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The iconic International Orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. A magical Pacific fog named Karl rolling through across the city. A cable car trundles up and down the hilly streets. Burritos from the Mission District the size of your head… These things – and so many more – are what make San Francisco one of the unique American destinations on many travelers’ lists.
I’ll be honest though: I wasn’t sold on San Francisco, despite several visits. Then I moved there – in 2017 – and began to discover the city on my own. Over the course of living in the San Francisco area, I discovered that the quintessential experiences were just part of the patchwork of the city. There were also fascinating neighborhoods, world-class museums, incredible restaurants, and a maritime heritage that still supports the city’s culture and industry today.
It can be hard to plan a short trip to a big city like San Francisco. There’s so much to do – so many iconic sights and places to visit – that it’s hard to squeeze it all into one San Francisco itinerary. That’s where I’m here to help.
Based on my experience living in the San Francisco area, I’ve put together the perfect 3-day San Francisco itinerary. In this guide for spending 3 days in San Francisco, you’ll learn what to see, where to go, how to get there, and the ideal order to fit it all in. I’ve also included some packing tips and suggestions on where to stay, just to round it all out. By the end, you’ll be able to put together the ultimate San Francisco itinerary for your California trip, whether you’re only visiting this beautiful city by the bay or making a pit stop along the Pacific Coast Highway.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ramaytush, Ohlone, and Muwekma peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally written in February 2019, and was updated for 2022 travel in October 2021.
If you see any errors, please let me know in the comments.
San Francisco Travel Tips
Before jumping into the specifics, I like starting with a few quick travel tips. These sections help briefly answer some of the top questions I typically receive – though you can certainly ask additional questions in the comments if you have them!
Getting to San Francisco
How should you get to San Francisco? Great question! There are lots of ways to reach this cool destination:
- By Plane – One thing I do love about San Francisco is that it is technically serviced by three area airports.
- The primary airport, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the one most people fly into when planning a trip. It’s connected to San Francisco through the BART system (see my notes on ‘Getting Around San Francisco’ for more about BART) and it’s a 30-minute ride from the airport to downtown SF.
- You should also look at Oakland International Airport (OAK) which is located in Oakland (where I live!). Often you’ll find cheaper flights and other options that aren’t as expensive as SFO. OAK is also connected to San Francisco by BART, about a 45-minute ride.
- Finally, San Jose International Airport (SJC) is located in San Jose, in the south bay. It’s not connected to public transit, but it may make sense if your trip to SF involves renting a car and/or seeing other parts of the Peninsula or East Bay.
- By Train – You can also travel to San Francisco on the Amtrak, which makes stops in Jack London Square in Oakland (and you can easily catch a ferry from Jack London Square to downtown SF).
- By Bus – Greyhound, Megabus, BoltBus, and FlixBus also all have routes that include stops in San Francisco or Oakland. In my travels over the years, I’ve used Megabus, BoltBus and FlixBus; they’re all standard bus services but they do the trick for budget travel between cities (such as if you’re coming up from L.A.).
- By Car – San Francisco is located along the Pacific Coast Highway, so you might find yourself driving through as part of a longer road trip.
In short, there are lots of options for how to get to San Francisco, which means you can find an option for your budget and travel plans, whatever those might be.
Getting Around San Francisco
Once you arrive and start your San Francisco itinerary, you’ve got to get around. While San Francisco is pretty compact as cities go, it’s still too big to walk everywhere – and very hilly. Luckily, there are lots of options to choose from when navigating from sight to sight.
Within San Francisco, transit is super confusing. Public transit is actually the bane of a lot of locals, but I’ll try to explain it briefly:
- There are two public transit providers: BART and MUNI
- BART is the underground subway system.
- MUNI operates the streetcars, cable cars, and buses.
- Both use the Clipper Card (or cash) for fares.
- The two systems don’t honor ‘transfers,’ which can get annoyingly expensive.
The best way to use public transit is to take BART from the airport to your accommodation, then switch to using MUNI for the entire rest of your trip since it offers more ways to get around.
