San Francisco is a city that inhabits two worlds. Many recall the bygone bohemian days characterized by the Summer of Love and the Beat Generation, when the city was a haven for misfits and artists.
But today’s San Francisco is undeniably modern and increasingly mainstream, a tech-driven metropolis bursting at the seams with startups and apps for every imaginable service—laundry, food delivery, grocery delivery, ridesharing—and a ballooning cost of living to boot. Many creatives can no longer afford to live in this city, but they have left their marks on it nonetheless.
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Ah, where do I begin? Well, probably the best place to start is with a clarification: I used to be a San Francisco local. I lived in the Bay Area for over a year, and then I moved to San Francisco city proper and lived there for over a year.
The City by the Bay will always hold a special place in my heart. So below, I’ll share what I think is the best San Francisco itinerary for three days if it’s your first time in the city.
How it works: For this itinerary, we’ll start in the east side of SF (the San Francisco Bay side) and work our way westward until we end up at the Pacific Ocean side on day three.
So if you’ve only got 3 days in San Francisco, here is what I (in my very humble opinion) think you might like!
San Francisco Itinerary Day 1
How to get from SFO to San Francisco city center
If you want a cheap and relatively easy way to get from the San Francisco airport to SF’s city center, I’d recommend taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). It’s essentially a subway system. You can board it at SFO and take it northbound into the city. The stop I recommend getting off at is Embarcadero (you’ll see why in the next section about the Ferry Building).
Alternatively, you can use rideshare apps Uber or Lyft—both are extremely popular in the Bay Area, so you shouldn’t have to wait long for your ride at all.
Of course, you can still take a taxi from SFO, but I personally have never used this. I typically use Uber or Lyft.
If you want to see my favorite part of the city, the one that feels the most “San Francisco,” get off at the Embarcadero stop. You’ll emerge from the BART station and see the grand Ferry Building.
Go inside the Ferry Building and grab a bite to eat (Cowgirl Creamery is my favorite for grilled cheese sandwiches!) and then head outside the back of the building to overlook the Bay and the Bay Bridge (not to be confused with the Golden Gate Bridge—we’ll get to that later!).
FREE (Name-Your-Own-Price) Walking Tour of SF
I’ve never been on an SF tour, but a new tradition I have when I travel anywhere new is to go on a free walking tour on the FIRST day I get there. These are great because you can get a lay of the land and get yourself oriented with the highlights before diving into depth on your own on each part of the tour you found interesting. At the end of the tour, you can also ask the guide for insider tips. My friends and I did this on a free walking tour in Budapest, and it’s how we found some of the BEST places to eat there.
A note about “free” walking tours: Free walking tours are growing in popularity and can be found in pretty much every major city worldwide. Here’s the “catch” though: They ARE free—as in, you don’t have to pay anything upfront to go on them—but it is expected that you tip the guide at the end. This is how they make their money. In my experience, no one is going to hassle you for money or check that you paid them, but it’s the kind thing to do. After all, the guide has just given you about two hours of their time!
Here is a two-hour downtown SF walking tour that meets RIGHT outside the Embarcadero BART station stop.
The Robot Restaurant (AKA Eatsa)
Okay this is kind of nerdy, but there is a “robot restaurant” near the Ferry Building called eatsa. I’ve been there for lunch, and I don’t want to overhype it—it’s literally just a restaurant where you place your order on an iPad, workers assemble your meal behind the scenes, and your bowl comes out in a little cubby in the wall with your name flashing across it digitally. But it’s a novel concept, and people are eating it up. The food is pretty good and healthy; again, people go there more for the novelty of the concept.
If you’ve got kids (or are just a grownup kid like me!), you have to stop by the Exploratorium. It’s an art and science museum with tons of hands-on exhibits, and it’s about a half-mile walk north up the Embarcadero when you step outside the Ferry Building. It’s a beautiful walk!
Alternatively, you can ride a pedicab (where someone bikes you around while you sit in an attached seat in the back) or you can take the streetcar (also a great experience!).
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day
6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursdays for adults 18 and older
Admission: $29.95 for adults (18-64)
After the Exploratorium or exploring the Embarcadero, head a little westward about 0.7 miles to Coit Tower. You’ll see it on the hill in the distance—it’s a slender cylindrical white tower that was built in the 1930s at the request of Lillie Hitchcock Coit who wanted to erect it to honor firefighters. It has incredible sweeping views of the city if you take the elevator ride to the observation deck. Sadly, this is one thing I never got to do in SF.
The elevator entrance fees to Coit Tower are $9 for adult non-residents, $6 for children 12-17, $2 for children 5-11, and free for children 4 years old and younger.
