San Francisco Itinerary: How to Spend 3 Days in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the most popular cities to visit on the west coast of the US. This San Francisco itinerary shows you what to do in San Francisco for 3 days.
The first time I visited San Francisco was when I was in high school, visiting with my family on one of those Chinese bus tours. Little did I know that a few years later I was moving to the Bay Area for college and eventually spent 9 years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
San Francisco is truly an unique and fun city with its own culture, quirks, and history that it is worth visiting at least once. This 3 day San Francisco itinerary aims to show you the most famous San Francisco landmarks. [no_toc]
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Who This San Francisco Itinerary is For
You will like this 3 day San Francisco itinerary if it is your first time visiting San Francisco. Some of the places I mention on this itinerary are a must-see for those visiting for the first time.
If you have 3 days or less in San Francisco then this itinerary is great for you. You can pick and choose what you want to see and do. I will also include some additional things and day trips for you to do in case you spend more than 3 days in the city.
You should be in decent shape and willing to walk when visiting San Francisco for 3 days. Some of the activities mentioned on my 3 day itinerary requires you to be able to walk and ride a bike.
Lastly if you like wine and good food you will want to visit San Francisco!
The One Thing That You Need to Know Before Visiting San Francisco
Please do not say “San Fran” when you visit San Francisco. Locals hate it and we cringe at the sound of it. You either say “San Francisco” or “SF” or “The city”. If you do say “San Fran”, you basically are telling everyone that you are a tourist and people will glare at you.
How to Get to San Francisco
San Francisco is a large city with a few different airports you can fly into. There are actually 3 airports in the proximity: SFO, OAK, and SJC.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
San Francisco International Airport is the closest airport to the city of San Francisco. SFO is located in Millbrae, about a 30 minute drive to downtown SF. All major domestic and international airlines fly into SFO and there are numerous daily flights to/ from SFO to the rest of the US.
How to get to downtown San Francisco from SFO
BART: San Francisco International Airport has a good public transportation system that can take you to the city in no time. You can take the Yellow BART line from SFO directly to downtown SF (like Powell Street) in about 34 minutes and it costs about $10.
Taxi & Ride Share: If you land super early in the morning or late at night (or if you have 3 or more people), it may be best to take a ride share car services like Lyft and Uber from SFO into the city. It generally takes about 30 minutes and costs between $15 – $30. One tip is to do Uber/ Lyft Pool since many people are also going into the city so you will be traveling in the same direction for cheaper fare. There are also taxis available at SFO but I generally would only take Uber/ Lyft or the BART.
Oakland International Airport (OAK)
Oakland International Airport is another airport people frequently fly into to reach San Francisco. It’s located in the East Bay near Oakland (as the name implies) and sometimes there are cheaper fares flying in/ out of Oakland than SFO.
How to get to Downtown San Francisco from OAK
BART: You can take the BART to reach San Francisco (or other parts of the bay area) from Oakland international airport. You will first take the beige line then transfer at Coliseum Station. The trip should take about 45-50 minutes and costs around $11. Part of the journey across the bay into San Francisco will be underwater so your ears may pop.
Taxi & Ride Share: You can of course take Uber/Lyft or a taxi from Oakland International to Downtown SF. It costs a bit more to travel by Uber/ Lyft since it’s further from San Francisco compare to SFO and your car needs to pay toll charges to cross the Bay Bridge. However the view of downtown SF on the Bay Bridge is quite nice.
San Jose International Airport (SJC)
San Jose International Airport is the furthest of the 3 airports in the Bay Area from San Francisco. As the name implies, it is located in San Jose which is about an hour drive to San Francisco. I generally wouldn’t recommend flying into SJC unless you find some crazy cheap airfare or if you are planning to stay near San Jose. There really is no public transportation from SJC to San Francisco so you will need a Uber (~$100) or have someone pick you up.
How to Get Around San Francisco
San Francisco has a relatively convenient public transportation system and many places especially in downtown San Francisco are very walkable.
Walking is a great way to explore San Francisco especially downtown SF since places are relatively together and it is safe to walk. I used to walk around downtown SF all the time when I lived in the Bay and it helped me to discover cute restaurants, cafes and stores.
BART and Muni
The BART is the subway of San Francisco Bay Area and it is a great way to get around the Bay Area. Muni provides even more options to travel within the city of San Francisco since BART only stops at a few stops in the city. Muni includes cable cars, tram, buses, etc and most locals in San Francisco take the Muni around the city.
