After almost four years living in the city by the bay, it’s finally time to write a San Francisco itinerary for those who are visiting for the very first time and want to know about all the must-see sights.
Frankly, there are so many fantastic San Francisco sightseeing opportunities that I’d recommend spending at least a week in the Californian city.
But not everyone has the luxury of spending so much time in the one place, or on holiday, so this itinerary will allow you to pick and choose the San Francisco sites that are the most important to you.
SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
The first and most important thing that you need to know about San Francisco is that it’s ALWAYS cold. You can visit in the height of summer and you will be cold in some parts of the city. San Francisco isn’t referred to as “Fog City” for nothing.
The city is made up of lots of micro climates and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its cool currents make for an area that’s on the colder side.
The ocean is also partly to blame for the dense fog that can blanket the city in summer or winter. The two hills in the middle of the city – mounts Sutro and Davidson – make up Twin Peaks, which make some areas cooler and shield others from lower temperatures.
In short, always bring layers when you’re visiting San Francisco. Don’t be that tourist shivering on the Embarcadero or trying to hold down a skirt when the breeze picks up and the wind whips you around.
I’ve tried to group these activities by neighborhood or proximity, so that you’re not trying to get from one side of the city to another in the same day. This will give you lots more time to spend experiencing everything you want to see and do. But it will also help give you an idea of the best place to stay while you’re in San Francisco.
If most of the activities you want to do center on the Embarcadero or around Union Square, you know to put down roots in those areas for a few days.
DAY ONE SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
We’re jumping right into your first day in San Francisco with some of the most popular sites, so there’s no danger of missing out on them because of bad weather or unforeseen circumstances.
Have Breakfast at Mama’s
You’re going to want to start your day with a hearty breakfast to see you through a day of walking and San Francisco sightseeing. Mama’s On Washington Square is the breakfast spot in North Beach. You can tell by the line snaking out the front door on weekends (and sometimes during the week).
Opened by Frances and Michael Sanchez (known affectionately as Mama and Papa) more than 50 years ago, the restaurant is known for its fluffy omelettes, French toast, pancakes and pastries. It might be a while before lunch, so you should probably pick up a couple of pastries for the road.
Address: 1701 Stockton St. (at Filbert), San Francisco.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 8am-3pm.
Insider Tip: Debit cards or cash accepted only. No credit cards.
Experience the view from Coit Tower
I say walk, but really it’s a 9 minute hike in the upwards direction. Coit Tower is within walking distance of your breakfast spot, but be warned, that 0.3 mile climbs 193 feet. For those who need that in metric language, you’re climbing 58 metres up over almost 500 metres. If that breakfast is weighing heavy on your stomach though, catch the #39 MUNI from outside Mama’s, that will drop you at the top of Telegraph Hill.
The view of San Francisco stretched out like a carpet on all sides will be your reward at the top. The Art Deco Coit Tower was built on top of Telegraph Hill, using money left by Lillie Hitchcock Coit back in 1933. Inside, are 19 murals painted by 25 artists in American Realism style. The artists were mostly students from the California School of Fine Arts, who were paid between $25 and $40 a week back in 1933. to paint the murals depicting aspects of Californian life.
The tower is dedicated to San Francisco firefighters who died defending the city from five major fires. Climbing to the top of Coit Tower will give you views of Lombard Street (the crooked one), Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, the Ferry Building, and San Francisco Bay. As long as the fog cooperates.
Address: 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd, San Francisco.
Hours: From April to October, 10am-6pm. From November to March, 10am-5pm.
Cost: Adults $9, Seniors (over 62) $6, Youth (12-17) $6, Child (5-11) $2, Toddler (under 5) free.
Insider Tip: Skip the line, and book your mural and elevator tour online.
Escape to Alcatraz Island
You’ve seen the movies, or you’ve at least heard the stories about Alcatraz Island – one of the world’s most notorious prisons both for its reputation as an ‘inescapable’ prison and for the inmates it held. It’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations in San Francisco. So much so, that tickets for the ferry to take you to the island, sell out at least a month in advance.
One of my biggest tips for your visit to San Francisco, is to purchase your tickets in advance. You can purchase Alcatraz tickets online up to 90 days before your intended trip. There are a few Alcatraz packages available, and Bright Lights of America recommends the Alcatraz & Angel Island Combo tour if you’re visiting between March and October. It takes in Angel Island – where migrants were processed and quarantined during the first half the of the 20th century. It is now a beautiful State Park.
You can either walk to the Pier 33 Landing from Coit Tower (approx. 13 minutes), jump back aboard the #39 MUNI and ride it five stops to Lombard Street & Grant Avenue and walk the rest of the way to the pier. Both take approximately the same amount of time.
Alcatraz Island is far enough out in the freezing San Francisco Bay to make its reputation as an impossible place to escape from, believable. From the time it opened as a prison in 1934, to its closure in 1963, prison guards and their families lived on the island. The prison housed gangsters like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, but was also known to have the best food in the entire US prison system. Standing on the island will also give you beautiful views back over the city of San Francisco.
