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San Francisco Itinerary and Travel Guide for First-time Visitors

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I visited San Francisco over two decades ago as a teenager when I was living in Los Angeles. Safe to say, I could barely remember anything about that first visit. I finally had the chance to experience the city as an adult when my work sent me to the bay area.

San Francisco Itinerary - Presidio Heights from Palace of Fine Arts
Presidio Heights from Palace of Fine Arts

I was anxious about visiting San Francisco this time around. I had read about how the city had gone downhill since the pandemic, and how petty crime was at an all-time high. But after spending five days exploring the city, I think Tony Bennet is still right – I truly did leave my heart in San Francisco. And dare I say, San Francisco might just be my favorite city in the US.

Sure, I had to avoid certain areas. I had to be extra careful while walking so that I don’t step on any stray fecal matter on the sidewalk, and one night, there was a drive-by shooting at Mission district just a few hours after I had left the area. But the city is so pretty and charming I couldn’t help but fall in love.

So, allow me to show you my favorite bits about San Francisco.

Tips for visiting San Francisco for the first time

1. San Francisco is very hilly – I felt this doesn’t translate well when you’re just looking at the city through maps online, but yes, the city has quite a few (steep) ups and downs. I personally loved this because it makes for a beautiful photo, but I know some people would appreciate the warning. So if you plan to walk, and I do believe walking is the best way to experience San Francisco, please do yourself a favor and wear appropriate footwear!

San Francisco Itinerary - Inclined street in Hilly San Francisco
A steeply inclined street in the hilly San Francisco

2. San Francisco is an early city – Most shops will close by 7 pm, and restaurants are shut by 10 pm. Plan accordingly! I was told it is normal to have dinner at 5 or 6 pm in this city.

3. Watch out for the CA sales tax! In California, you’re subjected to an 8.5% sales tax every time you make a purchase. This sales tax is usually not included in the stated price and will be charged upon payment. So for example, say you see a nice purse for $30 – it will ring up to $32.55 when you pay for it. Make sure you take that into account in your purchasing decisions.

4. Learn how to tip the American way – yes, I know, the tipping culture in the US baffles every foreign visitor. It’s confusing! But, you don’t want to shortchange someone just because you disagree with this social norm. The most common instance where you’ll need to tip is when eating at a restaurant. The general rule of thumb is to tip 15% for average service, 20% for great service, and 25% for exceptional service. You don’t need to tip at establishments where the food is prepared but not served to you. Fast food, bakeries, or dessert places are examples of these types of establishments, but it certainly would be nice if you feel the staff did an exceptional job. You also don’t need to tip ride-sharing drivers (but again, it is always nice to), but you must tip taxi drivers.

5. Safety in San Francisco: Avoid certain neighborhoods and stay vigilant – So this topic is an interesting one in San Francisco. I’m sure you’ve heard about it on the news as well. The rule of thumb is that you want to avoid certain parts of the Tenderloin district. Generally, this means the area around where Market Street crosses with 5th to 9th Streets. If you’re driving into the city, make sure you do not leave any valuables within sight in the car when you park, and only park in a secured garage (vs the street). Car break-ins are common in the city, regardless of the area.

San Francisco Itinerary - Bernal Heights from Mission district
Bernal Heights from Mission district

6. iPhone users – Use both Apple Maps and Google Maps! – In any other destination, I typically just use Google Maps and it would suffice. But in San Francisco, being so close to Cupertino where Apple is headquartered, I find that Apple Maps sometimes offer more accuracy and a better experience. I also noticed locals were also using Apple Maps more than Google Maps.

7. Get a data SIM Card – This is a must for every destination, and even more so while you’re in the States. Having data on your phone will allow you to look up directions, book Uber, and reload your transport card easily. You can purchase a global data e-SIM here, which will work in over 60 countries including the US.

8. Wise Card worked extremely well in San Francisco – as well as the rest of the US, really. If you’re an international visitor like myself, definitely get yourself a Wise Debit Card. You’ll save the foreign transaction fee when you use Wise. I never had to use cash when I was in San Francisco or NYC.

How much time should I spend in San Francisco?

I spent 5 days in San Francisco and I feel I could spend more time there. I would say a minimum of 3 full days here is required to really get a feel of the city.

You could perhaps see most of the San Francisco essentials in 2 days if you pack your days in and follow my itinerary, but it would be rushed.

San Francisco Itinerary - Chestnut Street in San Francisco
Chestnut Street in San Francisco

When is the best time to visit San Francisco?

I visited San Francisco from late May to early June, which I think was the best time of the year. The weather was fantastic on some days – clear blue skies and sunny on the good days, and cloudy on the other days but not too cold. The truth is, there is no way to predict whether the weather will be good or not, but you just never know when “Karl the Fog” decides to descend.

How to get to San Francisco from the airport (SFO)

1. By Uber or Lyft – This is of course the most straightforward way to get into the city, but also the costliest. For comparison, my Uber from SFO to Fisherman’s Wharf was US$ 58 (including tips)

2. By BART – BART is short for Bay Area Rapid Transit. This is probably the best way since there is a BART station at SFO airport itself. It costs around US$ 9.90 to get to the city from SFO, then you can resume your journey with local transport via MUNI once you’re in the city. You can pay your BART rides using Clipper (more on this below).

3. By Caltrain – This is one of the most popular ways to commute and get to San Francisco. To get to the city from SFO, you’ll want to either get to San Bruno Caltrain station (not to be confused with San Bruno BART station) and take it to San Francisco station for US$ 3.25. Once you’re in SF, you can resume your journey with local transport via MUNI.

