How to Spend Three Days Touring San Francisco

By Nomadic Matt | Published May 12th, 2014

San Francisco is one of the most eclectic cities in the United States. It’s home to liberals, hippies, hipsters, techies, immigrants, yuppies, one of the oldest gay scenes in the States, that big red bridge, Alcatraz, delicious Chinese food, seafood, and, well, food in general (this is a great city to be hungry in). To me, it’s a magical place. While it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would convince me to pack my bags and live there, I look forward to each visit with excitement (and hunger). There’s always something new and exciting going on.

The first time I was in the city, I found myself racing around and barely getting anything in. I only had three full days to see everything, and that just wasn’t enough. San Francisco’s attractions are spread out and aren’t always convenient to reach—there’s a lot of travel time involved. But last month, I went back and saw more sites, ate a lot more food, and figured out the best way to get an overview of the city’s highlights during a brief visit. Here’s what I came up with:

Day 1

Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks as well as a piece of engineering art. You can walk across the bridge if you want (recommended), visit the visitor’s center to be briefed on the history of the park, or just stare at it from every angle and take a stupid amount of pictures like I did. Don’t forget to make your way to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which offers a waterfront promenade, views of the bridge, and a number of hiking trails. There’s a Walt Disney museum in the park too.

Visit Crissy Field

Also near the bridge as you walk along the harbor towards the center of town is this park, which features a beautiful beach, restaurants, piers for fishing, and parks for Frisbee. You’ll find a lot of locals running, walking their dogs, or lying out on the beach. It offers sweeping views of the entire harbor.

Visit The Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is a Roman-style remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The outdoor rotunda and its lagoon are one of the city’s most photographed sights. Take a leisurely stroll around the lagoon, relax under the rotunda, or enjoy a picnic on the grass.

Tour Alcatraz

This former federal prison on Alcatraz Island was home to some of the worst criminals in the US. It was shut down in the 1970s and has since become a national landmark people can explore. There’s no charge to visit the island, but you’ll have to pay for the boat there. I’d suggest taking a tour during your visit so the rangers can provide you with some historical context. Be sure to book the ferry to the island early if you’re going in the summer, as it gets very full!

Visit Fisherman’s Warf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square

This area covers numerous blocks along the waterfront and is one of the most popular (touristy) things to do in the city. There are street performers, souvenir shops, and tons of overpriced restaurants. This is a good place to wander and explore for people watching, but don’t eat here. The food is overpriced and, to be honest, not that good. If you want to try some of the mouthwatering seafood that San Francisco is famous for, I really liked Waterbar and the Anchor Oyster Bar.

Hang out in the Mission

The Mission District is a fabulous place to spend your night. After your busy day, go relax in Dolores Park for great views of the city, and then check out the Mission’s amazing Mexican food, bars, clubs, and food scene. Watch out for hipsters!

Day 2

Ride the Cable Cars

Riding the cable cars is an excellent way to tour the city and experience various neighborhoods in San Francisco. Catch the cable cars from Market Street. They’re fun to ride and will save you lots of time walking up and down those hills.

Visit Lombard Street

While riding the cable cars, make sure to get off at Lombard Street and see the world’s most winding street. Watch the cars and bikers navigate the sharp turns as tourists gawk at them.

Head up Coit Tower
Another major city landmark is Coit Tower, perched atop Telegraph Hill. It was built in 1933 to help beautify the city and features 27 fresco murals by different artists. From the top, you’ll get panoramic views of the city (it’s $7 to go to the top). Otherwise, you can explore the monument and murals at ground level.

Head to Chinatown

Next to NYC, this is the most famous Chinatown in the United States (it’s also the biggest). Chinese immigrants first came to the west coast and set up shop in San Francisco. Due to racial segregation, this neighborhood became predominantly Chinese, and though the segregation is over, the area has remained Chinese. Chinatown here has some of the best places to eat (dim sum) Chinese food in the country, teahouses, bars, souvenir stalls, and fortune cookie makers. Eat your heart out here. I do.

Go on a Harbor Tour
Take an afternoon cruise of the bay to see the city from the water. You’ll get some good photos, learn about the bay, see some wildlife, and enjoy life on the water. There are many tour companies listed here, but a cheap way to see the harbor is to take the public ferries for $6.25. Same views, cheaper price. You can find prices and routes on the ferry’s website.

Hang out in the Castro
The Castro is San Francisco’s gay neighborhood and features a number of ethnic and modern restaurants as well as a bunch that serve the locally sourced organic food the Bay Area is known for. Moreover, there’s a plethora of wild and fun clubs that cater to both gay and straight people. It’s an awesome place to go out at night.