The tiny cells soar three stories into the sky, and there are even special solitary confinement areas to explore. The self-guided tour allows unfurls tales from guards, inmates, wardens and their families about life on the island, riots, escape attempts and emergencies.
Address: Alcatraz Landing, Pier 33, San Francisco.
Hours: Daily, 9.30am to 3.30pm.
Cost: Adult (18-61) $78.65, Junior (12-17) $78.65, Senior (62 and over) $76.40, Child (5-11) $52.40.
Insider Tip: Book online to secure your spot in advance.
Hike Angel Island
Once you’re done exploring Alcatraz prison, the gardens and the island itself, you can catch a ferry straight to Angel Island (If you purchased the Alcatraz & Angel Island Combo tour). Be prepared to land on the largest island in the San Francisco Bay, that also has a Missile Base, a mountain to climb, and it’s own visitor’s centre.
The island was first populated by the “Coast Miwok”, who would use it to as a hunting ground for food, and later Spanish explorers would stop on the island to retock their supplies. Between 1910 and 1940 it served as the US Immigration station for immigrants, mostly from China. So Angel Island really was the West Coast’s version of New York’s Ellis Island. Except immigrants weren’t treated as well on Angel Island, and on average they were detained for longer periods of time.
You can rent a bicycle to explore Angel Island, and there are numerous hiking trails to wander on. If you’re lucky you might spot some deer or a raccoon, who are apparently great swimmers and able to reach the island easily. Otherwise jump on a tram or seagueway tour to learn more about Angel Island, and its time as a Quarantine Station, before it became an immigration stop-off point.
Hiking enthusiasts can try the 6-mile loop that will take them to the top of Mt Livermore. Your ferry ticket will then take you back to Alcatraz Island, and on to Pier 33 in San Francisco.
Information: As above.
Insider Tip: There aren’t any food stores on the island, so bring snacks and plenty of water!
Enjoy a (late) lunch at Boudin Bakery
Now that you’re back on dry land it’s time for a leisurely lunch and a rest for your weary legs. You can’t visit San Francisco without sampling the clam chowder! While I’m sure there are a million recommendations of where to get the best chowder in San Francisco, this one is all about the vessel that your soup will come in.
If you still want to walk, head north on The Embarcadero up to Fisherman’s Wharf, otherwise catch Streetcar F three stops up to Jefferson & Powell streets, and you’ll arrive at Boudin Bakery.
This is the bakery’s flagship store, where you can watch bakers shaping dough into all kinds of interesting animals (from crocodiles, to crabs, and every sea faring animal in between). Grab a table and order from the extensive lunch bistro menu, which includes salads, sandwiches, seafood and their famous sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder or crab and corn bisque.
Address: 160 Jefferson Street, San Francisco.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11.30am-9pm, Friday and Saturday 11.30am-10pm.
See the Fisherman’s Wharf Sea Lions
This is San Francisco’s tourist mecca, and you could easily miss it if you wanted to avoid the crowds or just needed a nap after your big da of exploring. Fisherman’s Wharf encapsulates a few areas including the Hyde Street Pier, Ghirardelli Square, and Pier 39.
You can visit the Sea Lion Center, or catch the wild sea lions who make their sun-lazing appearances on little floating barges off Pier 39. Maritime enthusiasts can visit the historic ships docked around Hyde Street Pier, including the 1886 square rigger Balclutha, and the 1914 paddle wheel tug called Eppleton Hall.
If you want to get into your ultra-tourist persona, there’s always Madam Tussaud’s, Ghirardelli Square for chocolate lovers, and the Pier 39 carnival and arcade games to peruse. After a packed day like that, you’re going to need a good sleep, before you tackle what we’ve got planned for tomorrow.
DAY TWO SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
Depending on what day it is, you can start your second day in San Francisco a little later to give you a bit of time to enjoy a proper sleep in on your holiday. Today we’re leaving the city proper using one of the most famous bridges in the world, and going to see a part of the bay that gets a look in by most visitors.
Breakfast at San Francisco’s Ferry Building
Head over to the Ferry Building for breakfast any day of the week, there are lots of little cafes and food shops inside the bright blue building. But if you’re lucky enough to visit on a Tuesday or Thursday after 10am, or on a Saturday after 8am, you’ll also get to take in the epic Farmer’s Market that fills the halls and spills out onto the Embarcadero.
You’ll find everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, pastries, cheeses, coffee, dim sum and plenty of other choices.
Built back in 1898, the Ferry building was once the centre of transportation in San Francisco, and anyone travelling to the city until 1930 had to come through the building. Spend an hour (or less) wandering around, and sampling the food – I highly recommend the cheese at Cowgirl Creamery and the empanadas from El Porteno Empanadas, which are helpfully very close to each other.
