5 Days in San Francisco

September 14, 2014

5 days in san francisco

Put on your walking shoes and explore one of the greatest cities in the world. From the Gold Rush to the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is rich with historical landmarks, Pacific views, great food and colorful people.

With houses that defy the rules of gravity – built on steep hills, Pacific Ocean views, a beautiful bay, colorful neighborhoods, a notorious former prison, Gold Rush history, and one ‘golden bridge’ – San Francisco is a destination on every traveler’s mind. We had the privilege of visiting San Francisco during August when the days are long and the summer fog meets the California sun.

America’s closest version of a European city, San Francisco’s appeal is not only in the beautiful panoramic views it offers from the hills dotting the city but also from the diversity that lies within its strikingly different neighborhoods. In a matter of a few city blocks, one can visit Chinatown, Little Italy, the hipster Mission, and so on. We also used our holiday in San Francisco to explore the beautiful coastline and head out on one of the ultimate road trips, California Highway 1.

So, as the famous tune goes “if you’re going to San Francisco”… be sure to read through this 5 days in San Francisco travel guide and plan your memorable holiday.

What’s Included in this 5 Days in San Francisco Itinerary?

  • Essential San Francisco travel tips & itinerary map [This Page]
  • Day 1: Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach & Telegraph Hill [Skip To Page]
  • Day 2: Civic Center, the Painted Ladies & The Mission District [Skip To Page]
  • Day 3: Farmer’s Market, Embarcadero, Alcatraz & Fisherman’s Wharf [Skip To Page]
  • Day 4: Cable Car Ride, Lombard St, Bike Tour, Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach, Golden Gate Park & Sausalito [Skip To Page]
  • Day 5: Muir Woods, Stinson Beach & Point Reyes [Skip To Page]

Looking for a Quick Read?


San Francisco Travel Tips:

  • Pocket Rough Guide San FranciscoPack this with you! Get the Pocket Rough Guide to San Francisco. It’s got loads of photos, restaurant listings and will be your best friend in SFO along with this guide of course.
  • Browse through this collection of online tickets to San Francisco’s various sites, tours, and experiences. Tickets are immediately issued and delivered by email, and in certain cases, you can also enter via a ‘special queue’ (a.k.a skip the line). San Francisco is packed with tourists, so this can come in handy in certain situations.
  • San Francisco is famous for its microclimates and the summer fog. We can get into the scientific explanation but instead, check out this link. Basically, summer mornings are foggy and chilly, then in the late morning / early afternoon the sun usually comes out, and around early evening, the fog rolls back in along with some wind. Therefore, always dress in layers and be prepared for some chilly weather at times, even in the summer. But do be sure to pack those sunglasses. Fear not the terrible weather as the fog does usually clear as mentioned above and traveling just a few miles out of San Francisco, the temperatures can be a lot higher and the sun quite strong.
  • San Francisco is best enjoyed by foot. It is not your typical US city. So be sure to pack comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk up a few hills – it’s the best way to see the city (though there are plenty of options if you are not able to walk extensively).
  • Speaking of the hills – if distances look short on a map, they could involve negotiating some steep (but beautiful) hills so take that into account.
  • The city is served by two public transportation companies: BART and Muni. The BART is essentially a subway system that serves the entire bay area whereas Muni serves the city (streetcars, buses, cable cars). On the BART, your fare depends on the destination while on Muni, the adult fare is $2.25 per ride and that includes a free transfer valid for 90 minutes on other Muni lines aside from cable cars. A Clipper Card is worth it if you’ll be doing a lot of traveling and can be used on both Muni and BART as well as on ferries and the Caltrain. Above ground, you’ll need to have exact change (no change is given on buses, streetcars, etc.).
  • Cable cars are synonymous with San Francisco. The popular line is Powell & Hyde which runs from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf and offers the best views (fare is $6 per ride). More tips on riding the cable cars later on.
  • If you’re hopefully planning to drive across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, keep in mind that it’s tolled on the southbound leg, heading back into town. A one-way fare is $7 per car and must be paid online. If you have a rental car and fail to pay the toll on time, an invoice will be sent to the rental company and it will add a service fee to the toll so be sure to go online and pay ahead of time for the duration of your rental period by license plate number.
  • San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the US. Book early to find good deals. Tipping is also part of the local custom. In restaurant- add 15-20% (to the pre-tax value), in bars – $1 per drink, valet parking – $2 minimum, hotel porters – $1 per bag and in taxis – 10%
  • As the tech capital of America, you’ll find plenty of wi-fi spots across the city. However, if you don’t like surprises, T-Mobile offers a $3 per day package that includes unlimited talk and text (The US only of course) and most importantly, 200Mb of data per day. In any case, download an offline Google Map of San Francisco and use your GPS to get around.
  • Renting a car in San Francisco? Rates are competitive but most locations close at 5 or 6 pm without the option of just dropping off the keys (aside from airport locations). Take that into account when renting and at the very worst, pay for an extra day so you are not in a hurry to get back. 

