Headed to California and looking for the perfect San Francisco itinerary? Keep scrolling for the ultimate 3 days in San Francisco! This guide will not only tell you what to do in San Francisco in 3 days, but where to stay, where to eat (top restaurants and sweet treats), how to get around, and all my favorite/unmissable activities.
San Francisco is colorful, vibrant, and bohemian. And a million other things. It’s an interesting mix of first-wave gentrifiers, Tesla-driving techies, start-up entrepreneurs, and old-world immigrants. You could EASILY spend an entire week here and still find more to do.
But you’ve only got 3 days? Don’t fret. We’ll squeeze a lot in.
Looking for a bombass itinerary for San Francisco? I’m your girl. After reading this behemoth of a blog post (really tho – I’m known to be exceptionally wordy), you’ll have not only fully planned out your 3 days in San Francisco, but learn where to get the best egg tart, best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and exactly how to dress to beat the fog.
I’ve been living in the Bay Area for over 6 years now (which is absolutely INSANE), and have grown to love the grittiness of San Francisco. Sure, some parts are rougher than others, but there’s just so much charm and whimsy to the city if you know where to look.
Honestly though, cramming everything I really want you to do into a short 3 days in San Francisco was pretty damn tough. If you’ve got more time, check out this massive post of things to do in SF – it’s essentially a huge bucket list for the entire city (with more than 150+ places). I’ve still got a few to cross off myself!
If this is your first time planning a trip to San Francisco, be sure to read THIS. It has all my tips for any first-time visitor. 🙂 Also, be sure not to miss these iconic SF experiences:
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Coit Tower
- Cable Car Ride
- Palace of Fine Arts
- Ferry Building
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Lands End
Yes, some of them are not really my cup of tea, (Fisherman’s Wharf, cough cough), but if this is your first time to SF, you’ll probably wanna make a stop at the above San Francisco attractions. Like I said before, they really are iconic to the city!
Although the city is small (a mere 7×7 miles), there’s absolutely TONS to do here. And while you most definitely won’t be able to see it all in one day, let alone 3 days in San Francisco, booking yourself on a tour or using a hop-on, hop-off bus will make transportation that much easier. Because let’s face it, the public transportation in the city isn’t all that great (I use Uber whenever I can because surprisingly, it’s sometimes the cheaper option).
But don’t worry, we’ll get into way more detail about all that a bit later.
Psst → If you like stunning views and scrumptious food like I do, plan to visit North Beach (oh the pizza and cannolis), Crissy Field, the Lyon Street Steps, and Coit Tower during your 3 days in San Francisco. That combination is probably one of my favorites on this San Francisco itinerary.
Before we get into the exact 3 day San Francisco itinerary, we need to have a quick chat. About a few things, actually:
- First of all, never call San Francisco “San Fran” or “Frisco”. Just don’t — it’s a sure fire way to piss off a local. I promise. Call it SF or “the city” → those are the only two acceptable nicknames.
- Parts of the city are downright dirty and a bit seedy. It’s all part of SF’s charm. Take it or leave it. ?
- San Francisco is expensive, there’s not many ways around it. Although there are a ton of cheapie food options that don’t break the bank. Mmm Souvla.
Weather/When to Visit San Francisco:
Close your eyes and think of California. Do warm, sunny beach days and beautifully tanned lifeguards come to mind? Ha – not here in San Francisco! This is Northern California!
For starters, the temperature doesn’t really change too much throughout the year. Sure, we have our warm days, but the weather is pretty moderate and consistent. And Karl (the fog) likes to come out and play, a lot.
- There’s SO much fog here, we even affectionately named him Karl – and yes, he even has an IG account!
To keep it super easy, just expect it to be around 60°F, partly cloudy, and a little breezy any given day of the week.
But here’s the thing – it could be sunny and warm in one area, and then BAM, you walk a few neighborhoods over, and it’s as chilly as can be. SF’s just weird like that. And kinda annoying since you probably don’t wanna keep half your wardrobe with you at all times.
To help figure out the best month to spend your 3 days in San Francisco, here’s a brief overview of our somewhat confusing “seasons”:
- Fall: clear, sunny, and warm (my top pick)
- Winter: rainy and chilly
- Summer: foggy and wildly unpredictable
- Spring: practically non-existent
“Summer in SF”: June, July, and August
Yes, those quotes are there for a reason. What they say is true (and when I say “they” I really mean Mark Twain and every single local): “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
Really though, you’ll wanna pack a jacket. In summer.
If you’re planning your 3 days in San Francisco from June through August, you kinda never really know what you’re gonna get. The weather changes drastically from one day to the next, and even within the same day sometimes.
For example, you could wake up to complete cloud cover/fog, and then as lunch time rolls around, it may burn off and warm up quite a bit. Or the opposite can happen — it’s warm and sunny in the morning, and then a thick layer of fog creeps in. Yuck! Go away Karl!
Best to have zero expectations, and just be prepared for change in temps. Always.
Fall: September and October
Wooo – finally some warmth! This is when you’ll see locals sunbathing in the parks, enjoying cocktails outside, and wearing shorts/skirts. Yes, we own them!
San Francisco is it’s warmest in late summer to early fall, typically late August to September/October. Can someone say Indian Summers (late summers)? And thankfully, there’s rarely any fog in the fall, making it the perfect time to spot the Golden Gate Bridge.
But note when I say warm, I really mean “warm”. Like mid-70s. It hardly gets truly hot hot hot here. Although we do unfortunately get heat waves on occasion (which is brutal because no one in the city has AC).
Spring: April and May
Spring is kinda short in SF, as we typically have two months or so of warm, sunny weather, and then the fog rolls in. And stays until September.
You can expect temps to be in the mid-60s during the day, cooling off into the 50s at night.
Winter: November through March
If you’re expecting a warm Californian winter, think again. November through March is the rainy season in San Francisco, although it’s typically light rain and there’s hardly any thunderstorms/downpours here.
But this light, drizzly rain is super annoying to walk in — especially if you’re sightseeing, so make sure to come prepared with a (warmish) rain jacket!