Address: 1 The Embarcadero, San Francisco.
Hours: 7am-10pm (building hours)
Ride a bike to the Golden Gate Bridge
There are lots of bike rental places across San Francisco, which will allow you to ride up through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge. We recommend utilizing bike rental shops close to the Ferry Building, because you’ll be at the beginning of a car-free bike path that will take you all the way over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Be warned that it’s an 8-mile ride to Sausalito, so you’ll need to be in reasonable shape to complete the ride, but there are so many opportunities for photo stops along the way that you won’t be racing to the finish line by any means. The ride usually takes about an hour and a half. Booking your bike rental online can sometimes net you a discount.
Bike Rental: Usually charge by the hour (with a minimum of 2 hours) or the day.
Insider Tip: Most bike rental shops charge a small fee for you to drop your bike at a location other than where you picked it up.
San Francisco sights along the National Park bike path
No San Francisco itinerary is complete without a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge, but you also don’t want to miss some of the beautiful sights along the way. Looking back along the path, you’ll see the Bay Bridge, which stretches across to the East Bay, and is lit up with twinkling lights at night.
You’ll pass Alcatraz Landing, where you were yesterday, and ride up past the Pier 43 Ferry Arch, which is worth a look at if you didn’t see it yesterday. Pass along the beach of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and catch a glimpse of the historic ships and a submarine docked there.
Next you’ll look over the Fort Mason Historic Firehouse, and pass another Farmer’s Market (Fort Mason’s). Once you’re on the San Francisco Bay Trail, you’ll be able to see (and maybe hear) the Wave Organ. It is located on a jetty made of bits and pieces taken from an old cemetery. The Wave Organ is made up of 25 organ pipes, that sound with the rise and fall of waves. It’s best to visit at high tide to hear the organ play.
The Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center marks some great vantage points for photos of the historic bridge, so make sure to take advantage of them.
Ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
As you ride along the fenced off bike path along the Golden Gate Bridge, don’t forget to stop and look out over the bay – these are some of the best views. Because, as you’ve probably realized by now, San Francisco is best seen from the water.
From here it’s about a 10 minute ride downhill to Sausalito, where you can enjoy a leisurely lunch and a wander around the bayside town. There are plenty of eating options here. On the more expensive side are the Barrelhouse Tavern and The Spinnaker, a waterside seafood restaurant. But further along your route you’ll find the Sausalito Taco Shop, and the Lighthouse Cafe, with a Danish skew.
If you’re in the mood for ice cream, try Lappert’s, which comes highly recommended by Sammie over at The Annoyed Thyroid blog. She should know, she took a bullet for us all and tried a lot of ice cream across San Francisco.
Take the ferry back to San Francisco
Once you’re done taking in the sights and sounds of Sausalito, catch the Ferry back to the San Francisco Ferry Building and drop your bike off where you started. Alternatively, many bike rental stores also have drop off points in Sausalito (for an extra fee).
Ride a San Francisco streetcar
Now’s the perfect time to give your poor, tired legs a break and ride a San Francisco streetcar! Those 1928 Italian streetcars and English ‘boat’ trams from 1934 make regular appearances in movies set in San Francisco, probably most notably to women of my generation, in The Princess Diaries.
Catch the F street car from the Embarcadero stop and ride it back up in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf, or take the opportunity to see a new part of the city, and head along Market Street.
Hours: Daily, 6am-1am, every 6 minutes during daylight hours and every 15 minutes at night.
Cost: $2.75 (have correct change, or as close to as possible)
Insider Tip: Sit or stand as close to the front as possible, so you can hear the driver announcing stops.
Go shopping on Market Street
You’ll find quite a few flagship stores along Market Street, surrounding the Westfield Shopping Centre (Mall). There’s Levi Strauss for denim, Old Navy for just about everything, Ross if you’re looking for a clothing bargain, and a huge Bloomingdale’s department store inside of Westfield. Head up Powell Street to Union Square for Macy’s.
For those who want more high-end shopping, check out the stores surrounding Union Square, including Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton, and then along Post Street for Gucci, Cartier, and Hermes.
Address: Westfield, 865 Market St, San Francisco.
Hours: Most stores open between 10am-7pm.
Visit Union Square
If shopping isn’t on your agenda (I’m with you), you can still ride the F street car to Powell Street, hop off and walk up to Union Square. Be warned, the square is a place where homeless people congregate to rest and you’ll notice that the benches in the square have arm rests, to deter them from stretching out to sleep.
The square is beautiful though, mostly because of the fancy buildings that surround it. And for the Dewey Monument that stretches up to the sky inside the square. It is dedicated to Admiral George Dewey, and was built to commemorate his naval victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. It has stood in Union Square since 1903.
Dewey sailed out from China in 1898, aboard the USS Olympia, to attack the Spanish in the Philippine port of Manila Bay. Within six hours of attacking the Spanish Fleet, Dewey’s fleet had suck or captured all of the Spanish ships, with just one American casualty.
