Last updated on August 30th, 2022
Put on your walking shoes and experience 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. In this San Francisco travel guide, we’ll explore in-depth how to spend 5 days or less in Francisco.
With houses that defy the rules of gravity, Pacific Ocean views, a beautiful bay, colorful neighborhoods, a notorious former prison, Gold Rush history, and one ‘golden bridge’ – San Francisco is a rewarding destination for any type of visitor. I’ve had the privilege of visiting San Francisco on several occasions, often staying for a long weekend or an extended stay that enabled exploring highlights beyond the city.
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. This 5 days in San Francisco travel guide will highlight the city’s main attractions as well as lesser-known sites, and offer a day trip to experience the natural beauty that surrounds it.
Unlike many U.S. cities, it’s relatively easy to explore San Francisco despite it’s size. Vast parts of the city are perfect for walking, even if there are a few hills to climb. Its far reaches are easily accessible by bicycle, public transportation, or some serious walking.
Every San Francisco neighborhood has its unique vibe and, in a matter of a few city blocks, visitors can experience the city’s unique blend of flavors. From Chinatown to Little Italy and the Mission, San Francisco never gets boring.
With beautiful hilltop vistas, a distinct architecture, and iconic landmarks, San Francisco is always easy on the eyes and a true photographer’s paradise. It’s one of the most picturesque cities in the world, with images forever etched in your memory.
Several sections make up this travel guide:
Visiting San Francisco just for a long weekend or looking for a quick read? These might come in handy.
This map contains all the points mentioned in this San Francisco itinerary. Simply click on the image to open in Google Maps.
In this section, I’ll share a few travel tips for planning your visit to San Francisco.
You can visit San Francisco throughout the year, though peak winter months are chilly and can be quite wet. During the spring and fall months, San Francisco experiences pleasant weather without too much rain. Some weeks actually experience perfect weather. During the summer months, the weather is great (though not as warm as you might expect), but you’ll need to share the city with the peak tourist crowd.
Another thing to keep in mind when planning a trip to San Francisco is the myriad 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. Fear not the terrible weather as the fog does usually clear and if you travel just a few miles out of San Francisco, the temperature can be a lot higher and the sun quite strong.
San Francisco is a great city for walking but considering the distances and the steep hills, it’s more than likely that you’ll combine walking with using public transportation.
BART and Muni: San Francisco is currently served by two mass-transit operators (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, the fare depends on the destination while on Muni, the adult fare is a flat fee that includes a free transfer valid for 90 minutes on other Muni lines apart from cable cars.
Clipper card: this card must be bought if you’re using the BART but it can also be used on Muni lines (also on cable cars) as well as on ferries and the Caltrain. You’ll purchase the clipper card once and load it with credit (also works via Apple Pay). A Clipper Card is worth it if you’ll be doing a lot of traveling. Above ground, without the card, you’ll need to have exact change as no change is given on buses, streetcars, etc.
To/from the airport: a taxi from the SFO airport to downtown will cost between $40-60, depending on the traffic. Alternatively, you can take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to/from the international terminal. It’s very easy to get to downtown. All you need is to purchase a Clipper Card on the spot, load it with credit, and hop on the frequent trains that call at this station (costs around $4-6 one way).
Cable cars: 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. Riding the cable car in San Francisco is quite expensive but day passes are available if you plan on riding multiple times. Though they are primarily used by tourists, in some cases riding cable cars will save a lot of time and effort when steep hills are prevalent along your desired route. More tips on riding the cable cars later on.
Scooters: electric scooters available for ride-sharing have taken over San Francisco. These are obviously not very handy for getting around hilly neighborhoods, but for anything around the flat parts of the city, they can save a lot of time. You’ll need to register online (takes a few minutes) and you’re good to go. It’s best to sign up for a few providers and keep in mind that if you’re not riding, return the scooter and sign out because idling burns a lot of credit.
Climbing San Francisco’s hills on foot can be quite exhausting and it’s often the case that distances on a map look very short but the walking time is abnormally long. Take this into account when using digital maps and see if there’s a map view that also displays the topography of the area.
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 also really enjoyed staying at the Club Quarters Hotel. It’s located in the downtown area close to the Embarcadero, and it’s well connected to all public transportation lines. I especially liked staying here as it was perfectly situated for morning runs along the Embarcadero. Recently, I stayed with my family at the Hotel Caza close to Fisherman’s Wharf and was pleasantly surprised. This is a family-friendly hotel, with large rooms, parking, games spread throughout the hotel, and other useful amenities.
Get your own copy of 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 travel guide. If you’re combining your visit to San Francisco along with a trip up or down the coast, consider picking up a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Costal California.
San Francisco is a best explored by combining public transportation and walking. Therefore, pack comfortable walking shoes and clothes that will allow you to do a lot of walking without losing comfort. As mentioned earlier, San Francisco is known for its microclimates. You can experience multiple seasons in a single day. Therefore, dress in layers and be prepared for some chilly weather at times, even in the summer.
It doesn’t make sense to rent a car for your entire stay in San Francisco but it might make sense to rent a car for one or two days to explore a few sites across the bay. The rates for renting a car in San Francisco are quite competitive but keep in mind that most (if not all) downtown branches close at 5 or 6 pm without the option of just dropping off the keys. Take this into account when renting and at the very worst, pay for an extra day so you are not in a hurry to get back.
