcadero

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Where better to begin your tour of San Francisco than at the city’s most iconic landmark? Head to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center for the 1.7-mile stroll to the “Marin side” of the bridge, or sign up for one of the free walking tours offered by San Francisco City Guides, which sets off from the Visitor Plaza at 11am on Thursdays and Sundays. Grab a warm beverage and pastry from onsite Equator Coffee before heading out; if you’re not up for the walk, sip your coffee and take photos at nearby scenic spots, like the Golden Gate Postcard Viewpoint instead. Pro tip: The fog that San Francisco is best known for usually rolls in early each morning, burns off by early afternoon, and returns in the evening. If you show up in the morning or evening, be prepared to wait for a glimpse of the bridge.

A walking path through the woods in the Presidio, San Francisco

As you’re already inside national park site the Presidio, you’re perfectly positioned to explore the former US Army military base that now acts as a scenic recreational area. In addition to hiking trails, picnic spots, and secluded beaches, highlights in the park include four art installations by British sculptor Andy Goldworthy, the Yoda Fountain at Lucasfilm headquarters, and the Walt Disney Family Museum ($15 for kids, $25 for adults). The Presidio Social Club is a great spot for lunch (though it’s only open on Thursdays and Fridays).

Chinatown, San Francisco

From the nearby California Street and Presidio Avenue stop, take Muni’s #1 Drumm and Clay bus to Chinatown, the oldest in North America and largest outside of Asia. While here, stop by the famous Dragon Gate on Chinatown’s southern end along Grant Street, shop for tea at the Red Blossom Tea Company, and take a peek inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (don’t forget to buy a bag of fortune cookies for the flight home). Skipped lunch in the Presidio? Grab dumplings and dim sum to-go from local favorite Good Mong Kok Bakery. If you’d rather sit down, the two-story China Live emporium opens at 4pm and contains a tea cafe and market-style restaurant and bar, while second floor Scotch-centric bar Cold Drinks starts serving at 5pm if you feel like doing happy hour. 

Lombard Street, San Francisco

Two famous landmarks within walking distance of Chinatown are Lombard Street—a steep 600-foot road with hairpin turns that has been featured in countless movies, including Steve McQueens’ 1968 action thriller Bullitt—and Coit Tower in Pioneer Park. Rising from the top of Telegraph Hill, the tower offers 360-degree views of the city, bay, and bridges. It’s open from 10am–5pm, and observation deck entrance fees are $10 for adults and $7 for kids under 12. 

The Bay Bridge from the Embarcadero in San Francisco

From here, it’s less than a mile to the scenic Embarcadero boulevard, which runs along the waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Bay Bridge. It’s perfect for strolling and dotted with attractions, with San Francisco’s main-ferry-terminal-turned-gourmet-hot-spot Ferry Building being a standout. Local merchants—selling everything from homegoods and books to caviar and fine cheeses—close shop around 5pm, but a handful of eateries stay open for dinner. Hog Island Oyster Company is one of them, if fresh-shucked Tomales Bay oysters and Bay Bridge views tickle your fancy. Walk 10 minutes along the Embarcadero, and you’ll find another great option: EPIC Steak, an iconic waterfront restaurant helmed by acclaimed German chef Parke Ulrich.

Day 2: Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, and SoMa

Columbus Avenue in San Francisco

Start the day with breakfast in vibrant North Beach, the neighborhood at the heart of the beatnik movement located in the northeast corner of San Francisco. It has tasty spots, like Pat’s Cafe and Caffe Trieste, a former haunt for beat poets that serves coffee and light breakfast fare.

Aerial view of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

It’s a five-minute walk from North Beach to the city’s most bustling tourist area, Fisherman’s Wharf, as well as Pier 39 where you’ve got Ghirardelli Square, shops, and attractions including the San Francisco Carousel and Aquarium of the Bay. It’s also a jumping-off point for a tour of Alcatraz, a maximum-security federal penitentiary about 1.25 miles off the north shore of San Francisco. All ferry rides to the island depart from Pier 33 and typically take 15 minutes. Purchase tickets online or in person at the pier ($41 for adults, $25 for children, $38 for seniors); set aside about two and a half hours for a guided visit of the prison complex. 

Back on the mainland, hop aboard the historic F Line streetcar and ride it to Market & 4th, a short walk from Union Square. Turned into a park in 1850, an entire block is dominated by The Westin St. Francis, whose original Landmark Building dates back over a century. Stroll through on your way to Belden Place—a narrow alleyway bordering Union Square and FiDi (the Financial District) dubbed San Francisco’s “French Quarter”—where you can enjoy coffee or a light lunch at Parisian-style bistro Café Bastille.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

From there, it’s a 10-minute stroll to SFMOMA, the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the US, which comprises seven stories and boasts an impressive permanent collection of work by big names like Matisse and Warhol. Can’t-miss highlights include the mural walls by Bay Area artists on floors two, three, and five, as well as the Living Wall on floor three. The museum is closed on Wednesdays, and admission is $25 for adults and free for people under 18. 