Unfortunately BART and Muni are not owned by the same company so there is no one set of tickets that cover both, I will provide you with some options:
Clipper Card: Locals use Clipper Card and you can load up the Clipper Card with money that can be spent on the BART and Muni. It costs $3 to get a Clipper Card, which you can do online or in stores.
Muni App: The easiest way to buy Muni Tickets is through the Muni App. When you buy Muni tickets on the app or on Clipper Card, it is cheaper than paying cash. There are also 1 day, 3 day and 7 day “Muni Passport” passes but unless you know for sure you will travel by Muni a lot during the day, it may not be worth it to get the pass.
Taking Uber/ Lyft
Uber/Lyft is a great way to get around the city especially if you have 3-4 people in your party and the rides within San Francisco are not expensive!
Renting a Car in San Francisco
I personally do not recommend renting a car in SF because there is absolutely no place to park in downtown SF (unless you want to pay for garage or hotel parking) and the ride share services are pretty cheap in SF.
Best Time to Visit San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco is nice to visit all year round since the temperature difference between summer and winter is not huge like in the case of New York City. But if you are looking for the warmest time to visit SF it would be September/ October (nope, not summer).
Fall is a great time to visit San Francisco Bay Area since the weather is warm, dry and it is less crowded than in the summer. In addition, San Francisco summer is very foggy (I mean come on, even the fog has a name “Karl” and an Instagram Page) so you should wait until fall to visit when San Francisco experiences its Indian summer, which is usually in October. October is also pretty cheap to fly to San Francisco if you are budget conscious.
As you can see in the graph below, even when San Francisco is hot, it does not really go above 75/80F (although in recent years there have been random heat waves and wild fires in the fall months).
San Francisco does have some rain fall in the winter months and it is usually pretty dry in the summer. Most likely you will not be experiencing tank top and shorts weather even if you visit San Francisco in the summer and early fall. The temperature tends to drop quite dramatically in the late afternoon/ evening and there is always fog at night (especially over the Golden Gate Bridge, Richmond/ Sunset District).
If you are planning to visit other places in the Bay Area (like if you go south to San Jose), the temperature difference can be quite big. When I used to live in the Bay Area I would leave San Jose around 5pm and the weather would be 80F and by the time I drive up to San Francisco around 6:30pm it would drop it 50-60F. You should always carry a jacket with you when visiting San Francisco since it gets chilly at night.
3 Day San Francisco Itinerary Overview
I’ve outlined below an overview of how to spend 3 days in San Francisco to see all the most famous landmarks of the city. It is a pretty packed schedule so pick and choose what you are interested in.
I also pinned a few restaurants that you should try out (red pins) when you are in San Francisco. However these are pretty popular restaurants and you should look into whether they take reservation or not (a lot of places don’t take reservations). If they don’t take reservation you will need to get there early.
Day 1: Union Square, Chinatown, Coit Tower, Alcatraz Island Tour, North Beach
Day 2: Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Bridge, Sasualito, Lombard Street
Day 3: Land’s End Hike, Golden Gate Overlook, 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, Mission Dolores Park, The Painted Ladies
Day 1 of 3 Days in San Francisco (Yellow Pins)
We will start this 3 day San Francisco itinerary right in downtown SF, where some of the most famous landmarks are. Day 1 is completely walkable although each place requires around 15-20 minute walk. You can choose to walk or take Uber from time to time (Uber should not cost more than $10 each time).
Start your 3 days in San Francisco trip at Union Square, the heart of the city. As the name implies, Union Square is a public square located in downtown SF. It is a popular place for both locals and tourists due to all the shopping centers, boutique stores, galleries, restaurants, hotels, theaters that surround it. The famous Macy’s store is right at Union Square and so is the flagship Tiffany & Co store.
If you are planning to ride the famous San Francisco cable car, Union Square is where you can get on/ off (usually there is a line). There are also public art at Union Square that you can check out.
Chinatown San Francisco
Chinatown San Francisco is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. It is one of the most visited places in San Francisco due to its cultural importance (other than the fact that is is a famous SF landmark). In fact there are more visitors to San Francisco Chinatown than the Golden Gate Bridge!
When walking around Chinatown, you will see not only touristy souvenir shops but also Chinese grocery markets, bakeries, restaurants, and even elementary schools and hospitals since SF Chinatown is so big.