If you’re 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 around $10 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.
The short answer is yes! San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the US. You’ll spend the bulk of your costs on accommodations, food, and admission to local attractions. Book your accommodation as early as possible to find good deals. Tipping is also part of the local custom. In restaurant- add 15-20% (to the pre-tax value), in bars – at least $1 per drink, valet parking – $2 minimum, hotel porters – at least $1 per bag and in taxis – 10%.
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 and can unlock some saving.
Despite California’s high sales tax, San Francisco is still a great city for shopping. Do keep in mind that many downtown shops only open at 10 or 11 am on weekdays and Saturdays, and at noon on Sunday. Stores tend to close at around 6 or 7 pm on Sundays. Plan your shopping accordingly and do some research online if you have your heart set on specific shops.
We’ll spend the first day in San Francisco exploring its flat downtown area, later ascending to Chinatown and checking out what’s happening on a few of its scenic hills.
Close to the Union Square area, history lovers can begin the day with a quick stop at Lotta’s Fountain, located at the corner of Kearny and Market St. Named after actress Lotta Crabtree, this now decommissioned fountain, served as a gathering spot after the devastating 1906 earthquake. Market St. is also a great place to see some of San Francisco’s railway cars (not to be confused with the cable cars). These railway cars were bought by Muni from other U.S. and world cities, restored, and put in service within the city. Each car is uniquely painted and you can read about its origin on board. This section of Market Street is also a prime shopping destination, highlighted by the Westfield San Francisco Centre.
At the corner of Market Street and Powell Street, check out the creative way in which cable cars are turned around when they reach the end of the line. This spot marks the beginning or the end of the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines. There’s a ticket booth nearby and it’s quite busy (yet orderly) with tourists queueing up to be the first ones to get on the cable car. You can technically hop on a cable car at any station along the route.
If you still haven’t had breakfast, head to Union Square and find a spot at Sears Fine Food on Powell St. just across from the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Apart from the signature meals this place has been serving since 1938 (including the famous Swedish pancakes), it’s rich with old San Francisco history and you’ll notice that right when you walk through the door. Ceiling fans, wooden decor, and tiled floor tell the story of this place and hundreds line up here each morning (breakfast served until 3 pm). At the end of your meal, spin the slot machine on your way out for your chance to win some yummy prizes.
Next up is Union Square, San Francisco’s upscale shopping area. The square itself is lovely to walk through (or skate through in the winter) and surrounding it are dozens of shops and hotels. You’ll find luxury brands like Tiffany’s, Coach, and Burberry, but also more down-to-earth shops like Nike, Levi’s, DSW, and of course, Macy’s. Macy’s Union Square is made up of two buildings, one for men and the other for women. If you’re visiting from outside the U.S., inquire about the visitors’ pass, which should provide a 10% discount at Macy’s.
Be sure to also make your way to the Cheesecake Factory, located on the top floor. Though this place does serve ordinary dishes, it’s famous for… you guessed it – cheesecake. Choose from dozens of variations and enjoy a bird’s eye view of Union Square from the outside balcony. Other good shopping choices in the area include nearby Maiden Lane on Morton St. and the Westfield Shopping Center back on Market Street.
A short stroll away on the corner of Grant and Bush is the iconic pagoda entrance to Chinatown. San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown in the US and walking through some areas of it does feel like you’re in a different country. Chinatown is concentrated around two major streets: Grant and Stockton, along with the side streets between them. Grant Avenue is more tourist-oriented while Stockton Street is home to more locally-used businesses. The best and most famous way to enter Chinatown is via the Grant Avenue Chinatown Gate.
As you walk up Grant Avenue, you are faced with dozens of kitschy shops selling anything from Chinese firecrackers to giant ceramic vases. You’ll soon hit the cable car tracks of the California Street line and a red brick church – Old St. Mary’s Church. Head inside the church for a great photo exhibition of the area just after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire that brought immense destruction (and reconstruction) to this part of town. If you come here at noon on a Tuesday, you’ll also be treated to a classical concert! Grant Avenue from this point looks just lovely, decorated with a Chinese touch all across.
From Old St Mary’s Church, climb on California Street to the corner of Stockton for a photo-op detour. Wait at this spot for a cable car to climb up or roll down the hill. This is a great photo spot with the skyscrapers below and the Bay Bridge making a slight appearance in the background.
This is also a convenient starting spot for exploring Stockton Street, abundant with vegetable stalls, dim sum restaurants, and fish markets. This is quite an authentic slice of Chinatown, unlike souvenir-shop-lined Grant Avenue. Turn right on Clay St. and then either right or left on Waverly Place, a very small but beautiful street. On this tiny street, look above you and you’ll see magnificent Chinese pagodas.
Waverly Place is home to numerous temples. At #109 is Norras Temple and at #125 is Tin How Temple. Don’t let the modest staircase fool you, the latter is an active Tibetan temple. Incense is continuously burned and traditional Chinese red ornaments light up this prayer chamber. Step outside onto the balcony and admire the tranquility of this place, at the heart of bustling Chinatown. Entrance is free but donations are highly appreciated, no photography is allowed.
