Visiting San Francisco for the first time can be overwhelming since it’s a small city that packs a lot into its 7×7 mile perimeter. It’s a city of neighborhoods, where a certain area can feel like entering a different world. There are the popular tourist sights like Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Alcatraz, but there are also many other interesting sights to see beyond these places. Here are some tips on seeing the best of the city that will give you a mix of the iconic tourist sights and lesser-visited destinations that deserve equal attention. This itinerary covers five days, but can cater to a long weekend as well by mix and matching days.
Before we get into the itinerary, here are a few notes on some common questions that people have before visiting the City by the Bay.
Homelessness throughout the city is unfortunately a major issue throughout the city and can be quite disheartening to witness. Many homeless individuals struggle with mental issues, and/or drug addictions. If you respect their space, they will respect yours.
If you’re curious about organizations that help the homeless, St. Anthony’s, Glide Memorial, and Raphael House are a few great places to start.
Another common concern visitors have when they come to SF is how safe is the city? Like any mid-sized city there are parts that you should be extra vigilant in, especially during the night, including the following areas: Tenderloin, Civic Center, parts of the Mission (stay west of Mission Street), Western Addition, and areas of SOMA (around 6th and Mission).
Bring a warm jacket no matter the time of the year. Typical seasons? Nah, SF doesn’t follow the rules. It can be sunny in the morning, but then the fog can roll on in during the afternoon. Or it can be foggy all day. Karl The Fog seriously has a mind of his own (and his own Twitter account). The general rule through is that the closer to the ocean you are the foggier it will be. It can be warm in the Mission, but freezing in the Sunset. True story.
Alright, now that we got that out of the way, let’s get on to the fun stuff shall we?
Day 1: Downtown/Chinatown/North Beach
Let’s start in the center of it all-Union Square. There’s always something going on in and around this central area depending on the time of year. Be wary around the holidays when there are massive crowds who descend on this area to see the festive decorations. Places worthy of visiting are iconic stores like Macy’s, which takes up an entire building and is a great place to get a view of Union Square from above from one of its many oversized windows. If you happen to be in SF during late March-early April the Flower Show is worth checking out when the store is transformed into a floral wonderland.
Food notes: there’s not a lot of noteworthy places to eat around downtown, but the Westfield Mall has a subterranean food court that is a step up from the usual mall food courts.
Make your way to historic Chinatown, through the Dragon’s Gate that connects downtown to Chinatown. There is so much history within this neighborhood that is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Grant Avenue is the main thoroughfare, with souvenir, jewelry and antique shops. Learn about the rich cultural past of Chinatown through a free walking tour by San Francisco City Guides or a culinary tour with Sidewalk Food Tours of San Francisco.
Food notes: In my humble opinion, there’s much better Chinese food in the Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods, but Eastern Bakery, Delicious Dim Sum and Good Earth Café for boba are memorable places to pick up snacks.
North Beach is another historic neighborhood that is filled with Italian culture and cultural landmarks from the Beatnik era. City Lights Bookstore is an important first stop, where Allen Ginsberg’s controversial Howl was first published. This bookstore continues to be an important independent bookstore that focuses on progressive politics, world lit, and the arts.
Food notes: There are overpriced touristy spots, but there are also some solid places if you know where to go. Some places to get you started on your carb-loading are Mama’s On Washington Square for brunch (go on off hours because there will be a line), Tommaso’s Ristorante Italiano for pizza, Stella Pastry & Café for a dizzying array of Italian desserts, and Caffe Trieste or Caffe Greco for a caffeinated pick-me-up.
Day 2: Fisherman’s Wharf/Alcatraz
Head over to Pier 33 bright and early for the Early Bird Alcatraz Tour that promises the island sans crowds. The tour is a self-guided audio tour that typically lasts about 3 hours (though you can stay on the island as long as you like). For night owls (brave souls you are), there’s a Night Tour.
Food notes: There is a small café on Pier 33, but there is no food on the island, so make sure to bring your own snacks.
New York has Time Square, LA has Hollywood, and SF has Fisherman’s Wharf. Yes this is the touristy part of the city, but there’s plenty to see and do. Pier 30 is worth wandering around if you’ve never been, especially to see those smelly, yet lovable sea lions. For history buffs, Maritime National Park offers an educational recap of the city’s seafaring ways, which included a maritime museum, a visitor center, and historical ships. For a different kind of history lesson, head over to the Musee Mecanique for some old fashion games. For kids (or kids at heart) the Exploratorium is a great hands-on science museum at Pier 15. They also have After Dark on Thursday nights, which is 18+ and includes exhibits and a cash bar.
Transportation notes: Fisherman’s Wharf is quite spread out, and there’s the option of hopping on one of the city’s historic streetcars if you want to give your feet a rest.
