As already explained in a previous article on the subject, 3 days it is the most recurrent measure that we tend to dedicate to San Francisco, and it can actually be considered a good compromise between the desire to make the most of the visit to the city and the need, at the same time, to invest time also in other destinations, given that, in most cases, San Francisco is included as a stop within much larger travel on the road, be it in California or the entire Southwest.
In this article I will try to detail what I think it is the best itinerary to visit it in 3 days, conceived not only to see the so-called must see attractions but also to enter the city mood. San Francisco is in fact a city with a unique atmosphere and should be explored thoroughly to grasp its most authentic personality.
I have already outlined briefly this itinerary in the article How many days to visit San Francisco, but I would like to write it here in more detail with lots of map and travel instructions, so that it can be used easily on site without too much effort.
Premise due: obviously all the itineraries are affected by a certain degree of subjectivity, therefore, to get a more complete overview, I invite you to read up on all other attractions not included in this article. In this regard, you can read my article on all the things to see in San Francisco.
Now we come to us: what to see in San Francisco in 3 days?
Disclaimer: whenever possible (especially for the first day) I have brought back interactive maps, so that you can easily reapply the walking route in the city. Most of the stages described contain a link to an in-depth article, which I recommend you read to learn more about the stage itself and then introduce any variations based on your interests. The itinerary includes a fair distance to cover on foot, by bus and by bicycle. Many city sections are up and down so get ready to do some effort but I assure you that the effort will be absolutely rewarded.
- Day 1: Between Downtown and the hills of San Francisco
- Day 2: Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf
- Day 3: Between Golden Gate and residential districts
- Other useful resources
Day 1: Between Downtown and the hills of San Francisco
The first day we will dedicate it to exploring the main districts and viewpoints of the city on foot. We will take only one public transport but, as we will see, San Francisco is the only city in the world capable of transforming a cable car into a real attraction!
There is no better thing than starting the day with a good breakfast, especially if set in a beautiful setting like that of the Ferry Building Marketplace, on the pier. Inside this famous market you will find a wide choice, which will increase further in the days when the farmers' market is set up in the square in front (Ferry Plaza Farmers Market). To eat, I recommend that you settle down at a table on the pier, where you will have breakfast surrounded by an exceptional atmosphere among seagulls, morning breeze and street musicians.
After breakfast, cross the Embarcadero Plaza and take Clay Street; continuing you will begin to glimpse the Transamerica pyramid, a true symbol of Financial District and the San Francisco skyline.
As soon as you reach the building, turn right onto Montgomery Street and then onto Columbus Avenue to reach North Beach, a neighborhood that can boast many reasons of interest, first of all its Italian origins, as evidenced by many clubs and restaurants (such as the VESUVIO or Trieste coffee), but not only: here the traces left by the Beat Generation they are conspicuous, starting with the library City Lights Bookstore, the hub of alternative culture at the time of the Beat movement, the museum dedicated to them (Beat Museum) and an entire alley strewn with graffiti dedicated to Kerouac (Jack Kerouac Alley).
- If you want to learn more about this area you can read my article on things to see in North Beach.
And that's not all: on Broadway, in the same area where you find the Beat museum, you can't help but notice some large clearly visible signs, which testify how once here (around the mid-800th century) there was the famous light district red Barbary Coast.
Let's go back south now, because there are 2 other interesting areas waiting for us: Chinatown, the largest Chinese community in America, e Union Square, one of the iconic squares of San Francisco. Heading south on Kearny Street, you will meet Portsmouth Square, the ideal place to observe the daily comings and goings of the Chinese quarter, just a prelude to Grant Avenue, one of the main arteries of Chinatown, where the Dragon’s Gate.
- Do you want to learn more? Here's everything there is to do in Chinatown San Francisco.
After passing the picturesque arch, you will immediately notice a nice change: dragons, red lanterns and oriental references will give way to big names and boutiques; we're about to get to Union Square, vital center of the city, celebrated by the monument of the Goddess of Victory right in the middle of the square (Dewey Monument).
After the usual stroll around the square, a bit of rest awaits us: let's head about 3 blocks south to the terminus of the Cable Car (Powell St & Market St stop), the San Francisco historic streetcar which, in addition to being a convenient means of transport, is actually an attraction in itself.
Let's take the Powell / Hyde red line and get ready for a very special journey ...
Get off at the Lombard Street & Hyde Street stop on Russian Hill and enjoy the first beautiful view of the day (it's just the first of a long series). At your feet you will see an unlikely winding road with flowers: you are on Lombard Street.
Follow it and from there continue on foot on Jones Street, which leads to, after about 3 blocks, Macondray Lane, a small alley called a historic site that winds its way between gardens and private homes.
The final part of the walkway is on a wooden walkway and the entire path can be crossed in a few minutes, enjoying a beautiful view of Coit Tower. Passing through here will surely delight Armistead Maupin fans, whose Barbary Lane of the book Tales of the City is inspired by this small street.
A few steps away awaits you Ina Coolbrith Park, a small city park little traveled by tourists, from which you can enjoy a remarkable view of Downtown, is one of your best opportunities to immortalize the San Francisco skyline, do not miss the opportunity!
The views you have seen so far have already given you an opportunity to glimpse the ultimate goal of the day: Coit Tower, the lookout tower on Telegraph Hill, the hill that faces Russian Hill. To reach it you will cross washington square, one of the liveliest squares in North Beach (yes in the meantime we are back right here), where the church of Saint Peter and Paul.