Now open up your smelling sense and walk up the tiny Ross Alley. You’ll soon smell something familiar (it’s not ‘weed’) and just towards the end, find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Step inside this crowded working factory that’s been making fortune cookies since the 1960s. Watch how cookies (and fortunes) are made and also buy a small bag to snack on later in the day.
Architecture enthusiasts can now head to check out the extravagant pagoda of the East-West Bank, better known as the Chinese American Telephone Exchange Building. Opened in 1909, this former busy telephone exchange was manned by operators who routed the calls by memorizing each subscriber’s destination, as Chinese homes did not have a number, due to traditional customs.
Slightly down the road at 738 Washington St, step inside Ellision Enterprises Corp. Don’t let the ambiguous name fool you, this traditional Chinese medicine shop is lined with hundreds of different herbs for any ailment and excellent tea options. Pharmacists still use hand-held scales to serve customers – really cool to see and great if you’re in the market for some ginseng.
For the last “official” stop on the Chinatown tour, cross the street, and explore Portsmouth Square. This little square is popular with locals, mostly seniors, and you’ll see many congregate in small circles and watch as two players battle it out in an intense game of Chinese checkers.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is worth exploring, even if you just stroll through. It’s amazing what just a few city blocks in San Francisco can do, completely changing the atmosphere. This is a theme that you’ll notice throughout the city’s distinctive neighborhoods.
From our last stop in Chinatown – Portsmouth Square – walk up scenic Washington and enter the outskirts of Nob Hill, an affluent and picturesque neighborhood. As its name suggests, the area is built on a hill so getting up here does put your feet to work.
Take a break from the climb at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, located at the corner of Washington and Mason (free admission). At the very least, a convenient bathroom stop, if you’re either traveling with children or if you appreciate history and old technology, visiting the cable car museum is a must. Inside, you’ll learn about the history of this engineering marvel and also see the cables that run the entire system at work. In other words, this museum is not only a museum but also a critical function in the cable car infrastructure.
Next up, check out the European-looking Grace Cathedral. This is one of the nicest spots in Nob Hill, with the tranquil Huntington Park just across the street.
A short stroll from Washington Park brings you to the tiny scenic lookout known as Ina Coolbrith Park. This spot offers some of the finest views of San Francisco and it’s a great spot for a picnic lunch or just a scenic break. This part of town has some seriously steep roads, making you wonder how the breaks on your car must be if you’re a neighborhood resident.
It’s time to head down to level ground in the direction of Washington Square Park. Along the way, stop at the intersection of Columbus Avenue with Stockton and Green St. for a great view of new and old San Francisco architecture. You’ll see the famous Transamerica Pyramid which was completed in 1972, in the backdrop of the Columbus Tower, completed in 1907.
Further down Columbus Avenue, you are now entering North Beach. This part of town is Little Italy and just a few blocks away from Chinatown, here’s another example of San Francisco’s diversity of neighborhoods. North Beach is home to many Italians and many Italians mean great food and European-style cafes.
You’ll find dozens of good casual dining options in this part of town. At Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe, choose from a simple and inexpensive yet delicious Italian menu, along with a selection of Italian-flavored soda. The staff is friendly and the food is great. Try the cannelloni and turkey focaccia, with a side of fine Washington Square views.
Other solid nearby options include locals’-favorite Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Golden Boy Pizza, Gino & Carlo, and the French cuisine at Cafe Jacqueline. Also worth mentioning are the fine focaccias at Liguria Bakery and the extremely-popular brunches at Mama’s On Washington Square (open until 2 pm on weekdays and 3 pm on weekends).
After a good lunch, take a break at Washington Square Park. This is a popular hangout spot and if you come in the morning, you’re bound to see Chinese seniors practicing their tai-chi. Saint Peter and Paul Church cannot be missed from the park, and its two towers are a dominant feature in the local skyline. It’s worth checking if the church is open and seeing its lavish interior with your own eyes.
Well rested, it’s time to put the legs back to work. Head to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill via the Filbert Steps. The climb is rewarded with great vistas in one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. The Coit Tower was built in 1933 and rises like a pin over Telegraph Hill. The view from Pioneer Park is amazing with the entire San Francisco Bay just below you, along with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west.
If the queue isn’t too bad, it’s worth climbing to the top of Coit Tower (approx. $10). The views from here are even better and the breeze is great on a hot day. You might even catch a glimpse of birds riding the wind to hover in the air close to the tower.
You can head back down the same way you came but a better option is to take the Greenwich Steps down towards the waterfront. This steep staircase takes you through a lush urban forest and some beautiful homes with enviable views.
Japantown is not an area we’ll devote much time to in this itinerary so it’s a good idea to check it out over dinner. It certainly lacks the architecture and vibe of Chinatown but there’s a great choice of excellent Japanese restaurants around here. We sampled the food at Isobune Sushi, located at the Japantown Plaza whose shops are certainly worth visiting if you’re into crafts and Japanese fine paper. Isobune Sushi is not your average sushi joint. Guests sit around a river, where boats deliver the sushi that’s being prepared by the chefs on the ‘island’. Take what you want and pay according to the plate’s color. The sushi is simple and not the fanciest in town but this place certainly gets points for originality and the sushi is not bad at all.
