Contributor: gabrielbautistaContributor: hanztrasmilContributor: heyitsbryanm
Mar 25, 2021

Overview

San Francisco is a city in the United States and is one of the top tourist destinations in the country. The city is located on a small peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, and is known as the tech hub of the world. The culture of San Francisco is incredibly diverse, with a wide variety of restaurants, entertainment venues, and activities to keep visitors busy.

This 3-day itinerary through San Francisco takes you through the best that San Francisco has to offer. To summarize:

  1. Day one will take you through through the Embarcedaro and Fisherman's Wharf, a major tourist area of the city.

  2. Day two will have you sampling San Francisco's natural beaches and hikes. You'll also check out the Golden Gate Bridge

  3. Day three is a "make-your-own" itinerary, which includes a bucketlist of places for you to visit

Day 1

Pier day

The long stretch of road called the Embarcadero is a great place to start the first day of a weekend in San Francisco, especially for tourists.

Important tips for day 1

You won't need a car for this trip, but it is highly recommended to sign-up for a month of Bay Wheels. Pay $13 (2021) for a month of riding to get unlimited 45-minute bike rentals for the month, then cancel the membership before you leave the city. It's cheaper than parking and will allow you to explore this entire itinerary.

Have a car? Even so, park the car somewhere and go with Bay Wheels. Parking is an exercise that will leave you frustrated in the city.

Starting day 1

The day 1 itinerary can be started in a few ways:

  • You can take Bart/Cal-Train and get a Bay Wheels bike to ride up the Embarcedaro

  • You can take the ferry from Oakland and start at the Ferry Building

  • You can park in North Beach and take a Bay Wheels bike to start the itinerary at Pier 39

Take a walk or jog at Rincon Park

Rincon Park

Rincon Park sits along the Embarcadero right by the water and at times can be caught under the shade of the Bay Bridge. This tiny slice of green space is most famous for the large bow and arrow sculpture known as "Cupid's Span." Though perfect for seaside jogging, the park is best for tourists to capture a photo of the Bay Bridge in all its glory.

It's position at the start of the Embarcadero makes it the best starting point for day 1 of your SF itinerary. Once you get here, grab a Bay Wheels bike to begin biking up the Embarcadero.

Check out Ferry Building

Ferry Building

Further up the Embarcadero is the San Francisco Ferry Building. Built before the 1900s, the building features an elegant Beaux Arts style that withstood the test of time and two major earthquakes. Aside from being a hub for the Golden State Ferry, the building also houses offices, a food court, and on certain days of the week, a farmer’s market in the plaza in front of the building.

Aside from food and architecture, the building stands as a famous landmark in the area with a 75m clock tower that stares down Market Street. Be sure to be at the Embarcadero Plaza just across the street for the best angle to capture the whole building.

If you're hungry, check out Hog Island Oyster for their happy hours. It's one of the most frequented Oyster restaurant in San Francisco.

Optional - Explore the Exploratorium

Exploratorium

About 15 minutes on foot up the Embarcadero is the Exploratorium. Located in Piers 15 and 17, the building is now a modern science and technology museum famous for its participatory exhibits.

Self-described as scientific funhouse, the museum has been heralded by both experts and tourists alike as a unique introduction to the mechanisms behind the world around them. With topics ranging from electricity to the local wildlife of the Bay Area and even human behavior, the museum features nearly 600 exhibits, a peek into their workshop, a glass observatory, and several restaurants among others. Tickets are priced anywhere from USD 20 - 40 but are definitely a steal for the kind of fun you'll be having here.

If you want to save on the ticket price, check Groupon to look for discount codes. If you find one, help us out by using our referral link to sign up!

Take a picture with the sea lions at Pier 39

Pier 39

After crossing a public park from Pier 35 is Pier 39, the most famous of all the piers along the Embarcadero. The pier is a shopping center similar to that in Santa Monica. Thus, you can find lots of great gimmick restaurants and souvenir stores, as well as a build-a-bear among others. One other thing tourists flock to are the sea lions that now rest on the docks instead of their former home of Seal Rock. Come here for the fun and food and stay for the friendly sea lions, which can be viewed on the left-back side of the pier.

