There’s a reason why San Francisco is one of the most favored US cities. From its iconic attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and historic cable cars that are just plain fun, to its stunning nature spots like Twin Peaks and Lands End, it’s easy to fall in love with the city.
No doubt you’ll have a full bucket list once you discover what to do in San Francisco that will have you with an itinerary for a week! However, if you’re only visiting for a short time, you don’t have to miss out on the top attractions. This is a curated San Francisco Itinerary for a one, two, or three-day trip to The Golden City.
One Day in San Francisco
You may think that there is too much to see in San Francisco in a day, but with some pre-trip planning, you’ll have enough time to see the most amazing sights. To maximize your time, visit attractions in the central areas like Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill, and Marine District.
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Golden Gate Bridge
Seeing the iconic Golden Gate bridge is an obvious must-do in San Francisco and the best way to start your one day in the city. This expansive red suspension bridge is a mile long and is suspended 4,200-feet high, plus it looks fabulous from all angles.
First, head to Fort Point on the eastern side for one of the best vistas of the bridge from below. Then take a short stroll over to Golden Gate Overlook or Marshall’s Beach on the west side for a different perspective. You could even walk over the bridge and back to take in the city skyline beyond the bay if you got here early and you’re a quick walker.
A visit to the eerie yet fascinating Alcatraz Island is one of the best things to do in San Francisco. This tiny island has a rich history, serving as a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison, which it’s most known for.
As you can imagine, there are hundreds of mind-blowing stories from Alcatraz Island and by taking a tour around this intriguing sight, you’ll discover many tales about American incarceration, justice, and humanity.
Jump on the ferry from Pier 33, and you’ll reach Alcatraz Island in 15 minutes. Ferries run every 30 or 60 minutes, and the tours last between 2 and 3 hours, so plan ahead so that you have plenty of time left afterward.
Cable Car Ride
Every tourist marvels at San Francisco’s cable cars when they see one for the first time. There are three lines still running today, and taking a cable car ride is one of the best ways to enjoy an iconic experience while seeing the sights.
The cable car system runs from 7 am to 10:30 pm every day, with one ride costing $8, or unlimited daily use is $13. You can take the Powell/Hyde Street line from Hyde Beach to Powell Market or the Powell/Mason Street Line from Taylor Bay to Powell Market. Both lines will take you from northern to southern downtown. You can also travel through Nob Hill and the Financial District on the California line.
Don’t head home without a quick stop at San Francisco’s most photographed street. The steep and winding Lombard Street is frequently featured on postcards, travel websites, and Instagram. The road stretches up a steep segment from The Presidio (a park but the Golden Gate Bridge) east to The Embarcadero by Fisherman’s Wharf. It has eight hairpin turns, giving it an eye-catching appearance.
While Lombard Street looks crooked and dangerous, it’s safe to drive up. You’ll get the best photos from the bottom looking up. However, If you have time, it’s recommended that you head up to the top for a different perspective.
Two Days in San Francisco
With two days in the city, you’ll have more time to wander through the quirky districts, explore more attractions, and go further afield. Your two-day itinerary includes one of the best viewpoints in San Francisco and some of the most noteworthy neighborhoods.
After a full day exploring the city, start day two with a morning in the coastal scrub and grasslands of Twin Peaks. This 64-acre hilltop park is a 20-minute train ride or drive from Union Square and offers beautiful views over the city and peaceful nature trails.
As the name suggests, Twin Peaks is a set of two peaks located in the park. Each summit is over 900-feet-high and accessible on foot or by car. Still, if you have the time and the fitness abilities, we recommend taking the hiking route as it’s one of the top hikes in San Francisco. The incredible 180-degree vistas are well worth the effort and make a memorable part of your SF trip.
Nob Hill & Chinatown
Head back to the city center to check out two of the most famous districts in the city, Nob Hill and Chinatown. These districts are located next to each other, just north of Union Square, yet they have distinct vibes.
First, fill your belly with the abundance of tasty food offerings in the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Feast on mouthwatering dim sum, sip on healing Chinese tea, and pick up some exotic produce at the markets. If you want to make the most out of this area, you can join one of the 3-hour Chinatown walking tours that run twice daily.
Nob Hill is one of the most historical parts of the city and also one of the most luxurious. Here you will find lavish mansions, expensive hotels, and a gothic-style Cathedral. You can either stroll around at your peril or join the free walking tour on Monday or Saturday afternoon at 2:30pm.
Spend the evening at the lively PIER 39. While there is a range of fantastic attractions, including a 3D roller coaster, the sea lions residing here are the best sight. They are most active around sunrise and sunset, so it’s recommended that you get here as the sun goes down.
After watching these fascinating creatures in action, wander along the pier and the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf. Then, take advantage of the excellent San Francisco activities and attractions in this bustling part of town, like Ghirardelli Marketplace and Musée Mécanique.
