San Francisco is a famous tourist destination known for its summer fog, architectural wonders, enticing food scene, and urban landscapes that captivates people of all ages. From visiting the Golden Gate Bridge to trying some of the city’s amazing brew houses, there’s always something interesting to look forward to when visiting San Francisco. It’s a magical city filled with a little bit of everything.
Whether it’s your first time, make sure you don’t miss out on exploring the must-see attractions and discovering fun activities San Francisco has to offer.
This article covers an ideal 3-day travel itinerary, enough to give yourself an introduction and see every must-visit place in the “City by the Bay,” from touristy to amazing local experiences.
1. Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
Start your trip with a breathtaking view of San Francisco’s most famous landmark – the world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge. It is a 1.7-mile long suspension bridge connecting the San Francisco Bay and the Marin Headlands.
This piece of engineering art is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. So make sure you get to take dozens of pictures from all angles for your Instagram feed or to keep as a souvenir. Aside from taking pictures, walking across the bridge to experience and enjoy the view is highly recommended. For a brief history of the construction of the bridge, drop by the visitor’s center or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
2. Stroll Around Crissy Field
If you want to take in different view of the Golden Gate Bridge, then head on over to the Crissy field where you can enjoy the entire view from a beautiful beach. This area also features restaurants and piers for fishing. You’ll be able to meet locals playing Frisbee with their dogs or just spending their free time relaxing on the beach.
3. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
One of San Francisco’s most photographed location is the lagoon and outdoor rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts. This Roman-styled palace is one of the surviving structures from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. You can take pictures and walk around the lagoon, have a picnic on the grass or unwind under the rotunda. Check their website at palaceoffinearts.com for events happening on the day you’ll visit you don’t miss out on the happenings.
4. Explore Alcatraz Island
Formerly home to some of the nation’s worst criminals, this federal prison is now open to the public after it was closed down in the 1970s. Since then, it became a famous landmark for tourists to visit. It’s highly recommended to join a group travel tour to learn more about the historical context of the place. If you’re gearing to visit the island during the summer days, make sure to book a ferry ahead of time
5. Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square
These areas are the most popular attractions among tourists, so prepare yourself for a busy and crowded atmosphere. Pier 39 is where you’ll encounter lots of street performers, restaurants and souvenir shops. The Fisherman’s Wharf is the bustling hub of fresh fish markets where you’ll get to watch fishermen at work. Lastly, the Ghirardelli Square is where you’ll find the Aquatic Cove National Park and the Maritime Museum.
6. Unwind in the Mission
After a busy day, visit Mission Dolores Park to relax while enjoying the magnificent view of the city. If you’re on the go for some history, you can head to Misión San Francisco de Asís, which is the oldest building in San Francisco founded in 1776. Many tourists also flock to Mission Dolores to see the gardens and visit the only cemetery that can be found within the city.
1. Ride the Cable Cars
The best way to get a picture of the neighborhoods of San Francisco is to ride the city’s cable cars. It’s a fun mode of transportation and will save time and effort from walking up and down the hills of the city. Catch them from Market Street and pay $7 for every one-way ticket or get a City PASS for unlimited rides.
2. Discover Lombard Street
Popularly known as the world’s windiest street, Lombard Street is a favorite attraction among tourists. You can go there through the Powell/Hyde line of cable cars and get dropped off at the south of Russian Hill Park.
Lombard Street was created during the 1920s when Carl Henry thought of a way to help automobiles drive downhill. Later on, engineer Clyde Healy conceptualized the design and eventually developed the windy street into fruition, which is known to have decreased the hill’s slope from 27% to 16%.
3. Head to the Coit Tower
The Coit Tower offers a panoramic view of the whole city. The tower is a famous city landmark located in the Telegraph Hill and was initially built to beautify San Francisco in 1933. It’s also regarded as the Coit Memorial Tower as a tribute to the volunteer firemen who died during the five major fires in San Francisco.
The Coit Tower interior features 27 fresco murals painted by various local artists in 1934 that depicts the life in the city during the Depression. These artists were locked in the tower for security reasons after they were deemed as subjects of the longshoremen’s strike in the 1930s.
4. Explore North America’s Oldest Chinatown
If you’re in search for a place to satisfy your cravings for Chinese delicacies in San Francisco, then head over to the biggest and most famous Chinatown on the continent. You’ll get to enjoy a variety of Chinese signature cuisines while in the West Coast, discover teahouses and souvenir stalls and take a bite of famous fortune cookies.
5. Take a Harbor Tour
The best way to view San Francisco from the water is to take an afternoon cruise. On route, you’ll be able to see many historical landmarks and beautiful attractions in the city, including the Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Many tour companies offer Harbor Tours, but the cheapest way is to ride the public ferries that provide you with the same view at a lower cost.
6. Nightlife in the Castro
More than just a place for famous modern and ethnic restaurants, the Castro District is also known as the historical heart of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco. Take a walk along the neighborhood and discover the history of the first LGBTQ-friendly district in the US. Every store, bar, nightclub, and restaurant in this neighborhood are eager to welcome all types of visitors regardless of one’s gender identity.
The Castro district is also the best place to party the night away after a busy day. Lucky 13 club offers a broad selection of affordable drinks, and if you want to groove in the dance floor, you can head on to the Q Bar for a 90s pop-inspired party in the evening.
7. Explore Haight-Ashbury
Also known as the birthplace of the hippie counterculture, the Haight-Ashbury is a district in San Francisco named for the intersection of the Haight and the Ashbury streets. It was the center of the hippie culture back in the 1960s, but now it has transformed into a whole new neighborhood with upscale boutiques, high-end restaurants, and chic cafes. Flower Power Walking Tours offers informative tours of the district for $20 per person.