Explore Haight-Ashbury
The birthplace of America’s counterculture, the Haight was ground zero during the summer of 1967, a.k.a. The Summer of Love. Hippies used to live here, but yuppies have since moved in, buying up all the colorful Victorian homes throughout Haight-Ashbury and replacing head shops with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants, and hip cafés. It’s still a fun place to visit, and Flower Power Walking Tours runs in-depth and informative tours throughout the neighborhood.

Day 3

Take a walking tour
San Francisco has a number of interesting walking tours that can teach you about the history of the eclectic neighborhoods or show you all the scrumptious food the city has to offer. Two of the best companies to use are:

Local Taste of the City Food Tours
SF City Guides

Eat at the ferry building

My top place to eat in San Francisco, this place is a foodie dream. Outside the building on weekdays are a lot of food stands and on the weekends, there’s also a big farmers market. Inside, you’ll find restaurants and food vendors selling specialty food items as well as butchers, cheesemongers, wine bars, and more.

Visit the city’s many museums
San Francisco has numerous museums that are worth seeing. Here are my favorites:

The Beat Museum
Cable Car Museum
Exploratorium
De Young Art Museum

Visit Golden Gate Park

This gigantic park features a Japanese garden (skip it), a museum, an arboretum, and tons of hiking and walking trails. Three miles long and stretching about 30 blocks to the sea, it’s 20 percent bigger than New York’s Central Park. Walking from end to end will take half a day. If that’s too much for you, spend at least a few hours here exploring the park, especially if it’s an unusually warm and beautiful day in the city.

Relax with a drink
After all that traveling, you should probably explore some of the city’s amazing brewhouses. The Mission and Castro are two of the best spots for nightlife, but you’ll find amazing bars and clubs throughout the city. Here’s a quick video that features five:

Special thanks to Stuart for taking me around! Be sure to check out his website too, as it’s filled with some amazing travel tips.

Got more time? Here are other things to do:

  • Explore Japantown – Come here for amazing sushi, Japanese food, Korean food, and kitchen ingredients. Shabu Sen has amazing ramen.
  • Catch a game – San Francisco locals love their sports teams, especially the Giants, their really good baseball team. If you’re in town during a game, be sure to head to the stadium and cheer on the local team. Even if you don’t like the sport (whatever the sport), the locals will happily take you in, explain the game, and drink a beer with you.
  • Visit wine country – Near the city are the world-famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions. If you love wine and have time to leave the city, you obviously need to come here. Some companies run day trips to Napa Valley since it’s closer, but you’ll be a bit rushed. It’s far better to spend at least a night.
  • Visit Muir Woods – Muir Woods is the closest place to the Bay Area where you can see giant redwood trees. You don’t get to encounter the huge, huge iconic redwoods (which are sequoias and farther away at Sequoia National Park), but if you’re looking to see something close to the city, this is as good as it gets.
  • Visit Berkley – Across the bay is the interesting city of Berkley, home to music, hippies, students, and the very left-leaning University of California, Berkeley.
  • Explore Oakland – Oakland is an upcoming area in the city and is filling up with hipsters, bars, and specialty restaurants.

For food suggestions, Jodi from Legal Nomads has this incredible list of restaurants. Every place on that list is delicious.

San Francisco has a lot of things to do, attractions to see, and places to eat. There’s so much to see and do here that three days just isn’t enough. I think a four or five-day visit would give you a more complete picture and allow you to spend some quality time soaking up the city.

comments 27 Comments

This looks like so much fun! You have me interested with all of the food options – I just can’t say no to that.

NomadicMatt

SF is a great place for foodies.

Hog Island is the perfect place for a terrific lunch Great seafood and a lovely venue! Nice folks too. x

Emily

Went to San Fran about two and a half years ago, and loved every second! God to do a lot of what was on this list. Would also add paying a visit to Ghirardelli Square, it is the home to the original Ghirardelli chocolate factory, you got to see all the original machinery turning the chocolate. Had the best chocolate shake of my life for dinner that day. Also, would recommend doing one of the hop on-hop off bus tours, we loved our tour guide so much we stayed on the whole way, she was incredibly knowledgeable about the city and its history, as well as incredibly funny.

Kathy Clarke

City guides is not a company but a non-profit that gives free tours all over town!

San Francisco has long been on my list of places to go. This gives a great, concise itinerary for people visiting, and I know it’ll come in handy once I actually visit. Maybe after my next year in Spain I’ll make it there!

Beto

I’ve visited SF about 4 times and I can attest that for a first-timer, this schedule covers all of the essentials enough to say “I got to know SF”. What I am not sure is if you can really do all of those into such a tight schedule. A full week would be more like it.