The next day of our 5 days in San Francisco itinerary involves a lot of walking but will pay off. We’ll spend the bulk of the day exploring one of San Francisco’s most interesting neighborhoods but not before we visit another iconic San Francisco landmark.
Not a must, by all means, but possibly interesting for architecture fans, start the day at Civic Plaza and check out the San Francisco City Hall. Completed in 1915, this building was also the site of the 1978 murder of Mayor Moscone and gay activist Harvey Milk. This area is also home to many of San Francisco’s homeless. They concentrate on this area because this is where they can get limited assistance. Unfortunately, some are suffering from untreated mental disorders and they can be a bit aggressive though they mainly keep to themselves. So this area, at least at the time of my last visit in 2021, can be a bit uncomfortable to the outside visitor.
From Civic Plaza, climb Fulton St. towards Alamo Square. This area features beautiful pastel-colored Victorian houses that are so associated with San Francisco. From Alamo Square, check out the Painted Ladies, a row of Victorian houses with the city’s skyline in the background. Surely you’ll recognize this iconic frame from postcards, movies, and television shows.
A nice place to stop en route to The Mission is at Duboce Park. There are lots of little cafes in the area, including the cute Duboce Park Cafe. This cafe has outside seating and makes for a refreshing quick stop before the walking that’s to come.
Just a block down the road on 16th St, you can’t miss the impressive Spanish-style basilica. Dwarfed next to it is a tiny adobe church – this is Mission Dolores and the 1776 birthplace of San Francisco (or Yerba Buena as it was called back then). This was the first European settlement in the area, on the site of what was then a creek. Mission Dolores also gives its name to one of the coolest neighborhoods to explore in San Francisco – The Mission.
The Mission district is comprised of Mission and Valencia Streets. Though running in parallel, these two streets couldn’t be more different. Mission St. is strikingly Hispanic while Valencia St. is hipster central. This mix of cultures, in a neighborhood that has always been dominated by immigrants, is what gives The Mission its cool vine and makes for a pleasant stroll. Like Chinatown and North Beach, it’s yet another example of how diverse San Francisco is, in a matter of a couple of city blocks.
At Dolores Park, join the locals and find a spot on a bench or the grass. Dolores Park offers a superb escape from the city, with wide green areas and great city views from its higher southern end. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch with a sunny and unobstructed view of San Francisco or just to chill for a short while before continuing the walking tour of The Mission.
A good way to explore The Mission is by heading down from Dolores Park via 20th Street. This street boasts a beautiful variety of Victorian-style houses, each with its unique character. It’s also relatively quiet here, so different from other parts of town.
Now it’s all about strolling up and down Mission and Valencia streets until you’ve had enough. Mission street is a lot “rougher” and vibrant, with many pawnshops, fruit & vegetable stalls, tobacco shops, tattoo parlors, Latin music in full volume from passing cars, and of course – a great number of taquerias.
If you like Mexican food, you’ll feel in heaven on Mission Street as there are loads of great choices. These include Taqueria Cancun, the no-frills New Castillito Taqueria, and the neighborhood favorite – La Taqueria. I tried La Taqueria, going for a chicken burrito with a side of fresh guacamole and nachos and cinnamon horchata to wash it down. Wow, it was so good! It’s also worth mentioning Papalote though it’s a bit out of the way.
Once at 24th St., take a detour towards Balmy Alley. You’ll notice beautiful paintings on the facades of some of the homes around here, as well as the “rough” but the friendly vibe of the area. En route, stop for some cardamon tea at Cafe la Boheme, a cool spot with a good lite menu. It’s quite popular amongst youngsters on Macs who seem to be working from here on the next tech startup. Another good refreshment option is Philz Coffee on Folsom St. This place regularly receives top awards for its blends and is very popular.
A few meters after Folsom Street, make a right onto Balmy Alley. This is the best place to admire the Mission’s murals. Local Latino artists have been painting these walls since the 1970s, depicting everyday life and their hardships. The rising real estate prices in San Francisco have forced many out of the neighborhood and the frustration is vented through some of the murals in Balmy Alley.
It’s time to turn around and head to Valencia street, this time slicing through Mission Street via Clarion Alley. It’s not as pleasant as Balmy Alley due to the poor maintenance of the place but the murals are impressive albeit. There’s usually a political or cultural theme to the art.
At the end of Clarion Alley, turn left onto Valencia St. In sharp contrast to its parallel neighbor, Valencia Street is San Francisco’s ‘hipster central’. This street is made for walking, filled with good ethnic restaurants (always with a pricey hipster twist), cafes, boutiques, music shops, vintage shops, and specialty shops. The atmosphere here is very pleasant and it’s just fun to explore without any particular goal in mind. A good stop for book lovers is Dog Eared books, with a cool selection of international titles, second-hand, and photography books.
If your muscles aren’t aching by now and you’re in the mood for adventure, head back to Folsom St. and keep heading south. You’ll enter the neighborhood of Bernal Heights, a quiet place with a village feel. Its beautiful houses are perched on a steep hill. Residents must either have strong leg muscles or very powerful cars. Continue climbing up Folsom until you reach the entrance to Bernal Heights Park. Trust me, you’ll be rewarded.