The first time I visited SF as an adult (about 10 years ago – a few years before we moved here), I was astonished by the weather. In the worst way possible. We visited in December and it was chilly and raining. In CALIFORNIA! I couldn’t believe I had to wear my winter jacket the whole week. To say I was upset is a massive understatement. Don’t be me – understand the weather’s drastically different than what you probably imagine California to be.
What to Wear in San Francisco:
Yes, the microclimates are a real thing over here. If it’s ever too chilly in one area, head 10-15 minutes in another direction and you might just find some sun! The weather is wild over here. And because of that, you’ll always wanna dress in layers.
Tie a sweater around your waist, throw a light jacket in your tote, and/or wear a pashmina scarf (to later be used as a thin blanket if need be).
And once the sun goes down, say goodbye to any semblance of warmth. Warm summer nights are not a thing over here (like they are in New York City), so you’ll need to bundle up for dinner and any other night time activities.
To be honest, I’m always cold and always underdressed for the weather. I’m typically coming from work a few miles south which always feels at least 10 degrees warmer. You’d think I’d learn my lesson by now…
Psst- just bring a pair of jeans, tee shirts, light sweaters/cardigans, a skirt or two (if you’re coming in fall), some rad light jackets, and you’ll be good to go.
How to Get to San Francisco
You’ll wanna fly into San Francisco International Airport. And thankfully, since SFO is a major international airport, you shouldn’t have a hard time finding non-stop flights from other large airports. For reference, my family is usually able to find airfare for ~$300 from JFK, although it really depends on how flexible you can be.
→ Hot Tip: When searching for airfare, you can also check the fares into Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) in Santa Clara (an hour away) AND Oakland International Airport in the East Bay (30 minutes). While both are potentially further away (because you’ll undoubtedly run into some traffic), the cost savings may be worth it! And they’re both typically much quieter than SFO…
San Francisco is in the middle of oh so much in California! And it’s only a few hours drive from other major cities/California hotspots, including:
- San Jose: 1 hour | ~50 miles
- Sacramento: 1 ½ hours | ~ 90 miles
- Big Sur: 3 hours | ~150 miles
- San Luis Obispo: 3 ½ hours | ~230 miles
- Mendocino: 3 ½ hours | ~150 miles
- Los Angeles: 6 hours | ~400 miles
If you’re coming from other areas on the California coast, do note there’ll probably be some traffic, so plan accordingly. 🙂
→ Spending 3 days in San Francisco during a much longer Pacific Coast Highway road trip?! Check out all my favorite PCH stops right here!
Getting to San Francisco from SFO
Most visitors to San Francisco don’t realize this, but the airport isn’t IN the actual city itself! SFO is roughly 15 minutes south of the city, in a town aptly named South San Francisco (I know it’s confusing, but SSF isn’t part of the city).
But thankfully, it’s pretty quick and easy to get to downtown SF using public transportation or a ride sharing app like Uber/Lyft!
If you wanna avoid all the potentially horrendous traffic, you’ll wanna take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to get into downtown San Francisco. It’s not hard, but can be a bit confusing if you’ve never done it before (don’t wanna get lost before your 3 days in San Francisco even start!).
Follow the steps below and you’ll be in SF before you know it:
- Follow the signs for AirTrain (free tram service to all terminals)
- Take either the Red or Blue AirTrain line
- Get off at Garage G and BART stop in International Terminal G
- Buy your ticket ($9.65 one way or $19.30 roundtrip to downtown San Francisco) and board the train to San Francisco/Antioch
Psst: San Francisco is working to move SFO to a Clipper-only fare payment system, which means you’ll need to pay an extra $3 to get a reusable card. But you’ll be able to use it for the duration of your San Francisco itinerary, so no major harm done! Just don’t lose it!
Uber and Lyft are pretty popular for getting from SFO to the city, and the fares are quite reasonable. If you have three or more people in your party, it may just make sense financially to choose one of these ride-sharing apps over public transit (considering BART is almost $10 per person).
It typically costs about $30-$40 to get into the city, depending on the neighborhood you’re headed to. And you can save even more money by choosing “Uber Pool” if it’s just you and one other person.
How to Get Around San Francisco
If you plan your days right, you can get around the city by walking. Yeah, you’ll definitely be walking quite a few miles during your 3 days in San Francisco, but hey, that just means you can stuff more burritos and dim sum into your mouth, right?
Just beware – those hills are something else! Locals typically know which streets to avoid and how to meander through the city bypassing the intense vertical inclines, but I’ve done the hills – they’re not soooo bad. Just wear comfy shoes! 🙂
I used to be pretty intimidated by the public transit in San Francisco. It just never seemed straightforward enough to me! I’m used to zipping around New York City via subway, and all the lines just make sense, no matter how many there are!
Up until a few years ago, I would take Uber everywhere in San Francisco (true story). Then it became kind of expensive, so I finally learned how to get around via public transit. Kind of, haha. I still rely on Ubers if I’m only traveling short distances in the city.
It’s still kinda confusing and definitely not the best system in the world, but it’s decent enough I guess. I’ll try to explain it as best I can 🙂
Muni is SF’s bus and metro line running throughout the city. But there are not just buses and subways like you’d think. There’s buses and trains (the metro), and also cable cars and streetcars (which I’ll explain a bit more below). The buses run above ground and on streets, while the Muni Metro runs on rails and sometimes goes underground.
Save some money (50 cents per ride!) by downloading the MuniMobile App and purchasing your tickets there.
Cable Cars and Street Cars (MUNI)
Cable cars are San Francisco’s historic transit cars, and they can be oh so much fun (despite not running everywhere). The cable cars are only located downtown, and run on three lines: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California Street.
→ Local Tip: Sure, you can actually get around parts of the city by cable car, but it’s not really the best way to explore the neighborhoods. I recommend adding it as a fun activity to your San Francisco itinerary. For the best views in the city, you’ll wanna take the Powell-Hyde line; jump on board near Market and Powell (you can’t miss it), take in the SF Bay and Alcatraz, and it’ll end near Ghirardelli Square.