Enjoy a Southern-style dinner at Hops & Hominy
Tucked away in Tillman Place is an American southern food gem called Hops & Hominy. It’s a great place to try a variety of American micro brews, but wine and spirits lovers are also catered for with a range of local selections. I love the shrimp and grits, but the fried oysters, mac n cheese appetizer, and fried buttermilk chicken all come highly recommended too.
Address: 1 Tillman Place, San Francisco.
Hours: Thursday to Saturday 11.30am-3pm and 4pm-11pm. Tuesday and Wednesday 11.30am-3pm and 4pm-10pm.
Cost: Average(not over the top pricey).
Insider Tip: For those visiting from outside the US, meals described as ‘entrees’ on American menus are actually main meals.
DAY THREE SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
I think it’s time for a more restful day, don’t you? You’ve been running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off, so today it’s time to put your travel plans in someone else’s hands, sit back and relax while you get driven around in style.
We’ll be hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak, and visiting some beautiful country, in San Francisco’s north bay.
A trip to see Muir Woods Redwoods
Visiting Muir Woods with your own rental car can be a little tricky since overcrowding forced the National Monument to institute paid parking.
Now you have to pay for your parking online in advance, and choose a time slot that you plan on being in at the woods.
The easiest, and most stress-free way of visiting the towering Redwood trees that attract hundreds of visitors each week, is to book yourself on a shuttle, or tour bus.
This old growth forest of coast redwoods, are the tallest living trees in the world, with the largest in Muir Woods stretching 78 metres (258 ft) to burst through the rain forest canopy.
You will be walking among trees that are between 600 and 800 years old, and believe it or not, they’re considered on the ‘young’ side of things. Redwoods can flourish for up to 2,200 years.
Address: 1 Muir Woods Road, Mill Valley.
Hours: Change depending on the season. See here for information.
Cost: Adults (16 and older) $15, children free (this cost is usually folded into tour ticket price). Parking is $8 per vehicle if you’re driving yourself.
Insider Tip: There is no mobile phone service in Muir Woods. Remember to download any tickets or maps to your phone well before you arrive.
Take a sip of wine country in Sonoma
The best think about having someone else drive you on a trip to Northern California’s wine country is that you won’t have to worry so much about how many taster-sized glasses of wine you can have to drink.
We recommend booking a tour of more than just Muir Woods, to give you the opportunity to see more of the north bay. And there are plenty of tours that also take in Sonoma, Sausalito, or Tiburon along the way.
If you’re heading into Sonoma, you’ll get to explore the Carneros region of wineries, explore vineyards and sample a variety of different wines. Tours will usually throw in a lunch stop and suggest some great places to eat, taking the gamut of price ranges into consideration.
You might not know this if you’re visiting from overseas, but it is customary for American wineries to charge for tastings. So if you visit on your own, be prepared to pay a tasting fee before you get to sample the products.
Enjoy dinner at Bon Voyage
We know you’re not ready to leave the beautiful city yet, but you will want to try the dumplings and cocktails at Bon Voyage on Valencia Street. The décor is cool and modern, and the Chinese-American menu includes all the favorites like kung pao chicken and pork and shrimp wontons.
Address: 584 Valencia Street, San Francisco.
Hours: Monday to Friday 5pm-2am, Saturday and Sunday 12pm-2am.
Insider Tip: You can’t make reservations at Bon Voyage so be prepared for a little wait.
DAY FOUR SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
Now that you’re relaxed and well rested, it’s time to tackle another section of the city. Since you’ve been enjoying all the greenery, it’s time to bring you back to something a little more urban.
Breakfast at Tartine Bakery
Much like Mama’s on Washington Square, Tartine Bakery’s reputation precedes it. Tartine is internationally acclaimed, has won a James Beard award for excellence in baking and pastry, and if that all doesn’t convince you of its greatness, the line of eager patrons snaking out the door and onto the street should give you a clue.
You’ll find a range of pastries, breads, sandwiches, cakes and tarts in its display cases. It’s a perfect stop for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea. Don’t miss it.
Address: 600 Guerrero St, San Francisco.
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday 7.30am-7.30pm, Thursday and Friday 7.30am-7.30pm, Saturday and Sunday, 8am-8pm, Monday 8am-7pm.
Insider Tip: Try visiting on a weekday to miss the biggest crowds. It’s normal to have to share a table with strangers.
Take a tour of Mission Street Art
San Francisco’s Mission District is well known for its freedom of expression and artists using the walls and doors in alleyways to take up social justice causes.
A two minute walk along 18th Street brings you to the Women’s Building – a non profit arts and education community center, covered in a mural that will make you gasp. The MaestraPeace Mural, as it is known, was painted back in 1994 to showcase the contributions of women to the world.