Follow the path and soon you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the city, with The Mission below, the bay to your right, and the city’s skyline just in front of you. It’s a great spot to sit back and relax after all that walking. You can walk around the hill and gain different perspectives and if you’re feeling even extra adventurous, get off the path and climb to the top of the hill (where the radio tower is) for an even better view. What a way to finish off the day! As a tip, watch out for the fog that will probably start to roll back in (just look to the west) around 5-6 pm during the summer months and time your visit accordingly.
After a good rest at Bernal Heights, make your way back down and head to the Mission Street BART Station to catch a train that can take you in the direction of downtown. Alternatively, you can walk or cab to do some exploring in the Castro District, wrapping up the sightseeing portion of this day with sunset views at Twin Peaks.
For dinner, make reservations at Le Colonial on Cosmo Place to sample some French-Vietnamese cuisine. Well-decorated on the outside and boasting a lush garden entrance, the interior is just as appealing and colonial in feel with traditional ceiling fans and a tiled floor.
The third day of our 5 days in San Francisco itinerary will be spent on or next to water. We’ll start the day with a visit to Alcatraz and, back on dry land, we’ll explore the city’s lively waterfront area.
If it’s Saturday morning, start the day at the Ferry Terminal Building, on the southern end of the Embarcadero. The building itself is unmistakable, with its clock tower designed after the famous Giralda in the Seville Cathedral in Spain. Completed in 1898, the terminal building used to be very busy with bay area travelers before the Bay & Golden Gate bridges were completed. Nowadays, it’s an embarkation point for ferries connecting the city with towns in Marin County and Oakland. The ferry building hosts a California farmers market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays but the weekday versions only start at 10 am, whereas the Saturday market begins at 8 am. If it’s not market day, you’ll still find a selection of casual dining options on the ground floor.
The farmers market brings together local producers from around the area selling lots of organic produce and regular fruits & vegetables, flowers, and great food – with the scenic backdrop of the Bay Bridge.
From the ferry terminal, continue walking along the Embarcadero towards Pier 33. This wide boulevard has come a long way and it’s now a favorite jogging spot, also boasting seafood restaurants with bay views. Pier 33 is the departure point for Alcatraz, one of the highlights of any holiday to San Francisco.
(1) Book your Alcatraz tickets in Advance to ensure you have space on your desired day and at your desired departure time. (2) I recommend taking the first ferry to Alcatraz in the morning. This way, the island will be less crowded and your visit more enjoyable, the frequent incoming ferries will allow you to return whenever you want, and the Alcatraz visit won’t “clog” your sightseeing day. (3) Have a look at combo tickets that include Alcatraz along with other attractions. These might unlock some savings or skip-the-line benefits.
The boat ride to ‘The Rock’ offers great city and bay views and takes about 15 minutes. As soon as you disembark, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Alcatraz is a major tourist spot so they’ve invested a lot of effort in making this experience special. Now a US National Park, Alcatraz was originally an army fort until converted to a federal prison in 1934. Housing the worst criminals in the US until 1963 like Scarface Al Capone, ‘The Rock’ became infamous for a place with a one-way ticket.
Nowadays, Alcatraz is an extremely popular tourist destination. You can visit Alcatraz on a day tour in which your ticket includes the boat ride, park entrance, and an audio tour, or on a night tour which includes a more intimate tour (and quite recommended from what I’ve heard). The audio tour comes in handy, as it takes you around the must-see areas of the former prison with stories told through the eyes of former guards and prisoners. With all the hype around Alcatraz, it’s cool to walk around and see how these inmates lived. You can even step into one of the solitary confinement cells for a few minutes and experience for yourself what inmates would have to endure.
Allow between 2 to 2.5 hours for a proper visit to Alcatraz and be sure to enjoy the great view of the bay and the city from the outside deck. This is certainly an ‘achievement unlocked’ and we can now tick that box on our ‘must-see places list’.
Be sure to check signposted departure times back to San Francisco as you embark the ferry on Alcatraz Island.
Back on dry land at Pier 33 after returning from Alcatraz, continue along the Embarcadero to Pier 39. This touristy complex will be loved by kids and it can also be a good spot for lunch. Pier 39 is packed with souvenir and curiosity shops (a store for left-handed people anyone?), cafes, arcades, old-fashioned candy shops, and restaurants. It has a county fair atmosphere to it.
Even if this tacky madness is too much for you, come to Pier 39 to watch the famous San Francisco seals, who have been calling this place home since the 1989 earthquake. They soak in the sun, swim around for food, and mainly make a lot of noise. The Viewing platform is at the end of the second floor.
The section between Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf is busy with many street performers, tour booths, and panhandlers. A few more steps along the Embarcadero and you’ll see the familiar sign welcoming you to Fisherman’s Wharf. This was once the center of the fishing industry but that’s long gone and today, this place draws tourist crowds.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to famous seafood restaurants, whose signature dish is a bread bowl seafood chowder. Grab a seat in the small outfits or head over to Boudin Bakery, famous for its sourdough bread. Bread makers here put on a show for the tourists, just look for the large window. Another good option is Franciscan Crab Restaurant (reservations strongly advised).