The city recently nixed the F-Line streetcar that ran up and down Market Street (all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf), so that’s not an option anymore.
Transportation Tip: If you’re ever unsure of schedules and/or routes, you can always call 511. Don’t be shy! There’s also specific Muni apps that have maps, routes, and times so you never get lost! Be sure to download them in advance as some metro spots are underground and have no cell service.
Like I mentioned earlier, I still take Ubers from time to time. Because quite honestly, the buses can be annoying and sometimes you still have to walk a bunch to get to where you’re going!
Honestly, driving around SF kinda sucks. The streets are super hilly, full of one-way roads, and can be a tad confusing if you’ve never driven in a big city before.
And on top of all that, parking’s a bit of a gamble – sometimes you’ll get lucky, but sometimes you’ll need to put your car in an over-priced garage (spending unnecessary money).
If you wanna head out on any day trips or weekend trips from San Francisco (or even cross the bridge into Marin or Sausalito), I highly suggest renting your car before or after you plan to spend your days in the city.
Tourist Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus
If you’re planning to spend time all over the city, it might be worth it to bite the bullet and get the Hop-On Hop-Off Ticket (it’s less than $50). The bus stops at over 20 locations, letting you explore at your own pace and getting back on from any stop. The bus will even cross the famed Golden Gate Bridge!
Most San Francisco city tours (including the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus) visit the following iconic city hotspots: Fisherman’s Wharf, Washington Square, Ferry Building, Embarcadero Center, Union Square, Painted Ladies/Alamo Square, Haight Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, Palace of Fine Arts, Marina Neighborhood, Lombard Street, Chinatown, and more.
With all your transportation taken care of and early morning starts, it’s possible to see a good chunk of this list in just 2-3 days in San Francisco, depending on your pace and how much you stick around at each destination.
Other public transport you may hear about:
BART runs primarily between the East Bay and San Francisco, as well connecting the northern parts of the SF Bay Peninsula to the city itself (including the airport). You won’t really need to take BART if you’re not visiting the East Bay, although it is a good option for getting into the city from SFO as mentioned earlier.
HOWEVER, if you have more than 3 days in San Francisco, I highly recommend heading to Berkeley and Oakland! Two of my favorite day trips from San Francisco, and the food is oh so good.
CAL-TRAIN connects the SF Bay Peninsula (south of SF) to the city of San Francisco. There’s only two stops in San Francisco: 22nd Street and 4th & King (AT&T Park), so if you’re staying put in the city (and not visiting the peninsula), you don’t need to mess with the cal-train.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
To be completely honest, we haven’t stayed at too many hotels in the city. I mean, why would we? We’re so close, haha. Although we have done a few staycations at the Intercontinental SF and Hotel Carlton (not in the best area but around the block from cronuts at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse).
→ lots more San Francisco treats and sweets here!
Where you stay will greatly impact your 3 days in San Francisco. I can’t stress this enough – all the neighborhoods are drastically different with whole different vibes.
I recommend staying in the following neighborhoods: Hayes Valley, North Beach, Pacific Heights, the Marina, and Nob Hill. There’s tons of great restaurants over here, and these neighborhoods are pretty central to lots going on.
AirBnB Recs in San Francisco:
- Perfect Haven near Golden Gate Park
- Sunny Mission Dolores/Noe/Bernal Studio
- Private Mid-century Modern Suite in Haight-Ashbury
- Picturesque Victorian in the Castro
Hotel Recs in San Francisco:
However, if you wanna stay where most tourists stay (but why?!), note that most hotels are either in the Fisherman’s Wharf area (ugh!) or near Union Square. Not my choice though.
The one’s I’ve listed below are all kinda hip and funky, and not just a boring old hotel. I tend to enjoy boutique-y type hotels instead of classic ones, so if you’re on the same page, check these out below:
- Hotel Vitale (a Joie de Vivre boutique hotel right on the waterfront)
- The Proper Hotel (retro and eclectic with inspired touches of the Old World)
- Hotel Kabuki (a chic, beautiful boutique hotel in Japantown with zen-like public spaces)
Safety in San Francisco
Yeah, yeah – I hear you. Everyone coming to SF is always so worried about safety. And I get it – there’s probably a (much) higher number of homeless over here than you’re used to. And it’s a big city problem that unfortunately isn’t going away any time soon.
You’ll see “tent cities” in certain areas, and just a lot of filth and even human feces on the ground.
A good deal of these people are either addicted to drugs and/or are battling mental illness. It’s honestly really sad and depressing when you actually take time to think about all these underlying issues, but please don’t let them deter you from visiting San Francisco.
Most of the time, they’re harmless; asking for some money for a burger or just keeping to themselves.
Use the same precautions and safety tips as you would in any big city around the world. Don’t flash expensive jewelry/electronics, keep your bag close to your body, and be aware of your surroundings. If you’re looking for more safety tips, I’ve written an entire post on the subject!
→ TONS of safety tips right here (geared towards solo female travelers, but applicable for anyone!)
If you’re extra worried, avoid the Tenderloin (although there’s good food there!). Union Square isn’t the prettiest either, so stay away unless you really wanna go shopping (but honestly, why? There’s so many better things to do with 3 days in San Francisco).
Additional Tips for Your 3 Day San Francisco Itinerary
- Although the city is pretty small and compact, I highly suggest planning out your 3 days in San Francisco in advance. I mean, you can kinda just wing it and explore the neighborhoods, I guess, but you’ll miss a lot of good stuff!
- I’m not in love with ALL of San Francisco, so just know this San Francisco itinerary is sending you to my favorite spots. For the record, the Fisherman’s Wharf area, Pier 39, and Union Square are tourist traps – not much culture and filled with crowds.
- You’ll never be able to see the entire city with just 3 days in San Francisco, and there’s no need to rush it. Take it all in – there’s so many hidden gems and secret spots to explore.
And now, FINALLY, what you’ve come here for – the perfect 3 day San Francisco itinerary! Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll stop rambling and get right to it!