There are also some other options to get around:
- Rideshares like Uber, Lyft, and all those other four-letter companies that help solve transit problems. They’re pretty much available everywhere – it’s also a way to completely blow your budget so don’t rely on this entirely.
- Scooters. Lime, Bird, Jump, and other companies put scooters you can rent by-the-minute on street corners. They’re a fun way to get around quickly if you’re making a short trip between sights.
When to Visit San Francisco
If you have flexibility in when you plan to visit San Francisco, you might wonder when is the best time to visit. While summer sounds like a good time, I’d advise against it. While other parts of the country are living through June and August, we have “June-uary” and “Fogust.” All this to say, the summer in San Francisco is cooler and more overcast than you might expect.
The best time to visit San Francisco is in September and October, the nice autumn months. These months see less cloud cover and precipitation, as well as warm, sunny weather. The only consideration here is that these two months are also frequently “smoke season” due to California wildfires, but there’s no way to plan around that.
What to Pack for San Francisco
I actually have two packing lists already written to you pack for San Francisco. First, check out my California packing list, which covers the basics for exploring this awesome state. Then review my list of 10 things you actually need to pack for SF. It covers the fact that you’ll likely encounter eight types of weather every hour and climb at least 22 of San Francisco’s 48 hills on a weekend here.
Other tips for packing for SF:
- Pack layers. This is my go-to tip because you can’t go wrong with layers. Cold? Add more. Hot? Take some off.
- Wear comfortable shoes. No matter how much you plan to avoid climbing the hills, you’ll end up doing it. Your feet will thank you (and me) later if you follow this tip.
- Plan for rain, but bring sunglasses. You’ll probably need both at least once each day, because the weather coming off the Pacific can change rapidly.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s jump into planning your San Francisco itinerary.
15 Best Things to Do in San Francisco
Before putting together a San Francisco itinerary, it helps to understand all the things to do in town. In this section, I’ll share 15 of the best things to do in San Francisco – in my opinion anyway! I’ve also put them all on a map (above) that you can click and interact with.
1. The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s top icon for a reason. It draws your eye no matter where you view it from. No trip to SF is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, and yes you’ll have to fight swarms of fellow travelers to see it and get a good shot.
My favorite spots to view the Golden Gate Bridge from are Torpedo Wharf at water level or the Postcard Viewpoint up on the bluff. Both have fewer crowds and a better angle to view the bridge itself than up at the main visitor center.
It’s also popular to walk across the bridge or ride a bike across and catch the ferry back from Sausalito. If you want to do that, plan it as a half-day activity.
2. The Presidio
The Presidio is the area surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a former military post but is now open to the public and has some interesting sights. Pop culture fans will enjoy a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum or to the lobby and Yoda Fountain outside Lucasfilm. You can also stroll along the waterfront paths at Crissy Field, or visit the nearby Palace of Fine Arts. There’s a lot packed into this small area of land, so you could easily spend a half-day here if you have enough time to do so. (See my 3-day itinerary below for how I suggest doing this.)
3. Fisherman’s Wharf
It’s hard to know whether the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf is more popular to visitors – most people visit both on any given trip to San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf is a working marina where fishermen still moor their ships in between work sessions out on the Bay or the Pacific Ocean. There are also lots of shops, including touristy ones, and seafood restaurants of varying quality.
It’s cool to swing by Ghirardelli Square and try their famous sundae if you have a sweet tooth, visit the San Francisco Maritime Natural History Park if you love history, or visit the Musée Méchanique if you’re looking for an off-beat slice of SF.
The Embarcadero is the name of the San Francisco Bay Waterfront as it curves around from Fisherman’s Wharf to the San Francisco Ferry Building. While you can ride a streetcar from one end to the other, I recommend walking the 1.7-mile sidewalk because there are some nice piers you can go out on along the way.
Pier 39 is the most famous of the piers along the Embarcadero. It has a huge shopping area, the Aquarium by the Bay, and the famous sea lion colony; most Bay Area cruises depart from the Pier 39 area too. The Exploratorium is located on Pier 15, and it’s my favorite museum in the city (if you can call it a museum – it’s a hands-on science museum for all ages!). Pier 7 is also famous for a stroll and photos as you get a perfect shot of the Transamerica Pyramid at the end of the pier as you look back at the city.