But honestly speaking, locals generally don’t get Chinese food or Dim Sum from SF Chinatown. If you are craving Egg Tarts, most tourists go to Golden Gate Bakery but there are many other bakeries that are good and way cheaper than Golden Gate Bakery.
Ina Coolbrith Park
Generally most tourists won’t be visiting Ina Coolbrith Park as I’d like to think of it as a hidden gem that only locals know about. Located between Nob Hill and Russian Hill, Ina Coolbrith Park is a small neighborhood park with amazing views of the Bay Area. It’s worth stopping by if you want something different and have time but be warned that it’s a hike to get up those hills (or you can just take a car like I did).
Coit Tower is an observation deck (and memorial) located on tnop of Telegraph Hill in Pioneer Park in downtown San Francisco. It was built in 1933 to beautify the city and has since become a memorial tower dedicated to volunteer firemen who died in SF.
Coit Tower is free to enter but you have to pay to get up to the observation deck. Coit Tower has the best view of the Bay Area in SF (supposedly). There are guided group tours to tour the Tower and the murals and the Tower is open from 10am to 6pm everyday. For more information on visiting Coit Tower check out their official website.
Alcatraz Island Tour
If you had followed my route above, you will now be very close to Pier 33, the pier for visiting Alcatraz Island.
Alcatraz Island is a famous island that used to be a military fort, military prison and then a maximum security prison located about 1.25 miles offshore from SF.
Alcatraz Island has also been featured in many films such as The Rock, Catch Me if You Can, X-Men, Escape from Alcatrz, etc. What is interesting about Alcatraz is that it looks like nobody has been able to escape from Alcatraz by swimming because of the cold water temperature, current speed and occasional visits by sharks. There of course have been escape attempts but all seem to have failed.
Today the Island is managed by the National Park Services and is open to tours. You can take a boat from Pier 33 to visit Alcatraz, do an audio tour and walk around the island. You should get tickets to the tours from the official Alcatraz Island Tour website and there are both day tours and evening tours! You should budget at least 3 hours for this tour (including the ferry rides).
When you are back from your Alcatraz Island tour it’s probably around dinner time. If you want good Italian food, you may want to walk to the North Beach neighborhood.
Day 2 of 3 Days in San Francisco (Purple Pins)
Day 2 of this San Francisco itinerary will involve some walking and a lot of biking (I hope you know how to bike) and I think this would be the most fun day on your SF itinerary.
Pier 39/ Fisherman’s Wharf
Start your second day in SF in downtown again at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. You were actually very close to Pier 39 after the Alcatraz Tour so if you have time during the first night you could totally explore it.
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular tourist attraction among all the piers in San Francisco. There are numerous stores, restaurants and even street artists at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. You can also see Sea lions and visit Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39.
Biking Across the Golden Gate Bridge
One reason I want you to visit Pier 39 earlier in the morning is because you can rent a bike from Pier 39 to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. I have personally done this twice and loved it both times. It really is a great way to tour the city while getting some workout in.
There are several different companies that offer this bike rental service in San Francisco and the one I would recommend is Blazing Saddles. They have several locations just in Fisherman’s Wharf and they are open everyday at 8am.
You can either bike on your own (they give you a map) or join one of their tours. I’ve always chosen to do my own self-guided tour because it gave me the flexibility to spend time however I want it.
The best route (in my opinion) is to pick up the bike at Fisherman’s Wharf, bike past Aquatic Park, Fort Mason, the Marina, stop by Palace of Fine Arts, relax at Crissy Field, continue to Fort Point and get on the Golden Gate Bridge. When you are done taking photos of Golden Gate Bridge you will bike all the way across the bridge to Sausalito, eat lunch there and take a ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf to return your bike. This whole route is about 8.5 miles and you can do it at your own speed. There are a few big hills that you will need to go over on your biking route (one comes up pretty early on) so be prepared!
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the expensive Marina District and it was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific exhibition. It is seriously one of my favorite places in San Francisco because it’s so pretty and nice. A lot of couples come to the Palace of Fine Arts to take engagement and wedding photos.
You can totally make a small detour to stop by the Palace of Fine Arts and walk around for 30 minutes to 45 minutes. I also like to check out the expensive houses surrounding the Palace of Fine Arts and wonder where these people work at.