For dinner and drinks with twinkling skyline views, make reservations at Kaiyo Rooftop on the 12th floor of the Hyatt Place Hotel. The Peruvian-Japanese menu includes ceviches, tiraditos, and specialty rolls, plus rare Japanese whiskies and a nuanced cocktail list with drinks inspired by acclaimed anime director Hiyao Miyazaki. Another option in the SoMa District is the buzzy —and très chic—La Société, where French classics, like duck a l'orange and steak frites, grace the menu. 

3-day San Francisco Itinerary 

Day 3: The Mission, Haight-Ashbury, and Golden Gate Park

Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco

By day three, it’s time to concentrate on historic neighborhood gems and one of the city’s largest green spaces. Fuel up for the day with a Mission-style burrito in, where else, but the Mission district. (Distinguished from other burritos by their sheer size, Mission-style burritos comprise a giant flour tortilla filled with rice, beans, carne asada or carnitas, salsa, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole or avocado.) The buzzy but laid-back neighborhood is home to Mission Dolores (the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco), street art murals, and lots of authentic Mexican eateries, including La Taqueria and birthplace of the Mission burrito, Taqueria La Cumbra.

Painted Ladies from Alamo Square in San Francisco

Hop on the Muni #22 Bay Street Bus at 16th and Mission and alight at the Fillmore and Hayes Street stop, which is a five-minute walk from the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square—a row of pastel-colored Victorian and Edwardian homes on one of the most photographed streets in the city that was featured in movies and TV shows like Mrs. Doubtfire

Haight Ashbury, San Francisco

From there, it’s a 20-minute walk along Hayes Street cutting through the top of Panhandle Park to another famous San Francisco neighborhood: The Haight. Once home to rock stars like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead, today Haight-Ashbury is the perfect place to learn about the 1967 social phenomenon Summer of Love, embrace your inner hippie browsing eclectic book shops and consignment clothing stores, or go crate-digging for new and vintage vinyl at Amoeba Music—the world's largest independent record store. A fun way to learn about the neighborhood is on the local-led Flower Power Walking Tour, which covers 12 blocks, costs $25 per person, and starts at 10:30am every Tuesday and Saturday and at 2pm on Fridays.

A pagoda at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco

From The Haight, it’s a 10-minute walk to Golden Gate Park, a gorgeous green space spanning 1,017-acres and home to some of the city’s top attractions. First, make a beeline for the Japanese Tea Garden, and sit down with a bowl of udon noodles or sweet daifuku mochi and a pot of jasmine tea before deciding on your next move—maybe the de Young Museum to look at 17th-century American art (adults $15, reservations recommended) or the San Francisco Botanical Garden (adults $13, kids and seniors $7) to enjoy more beautiful blooms.

Located on the north edge of Golden Gate Park, Richmond, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is considered one of the city's “best eating neighborhoods” thanks to its melting pot of cuisines (think dim sum, Chinese food, Russian bakeries, and some of the best Burmese restaurants in the city). Recommended by the Michelin guide, Mandalay often has crowds queuing for a table, so reservations are recommended. If it’s actual Michelin stars and California-inspired plates that you’re chasing, try Spruce in nearby Pacific Heights, which earned a star for its New California classics (try the spiced duck breast) and legendary wine list.

4-day San Francisco Itinerary 

Day 4: A day trip to Sausalito or Muir Woods

A ferry crosses the bay in San Francisco

From San Francisco, you can access Marin County in a few ways, including by ferry, bike, or car. If you take the 30-minute ferry ride to the seaside town of Sausalito, you’ll get stunning bay views of the city skyline, Alcatraz, and Angel Island, but you’ll also have to rely on public transportation once you get to the other side (unless you plan to bring a bike and cycle around the headland). Both the Golden Gate Sausalito Ferry and Blue & Gold Fleet operate multiple daily crossings with tickets costing $14 one way. Alternatively, if you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll have more flexibility for exploring farther into Marin, like if you choose to hike around Muir Woods National Monument.

Once in Sausalito, sit down for breakfast at Sausalito Bakery and Cafe before exploring the souvenir shops and boutiques along the pretty waterfront promenade, Bridgeway. The ICB Artists Association—with over 100 artists working under one roof on a variety of different media, including oil and acrylics, photography, and sculpture—is worth a visit. Bonus points if you happen to be in town during one of the Open Studios and "Artists at Work" Days.

From here, it’s a five-mile drive to the Mill Valley Lumber Yard, but if you’re using public transportation, you’ll need to jump on Marin Transit #17 San Rafael Express Bus. At the Lumber Yard, you’ll find cool homegrown shops and businesses at the charming retail hub and social space, including Mad Dogs & Englishmen, which runs a guided two-hour E-bike tour of nearby Mount Tamalpais State Park five days a week ($79 per person).

Another four miles away is Muir Woods National Monument (admission is $15 for adults), which is accessible via a hike, but it's best to have a car. Grab maps and other supplies at the visitor’s center before venturing into an ancient, old-growth redwood forest—the closest one to San Francisco at 16.6 miles. There are a number of trails here—from half-mile flat loops to challenging 11-mile routes through ravines—with the three-mile Fern Creek to Camp Alice Eastwood a favorite among families.

