How many major cities sit on the edge of the world’s mightiest ocean, with hilltop views, skyscrapers, quaint houses and fast access to everything your heart could possible desire, including some of the best gastronomy on the planet? Even compared to the world’s greatest cities, San Francisco is a total showstopper, and that’s especially true if you watch Sean Connery classic “The Rock”. And no, you’re not allowed to dangle anyone out of the window of a suite at the Fairmont, like Sir Sean.
If you’ve got limited time in San Francisco, like most travellers do, it’s hard to know where to start, and what to prioritise. Everyone may have different interests, but it’s the topography, food and the unique NorCal culture which makes this place what it is, so here’s how to get a taste of it all in just 24 hours including where to start, where to eat and what to skip. Yep, here’s an actual, usable San Francisco itinerary for you with step by step tips.
To cram all this goodness in, we recommend ditching the hip clothing for something you can move comfortably in – like sneakers. And yeah, we’re gunna start touristy and tick off those must see boxes, but then we’re going deep into the heart of true San Francisco culture.
6:00AM: Golden Gate View Point
It would make sense that the place where ride sharing launched has an abundance of ride sharing options. Uber, Lyft and a variety of other services work very well in San Francisco, and if you want to tick a big box first thing, hail an Uber to “Golden Gate View Point”. No really, it’s a place. This strategy will work best on a clear morning, but if it’s overcast, you could always do this last.
This area offers perfect, snap worthy views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area and is the best starting point because it’s the further point out. You’ll work your way back in from here. It’s always good to get the most “touristy” – but actually awesome – stuff out of the way first.
You can easily walk from the Golden Gate View Point to the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoy the safe, car free walkway. This isn’t the quietest or most peaceful experience, but it’s pretty cool to say you’ve done it and you may even see some dolphins below, depending on the season. Seeing out to the great Pacific Ocean is pretty cool, too.
The nice part about the walk is that it spits you out in one of the most enviable San Francisco locales, along the Presidio and Crissy Field Beach. You’ll find locals walking dogs, people out for morning jogs and get a feel for a beautiful part of town, before continuing on.
8:00AM: Travellers Choice, Breakfast And More
From Crissy Field Beach and Presidio, you can go a couple different directions, depending on your interests. Just a short drive, bike ride or walk you can head over to Golden Gate Park to enjoy art museums, a little peddle boat action or a casual stroll through the beautiful manicured gardens. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, you can carry on walking along the coast toward the city, bringing you to the Marina District and North Beach. Even if you go with Golden Gate, hail a ride to Marina District.
The Marina District, particularly along Chestnut or Union street and areas nearby are great places for a spot of breakfast, lunch or dinner. If you’re a fan of Italian food, this may be the best gem in SF. As we’re talking about morning here, Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery is a good place to aim. From here, you can head back along the water for a loop around Fort Mason.
There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, especially when you’re checking out something as unique in the world as zig-zag icon Lombard Street. Make your way from Marina or North Beach to Lombard and Hyde St, which you can do with the Hyde/Powell Cable Car, a walk, or an Uber. This will put you at the top of this picture worthy icon, with amazing views of the cars zig zagging by, and also of the bay down below. Once there, Russian Hill Park nearby is another great vantage point.
If you’re feeling fit, or just want to tire your legs out even more, walking down Lombard St is almost as challenging as going up. At the bottom, you can take Columbus Avenue to journey through the local areas of Telegraph Hill, Jackson Square and Chinatown. Keep in mind: any turn could lead you up or down a real hill, as the names might suggest.
If you’re a Banksy fan, “If at first you don’t succeed, call an air strike” can be found at the corner of Columbus and Broadway. Just make sure to look up, like way up…
As you may be noticing at this point, you’ve been carefully steered away from Fishermans Wharf. If you like Ruby Tuesdays, Bubba Gump Shrimp and Starbucks, go ahead and ignore that advice and head down that way. If on the other hand you prefer local cafes, world class coffee and and heaps of character, stay on track and head to the Ferry Market. This entire area has seen a huge upsurge in recent years, and even Bloomberg has headquarters nearby.
So what’s in the Ferry Market building? It’s kind of like a better version of Chelsea Market, with a world class wine bar, outrageously good Southeast Asian food at the Slanted Door, great bakeries, a lovely Blue Bottle coffee bar and an oyster spot too. With indoor and outdoor seating, it’s a great place to watch the day go by, and definitely highly recommended for lunch that suits all budgets.
1:00PM: California St Here We Come And Nob Hill Too
It’s hard to fully appreciate the terroir of San Francisco until you’ve experienced its original high brow neighbourhood atop Nob Hill. From the Ferry Market you can blaze a slow trail up California Street until you hit The Fairmont. This is the iconic hotel where Sean Connery jiggled an FBI Director out of the window in The Rock, and the area is home to some seriously impressive views.
Head to Polk Street to poke around these beautiful little areas or carry on along Hyde, using the cable car to give your legs some well needed rest. Cable cars in San Francisco are just too cool to pass up. This area is just ridiculous when it comes to world class eateries offering everything from donuts at Bob’s to Michelin starred stunners like Acquerello. Seven Hills is also a local favourite.
3:00PM: Mission District And Impossibly Hip Shopping
The Mission District has been gentrified a lot in the last decade, but it’s still freaking cool. For some, maybe even too cool. Think melt in your mouth taco joints, super hipster coffee and unique clothing shops with clothes made locally using organic cotton, or maybe even… hemp. 16th Street is the place to be here, and however you choose to get to this part of town, you’ll be so glad you did. This area combines the Latin soul of San Francisco with the young energy which is keeping it from going to the dark side.
Just wander up and down Guerrero, Mission or Valencia Street and take it all in. If you’re a street art person, this is everything. Go for Four Barrel Coffee, Tigerlily, Tartine Bakery, Dandelion Chocolate, Heath Ceramics or basically anything creative, cool and worth packing a suitcase for. Chances are, you’re going to want to stop back at the hotel to drop your haul off after this.
At this point, you’ve had a hella crazy day, as they say in California. You’ve covered much of the 7 mile city, stuffed your face, probably bought some weird stuff and if the weather is in your favour, you may even have a sunburn. You’ve conquered San Francisco in a day, and now the only thing left is a grand finale.
If you’re a planner, you probably already made dinner reservations months ago and are committed somewhere. If you’re not, this is the time to reflect on your day and figure out which neighbourhood you could see yourself living in, and which of the exceptionally good establishments you might have found yourself regularly eating in, in another life. Go there.
For nightlife and slightly cheaper eats, the Mission where you were just chilling is tough to beat. For high end dining, Marina and North Beach are iconic, as is Nob Hill. If you need inspiration, the Eater Guide to 38 essential San Francisco restaurants is pretty solid and will be highly unlikely to steer you in the wrong direction.
It’s incredible what you can fit into a day, and it’s also incredible just how satisfying a nightcap to top it all off can be too. For the kind of drinks that may you say “holy sh*t, that’s good”, SoMa, Mission and Hayes Valley are the kings and queens of cool. One might not exactly call many of these places next door, but with less than 1.6 miles between virtually any of these bars, it’s easy to hop around. If somehow you find yourself walking toward Tenderloin, turn around – it’s a bit too sketchy for most people at the moment.
To toast your perfect day in San Francisco, go for Wildhawk, Bar Agricole, Trick Dog, Smuggler’s Cove or ABV. You can’t go wrong. Just make sure you wake up in time for your flight the next day, because these things are almost as potent as many of the other aromas you’ll find around the city.
By the time you wake, your time is up. Go home, or head to Napa and Sonoma.