3 Days in San Francisco, California

When I was deciding where to further my education, I knew I wanted to go somewhere that I would love to live for four years. I quickly decided on San Francisco, and it was one of the best decisions of my life. This jewel of a town perched on a hill on the edge of the Pacific is still my favorite US city. It has sweet little Victorian houses on crooked streets, history, wharves, incredible views and influences from many cultures. The city’s history as a boomtown began with the Gold Rush of 1849 bringing in immigrants from China and Italy. In the 1960s, it became the center of “The Summer of Love.”  Read on for my recommendation on how to spend three days in San Francisco, California. This three-day San Francisco itinerary is how I introduced my kids to the city.

3 days in San Francisco
Crab Statue at Pier 39

San Francisco Itinerary 3 Days

Day One in San Francisco

Explore Fisherman’s Wharf

Yes, it is very touristy, but when I lived here, I spent a lot of time in this area. Fisherman’s Wharf is continuing its long history as a working fishing harbor, initially staffed with mainly Chinese and Italian immigrants. It is high energy, with many tourist attractions, street performers, and street artists. There are high-end seafood and Italian restaurants, as well as fishmongers and the world-famous Boudin’s, the original maker of sourdough bread.

Pier 39

Stop by Pier 39 to see the sea lions that loaf around. You will also get incredible views of Alcatraz and the bridges.

Now is the Perfect Time to Grab Lunch

There is no better place to get two of San Francisco’s must-haves– crab and chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. San Francisco is famous for its Dungeness crab, caught from the waters nearby. You can buy yours from the seafood stalls, and they will freshly steam it for you. Go into Boudin’s and grab your chowder. Then find a place to sit down, watch the people or colorful fishing boats and have one of the best meals in California.

what to do in San Francisco in 3 days
The colorful fishing boats of Fisherman’s Wharf.

See If You Can Escape Alcatraz

Seriously, if you only have time to do one thing in San Francisco, this should be the thing. Alcatraz is a prison on a rocky island in the middle of the frigid Golden Gate Bay. In the heydey of the gangster-era, the worst offenders were sent to this famously inescapable prison, including Al Capone. You get to take a scenic ferry ride over, and you will get a great view of San Francisco. The tour itself, with an interactive and free audio tour, will educate and delight everyone. You will even see the first lighthouse on the Pacific coast, Alcatraz Island Lighthouse.

The ferry to Alcatraz leaves from Pier 33. You have to book tickets well in advance, as they do sell out. If this is a last-minute trip and they are sold out you can buy tickets as part of a package with other tours, such as a hop-on, hop-off bus tour or a Muir Woods/Alcatraz Tour.

Take in the Views of the City from the Top of Coit Tower

Walk up the pretty gardened Filbert Stairs to the tower. Coit Tower looks like a fire hose sticking up from Telegraph Hill. Opening times and tickets can be found here. 

Take a Cable Car Up to Lombard Street

Very little is as iconic to San Francisco as the famous cable cars, and they are fun to ride. The cable cars, invented for the city, began running in 1837! Catch a car on the Hyde/Powell Line at the corner of Hyde Street and Beach Street. Get off at Lombard Street, famous for being the most crooked street in the world. Although that isn’t true, it is not even the most crooked in San Francisco (Vermont Street is!). It is worth seeing with its cute houses and gardens nestled around the eight famous curves.

Buy your tickets for the cable car in advance using MUNI’s app, MuniMobile. Three days of rides on Muni, including cable cars, are included with a San Francisco CityPASS which also gets you into other San Francisco attractions. See if that makes sense for you to buy below.

Save 45% on San Francisco’s Muni and four other attractions with CityPASS. Shop Now!

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
View of San Francisco from across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Although driving across the world’s most famous bridges is cool, walking or biking across will let you be present in your surroundings and with the bridge. A walk will take about 2 hours and a bike ride about half of that. There are parking lots on either side of the bridge. The one on the Marin side gives a pretty spectacular view of the bridge and the city, as seen above.

If you are afraid of heights, it is a mighty scary bridge, often windy and sprinkled with signs discouraging jumpers. If you are new to crossing famous bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge is a more secure one to start with, but the Golden Gate is still my favorite.

Visit the Golden Gate Visitor’s Site for details about rules and hours.

If you would like to bike across look into a guided bike tour of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge and ending in Sausalito.

Enjoy a Relaxing Italian Dinner in North Beach

Remember those Italian immigrants– North Beach is San Francisco’s “Little Italy” and the perfect place to sit out on a patio for dinner.

Have Ice Cream Sundaes at Ghiradelli Square

Ghiradelli chocolate came to San Francisco circuitously from Italy in 1849. The last factory was converted into the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory & Soda Fountain and Ghirardelli Square in 1895 on the waterfront where it still stands. Historic and yummy– a sundae is a perfect way to end your day.