We visited San Fran during our 4 States road trip around 2 years ago, funnily enough we didn’t really get the whole thing.. compared to everything we had seen during our trip, nothing seemed that special, to park was an absolute fortune which instantly turned us off, maybe we’ll go again some day, but it just wasn’t for us.

Hi Matt,
I remember coming to San Francisco when it was Fleet week and was gutted because I couldn’t visit Alcatraz. The pictures on this post remind me why I want to come back to California and visit once again. There is so much I haven’t seen and yet the interactions with the locals is what I remember most of all. From the bus driver who left a packed bus of travellers he was driving to take us to the road around the next corner, where we needed to get our next bus from – to the old ladies on the bus in from the airport who sat and giggled with us, as we spoke about the difference between the english and the americans. To the homeless lady who followed us into a cafe, aggressively begging for money (in the UK – they don’t follow you into a shop!) and the guy walking by who stepped in and sorted it out for us. The one thing I learnt from my trip to San Francisco is that it is an amazingly culturally diverse city, that deserves time spent on exploring both inside and around the city.
I’ll definitely be back!

I used to think that there was not so much to see in America, but I’ve been hearing a lot about it lately and it sounds really cool. You make San Francisco sound great. :) I want to go.

NomadicMatt

There’s a lot to see in the US! We’re a pretty big place.

Bookmarked this post, it’s great. San Francisco is at the top of my bucket list.

Jeff L

Add in a visit to the chocolate factory TCHO. It’s a local placed along the pier that specializes in fair trade chocolate. Tours + tastings are FREE, you just gotta book in advance! It’s a really fun way to spend an hour, and is geographically close to several of your other great recommendations.

I love this Matt! This is going to come in so handy. I’m hoping to do a few days stopover in the SF on my way back to Sydney from Canada next year. You’ve basically just planned my three days for me!

Crissy Field is definitely going on my list! I also really enjoyed your food video from SF. Thanks for sharing, Matt!

Happy travels :)

Wow, I have been to SF a dozen times and haven’t gone to a bunch of the places you listed. I am definitely going next time I’m in SF. Thanks for sharing!

I love SF! Wonderful tips Matt!

Self Biking tours are also great.

Dancing in a drum circle is the absolute best and a very ” fun & off the beaten track” activity, that make you a part of this incredible city, more, than a GG bridge ever will..

Oh, and the Sea Bass lovers, should head to “The House” – for the ultimate food orgasm .. and Tadich Grill ( California’s oldest restaurant ) to see the best waiter in the world (Barry) in action.

your welcome

Great photos and tips Matt! I l love SF! Thanks for sharing!

Amanda

As a UC Berkeley alum, just FYI, you spelled the city of Berkeley wrong! I love San Francisco, but agree it’s missing some magic ingredient that keeps me from wanting to move there. The food scene and natural beauty of the city are amazing, though!

VH

I have been to SF a couple of times, but there are more places I want to see. Thanks for this. Do you have anything similar for NYC? We are planning a trip there in Sept and will have 5-7 days.

Awesome list Matt, with lots of my favorite San Francisco iconic spots noted.

Out of curiosity, what are some of your favorite SF restaurants? You mention a link to an external foodie list, but would love to hear some of your personal favorites!

Beautiful summary of San Francisco.
Awesome Post Matt!
Shaun

One of my favorite cities in the country!! I have a weird/fun tip for those who dig looking at cool houses/architecture – check out Tiburon, it’s this ritzy little town just north of the Golden Gate bridge (if you walk the bridge I thiiiiink you can walk there).

They have a great film festival and good (if pricey) seafood restaurants, but the main attraction for me was checking out all of the gorgeous homes built into the hills. A lot of them have views of the bay, and many of them are UNOCCUPIED and for sale! There is no real estate monitoring and the doors are left unlocked….

You can waltz right in and take a look around – my friends and I spent an entire afternoon “house hunting” in one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S. (and – not gonna lie – pretending that we lived there and hanging out on the lovely balconies.)

I haven’t been to San Fran in years, I’m looking forward to taking my son this summer to walk the Golden Gate Bridge. These are all great things to do there!

Hi,

San Francisco is very beautiful place, I like it so much. Glad to see here the tour plan on San Francisco, briefly discussed on how to spend three days here. And also all the photos are very beautiful with magnificent angel.

Thank you

Matt this is excellent information!! San Fran is definitely one of my favorite cities in the U.S.

Let me know if you make it out to Korea anytime soon! The lifestyle out here is amazing :)

Great list Matt! I love San Francisco. I would love to go back one day. It is such an amazing city and has so much to offer. I had no idea it was a foodie city. Will be on that wagon next time. :)

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