Three Days in San Francisco
If you have the luxury of a third day in San Francisco, you can visit some less-visited but still well-worthy attractions. Enjoy a cultural morning, a relaxing afternoon, and then conclude your trip with a memorable evening sightseeing activity.
San Francisco has a staggering 44 museums, so when planning your 3-day trip, remember to include a museum or two. With so many to choose from, you’re bound to find one right up your alley.
The Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is a must for art lovers. This 7-floor gallery is home to over 33,000 artworks, including pieces from famous artists like Alexander Calder and Frida Kahlo and many modern collections.
Or, if you’re looking for something fun and educational, head to the California Academy of Sciences. This is a natural history museum like no other. It features an aquarium, planetarium, and even a four-story rainforest!
Golden Gate Park
The 1000-acre Golden Gate Park is one of the most beautiful parts of San Francisco, located less than 3 miles west of Union Square. It features a botanical garden, a Japanese tea garden, a flower conservatory, and more.
This park is even better because it is adjoined to the 3.5-mile white sand Ocean Beach. So, enjoy an afternoon of nature walks and tranquil vibes.
Sunset Boat Cruise
Finish your trip in style on a sunset boat cruise around the bay. Departing from Pier 43, you’ll get the chance to see the city’s sights at twilight. Cruises run every evening in the summer and 5 days a week during the rest of the year.
You’ll sail out to the Marin Headlands, cruising past Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the northern shorelines. Then, you’ll sail past the Golden Gate Bridge for one last look at this magnificent landmark on your way back.
San Francisco Day Trip Options
San Francisco is conveniently located close to several top travel destinations in California, which gives you many excellent day trip options (or maybe even a weekend trip from the city).
Napa & Sonoma Valley
Both wine regions of Napa and Sonoma, which are both a 75-minute drive are worthy of a visit. Like with all winery-hopping day trips, you’ll need to travel from place to place. However, if you don’t have your own transportation, don’t worry. Many tour operators run day trips to Napa and Sonoma Valley from SF.
You’ll visit at least three wineries and tour the estates on a typical 8-hour tour that also includes lunch in the historic Downtown Sonoma Square. Plus, as you don’t have to worry about driving, you can have a few extra tastings in the wineries. Half-day wine tours are an option too.
Yosemite National Park
Another popular day trip from San Francisco is Yosemite National Park, a 3 to 4-hour drive away. While a day trip from San Francisco to Yosemite is possible, it will involve about half the day on the road. So if driving long hours makes you tired, you can consider booking onto a group tour instead that gets going early or plan a San Francisco to Yosemite road trip over 2-3 days.
There are many day trips from San Francisco to Yosemite, where you’ll be picked up early in the morning, around 6 am, to arrive in the park by mid-morning. You’ll then enjoy guided tours of the top attractions like Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls, with up to 4 hours in the park before heading back to the city.
Monterey & Carmel
The start of the famous Big Sur road trip, Carmel, is just 2 hours from San Francisco. While driving the entire Big Sur route and back in one day is a bit of a squeeze, Carmel and Monterey make a lovely day trip that doesn’t involve too much driving.
The drive itself is incredibly scenic, and you’ll be greeted with spectacular rugged coastlines as you approach Monterey. Here, you can spend the day checking out the best viewpoints, head out to sea to spot some marine wildlife, or go hiking in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
Monterey is a reasonably easy drive down from San Francisco, so many tourists choose to rent a car. Alternatively, you can join a group day tour of Monterey and Carmel. Doing this will allow you to entirely focus on the scenic views because there are plenty!
How many days do you need in San Francisco?
Well, how many do you have? While the physical size of this city is small, there’s a lot to do and even more so to see around San Francisco too. 3 days in San Francisco is the recommended minimum time to cover all of the highlights in SF. More days are welcome to see more of the city, and of course for days trips too to wine country, the Redwoods, Point Reyes, or even Yosemite National Park!
How to Get Around San Francisco
Luckily, you don’t need a car in San Francisco. Public transportation in SF, called Muni, is sufficient along with your feet. San Francisco isn’t a large city (6.5x smaller than NYC to give you an idea), so many of the main areas are easily within walking distance of one another.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Although the city is full of accommodation options, Union Square is one of the best places to stay in San Francisco. This downtown location is right in the heart of the action, meaning you can get to the top attractions in little time. With tons of restaurants, bars, and entertainment outside your door, staying in Union Square guarantees a fun trip.
- Marriot Marquis: If you want to push the boat out on your trip to San Francisco, stay at the luxurious Marriott Marquis on 4th street. You’ll sleep in style and comfort with premium bedding, modern amenities, and trendy decor.
- Orchard Hotel: This boutique hotel has comfy rooms with elegant decor and comfortable beds. You can also upgrade to the spacious king suite for additional amenities like a surround sound system and a Nespresso machine.
- HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel: A great option for budget-conscious travelers, this hostel has affordable private rooms, with either a shared or private bathroom.