5. The Ferry Building
While the SF waterfront continues, the popular attractions end at the Ferry Building. This is where most of the Bay Area’s ferries still arrive and depart – if you catch the Oakland/Jack London Square ferry to the city, this is where you’ll arrive!
Inside, like at Seattle‘s Pike Place Market, you can find a surprisingly good sample of San Francisco businesses and restaurants. Book Passage is the second outpost of a famous Bay Area bookstore and Humphry Slocombe has the city’s best ice cream.
Alcatraz is a quirky/dark tourism attraction in San Francisco. This former prison, located on Alcatraz Island, is renowned for its famous prisoners (like Al Capone!) and is now abandoned. You can take a ferry from the Embarcadero to Alcatraz and spend time exploring the cell blocks and grounds.
Visiting Alcatraz is also a half-day activity, so keep that in mind if you have your heart set on visiting.
7. The Mission
The Mission is one of San Francisco’s most famous neighborhoods, a cultural touchstone for the unique combination of Mexican and American influence in San Francisco. While rising rent and gentrification have pushed out most of the original residents, you can still get some of the best burritos in the city here (California-style burritos!) and the Mission Murals always draw a crowd (many of which are there for the ‘gram.)
8. The Castro
The Castro is SF’s other famous neighborhood, the epicenter of LGBTQ rights in the city. The GLBT Historical Society Museum is located in the Castro, as are some of the city’s best gay-friendly nightclubs and other businesses. It’s one of the main locations for SF Pride events, too.
It’s impossible not to get bogged down recommending neighborhoods to visit in San Francisco in 3 days, because so many are interesting and worth exploring. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the most densely populated area in the entire U.S., and you might feel as though you’ve been transplanted to Asia as you explore this area. Delicious restaurants and bars, food stands and markets, and plenty of kitschy tourist shops abound.
Some of my favorite spots include Hang Ah Tea Room, SF’s first dim sum spots; Li Po Lounge, a Bourdain fave and responsible for the Chinese Mai Tai; and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where they determine the fate of the world through delicious cookies.
One final neighborhood of note, Haight-Ashbury is the last highly relevant neighborhood in San Francisco where you can learn about the history and impact of social movements in the city. Haight-Ashbury is the neighborhood surrounding the intersection where those two streets cross. It was the birthplace of the 1960s counterculture movement and helped spur the Summer of Love in 1967.
Today, it’s a popular spot for hippies and potheads to hang out… if that’s your scene, it’s one of the best places to be.
11. The Painted Ladies/Alamo Square
“Painted ladies” is a term that can be used to describe any Victorian home built in the late 19th or early 20th century which is painted three or more colors. However, in San Francisco, there is only one place where you can see The Painted Ladies. People flock to Alamo Square Park to see the ‘Full House houses,’ a row of seven painted ladies with one of the best views of the SF skyline in the background.
12. Golden Gate Park
I probably wouldn’t advise Golden Gate Park to someone on a 1- or 2-day trip to San Francisco. It’s just too big – and there’s too much to see! Think of Golden Gate Park as the equivalent of New York’s Central Park. As much time as you’d want or need to spend in Central Park, you’ll need for Golden Gate Park. But if you have time to explore San Francisco in 3 days or a long weekend, it’s a great option for your San Francisco 3-day itinerary.
Established in 1894, Golden Gate Park is a protected area of 1,017 acres of public grounds. Inside the park, it’s easy to forget you’re in one of the biggest cities in the country. You’ll find miles of walking trails, massive slopes and picnic areas, and beautiful forest groves. You can also visit the California Academy of Sciences or de Young Museum and say hello to some buffalo that live in a huge paddock. Near the beach on the western end of the park, there are huge windmills that used to pump water up into the city of San Francisco.