After you visit the Palace of Fine Arts and bike towards the Golden Gate Bridge, you will inevitably pass a large grassy field called Crissy Field. You can have a really nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field so be sure to stop by and grab some photos.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is the symbol of San Francisco and one of the most recognized landmarks in the world. It really is amazing to be able to bike across the bridge (you have to carry your bike up to the bridge first). It can be quite windy on the bridge and bikers and pedestrians are usually on the different sides of the bridge. The bridge can be windy and foggy so be prepared for the weather but spend as much time as you need on this bridge since we won’t be coming back here.
Once you are done with the Golden Gate Bridge you will continue to bike towards Sausalito, a cute and expensive town on the north side of the bridge. I hope you are comfortable riding your bike because you will need to first go down a huge hill (with cars) before reaching Sausalito.
There are numerous stores, art galleries and restaurants in Sausalito near the water. When you are done with exploring the town you will board the ferry with your bike to go back to Pier 39 to return your bike. This whole biking trip could take you anywhere between 2.5 hours to 5 hours depending on how long you stop at each place.
After you are back from Sausalito and return your bike, it is time do a little more exploring of that area.
I am a chocolate lover and although I personally don’t care too much about the Ghirardelli brand, I do LOVE their ice cream sundae with hot fudge. If you love ice cream sundaes it’s definitely worth getting it from Ghirardelli Square.
What’s a visit to SF without seeing the famous Lombard Street? Known as the crookedest street in the world, Lombard Street is a famous San Francisco landmark located in the Russian Hill. There are actually houses (or should I say mansions) located on both sides of the street with perfectly groomed trees and flowers in the middle. You will see many cars driving down the narrow and windy path (something I do not want to do myself).
If you go in the spring season you will see a ton of flowers on the street. You can walk up or down but I do suggest that you walk down instead of up due to the steepness of the street
Day 3 of 3 Days in San Francisco (Black Pins)
The last day on your 3 Day San Francisco itinerary will be a few places all over the city. If you want to explore some of the other parts of SF, it’s best that you have a car for this day (or you can Uber/ Lyft). I would not recommend trying to walk as the places are pretty far apart.
Land’s End Labyrinth
Start your morning of your last day in San Francisco with a short hike to Land’s End Labyrinth. Located in the Land’s End Park, a part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area on the northwest side of San Francisco. The trail to Land’s End Labyrinth is one of the most popular hiking trails among locals.
The hike at Land’s End is a very easy hike suitable for families all year round. The hike is only 3 miles round trip along the coast and you can explore Sutro Bath, get a nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge and explore the labyrinth. I recommend you go early in the morning or during golden hour.
Grab some brunch (such as Cassava) in the Outer Richmond or Richmond District before heading to your next destination.
Golden Gate Overlook
If you are not sick of looking at the Golden Gate Bridge yet, head to the Golden Gate Overlook for another awesome view of the bridge. There is a small parking lot and it is usually not super crowded (I went on a Friday). The Golden Gate Overlook has become one of the hottest Instagram spots in San Francisco so it’s worth checking out.
Lover’s Lane: Wood Line
Located in the Presidio of San Francisco, there is another beautiful yet relatively hidden gem called Lover’s Lane that gained its popularity on Instagram in recent years.
There is a hiking trail for Lover’s Lane but the most famous spot is an art work by Andy Goldsworthy called Wood Line. It won’t take too long to check this spot out so it’s worth going to if you are in the area.
The Painted Ladies
Made popular by the TV show Full house, the “Painted Ladies is a a row of colorfully painted Victorian Houses at Alamo Square Park in San Francisco. There are actually a number of Victorian and Edwardian style houses painted with pastel colors in San Francisco besides these ones. Stop by this park for a quick shot of this post-card famous row of houses.
Mission Dolores Park & The Castro
If you are visiting on a nice summer/ fall day and want to relax and people watch, Mission Dolores Park is a good choice. Located between the Castro and Mission District, there are a lot of hippies or young people that come to this Park to chill on the weekend. There is also a nice view of downtown San Francisco from Mission Dolores Park
What’s also worth mentioning is that there is a great ice cream and bakery near the park! One of my favorite ice cream spots, Bi-Rite creamery is on the edge of Mission Dolores Park. In addition, the famous Tartine Bakery is also another block down from Bi-Rite Creamery. Both are worthy of checking out although they may both have a line on the weekend.