San Francisco Itinerary - Hearst Building at Union Square
The Hearst Building at Union Square

Getting Around in San Francisco

As I said earlier, San Francisco is a very walkable city, and I truly believe walking is the best way to explore the city. However, there may be some occasions you can’t walk, in which case there are a few ways to get around in San Francisco:

  1. Using ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft – This is one of the best options if you will be traveling in a group of 3-4 people. An Uber ride in the city doesn’t run much. My Uber rides within the city usually cost only US$10-16 before tips.
  2. Taking public transport via Muni – Muni is short for The San Francisco Municipal Railway, which is the public transit system of San Francisco. Muni operates a system of bus routes, the Muni Metro light rail system, three historic cable car lines, and two historic streetcar lines. A single ride on Muni public transportation cost US$2.50, and it’s good for 120 minutes of travel. This means you can ride as much as you want for 2 hours once you’ve paid the fare. Another good news – anyone under 19 can ride for free (view Muni fares here)
  3. Historic Cable Car – Yes, taking the cable car is definitely an option (read more about taking the cable car here)
  4. Renting a car – This is not recommended since parking is expensive in the city. There is also a higher likelihood of car break-ins. But if you must rent a car, try to get a car with a California license plate. Tourists (and this includes domestic tourists from out-of-state) tend to get targeted more.
San Francisco Itinerary - Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf

Using MuniMobile vs. Clipper card in San Francisco and the Bay Area

There are two transport card systems in San Francisco: MuniMobile and Clipper card. MuniMobile is only valid for San Francisco city, while Clipper covers the entire Bay Area, which includes San Francisco.

For those who are only planning to occasionally take public transport (1-2 rides per day), the Clipper card is the most convenient way for single rides as it allows you to pay via your smartphone without any additional apps.

Click here for instructions on how to add your Clipper card to your mobile phone.

However, if you are planning to take a lot of public transport and get on cable cars, you might want to check out MuniMobile because they have visitor passports that will give you unlimited rides on all Muni public transportation including historic streetcars and cable cars. The passes are valid for 1 day (US$13), 3 days (US$31), or 7 days (US$41). This could be worthwhile as the price for a single ride on the cable car is already US$8.00. If you’re only planning to take Muni transports (and no cable cars), they also have a day pass for US$5. View the full list of fares here.

You don’t have to choose between only using MuniMobile or Clipper cards. You could use a mix of both. For example, you could get a 1-day pass on MuniMobile for the days that you’re planning to take the cable car and other transports. On other days when you aren’t taking the cable car anymore, you can use the Clipper card or get the MuniMobile Day Pass.

Taking the Historic Cable Car in San Francisco

Taking the cable car may not be practical for everyday use in San Francisco, but I think this is a cool and novel way to explore the city! You should try it at least once.

Here’s what you need to know about taking the cable car:

San Francisco Itinerary - Powell & Mason Cable Car
Powell & Mason Cable Car

Fare – A single, one-way cable car ride costs US$8 and it doesn’t allow you to hop on/off, so as much as possible you’ll want to ride the entire route. If you’re planning on taking the cable car, you might want to look into the visitor passes that are available through MuniMobile, which will allow unlimited rides on the cable car in case you do want to ride it multiple times a day.

Timing – The cable car service starts at 7 AM, but I don’t recommend going THAT early – unless you’re planning to go hiking or walking by the beach – because most other attractions are open only from 9:30 AM onward. I think 9 AM is the perfect time if you’re up for an early start.

San Francisco Itinerary - Historic Cable Car
Historic Cable Car

Routes – Usually, the starting point is from Union Square at Powell St & Market St, and you would likely have to queue for it unless you’re there early.

There are two routes you can take from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf:

  • Powell-Hyde – Drops you off near Ghirardelli Square (Route Map)
  • Powell-Mason – Drops you off near Pier 39 at the Powell/Mason Cable Car Turnaround (Route Map)

It doesn’t matter which one you take. The routes are pretty similar and endpoints are pretty close together.

Another option is to take the cable car down from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square. This is the lesser-popular way, and you might not have to line up to get on the cable car, as opposed to if you take it from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf.

San Francisco Itinerary - Historic Cable Car Fisherman's Wharf
The cable car turnaround point at Fisherman’s Wharf was so empty!

Another lesser-popular route is the California Cable car, which takes you from east to west. Find out more about California cable cars here.

Lastly, if you’re interested in how the cable car works and its history in San Francisco, you should make sure to stop by the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It’s free of charge! This museum gives you an overview of the history of the cable cars in San Francisco, how the cable cars work, as well as a view of the actual cable that runs the cable cars around the city.

Neighborhoods / Districts in San Francisco

San Francisco is not a big city, but each of its districts has its own personality. I’ll expand more on each neighborhood in the itinerary below, but here are a few notable districts you’ll want to know about as a visitor:

Union Square – This is the downtown area of San Francisco. Before the pandemic, this was where most people go to work and shop.

San Francisco Itinerary - Union Square district in San Francisco
Union Square district in San Francisco

SoMa – Short for “South of Market”. It’s an extension of Union Square and where many tech companies are headquartered.

Marina – The area northwest of the city. It’s considered a nice neighborhood, and it’s where some tourist attractions are located, such as the Palace of Fine Arts and Crissy Field. There are also nice neighborhoods and shops on Union Street.

Haight-Ashbury – A super cool and colorful neighborhood, channeling the 1960s hippie culture. I think this was my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco!

Fisherman’s Wharf – A picturesque district. Fisherman’s Wharf is yet another district with plenty of touristy things to do: Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square to name a few.