Food notes: Avoid the mediocre overpriced restaurants and go to In-N-Out instead. For under $10 it’s the area’s best budget meal. Word to the wise: avoid the crowds, take it to go and eat it at the Aquatic Park Bleachers, which includes a panoramic view of the Bay. For dessert the Ghirardelli Square is a must for chocolate lovers, but be sure to split the ice cream sundae, since they’re huge. For dinner head over to nearby Marina/Cow Hollow for tapas at Alegrias, or Pacific Catch for fresh seafood.
Day 3: Mission District and Castro
Mission has a rich Hispanic history and this is present in the extensive taquerias and the vibrant murals. Balmy Alley is a good spot to see examples of local artwork, as well Clarion Alley. Other noteworthy stops are Mission Dolores, Dolores Park and Valencia 826 Pirate Supply Store.
Food notes: For a light breakfast (you want fuel for your mural walk, but need to save room for a taco lunch) head over to either Tartine Bakery or Arizmendi for delicious carbs that come in both sweet and savory options. For lunch, make your way to either La Taqueria or El Farolito for a massive SF mission burrito.
Transportation notes: Hop on the BART at either 16th and Mission or 24th and Mission to zip up to the Castro.
In the afternoon, head over to the Castro, and walk along the rainbow-hued streets that make up one of the largest gay neighborhoods in the country. Stop by significant landmarks like the Castro Theater (worth stopping by for a sing-along movie or performance by the SF Gay Men’s Chorus) and Harvey Milk’s House.
Food notes: For dinner Sushi Time is a tiny underground restaurant that serves consistently good rolls, including the Barbie roll (salmon with lemon slices on top). For American comfort food, Starbelly is a sure hit. La Mediterranee is delightful for Mediterranean.
Day 4: Golden Gate Park/Sutro Baths/Land’s End
Golden Gate Park
Rent a paddleboat at Stow Lake and make your way around this scenic spot and get some exercise while you’re at it. If you feel better on land, you can rent bikes or surrey bikes for a few hours behind the bandshell at the Music Concourse near the DeYoung Museum and Academy of Science (both museums worth a stop on their own). The park is closed on Sundays to cars, which makes it the best time to rent a bike and use all the main roads. If you still have time (and stamina), the Botanical Gardens and Japanese Tea Garden are worth checking out as well.
Food notes: Start your day out with a classic SF dim sum brunch. There are many spots close to GGP that are worth stopping by including Hong Kong Lounge II and Dragon Beaux. If you don’t feel like doing the sit-down dim sum thing, get some take-out dim sum at Wing Lee’s Bakery and eat it picnic-style a few blocks away in the park.
Sutro Baths/Lands End
In the late afternoon, head over to Lands End, where you can start out at the Sutro Baths ruins and a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Follow the trail along the coast and catch a million dollar view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. If you’re lucky you can catch the sunset into the ocean without too much fog to block your view.
Food notes: Eat dinner somewhere in the Inner Richmond (Café Europa for Eastern European or Mandalay for Burmese) or on 9th and Irving (Nopalito for healthy Mexican or Manna for Korean comfort food).
Day 5: Pacific Heights/Presidio
If you are a sucker for beautiful homes (and who isn’t) spend your last day wandering around some of the city’s finest architecture with views of the Bay on a clear day. Places like the Flood Mansion, the Victorian Haas-Lilienthal House that is open as a museum, and various consulates call this neighborhood home. If you interested in the history, San Francisco City Guides gives a free walking tour. For another spectacular view of the Bay, head over to the Lyon Street Steps, and try to keep up with the regulars who are sprinting up and down the steps.
Food notes: Lower Pacific Heights has plenty of places for morning fuel, including La Boulangerie for baked goods and hot dishes, and Sweet Maple for a heavier brunch.
The Presidio/Palace of Fine Arts
A former U.S. military fort turned National Park, this serene wooded area is great for strolling through and admiring the preserved structures. The Walt Disney Museum is worth a stop, as well as the Presidio Visitor Center. Make your way to Crissy Field, a restored marshland that sits along the Bay and is a favorite spot for local dogs to frolic on the beach (seriously I’ve never seen happier dogs). Nearby, the Roman-inspired Palace of Fine Arts is not to be missed, which was built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition and is a favorite spot for wedding photos.
Food notes: There’s not a lot of good food within the Presidio, but right outside in Marina/Cow Hollow there’s the Baker Street Bistro for French comfort food.
Where To Stay
San Francisco is quite pricey when it comes to finding accommodations, but here are some of my favorites that fit all price ranges.
Hostel International San Francisco (Fisherman’s Wharf)
An excellent choice for budget travelers, this hostel is in a quiet neighborhood with stunning views of the Bay, but still close to all the action at Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and downtown San Francisco. A complementary continental breakfast is included.
It’s harder to get more central than this, with Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf within walking distance of your room. Continental breakfast included.
Great downtown location, with recently renovated rooms. Nearby Union Square, AT&T Park, and BART.
For the ultimate getaway, there is no better place to stay in the city than this iconic hotel located in downtown. Walking distance to Union Square, Chinatown, and Pier 39.
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Where are your favorite spots in San Francisco?