Explore the Golden Gate Bridge
Start with the sweetheart of San Francisco, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Walk or bike across, check out the welcome center, take a free walking tour and explore the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at both ends of the bridge. Don’t leave the area without checking out the Golden Gate and Pacific Overlooks near the bridge for incredible photo ops. The Welcome Center alone is worth a stop for its high-quality exhibits on the history, science and engineering of the bridge’s construction. You can see the original 12-foot stainless-steel bridge “test tower,” that was used in 1933.
If you have time, visit Fort Point at the southern end of the bridge. This National Historic Site is known as the “Gibraltar of the West” and offers a unique perspective on the Golden Gate and the Fort Point Arch. Civil War reenactments are held here throughout the year.
Continue on to Crissy Field, near the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll get to it if you walk along the harbor toward the center of the city. There’s a pretty beach, several restaurants, piers for fishing and green space for picnics.
Photograph the Palace of Fine Arts
Head over to the landmark Palace of Fine Arts, a Roman-style reminder of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. You’ll likely recognize it as one of the city’s most-photographed sites. Find it on Baker Street in the Marine at the eastern edge of the Presidio. Spend as long as you can strolling around the lagoon – stocked with fish and turtles – picnicking and just taking in the tranquil atmosphere of the park. Branch out from here to Chestnut Street and Union Street for dining or shopping.
Ride the Boat to Alcatraz Island
Hop on a ferry to Alcatraz Island, a mile and a half out in the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf. This was the site of the west coast’s first lighthouse and a federal prison for Al Capone and the like. Now a must-see in San Francisco, the former federal penitentiary is part of the 80,000 Golden Gate National Recreation Area. When you visit, you’ll tour the cell house where the prisoners lived, a desolate block of steel bars, tiny cells, mess hall, library and “dark holes,” used for solitary confinement.
Visit Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square
Back at the waterfront, don’t miss the chance to mingle with the crowds at Fisherman’s Wharf. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s a must. Listen for the cling-clang of cable car bells, take in the sights, sounds and smells along Jefferson Street and drink in views of the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Check out the sea lions who have set up permanent residence here. Walk through the mirror maze and visiti the Musee Mecanique for its great collection of old-school arcade games. At Pier 39, the wooden pier sticking out into the bay from the wharf, you’ll find several water-view restaurants, souvenir shops, street performers and the Aquarium of the Bay. To tour the bay, hop on a sightseeing tour boat from Pier 39 – you can head to Alcatraz and Angel Island from here. Don’t miss the nearby former chocolate factory, Ghirardelli Square, for upscale shopping and dining, The Cannery, a converted canning plant, and the Argonaut Hotel.
Dine at The Mission
Cap off your first day in San Francisco with a relaxing evening at in the Mission District. Dolores Park is a favorite for city views – from here, you can get a history lesson at Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) – the oldest surviving structure in the city. Browse the trendy boutiques and up-and-coming eateries, definitely saving room for a Mission-style burrito from La Taqueria or La Cumbre. Burritos aren’t the only tasty treat in the neighborhood, though – try the stuffed pastries at Venga Empanadas and Argentinean meats at Lolinda. Don’t miss the Mission’s celebrated outdoor mural art at Balmy Alley, the Women’s Building and other spots around the area.
Ride a Cable Car
Kick off day two in San Francisco with a ride on a famous cable car (they’ve actually been named a National Historic Landmark). This is a great way to tour the city and get to know the various neighborhoods. You can catch the cable cars from Market Street – one-way tickets are $7 apiece and a CityPASS includes cable car rides. For fantastic views, ride the California route up and over Nob Hill. Want to learn more? Visit the Cable Car Barn, Powerhouse and Museum, from which the cars depart and arrive daily on their 11-mile, wrapped steel route – going 9.5 miles per hour. Some of the very first cable cars are housed here.
Visit Lombard Street
Walk or drive up or down Lombard Street, the “Crookedest Street in the World.” In the 1920s, when San Francisco residents were just beginning to drive automobiles around the city, they quickly realized some of the hills were just too steep to navigate. Enter Carl Henry, who had the idea to use a curved street to help drives go downhill. Engineer Clyde Healy designed the street and it went from a 27 percent grade to 16 percent. Take your time so you can enjoy the Russian Hill mansions and perfectly manicured gardens of this scenic landmark street. The best photos are from the very top or the bottom. The famous crooked part of the street is between Leavenworth and Hyde streets. If you’re coming by cable car, take the Powell/Hyde Line. From here, it’s easy to add on North Beach or Chinatown.
Go Up Coit Tower
From atop Lombard Street, you’ll see Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Make your way there – having purchased advance elevator ride tickets – for spectacular 360-degree city views. If interested, also make reservations for docent-led tours of the Tower murals painted by local artists and which depict life in 1930s San Francisco. The tower was a gift from Lillie Hitchcock Coit, whose $125,000 bequest was “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city which I have always loved.” The art within was funded by President Roosevelt’s New Deal pilot art program, the Public Works Art Project.
Check Out Chinatown
Now it’s time to explore Chinatown, next to North Beach. After New York City’s Chinatown, this is the most famous (and biggest) Chinatown in the United States. Head here for dim sum, tea, fortune cookies and souvenirs. Admire the pagoda-style architecture and ornate lamp posts as you walk throughout the neighborhood. Visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and the Chinese Culture Center. Don’t miss the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory at Ross Alley.