Mission District – The Latino central of San Francisco, the Mission District is the most vibrant, colorful, and exciting neighborhood in the city. There is so much to do at Mission that I dedicated one of my itinerary days entirely to Mission, and an entire section just for food at Mission.

Castro – Although the whole of San Francisco is supportive of LGBTQ these days, Castro is where it all started.

Tenderloin – Not everything about the district is bad, but Tenderloin has a seedy reputation. You can definitely still find interesting things to do here, but it’s wise to be aware of what you’re getting into before you go to the Tenderloin district.

Where to stay in San Francisco

I stayed at Kimpton Alton at Fisherman’s Wharf, a new hotel that had just opened in 2021. I booked this hotel because it has great reviews. After 3 nights of staying here, I can definitely corroborate those positive reviews. I loved my stay at Kimpton Alton!

Initially, I was looking at hotels in Union Square since that seems to be where most hotels and shops are. But we decided against it since the group I was traveling with wanted a quiet and safe area.

The rooms at Kimpton Alton were modern and clean. Each room even came with a record player! Check-in was really fast. They gave us US$10 snack credit for each night we stayed, which could be redeemed for cookies and candies at the snack bar in the lobby. They also had a freeflow wine hour from 5-6 pm every day.

The location of Kimpton Alton Hotel was convenient too. There was a Trader Joe’s within a 5-minute walk distance. The only In-N-Out Burger in the city is also within a 3-minute walk. And of course, there are plenty of tourist attractions nearby. We walked to Ghirardelli Square, Lombard Street, Chinatown, and Coit Tower on our first day in the city.

If Kimpton Alton doesn’t tick the boxes for you, here are other great accommodations in San Francisco that I considered:

  • Chateau Tivoli B&B at Alamo Square – I happened to pass by Chateau Tivoli after visiting the painted ladies nearby, and the hotel caught my eye because of its iconic late-nineteenth-century architecture that can be seen all over San Francisco. Turns out, Chateau Tivoli is a historic residence that has been converted into a small bed and breakfast. I wish I had known about this place because I definitely would have booked here.
  • citizenM Union Square – If you are traveling by yourself or as a couple, you can consider citizenM. The rooms are small, but the location is great. Right at the heart of Union Square with plenty of amenities nearby.
  • The Clancy Autograph Collection at SoMa / Union Square – Located just a little south of Market Street, this hotel is also at the heart of Union Square and close to many shops and amenities. It’s within a block away from SF MoMA.

The San Francisco Itinerary

I’ve created daily itineraries you can do in San Francisco. Please note that you don’t need to do the itinerary in the same order as I’ve outlined below. I’ve simply grouped the activities and attractions that are close to each other so that they can be visited together.

Day 1: The San Francisco Essentials (Part 1)

As a first-timer in San Francisco, this itinerary will cover nearly everything San Francisco is known for. Put your comfortable walking shoes on, because you’ll be walking a lot today – up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco.

1. Take Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf (OPTIONAL)

If you’re staying at Union Square, or any other location that isn’t Fisherman’s Wharf, you can start your morning by taking one of San Francisco’s historic Cable Cars. But if you can’t, don’t worry – there are other opportunities to get on the cable car later.

For today, I suggest taking Powell-Mason which will drop you off at Powell/Mason Cable Car Turnaround and closer to Pier 39 and our next destinations. Find out more about how to take the cable car here

San Francisco Itinerary - Powell & Hyde Cable Car turning around at Union Square
Powell & Hyde Cable Car turning around at Union Square

2. Breakfast at Boudin

Start your day by having breakfast at Boudin Bakery. Boudin claims to be the inventor of San Francisco Sourdough, and to this day they are still baking their sourdough bread from a gold miner’s sourdough starter! This means, if you’re eating Boudin’s sourdough – you could be tasting something that is over 100 years old.

San Francisco Itinerary - Boudin Bakery
Boudin Bakery

Boudin is also known for New England-style clam chowders served in sourdough bread bowls. Although touristy, I thought the clam chowder was pretty good. And you get to try the sourdough bread with it, so it’s a two-birds-one-stone type of situation!

3. Pier 39

Boudin is already at Pier 39, so once you’re done with breakfast – head on over to Pier 39. Some notable attractions nearby are:

  • See the famous San Francisco Sea Lions – They are often found lounging about on Pier 39. You can check a live webcam here first if you are visiting and want to see if the sea lions are there.
  • Pearl Factory – where you can see pearls harvested from an oyster
  • Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze – A colorful mirror maze, a staple of any American beach carnival attraction. You go in and try to find your way out.
  • Aquarium of the Bay – If you are interested in visiting this aquarium, please pre-buy the ticket online here for a cheaper price. General admission at the door is US$31.75 + Service = US$34.
  • Musée Mécanique – A free museum showcasing antique and coin-operated arcade games

4. Ghirardelli Square

From Pier 39, take a short walk to the west and find Aquatic Cove and Fort Mason. This is a very nice walk that really shows off the beauty of San Francisco, especially on a good day. You’ll be able to see Alcatraz Island from here.

San Francisco Itinerary - Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square

Then, once you’re done, right to the south of it is Ghirardelli Square, where you can learn about the history of chocolate factories in San Francisco and taste their hot chocolate or buy the famous Ghirardelli chocolates.

5. Lombard Street

From Ghirardelli Square, head further south and up the hill to our destination: Lombard Street. I suggest walking through Francisco Park for a more scenic route.

From the park, Lombard Street is just a few minutes up the hill.