 

What to do in San Francisco, CA
Lombard Street, San Francisco

Day Two San Francisco

Visit Land’s End

This area on the opposite side of San Francisco from Fisherman’s Wharf seems like a different world. Jagged cliffs stretch upwards as the Pacific lies seemingly unending in front of you. When I lived here, this was one of my favorite escapes.

Start your second day in San Francisco away from the touristy crowds with breakfast at Louis’

This relaxed family joint has been around for over 80 years. Crowded with locals, you can’t beat the views.

Take a Hike around the Sutro Baths

Although the public baths never became popular, the ruins set on the waterfront are fun to explore.

Head to Golden Gate Park

Continue your escape in Golden Gate Park, which has trails, monuments, bridges, and gardens. My favorite spot is the Japanese Tea Garden, so I spend most of my time there.

You can get tea at the Japanese Tea Garden, but you will mainly want to wander. This is the oldest Japanese garden in the world and the best I have visited. It also has a storied history. The garden’s creator, Makoto Hagiwara, and his family were taken into internment camps in WW 2. A lot of the garden was destroyed, and it took years for it to be rebuilt.

Literary Inspiration for your trip to San Francisco: If you would like to read more about this part of San Francisco’s history, check out Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto.

3 Perfect Days in San Francisco
Japanese Gardens in Golden Gate Park

See the Mosiac Steps 

If you don’t have time, this is a little out of the way, but these community-created stairs that are works of art are pretty cool. They are located around 1700 16th Ave and ascend to Grand View Park.

Visit the Mission District

“The Mission” neighborhood is a mix of Latin and hipster.

Grab a Burrito for Lunch

In my opinion, California has some of the best Mexican food in the world, so you shouldn’t leave San Francisco without a delicious burrito.

Misión San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores

An essential part of California’s history is the building of missions to spread Catholicism to the native people. The Mission Dolores is the oldest surviving building (earthquakes and fires are tough on structures) in San Francisco. Read more about California’s mission history in A Day in San Juan Capistrano.

Haight-Ashbury

Honestly, I never spend much time in this neighborhood that had its heyday with the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but it is a very relevant spot in the city’s identity.

See the Painted Ladies

The Painted Ladies are the famous, beautifully colored victorian homes along Steiner Street. These homes were built in the Queen Anne style as housing for arriving gold rushers. They didn’t get their pretty colors until artists used them as their canvases in the 1960s.

Sit on a bench in Alamo Park to enjoy the houses, as well as stunning city views. If you arrive at sunset, you can get a picture of the sun’s nightly farewell over the houses with a backdrop of San Francisco’s skyscrapers. If you do that, some of the rest of my itinerary will obviously change for you.

Alcatraz and the ferry.

Explore the oldest Chinatown in the United States

San Francisco’s Chinatown is my favorite Chinatown I have been to in my travels, nudging out the neighborhood in New York City. It is big, well-established and colorful.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

It is fun smelling and watching the creation of these famous cookies.

Dinner in Chinatown

Dim Sum is small portions of Chinese food that you pick from rolling carts, and San Francisco’s Chinatown is a great place to get it. I love that you get to try many new tastes.

Literary Inspiration for Chinatown, San Francisco: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is a look at the Chinese-American immigrant experience in San Francisco. 

Day Three- Take a Day Trip from San Francisco

The area outside of San Francisco is so unique, and I would recommend exploring it with your third day in San Francisco. There is a lot of natural beauty just over the Golden Gate Bridge. Here are two of my favorite ways to spend a day outside of San Francisco.

Spend your Day with the Redwoods and on the Marin Headlands

Muir Woods National Monument

Less than an hour outside of San Francisco lies Muir Woods, named after the famous naturalist, John Muir. Take a hike into the mountains covered in majestic redwood forests, climbing to views of the Pacific. Muir Woods is the first National Monument entirely donated by an individual. You must reserve a shuttle or a parking spot.

If you don’t have a car, look into getting a tour from San Francisco.

Visit the Point Bonita Lighthouse

You can hike up to the third lighthouse built in California, which is still in use.

Have Dinner in the Charming Town of Sausalito

The cutest town in the Bay Area is right across the bridge from San Francisco. Crowded, but charming, it a perfect place to eat on the water. Be sure to spend time enjoying the colorful houses on the hillsides and the houseboats. There is a ferry from San Francisco. Look up the ferry schedule here.

Watch the sunset from Battery Spencer over the Golden Gate Bridge

The ruins of an old military battery provide some of the best possible views of San Francisco and the bridge. Parking is limited, and you will need to hike about a quarter miles on a dirt trail. This spot is where I got engaged.