Psst: This San Francisco itinerary is rather fast paced, so if you’d like a little more time to relax (cocktails, anyone?!), plan to spend either 4 or 5 days in San Francisco instead. I’ve included all the iconic must-do’s in SF on the 3-day plan below, as well as additional activities beyond that if you’ve got more time (you lucky duck you!).
Here’s exactly how to start your 3 days in San Francisco:
A Local’s San Francisco Itinerary
Day 1 of 3 Days in San Francisco
The first day of this San Francisco itinerary will take us to colorful mosaic stairways, all around Golden Gate Park and other woodsy areas, a super eclectic flower-power neighborhood, and of course the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. And some other favorites of mine.
Stop #1: 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Start off your San Francisco itinerary with something super creative and a bit different – the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps! I mean, where else have you seen a staircase of mosaics?! If you look closely you’ll notice the design starts with the sea at the bottom, and turns into the stars and night sky up top. The steps were built by the community which makes them even more special. 🙂
Make sure you climb the stairs to Grand View Park (there’s 163 steps so a bit of an early morning workout!) for gorgeous views of the Pacific and Golden Gate Park. I’m kinda obsessed with this spot and always bring visitors here (and they’re amazed each and every time).
Local Tip: There’s another (just as colorful) set of stairs only a few blocks away. Walk on over to the Hidden Garden Steps if you have a thing for mosaic staircases (like I do). There’s actually a whole bunch of beautiful mosaic steps in the San Francisco — here’s all of them!
And if you’re feeling thirsty and swoon at intricate latte art (like I do), make sure you walk the few blocks over to HOME cafe. The colorburst birthday cake lattes are super instagrammable, and perfect for some early morning caffeine.
Stop #2: All Around Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is HUGE, and many are surprised to learn it’s actually about 20% larger than New York’s wildly famous Central Park! Go for a stroll, find the bison paddock, and check off some SF attractions.
You may want to explore the Japanese Tea Gardens for some impeccable architecture, the Cal Academy for some hands-on science-y stuff, or the Conservatory of Flowers for some, well, you guessed it, flowers! If you’re looking for some grub to fuel your hungry stomach, stop by the Sam’s Chowder Mobile for a lobster roll and/or some creamy clam chowder (best on a cool San Francisco day).
- Psst → Golden Gate Park is not near the Golden Gate Bridge, so don’t expect to see bridge views here. We’ll be headed for those later, promise! 🙂
Because of the park’s size, there’s obviously a ton to do here! If you have more than 3 days in San Francisco, you can easily visit the park and all its attractions multiple times.
BUT if you only have a few hours allotted to Golden Gate Park in your San Francisco itinerary, you’ll wanna pick and choose your favorites below. You can do it all, but note it’ll probably take you the better portion of a day, so you’ll have to drop some other things off your SF itinerary.
Here are my favorite things to in Golden Gate Park:
- de Young Museum: Fine arts in a dramatic copper facade? What could be better? There’s usually a bunch of special exhibits (I once visited when the whole place was decked out in flowers!), but the permanent exhibits are pretty cool, too. Whatever you do, don’t miss the FREE views of the city from the Hamon Observation Tower! Open to everyone, even if you don’t have a ticket (just follow the signs upstairs). Check out the intriguing Turrell Skyspace exhibit outside, too.
- Japanese Tea Gardens: Nice day and wanna stay outside? Say hello to the koi fish and sip some tea at the Japanese Tea Gardens! There’s a bunch of pagodas resembling the real stuff in Japan, all nestled between lush gardens and horticulture. It’s not huge, but so well maintained you really feel the traditional Japanese culture here. And make sure to have some mochi!
- Conservatory of Flowers: A Victorian-era glass greenhouse with more than 2,000 plants and flowers! Whoa! Tons of biodiversity. Make sure to check out the lily pad room and the carnivorous plants. Oh — and the orchids; they’re beautiful! It really feels like you’re walking through a jungle at times! And if you don’t wanna pay, check out the grassy area outside – it’s typically filled with colorful flowers.
- California Academy of Sciences (Cal Academy): If you’re a science buff you’ve got to get yourself over to the Cal Academy – what us locals call it. It’s not just a natural history museum, but also an aquarium (with an albino alligator and lots of jellies) and a planetarium (with showings every hour). Promise me you won’t miss the tropical rainforest in the dome (it’s really cool!) and the living roof!
- Dutch Windmill: Spending your 3 days in San Francisco in early Spring? Come to the Dutch Windmill – the tulips are in full bloom meaning it’s the best time to visit! A great place for photos and to just chill out on the grass for a bit.
- Bison Baddock: Yup, there’s real-life bison living in Golden Gate Park. And no, they weren’t randomly placed here, haha. They were brought to San Francisco (here in GGP in particular) in 1891 when the species was close to extinction. And guess what they did? Repopulated! Over 100 calves were born in the captive breeding program over here. Woo! To be honest, they’re pretty lazy and don’t move around much, so don’t expect a whole lotta action over here.
- Stow Lake: Rent a paddle boat or a rowboat and get out onto the lake! There’s even a waterfall here! Best on a warm San Francisco day. Such a fun date idea if you’re crafting your 3 day San Francisco itinerary with your partner or bestie! Still on my SF bucket list!
Stop #3: Haight Ashbury Neighborhood
Get ready to get your hippy on, because The Haight was historically home to famous singers like Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix in the 1960’s. Expect some major flower power vibes over here!
We love strolling along Haight Street, checking out the bizarre although brilliant treasures found at boutiques scattered around. Don’t miss the extravagant hats at Goorin Bros, vivid tie-dye apparel at Love on Haight, and plenty of spooky taxidermy at Love to Death.
Look up and you’ll see the dangling legs above Piedmont Boutique, which are pretty iconic to the neighborhood. Just a tip, if you can’t find it, it’s the shop with a giant pair of saucy legs hanging out the window!
And if you’re into thrifting, you’re in luck. The Upper Haight is arguably one of the best places to do so; you’ll just need a bit of patience.
