San Francisco is a good looking city but, fear not, it’s not all style and no substance. This progressive Californian city has pioneered everything from the Gold Rush to tech startups. It’s bursting with art, music and cutting-edge cuisine, as well as saloons and speakeasies dating back to the ’30s. Heading to the ‘Golden City’ sometime soon? We’ve cherry-picked the best activities for you to enjoy a 3-day itinerary in San Francisco.
The best things to do on a three-day trip to San Francisco
Snap a pic at the city’s most iconic landmark
Start the day with a bang at the city’s most famous landmark – the Golden Gate Bridge. When the bridge opened back in 1937, it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world, with a span of 4,200 feet (1,280 metres) and a height of 746 feet (227 metres). Frommers describes it as “the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world”. If you’re desperate to learn a little more about the iconic suspension bridge, you can take a free tour run by San Francisco City Guides, which runs every Thursday and Sunday. If you’re feeling up to it, you could even make the two-mile journey by bike. Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rentals and Blazing Saddles both offer rentals and tours for every size cyclist. Wheel Fun Rentals also offers an audio-guided bike tour too.
Get back to nature at Golden Gate Park
At more than 1,000 acres, Golden Gate Park is actually bigger than Manhatten’s Central Park. You’ll need time to wander through it – the lakes, themed gardens, rainforest dome, planetarium and aquarium are just the tip of the iceberg. There are two excellent museums inside the park worth exploring two – the De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. Don’t miss the brilliant views from the top of the Hamon Observation Tower at the De Young Museum.
Lunch on the beach
Ocean Beach is just a short stroll from Golden Gate Park. It’s one of the longest beaches in the city, stretching across the entire Sunset District from Cliff House to Sloat Boulevard. When the tide is low, you can even spot 19th and 20th-century shipwrecks at the end of Ortega Street. Pick up a footlong hoagie from Palm City Wines. There are a handful of fillings to choose from but we vote for either the Italian American meat combo or the Roasted Cauliflower Hoagie, with asparagus and ginger lemongrass aioli. You can split one generously between two people.
Take your credit card out for a spin in Union Square
Head downtown to explore the palm tree-lined plaza, Union Square. It boasts the highest concentration of shops in the city, home to blockbuster brands like Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Dior, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. Just south of the square, on Market Street, you’ll find Westfield San Francisco Centre, home to a few of the city’s more accessible brands.
Drinks in China Town
Despite drawing huge crowds of tourists every day, colourful, chaotic China Town is still home to a large Chinese population. Stroll the red lantern adorned streets and mosey around the Asian supermarkets. You’ll find some of the city’s best dive bars here too. Li Po Lounge is practically a local institution, one of the best remaining nightclubs that dominated from the 1930s to the 1960s. It still looks pretty much the same as it does when it opened back in 1937, from its red lacquer doors to its iconic paper lanterns.
Followed by dinner in Little Italy
There are delicious dinners aplenty in China Town, but we’re on a tight time schedule here with at least a dozen districts to explore. Little Italy is another of San Francisco’s iconic neighbourhoods, though it’s changed quite a bit since big tech arrived. Caffe Trieste is credited as the birthplace of West Coast coffee culture. Giovanni Giotta, also known as ‘Papa Giotta’, started hosting live opera performances in the 1950s and you can still catch them at the weekends. For pizza even your Nonna will approve of, head to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. You’ll inevitably burn the roof of your mouth in the rush to gobble down their Margherita, but it’s so worth it. For Chicago-style pizza pies, look no further than Capo’s.
Hop on a cable car
Take San Francisco’s signature cable car out for a spin on a hair-raising ride down and around the city’s many hills. Some of its rickety carriages are the same that have carried commuters across the city since the 1870s, pulled along by a cobweb of cables under the road. You can choose from three different routes, but the Powell-Hyde branch is the longest and boasts brilliant views over the water.
Stroll Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of San Francisco’s most popular bucket-list destinations. Once the home of San Francsico’s fishing fleet, Fisherman’s Wharf is now a premier entertainment destination. This is where you’ll find some of the city’s best ‘edutainment’ attractions, like the Aquarium of the Bay, the 7D experience and the Musical Stairs too. You can catch sea lions chilling on the wooden barges over at Pier 39, or get up even closer to them at the Sea Lion Center where you can read more about the sea lions and touch their pelts. If you’re feeling lazy, you can hop in a GoCar for a GPS guided tour of the area. Each car is preloaded with over 200 points of interest.
Stop for lunch at Pier 39
Stroll along the charming re-purposed wooden finger pier, which is now bustling with street performances, souvenir stands and restaurants with glittering views of the bay. There are dozens of eateries around here, including 13 full-service restaurants serving up everything from pretzels to clam chowder. Finish up with a handful of Trish’s Mini Donuts – they’re served to hot and sticky perfection.