Explore Wine Country

California’s wine country is stunning, glamorous, and delicious. Don’t miss a visit. Unless you have a designated driver, you will want to take a tour. Here are a few to check out that leave from San Francisco.

If you really can’t decide between these two options, you can book a tour of both Muir Woods and go wine tasting. It will be a busy day.

Or you can take a long day trip to the stunning Yosemite National Park.

Getting Around San Francisco

I would highly recommend taking a cab, the Muni (city buses and trolleys) or Uber in San Francisco as opposed to renting a car. Parking is costly, difficult to find, and driving is pretty aggressive.

When we visited, we got around on a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour. We did this for a few reasons.

  • The tour gives you an excellent overview of the city.
  • There were five of us, which would have taken a large or two cabs or Ubers.
  • We forgot to book tickets to Alcatraz, which sells out early. If you buy a bus tour with Alcatraz included, you can buy it even when Alcatraz is sold out.
  • Be aware that the stop in Golden Gate Park only operates on certain days.

Book your Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus tour here.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

If your goal is to be close to the things you want to see, it is hard to beat staying near Fisherman’s Wharf. This location is also near most everything you will want to do on day 1.  Book a room at the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco, San Francisco.

If you would rather stay in the more urban part of San Francisco check out the Hyatt Regency in the financial district.

If you are looking to book upscale either of these: The Fairmont in Nob Hill or Four Seasons on Union Square.

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19 thoughts on “3 Days in San Francisco, California”

  1. I have never been to San Francisco, but I have always wanted to go to Alcatraz. It seems like it is filled with history. I would also love to go to wine country and do a tour.

    Reply
  2. Having been to San Francisco three times, this itinerary is spot-on and perfect for a first-timer who doesn’t have much time. Definitely an important tip about booking Alcatraz way in advance. I missed it on one of my trips because it booked up! My favorite views were from Coit Tower and I wish I had taken the cable car up to Lombard Street. All 3 times I was in a car! I want to see the Mosaic Steps on my next trip, we ran out of time last year.

    Reply
  3. I am glad to know that when I spent two days in San Francisco, I more or less did 2/3 of the things on your list! It is such a fun city to explore and even with a time crunch, it’s fairly easy to see a huge number of different things. Coit Tower was probably my favorite thing, but I also really enjoyed exploring Chinatown on foot. I missed Alcatraz, and would love to do that next time plus see the city skyline from the ferry that goes there.

    Reply
  4. I love San Francisco. There I said it. And this post has brought back a lot of memories. A great guide for first timers to the city who only have a few days. I only been there once and spent a week in the city and the bay area and for me, it wasn’t enough time. There is so much to do here it’s amazing. Its my favourite city in the States so far, I just love the beauty of the place mixed in with the ocean, bay and green spaces.

    Reply
  5. I would go to San Francisco just for that crab and corn chowder in a bread bowl – I’m practically drooling just thinking about it! I’ve also always wanted to visit Alcatraz out of morbid curiosity. San Francisco looks like such a beautiful city! It’s a shame it gets such bad press these days – I hope they can get the city cleaned up soon!

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  6. I have always wanted to visit San Fran. It’s just one of those cities. And living in Seattle, it’s not like it’s that far, and I even have friends who live there. This awesome itinerary might’ve just pushed me over the edge – I need to go visit. So many amazing things to do, and I love how you’ve really laid it out in a way that is doable for a long weekend!

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  7. San Fran is such a great city. Love your list of things to do and I’ve had the opportunity to many of them. Some of my favorites have been visiting Alcatraz and biking across the Golden Gate bridge. One thing I’ve yet to do, is walk up Coit Tower. We’ve always used BART to get around, and found it super easy.

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  8. Great ideas to spent full-on 3 days in San Francisco. I wish I knew about it when I visit. Though it was so long time ago- 13 years, maybe i should visit again.

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  9. Loved it! I should have visited the West coast of the US in June this year. Very bad timing, I know. But there’s still time, and I will definitely use your list to make my itinerary for the trip that will, eventually, happen. Thank you for putting this together!

    Reply
  10. This sounds like the perfect three day adventure of things to do in San Francisco. I have been a couple of times but in general never did much there cause I was always visiting friends or heading up to wine country from there. So it is definitely on my bucket list to return and see the historic and cultural sites.
    I have driven across the Golden Gate but like you said, nothing would beat walking across so that would probably be my #1 thing to do. After that, taking a trolley car up the streets, visiting china town, and then an adventure to see the redwoods is definitely all on my bucket list!

    Reply
  11. So sad that I’ve been to all 50 states and I’ve STILL yet to visit San Francisco! I cry. HOWEVER, I now have a great itinerary for when I do visit. We literally have San Fran and Portland on the big city visit list. Thanks for this!

    Reply

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