I spent so much time trying to perfect my San Francisco itinerary. I didn’t want to fly over 20 hours traveling to a destination, and not make the most of it, ya know? Thank you Perth for being the most isolated city in the world.
Maybe I went a tad overboard in my deep-dive of research. I found out that the fog in SF is affectionately named Karl and that it is so passé to call the city San Fran. Just say SF or The City, for the muggles playing at home. Nonetheless, amidst all of this “good to know” information, I crafted my ultimate San Francisco itinerary to share with you.
San Francisco was the first stop on our West Coast adventure, and it was the perfect introduction to the US. I loved the beautiful vistas along the waterfront and the colourful, picturesque Victorian houses everywhere you look. I turned my boyfriend into an Instagram Boyfriend here. If not in San Francisco, then where else? I spent 5 days here and I think it’s a city that deserves at least 3 full days or more to explore.
Getting into San Francisco
The Bay Area is served mainly by two airports, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK). Most international flights arrive at SFO, like mine did. We chose to catch the BART rapid rail downtown. This was the most economical option for us. The cost of the BART depends on how many stops you go, and it set us back $9.65 USD one way per person to get downtown. Other options for getting into the city include taking an Uber or taxi. These choices are inevitably more expensive if you’re travelling solo or in a couple.
I won’t forget the well-meaning gentleman who told us “alllllllll the way up that hill” when we arrived at Powell Street Station and were asking for directions to our hotel. With backpacks and two large rolling luggages in tow, it was only fitting that our introduction to SF was a long walk up an incline greater than 45 degrees. Definitely not the last hill we traversed in San Francisco… Honestly, San Franciscans must set the incline on their treadmills to the highest setting just to feel like they’re walking outside.
Getting around San Francisco
San Francisco is a small city. It’s 7 x 7 miles in fact (ahem, the metric system is the best system so approximately 11 x 11km).
Because of its small size, it’s a city you could conquer by mostly walking if you’re staying near the city centre. The step count on my Apple Health App happily reached new heights while there. And has gradually plummeted since returning home and I regained my natural form as a baked potato. If you plan on walking everywhere, just make sure you account for those mountainous hills.
Truthfully, I didn’t use the public transportation system MUNI much while in SF, but I hear it’s pretty great. With how fun-sized the city is, we took an Uber whenever we were tired of walking and were always surprised at how inexpensive and convenient it was.
The iconic cable car system also regularly zips around town with hoards of tourists on board. To be real, I didn’t bother riding the cable car after finding out that a single ride was $7.00 USD per ticket. I did the maths in taco currency, and that’s at least two tacos for a ride. Easy pass for me!
Where to Stay in San Francisco
San Francisco is a notoriously expensive city for accommodation (and err, I guess for everything else too). I couldn’t find anything less than $150 – 200 USD for a private double room, whether it be at a hostel, hotel or Airbnb. Most affordable bed and breakfasts or hotels offer what they delightfully call a European experience, which basically boils down to private rooms with shared bathrooms. Is that a European thing? I’m not sure.
Neighbourhoods to stay in San Francisco
Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill and the Marina district are quintessential areas to stay for first time visitors to the city. There’s also likely cheaper accomodation options available in neighbourhoods like Hayes Valley, Haight-Ashbury and the Mission. And these areas are by no means on the outskirts of the 7 x 7 miles.
A Neighbourhood to Avoid…
I’d advise to look elsewhere from the Tenderloin if possible. Geographically located on the border of Union Square, the Tenderloin is a gritty area of SF with a damaged reputation.
I’ve had a couple of friends stay in the Tenderloin while in San Francisco. Their visits were largely uneventful but none of them recommended staying in the area. In fact, the concierge at our hotel crossed out the Tenderloin on our map on our first day, marking it as a no-go zone. I’ll just direct you to this reddit thread here if you need any more convincing. Many travellers stay in the Tenderloin without any incident (there’s a popular hostel located there), so don’t fret if you’ve already locked yourself in to stay in that area.
Where I Stayed in San Francisco
We ended up staying at The Golden Gate Hotel near Union Square in the Lower Nob Hill area. Out decision may have been low-key influenced by the raving Yelp reviews of the hotel cat, Pip. Pip’s likeness was featured everywhere from hotel business cards to the free tin of chocolates left on our bed on check-in. Pip was always working overtime, seen trawling around the hotel whenever we got back from a day’s activities.
We booked a small private room with a shared bathroom at the Golden Gate Hotel. The place is definitely modest. However, the hotel was clean and we had no problem using the bathroom when we wanted to. A free simple breakfast was served everyday and homemade cookies were available for tea if you were hanging around during the afternoon. I feel like I found a gem in the Golden Gate Hotel.