Another five minute walk up Valencia Street brings you to Clarion Alley, one of the city’s most famous for street art. Here you’ll find “socially engaged” murals that attract hundreds of tourists and locals each day. Around 700 murals have been painted in the alley since 1992, and there is always something topical and beautiful to look at.
Insider Tip: If you’re into vintage and second hand shopping, stop in at Community Thrift Store (623 Valencia Street), just before Clarion Alley, and unearth some treasures.
If you’d prefer to get a guided tour with the stories behind the artworks, you should book a Precita Eyes History Mural Tour, which is run one Saturday each month. and lasts for an hour and a half.
Visit San Francisco’s oldest intact building
The Mission Dolores Basilica is the oldest building in San Francisco that’s still standing. It was actually founded before the city of San Francisco really existed back in October 1776. It also houses the only remaining cemetery inside the city limits, and it’s well worth visiting to look at the frescoes and the gardens.
Address: 3322 16th Street, San Francisco.
Hours: Sunday to Friday 9.30am-4pm, Saturday 9am-4pm.
Cost: Suggested donation of $5.
Eat a famous Mission burrito
There’s still more fantastic street art to see, and the quickest way to get there is to head to 16th Street Mission BART and catch the underground train one stop south to 24th Street Mission BART.
Before you head off in search of more aerosol-art, stop in at Taqueria El Farolito for one of the best burrito’s that you’ve ever tasted. Of course, it’s all subjective, but El Farolito’s burritos are regularly voted as San Francisco’s best.
If you’re serious about Mexican food, this is a definite stop on your foodie journey. Like a lot of lauded foodie spots, this place is a slight expansion on the hole-in-the-wall. There is limited seating, and it’s a tight fit, and the décor is nothing special. But you’re there for the food, and apart from the burritos, quesadillas get great reviews here as well.
Address: 2288 Mission Street, San Francisco.
Hours: Monday to Wednesday 10am-3am, Thursday and Friday 10am-3.30am, Saturday 10am-3am, Sunday 10am-12pm.
Insider Tip: Taqueria El Farolito is cash-only so make sure you have some cash handy.
Feast your eyes on Balmy Alley Street Art
If you haven’t yet had your fill of murals, take a leisurely stroll down to Balmy Alley to walk off that epic Mexican feast and prepare you for the hike to come a little later.
The block-long Balmy Alley is one of the most concentrated collections of murals in the city, and the walls and garage doors were first painted over in the mid-1980s as an outlet for anger over Central America’s political abuses.
Today you’ll see protests against the gentrification of the Mission District, and wider San Francisco, and human rights abuses, amongst other styles of art.
Hike San Francisco’s Twin Peaks
Stay with me here, you only have to hike one of the peaks, and it’s worth it for the views you’re going to get. But if you’re really not in the market for an uphill climb, just catch an Uber and hang out on top of San Francisco for a while.
The above map is for those who are catching an Uber, Lyft or taxi over to the corner of Hopkins and Burnett avenues, then stop to look down Hopkins Avenue and be thankful you didn’t have to walk up that monster hill. You can also use Bill Choissier’s guide to walking from The Castro up to Twin Peaks, and I won’t do him the disservice of plagiarizing his hard work, go to his site and check it out for yourself if you’re up for it.
Look down (left) Burnett Avenue and look for a pedestrian stairway at the bend in the road, that’s the one you want to climb. Follow it up to, and to the end of Vista Lane.
You’ll cross Gardenside Drive while following the lane, just keep going until you hit Parkridge Drive, then turn right. Follow Parkridge Drive to its end, then turn left onto Crestline Drive and follow it around a curve. Pay attention to the street numbers, and just before you reach number 74, you’ll see a pedestrian walkway to your right.
Cross the street and follow it up to a little wall that blocks you from the street. Climb over the wall and walk to the right, where you’ll be in the middle of the “figure 8” between Eureka (to your right) and Noe (to your left) peaks.
I’d suggest visiting Noe Peak, since it’s the less-frequented of the two, and you’re likely to run into less people up there. Enjoy being in the middle of the city with San Francisco spread out around you like a skirt on a Christmas tree.
Once you’re done, retrace your steps back to the corner of Parkridge Drive and Vista Lane, where you’ll find the #37 bus stop. Catch it to the corner of Castro and Market streets (see here for timing and route information).
Visit the ‘home’ of San Francisco’s gay community
The Castro District is well-known for being a welcoming place, where people can just be them. What you might not know though, is that it was formed in the early 1990s after gay World War II veterans were dishonorably discharged from their military service, which barred them from collecting veteran’s benefits. Now it is a melting pot of people from all over the world, although the area does retain its distinctive rainbow-flavor.
Walk up Castro Street and you’ll see numerous rainbow flags waving in the breeze, come across the Castro Theatre, which was built in 1922 and still has its own Wurlitzer organ, and a number of unapologetically hipster stores.