Take a Harbor Tour
San Francisco Bay plays such a huge role in the city’s appeal, so be sure to get out on the water. There are several cruise options, including the traditional Blue and Gold Fleet, the iconic ferry service provider on the bay. Take a narrated tour along the historic waterfront, an Alcatraz-focused voyage or a leisurely cruise to nearby Sausalito, Tiburon, Angel Island, Oakland, Alameda or Vallejo. The Red and White Fleet is known for its cruises in 12 languages, including tours that focus on the city’s natural history, architecture and Native American history. And that’s not all – take a whale tour, an exhilarating rigid inflatable boat tour or even a catamaran or yacht cruise.
Take a Walking Tour
Use day three in San Francisco to revisit the places you’ve loved the best and want to spend more time in or consider a walking tour to learn more about the eclectic neighborhoods. Some favorites include the Victorian Home Walk, during which you’ll wander past more than 200 of those colorful Queen Anne-style homes you’ve come to associate with San Francisco, and a Golden Gate Park (East End) tour, which takes you to the National AIDS Memorial Grove and the Music Concourse. There are haunted San Francisco ghost tours, leading you to historic sites believed to be haunted, like former brothels and speakeasies, brewery tours in the Haight-Ashbury district and insightful and immersive tours through Chinatown. Hungry? Consider a foodie tour based on the local flavors of North Beach and Chinatown.
Visit a Museum
Spend a couple of hours inside one of the many popular museums in downtown San Francisco. The Cable Car Museum (above) is a fun stop to celebrate the historic streetcar, as is The Beat Museum, dedicated to manuscripts, rare books and letters from authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Families love the Exploratorium hands-on science museum and Aquarium on the Bay at Fisherman’s Wharf. Art lovers won’t want to miss the De Young Art Museum, with art from the 17th century to present day. Don’t miss the Observation Level on the 9th floor for striking city views. At the San Francisco MOMA, you can spend hours enjoying the collection, which includes Jackson Pollack, modern light installations and much more.
Finish Up at Golden Gate Park
If you stopped into the De Young Museum, you’re already here. There will never be enough time to enjoy all this gigantic park has to offer. Wrap up your visit here, in an urban green space that is 20 percent bigger that New York’s Central Park. There are two museums, a greenhouse, 10 public gardens and more spread out over more than 1,000 acres. The San Francisco Botanical Garden is a big draw, with more than 8,000 different kinds of plants from around the world. The California Academy of Sciences offers nightlife every Thursday from 6 to 10 PM. In the Conservatory of Flower, see a variety of different ecosystems, from tropical rain forests to cloud forests. Rent a bike or a Segway and take a self-guided or guided tour of the expansive park. Don’t forget Ocean Beach, a 3.5-mile of white sand on the westernmost border of San Fran, next to Golden Gate Park.
A Few More Ideas
Seeking a few off-the-beaten-path ideas for your getaway to San Francisco? Here are our favorites:
- Take a hike at Lands End, a part of the city known for its rocky cliffs and great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin and the vast Pacific Ocean. Check out the rock labyrinth and the Sutro Bath ruins – particularly at sunset. Once a large, privately owned swimming pool, it’s now open to the public.
- Explore Haight-Ashbury, birthplace of hippie culture in the 1960s. You’ll find boutique record shops, vintage shops and the colorful Four Seasons Houses.
- Take a photo at the prettiest set of stairs you’ve ever seen – the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in the Golden Gates Heights neighborhood. The handmade tiles represent astronomy and sea themes in colorful, swirling patterns.
- Eat your way through North Beach, aka Little Italy. Start at Washington Square Park next to Saints Peter and Paul Church, then try cioppino at Sotto Mare, pasta at the Italian Homemade Company and all sorts of gelato.
- Hit the beach. The Baker Beach along the California Coastal Trail is a local favorite for its great views – keep in mind that the northernmost end of the beach is nudist-friendly.
- Visit Tiburon. Enjoy a village feel just steps from the city hustle and bustle. Take a short ferry ride, hop on the bus or bike there for hours of café people-watching, art gallery browsing and boutique shopping.
- Go rowboating. Spend a quiet hour paddling across Stow Lake in the midst of Golden Gate Park. Then, add on the spiraling hike to the stop of Strawberry Hill, in the center of the lake.
- Find your zen at the Japanese Tea Garden, a five-acre curated gem in Golden Gate Park. It was originally designed to represent a Japanese village for the 1894 California Mid-Winter Exposition. Today it holds a full garden, koi ponds, a waterfall, Japanese pagodas and a small tea house.
- Hike Tank Hill. Hills are part of the deal when it comes to exploring San Francisco, so embrace them – you’ll find the climb is worth it. The views from Tank Hill Park at the intersection of Cole Valley and the Castro are sublime.
- Listen to an ocean organ. The Wave Organ sound sculpture in the Marina District is played by the ocean – listen carefully to hear the different pitch, depending on the volume of each wave.
- Take the ferry from San Fran or Tiburon to Angel Island State Park, a hidden gem in the San Francisco Bay. Gain breathtaking 360-degree views of the city skyline, Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge and more. You can also ride an open-air tram and learn more about the island’s fascinating Civil War and immigration history.
Now that’s you’ve enjoyed three days in San Fran, why not set your sights on Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, San Diego, a day trip to Napa Valley or even a lengthier northern California road trip? Happy travels!