Even though the restaurants are touristy around Fisherman’s Wharf, you must taste the local seafood. I sampled the food at Alioto’s Waterside Cafe which offers good combination options for those who are not seafood experts and just want to taste. It’s not too expensive, the food was good and hey, you get to wear ridiculous lobster aprons!
Children and adults who miss their childhood years should head to Musée Mécanique (free) to experience what an arcade used to look like many decades ago. These vintage arcade machines have been restored and you’ll find old ‘love meters’, pinball machines, and also a few other vintage machines that may have been considered ‘X-rated’ at the time. There are other, more maritime-oriented museums to explore if you’re into that such as the SS Jeremiah O’Brien and Maritime Museum.
Just beyond Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find this tranquil spot offering great views and beach access. Many swimmers come here during the morning hours for some exercise in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay. Continue walking along the municipal pier to enjoy the unique vantage point and head back when you’ve had enough. We’ll explore the area beyond this point tomorrow. Conveniently enough, Ghirardelli is just a stone’s throw away. Famous for their chocolate squares, Ghirardelli is also famous for very rewarding sundaes. So if your sweet tooth is aching, this is the place for you!
On this day, we will cover a lot of ground, so renting a bicycle for the day is a good option. We’ll focus on two possible options, one involving crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and the other heading to a beautiful lesser-known beach park.
If cycling isn’t your thing, both options are suitable for those who enjoy walking. You might find that crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on foot is a bit too much but you can simply go as far as you feel comfortable and turn around. Alternatively, you can take the bus or cab from Baker Beach (option 2) and return to the downtown area.
The area we wish to explore on this day is close to Fisherman’s Wharf and that’s also where most of the bicycle rental outfits are located. So why not get there in style? From the downtown area, hop on the scenic Powell & Hyde cable car and stop at the top of Lombard Street. Queues at the start of the cable car lines can be horrible so you can simply walk “up the line” and flag the cable car at one of the stations. The corner of Lombard and Hyde is one of the best photography spots in San Francisco. With Alcatraz straight in the background, you’ll see cable cars climb up and down the hill.
The queue to get onto the cable car at its starting point can be quite long and a big “time waster”. If this is the case, you can walk “up the line” and flag a passing a cable car from one of its stations.
And now for Lombard Street. This famous street snakes its way down the hill via 8 steep curves and is famous around the world. Originally conceived to help drivers safely negotiate the hill, this section of Lombard Street is popular with the tourists who drive down the hill in endless amounts. For those of us on foot, it’s great to walk down and admire the landscape, along with the panoramic views that the lucky (or unlucky) residents of this street enjoy.
Today we will cover a great distance so renting a bicycle is a good option. The parts we’ll cover in today’s itinerary are quite well-geared for bicycle riders so it’s no surprise that renting a bicycle is such a popular activity in San Francisco. If cycling isn’t your thing, you can do large chunks of the itinerary on foot and easily return to the city by bus or cab.
(1) It’s best to reserve your bicycle rental in advance and to aim for an early departure to avoid the queues. (2) Be prepared for both sunny and windy conditions with suns screen, something warm, and some water and snacks.
Start things off where we ended yesterday’s walking tour, at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and the municipal pier. Take the steep climb towards Fort Mason, where the views are fantastic and from where you’ll catch the first good glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cycle or walk across the Great Meadow Park at Fort Mason and head down to Marina Boulevard (don’t worry, you’ll see many other cyclists with you). The Marina District is one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the city and it is easy to see why. There’s a sense of a never-ending vacation around here, not to mention fine views of one of the prettiest natural bays in the world.
The first “real” stop is at the Palace of Fine Arts which requires a slight detour at the very end of Marina Boulevard. This is another famous landmark in San Francisco and you’ll surely recognize this open classical rotunda. Built for a fair in 1915, the palace has since managed to go through a period of decay and reconstruction. It’s popular with the swans in the center pond and couples on pre-wedding photoshoots (the houses around it aren’t too bad either).
Back on the bikes, continue along the San Francisco Bay Trail which slices through the Crissy Field Marsh with its sandy landscape and beautiful beach.
Further on, you’ll eventually reach Crissy Field, a huge park that’s very popular with locals on weekend BBQs. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city’s skyline behind you keep getting better and better. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch but if you didn’t pack anything with you for the ride, that’s no problem. Head to the Warming Hut Cafe, a bookstore and gift shop that also sells great sandwiches, and dine outside with a view.
After fueling up, you are now faced with two choices: either cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge or cycle towards Baker Beach across the Presidio, eventually getting to Golden Gate Park. Both options involve doing a bit of climbing.
When you think about San Francisco, the image that first comes to mind is no doubt, that of the Golden Gate Bridge. After four years of construction (costing over $1B in today’s money), the bridge opened in 1937. This beautiful suspension bridge (spanning 1,200 meters between towers) is the symbol of the city and connects Marin County to San Francisco, almost 3 kilometers away. Continuously pounded by the Pacific winds (it’s pretty windy up here), the bridge was designed to endure the worst that Mother Nature can swing at it, and hanging over 60 meters above the water, is, unfortunately, a popular spot for suicides.
