You’re going to San Francisco! You’ve likely heard so much about this city before your first visit. If you’re wondering what to do, here’s the perfect San Francisco itinerary (4 days) covering the major sights plus some cool places you may not find on your own. You’ll also get heaps of San Francisco tips, such as how to get around San Francisco, where to eat and where to stay in San Francisco.
Whether you’re new to San Francisco or you’ve been many times, whether you’re visiting with the family or looking for romantic things to do in San Francisco, there’s always more to discover.
- Essential information about San Francisco
- San Francisco Itinerary – 4 Days
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- Day 4
- Where to Stay in San Francisco
Essential information about San Francisco
San Francisco Weather
The weather in San Francisco is temperate year-round, making it one of the best places to visit in California, so any time is fine for a visit.
It may rain often in winter months, and even in the height of summer, San Francisco is usually chilly.
There’s a day in this San Francisco itinerary planned for rain, so that won’t put a damper on your trip.
How to get around San Francisco
The cable cars are a San Francisco landmark. A one-way ride costs $7, which can add up quickly.
I love being able to hop on and off these moving cars using a pass.
I recommend a muni passport (also good for the bus). The 1-day pass is $14, and the 3-day is $22.
Buy these at the endpoints of the cable cars at Market and Powell, Beach and Hyde, or Bay and Taylor.
BART public transportation runs to some places, most notably to the airport.
If you fly to San Francisco, it’s convenient to take BART into the city.
Car services Lyft and Uber, as well as taxis, can take you anywhere, too.
If you drive your own car, be prepared for steep parking charges.
San Francisco Itinerary – 4 Days
This San Francisco itinerary will give you a taste of the variety of sights and activities.
You’ll see what San Francisco is known for – the bridge, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, the cable cars – as well as some lesser-known fun places.
The Ferry Building and Street Cars
Ready to explore this famous city by the bay? A great way to start is to head for the Ferry Building.
You’ll find this at the Embarcadero, at the beginning of the numbered piers.
Built in 1898, it’s distinguished by its tall clock and beaux-arts architecture.
Not only can you catch a ferry across the bay from here but also there’s an appealing farmers market inside.
Choose your breakfast fare from the pastry shops, fresh food markets, and coffee stands.
Next, hop on any one of the collections of vintage streetcars running along the Embarcadero.
Gathered from cities near and far, each car is unique.
The yellow one hails from Los Angeles and dates to 1937.
Use your muni pass to ride.
The Filbert Steps
Make your way along the Embarcadero by streetcar or on foot and get ready to climb some secret stairs.
The bottom is near Levi Plaza and Sansome Road.
The stairway winds up through the backyards of vintage homes built by whalers.
Their wives would hang out on the decks overlooking the bay, watching for their men’s safe return.
The 438 steps are in several sections.
This being a city where the unconventional is welcome, you’ll find surprises along every stretch, such as a ceramic tiger hidden in the vegetation or a parking meter in a garden.
At the top, you emerge on Telegraph Hill at the foot of the one-of-a-kind Coit Tower.
This tower on a hill can be seen from all over the city.
It’s named for patron Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left funds when she died in 1929 “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.”
The resulting tower still stands, rising more than 200 feet from its base.
Inside, buy a ticket for $9 to go to the top.
An elevator whisks you up to the observation deck for a 360-degree view.
You can orient yourself to the city surrounded on three sides by water.
From here you can see the densely built neighbourhoods of San Francisco, the very crooked Lombard Street, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the former prison island of Alcatraz.
Back on the ground floor, peruse the fresco murals covering the walls.
A guided tour will give you more information.
A year after Coit Tower was completed, in 1934, a group of 26 artists painted the colourful scenes that show different aspects of industry and commerce during the Depression.
At this point, you may want to walk down the hill away from the bay to North Beach.
You’ll find an abundance of Italian restaurants serving lunch or head directly to the next stop – Chinatown.
This neighbourhood is one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco.
Covering 24 blocks, Chinatown offers shops, alleyways to explore, and, of course, authentic Chinese food.
Grant Avenue is the main street, so you can make your way along here to take in the red lanterns and Chinese lampposts.
Browse the shops and markets. And be sure to find the green Dragon’s Gate on this street. When you’re ready, enjoy the local fare for dinner.
The California cable car line runs directly through Chinatown. Border streets are Kearny, Broadway, Powell, and Bush.
This former prison island is a popular attraction.
A short boat ride takes you here, where you’ll want to allow at least 2 to 3 hours to see the buildings and spend time on the dock looking back at San Francisco.
An excellent audio tour of the cell house allows you to move at your own pace.
You can experience what it’s like to be shut in a dark cell in solitary confinement.
You’ll hear stories of former inmates and learn of a prison breakout.
Order tickets online before your trip, if possible as this tour can sell out weeks ahead.
Pick up lunch at pier 33, where you board, then you can spend as long as you like on the island before heading back to the wharf. Check out these Alcatraz tours and passes.
A stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf is a must.
Sights to include even if your time is short here are the sea lions basking in the sun (or at least fresh air) at the side of Pier 39 and especially if you are touring with kids, you’ll find Pier 39 itself offers plenty to do.
There’s a small aquarium, and for younger children, an Exploratorium.
Shops crammed with toys and sweets line the main walkway.
For a less crowded place to hang out, check out pier 45, where you’ll find a hidden gem: The Musée Mécanique.
This museum of working antique mechanical games is free.
Just change a few dollars for quarters and try your hand at several games.
Ready for dinner? So many choices!