Summer Fog San Francisco

Where to stay?

If you’re after a hotel, a great choice is the Villa Florence Hotel. It’s comfortably situated smack in the middle of Union Square, close to shops, restaurants and the famed cable car. If you’re looking to stay closer to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf is quite a bargain. Rates are competitive, continental breakfast is included in the price and you’re super close to the beach. I’ve stayed at both places and feel very comfortable recommending them to you.

Here’s a list of all available San Francisco accommodations that you can book online

Our 5 Days in San Francisco Route:

Click on the map to open in Google Maps

5 days in san francisco itinerary



  1. hi! we’re goin on a trip in august and i love your recommendation for biking over the Golden Gate to Sausalito ..but if we bike there,is there a place to drop off the bikes so we can take the ferry back over? ..i missed that in case u mentioned..
    ps thank you for your trip itinerary! VERY helpful!!

    1. Hi Stephanie!

      Thanks for the feedback, glad you find it useful! Nothing keeps me more motivated to continue writing that fellow travel readers joining the newsletter 🙂

      As for your question, the Sausalito ferry is very bike friendly so you’ll actually take the your rented bike on the ferry. It’s all very organized.

      Have fun in SFO and don’t forget to pack some warm clothes 🙂

  2. Hi Avichai,
    I’m planning a vacation for my family in September in California. We plan to fly into San Diego and drive to San Francisco making our way through important points such as disneyland, LA, coasts, etc.
    I’ve started with planning the San Diego side of the trip and there are so many things we want to do there that I was planning to give it 5 days (Seaworld, zoo, safari park, USS Midway, Coronado, etc, etc) [Your post was very helpful btw!] I was only planning for 1-2 days in San Francisco but now that I see you took 5 days there I’m a little confused. Do you think we should spend less time in San Diego and more time in San Francisco? We want to go to the parks as well as the beaches!

    1. Thanks for reaching out. I can understand why you would want to spend this amount of time in San Diego. There’s more family stuff to do there with the Zoo, Seaworld etc. I think 5 days might be a bit too much though, depending on how old the kids are and how quickly you can get from place to place. Keep in mind that you’re talking about a very long drive with both L.A and the PCH on the way. Since I spent a lot of time in San Francisco, I got to see a lot of it. I wouldn’t think places like The Mission, Golden Gate Park & Chinatown are musts if you’re on a family trip with young children so perhaps 3 full days in SFO are OK. I would say the musts in SFO are: crossing the bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf area (for the kids), Alcatraz, a bit of nature (Muir Woods) and a bit of walking around. So to make a long story short – if the kids are young and you’re looking primarily to entertain them, your plan seems to be right. Maybe just reduce SD by one day. Have a great trip and feel free to ask anything else!

  3. Great guide! I used to live in San Francisco and it always makes me sad that tourists waste their time going to Pier 39, which only contains restaurants and stores you can find all over the US, if not the world. That being said, I guess I don’t really understand the tourist mentality having lived there. To add to your list: hiking Land’s End, exploring the Presidio, Lyon Street steps in Pacific Heights for some beautiful views and breathtaking mansions, walking down Clement Street in the Richmond, shopping and dining on Fillmore Street, California Science Academy in Golden Gate Park, and taking a tour of the Anchor Steam brewery (with free tastings – must reserve in advance).

  4. Hi there. Great info and so thoughtfully laid out! My husband is travelling to SF for work the first week in March and my 13 month old daughter and I are going to join him. We get a Tuesday-Friday, just the two of us, to explore and have an adventure, then will be staying Friday-Sunday with my husband not working so we can enjoy the area as a family. I feel confident that we can do most of what you suggested and am so excited. The only part that’s a bummer is the biking, because she’s just too young to haul around in a bike trailer. I wear her and have a lightweight, very fold-able stroller. Any tips for substituting the biking with a combo of walking and public transit? Perhaps other travelers with small children would gain some insight from this as well. Again, great post!