One of our favorite attractions here is the mirror maze, which is only $5 with Groupon (updated February 2021)! Use our referral link to sign up and to help us out.

Visit the antique arcade

Musée Mécanique in San Francisco

Tucked away in Pier 45 just a short walk west on the Embarcadero from Pier 39 is the Musée Mécanique. This museum is one of many in the Fisherman's Wharf district and is famous for its exhibit of old machines. These machines include antique slot machines and old arcade games among others, most of which are available to interact with.

Check out the Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf

Though technically spanning an area including Pier 39, the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood is more famous for Pier 45. Similar to 39, the area around Pier 45 has wide collection of shops and restaurants. However, unlike the previous, there are more museums and activities including Madame Tussauds and the afforementioned Musee Mecanique. Pier 45 also has the USS Pompanito and SS Jeremiah O'Brian, both of which are now museum ships.

For Lunch, be sure to try out one of the many seafood restaurants right in front of the iconic Fisherman's Wharf sign.

Visit The Cannery

The Cannery

As the name suggests, the Cannery was once a functional canning factory that began operations in 1906. After having closed down during the Great Depression, the building was bought in the 60s to preserve its history and was subsequently turned into a mall. Now a famous hang out spot, be sure to try out some of the classic restaurants surrounded by old time charm in this urban shopping center.

Explore San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center

Right next to the Cannery is an equally old building that was once a warehouse. Now, it's a museum that houses the San Francisco National Historical Park Visitor Center. Here you can find exhibits of the old ships that passed through the bay and the buildings and tools that helped support them. Since it's a national park, there is a park ranger present and is usually open to questions about the area.

Enjoy the view at Aquatic Park

Aquatic Park

Contrary to what some might think, the park where you can see the Ghirardelli sign from is not Ghirardelli Square but the Aquatic Park. part of a larger national park, the area is home to the Maritime Museum.

With In-and-out nearby, a popular afternoon activity is to buy some burgers to eat on the grass.

Visit Hyde Street Pier

Hyde Street Pier

Across the street from the visitor center is the Hyde Street Pier. similar to the piers that come before it, this one features whimsically designed shops and restaurants. Though noticeably smaller, the pier had the important task of serving as the terminal for ships that did what the bay bridges do now. Today, it's where several historic ships are permanently anchored such as the Balclutha, an 1800s square rigged ship, the Eureka, a 19th century paddle steamboat, and the Hercules, a 20th century steamboat. All of these are available for tours and is accessible from a separate visitor center on the pier.

Explore Ghirardelli Square

Ghirardelli Square

While it is named after the chocolate company, Ghirardelli Square is not where the company is based, at least not anymore. When the square was built in the late 1800s, the building did in fact have the headquarters of the Italian chocolate company. Thus, it took on an industrial European style and was renovated to be an example of a classic town square. Now, it's a mall and hotel which has several Ghirardelli stores and restaurants. While checking out the stores, make sure to try the Ghirardelli sundae.

Check out Fort Mason

Fort Mason

This park is Fort Mason, a former navy site which at one time was the principal port for the Pacific Campaign during World War Two.

Fort Mason hosts several events, shows and activities, such as rollerdisco, lit Food Truck nights and art shows. Check the website for events and happenings.

If you started this itinerary in reverse, or you arrive at Fort Mason early, make sure to stop by The Interval, which is one of the most intriguing bars in the entire city.

Time to head back

Time to call it a day. If you got here by Bay Wheels, you should follow the road back to avoid biking up San Francisco's hills. If you prefer to take public transit, stop by the SFMTA Hyde and Beach Public Transit Kiosk where you can purchase a trolley ticket to get across the city.

Day 2

Beaches and the Golden Gate

For day 2, you'll be hiking through the northeast part of San Francisco, visiting the ocean and getting a picturesque view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Important Tips

For this part of the itinerary, it is recommended to have a car to drive from place to place. Parking is free for most (if not all) of the stops on this day of the itinerary.