You can also explore the Castro neighborhood like checking out the GLBT Historical Society Museum or catch a show at the Castro Theater. It is also interesting to just walk around the area to get a feel of the famous San Francisco Castro. You can take this awesome 2 hour Castro tour to learn more about the history if you want to know what you are looking at.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
If you want another good Instagram spot in San Francisco, check out the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. These mosaics were first created as an effort to beautiful the neighborhood but now they are actually a tourist attraction.
Day Trip Ideas From San Francisco
If you have more than 3 days in San Francisco or simply want to explore more places outside of San Francisco then you may want to go on a day trip (or weekend trip)!
I really love the fact that San Francisco is so close to so many wonderful places and with a car (or a tour) it is super easy to see all the beauty not too far from the city.
Sonoma Valley & Napa Valley
Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley are both famous for their wine. If you are a wine lover then you must visit Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley when you are in San Francisco.
Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley are an easy 2 hour drive from San Francisco if you have a car. If not you can take a scenic train ride or take a wine tour like the ones below.
If you are a foodie and love fine dining, the famous French Laundry is located in Napa. However reservation can be hard to get so try to reserve early.
If you are an oyster fan then you have to check out Tomales Bay. About an hour and half drive from San Francisco, Tomales Bay is famous for its fresh oysters. If you go in the morning to Tomales Bay oyster Company you can pick up some fresh oyster. You can’t picnic there but you can take it to a nearby park or beach to shuck or grill and picnic.
Monterey & Carmel
About a 2 hour drive from San Francisco is the cute little gem called Monterrey and the nearby cute town of Carmel. If you are a fan of aquarium then you must not miss Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is one of the most well known aquariums in the US.
Carmel is a super cute town not too far from Monterey and it’s suitable for family or couples. There is also a beach that you can visit which is a nice get away from the rocky beaches/ cliffs of SF.
If you don’t have a car but want to visit both Monterey and Carmel you can take a day tour from San Francisco easily.
Big Sur is a stretch of rugged coast line between Carmel and San Simeon. There are hiking trails, view points and the famous 17 Mile Drive at Big Sur that one most not miss. Although it’s best if you could stay overnight to fully explore Big Sur but one day is good to see the highlights such as Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, etc.
If you want to get away from the city life to embrace nature and check out the famous red wood forest then Muir Woods is the place for you.
Located only 40 minutes drive from San Francisco, Muir Woods is part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area famous for its redwood trees. There are 6 miles of hiking trails for you to explore. However due to its popularity, you now have to reserve parking at Muir Woods before you visit.
If you don’t have a car but still want to visit, you can take a day tour from SF.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
San Francisco is not a small city so there are a lot of different areas for you to explore and stay. I will just mention a few areas below that you can consider when you visit San Francisco.
Union Square/ The Embarcadero
Downtown San Francisco is a good choice for a first time visitor especially near Union Square (north or east side of Union Square) because it is close to the BART, Muni and several major attractions. I personally would not recommend staying too west of Union Square in the Tenderloin because there are a lot of homeless people and it is known to be one of the more dangerous areas of San Francisco.
There are many hotels in downtown San Francisco that you can consider:
Hotel G: Only 2 minutes walk from Union Square, Hotel G is a contemporary hotel with large rooms and an amazing location. I personally stayed there and loved the hotel and the staff and how close it was to walk everywhere.
Hotel Nikko San Francisco: A block south of Hotel G, Hotel Nikko is only a 5 minute walk to Union Square and it offers an indoor pool with a glass atrium.
Nob Hill is a wealthy and upscale neighborhood north of Union Square. There are a lot of luxury hotels and historical mansions in Nob Hill so it’s a good and safe place to stay. The only draw back is the uphill walk from the BART station but if you are planning to Uber around the city then it should be no issue.
Fairmont San Francisco: You can never go wrong with staying at the Fairmont and I had the opportunity to stay there when I visited San Francisco. The rooms are luxurious and some of the rooms have really nice views. I had a view of the bay and Coit Tower in my room which was amazing.
You can also consider areas such as Fisherman’s Wharf or Lombard Street Area. However I personally would not stay at Fisherman’s Wharf ; even though it is very lively and vibrant during the day, it is very quiet and sort of dead at night.
Regardless of where you stay and how long you are visiting SF, you will for sure like the beautiful scenery, unique culture, amazing food and great nightlife San Francisco has to offer.
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