    1. FYI, we are staying in near Fisherman’s Wharf the entire time. Tues-Fri my husband will be working, so it’s just the baby and myself exploring. Friday night through Sunday night (taking a red-eye home, so have all day Sunday as well) my husband will be off work and joining us.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I just came back from San Francisco and it helped me so much, basically I did everything you have in this itinerary and I really I felt like I didn’t miss a single thing of the city.
    You should do this to every other city in America!, this guides help us so we can avoid wasting time in the middle of our trip asking ourselves what can we do next.

    1. Thanks so much Madeleine!

      I’m glad you found the itinerary useful. Working on getting more published, so stay tuned, and tell your friends 🙂

  6. Hello, do you have a recommendation re. where to stay/what area is a good central location, if a family with teens is planning to do this itinerary?

    1. Hi Shannon

      You can’t go wrong with Union Square area hotels. Though on the expensive side, the location is central and you’re close to everything. Another option is by Fisherman’s Wharf. There are lots of family hotels just behind it. Airbnb has a lot of options if you’re comfortable with that. For the ‘real’ experience, you can find a place in Nob Hill or Russian Hill (though you’ll have to negotiate the hills). I put a few recommendations for hotels I stayed on the second page. Enjoy!

  7. Hello Avichai,

    Considering your 5 day itinerary, do you think is usefull to take a hop-on hop-off bus service? or your itinerary considers to walk and use of public transportation to reach every spot.

    I am going to stay 5 1/3 days in SF and your itinerary looks fantastic. Let me know your opinion.

    Thanks in advance


    1. Hi Ricardo

      I used the trams to get down to fisherman’s wharf, subway to get back from Bernal Heights and cable car to get back from that day of cycling. We did a lot of walking though (a lot), which is something I enjoy very much. My friend who went with her mom to SFO (who can’t walk so much), did the hop on / hop off bus and it was ideal for them. The bus does stop at all these attractions and if you don’t want to use public transportation, it’s probably a convenient thing to have. Let me know if you have more questions and have fun in SFO!

  8. Hello,
    We’re coming from New Orleans to SFO and Napa. Our first time visiting.
    Any suggestions for our trip there? We’ll be staying 6 days and would like to do the wine train and coast as well.
    Thanks in advance for all info.

    1. Hi Beverly

      If it’s your first time in the area, I would recommend doing a combination of days 1,3 & 4 from this SFO itinerary https://xdaysiny.com/5-days-san-francisco-california-itinerary-guide/ and days 2 & 3 in this Pacific Coast Highway itinerary https://xdaysiny.com/3-days-pacific-coast-highway-california-road-trip-itinerary-guide/ Napa Valley requires one day from SFO and simply means one person will need to be the designated driver. It’s a bit tight to squeeze everything in 6 days but possible. Enjoy!

  9. Hi Avichai,

    Really interesting subjects covered. Thank You

    Me, my wife and two kids (2 & 4months) are staying in fremont with family and plan to visit SF in three days. Few questions we had was how to travel (Car back and forth or bart train ) We are not staying in SF so would visit , see sites and come back to fremont each day. Can you suggest some itenaries and also how with kids one would reach from one point to the other (For eg Union Square to Fishermans Wharf ). Further down we will drive down to LA from fremont and spend 5 days there (staying in a hotel). and then moving to San Diego for 3 days and back to fremont.

    1. Hi

      So normally I would suggest to take the BART and then Uber around town but you need car seats… If that’s not an issue then you can probably leave the car behind and avoid the parking fees in town. As for itineraries considering you have small infants, that’s difficult for me to say b/c I don’t know how comfortable you are carrying the kids around. However, I would say that Golden Gate Park, Crissey Field area (waterfront + Golden Gate Bridge), Fisherman’s Wharf area (watch the seals), Bernal Heights (get a ride there), Alcatraz – are all sites that you can enjoy as a family (Alcatraz is probably more for the adults). You could also check if Blazing Saddles rents bicycles with child seats or small ‘carriages’ in the back and then enjoy what is (for me) the highlight of visiting SFO – riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. If you do have a car, you can also check out Muir Woods. Hope this helps. Enjoy!!

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