One of my favourites is Boudin’s.
This is the home of the original sourdough bread.
A bakery on site whips up doughy goodness right before your eyes.
Eat in the café downstairs or the fancier restaurant upstairs, both with views of the bay.
Boudin’s is a hit with young ones who can order off-the-wall creations such as a bread bowl in the shape of a turtle filled with butter noodles.
Ghirardelli Square Restaurant
Here you can see how chocolate is processed into the delicious candies and sauces made by Ghirardelli.
This is the original site of the company’s first factory.
The hot fudge sundaes will satisfy your sweet tooth and you can stock up on gifts in the store.
I took home toy cable cars filled with chocolates for my family.
Another favourite place of mine is San Diego, which I’m sure you will enjoy visiting. Here are the places I love in San Diego.
Rainy Day Options
San Francisco sees its share of rainy days. If rain is predicted during your trip, this day’s plans will keep you inside and dry.
Blend in with the locals with breakfast at Sears on Union Square.
This family-run restaurant is the place for mouthwatering Swedish pancakes, bottomless cups of coffee, and a bustling warmth.
California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is a large natural history museum that provides hours of fun.
With an aquarium, a rainforest, a swamp, and a planetarium, all under one roof, it’s a great place to spend a day.
Exhibits take up several floors, and you will constantly discover something new to explore, such as the collection of colourful geodes.
You can spend a good part of a day here, especially if you are with kids who are fascinated with science.
The cafe serves a varied selection of foods for lunch so you can fuel up and explore some more.
Cable Car Museum
Do you wonder just how the cable cars make their way up and down the steep hills of the city?
You can learn all about this at the Cable Car Museum.
What’s amazing is that you can watch the giant lines of cable constantly spinning.
The noise is deafening, but it’s unlike anything you will see anywhere else.
You can also learn about the invention of cable cars in 1873 and see some of the early models.
For dinner, why not find a restaurant close to your hotel?
You could always choose a chain restaurant, but I’ve found it’s fun to visit a local popular place for different dishes and atmosphere.
Ask at your hotel’s front desk for a recommendation. You’ll find more San Francisco tours and attractions here.
Morning / All Day
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is known far and wide as the symbol of San Francisco.
Spend today getting acquainted with this marvel of engineering up close.
You can choose to walk or bike across.
You have the option to go part way across and come back rather than continue to the other side.
With kids, I’ve found that walking to the first red tower is a good length of time for this activity.
If the weather is cold or rainy, adjust your plans to see a bit of the bridge and peruse the gift shop.
If heavy fog hides the bridge, don’t give up.
Fog moves fast.
It’s actually fun when the top of the bridge appears like a mirage out of the top of white mist.
In any weather (yes, even in the summer sun), take a windproof jacket.
A day of biking in San Francisco can be the perfect cap to a wonderful trip.
I rented a bike from Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals at 2715 Hyde Street on Fisherman’s Wharf.
You will also find bike rentals at pier 41. For about $25, you can pedal off for a day of exploration.
The bike shops provide maps and will answer any questions you have before you take off.
First, ride along the edge of the water, up a short hill, and then along the spacious stretch of land known as Crissy Field.
This is where locals bring their families to play. All the while you ride through this park, the Golden Gate Bridge appears ahead.
Continue up the last steep hill, then you are ready to cross the iconic bridge!
Viewing turnouts all along the bridge allow you to stop and fully admire San Francisco.
Once across the bridge, sail down wide-open roads on the other side of the water.
Keep going to the little town of Sausalito and take a well-deserved break for lunch. When you’re ready, ride the ferry back to the city.
On a clear day, you’ll see the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the city skyline. You will end up back by Fisherman’s Wharf, and you can turn in your bicycle.
If your time at the bridge is short, you can choose another activity to fill your day.
- Head back to Golden Gate Park and take in some of the museums or park areas.
- If shopping is your joy, take a cable car or private car to Union Square. Macy’s is so vast that the men’s and women’s stores are in separate buildings. You’ll find other shopping here, too, such as a bustling Apple store, DSW, and Swarovski.
- Can’t get enough of the marine way of life? Tour the USS Pampanito, a submarine that saw active duty in World War II. It’s docked at Fisherman’s Wharf. An audio tour gives you plenty of information as you wind through the dark, narrow confines of the sub.
End your time in San Francisco with a leisurely dinner along the waterfront.
McCormick & Keluto’s in Ghirardelli Square serves fresh seafood and features windows that give a view of the bay, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Relax and savour the food and all the memories you’ve made here.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Union Square is my favourite location. Restaurants and shops abound.
The cable cars are here. Shopping, drug stores, and coffee shops are everywhere.
It seems less touristy and crowded than the wharf.
These are mid-range hotels I’ve stayed at that I recommend.
Higher end hotels include the St. Francis.
The Hilton on Union Square at 333 O’Farrell – my favourite for ambience, service, location, a large deli; fun for families.
The Grand Hyatt, Union Square at 345 Stockton – elegant and quiet; perfect for couples
The Chancellor Hotel at 433 Powell – a historic boutique hotel complete with old-fashioned fire escape; I love the character of this one.
You will certainly leave wanting to come back again to explore more of this unique city by the bay.
Sharon Odegaard writes about her travel adventures at Exploring Our World. Her goal is to inspire you to plan your own adventures – whether that means spending a day at your local park or jetting across an ocean. She believes that exploring new places enriches our lives. And this wide, wide world holds so much to see! When she’s not travelling, she works as a writer and editor of consumer health articles.