Stop #4: Lyon Street Steps
Next up – the Lyon Street Steps, one of my favorite spots in all of SF, and a must on any outdoor lovers San Francisco itinerary!
With over 300 steps, this hefty climb is a strenuous workout that’ll leave your legs aching and heart racing. Once you’ve reached the top, you’ll be rewarded with the most marvelous city views. And psst – it’s really not toooo hard, and you’ll earn your snack break!
Or you can just park at the top and get the views without doing all the hard work (just start on Broadway instead). Don’t say I never shared my secrets. :p
No matter how you make it here, you’ll see the Palace of Fine Arts and the Presidio Forest from up top! Forget about any views on foggy days though.
Local Tip: Take a walk around the neighborhood at the top of the steps – the homes are absolutely gorgeous (and a cool few million each, easily).
Stop #5: (BONUS) Lover’s Lane
I haven’t seen this on many other San Francisco itineraries, and I’m not sure why! It’s just a few minutes from the top of the Lyon Street Steps, and is (kinda) on the way to the Palace of Fine Arts, so why not?!
- Psst: If you’re standing at the top of the steps looking down, the entrance to the park with Lover’s Lane will be right to your left… follow that path!
There’s not many places in San Francisco to wander throughout the forest, so I say go for it!
Promise me you won’t miss the one-of-a-kind Andy Goldsworthy art installation “Wood Line” hidden away within the lush eucalyptus forest. The unique zig-zags of the fallen tree trunks make for great photo ops!
And on your way to our next stop – the Palace of Fine Arts – you’ll pass by the Lucasfilm headquarters. Don’t miss a quick stop at the Yoda Fountain and the Recycled Water Pond!
Stop #6: Palace of Fine Arts
Next up on your 3 days in San Francisco — the stunning columns and rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts! Stroll the grounds, gaze at the swans in the lagoon, and feel like you’re in Europe for a hot second or two. It really reminds me of Athens and Rome a bit!
- Fun history fact → the Palace of Fine Arts is one of the only surviving structures of the Pan-Pacific Exposition, originally constructed in 1915! It wasn’t built to last, but here we are 100 years later after a movement and full concrete rebuild – still standing. It was such a favorite that the people wanted it to stay! 🙂
An icon of San Francisco for sure, and not to be missed on any SF itinerary. I’ve seen people take graduation (and wedding!) photos at the Palace, and I even watched a proposal here not too long ago!
It’s usually pretty crowded, but large enough to find your own spot on the grass to admire it for a few minutes. If you’ve got tons of time (but probably not much if you wanna see and do all the things on this 3 day San Francisco itinerary), lay out a picnic blanket and just relax.
Stop #7: The Golden Gate Bridge (3 OPTIONS!)
Finally — some bridge views! Were you wondering when the Golden Gate Bridge would (finally!) show up on this San Francisco itinerary? Don’t worry, the rest of the day is dedicated to the crimson cutie.
And since there’s just so much to see in SF, I’m giving you three options — all with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge! If you’ve skipped a few things on day 1 of this itinerary, you can probably make it to two of these spots below, but if you’re attempting to follow it, choose the one that sounds most appealing. 🙂
And if you’re looking for more even more perfect views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, check this out! She’s a beauty, I don’t blame you! My other favorite spots include:
- Battery Spencer and Hawk Hill (my all-time favorite view; across the bridge in Marin)
- Golden Gate Overlook (a unique vantage point where you can frame the bridge with a couple of cypress trees)
- Kirby Cove (a quiet beach right under the bridge in Marin)
- East Battery (go on a weekday at sunset and it’ll probably be pretty empty!)
- Fort Point National Historic Site (probably the closest you’ll get to the bridge without actually being on it)
Option #1: Crissy Field and Golden Gate Bridge
Crissy Field is basically a huge grassy lawn — with the views of the bridge being some of the best in the entire city! We always take visitors here and they gasp every time! Even I still do, after living here for over 6 years…
On warm days, you’ll see locals enjoying picnic lunches, walking/playing with their dogs, tossing footballs, flying kites, and just enjoying the sunshine. And trust me, you can’t miss the Golden Gate Bridge from here – look to your left and voila! The bridge is standing right there!
AND there’s ample parking if you chose to rent a car.
If you wanna walk over the bridge, choose Crissy Field. There’s direct access to the bridge from a short hiking trail starting right near the grassy lawn. You’ll pass the Torpedo Wharf, the Warming Hut (where you’ll start your “hike” to the bridge), a whole bunch of stairs (not terrible, I promise), a small tunnel, and then the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, before finally making it onto the actual bridge. And of course there’s tons of viewpoints along the way. All this in roughly 30 minutes.
- Important Note: The bridge is 2 miles long, meaning it’ll be 4 miles roundtrip. But psst – there’s no reason to walk the entire length of the bridge. We typically walk to the first trough and then turn around. You’ll still get the same experience.
Option #2: Baker Beach and/or Marshalls Beach
Choose this option if you’re not scared of a few naked people and wanna dig your toes into the sand. Yes, it’s clothing-optional. Well, part of the beach anyways.
Baker Beach: Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and hang out at the beach for a bit! You won’t wanna go in the water (it’s way too cold for that!), but bring a blanket and just relax and take in the views of the bridge! It’s the most popular beach in the Presidio, so it’ll most likely be pretty crowded.
Marshall’s Beach: Marshall’s Beach is kinda a trek, and you’ll need to take the panoramic Batteries to Bluffs Trail all the way down (rated strenuous). BUT the beach is even closer to the bridge, so even more stunning. Also, this is where people let everything hang loose, so keep that in mind if you’re visiting with young kids or parents!
If the fog’s not impeding the view, Baker Beach and Marshall’s Beach are absolutely stunning, and my top choice if you just wanna relax and hang out (and not walk over the bridge of course). Just watch out for the nude sunbathers at Marshall’s and the north side of Baker Beach.
- SAFETY TIP: Don’t attempt to swim in the water at either beach. Large waves and rip currents make the water especially unsafe (no surfing, either). Come here for sunbathing, picnicking, and sand frolicking!