Crossing the bridge is certainly another achievement unlocked and only when crossing by foot or bike, do you get a true sense of this engineering marvel.
It can get pretty crowded on the bridge but you do have a few spaces to stop and enjoy the sites. When crossing the bridge heading north, you’ll be on the opposite side of the city. However, there are plenty of good viewing areas just beyond the bridge. One good option is the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point, but we’ll cover this with the car the next day when we head out of the city to Muir Woods.
As you finish crossing the bridge, you’ll just follow the path that takes you onto Conzelman Rd, below the bridge then onto Moore Rd and finally East Rd and into Sausalito.
There’s no need to cycle back unless you really want to. From Sausalito, catch the ferry back to San Francisco where you can return your bike.
Sausalito is the kind of town you’d love to live in. It is tiny but its charming main street is lined with restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Its hills are dotted with beautiful cottages that have million-dollar views, and its houseboats further to the north have become iconic. The marina in the city center makes Sausalito very accessible to day-trippers from San Francisco.
Park the bikes near the marina and head for a stroll in town. If you have a sweet tooth (and you deserve some candy after all that riding), head to Munchies Candy and try their saltwater taffy. If you fancy something to eat or just a nice drink, head to one of the restaurants or wine bars around the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. If you fancy some sushi, try your luck at getting a table at Sushi Ran. This busy place usually requires a reservation and it’s a great way to end the day.
When you’ve had enough, catch the ferry back to the city. The ride back offers great sunset views of San Francisco Bay. Check the ferry times here and be sure to come back before your bike rental outfits close for the day.
If crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is not your thing or if you’ll be crossing it by car – here’s an excellent alternative. Instead of crossing the bridge when you reach HWY 101 just after climbing from The Warming Hut, climb to the Presidio A military fort for 218 years, this present-day national park is dotted with scenic viewpoints and beautiful mansions. Many roads and trails criss-cross the Presidio, making it a popular destination for cyclists and for those seeking to escape the city for a few hours.
Even if you’re not cycling, you can walk part of or the entire way to Baker Beach and use a cab or bus to get back to the downtown area.
The first highlight on this leg is right as you begin to climb to the Presidio. Pause at the Viewpoint Golden Gate Bridge for additional classic San Francisco Views. From there, head to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point South and pick up the California Coastal Trail for a safe walk to Baker Beach. Stop at Golden Gate Overlook for a unique vantage point of the bridge traffic.
This is a beautiful part of the city, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown area. The coastal trail offers many chances to head down to scenic and remote beaches, such as Marshall’s Beach, or to abandoned concrete forts that were erected in the past to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay. From here, just follow the signs and head down to Baker Beach.
Not too many tourists venture to Baker Beach. That’s a shame because this beach is one of the nicest city beaches you’ll come across. With a unique view of the Golden Gate Bridge to the east, stroll along the fine white sand and watch as huge ocean liners enter the bay. Don’t be alarmed if you see a few nudists in the northern part of the beach. This beach is the birthplace of the legendary Burning Man festival which now takes place in Nevada – so you can imagine it’s quite a free spirit spot.
From Baker Beach, you are faced with two options.
If you’re tired or out of time at this point, order a cab or walk to California Street and catch a bus (about 20 mins on foot from Baker Beach) – if you’ve been walking. If you have been cycling, you can head back via Lake and Clay streets, eventually making it back to the bike drop-off zones. The cycling is mostly flat and, on the odd hill, just walk the bikes. You’ll pass through one of the nicest (and quietest) parts of San Francisco and be amazed that in the heart of the city, you have such grand Victorian-style houses.
If you still have some gas (and daylight) left, head via 25th Av and enter Golden Gate Park. Rivaled only by New York’s Central Park, this is one of the finest city parks in the world. Golden Gate Park is huge and deserves its own day to explore but if you don’t have the time but do have a bike, it makes for a pleasant ride.
There are a few highlights within the park, with the most famous (and touristy) one being the Japanese Tea Garden – the oldest Japanese garden in the US. The garden’s footpaths lead visitors to pagodas, bonsai and cherry trees, ponds, and everything you’d expect from such gardens. Other highlights include the famous bronze Buddha sculpture and the oversized U-shaped bridge.
During my last visit, I found the Japanese Tea Garden to be quite a rip-off. The price of admission was high compared to its small size and lack of ability to spend a considerable amount of time exploring the premises. Instead, consider the adjacent San Francisco Botanical Garden or rose garden, or even the de Young Museum if you have the time. Two additional lovely spots are worth checking out if you’re already here, the symmetrical Rideout Fountain and its square, and the tranquil grounds of Stow Lake.
If you’ve walked all the way here, it’s very easy to take the bus back to town. You can catch the 5 or 5R Fulton Street or use Google Maps to find additional routes. Alternatively, ordering a cab from one of the major streets should not be a challenge.
If you’re still up for some adventure, cycle east out of the park to the corner of Haight-Ashbury, the iconic peace movement area. Nowadays, this neighborhood is still popular with the hippy crowd and its most “classic” section stretches from the park entrance to Masonic Street. Check out the tie-dye clothing shops, smoke shops, vegan cafes, vintage clothing shops, and, of course, the record stores. From here, it’s quite a long cycle back to the bike drop zones.