To reach the tower the easiest (and least strenuous) way is to climb from Greenwich St (as indicated in the map above), but on your way back down the hill I recommend you take the Filbert Steps or Greenwich Steps, which wind through pretty gardens and private residences.
Once you get to the base of the tower you can already enjoy a beautiful view, in addition to the beautiful ones murals inside the tower. To get to the top (by lift), a ticket is required. To find out more, read our guide to the Coit Tower.
Day 2: Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf
Today the day is dedicated to Alcatraz and the lively Fisherman's Wharf district, with 2 little final gems not very well known…
Today's morning, or a good part of it, we dedicate to visit Alcatraz, so I recommend you consider a minimum time of about 3 hours between boarding, visit and return (even if the journey to and from the island takes just about fifteen minutes, keep in mind that the ferries leave the island every half hour). Boarding is at Pier 33, to better organize your visit and buy tickets, I refer you to our guide on Alcatraz.
Once back on the mainland, go up the pier along the bay to stop at Pier 39, the most commercial soul of Fisherman's Wharf, the ancient fishermen's district that has become one of the most vital aggregation areas of the city. To the Pier 39 you can have fun going inside its bizarre shops and seeing them up close sea lion sunbathing on the docks.
Continuing along the bay you will find yourself strolling in front of a real caravanserai of attractions: from historic ships to unlikely museums, you could spend hours here without realizing it, therefore, to understand everything that awaits you, I refer you to reading our Fisherman's Wharf itinerary (NB: the order of the places of interest is reversed with respect to the direction traveled in this itinerary).
The point of arrival in any case is Ghirardelli Square, historic square with shops and restaurants where you will find a real institution of the city, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, founded in the mid-800th century.
Having completed this itinerary on foot along the bay, it is time to take public transport, it will not be as fascinating as a Cable Car, but the 30 Stockton bus (about 15 minutes of travel) is still one of the most comfortable means to reach one of the most beautiful monuments of San Francisco, Palace of Fine Arts, also used as a set in the movie The Rock (do you recognize the scene?).Do you prefer to continue on foot? Get ready to walk a good half hour along the bay, passing through Fort Mason and the Marina District
You can take the bus at the stop North Point St & Hyde St (2 steps from Ghirardelli Square) and get off at Broderick St & North Point St. After enjoying this beautiful monument you can enter the Presidio and reach, with a short walk, the beach of Crissy Field, from which you can admire the Golden Gate in the background, which we will visit the next day.Something weird around?
A 10 minute walk from the Palace of Fine Arts is located Wave Organ, an unusual sculpture made with the intention of reproducing the sound of the waves.
Day 3: Between Golden Gate and residential districts
We broke up for the last day the undisputed symbol of San Francisco, the famous red bridge over the bay, the Golden Gate. After having dedicated the first part of the day to it, we will then move to 2 important residential areas to understand the essence of Frisco (as its inhabitants affectionately call it).
There are several ways to visit the Golden Gate: you can get there by car, bus or cross it by bike reaching the pretty coastal town of Sausalito, and the latter is the solution I suggest; personally, the "crossing" of the red bridge over the bay by bike is one of the most pleasant memories I have of the city.
If fatigue scares you, don't worry: you can take one electric bicycle (in our guide for bike rental in San Francisco you will find information on this) and, to return, instead of redoing the same route, get on the ferry which from Sausalito brings you back to the city. This solution (costing approximately $ 13), in addition to speeding up the times, will allow you to take a short and pleasant cruise on the bay.
There are 2 companies that operate the ferries from Sausalito, one arrives at the Ferry Building, the other near Pier 39. I suggest you check timetables in advance (here and here) in order to schedule your arrival time in Sausalito accordingly.
The next stage involves a shift of a few miles, so you have 2 possibility: return the bike and take the bus or continue exploring the city by bike. In the first case, if you have rented it in the Fisherman's Wharf area (as I did and as you can too using the agencies that we have reported in our guide on bike rental in San Francisco), you may need to take 2 buses or add a good walk to reach the affected area.
If you opt for the bicycle, get ready to climb the long ups and downs of the city!
The next goal is Alamo Square, the square of the famous Painted Ladies; the raised park hill is the perfect spot to take one of the most famous photos in all of San Francisco. There are other interesting tenements in the area too, check out our Painted Ladies guide to find out more.
After taking the usual photos, we move to another residential neighborhood, but with much more history to tell: let's go to the intersection of Hight Street and Ashbury Street, the heart of Haight Ashbury, the neighborhood where the Hippie movement was born.
To reach it from Alamo Square you can continue with your bike, take a nice walk (about 20 minutes) or use the bus (21).
Finally, if you have time and energy left, you can take a walk in the neighboring Golden Gate Park, one of the great parks of San Francisco, so full of attractions that it deserves almost a day in itself (to be seriously evaluated if you have a fourth day of visiting the city).
Other useful resources
I remind you that to integrate this itinerary with other places of interest not included you can refer to my article on what to see in San Francisco, to plan your trips you can read our resource on how to get around San Francisco, while instead, to understand what it is the most suitable area for overnight stays, we have published the following guide: Where to sleep in San Francisco: recommended hotels and neighborhoods.
All our articles about the city are collected in our dedicated section: Travel Guide to San Francisco.