Option #3: Lands End Trail and Wander around Sea Cliff
Lands End is a bit further from the actual bridge, but the views are still top notch! And you’ll get to see some other spots worthy on any 3 day San Francisco itinerary! It’s the wildest, rockiest corner of San Francisco – known for historic shipwrecks and a history of landslides.
Up for a semi-moderate stroll through some dark cypress? Lands End takes you along the rocky and windswept shoreline of the city, with views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge! We always take visitors to Lands End, and they’re just as wowed as we always are.
It’s not difficult per say, with some of the path being paved in the beginning, but the trail does turn into rocks and dirt and a few steep stairways. Wear appropriate footwear and you’ll be fine.
While you’re in the area, make sure to find these additional spots!
- Sutro Baths: The most western point of Lands End, and filled with history. Built in 1896, they were at one point the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. A fire unfortunately ruined the entire structure, leaving behind remnants for visitors to explore.
- Camera Obscura: Kinda a secret spot, and located right behind the popular Cliff House. What is it? Essentially, a giant pinhole camera (and it actually works – go inside!).
- Lands End Labyrinth: Another “secret” spot located on a cosy cliff corner within Lands End. Don’t miss taking a few photos here – the rock pattern overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and is great for your IG feed.
- The Cliff House: Kinda expensive, but just go in for a quick snack if you can get in. The popovers are to die for.
If you have a bit more time after your hike, wander around the Sea Cliff neighborhood for a bit! The houses are out of this world (and disgustingly expensive), and the Lincoln Park Steps are right here (leading to Lands End, actually).
Then, go pick something out on my HUGE list of restaurants in San Francisco for dinner. 🙂
Day 2 San Francisco Itinerary
Day two of this 3 day San Francisco itinerary focuses on more of the city’s diverse neighborhoods. And yup, that means more food included! If you’re eating, drinking, walking around, and taking in the views, you’re doing SF right, just FYI 🙂
I do have to mention that today’s itinerary includes a whole lotta food. Pick and choose your favorites, as you probably won’t be hungry for everything!
Stop #1: Brenda’s French Soul Food for Brunch
I’m begging you to come here for brunch on Day 2 of this San Francisco itinerary – the crawfish beignets are that good. But get the beignet flight so you can try them all (plain, chocolate, apple pie, and crawfish). And ohh the biscuits – they’re carb heaven. And the benedicts. Basically anythings good.
But you gotta be willing to wait, especially if you’re going for brunch on the weekend. If you can plan your days right, you’ll have a much quicker time getting in during the week.
Soul food not your thing? Other popular brunch spots in the area are Jane on Larkin, Dottie’s True Blue Cafe, and Honey Honey Cafe & Crepery.
And if you wanna see what all the cronut craze is about, Mr. Holmes Bakehouse isn’t too far. The cronuts start selling at 9am, and sell out shortly thereafter, so get on line a bit before nine if you wanna get a few. And if you don’t get one of those coveted stickers (meaning you’re guaranteed a cronut), don’t fret – everything’s pretty good.
Stop #2: Japantown for Ramen and exploring
Japantown is one of my favorite areas on this San Francisco itinerary. Why?, you might ask? Besides the fact that my husband and I are basically obsessed with Japan, there’s just so much good food here! I salivate just thinking about the noodles!
- And psst: it’s one of three Japantowns still in the U.S. today!
My favorite spot for some brothy goodness? Marufuku Ramen – easily. Slurp up some ramen – mmmm the noodles (my favorite’s the tonkatsu).
I need to let you know that you’ll find a longgg wait no matter when you come (sometimes up to an hour or so.) Yes, this place is THAT good (and worth the wait).
Put your name down as soon as you get to Japantown, and then take the time to walk around the plaza. While waiting, check out these other things to do in Japantown:
1. Try some Japanese snacks! A few recommendations: sip away at a sweet potato latte from YakiniQ Cafe, satisfy your sweet tooth with a Geishi Float or over-the-top crepe from Belly Good Cafe, eat your weight in black sesame taiyaki ice cream from Uji Time (always get the mochi), munch on crunchy spring rolls from Kui Shin Bo, or slurp on kim chi from Daeho Kalbijjim.
And if you can’t decide, get some takoyaki octopus balls (better than they sound, I promise). Just don’t fill up too much because remember – there’s ramen to be slurped!
2. Take silly photos at PikaPika. Never heard of purikura? They’re basically next level Japanese photo sticker booths and oh so much fun!
3. Check out the Peace Pagoda right outside Japan Center (presented to the city from Osaka as a symbol of peace and unity!)
If you don’t feel like waiting, there’s plenty of other worthy ramen shops (including Waraku and Hinodeya Ramen Bar → both tried and tested and approved by me!). 🙂
Stop #3: Painted Ladies/Alamo Square
Any San Francisco itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the iconic Painted Ladies. I mean, the Victorian houses are one of the most photographed attractions in San Francisco, and it’s easy to see why. AND there’s clean public bathrooms here (a rarity in the city)!
Don’t leave without a short wander through Alamo Square Park – the views are great! There used to be a shoe garden over here filled with plants, but the city removed them since they weren’t biodegradable. Just one of the many eccentric charms of SF that used to be.
Local Tip: Many people think they recognize these Victorian houses from Full House, but that’s actually not the case! Those are over at 1709 Broderick!
Any Mrs. Doubtfire fans? Wander down Steiner Street (a few minutes from Alamo Square) – it’s where the movie was filmed! Although the actual house in the film – 2640 Steiner Street, is about a 25 minute walk away so just walk a bit 🙂
Stop #4: Boutique shopping in Hayes Valley
Hayes Valley is right by Alamo Square, so you may as well pop on over and browse the local boutique shops. They’re kinda upscale, so if you weren’t planning on dropping some cash, just do some window shopping.
If you’re not feeling burritos for lunch (next stop on this SF itinerary), I like Souvla (for gyros), a Mano (for fresh pasta), and Suppenkuche (for weiner schnitzel) in Hayes Valley.