From Coit Tower, it’s about a one-mile walk to Fisherman’s Wharf. Alternatively, you could walk less than a half mile back east to the streetcar stop at Embarcadero and Sansome Street. I absolutely loved riding San Francisco’s iconic streetcar up Embarcadero. It’s definitely an experience you should have at some point on your trip!
Okay, back to Fisherman’s Wharf. Admittedly, this is not my favorite part of SF (it’s extremely crowded, overpriced, and touristy), but it’s another iconic experience, so you should check it out.
What’s there to see and do?
- Stunning views of the Bay—including the Golden Gate Bridge!
- Grab a bite of the world famous San Francisco sourdough bread bowl filled with chowder. This might sound gross, but it’s also super cool: San Francisco has particular strains of bacteria that make sourdough taste special here. It’s true! That’s why SF’s sourdough bread is famous. Stop by Boudin Bakery in Fisherman’s Wharf and order the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.
- The famous sea lions of Pier 39. While at least some of these sea lions hang out on the pier almost year-round, you’re least likely to see any if you come in June and July, as they’re usually migrating elsewhere to breed during that time. It’s worth stopping by to try to spot some though!
This is, by far, one of the most popular tourist activities in San Francisco. For me, the best part of touring Alcatraz Island was the ferry ride to the island and the beautiful views from it. It also has a fascinating and somber history. Be sure to book ahead; tours sell out fast!
Stroll through the oldest Chinatown in North America. It’s made up of about 24 blocks bordered roughly by Powell, Kearny, Bush, and Broadway streets.
Named after the famous chocolate company, Ghirardelli Square is a must-see for chocoholics. You can get sweet treats, such as hot chocolate, inside and then savor them outside while enjoying the beautiful view of the Bay.
Address: 900 North Point Street, San Francisco
Hours: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. every day
This is San Francisco’s famous crooked street! You can drive down it, but be warned that it is winding and steep. I thoroughly enjoyed walking along it; you can also bike it.
Alternatives on Day 1 While You’re in the Embarcadero/Fisherman’s Wharf Area
Because I know everyone has different preferences, here are some alternatives to the above suggestions. Feel free to swap out, for example, the Exploratorium for the ferry to Sausalito.
Ferry to Sausalito
Behind the ferry building, you can catch a ferry to Sausalito, a coastal town just north of San Francisco. There, you can enjoy dinner or rent a bike and explore the city; you can even bike the Golden Gate Bridge from here! To me, the best part is the ferry ride itself.
If you’re more literature-inclined, the following will be fun for you! When you leave the Ferry Building, you’ll be close to these places, so I’d recommend walking there.
Flatiron Building/Sentinel Building – Cafe Zoetrope
From the Ferry Building, it’s less than a mile’s walk to the Flatiron, or Sentinel, Building, where you can find Cafe Zoetrope. This landmark has a literary history: During the Bohemian movement, artists and writers lived and worked here.
Inside Cafe Zoetrope, you can find a short story vending machine.
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
After Cafe Zoetrope, head northwest up Columbus Avenue for about two blocks, and you’ll be at San Francisco’s iconic independent bookstore—City Lights.
The Beat Museum
For more literary delights after City Lights, check out the Beat Museum just around the corner. The Beat Generation was a group of writers and artists who lived in San Francisco and whose work was popular in the 1950s. Among them was famed novelist Jack Kerouac. This is a museum I’d like to visit on my next trip to San Francisco!
San Francisco, CA 94133
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.
The Stinking Rose
End your day with dinner at the Stinking Rose. Warning: This place is for those who LOVE garlic, hence the name. It’s a unique place to visit for sure!
San Francisco Itinerary Day 2
I hope you’re ready for an eclectic, funky, artsy day because the neighborhoods you’ll be hanging out in today are all of those things!
Ah, the Mission District. It’s a grungy, artsy, heavily Latino neighborhood that is ALL THE RAGE right now. Every hip, young person in SF wants to live there.
Start your day at Tartine Bakery for breakfast because the earlier you get there, the better! This bakery is insanely popular, especially for its croissants. They open at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday-Friday and at 8 a.m. Saturday-Monday.
Just a block away from Tartine Bakery is Dolores Park. This is one of the larger parks in the city and is a popular hangout spot. It’s also a great place to soak in some sun. SF is a city of micro-climates, and the Mission is one of the warmer, sunnier parts of the city.
If you get too hot while soaking in the rays in Dolores Park, catty-cornered to it is Bi-Rite Creamery, where you can get handmade ice cream with locally-sourced ingredients. Definitely try the salted caramel (their most popular flavor) or the honey lavender. They’ve even got vegan flavors!
If you’re a fan of the 60s, you will love the Haight-Ashbury (locals just call it “the Haight”) because it’s like stepping back in time. You’ll see funky artwork and shops along the streets. And yes, this is where the Summer of Love happened.
