Before I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I had visited a few times: for a friend’s birthday, for another friend’s wedding, for work. I could see what people liked about San Francisco, and why they’d want to visit.
The fog, affectionately nicknamed Karl the Fog, is sort of magical as it rolls in off the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate Bridge is iconic in its shape and its color – but especially because of both. The neighborhoods each had very distinctive vibes and a deep cultural heritage, even as gentrification reshaped the city.
To be honest though, I was never enamored with San Francisco. I didn’t fall in love with the city like I did in London or Seattle, but that’s okay. A city can still be magical and worth visiting without me having to love it! Though you’re reading my blog, I’m far from the be-all and end-all of travel preferences and expertise. I just share what I know and experience, and I hope it helps you have a better trip.
If you want to see that Golden Gate, that fog rolling in, those burrito joints in the Mission and the sidewalk flower stands in Noe Valley, San Francisco is calling. In the rest of this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned from my trips to SF as well as from living here. Based on my experience, this is the best way to spend 3 days in San Francisco. I leave it up to you to decide how much you love the city once you’ve visited.
Traveling to San Francisco
How should you get to San Francisco? You’ll be surprised at the options! Read on for a quick breakdown.
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.
If you’re planning a trip, 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.
Your last airport option is a bit less convenient, but it may make sense depending on your travel plans. 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 Other Transportation
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). 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.). There’s also a cool overnight bus service between SF and LA called Cabin – I’ve never done it, but it looks like the sweetest way to get from one city to the other.
In short, there are lots of options for how to get to San Francisco, which means you can find an option for your budget whatever that might be.
Getting Around San Francisco
Once you get to San Francisco, you’ve got to get around. While San Francisco is pretty compact as cities go, it’s still too big to walk everywhere, and there are lots of options to choose from when navigating from sight to sight.
Public Transit in San Francisco
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 several transit systems, and only some of them get along.
- You end up getting charged more because the systems don’t honor ‘transfers.’
- The main providers are BART and MUNI.
- BART is the underground subway system; MUNI operates the streetcars, cable cars, and buses.
Okay, that wasn’t too bad! The best way to use public transit is to buy a Clipper Card (which you can usually get at a nearby pharmacy – ask your hotel concierge or Airbnb host, or look up the nearest place on the Clipper website). Once you load that up, you can use it on any of the transit systems.
Other Transit Options
Another option is to buy a San Francisco CityPass if you’re planning a short trip (like, uh, 3 days, like this post talks about, wink wink nudge nudge). There’s a three-day MUNI pass in the SF CityPass, which is convenient once you get into San Francisco; you’ll still need to buy a BART ticket to get to/from the airport. (The SF Citypass also includes admission to the Aquarium of the Bay, Exploratorium or SF Moma, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise and Cal Academy! Click here to learn more about the San Francisco Citypass.)
One major perk of living in SF is that we get a lot of the cool tech right away, and that includes Uber, Lyft, and all those other four-letter companies that help solve transit problems. Uber and Lyft are obviously ride-sharing apps, and they’re pretty much available everywhere – it’s also a way to completely blow your budget so don’t rely on this entirely.
You can also try the latest craze in SF: 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.
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.
Hotels in San Francisco
Because I live in San Francisco and the few times I’ve traveled here I stayed with friends, I don’t have a ton of expertise on the hotel scene.
However, in January 2019, Mr. V and I did a two-night staycation in SF which gave me a bit of knowledge. We stayed at the Fairmont San Francisco which is one of the best hotels in the city – possibly the best, and definitely the one with the best view since it’s atop Nob Hill. We had a stunning 21st-floor corner room with insane panoramic views of San Francisco… Just for a second there, I was even swept up in the magic of why people like SF so much, looking down on the bustling city below.
I also had a chance to tour the Hotel Triton after they remodeled, and they have a really great location and cool vibe. The Virgin Hotels San Francisco is about to open too – I can’t wait to check out their rooftop bar!
Airbnbs in San Francisco
Because San Francisco has tons of cool neighborhoods, it’s hard to choose which Airbnbs to recommend… Stick in the heart of the city with this modern studio from $135/night or get to know the Mission by staying in this condo room from $130/night.
If you’re feeling some sticker shock from these prices, a couple 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.
What to Pack for San Francisco
I recently rewrote my packing list for San Francisco. After living here for a year+, I realized that most packing lists are for Instagram not reality once you’re in the city and what it’s actually like here. My list of 10 things you actually need to pack for SF 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 need both at least once each day, because the weather coming off the Pacific can change rapidly.
Be sure to check out my packing list for other tips and things you should bring.
The Best Things to See & Do in San Francisco
I need to start by saying this is far from the most comprehensive list of things to see and do in San Francisco. There are whole websites devoted to the cool things to do, places to eat and drink, and awesome sights in SF. My goal here is just to highlight some of my favorites among the ‘touristy’ options, and to keep in mind that if you only have three days in San Francisco, you can’t see it all. With that in mind, here are the places I recommend for your first trip to SF – or if you’ve never done them before!
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s top icon for a reason. It’s a beautiful structure, and 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.
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. (See my 3-day itinerary below for how I suggest doing this.)