San Francisco Itinerary Day 1: Union Square, Chinatown and North Beach
Union Square is the mecca for shopping in San Francisco. Honestly, I thought we had so much choice in Australia but it doesn’t compare to the more of everything in North America. Capitalism at its finest. I even found walking around a supermarket an enjoyable experience, being in the vicinity of things I’d only seen on TV or on the internet. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups! Hot Cheetos! Eggos! I love my snacks. And yes, the hype surrounding Hot Cheetos is real.
If you’re looking for a full-on shopping experience, then Union Square is the place to be. Especially if you’re a foreign tourist, and you’d be wow’d just by walking into Target, Macy’s or Bloomingdales just like I was.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in North America. We had fun wandering about Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. I find most Chinatowns around the world including the one in SF very kitschy and outdated, not conforming to modern aesthetics. I think that’s just apart of the Chinatown charm.
Our hotel receptionist told us that Chinatown isn’t a great place anymore if you’re looking for an authentic Chinese feast. Apparently Richmond and Outer Sunset are better places to venture to for that, where many Chinese families have migrated to.
However, there are two places in Chinatown I’d recommend stopping by for snacks. Big fan of snacks, over here. The first is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. You get to witness Asian aunties and uncles working on griddles to create fortune cookies. They even give out free samples. And not to play to Asian stereotypes, but I love a free sample. The second place to stop by is the Golden Gate Bakery. This bakery has a cult-like following in San Francisco. Someone’s even created a website advising whether the shop is open for business, since opening hours can be inconsistent. I tested out their famous egg custard tart, and it’s definitely legit. Warm, flaky outer with a soft, creamy inner.
A little further up from Chinatown, North Beach is known to be the “Little Italy” neighbourhood of San Francisco. It’s also a neighbourhood with an inordinate amount of strip clubs. I mean, whatever floats your boat! I wonder how the two came to be in the one spot.
There’s so much delicious looking Italian food in the area, that it’s difficult to choose a dinner spot. North Beach is definitely worth a meal and a wander. We ate dinner at Golden Boy Pizza on one of our first nights in San Francisco. It’s a quick counter service place which sells pizza by the slice. I remember being mildly confused about tipping practices since it was counter service and had to ask a fellow patron what to do. If you’re looking for a whole pie, then Tony’s Pizza Napoletana seems to be a favourite.
San Francisco Itinerary Day 2: Ferry Building Marketplace, Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito
Ferry Building Marketplace
Sometimes I get suspicious of popular attractions and think they’re a total tourist trap (cable car system, I’m looking at you). However, in my research of things to do in San Francisco, visiting the Ferry Building Marketplace always seemed like a highly rated activity by locals.
Prepare to feel a little bougie when you walk in to the undercover market. The Ferry Building Marketplace is the destination for artisanal cheeses, premium olive oil and beautiful organic, handcrafted bread. Don’t expect a roadside market where you can barter for your goods, is all I’m saying. We had a grand time drinking coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee and eating delicious ice cream from Humphry Slocombe (after deciding that it is never too early in the morning for ice cream). The Hog Island Oyster Company is a popular place for fresh oysters (duh!) or a more substantial meal. Don’t forget to stand outside on the dock to take in the sight of the Bay Bridge while you’re there too.
Biking the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito
It sounds cliche to say, but biking across the Golden Gate Bridge was a highlight of our trip. And full disclosure, it was the first time I had hopped on a bike in over 10 years. So glad “like riding a bike” is a saying for a reason. I was a little fearful that I was going to cause a collision on the bridge!
Bike riding over the Golden Gate Bridge is a very popular half-day activity, with several bike rental companies populating the Fisherman’s Wharf area. We went with and would recommend Basically Free Bike Rental. You get to spend the price of your bike rental as credit at the Sports Basement, conveniently located en route of your bike ride from the bike rental store to the Golden Gate Bridge. We spent ages at the Sports Basement, going back and forth between Patagonia gear and Converse shoes. I was skeptical that it was a scam at first, but it’s very much “basically free”. We felt like we robbed the place sneaking out of Sports Basement with Adidas slides and snacks for some small change. Don’t forget to book your bike rental online first as well to get 20% off.
Sausalito is a quaint seaside town across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. We biked down into Sausalito and spent an hour or two there. Having spent too long deliberating at Sports Basement, we couldn’t linger around Sausalito too long before the last ferry back into SF. We browsed the souvenir shops on the boardwalk and ate an ice cream the size of my head before heading back. A perfect day it was.