Music lovers flock here. Amoeba Records claims to be the world’s largest independent record store (it has multiple locations).
The Grateful Dead House
Located at 710 Ashbury Street, this is the house The Grateful Dead band lived in from 1965-1968.
Drive up the winding road to the top of Twin Peaks for a famed view of the city from up high.
Alternative to Twin Peaks: Beautiful City Views at Corona Heights
Here’s a little-known spot that I prefer to Twin Peaks: Corona Heights. It’s a smaller park, but that means it’s less crowded, and the views are hard to beat. There’s also a rocky area that you can climb on top of for even better views.
Brunch at Zazie
While you’re in the area, stroll down to one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco: Cole Valley! It’s just south of the Haight. A trendy brunch place here is Zazie, a French-inspired bistro that is tip-free because their menu prices allow them to provide all their employees with a living wage and benefits.
I’ve had brunch at Zazie, and it didn’t disappoint! They also serve dinner—and even let you bring your dog to dinner on Mondays.
Alternative: Burritos at La Taquería
Named by The Daily Meal as having the BEST burritos in the entire United States, La Taquería needs to be a stop on your San Francisco Itinerary if you’re a burrito lover. And yes, SF (and the Mission in particular) is well-known for burritos.
Though I’ve never been to La Taquería, The Daily Meal says the carnitas burrito is the best item to order here.
Alamo Square Park
Yes, SF has a lot of nice parks. This one’s notable, though, because it overlooks the Painted Ladies, which are a series of famous, colorful Victorian homes. And if you’re a “Full House” fan, this is the row of houses that showed up in the opening credits of the TV show.
San Francisco Itinerary Day 3
Moving on over to the west coast of San Francisco, where life is slower and more residential (especially in the Sunset district).
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a stunning architectural marvel in the Marina. If you’re a photographer, this is a great place to snap some photos. It’s not actually a palace, nor is it a museum of art, but it does border the eastern edge of the Presidio (a park), so you could go for a stroll or have a picnic nearby.
Golden Gate Bridge
This is probably SF’s most iconic landmark, so it’s obviously essential to any San Francisco itinerary! There is something special about seeing the Golden Gate Bridge glowing bright reddish orange and emerging from the fog that is continually rolling in from the Pacific. That sight never gets old.
You can, of course, drive across the bridge. There is a toll, but you do not stop at a toll booth—they take a photo of your license plate and mail you the bill.
Alternatively, you can walk or bike across the bridge. There are bike rentals available.
Golden Gate Park
As the largest park in all of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park has a variety of things to do. Pack a picnic and pick a grassy spot, or go for a walk or run around the place. Below are some more things to do in Golden Gate Park.
See the Bison!
Yes, there are real American Bison inside Golden Gate Park!
The de Young Museum
The de Young Museum displays American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries. I regret not visiting this one. I really wanted to climb the observation tower.
Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden is located within Golden Gate Park. It’s open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. during winter and 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. during summer.
Hot tip: Though entry to the tea garden normally costs $9 for non-resident adults, if you go on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday BEFORE 10 a.m.—you can get in for free!
California Academy of Sciences
Yet another awesome thing to do in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: Visit the California Academy of Sciences. This is a natural history museum, planetarium, and aquarium. There’s also a Discovery Tidepool where you can touch starfish and sea urchins.
Dim Sum at T C Pastry
Everyone raves about the dim sum in Chinatown, but don’t miss out on another Chinatown of sorts: The Sunset district is home to a large Chinese population, and one popular dim sum eatery in this neighborhood is T C Pastry—delicious food at very affordable prices. Please note that they are closed on Tuesdays.
If you’ve never been to a San Francisco beach before, be warned they’re usually chilly, sometimes foggy, and the water is almost always cold. People don’t come to the beach in SF to go sunbathing; expect to wear a jacket! But it is a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean, and you can watch the sunset since it faces west.
Baker Beach is a nice alternative to Ocean Beach with a bonus: It has spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Consider grabbing food to-go and having a sunset picnic here. Be sure to pack blankets and a jacket, as it will likely get breezy and chilly!
Ride a cable car—at night!
This is one of my favorite memories of San Francisco: riding a cable car for the first time late at night. I recommend riding at night because it’s less crowded, which means you get to do what I think is the best part: stand on the outside (holding onto the pole) and feel the wind through your hair as the cable car barrels down a huge hill headed downtown. It’s an incredible feeling, and the sights are beautiful too.
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
First timers to San Francisco, take note: SF’s weather is VERY different from what you think of when you think of typical California weather.
Some of SF’s coldest temperatures happen during the summer! So if you visit from June to August, expect foggy, dreary days and even some rain. San Francisco gets what we call “Indian summers” in September to November. That’s when the weather is the warmest and sunniest.