Since a beach stop is also included here, having a car will let you get soaked without having to walk around in the cold. You'll also be able to be abile to easily visit some of the more picturesque locations overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stop by the Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

Not to be confused with the Presidio which is where the Golden Gate Bridge is, Golden Gate Park is further south and stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the geographic center of the city. The park is known for its many gardens and museums including the de Young Museum which contains fine art pieces and the Japanese Tea Garden right beside it. Walking down John F Kennedy Drive, which cuts through the park lengthwise, is the best way to see everything the park has to offer.

Before you visit, make sure to check the Golden Gate Park Website for events and happenings.

Smell the fresh air at Conservatory of Flowers

Conservatory of Flowers

On the northeastern corner of the park is the Conservatory of Flowers, a botanical garden and greenhouse featuring a collection of rare and exotic plants. Located along JFK Drive, the conservatory is the perfect first stop in a tour of San Francisco's parks and gives you a glimpse of a wide array of flora and fauna. The conservatory is the oldest building in the park having been built in the late 1800s and is made primarily out of wood and not metal. Tickets don't go higher than USD 12, making it a common stop for guided tours.

Explore California Academy of Science

California Academy of Science

Across the street from the de Young Museum is the California Academy of sciences, a research institute with an extensive natural history museum. The exhibits are wide and vary from dinosaur bones to taxidermy animals and even a large aquarium. the Academy also has a planetarium and a glass dome surrounding a rainforest-like environment. The academy is perfect for animal lovers who want to learn more about the natural world.

Witness the beautiful sunset at Sutro Baths

Sutro Baths

The Sutro Baths in its heyday was a large indoor saltwater swimming pool complex. What was once a glamorous display of early century entertainment is now, after a fire in the 60s, ruins overlooking the Pacific Ocean. What would seem like a part of the ocean is actually the former pool. This area is free to explore to your heart's content.

Check out Lands Labrynth

Lands Labrynth

The rocky coast surrounding Land's End give it an exciting scenery with crashing waves and dramatic landscapes. Walk along the coast from the Sutro Baths and you'll find the Land's End Labyrinth perched on cliff. Created by Eduardo Aguilera in 2004, the stone labyrinth offers a great viewpoint of the entire Golden Gate Bridge. If you feel like it, the labyrinth is easy to walk and human-sized, so feel free to try it out when you're not taking pictures of the bridge.

Enjoy the view at Lands End Eagles Point

Lands End Eagles Point

Further up the coast from the Labyrinth and you'll end up at Eagle's Point. Just like the previous spot, Eagle's Point features a stunning vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge. However, given its location by the trail, it's built on more stable ground and even has seats facing the bay.

Enjoy the sea breeze at Baker's Beach

Baker's Beach

Following the El Camino Del Mar, the street right beside Eagle's Point, will lead you to the Presidio, and eventually after a 35 minute walk (or 10 minute drive) you'll reach Baker's Beach.

Baker's Beach is our favorite beach in the entire city. It offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and is an amazing spot to catch the sunset.

If you're not a fan of graphic images, then it might be best to steer clear of the northern half which is considered a nude beach, though if you don't mind that, you can brave the nudity to enjoy a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Take a selfie at Golden Gate Overlook

Golden Gate Overlook

It is extremely helpfult to have a car for the last parts of this itinerary.

Driving up the Lincoln Boulevard from the beach will lead you to an unassuming collection of old structures. Here, you'll find the Golden Gate Overlook. Part of a series of old wartime batteries and battlements, the overlook is less crowded than other vantage points but still offers a uniquely impressive view as it lets you look down the entire length of the bridge. The site doubles as a historical marvel as you can explore the ruins of the former military outpost.

Enjoy the scenic view at Secret Spot Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge center

Chances are, if you look up pictures of Golden Gate Bridge, you'll see pictures like this one. To get a view like that, you'll have to cross the bridge towards Sausalito and make an exit for the visitor center. This will lead you down a trail ending at a place called Battery Spencer. It's here where you can find the iconic Wikipedia-worthy view of the Golden Gate Bridge. IF you time it right, you'll get to see the bridge light up as the sun sets, giving you a majestic display of oranges and purples - the perfect way to end the day.

Catch an up close view of the Golden Gate Bridge at night

Golden Gate Bridge Secret Spot

Down a little further from the Golden Gate Bridge center is a parking lot right next to the ocean. It gets a little chilly, but it's a romantic spot to stop and look at the bridge at night.