Escape (to) Alcatraz
Stroll back towards Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up a ferry to the former island prison of Alcatraz. Located 1.25 miles (2 km) from San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was home to some of the United States’ most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, Bumpy Johnson, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It closed in 1963 and is now a National Historic Landmark. There are a few different tours running throughout the day, but make sure you book it in advance as the prices rise steeply for last-minute tickets. Alcatraz Cruises is a good option. Make sure you pick up an audio guide too; it helps bring the prison to life as you wander around its eerie cells and office gardens.
Feast your way through the Ferry Building
You’ll have worked up an appetite by the time you get back on dry land. Head to The Ferry Building Marketplace, which is both a beloved architectural landmark and the epicentre of the city’s culinary scene. The elegant building was once the city’s main transportation hub, welcoming 50,000 commuters every day. The rise of the car, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, made it absolute. In 2003, it reopened to the public to promote regional artisan producers. There are tons of sit down restaurants serving up everything from classical American burgers and hand-spun milkshakes to oysters and champagne.
Catch a show at a legendary live music venue
The Fillmore has booked out some of the biggest acts of all time, with the likes of James Brown, Prince and Jimi Hendrix headlining sell-out shows in the past five decades. Or, you could try San Francisco’s oldest nightclub, the Great American Music Hall. The venue opened in 1907 and launched the career of Sarah Vaughan, amongst other big names. For an intimate evening, there’s The Chapel, once a mortuary and now a 40-foot high music venue. There’s a great bar and restaurant here too.
Tuck into a lazy brunch
Start the day with a lazy morning at one of the best brunch spots in town – Nopa. This cult classic even made it to Big 7’s roundup of the Top 50 places for Brunch in America. Specialising in organic wood-fired cuisine, you’ll find creative and skilful dishes on the menu, like Green Eggs and Ham. Wash it down with a cup of locally roast Blue Bottle Coffee.
Wander along the Painted Ladies
Just a short stroll away, you’ll find San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco. Also known as ‘Postcard Row’, this tight formation of Victorian houses, set against the backdrop of downtown’s skyscrapers, makes the perfect snap for the ‘gram. They’re all privately owned so you won’t be able to go inside but the owners are used to people taking photos on their doorsteps. You may also recognize them from the TV series “Full House.”
Hike up the Twin Peaks
Time to work off those calories with a (mercifully short) hike up to the Twin Peaks. These two hills rise almost 1000 feet above the geographical heart of the city, boasting sweeping 360-degree views over the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, downtown, Angel Island, and more. The hills are part of a 64-acre Twin Peaks Natural Area, which is free to visit year-round. To get to the top, hike up the 0.7-mile trail network. If you’re after something a little long, you can stick on half a mile by continuing down the Twin Peaks Boulevard towards Portola Drive and Glen Canyon Park.
Soak up some masterpieces
After all that time outdoors, it’s time to seek some indoor pleasures. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is one of the city’s most famous and fabulous arts institutions, boasting an incredible seven floors of galleries. Established in 1935, the museum gained a reputation for championing artists such as Diego Rivera, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Arshile Gorky. There are 45,000 square feet of space to explore, so you’ll need to be tactical about what to visit in the space of a few short hours. Up on the fifth floor, you’ll find some of Andy Warhol’s most playful pop art, while on the third floor you’ll find the museum’s staggering photography collection. On the sixth floor, it’s all post-1960 German artworks, while the second floor is where you’ll find the likes of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse.
… Then check out some protest art
The Mission is bursting with vibrant murals. When the Latino communities moved into the area in the 1960s, they brought with them a rich tradition of political protest art, inspired by the likes of Diego Rivera. Today, the district is an outdoor gallery festooned with hundreds of colourful works commenting on everything from cultural heritage to socio-political movements. Balmy Alley is the best-known section of the district, featuring works dating back to the 1980s depicting human rights violations and political corruption in central America. For a more in-depth exploration, you can also book a tour with Precita Eyes, a mural arts collective that gives two-hour guided tours at the weekends. The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts is located just a few blocks away too.
Get some views with your booze
San Fran might have a reputation for foggy weather and biting winds, but that doesn’t mean al fresco wining and dining is off the cards. The city has a buzzing rooftop scene, from iconic penthouse cocktail bars to edgy second-storey roof decks. Head to the Mission District for San Francisco’s most beloved rooftop bar – El Techo. You can order your cocktails in pitchers, filled to the brim with creative concoctions like the ‘Tres Amigos’, made with sangria, grappa, lager and Mi Campo Blanco. Need we say more?
Chow down on cheap tacos
Since you’ve already made the journey to Mission, you may as well stick around a while. It’s the hottest district in town, and it’s also the oldest. When Spanish settlers founded San Francisco in 1776, they landed here. Today, Mission District still has distinctly Latin flavours and you’ll have no problem finding a table somewhere – it has the densest concentration of restaurants in the whole of the city. For a cheap and cheerful Mexican dinner, try La Torta Gorda or the bright and buzzing Lolo. If it’s a special occasion and you’re looking to splurge, try the many-course tasting menu at the upscale Mexican joint, Californios.