The City by the Bay. It’s known for a lot of things, like for being much colder than any other California cities, for hippies and hipsters and everything in between, and for food worth waiting in lines for. Whether you’ve only got one day, one weekend, or an extended weekend, you can get to know this foggy city your own way, with my customizable San Francisco itinerary.
One note: Most San Francisco hotels are located in the downtown, so I will use this area as the starting and ending point of each day. Everyone on board? Then let’s go!
DAY ONE: DOWNTOWN & THE PIERS
Day one is the ultimate walking tour of San Francisco. If that sounds like a nightmare to you, you can cut the walking short with a classic San Francisco trolley ride. I include how at the bottom of this day one section.
Start at Dragon’s Gate, the unofficial entryway into the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Peek into any shops that interest you as you continue walking up Grant Avenue. At every intersection, make sure to look right for awesome views of the bay.
Once you hit Washington Street, turn left, and then cross Stockton Street. Continue half a block on Stockton until you hit Good Mong Kok Bakery. There may or may not be a small line outside. Order some breakfast snacks, Chinese style, to grab and eat before continuing your walking tour of San Francisco. I can recommend the egg yolk bun, the pineapple bun (which actually has zero pineapple), and the sesame bun. The steamed pork bun is also popular, if you’re wanting something meaty.
Optional detour: Want to see how fortune cookies are made? While walking on Washington Street towards Stockton, turn right into Ross Alley. Towards the end of the alley, you’ll find the famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch fortune cookies made on the spot. It’s free to watch, but photos and cookies are not. If you didn’t know, fortune cookies aren’t from China, but rather an invention by Chinese immigrants to California, so this is a pretty “authentic” foodie stop for your time in Chinatown!
Continue walking up Stockton Street, the main food street of Chinatown. Keep walking until you hit Columbus Avenue.
Little Italy & North Beach
Once you hit Columbus Avenue, you’re bound to start noticing signs you’re in little Italy. Turn left on this street to continue walking north. Look back on Columbus Avenue and peep the Transamerica Building smack dab in the middle. This used to be the defining piece of San Francisco’s skyline, until the Salesforce building recently came along.
You’ll also see by all the red-white-and-green poles and lamp posts that you are now in Little Italy. Keep walking along Columbus Avenue until you hit Lombard Street. Make a left on Lombard.
This is San Francisco’s most famous street. And for good reason. It’s so picturesque! Well, it’s not particularly picturesque right where it meets Columbus Avenue. But slowly make your way up those three uphill blocks until you see a crowd. Now you’ll see what I mean.
Once you have enough pictures from the bottom of this gorgeously winding street, walk the steps up for some great views over San Francisco. Make a right on Hyde Street from the top of Lombard when you’ve had your fill of
tourist crowds views.
Continue walking downhill on Hyde (enjoying allllllll those views!) until you reach Beach Street. There will be a nice park here, with ample trolleys nearby for your photo-taking opportunity.
From Beach Street, walk left for one block until you hit Ghirardelli Square. You can’t miss it. Ever had yummy Ghirardelli Square chocolates? My favorites are the milk chocolate caramel ones. Anyways, they are headquartered in San Francisco.
Climb the steps to the square for some free samples, or go big and order their famous sundae. Walk all the way to other end of the square for cute outdoor seating, or stop by one of the bay-view restaurants if you’re hungry. There are also clean public bathrooms and a filtered water refill station in this square, if you need them.
Once you’ve had your chocolate fill, walk through the park and continue further down Hyde Street until you hit Jefferson Street. Make a right on Jefferson, then left on Taylor Street, and a right on The Embarcadero to quickly reach the tourist frenzy that is Fisherman’s Wharf.
Have some clam chowder if you fancy, or pop into Boudin Bakery for some delicious sourdough bread (or at least to check out all the animal-shaped breads!). If you REALLY want the full tourist experience, have calm chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. BAM.
Step into free-entry Musée Mécanique if you like old fashioned instruments and arcade games, or check out the docked US submarines across from it.
Continue walking down the Embarcadero until you hit Pier 39. You can’t miss it. You’ll see performing street acts, carnival food carts, OH, and a bunch of huge flags with “Pier 39” printed in huge font.
If you haven’t eaten yet,
how?! do so here. There are tons of sit down meal opens as well as delicious desserts and snacks. Take some time to walk the upstairs and ground-level parts of the pier.