Enter from the Hyde Street side, so that you can walk down Lombard Street instead of walking up.

San Francisco Itinerary - Golden Gate Bridge from Francisco Park
View of Golden Gate Bridge from Francisco Park
San Francisco Itinerary - Lombard Street
Lombard Street

Lombard Street is a scenic street that is extremely steep at 27% grade. And because of the steepness, it contains eight switchbacks to allow cars to safely climb up and down the street. Thanks to this design, Lombard is now famous for being “the crooked-est street in the world”. People who live on this street must be really good drivers – I can’t imagine having to park my car in the garage of any of the houses on this street.

San Francisco Itinerary - Lombard Street
Looking up to Lombard Street

You can use the stairs on either side of the street to go down Lombard Street to our next destination.

6. North Beach

From Lombard Street, go east to Columbus Avenue, where you’ll find yourself in North Beach, aka the Little Italy of San Francisco. Here are a few notable attractions you can explore in North Beach:

  • City Lights Bookstore – An independent bookstore, and a MUST visit for book lovers. It was founded in 1953. The bookstore has plenty of books, including an entire section of a poetry room. In 2001, it became one of San Francisco’s Designated Landmarks.
  • The Beat Museum – If you are a fan of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, especially the works of Jack Kerouac, you’ll want to check out this museum. Admission is only US$8.
  • Graffeo Coffee Roasting Co – A famous coffee roaster. Take note they don’t serve coffee, only beans
  • Sam’s Pizza & Burgers – This would be a great option for late lunch on this day. This place serves one of late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite burgers, which he says was one of his “top three in the world”. But take note, they are only open from 1 PM (Sun-Thu) or 2 PM (Fri-Sat).
San Francisco Itinerary - Panamericana building from the San Francisco North Beach district
Panamericana building from the San Francisco North Beach district

7. Coit Towers

From North Beach, head to Coit Tower. Coit Tower is an old tower built in 1933 on Telegraph Hill. From the outside of the tower, you can stop and admire the view of Bay Bridge and Treasure Island from up there.

There are beautiful murals in the lobby and staircase of the tower up to the 2nd floor, which was painted in 1934 and depicts scenes from California during the great depression era.

San Francisco Itinerary - COIT Tower
Murals at COIT Tower

At the top of the tower, it gives you a cool 360 view of San Francisco city. Take note though, when we visited, the old elevator was closed so we had to take the stairs all the way up to the 13th floor.

There is a $10 admission for non-SF residents to go up, but I think it’s worth it. Although it’s only 13 stories high, it’s located on top of a hill so you truly get a non-blocked view of the area.

8. Choose your own adventure: Exploratorium, San Francisco Cable Car Museum, or In-N-Out Dinner

Depending on when you’re done with your Coit Tower, you could explore the following activities near the area:

  • Exploratorium – Science and Technology Museum. Closes at 5 pm, but re-opens at night time 6-10 PM on Thursdays, and fully closed on Mondays. Buy your tickets here.
  • San Francisco Bay Sunset Cruise – A 1.5-hour cruise around the bay, where you’ll be able to see Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge.
  • San Francisco Cable Car Museum – Free Admission. This museum gives you an overview of the history of the cable cars in San Francisco, how the cable cars work, as well as a view of the actual cable that runs the cable cars. The museum closes at 4 PM and is fully closed on Mondays. Highly recommend!
  • In-N-Out for dinner – Or, if you need some rest you could simply head back to Fisherman’s Wharf for In-N-Out Dinner.
  • Take a look at the list of things to do in San Francisco or where to eat in San Francisco for more ideas

Day 2: The San Francisco Essentials (Part 2)

It’s not enough to see San Francisco in just one day, so let’s continue on to our second day of San Francisco essentials.

1. Take Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf (OPTIONAL)

If you didn’t get the chance to take the Cable Car before, now is another chance.

For this day, I recommend taking the Powell-Hyde as it drops us closer to our destinations for the day. You will be dropped off at Powell & Hyde Cable Car Turnabout. Learn more about how to take the cable car here.

2. Fort Mason

From there, continue northwest to Aquatic Park Pier and walk through Fort Mason. You can then continue walking west towards the Palace of Fine Arts, stopping by The Wave Organ if you have time.

3. Palace of Fine Arts

You really can’t miss the Palace of Fine Arts. Once you get there – you’ll know. It’s a grand structure, built in the ancient Roman style, located in the Marina district of San Francisco. Palace of Fine Arts is free to visit, though it’s possible that certain areas might be booked for private events or weddings.

San Francisco Itinerary - Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco Itinerary - Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts

4. Crissy Field

From the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field is just a very short walk north. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge from here, as well as the Alcatraz island. There is a nice and easy trail you can follow for a waterfront walk.

San Francisco Itinerary - Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Fields
Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Fields

5. See the Golden Gate Bridge up close

The Golden Gate Bridge needs no introduction – it is, without a doubt, the most recognized symbol of San Francisco. The bridge connects the San Francisco peninsula to Marin County in the north. Unlike what the name implies, the bridge is actually a very vivid reddish-orange or vermillion in color, which makes it very photogenic.

There are a few popular ways to enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge and its surrounding area:

  • First, the most obvious one – you can call an Uber to visit the viewpoints. Take note there is a toll to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, which will be US$9.40 one way. This will be added to your Uber fare.
  • Second, you can walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a dedicated area for pedestrians. This will take about 35-40 minutes one way. This would be a fairly easy walk, but it could be cold and windy on the bridge if the weather is not cooperating. Make sure you’re properly dressed for all kinds of weather.
  • Third, you can also rent a bicycle and cycle across in 25 minutes per way. The Golden Gate Bridge is part of a popular biking trail. Rent your bicycle here
  • Lastly, you could take a San Francisco Bay Sunset Cruise which is a 1.5-hour cruise around the bay, where you’ll be able to see Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge.