Stop #5: Mission Burritos and Murals
The Mission is known for two things, and two things only: the ever-so-delicious Mission burrito, and colorful, mural-filled alleyways.
What’s a Mission Burrito and why’s it so special? Well for starters, it’s absolutely gigantic and always bursting at its seams (aka I always have leftovers). And besides it’s size, you’ll find extra ingredients within – the perfect combo of rice, beans (always whole, never refried), avocado, sour cream, pico de gallo, and of course some grilled meat.
For Mission burritos, stop by either El Farolito or La Taqueria – two local favorites down the block from each other. Get the carne asada, it’s droolworthy and then some. The burritos are larger-than-life (they really are – they last me 2 meals!). So beware – if you’re not 1000% starving, I recommend sharing. Bring cash as they don’t accept cards.
You just cannot visit the Mission without stumbling upon its colorful, mural-filled alleyways. Every single surface is painted (sides of houses, fences, garage doors, etc).
For murals and street art, head on over to Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley. The murals here are not just intricate works of art – the pieces have meaning, teaching about gentrification, modern politics, and the immigrant experience in SF.
They’re thought-provoking, heart-breaking, and downright touching. Don’t miss the Women’s Building nearby, completely covered by the MaestraPeace mural, and the Santana Mural on 19th.
Stop #6: Mission Dolores Park
Sunny day in SF? You’ll find everyone and their mother flocking to Dolores Park to spend the afternoon. Expect to find people playing frisbee/handball, jamming out, laying out on blankets, playing with their pups, and just enjoying the spectacular views of the city’s skyline (and yes, we have palm trees in northern California). There’s even a public bathroom here, yay!
- Local Tip: Walk to the top of the hill for the best views of the city below!
Two spots I suggest checking out for a snack depending on your mood:
- Tartine Manufactory: The ultimate pasty heaven (and the loaves of bread…mmm)
- Bi-Rite Creamery: Homemade organic ice cream (my favorite’s the salted caramel)
Still kinda hungry after your burrito? Walk the few blocks to Media Noche for some bomb Cuban food.
Stop #7: Twin Peaks for sunset
One of the best views in all of San Francisco! And my favorite time of day to go? – at sunset, as long as there’s no fog limiting the view. You can see every iconic bridge, building, and the bay from up here. And it’s one of the only 360 degrees views in the city!
- Psst — Bring a jacket, as it’s usually pretty windy up here.
I highly recommend you grab an Uber/Lyft to Twin Peaks unless you’re ready to climb a decent sized hill!
Note that the Twin Peaks area has unfortunately gotten a bad rep over the years, and is frequented by some not-so-wonderful people come nightfall. Be sure to keep your cameras in sight (might not be the best idea to set up a tripod or self-timer iphone here) and stay with your friends. It’s beautiful and shouldn’t be missed, just something to know in advance.
Day 3 San Francisco Itinerary
On Day 3 of this San Francisco itinerary, you’ll notice a few areas that are just so downright touristy you can choose to skip them if you want. I’ve included them because they’re pretty iconic to SF, so if you’re looking for the typical tourist experience, just know they’re in here! Psst – I’m talking about Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Stop #1: Shopping in Union Square, then a ride on the Cable Car
Union Square has it all, despite not having any charm whatsoever (in my honest opinion). There’s upscale designer shopping, trendy boutiques, live entertainment, art galleries, and plenty of people watching. But it’s also kinda filthy, a bit seedy, and rather unpleasant smelling, so choose for yourself if you wanna spend your precious time here. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so!
- You won’t see locals hanging out here. The only time I choose to visit Union Square is during the holidays, when the city gets all decked out for Christmas.
After a bit of shopping, it’s time to head north via cable car! As mentioned earlier, the cable cars are San Francisco’s historic transit cars, and are quite fun if you’ve never been on one before.
You’ll wanna hop on the Powell-Hyde line. Jump on board near Market and Powell (you can’t miss it), take in the SF Bay and Alcatraz, and it’ll end near Ghirardelli Square.
Psst: If you’re just looking for a cute photo op and don’t necessarily feel the need to hop on, there’s typically one parked a few blocks up.
Stop #2: Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square (Optional)
You can easily walk to our next stops after your cable car adventure if you feel they’re pertinent to your San Francisco itinerary – Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Pier 39. However, if you did any research prior to landing upon this article, you know that these spots are super popular amongst tourists and therefore rather absolutely ridiculously unnecessarily crowded. My honest opinion – SKIP them.
They aren’t my favorite places in the city, but if you’re looking to cross the top tourist spots off during your 3 days in San Francisco and want some epic ice cream sundaes (who doesn’t), plan to spend a bit of time here.
Expect a decent line at Ghirardelli, but don’t fret – it goes pretty fast and the ice cream’s worth it. And don’t miss out on the free chocolate samples inside the shop! If you don’t feel like waiting on the crazy long line for some sundaes, check out Baked Bear for custom-made ice cream sandwiches.
Spend a few moments taking in all the craziness that is Fisherman’s Wharf and look out for the sea lions basking in the sun at Pier 39, as I wouldn’t give this tourist trap more than a few minutes of your time. Although I do recommend a quick visit to the murals of Umbrella Alley — that’s where you’ll find the Greeting’s From San Francisco mural and a whole bunch of other colorful art pieces.
And if you’re looking for actual food food, head on over to In-N-Burger (for some animal fries and a burger) or Boudin Bakery & Cafe (for some famous clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls), two California staples worthy of a spot on any 3 day San Francisco itinerary.
Stop #3: Lombard Street
Twisty, twisty Lombard Street is up next – and thankfully it’s only about a 15 walk or so from our last stop. This street has been oh so famous for oh so long – with it’s beautifully landscaped flower beds and hairpin curves.
Beware that this is a very popular destination for visitors (although I’m sure you already knew that), so it’ll undoubtedly be pretty crowded.
There’s even been talks of making Lombard Street a fee area, meaning cars will have to pay a set fee in order to drive down. We’ll see!