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 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 street car 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, with its 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.
The Ferry Building
While the SF waterfront continues, the main tourist 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 area bookstore; Humphrey Slocombe has the city’s best ice cream; and Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick Cafe & Milk Bar makes stellar grilled cheese and tomato soup to refuel after a morning or afternoon of adventures.
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.)
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, because so many are interesting and worth exploring. SF’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 the place to be.
The Painted Ladies/Alamo Square
On a recent tour of SF, I learned that ‘painted ladies’ is a term that can be used to describe any Victorian home built in late 19th or early 20th century which is 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 an iconic view of the SF skyline in the background.
Twin Peaks is a pair of large hills in San Francisco which are largely undeveloped. From the top, you can get a great view of San Francisco and the surrounding region. You can hike or drive up Twin Peaks, depending on your level of fitness. This probably isn’t on most people’s first-time itinerary, but I love vista points when I travel, hence it making the list.
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 to 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.
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 deYoung 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 which used to pump water up into the city of San Francisco.
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!
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 SF 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 so much. The baths are a great spot to watch the sunset.
*This peninsula is geographically but not colloquially called “The Peninsula.” If you hear people talking about “The Peninsula,” they’re referring to the area of the SF peninsula south of San Francisco.
But Wait, There’s More!
You might notice there are some things I didn’t mention in this post: making the trip to Alcatraz, walking down Lombard Street, taking a Bay Cruise, and visiting Coit Tower are among them. Honestly, there’s so much more to suggest, and some of the top things are still on my to-do list even though I live here! I’ll add new sections as I experience more of SF.
A 3-Day Itinerary for San Francisco
With all of those travel tips and things to do, 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 itinerary of how I’d fit everything in. You can follow this exactly, or use it as inspiration.
Day 1: Along the Embarcadero
You might have guessed from the above focus in my list of ‘best things to see and do,’ but I love the Embarcadero and everything along the SF waterfront. I’d start the day 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, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square if you have time. For lunch, have a bread bowl of clam chowder at Boudin Bakery, SF’s famous sourdough bakery.
In the afternoon, make your away around past Fort Mason (The Interval at Long 9 is great for a pick-me-up coffee or cocktail) to the Palace of Fine Arts and Crissy Field. Spend the afternoon exploring the area including The Presidio, and watch the sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
Another way to explore San Francisco is to book an e-tuk tour with Dylan’s Tours for the half-day, and end the day along the Embarcadero. I don’t typically book tours when I travel, but on my recent SF staycation I did this tour and it’s a great way to see most of the major sights with a private driver.
On our e-tuk tour, our guide Aaron (pictured above) narrated a tour of North Beach, Lombard Street, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Heights neighborhood, and the Painted Ladies. Traveling by e-tuk was a lot of fun too, because it was an open air vehicle and I felt like it was up close and personal with SF during the tour. (If you want to book a tour with Dylan’s Tours use code valerievalise for 10% off any tour!)
Either of these is also a great plan for the day if you only have one day in San Francisco!
Day 2: Dig Deep in SF’s Neighborhoods
As I mentioned above, one of the unique things San Francisco offers – with pretty easy access – is the chance to explore culturally relevant and interesting neighborhoods. I recommend spending two half-days getting to know more of SF’s personality through the neighborhoods that interest you.
I mentioned four above, as a reminder The Mission, The Castro, Chinatown, and Haight-Ashbury. There are some other spots you might consider too:
- North Beach – Near Fisherman’s Wharf, this area is home to Little Italy and some other cool shops and restaurants
- Noe Valley or Hayes Valley – Two of SF’s nicest neighborhoods where you can splurge on a latte and yoga class or window shop.
- The East Bay – My ‘hood! Catch the BART to Oakland or Berkeley and see why the East Bay is way better than SF. Nope, I’m not biased.
- Marin – If you have a car, consider heading north to Marin, across the Golden Gate Bridge. There are great hiking trails and small communities with a much cozier feel.
Lastly, if part of what brings you to SF is its proximity to wine country, you could book a wine tour to Napa or Sonoma on this day. I haven’t actually done any wine tours so I’m not sure which to suggest. If I end up doing one, I’ll add details about it here.
In any event, today is a choose-your-own-adventure day, based on the parts of SF you want to explore more deeply!
Day 3: San Francisco’s Great Outdoors
San Francisco has lovely temperate climate almost year-round, so it’s nice to experience the great outdoors while you’re here. There are a couple options for this:
- Hike up Twin Peaks for the view.
- Spend the day at Ocean Beach and Land’s End.
- Explore Golden Gate Park or one of the city’s other parks (Dolores Park is a popular spot on a sunny day!)
- Head up to see the Redwoods at Muir Woods (you’ll need to book this in advance!)
I would mix and match any two of these for the whole day. For example, you could spend the morning at Golden Gate Park, stop for lunch in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, and stroll along Ocean Beach past Sutro Baths to watch the sunset from Land’s End.
That wraps it up! Do you have questions about visiting San Francisco? Let me know in the comments!
This post was produce with support from the Fairmont San Francisco and Dylan’s Tours. Neither company had final approval of this content, and my recommendations are based on my own experiences.