Lookout / Viewpoints to see the Golden Gate Bridge

Here are a few popular lookout points:

Golden Gate Overlook – This is conveniently located on the San Francisco peninsula, and it’s ideal if you just want to see the bridge and not actually cross the bridge.

Battery Spencer – This is probably the most famous viewpoint for Golden Gate Bridge. Take note to get to this point by car, you actually need to circle around the entire hill on Marin Headlands. So if you’re taking Uber, you can ask to be dropped off at Headlands parking then do a short walk up yourself.

San Francisco Itinerary - Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer
Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer

The view on the other side towards the north is pretty nice as well!

San Francisco Itinerary - Richardson Bay from Battery Spencer
Richardson Bay from Battery Spencer

Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point – This is a rest area located just at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. It is very close to Battery Spencer, so you could probably visit these two viewpoints together.

San Francisco Itinerary - Golden Gate Bridge from Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point
Golden Gate Bridge from Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point

Kirby Cove – This is also located near Battery Spencer but requires a bit of walking to reach the cove. Make sure you wear the right type of shoes for hiking.

By the way, when you’re done with the Golden Gate Bridge, this might be a good time to visit the popular Arsicault Bakery for its famous croissant. It’s located in the Richmond district, just a little south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

6. Explore a neighborhood: Haight-Ashbury

Once you are done with Golden Gate Bridge, it’s time to explore a neighborhood in San Francisco! You could choose any neighborhood, but I suggest visiting Haight-Ashbury due to its proximity to the viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although it’s not very big, this area is my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco.

San Francisco Itinerary - Haight-Ashbury
Haight-Ashbury

To start, get dropped off at the Haight Ashbury Painted Ladies, then walk down Haight Street towards the west and go where your heart takes you. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to check out in this area!

Notable landmarks in Haight-Ashbury:

  • Haight Ashbury Painted Ladies
  • Jimmi Hendrix House
  • That’s So Raven House
San Francisco Itinerary - Love on Haight at Haight-Ashbury
Love on Haight at Haight-Ashbury

Stores and brands to visit on Haight Street:

  • Love on Haight – A colorful, hippie store selling tie-dye shirts and other rainbow paraphernalia
  • San Franpsycho – A cool local apparel focusing on comfortable wear
  • Decades Of Fashion – A vintage shop that has clothes from every decade
  • Amoeba Music – The world’s largest independent record store
  • Wasteland – Vintage shopping
  • Borderlands Books

Food and Coffee Recommendations on Haight Street:

  • Mellow Coffee
  • Flywheel Coffee Roasters
  • Parada 22
  • VeganBurg San Francisco
  • Slice House Haight Street

7. Golden Gate Park

Right at the end of Haight Street is Golden Gate Park – a large 1,017 acres park in the middle of the city. The concept of a large park in the middle of the city is similar to Central Park in NYC, and they both even have that similar rectangular shape, but Golden Gate Park is bigger. It is about 20% larger than Central Park. A walk from one end to another is about 3 miles or 5 km, which would take an average person about an hour without stopping.

There are a few landmarks you can check out at the Golden Gate Park:

  • de Young Museum
  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Japanese Tea Garden – Tickets required
  • Stow Lake
  • San Francisco Botanical Garden – Tickets required, but free before 9AM

You can also go out of the park a bit and a few blocks down south, and see the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps for a nice view of the city.

At the end of the park is Ocean Beach, which faces the Pacific Ocean. When it’s foggy, look out for a phenomenon called the marine layer, which often occurs in San Francisco due to the climate in the area.

8. Choose your own adventure: Dinner at Marina or Alcatraz at night

Day 3: Mission District and Dolores Park

Do this on a sunny day: Pick a good day to do this itinerary, because you’ll want to enjoy Dolores Park when the sun is out! ☀️

1. Walk around Mission District

Exploring and walking around Mission District is a good way to spend the entire afternoon. There are plenty of good food, cute little shops, and generally just a great area to hang out.

San Francisco Itinerary - Walking along Mission Street in Mission District
Walking along Mission Street in Mission District

If you walk down Mission Street, you might see an impromptu live band, or you might see unauthorized street vendors selling random knick-knacks. It is said that the goods sold by these vendors are actually shoplifted from retail stores. For a “nicer” walk, you can walk down Valencia Street, just one block east of Mission. The street is lined up with trendy boutique shops and nice eateries.

San Francisco Itinerary - Murals and colorful buildings in Mission District
Murals and colorful buildings in Mission District

Where to eat in Mission

  • Mexican food – I have so many recommendations for Mexican food at Mission that I had to write a separate section for Mission in the “Where to eat in San Francisco” section below
  • Prubechu

Where to get sweets and dessert in Mission

  • Tartine Bakery
  • Bi-Rite Creamery
  • Salt & Straw
  • Dandelion Chocolate
San Francisco Itinerary - Murals at Mission District
Murals at Mission District

Stores to check out in Mission

  • Everlane
  • Gravel & Gold
  • Needles & Pens
  • Jenny Lemons
  • Luz De Luna

2. Picnic at Mission Dolores Park

Dolores Park is a large green park just between Mission and Castro districts. Before coming to Dolores Park, you can stop by Tartine Bakery or Bi-Rite Creamery, just across the street from the park, so that you can have some snacks while picnic-ing at the park. There is a brewery near the park called Woods Cervecería where you can get some craft beers.