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Day 3

Other bucketlist items

For day 3, there isn't any particular itinerary for enjoying the final day. San Francisco has a ton to see, so you should spend the last day picking out some bucketlist items to check out.

Our personal favorite thing to do on a Sunday in San Francisco is to bring a couple of friends and beers to Dolores Park for some day drinking and afternoon activities. It will take up half your day (and maybe more) but it is perfect if you've got friends to join you.

For solo activities, considering taking the day to visit Battery Spencer and possibly doing some hikes in Marin.

Take a photo at Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is another key landmark in the city. However, though most pictures of the place feature the rotunda, the palace actually includes a much larger building behind it that has both a theater and an exhibition center. The whole building is one of few survivors of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition having been rebuilt in the 60s and 70s.

Generally, it's best to stop by here during sunset, so if you have the time check it out. Otherwise, save it as an itinerary stop for day 3.

Chill at Dolores Park

Dolores Park

After two long days of walking around San Francisco, start your third chilling at a local staple for hang outs - Dolores Park. Located in the Mission District, the park is a hilly green space where it's not uncommon to see people on blankets enjoying some snacks or just watching over the view of the cityscape - be advised that it gets very busy here especially on Sunday afternoons.

You might be solicited to buy some weed laced food - our advice is to go ahead and buy! There are a ton of walking edible merchants here, with the most famous being the truffle guy.

There are two streetcar stations serving the park, making it easily accessible and a great first stop for exploring the city.

If you have friends in the city, make sure to get a big group to hang out in the park!

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Check out the breath taking view at Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

When you're done with your walk in the park, level up the cityscape experience with the Twin Peaks located a few minutes west of the Mission District. Though technically a residential area, the peaks are a magnet for tourists looking for panoramic views of the skyline. If you're up for an adventure, head up to the top of Eureka peak and watch the city come to life as the high-altitude breeze blows through your hair. Alternatively, you can also go to Christmas Point which offers the same view from the safety of a terrace.

Explore Battery Spencer

Battery Spencer

For a change in environment, head north across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Here you'll find a whole host of overlooks of not just the bridge but of the city as well. Given its distance from the city center, these overlooks are decidedly less crowded and may even have better photo opportunities. Be sure to check out the various military installments that serve as great vantage point, such as Battery Wagner if you're up for a hike and Battery Spencer which gives you an all-too-familiar viewpoint of the bridge.

If you decide to head to Battery Spencer, consider checking out our itineraries for Marin, which is closeby.

Check out the Patricia Greens Hayes Valley

Patricia Greens Hayes Valley

San Francisco has a vibrant local art scene. If you're making your way downtown, you'll be able to see this in action at Patricia's Green. Located in the Hayes Valley district, the park is small but loaded with art installations, benches, and even picnic tables. Surrounded by restaurants and cafes, the urban space is perfect for grabbing a quick meal in the fresh air.

Spend an afternoon at Crissy Fields

Chrissy Field

Crissy Field is another great spot to spend the afternoon. It's normally not crowded, but there are several things to here such as:

  • Picnic

  • Indoor activities (climbing gym, trampoline park, etc)

  • Beach

  • Hiking along the edge to a Golden Gate viewpoint

Visit Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Another famous landmark in the city, Coit Tower was built in the 1930s and served the purpose of beautifying the city. Now a tourist destination, the building has achieved just that and is now known not just as a landmark but for the views it offers from the top. The inside also features murals depicting the American way of life back during the great depression as a means to employ struggling artists during that time. Though it's close to the Embarcadero streetcar, the walk to and from there is not as easy as the tower stands on a hill overlooking the road. With this, it might be better to take a car or ride the bus.

Pro tip - the trees blocks you from seeing the surrounding area, so if you're going here expecting to get a great vantage point of everything in San Francisco, you're better off going elsewhere.

Take a photo at Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is another key landmark in the city. However, though most pictures of the place feature the rotunda, the palace actually includes a much larger building behind it that has both a theater and an exhibition center. The whole building is one of few survivors of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition having been rebuilt in the 60s and 70s. Be sure to snap a picture in the iconic rotunda and maybe the main building itself if there's no event being held.

Explore the Union Square

Union Square