Stay for dinner and a few drinks at Starbelly (583 16th St, San Francisco), kick back in Blush! wine bar (476 Castro St, San Francisco) to get your evening started, or visit Hot Cookie (2019, 407 Castro St, San Francisco) for presumably your first phallic-shaped cookie.
DAY FIVE SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
Today we’ll begin with one of the windiest roads in the country, dare I say the world? I do dare, and I will. We’ll also tackle some more of the city’s most famous sites, so make sure your camera batteries are charged, because it’s one you’ll want to capture!
Get a glimpse of Ancient Greek and Roman architecture
The Palace of Fine Art is, perched just outside Park Presidio. It was first constructed back in 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition, as a temporary structure. But locals loved it so much, that in 1965 it was made permanent, in a style reminiscent of temples built by ancient Greeks and Romans.
The crowning glory is the grand pergola that towers over an artificial lagoon, complete with its own flocks of swans and ducks.
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of those picturesque spots that is favored by wedding photographers, so don’t be surprised if you witness whole bridal parties traipsing around to capture that perfect shot.
It’s free to visit the surrounding park, but if you want to see the inside of the theatre, you’ll have to book to see a performance there.
Address: 3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco.
Wind your way down Lombard Street
Follow the one way street down to the corner of Richardson Avenue and San Francisco Street, and catch the #28 Muni six stops (details here) to the corner of Van Ness and Chestnut Streets. Continue three blocks east to Hyde Street, turn left and you’ll hit one of the most crooked streets you’ve ever seen on your left.
Lombard Street runs across San Francisco from east to west, but it’s most famous for a meagre one-block stretch that has eight hairpin turns because it is so steep. Stand at the top (or the bottom) and watch cars negotiate the turns with precision. You should tick this one off the list early in the day though, because this street reels in the tourists like nothing else.
Address: Lombard Street between Leavenworth and Hyde streets.
Visit Little Italy for breakfast or coffee
Head down to the corner of Van Ness and Union streets and catch the #45 Muni bus over to Union Street and Columbus Avenue (details here).
Then walk south along Columbus Avenue through Little Italy. You’ll be surrounded by coffee shops and cafes.
This is one of my favorite parts of San Francisco because it makes me feel a little more at home than other areas. Maybe it’s because carbohydrates are my life, and Little Italy has them in spades.
See the book shop where Beatniks hung out
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers was founded back in 1953 and is still going strong today. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin established it as an independent bookstore and a place where writers and beatniks could soak up some inspiration.
Step inside and you’ll find books from major publishers, but also those from smaller publishing houses, with comparably tiny print runs. It’s a paperback-only store though, which bodes well for your luggage allowance back at the airport.
The publishing side of the business was founded in 1955, and has since published almost 200 books ranging from fiction to poetry and memoirs. I love it for its 1960s feel – wooden book cases, bare floorboards and creaking staircases. The top floor houses the poetry section and some comfy chairs for doing a bit of reading.
Address: 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco.
Hours: Daily 10am-midnight.
Stop by Francis Ford Coppola’s café
Another of the most recognizable buildings on the streets of San Francisco is the Italian café and bar owned by Hollywood Director Francis Ford Coppola. Café Zoetrope is situated inside the Sentinel Building, which was built between 1906 and 107 in a wedge-shape, that deceptively makes it look like a flatiron building, depending on the direction you’re viewing it from.
It was just bare bones when the 1906 earthquake bit, and strangely survived the ordeal. Apart from being the headquarters of Ford Coppola’s production company, and his café, the building has an interesting history.
The top floors were the offices of a notorious political figure and lawyer back in the early 1900s. After maneuvering himself into a position of power within the Union Labor Party, Abe Ruef, nominated the President of the Musicians Union and violinist Eugene Schmitz to the office of San Francisco mayor. Ruef wrote Schmitz’s speeches and basically ran his mayoral campaign, which Schmitz won in 1902. By then he was well and truly Ruef’s puppet.
By then Ruef’s influence reached the Chief of Police, the Board of Supervisors, and a few judges, some of whom testified to receiving bribes from Ruef.
The basement of the building was also a speakeasy during prohibition, and during the Great Depression in the 1930s, writers and artists lived and worked in the building.
Address: 916 Kearny St, San Francisco.
Hours: Monday to Friday 11:30am-10pm, Saturday 12pm-10pm, Sunday 12pm-9pm.
See the TransAmerica Pyramid up close
One of the most distinctive buildings to grace San Francisco’s skyline is the TransAmerica Pyramid. You can walk right up to it and crane your neck back, or see it perfectly well from your spot next to Café Zoetrope.
To begin with, TransAmerica is an insurance and investment company, and back in 1968 when they unveiled their design for the building, locals were not happy. But it went ahead anyway. It was designed by William Pereira & Associates in a pyramid shape to allow light to filter down to the street below. The pyramid was completed in 1972 and remains, to this day, Northern California’s tallest building.
Address: 600 Montgomery Street, San Francisco.