San Francisco Itinerary - Dolores Park
Dolores Park

You can almost guarantee that Dolores Park will be packed when it’s sunny. San Franciscans will be gathering here with friends, family, and pets for a large picnic, couples will be hanging out with each other on a small picnic blanket, or someone would be reading or listening to a podcast by themselves. Basically, it’s a park for people-watching.

3. Castro

Just a few blocks east of Dolores Park is the Castro district, simply referred to as “the Castro”. You might have noticed that the entire San Francisco city is LGBTQ-friendly, but you can say Castro is where it all started.

A few places you might want to stop by while you’re in Castro:

  • GLBT Historical Society Museum
  • Rainbow stripes on 18th Street & Castro Street
  • Cliff’s Variety
  • ZGO Perfumery

4. Painted Ladies

After, you can head up to Alamo Square, where you can find the Painted Ladies on its western side. Painted Ladies are a row of brightly colored, well-preserved Victorian houses. They have been featured in many movies and TV shows, most notably the house featured on the opening credit of “Full House”, the popular 90s TV show.

San Francisco Itinerary - Painted Ladies at Alamo Square
Painted Ladies at Alamo Square

4. Choose your own adventure: Sunset Cruise or Alcatraz at night

Day 4: Things to do in San Francisco

Now that you’ve completed most things I consider San Francisco essentials, you can decide what you want to do today. Here I will list out cool things to do in San Francisco that I either couldn’t slot into the daily itineraries, or things that I have included as optional in the itinerary that you might have missed on the previous days.

Here are a few recommendations on things to do in San Francisco:

  • SF MOMA – San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts. The museum has 6-levels worth of exhibitions. One of its permanent exhibits is the Oculus Bridge by Olafur Eliasson on the fifth floor of the museum, which you cannot miss. And no joke, on the ground floor, this museum has one of the best gift stores ever. I personally think it’s even better than the MoMa in NYC. Pre-buy tickets to SF MOMA here.
  • Baseball Games – The city has its own professional baseball team called the San Francisco Giants. Watching a baseball game is one of those quintessentially American experiences, so definitely try to catch a game while you’re here. You can buy the Giants game tickets here if they happen to be playing a home game while you’re in town.
  • Exploratorium – Exploratorium is a Science and Technology Museum. They usually close at 5 pm, but re-open at night time 6-10 PM on Thursdays, and are fully closed on Mondays. Set aside 3-4 hours to explore this museum. Buy your tickets here.
  • Visit Alcatraz Island – Alcatraz has a fascinating history. It is a small island just off San Francisco Bay which used to be a maximum-security prison in the 1930s.
San Francisco Itinerary - Alcatraz from Crissy Field
Alcatraz from Crissy Field
  • San Francisco Bay Sunset Cruise – A 1.5 hours cruise around the bay, where you’ll be able to see Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge.
  • San Francisco Cable Car Museum – Free Admission. This museum gives you an overview of the history of the cable cars in San Francisco, how the cable cars work, as well as a view of the actual cable that runs the cable cars. The museum closes at 4 PM and is fully closed on Mondays. Highly recommend!
San Francisco Itinerary - SF Cable Car Museum
At SF Cable Car Museum – The REAL cables that move the cable cars!
  • Beat Museum – If you are a fan of the beat generation in the 1950s, especially the works of Jack Kerouac, you’ll want to check out this museum. Admission is only US$8
  • Lands End – A hiking trail at the northwestern corner of San Francisco. The trails are convenient to get to from the city, and it is quite rewarding with really nice views.
  • Check out any notable events in SF – there are cool events happening in SF all year round. You can see a non-exhaustive list of it here.
  • SF Neighborhoods – Last but not least, visit any SF Neighborhoods you didn’t get to visit

Day 5 onward: Excursions and Day trips from San Francisco

The Bay Area is known for its proximity to magnificent nature. While you’re here definitely take advantage and do excursions outside of the city.

  • 3-day camping at Yosemite – I REALLY wanted to do this camping tour, but couldn’t due to time constraints. A friend of mine booked this specific tour and raved about it. They provide everything you need – food, transport, and camping equipment. All you need to do is show up with your belongings! The tours only start twice a week, so make sure it works with your schedule.
  • Napa Valley and Sonoma Wine Country Day Trip – California is known for its wine, so while you’re here, you definitely want to visit the wineries that made the place famous.
  • Half Moon Bay – I went to Half Moon Bay for a day trip with my work colleagues. The beach here is beautiful!
  • Muir Woods
  • Santa Cruz
  • Sausalito
  • Monterey and Carmel

Where to eat in San Francisco

While in San Francisco, you won’t be short of good food to eat. I have so many recommendations I had to divide the list into categories. Enjoy!

1. Chocolate and Sweets

San Francisco is known for its chocolate factories, so while you’re here, you must visit some of the local chocolatiers:

  • Ghirardelli Chocolate in Fisherman’s Wharf – The Ghirardelli name should not be a stranger to most people. The Ghirardelli Square is a tourist attraction with restaurants and cafes, but it used to house the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. You can still purchase some Ghirardelli Chocolates and squares to take home or try their famous hot chocolate drinks.
  • Dandelion Chocolate – There are multiple locations of Dandelion Chocolate across the city, but if you want to see the factory you’d want to head to their 16th Street location. You will need to book ahead for the factory tour. We couldn’t find any availabilities! If you’re only keen to try chocolate and hot chocolate drink, you can head to the branch at Mission.
  • See’s Candies – See’s Candies was originally from Southern California, but you can find a few outlets in San Francisco. I recommend their Peanut Brittle and Toffee-ettes.
  • Recchiuti Confections at the Ferry Building in Embarcadero – I had this place bookmarked for a long time, but didn’t manage to visit on this trip.