Then, head all the way to the end where you can see Alcatraz Island. Walk left from here, and if you’re in luck, there will be the infamous Pier 39 sea lions basking in the sun. Sometimes, this place will have so many that you can hear them before seeing them.
The Embarcadero & Ferry Building
Continue walking down the palm-tree-studded Embarcadero. You’ll see tons of locals out on their late-afternoon jog. If you want to see Coit Tower up close, make a right around Pier 23 onto Battery Street. Then turn right again onto Greenwich and walk up the steps. If you’ve had enough incline for the day and seeing the tower from afar sufficed, just keep walking. Stop at Pier 7 for a nice photo op of the city one direction and Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge the other direction.
Eventually, you’ll hit the San Francisco Ferry Building. Enter and walk around. Grab some bites to eat from this collection of some of San Francisco’s most popular eats and drinks. There are also clean public bathrooms here. Once you’re done, cross The Embarcadero at Market Street.
Financial District & Union Square
Market Street is the main street of the San Francisco financial district, also known as FIDI. The part of the city north of this street is NOMA, and the part of the city south of it is SOMA. Makes sense, right? Anyways, you’ll see all the 9-to-5-ers getting out around now.
Continue down Market until you hit Powell Street. Make a right onto Powell, and walk up until you hit Union Square. This is the main shopping square in San Francisco. Each corner of the square has heart statues painted with different designs. These designs actually change every so often. In winter, there is a large Christmas tree and ice rink in this middle of this square.
Dinner With a View
After you’ve finished with your heart statue pictures for the gram, head into the Macy’s building at the south end of Union Square. Go straight to the top, where there is a Cheesecake Factory with outdoor rooftop seating. I wouldn’t normally recommend a chain restaurant, but this reco is all about the views.
If you are not in San Francisco for more than one day and want to visit the famous island prison of Alcatraz, definitely squeeze a night tour into your one day San Francisco itinerary.
Need Less Walking?
Phew, that was a long day! 6ish miles all in all. Don’t think you can handle all that walking? After picking up some grub at the Chinatown bakery mentioned, walk back down one block to Clay Street. From here, you can take a classic San Francisco trolley ride up to the top of Lombard and avoid the uphill entirely! Then, hop back on to get down to the park by Ghirardelli Square. Check out the trolley stops and route on this awesome map. Altogether, this will save you roughly 1.5 miles.
Free Printable Map for Day One!
Phew! That was a lot of directions. You definitely don’t want to be walking around San Francisco on your phone all day trying to get to each next spot. So, I’ve made a nifty printable map of everything you just read above with condensed directions! Just download the PDF, print it double-sided (map on one side, directions on the other), and you’re good to go your trip. Click below to get it emailed to you.
Are you in town for more than just one day? Keep on reading for day two of this San Francisco itinerary.
DAY TWO: THE MISSION & HAIGHT ASHBURY
Now that we got all the super touristy parts of the San Francisco itinerary out of the way, day two is going to get into the real heart of San Francisco. Unlike day one, day two would be pretty difficult on your legs to entirely walk. But luckily, you can just download the free MuniMobile App (get it here: iPhone or Android), buy an unlimited muni pass for $5, and be on your way. Ready?
This is where San Francisco’s reputation as a hippie town started. Departing from from Market Street & Montgomery Street (underground), take Muni line N towards Ocean Beach and get off at Carl Street and Cole Street. Walk two blocks north, and you’re in Haight Ashbury.
After you’ve fully explored, walk east on Haight Street until you reach Lower Haight. Stop once you hit Steiner Street.
Full House Throwback
“Everywhere you look (everywhere)….There’s a heart (there’s a heart)….”
Even if you didn’t watch Full House while growing up, we all know the colorful row of Victorian houses made famous by the show. And they’re just a quick 10 minutes walk from Lower Haight! Once you hit Steiner Street coming from Haight Ashbury, turn left and walk four blocks slightly downhill until you reach Almer Park. Climb up to the center of the park and join in on the tourist photo shoots.
Even if you don’t care for the houses, it’s an awesome view of the city. Once you’re done, head back towards Lower Haight. Continue walking down Steiner until you hit Duboce Avenue, and then turn left. At Duboce Avenue & Church Street, hop on Muni line J towards Balboa Park. Get off four stops later at Right of Way / 20th Street, and now you’re in the Mission.