Watch Fortune Cookies being made
These aren’t just any Fortune Cookies, they’ve hand made fortune cookies since 1962 at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
In the heart of Chinatown, you can actually take a short tour of the factory to watch employees hard at work putting your future fortune into tiny cookies, ready to be shipped off to Chinese restaurants.
Your tour might just include a free sample straight out of the oven as well. It usually takes two people to make the cookies, and I won’t spoil it for you before you visit. Although photos are allowed, management asks that you leave 50c in the tip jar at the end of the tour if you’ve been taking photos.
Address: 56 Ross Alley, San Francisco.
Hours: Monday to Friday 9am-6.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-7pm.
Explore the oldest Chinatown in the US
San Francisco is home to the oldest, and second largest Chinatown in the nation, and is home to about 15,000 Chinese immigrants. If you’re wondering, New York lays claim to the largest Chinatown in North America.
Tourists are a common site within Chinatown, with an estimated 2 million wandering its streets each year. Here you’ll really feel like you’re in Chinatown. The footpaths are mostly packed solid with people, ducks hang in windows and grocers have an array of vegetables and fruit that might not seem all that familiar.
Chinatown is also a goldmine of street art, many murals having been painted by “Luke Dragon”, traditional Chinese architecture, and delicious treats like dumplings and pork buns. Finish your tour at the Dragon Gate, and see if you can spot all the dragons, fish and lions on this pagoda gate. It is the only authentic Chinatown gate in North America, as it was made of historic materials and donated by China in 1969.
See San Francisco’s Painted Ladies all dolled up
Either catch an Uber or Lyft over to the Painted Ladies, or continue walking down Grant Street until you hit Market Street and catch the #5R Ocean Beach Muni five stops over to McAllister and Fillmore streets (details here).
There are Victorian and Edwardian town houses all over the city, they are actually the most common form of housing (apart from apartment buildings), but when people talk about the Painted Ladies, they’re usually referring to this row of six houses directly across from Alamo Square Park.
While you are bound to have seen these exact houses before in advertising, online or in books about San Francisco, you may not know that Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll lived in one of the Painted Ladies for a short time.
These six houses are special because they were built in the 1890s and they all survived the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, which razed most of the city. Please be respectful of the home owners when you visit the Painted Ladies – if you need an up close shot, don’t climb the stairs to their porches, remain on the footpath outside.
Walk through to the opposite side of Alamo Square park to Divisidero Street, where there are a bunch of cafes and eateries to choose from for lunch.
Address: Corner Steiner and Hayes streets, San Francisco.
Insider Tip: Make sure you’re wearing layers for this trip. The Painted Ladies are on the top of a hill and it can get chilly up there.
We’ve been packing a lot into every day so far, so you’ll probably need the rest of the afternoon to rest and relax. Or fit in something else if that’s what you want to do I guess.
Grab a drink on a rooftop bar
There aren’t tons of Rooftop Bars in San Francisco, but there are enough to sustain you through your trip. Don’t be fooled by Anchor Distilling’s unassuming exterior, the Potrero Hill spot (1705 Mariposa Street, San Francisco) is great if you want a quieter spot complete with fairy lights strung across the rooftop terrace. You’ll need to book a tasting though if you want to make it up to the roof.
Meanwhile, over near the San Francisco Caltrain station, try Twenty Five Lusk on for size. It’s tucked down an alley in a meat processing warehouse (25 Lusk Street, San Francisco), and is a modern set up of glass and polished metal, complete with a fireplace as well. They also offer great food at the bar.
The Proper Hotel is closer to the city’s center and its rooftop bar, called Charmaine’s (1100 Market Street, San Francisco), is the perfect spot to get a birds eye view of the city. Without that added bill for a room at the swanky hotel. The drinks are on the pricier side, but nothing too unaffordable (for one drink) and with a view like that, you’re less inclined to be upset about settling your bill.
DAY SIX SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
You’ve survived to day six, and if you were smart and took a little break yesterday afternoon, you should be ready to tackle Golden Gate Park in all of its glory.
Amble across Golden Gate Park
The 1,017 acres that are known as Golden Gate Park are as vast as they sound, and packed full of wonders at each end. Start at the Arguello Boulevard entrance to begin your tour. There is a free Golden Gate Shuttle that operates within the sizeable park (details here). Here are some of the best things to see within the park:
- Conservatory of Flowers: (100 John F Kennedy Drive) The beautiful greenhouse building is home to a collection of rare and exotic plants. It is the oldest building in the park, as you can tell by its design, it was completed in 1879.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-4pm.
Cost: Adults $9, Youth (12-17) $6, College students (with ID) $6, Seniors (65 and over) $6, Children (5-11) $3, Children (under 4) free.
Insider Tip: The Conservatory is free for everyone of the first Tuesday of each month.
- Art vs. Science – The Face Off: Not as dramatic as I made it sound, but the California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco) and the de Young Art Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco) face each other across the Music Concourse inside Golden Gate Park.