2. Mexican food in Mission District

You can’t go to California and not eat Mexican food. On our second day in San Francisco, a friend of mine brought us on a “taco tour” across Mission District and I got to try a few places (Thank you, Michael Paravati). Here are my favorites and other notable eats in Mission:

  • Tacos el Patron in Mission District – The place didn’t look as authentic compared to some of the taco places we went to in Mission, but Tacos el Patron was delicious. They are known for their Birria tacos, which is a crispy tacos loaded with cheese and beef from a stew, but I’ve pretty much tried all of their tacos and they’re all good. My personal favorite is the lengua taco, which is beef tongue. Even the free chips and salsa they give was probably one of the best I’ve had in a while. Just so simple yet delicious, and the salsa was fresh.
  • Senor Sisig in Mission District – The Filipino-Mexican fusion I never knew I needed in my life. I only tried their signature Senor Sisig Burrito, but I still dream about it. That combination of adobo garlic rice with pico de gallo and cilantro cream was heavenly. They also had Ube Horchata, which was an interesting take on the traditional Mexican drink.
  • La Taqueria – Just like their name, their foods are no frills. Just some really good tacos and burritos. I had the carnitas (pulled pork) taco here and it was delicious.
  • La Cumbre Taqueria – The birthplace of Mission-style Burritos.
San Francisco Itinerary - Senor Sisig Burrito
Senor Sisig Burrito

3. Bakeries

Did you know that Sourdough bread was said to be invented in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1849? Some say the taste of San Francisco Sourdough cannot be replicated, due to the yeast produced by the bacteria that thrived in the foggy conditions in the city.

  • Boudin in Fisherman’s Wharf – Boudin claims to be the inventor of San Francisco Sourdough, and to this day still baking sourdough bread from a gold miner’s sourdough starter. They’re also known for their New England-style clam chowders served in sourdough bread bowls. Although a bit touristy, I thought the clam chowder was pretty good, and you get to try the sourdough bread with it.
  • Tartine Bakery in Mission District – We saw this bakery featured on “Somebody Feed Phil”, the Netflix show, and we had to visit. I tried the Pain au Chocolat, but I think their Banana cream tart was the star.
  • Arsicault Bakery in Richmond – Famous for their croissant, especially the almond croissant. Unfortunately, I never made it to this neighborhood, but I heard there are snaking queues for their croissant, especially on weekend mornings.
San Francisco Itinerary - Breakfast at Boudin
Breakfast at Boudin

4. General Food Recommendations in San Francisco

  • In-N-Out Burger in Fisherman’s Wharf – You haven’t been to California if you haven’t been to In-N-Out. Even though In-N-Out was originally from Southern California, you can find a few locations in Northern California too. There is only one In-N-Out in San Francisco, and it’s located in Fisherman’s Wharf. I recommend getting their Double-double with a side of animal-style fries.
  • Deli Board in SoMa – I did not get to visit this place, but I bookmarked it after seeing some rave reviews for their sandwiches on Reddit.
  • The Bird in SoMa – Great fried chicken burger with loaded tater tots and curly fries!
  • Sam’s Pizza & Burgers – One of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite burgers, which he says was one of his “top three in the world”. They are only open from 1 PM (Sun-Thu) or 2 PM (Fri-Sat).
San Francisco Itinerary - In-N-Out Burgers
In-N-Out Burgers

5. Just Some Nice Restaurants

Looking for a nice restaurant to wine and dine with a group of friends? These restaurants will not disappoint:

  • Terzo in Union Street – Mediterranian restaurant with a nice ambiance and really good service. They seem to change their menu around a little, but I enjoyed the Fava Beans flatbread, skirt steak, hummus, and roasted beets. Take note, they only accept cash or credit card that can be swiped. They cannot do contactless payments.
  • Kaiyo in Union Street – I really wish I could have tried this place, but they did not have any table for us on the night that we wanted to have dinner in the city 🥲. It’s a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant.
  • Abacá in Fisherman’s Wharf – This is a restaurant below our hotel Kimpton Alton. It is a contemporary Filipino-American restaurant, serving Filipino-inspired dishes like Wagyu Tapsilog, Bibingka pancakes, and Ube Mousse. I loved the Wagyu Tapsilog – the garlic fried rice was 👌🏻👌🏻👌🏻
  • Prubechu in Mission District – A trendy space in Mission service food from Guam. This comes highly recommended by a friend of mine, but it’s yet another restaurant that I missed due to our packed schedule in the city 🥲
  • Fable in Castro
San Francisco Itinerary - Abaca at Fisherman's Wharf
Abaca at Fisherman’s Wharf

6. Good Coffee

  • Coffee Movement in Chinatown or Richmond – I was traveling with a bunch of coffee connoisseurs and this place was a hit with them. The Dark cocoa cappuccino was tasty. And as an added benefit, the Chinatown location is only steps away from the San Francisco Cable Car Museum.
  • Blue Bottle Coffee – A famous coffee roaster originally from Oakland, the city across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. There are multiple locations in the city, but the most convenient one is probably the Union Square branch.
  • Graffeo Coffee Roasting Co – A famous coffee roaster at North Beach. Take note they don’t serve coffee, only roasted beans.
  • Flywheel Coffee in Haight-Ashbury
  • Ritual Coffee Roaster

7. Ice Cream!

  • Salt & Straw (Multiple locations in the city) – Salt & Straw is a popular ice cream store from Portland. They rotate their flavors every month, but also have a few permanent ones. My favorite permanent flavor was peach and blue cheese, an unlikely duo in my mind.
  • Bi-rite Creamery in Mission District – Some say this is the best ice cream in San Francisco. Their Ritual Coffee Toffee was indeed very delicious.