The stop you just got off at the very top of Mission Dolores Park. It’s definitely the favorite park of San Francisco, so stay a while. Especially on a sunny weekend day, it can even be hard to find a spot to sit. Prepare for some of the best views over the city, as well as some recently legalized smells.
Every San Franciscan knowns The Mission means good food. Walk down from the park and have your pick. There’s the beloved Tartine Bakery, famous for their morning buns, though my favorite is their bread pudding with seasonal fruit. This place always has a line until later in the day, but it moves quickly. Then there’s Dandelion Cafe, where you can free sample dark chocolates from all around the world. And, of course, there’s the what The Mission is most famous for: Mexican food. The most popular burrito spot is La Taqueria, though I’m sure no place here will disappoint. None of these tickle your fancy? Just walk down Valencia Street, and something will speak to your tummy.
The Mission is also known for street art. Keep an eye out as you walk around, or head straight to famous ones like the Women’s Center (near Tartine) or Balmey Alley (near La Taqueria). Just a heads up on The Mission’s alleyways: they tend to be a refuge for the area’s homeless.
Once you’re done exploring The Mission, head back to either the stop you got off at in the park, or the park’s lower Muni stop at Church and 18th Street. Ride the Muni line J towards The Embarcadero. Get off at Montgomery or Powell, which ever is closer to your downtown place.
And just like that, you’ve seen all the main spots of San Francisco. Got one more day to really dive into the city? Keep reading for day three of this San Francisco itinerary.
DAY THREE: LET’S GET ACTIVE
For day three, you have a couple different activities to choose from. Here are my top recommendations. If these don’t fit the bill, comment below with what you’re looking for, and I’ll respond with suggestions. Feel free to email me for San Francisco itinerary help as well.
Get in Touch with Mother Nature
California is known for amazing nature, especially on the coast. San Francisco is no different. It may be a city, but it’s easy to escape the hustle and bustle. Relax the way the locals do by
hiking walking the Lands Ends Trail. You can get another $5 all day Muni pass and take the 38AX bus from downtown to the start of the trail.
Walk all the way along the coast, through Sea Cliff neighborhood, to China’s Beach and then Baker’s Beach (3 miles total). Once you are done, GoogleMaps the best bus route back home. It will likely require another mile of walking to the nearest bus stop, or a transfer.
Bike Across the Golden Gate Bridge
This is San Francisco’s most famous site, and yet most tourists get nowhere close to it. Rather than just seeing it from a distance, why not do some casual exercise and bike across? You can purchase a tour from a vendor around Fisherman’s Wharf, or book one online beforehand.
Take a Ferry Boat to Tour Alcatraz
Assuming you didn’t already do a night tour of Alcatraz on nights 1 or 2, consider a day trip to that huge island in the water you’ve been seeing all trip. The jail on this island housed Al Capone at one point. Vendors sell tours for this around Fisherman’s Wharf, but the National Parks Service recommends you purchase tickets online beforehand. Ferries depart from Pier 33 on The Embarcadero.
Have a Museum Day
San Francisco has no shortage of museums. There are trendy ones, like Museum of Ice Cream downtown. If you are into contemporary art, the MOMA is downtown too, as is the Museum of the African Diaspora. Or, understand more of San Francisco’s history at the Cable Car (aka Trolley) Museum, also downtown. On the Embarcadero, there is also the Exploratorium.
The most famous museums in San Francisco, however, are nowhere near downtown. They’re almost all in Golden Gate Park. But with another $5 all-day Muni pass, they’re easy enough to reach.
- De Young Museum: has a huge 360 degree viewing tower at the top.
- Botanical Garden: lovely place for a stroll, with flowers and trees from literally all over the world. It’s free the second Tuesday of every month.
- California Academy of Sciences: there is always something interesting here.
Golden Gate Park itself is worth exploring, too. There are buffalo (yes, real life buffalo), a Japanese tea garden, and it hosts several concerts year-round.
Spend the Day at Napa Valley
This is no longer in the walking-and-public-transport department, but it’s a great day trip from San Francisco, known for wine tasting and beautiful scenery. I recommend renting a car for the day, but if you prefer not to drive back, I’m sure you can find a tour. Keep in mind that there is a hefty toll for coming back through the Golden Gate by car. Consider driving back through Oakland and crossing the cheaper (but still beautiful) Bay Bridge into SF.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Did you give any part of this San Francisco itinerary a try? Please let me know what you thought below! Or, do you need even MORE suggestions? Shoot me an email or drop a comment below if you have more days in SF, or will have a car!