The Academy of Sciences collection includes 38,000 animals from 900 species, a planetarium, aquarium and four0story rainforest dome. Meanwhile, the de Young is San Francisco’s oldest museum, and includes the work of Americans painters, sculptors and other artists in its free collection and rotating exhibitions from artists all over the world.
California Academy of Sciences
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9.30am-5pm.
Cost: Adult $35.95, Child (4-11) $25.95, Youth (12-17) $30.95, Senior (65 and over) $30.95.
de Young Art Museum
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30-5.15pm.
Cost: Adult $15, Senior (65 and over) $12, Student (with ID) $6, Youth (up to 17) free.
- Lindy in the Park: (See map above) If you’re lucky enough to visit between 11am and 2pm on Sundays, check out the swing dancers in the park. There is a free beginners class run between 12pm and 12.30pm, and you don’t even need a partner to join in.
- Japanese Tea Garden: Everything has to be the oldest or the best, or have some claim to fame. This is oldest public Japanese garden in the US, and it is absolutely gorgeous Also a prime spot for wedding photography, so look out for happy couples on your way through. It’s at its best during spring when cherry blossoms bloom, but it is beautiful all year round. Don’t miss the Arched Drum Bridge, it’s quite a climb if you’re brave enough!
Hours: March 1 to October 31 9am-6pm, November 1 to February 28 9am-4.45pm.
Cost: Free on Monday, Wednesday and Friday if you visit before 10am. Adult $9, Senior (65 and over) and Youth (12-17) $6, Child (5-11) $3, Child (under 4) free.
- San Francisco Botanical Garden: (1199 9th Ave, San Francisco) For those who haven’t had enough of gardens yet, the cities botanical garden has a bit of everything. The garden is sectioned off into continents, and shows native trees and plants from each continent.
Hours: Daily 7.30am-5pm.
Cost: Adult $9, Seniors (65 and over) and Youth (12-17) $6, Child (0-4) free.
- Bison Paddock: This paddock has been home to at least 500 American bison since they were first brought here to be protected in 1892. Over the years other animals such as bears, goats and elk have all lived behind the fenced-off area of the park. Now there are just a few Bison left, and you can see them for free, from a safe distance on John F Kennedy Drive.
- Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden: (1691 John F Kennedy Drive) The North Windmill took $25,000 to build and stands 22 metres (75 feet) tall. It was originally built to pump water, but are used purely for decorative purposes now. The windmill has a caretaker cottage next to it, to keep it well maintained. The adjoining garden is filled with thousands of tulips if you visit at the right time of year and is named for the Queen of the Netherlands who reigned from 1890 until her abdication in 1948.
Build a sandcastle or light a bonfire at Ocean Beach
Cross the Great Highway and you’re on Ocean Beach, which I’m just going to say is the Pacific Ocean technically, but I guess it could also be described as the Gulf of the Farallones.
Ocean Beach has a vast amount of sand to frolic on during low tide, and is used by locals for (legal) bonfires seasonally. You’ll find everyone from dog walkers to kite fliers, people picnicking and enjoying life, but probably not too many surfers.
Complete Lands End Labyrinth
If you’re still feeling sprightly after such a big day in Golden Gate Park, you can squeeze in a walk up to Lands End Labyrinth from Ocean Beach.
Be warned though, it is uphill, and I couldn’t find any public transport that would take you there from Ocean Beach (You can’t see me, but I’m whispering the words Uber and Lyft at you).
Set on a coastal outcrop overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, is a labyrinth set out in stone. Follow Lands End Trail, there are lots of signs to get you there, but it isn’t a hugely well-known spot in San Francisco.
Have a peek at the Sutro Baths ruins
Small confession, I love Sutro Baths and we had our engagement photos taken here. Yes they are ruins of the majestic bathhouse that once stood here, but to me there’s something beautiful about them.
Back in the late 1880s local millionaire Adolph Sutro bought the land and designed and funded the public baths, gardens and a steam train from downtown San Francisco.
His vision was that everyone in the city could enjoy the baths, and it wouldn’t just be a place for the wealthy.
Address: Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco.
Hours: The ruins are always open but the visitor’s center is open 9am-5pm daily.
Have a late lunch or early dinner overlooking the Pacific Ocean
It’s time to relax and have a quiet meal at Cliff House, a restaurant that’s served locals and visitors since 1863. It has also hosted Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley, as well as a gaggle of thick-walleted visitors.
Note: Cliff House closed its doors on December 31, 2020, after negotiations between the concession operator and the National Parks Service broke down.
The floor to ceiling windows give you a chance to really enjoy the ocean, seal rock and Ocean Beach from above.
Cliff House is famous for fresh seafood and locally sourced organic produce. Choose between dining in The Bistro, which is more casual, and Sutro’s, which caters to a more upscale clientele.
Address: 1090 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco.
Hours: Daily 9am-9.30pm.
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