Where to Shop in and Around San Francisco

Shopping isn’t for everyone, but I feel whenever you’re in the US, you got to experience shopping here. Their customer-first attitude makes shopping such a delightful experience. There is also way more variety than other places in the world.

San Francisco Itinerary - Chalo at Westfield San Francisco
Chalo at Westfield San Francisco

Just make sure to watch out for the CA sales tax! In California, you’re subjected to an 8.5% sales tax every time you make a purchase. This sales tax is usually not included in the stated price and will be charged upon payment.

  • Groceries – I absolutely love going grocery shopping whenever I travel. It makes me feel like I’m a local. But grocery shopping in the US is definitely on another level. There are plenty of varieties and the shelves are well stocked. My favorite stores to visit in the US are Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
  • Clothing Brands – Here are a few clothing brands you need to check out while in town:
    • San Franpsycho – Good quality and comfortable clothing. The brand is also known for its involvement in the local community.
    • Everlane – I’ve always loved Everlane for many years, and they are headquartered in San Francisco. They don’t have many physical stores, but there is one in San Francisco in the mission district.
    • Vuori – The Lululemon competitor, headquartered in San Diego. They’re famous for their super soft and comfortable athleisure apparel – especially jogger pants and hoodies.
    • Old Navy – Great for kids’ clothes. Especially when they’re having their seasonal sales. I got so many shirts and shorts for my toddler for US$5 each, I practically bought his entire wardrobe for the next two years.
  • Chalo – Super cute SF-themed store at Westfield in San Francisco. I bought myself some of their goodies when I was there. Unfortunately, Westfield might be closing down soon, but Chalo is also available at SFO at gates E.
  • Target – This is not an SF-specific store, but it is a must-visit every time I’m in the US. Target is a department store carrying quality goods that are easy on the wallet.
  • Gilroy Premium Outlets – If you’re really serious about shopping, premium outlets are where you want to be. They usually carry current styles at discounted prices, not just items no one wanted from the previous season. It is really far from San Francisco though, about 1 hour+ drive south. Check out the brands at Gilroy.
  • Stanford Shopping Center – This is probably the most beautiful mall I’ve been to. They had all the popular American brands you can think of. My only gripe was that everything was closed by 7 pm, which didn’t give us much time to shop after work.

Notable Events in San Francisco

There are many exciting events happening around San Francisco all year round, but here are a few that I think are the most notable:

  • Chinese New Year Parade & Festival (February) – Chinese immigrants are a core part of what makes San Francisco what it is today. So, it is not surprising that the Chinese New Year parade is a big thing here. Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar and usually, it is at the end of January or early February.
  • Bay to Breakers (May) – An annual 12km running event, in which many participants will do so while wearing costumes. Usually, it happens on the third Sunday of May.
  • San Francisco Pride (June) – Usually, this happens on the last weekend in June. Please check the SF Pride website for the definitive date.
  • Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival (August) – One of the most famous indie music festivals in the country, usually taking place in early August.

Okay, that might have been one of the longest posts I’ve ever written on this blog. I hope you can see that I truly love my time in this city. And, I hope this helped your visit and I hope it gets you excited about visiting San Francisco.

As usual, please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or comments. Until next time! 👋🏻

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Filed under: Best Of, California, City Guides, USA

Written by Melissa

Hi there! 👋🏻 I'm the "Girl" in Girl Eat World. I love eating, traveling and sharing my travel experiences in this blog. During the day, I work as a designer in tech. More about me →

8 Comments

  1. rajesh says

    Your detailed itinerary and recommendations were incredibly helpful in planning my own trip to San Francisco.

  2. Deborah Gilbert says

    Wow….You did a great job covering San Fransisco, one of my favourite cities. I just moved from the Napa Valley area to South Carolina. My mom grew up in the San Fransisco area so we went there a lot. They have a great aquarium and the Presidio by the Golden Gate is serene and picturesque. We often rode the ferry from Sausilito to the Ferry building on Pier 41 in San Fransisco. Then spend the day in San Fransisco and ride the ferry back to Sausalito. That way you escape some of the Bay area traffic and it’s a fun ride. Loved your post.

  3. Rajkumar Ghosh says

    This is useful information. Thank you for sharing this great knowledge.

  4. Priyanka says

    Thank you for this comprehensive San Francisco travel guide! Your itinerary strikes the perfect balance between must-see landmarks and local experiences. As a first-time visitor, your insights are invaluable. Your blog has become my go-to resource for planning an unforgettable trip to the city by the bay

  5. This article is a goldmine for anyone curious about San Francisco living! The insights on day-to-day realities provide a genuine perspective. From the iconic landmarks to the unique challenges, it’s a comprehensive guide. I appreciate the honesty about the cost of living and the vibrant cultural scene.

  6. Sara Peterson says

    I just moved to San Francisco for work! It’s my first time in the city, so this guide is super helpful for me! My apartment is getting the carpets cleaned, so I think the first thing on my list will be to go get some food at The Bird in SoMa! Thanks for this great guide!

  7. I’m so excited to visit San Francisco! This itinerary and travel guide is perfect for first-time visitors.

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