13. Ocean Beach
Speaking of beaches, if you visit Golden Gate Park, make a day of it and spend time walking along Ocean Beach. This beautiful sand beach stretches three miles along the western coast of the San Francisco peninsula. You can catch people having picnics and bonfires on the sand, surfing the waves on the Pacific, or just enjoying the view. Living near a sand beach is one of the best parts of living in California!
14. Land’s End & Sutro Baths
Another area that might not make every first-time guide to San Francisco – and that you might want to skip if you’re on a shorter trip. Land’s End and Sutro Baths are close to the Presidio, on the Pacific Ocean side of the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula.
Land’s End is an area of bluffs and rocky beaches with hiking trails. Sutro Baths is an old ruin of public baths which once stood on the ocean shore. I wrote about the history of Sutro Baths on this blog a few years ago, because I enjoyed visiting them so much. The baths are a great spot to watch the sunset.
I’ve already mentioned several museums in this list, but I thought it was worth calling them out in case you’re a museum person – or the weather looks bad when you finally see the forecast for your trip and you’re looking for some indoor activities. Here are four of my favorite museums:
- The Exploratorium – This hands-on science museum is aimed at kids but adults will love it too. Located along the Embarcadero on Pier 15.
- The California Academy of Siences – Another family-friendly science museum, they have an inside rainforest, planetarium, earthquake simulator – and SO MUCH MORE. San Francisco has the coolest science museums! Located in Golden Gate Park.
- The de Young Museum – Part museum of fine arts, part architectural wonder, the de Young is a work of art in its own right. Located in Golden Gate Park.
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – A multi-story wonder to rival its sibling in NYC, this museum doesn’t fit easily into my suggested 3-day San Francisco itinerary but is a great alternative on a rainy day. Located in the “SoMa” district.
There are plenty more options too, if you love museums and want to explore them every day of your San Francisco itinerary.
A San Francisco 3-Day Itinerary
With all of those travel tips and what to do in San Francisco in 3 days, you might be feeling overwhelmed. Luckily, I’m here to help! At the end of every post like this, I like to put together a suggested San Francisco 3-day itinerary, of how I’d fit everything in. You can follow this exactly, or use it as inspiration.
Day 1: Along the Embarcadero
For your first day in San Francisco, start at the Ferry Building for coffee and breakfast (Humphrey Slocombe ice cream counts!). Walk along the Embarcadero, and stop at the Exploratorium if you have time. Explore Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf to get a sense of the city’s maritime culture and tourist attractions. For lunch, have a bread bowl of clam chowder at Boudin Bakery, SF’s famous sourdough bakery, then swing by Ghirardelli Square for a sweet treat.
In the afternoon, make your way through the North Beach neighborhood past Fort Mason (The Interval at Long 9 is great for a pick-me-up coffee or cocktail). Be sure to stop a the Palace of Fine Arts for photos, head up into The Presidio to see the Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm or visit the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Dinner options are limited in this area, so head to Presidio Social Club Exchange for dinner on their patio. Then head back toward the water to walk the trails west in Crissy Field. You’ll end with a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and possibly sunset behind it, depending on your timing.
Day 2: San Francisco’s Great Outdoors
Start your day where yesterday ended: the Golden Gate Bridge. You can head to the Welcome Center and walk a little way out onto the bridge if you’re so inclined – don’t worry, there are very good railings and fences on the bridge! After exploring the bridge, catch a couple of MUNI buses from the Welcome Center to Land’s End (the #28 then the #38). You can walk the trails at Land’s End, then explore Sutro Baths before making your way south toward Ocean Beach.
As the name suggests, Ocean Beach is along the Pacific Ocean; it’s a popular spot to spend a nice weekend day, though the wind and waves can get strong if the weather is less than agreeable. Turn east into Golden Gate Park and explore this beautiful green space in the heart of the city. In the park, you can gaze at the towering windmills and make a visit to the California Academy of Sciences or de Young Museum depending on your interests. When you get peckish, head a few blocks south to Irving Street, which is lined with restaurants.
If you’re not too footsore yet, continue walking east from Golden Gate Park up into The Panhandle. This smaller greenway ends just a few blocks from Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies – plus a great view of the San Francisco skyline.