Check out the views from the top of the hill, walk down the stairs adjacent to the twists and bends, and take in the views once again from the bottom. Come early – you may even see a few self-driving cars learning the route!
A few (important) things to note:
- People actually live here. Those immaculate houses on the way are people’s homes. Please be respectful. This means absolutely no trash left behind, keeping your noise level down, and no venturing onto private property.
- Yes, you can drive down the 8 hairpin curves of Lombard (if you’re renting a car, which I honestly don’t recommend if you can avoid it). It’s a one-way street, so be sure to head to Hyde at the top if driving down is on your San Francisco itinerary.
- Lombard is a huge street, and only a small section is windy. Head to the intersection of Lombard and Hyde, and you’ll get right to the top. You’ll even see the squiggles on Google Maps!
- And get this: it’s actually not the curviest street in SF (despite what everyone thinks). You’ll find that over on Vermont Street.
Stop #4: Views from Coit Tower
If you’re feeling extra motivated, climb the dozens (upon dozens) of stairs to reach the top where the base of Coit Tower stands. The walk really is beautiful through gardens, and you may be lucky and spot a wild parrot (you’ll probably hear them before you see them).
If you don’t have the energy to walk up, you can always take an uber to the base of the tower, but be prepared to get stuck in traffic.
Once you reach the top, it’s $8 to take the elevator to the tippy top which will reward you with panoramic 360 degree views of the city. If you’ve seen enough views for the day (urm, what?!) and don’t feel like spending more dough, you can always check out the murals (for free) at the entrance.
Stop #5: Late Lunch in North Beach
A 5 minute walk will get you to one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of San Francisco – North Beach!
North Beach is steeped in Italian heritage, so of course you gotta take advantage of the food!
Grab some lunch at one of the Italian restaurants in the area, with Golden Boy Pizza being one of my faves for some fresh sicilian slices (cash only).
Other recommendations include: The Homemade Italian Company (we love the pesto gnocchi and meatballs), Original Joes (for some ravioli and decadent butter cake), Mama’s On Washington Square (not Italian per say but great for brunch if you can get in), or Molinari Delicatessen (if you’re in the mood for some sandwiches).
Don’t miss the following in North Beach:
- A cannoli at Stella Pastry & Cafe (my favorite all-time place)
- Browsing through the books at City Lights Bookstore (a favorite since 1953)
- Some fresh focaccia bread from Liguria Bakery (although they close when they run out, so you may run outta luck if you’re getting here later on)
Get your pizza (and cannoli) to go, and sit on the grass at Washington Square Park with fantastic views of Saints Peter and Paul Church (it’s a real beauty, you’ll see).
PSST → You can choose to conquer Coit Tower before or after your pizza – judge your hunger level (but visit Coit Tower first if you don’t want to have to backtrack a few minutes).
Stop #6: Chinatown
Believe it or not, this is one of the oldest and most established Chinatowns in the entire USA!
Wander around Chinatown for a bit and take a stroll down Grant Avenue. Yes, this is the picturesque tourist street with lots of tourist shops (think: tacky souvenirs!), Chinese lamp posts, and a bunch of red lanterns strung between buildings. It’s beautiful, and there’s lots of culture over here.
Don’t miss the following in Chinatown:
- Snapping a photo of the iconic Dragon’s Gate (the official entrance into Chinatown)
- Standing on a line for an egg tart at Golden Gate Bakery; that is, if you happen to find them open, of course. The bakery closes randomly all the time, (sometimes even for weeks at a time — crazy!), and they don’t really have set hours. And yes, they’re that good; on par with the one’s I’ve had in both Hong Kong and Lisbon.
- Watching fortune cookies being made on a free tour at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (they’re only open Thursday through Sunday, and close up shop around 6pm, so it may not work out… just FYI)
- Devouring some mooncakes, sesame balls, and coconut bread at Eastern Bakery and a few pork buns at Good Mong Kok Bakery (don’t worry, the line moves fast)
But the real reason I’m sending you to Chinatown – for signature Chinese mai tais at Li Po Cocktail Lounge. This cocktail dive bar has been around for ages (dating back to 1937!), and it’s weird and tacky vibe is surprisingly super fun. Be careful though, even I can throw back a few, and that’s saying something…
Stop #7: Alcatraz Night Tour: 5:30PM → eat an early dinner right before
Head back to the Embarcadero, because off to Alcatraz we go! I couldn’t possibly leave this off our very in-depth 3 day SF itinerary.
And the night tour is just that much more eerie! I always suggest that to people who are looking for a bit more spooky adventure.
- Since there’s not as many ferry timings for the night tour, you’ll wanna make your reservations ASAP. And plan to eat an early dinner beforehand (in Chinatown, perhaps), as exploring Alcatraz will take a few hours.
This notorious prison served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, housing famous criminals such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman”. Once you arrive on Alcatraz Island, take the cellhouse audio tour in order to hear the tales of those who lived there all those years ago, including the inmates, correctional officers, and more.
Learn about the 14 escape attempts by over 30 prisoners, many who were caught, several shot, or had drowned in the chilly San Francisco Bay. It’s true – no one ever successfully escaped alive. It really is an interesting and intriguing place – and the views from Alcatraz are absolutely swell as well!
Although the ferry ride only takes roughly 10-15 minutes, you’ll need to arrive at the terminal (Pier 33) 30 minutes prior to your ferry departure time. Be sure to factor this into your day!
No visit to SF is complete without visiting Alcatraz, trust me.
So there ya have it – exactly how I’d spend 3 days in San Francisco if it was my first time visiting!
BUT WAIT! Have an extra day? Lucky enough to be spending 4 days in San Francisco?! Take a day trip – there’s plenty to choose from!
If this is your first time in the area, I highly recommend heading up north to either Napa Valley/Sonoma or the towering redwoods at Muir Woods. And if you’re looking for a jam-packed, adventure-filled day, you can certainly do both in one trip, since you’ll essentially have to pass Muir Woods before getting to wine country.
→ Read Next: 30+ Day Trips from San Francisco
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