No matter what time of year you visit, San Francisco gets chilly in the evenings and gets plenty of fog. That’s why it’s important to pack a jacket and wear layers.
In my personal opinion, the best time to visit San Francisco is September to November—ideally, October.
Best Neighborhoods to Stay In In San Francisco
If you’re wondering where to stay in San Francisco, again, it depends on what you’re looking for. Below, I’ve selected a few neighborhoods that are best suited for certain types of travelers.
Whenever I travel, I almost always use Airbnb, and this will likely be your most affordable option in the Bay Area.
Best for Walkability and Public Transit: Downtown/Financial District/Union Square
This is the most obvious best place to stay because it’s the downtown of San Francisco. You’ll find it under names such as Downtown, Financial District (FiDi), or Union Square. It’s the best place to stay in San Francisco if you plan to use public transit because you’ll be right by the BART stations (these are all mostly located on SF’s east side) and about two miles from the Caltrain station. However, downtown will also be the most expensive place to stay.
Best for Views: Pacific Heights/The Marina
These are my other two favorite neighborhoods and are definitely among the more upscale in the city. Pacific Heights (also known as Pac Heights) is located on a hill in the middle of SF. The Marina is located just north of Pac Heights by, of course, the marina. There is access to buses in these neighborhoods, but it’s not easy to get to BART or Caltrain on foot from here.
Best for Hip Factor (and Amazing Burritos) Mission District
If you want to stay in a slightly grungy but totally hip part of SF, the Mission is the place to be. It does have easy access to BART stations and plenty of relatively inexpensive places to eat, especially if you enjoy Latin American food.
Best for Budget-Minded Travelers: Inner Sunset/Outer Sunset/Inner Richmond
Though these spots are less touristy and more residential, that’s exactly what makes them cheaper to stay in. They’re also nice if you prefer a slower pace of life and a bit more silence. There are public buses that run through these neighborhoods and can bring you downtown. And of course, there’s always Uber and Lyft.
Best if You Don’t Mind Staying Outside the City and Want to Save Some Money: Burlingame or Millbrae
If you don’t mind taking public transit (or you’re renting a car), staying outside the city just to the south in Burlingame (which has a Caltrain station) or Millbrae (which has a BART and Caltrain station) is a great option. I’ve stayed in Burlingame before and taken the Caltrain northward to SF.
Day Trips From San Francisco
If you’ve only got 3 days in San Francisco, packing in a day trip isn’t the best idea. But if you decide to extend your stay, here are some awesome options!
If you’re visiting San Francisco, you’re also SO close to the world famous wine region of Napa Valley. Even if you don’t care for wine, the region has such beautiful landscapes, a castle, and art galleries. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Napa Valley even though I’m not a wine person.
Muir Woods National Monument (a redwood forest) is JUST over the Golden Gate Bridge, about 16 miles north of San Francisco. Can you believe I’ve never been?! It’s definitely on my list.
If you want more urban adventures, hop over the bay (you can take BART) to Berkeley! You can walk around the campus, grab some sweets at CREAM, or get a nice meal. If you REALLY want the ultimate experience, there is a world-class restaurant called Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Be sure to grab reservations—which open up to one month in advance via phone.
Half Moon Bay
If you’re craving a slower-paced, quaint beach town, Half Moon Bay is for you. Definitely get a sandwich at the deli at San Benito House.
Just over the mountains along Highway 17, Santa Cruz is a surfer’s paradise. Even if you’re not into catching waves, though, the city is a great beach getaway with plenty of shops and restaurants to visit. Stop by the Penny Ice Creamery!
If you’re a startup geek, why not tour the major highlights of Silicon Valley while you’re in the area? If you rent a car, you can drive to all the spots I’ve listed below.
In Silicon Valley, you’ve got significant tech and startup landmarks such as:
- The Los Altos garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple
- The Palo Alto garage where Hewlett-Packard started
- Apple headquarters in Cupertino
- Google headquarters in Mountain View
- Computer History Museum in Mountain View
- The Tech Interactive in San Jose
- Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park
- Stanford University in Palo Alto
- Sand Hill Road. Yes, it is literally just a road. I’ve driven down it before, and there’s not much to see. But anyone who’s into startup culture KNOWS the significance of this place—it’s where all the major venture capital firms are.
Enjoy This San Francisco Itinerary! How Will You Spend Your 3 Days in San Francisco?
Deciding what to do in San Francisco—or any place, for that matter—is a highly personal matter. It really depends on what you like. But what I tried to do in the above San Francisco itinerary is curate the highlights of the Bay Area for your 3-day trip.
You may disagree with me, or you may decide to do something else entirely—that’s fine! I hope you enjoy your visit to one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
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