After all that cycling, you deserve a sweet and calorie-rich reward. Conveniently enough, Ghirardelli is not far from bike drop-off zones. Famous for their chocolate squares, Ghirardelli is also famous for sundaes. What a perfect way to welcome the evening with a sundae in Ghirardelli Square.
Apart from the ice cream restaurant and chocolate store, you’ll find additional shops and convenient public restrooms at Ghirardelli Square. The San Francisco waterfront is just meters away if you still feel like wandering around after this busy day.
Your cable car ticket might award a small discount at Ghirardelli’s.
Use the last of your 5 days in San Francisco to leave the city behind and visit the surrounding area. We’ll explore two options, either heading to Muir Woods and continuing on the Pacific Coast Highway to Point Reyes, or exploring wine country in Napa Valley.
Alternatively, if you want to stay in the city, this could be a great opportunity to complete yesterday’s itinerary for the option you did not have the chance to do.
It’s quite easy to rent a car in San Francisco and I recommend checking the relevant travel tips listed in the first section of this guide. Factoring in the cost of overnight parking in the city, it’s still quite worth it. If you don’t feel like driving or wish to not limit yourself when it comes to wine tasting, you can join day trips to Muir Woods from San Francisco as well as tours to Napa Valley and even tours that combine both Napa Valley and Sonoma.
Napa Valley is about an hour and a half drive out of the city, first taking the eastern route via the Bay Bridge before heading north. Napa’s beautiful scenery will transport you to southern Europe, and sites such as Castello di Amorosa’s will whisk you away to Tuscany for a couple of hours. The name of the game here is wine tasting and there are a lot of wineries to choose from. Here are a few recommendations to add to your shortlist: Domaine Carneros, Signorello Estate, Sullivan Rutherford Estate, and Kuleto Estate Winery. Try to make reservations if possible if you have your heart set on visiting a particular winery or restaurant. Also, save time for strolling through the valley’s primary towns of St Helena and Yountville.
This road trip takes you over the Golden Gate Bridge and joins the Pacific Coast Highway for a memorable day of sightseeing and California road tripping.
Here’s a route map of this road trip. Simply click on the map to open in Google Maps.
The drive from San Francisco to Muir Woods takes about 45 minutes without stops. However, there is a ‘must stop’ just as you cross the Golden Gate Bridge heading north. Turn right into the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point for a great view back towards the bridge and the city skyline across the bay. Even when foggy, this view never fails to impress.
After a short drive through the woods, you’ll make it to Muir Woods National Monument. This forest is home to thousands of tall redwood trees, some started their growth many centuries ago! Muir Woods is a popular city escape so you’re not alone. Try and visit on a weekday morning.
At the present time, drivers must pre-book their parking spot at Muir Woods.
Several easy loop paths are running on the forest floor that you can choose from. The longest one is only 2 miles long and the further you walk, the fewer people you’ll encounter (you might even be able to hear the Woodpeckers). There are also a few proper trails in this area that connect to the forest floor loop. The redwoods were a prized commodity in the past and we all owe our visit to William Kent and his wife Elizabeth Thacher, who bought this land in 1905 and donated it to the government to create the park.
Just after Muir Beach, there’s a superb lookout point at Muir Beach Overlook. Park the car and head down towards the cliff’s edge on the marked trail. You’ll notice on your way old WWII defense positions carved into the cliff, a relic of years past. The view from the end of the trail is amazing, with fine southerly views of Muir Beach and north towards Stinson Beach. You might even spot a few whales in season.
From the lookout, it’s another 15 minutes to Stinson beach. There’s another great viewing spot just before you descend towards the beach. Stinson Beach is wide and long. I hope you get to see it without fog as it is beautiful, but it can get foggy. The beach is popular with surfers and the adjacent town with holidaymakers. Grab some lunch to-go at the Parkside Cafe and enjoy a picnic at Stinson Beach.
If you’re doing well on time, continue for about an hour to Point Reyes National Seashore to check out its wild beaches, elephant seals, and walking trails. Heading back towards San Francisco, take Sir Francis Drake Blvd back to HWY 101, and drive through a beautiful redwood forest and ranch country.
A particular section of this boulevard has some seriously nice views, the kind you’ve probably seen before on screen but now get to see with your own eyes. When I drove on this road, there were hardly any passing cars which certainly amplified the experience.
If it’s not dark at this point, just before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge (don’t forget to pay the toll), get off at Conzelman Rd and head to Marin Headlands. Stop at the lookout point for arguably the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. This is a great spot to finish your San Francisco adventure!
To celebrate the end of an action-packed 5 days in San Francisco, head to the Armory Club on Mission St. It’s a vibrant place with excellent cocktails and local beers. Another good option is Zeitgeist, very popular with Mission residents – with a great selection of beers, famous bloody mary’s, and an outside garden.
This busy itinerary certainly makes the most of your 5 days in San Francisco and can also serve as a good reference even if you’re just spending a long weekend in San Francisco. Be sure to check additional California travel guides in case San Francisco is just one stop on your California adventure.
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