San Francisco Itinerary Day 3: Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, Alcatraz Tour and Lombard Street
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 is tourist trap galore, but still a must-do in my mind if you’re from out of town.
One of the most popular things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf is to eat a bowl of clam chowder at Boudin’s Bakery. Clam chowder is not really a thing in Australia, so it just conjures up memories of The Simpsons from my childhood. My boyfriend Kavin proclaimed that he isn’t really a soup person (is chowder even soup?!) when I suggested to share a bowl, so I regrettably skipped it. I even contemplated buying a tin of clam chowder from Boudin’s Bakery to take home to Australia. Desperate times, eh. Anyway, don’t make the same mistake I did and just eat the bread bowl of clam chowder while you’re there!
Musee Mecanique is an old-school arcade located on Fisherman’s Wharf. You can find love testers, skee ball and many other games from the mostly 20th century collection. It’s a fun place to pass a few hours, with games only costing a quarter or so per turn. I think my inner 13 year old self was secretly elated playing with the arm wrestling machine seen on The Princess Diaries.
Pier 39 is so proudly kitschy. I feel like attractions haven’t reached next-level touristy until you spot a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. there. That, or a Hard Rock Cafe. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see Forrest Gump’s restaurant spawn at Pier 39. In any case, Pier 39 has a very family friendly atmosphere with merry-go-rounds and several familiar dining options.
We mainly journeyed to Pier 39 to check out the sea lions. Watching the sea lions lay about in the sun is total mood.
My boyfriend was initially hesitant in wanting to visit Alcatraz, but I didn’t want to miss the Tripadvisor number one rated attraction in San Francisco. I get really bad FOMO (as evidenced by my clam chowder FOMO).
I’m glad we went on an Alcatraz tour because we both enjoyed it so much. The short 10 to 15 minute cruise there gave us great views of Alcatraz and San Francisco. Trust me and opt for the free audio guide when you land on shore. Not going to lie, I’m not usually an audio guide type of person. I distinctly remember feeling unenthused listening to the audio guide at The Colosseum. At one of the most iconic and historical landmarks in the world of all places! However, I was entertained throughout the whole audio guide for Alcatraz. I enjoyed listening to previous inhabitants of Alcatraz and their different insights to the place.
Buy your tickets for the Alcatraz tour from the official website at least a month out from your trip, as tickets can sell out closer to the date. Resellers often hawk overpriced tickets to unwitting tourists online through other websites.
I had a tough time deciding whether to include Lombard Street in this itinerary. In the end I figured I had to because of how iconic this crooked, steep street is. It’s a place to witness strange human behaviour too with people blocking traffic and traffic blocking traffic, all in the name of a good photo.
Have more time in San Francisco?
I knowww, I’ve really only scratched the surface of what San Francisco has to offer. We stayed in the city for five days and there was still so much more left to uncover.
This three day San Francisco itinerary is only suggested as a starter guide, suitable for first-time visitors like we were. There are many more attractions and things to do to add to your San Francisco itinerary if you’re visiting for 4 or 5 days or even a week.
More things to do in San Francisco
- Alllll the museums: San Francisco has a plethora of museums on offer including MOMA, de Young Museum and the Exploratorium. They can be quite cost prohibitive, with entry fees hovering around the $25 USD mark. I’m sure if we had more time and were less cheap, we would have visited at least one or two.
- The Painted Ladies: Fun fact time. My mum once told me that they named me after Michelle (aka the Olsen twins) from Full House. I find it interesting that a new Chinese Malaysian immigrant to Australia could even reference, let alone name their baby, after the show. That speaks to how far reaching and popular Full House was back in the day. The Painted Ladies are colourful Victorian houses that line a street in San Francisco and are famous for being shown in the title sequence of Full House.
- Mission District: This is a neighbourhood that Kavin and I actually spent an afternoon in while in San Francisco. Eat the best burritos and tacos that the Bay Area has to offer here and pose in front of the many murals dotted around the Mission. We ate at La Taqueria, one of the most popular eateries in the area.
- Haight Ashbury: This is another cool neighbourhood to explore. Home to vintage shopping and small boutiques, Haight Ashbury would be the place to go once you’re tired of the mass produced consumerism of Union Square. It’s also known as the birthplace of the 1960s counterculture movement.
- Muir Woods: Although not technically in San Francisco, Muir Woods is a short one to two hour day trip north of the city. It’s home to a beautiful, coastal redwoods forest with a few different hiking options for varying fitness levels. It seems like the place to go when you’re yearning for nature over the big city life.
What are your favourite things to do in San Francisco? Comment down below.
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