A few more blocks of walking puts you in Hayes Valley, a great little neighborhood with tons of restaurant options for dinner. (You’ll also pass Haight-Ashbury if you want to see that and don’t plan to spend more time there.) Afterward, be sure to stop at Smuggler’s Cove, one of the best tiki bars in the world. Then it’s time to retire and let your body recover from a seriously long but jam-packed day of adventure exploring San Francisco.
Day 3: Explore in & around San Francisco
It’s your final day in San Francisco: what will you do? Here are two choices: either dig deeper into the unique neighborhoods in the city or head out of town to explore one of the cool day trip destinations within easy reach from San Francisco.
In terms of neighborhoods, I mentioned four neighborhoods already: The Mission, The Castro, Chinatown, and Haight-Ashbury. You can easily spend the morning in Chinatown or Haight-Ashbury followed by the afternoon in the Castro and the Mission. There are other cool neighborhoods too, but these four are the most iconic if it’s your first San Francisco trip. (Also every local is biased and will tell you to come to explore their neighborhood – but these four have the most tourism-worthy sights and experiences.)
For a day trip, here are a few ideas:
- Head north to Muir Woods in Marin County. You’ll need to get reservations to do this.
- Take BART across the Bay and spend the day exploring Berkeley and Oakland.
- Book a day trip to wine country, such as Santa Rosa (in Sonoma County) or the Napa Valley.
- Spend a day in downtown Napa (the city) which has wine tasting rooms and loads more.
If none of these ideas sound of interest, there are a few more sights I didn’t include on my list for your first visit to San Francisco, including the winding Lombard Street, towering Coit Tower, and metropolitan Union Square. There’s certainly a lot more to do in San Francisco than I could ever fit into a three-day itinerary – so if you know of something else you want to do, be sure to prioritize that to make your own trip unforgettable for you.
In any event, today is a choose-your-own-adventure day, based on the parts of San Francisco and the Bay Area you want to explore more deeply!
Where to Stay in San Francisco
I think this is an understated fact in most San Francisco travel guides, but it really matters where you stay in SF as to what kind of experience you’ll have. If you stay in “downtown” San Francisco (like Civic Center, Mid-Market, FiDi) you’ll be near the sights but there’s very little personality and a lot of homelessness you’ll encounter. If you stay in neighborhoods like the Castro or the Mission, you’ll get a ton of personality but not a lot of sleep for the nightlife sounds. You can blow your budget to stay on Nob Hill, or save a ton and stay near Chinatown or North Beach and feel like you’ve been transported to another country. There’s just a lot of choice!
In my experience, it’s best to stay near the sights for a short trip – you don’t want to spend all your time on transit. The hotels and Airbnbs I’ve recommended are right in the heart of the city, but I try to minimize your exposure to the rougher parts of town.
For hotels, here are a few I like:
- Fairmont San Francisco – The crown jewel of San Francisco’s hotel scene, the Fairmont sits atop a hill, has a tiki bar on the ground floor, and incredible views in every direction. From $341/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Hotel Triton – On the edge of Chinatown, this small hotel has nice rooms and a great central location for the price. From $144/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
Because San Francisco has tons of cool neighborhoods, it’s hard to choose which VRBOs to recommend… Stick in the heart of the city with this luxury condo from $125/night or stay in this redesigned Mission Flat!
If you’re feeling some sticker shock from these prices, a couple of notes: Yes, SF really is that much more expensive than everywhere else. I also only looked at Airbnb Plus properties in SF, which are verified by Airbnb to be the best available. That means you won’t have a dodgy experience or a fake-out. But yes, SF really is that expensive.
Okay, now you’re all set – you learned how to plan your San Francisco itinerary for three days, the best things to do in SF during your visit, plus all the good logistical things you need to know. If you have extra time in the Bay Area, check out my suggested road trips from San Francisco, and Bay Area weekend/3-day getaways. I also have guides if you’re driving the PCH, exploring California’s national parks, or planning a road trip from SF to San Diego.
Do you have any other questions about visiting San Francisco? Let me know in the comments!