Another benefit of bringing the car—or renting one—for a Marin day trip is stopping for dinner on the way back into the city at the historic lodge Cavallo Point. Located a mile outside Sausalito within a former military base overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, here you’ll find three stellar places to eat, including Sula Lounge (small plates) and farm-to-fork spot Farley, whose menu features cocktails inspired by California botanicals, as well as dishes like duck confit flatbread, wild mushroom risotto, and beer-battered Fort Bragg cod sourced from Mendocino. 

Key San Francisco Travel Details

Where to stay in San Francisco

San Francisco is made up of 19 major neighborhoods that can easily align to the whims and wishes of every type of traveler—from foodie to history buff and music fan to art lover. 

Union Square

With entertainment venues, upscale department stores, and transport links on your doorstep, Union Square is great for first-timers. Catch a play at the American Conservatory Theatre, ride to Fisherman’s Wharf along the Powell-Mason line cable car, or shop at Barneys and Saks 5th Avenue. 

Pacific Heights and Nob Hill 

Those keen on a more residential feel will love the local parks, neighborhood restaurants, and tree-lined streets of Pacific Heights and Nob Hill. 

Embarcadero

The scenic Embarcadero waterfront is within walking distance of Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, but you can ride across the bay from the historic Ferry Building here too. 

The Castro

Landmarks in LGBTQ+ neighborhood and cultural district the Castro include the Castro Theater and a rainbow flag in Harvey Milk Plaza. 

The Presidio

For views, hiking trails, and history, the Presidio is a perfect choice. Even better, it’s next door to Richmond, a low-key gem among San Francisco's best dining neighborhoods.

Rooms at the historic Hotel Stratford on Union Square range from $149–$249 a night. In tony Pacific Heights, mid-week rates at the charming Hotel Drisco begin at $503 for a ground floor guest room, while in Nob Hill a deluxe queen with a fireplace at the petite country manor White Swan Inn start at $189. At sustainable luxury hotel Hotel 1 San Francisco on the Embarcadero, water-facing king rooms start at $774, with suites running $2,000-$6,000. Located in the heart of the Castro, rates at The Hotel Castro start at $200 for a classic king and $325 for a mini king suite. And a standard king room at the historic Inn at The Presidio starts at $410 a night. All prices exclude taxes and fees and, where applicable, extra charges for wifi. 

How to get around San Francisco 

Measuring 46.9 square miles, San Francisco is accessible, filled with walkable streets—and yes, those famous (occasionally infamous) hills. It's also home to one of the most reliable transportation systems on the West Coast. 

An easy way to use the various modes of public transportation in San Francisco is with a Clipper card, which you can buy on your phone, online, or in person and provides access to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), Muni buses and metro ($2.25 one way), and cable cars ($8 for an adult one-way). Ensure you have an adequate balance before boarding, though, as fines are steep and there are regular checks. There is a one-time $3 fee to purchase a plastic Clipper card from a BART vending machine. For reference, a one-way fare from San Francisco International Airport to the Embarcadero is $10, but with Clipper START, it’s $8. 

Certainly not essential, a car can be ideal if you plan to day trip north to Marin and wine country or south to Santa Cruz. It’s worth noting here, though, that while many hotels in and around downtown San Francisco offer overnight and valet parking, prices are steep; while metered street parking is available, spaces can be difficult to find (although the Spot Hero app can help). Taxis and rideshares like Lyft and Uber are prevalent and handy for getting around the city.

When to go to San Francisco

Temperatures tend to be mild year-round in San Francisco, so there’s never a bad time to visit; however, September and October are generally considered the best months to explore the city, hit hiking trails, head north for wine tasting during harvest season in Napa and Sonoma, or get out on the water. Expect daytime temperatures to hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with mostly clear skies and lows in the mid-50s at night.

Held at the end of February, the Chinese New Year Parade and Festival is the biggest parade celebrating the Lunar New Year outside of Asia. In Japantown, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival usually takes place over the second and third weekends in April. San Francisco Pride is generally held over the last weekend in June every year, while the Fourth of July Waterfront Celebration draws more than 200,000 people every summer. Held within Golden Gate Park every August, Outside Lands is one of the city’s largest outdoor live music festivals. The Chinatown Autumn Moon Festival is another big draw in September. The Blue Angels perform during Fleet Week, which is usually held on the second weekend in October, best viewed along the waterfront in the Fisherman's Wharf and Marina districts. December is also a great time to see holiday lights around the city, including the Union Square tree-lighting ceremony. 

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Keri Bridgwater

Keri Bridgwater

Freelance Writer

Originally from England, Keri Bridgwater is a freelance writer who swapped Cornwall for California over a decade ago. When not on the road, happy places include the Mojave Desert and spending time at home with her boyfriend and their cats.

Published November 29, 2023

Last updated December 21, 2023

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