1. Go on a Walking Tour
San Francisco is a city full of history and culture. The best way to explore each eclectic neighborhood and try all the tasty street foods is to go on a walking tour. There are a lot of travel companies offering this service, two of the best ones are the Local Taste of the City Food Tours and the SF City Guides.
2. Eat at the Ferry Building
If you ever find yourself hungry, head on to the Ferry Building at Embarcadero to feast on various sit-down restaurants. The Ferry Building is known as one of San Francisco’s historic architectural landmarks as well as the pillar of the city’s culinary scene. It is the perfect place to eat good food and immerse in the local community. Stroll around the area to experience one of the city’s most vibrant places while discovering the diversity of Northern California’s winemakers and artisan food.
3. Explore San Francisco’s Museums
Going to a foreign place wouldn’t be complete without paying a visit to its famous museums. Make sure you’ll be able to visit any of these must-see museums in San Francisco:
• The Beat Museum: This museum was dedicated to the works of the Beat Generation, a group of post-World War II artists who fought against the social norms of the 1950s. The museum houses a collection of the original works, including manuscripts, letters, and books, of famous authors like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. It is open daily from 10am-7pm. Admission fee is around $8 per person.
• Cable Car Museum: San Francisco’s cable cars have been in the city since the 1870s. If you want to know more about its history, then head on to this museum which is located at Mason Street. The Cable Car Museum is open daily and admission is free.
• Exploratorium: If you’re more interested instead about the wonders of science and technology, the Exploratorium is the place for you. Enjoy amazing hands-on activities that involve several scientific principles in this museum. Take note that it’s not exclusively for children, they also offer exhibits that are specifically catered for adults worth $29.95 per person. The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am-5pm and opens during Thursday evenings from 6pm-10pm for adults.
• De Young Art Museum: This museum showcases San Francisco’s art scene with pieces dating back from the 17th centuries. You’ll also see a variety of contemporary, textiles and photography creations in this museum. Moreover, De Young also offers a great view of the whole city at its Observation Level on the 9th floor. De Young Art Museum is located at the Golden Gate Park and is open Tuesdays to Sundays, with admission tickets worth $15 for adults.
4. Stroll Around the Golden Gate Park
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is around 3-mile long, about 20% bigger than the Central Park in New York City. On an unusually warm and fair day, this park is the perfect place to have a picnic, jog, or to spend extra time to relax and de-stress. The enormous park features a museum, a Japanese garden, an arboretum, and lots of walking and hiking trails.
5. Celebrate with a Drink
Celebrate a new milestone of your travel bucket list by having a drink. San Francisco is home to a number of amazing pubs so make sure you get to visit at least one of them on your visit to the city. There are many amazing clubs and bars in the city to choose from. For the best spots of nightlife, head on to the Castro and the Mission.
Bonus sights if you have time left in San Francisco!
If you end up staying in San Francisco for more than three days and have some extra time to spend, here are other great options to add to your already long list:
1. Explore Japan Town: If you’re craving Asian food – sushi, tempura, ramen – then satisfy your taste buds in Japan Town. Aside from authentic Japanese food, you’d also find Korean delicacies in this neighborhood. There are also a variety of cocktail bars and cafes to explore.
2. Watch a Game: The city locals love watching sports, especially baseball. If you’re in the city during a big game, don’t miss out on the fun and watch the game to cheer for the local team. The San Francisco locals will be more than happy to welcome you, explain the game, and have a drink with you while you watch together how the game will unfold.
3. Explore the Wine Country: If you’re a wine enthusiast and have lots of free time enough to go out of town, then you should try visiting the world-famous Sonoma and Napa wine regions. The latter is one of the leading and famous wine-producing place in the world. Every year, around 3.3 million people visit Napa region just to taste their signature wines.
4. Visit Muir Woods: This place is near the Bay Area, where you’ll be able to get a sight of the giant redwood trees. Entrance fee is around $10 per person, but it is free for children.
5. Discover Berkeley: Across the Bay Area is the interesting Berkley City, which is home to hippies and music lovers. You’ll also find lots of vegetarian restaurants, high-end jewelry shops and lively street performances in this area.
6. Visit Oakland: Consider spending a night or a whole day in Oakland which is only a five-minute drive away from across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.
7. Visit the Asian Art Museum: This museum is home to almost 20,000 items of Asian art collections in the world. Admission is free, and you can enjoy a free guided tour to learn more about the highlights and exhibits this museum has to offer.
8. Visit the City Lights Bookstore: If you’re looking for some good reads, then this place is the perfect place to spend your extra time in San Francisco. This indie bookstore has been around since 1953, and still hosts events and readings. Allen Ginsberg first published his famous work, Howl & Other Poems, in this bookstore.
9. Roller-skate in the Church of 8 Wheels: This place was once a church but is now transformed into a roller-skating arena. It is a fun place to visit since there’s always live music and DJs in the area. If you’re worried that you haven’t tried roller-skating before, don’t worry since the place offers orientations and skating lessons for beginners who want to join the fun.
10. Get a Bird’s Eye View of San Francisco: The best way to end your trip is to take a view of the whole city for the last time before you leave. You can do this by visiting the Twin Peaks where you’ll have the opportunity to get a perfect 360-degree view of the magnificent city of San Francisco.
While this 3-day itinerary introduces you to the must-visit places in San Francisco, it’s still not enough to explore the whole city entirely. San Francisco will blow your mind since there are a lot of things to see and explore in this enormous City by the Bay. Make sure to organize your itinerary and manage your time well when you visit the city so you can get around and experience all the fun activities, discover the food scenes and see all the beautiful attractions.