Visit San Francisco: What to Do, See and EAT
A few weeks ago, Ben and I took a whirlwind trip to Sonoma and San Francisco. Although we only had three full days, we truly made the most of our time by soaking in the best activities, eats, and wineries along the way. Last week, I shared this travel guide to Sonoma, and today I’m following up with the second part of the series, What to Do, See, and Eat in San Francisco.
As with my Sonoma travel guide, I selected each restaurant, activity, and our hotel based on a combination of meticulous online research, Google Doc-ing, and above all, talking with trusted friends who live in the Bay Area.
Even if you only have two days in San Francisco, as you’ll see from this post, you still have time to see iconic sites around the city—and eat a few fabulous meals too! I’ve also included a suggested 2-day itinerary to help you plan your time.
San Francisco in Two (and 1/2) Days: Top Activities, Restaurants, and Hotels
SAN FRANCISCO WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Ditch your car. Much of San Francisco is walkable, and for those areas that are not, parking is notoriously a) painfully expensive and b) non-existent. I recommend renting a car for any time you spend visiting Sonoma or Napa, but for transport within the city, services like Uber and Lyft are widely used and available. You can also call for a taxi or navigate the bus system.
- Speaking of the bus…it’s challenging. We tried several times to use it but found that routes run surprisingly infrequently and the timetables can be inconsistent. We also confirmed with local friends (who do not own a car) that public transportation in San Francisco isn’t as convenient or as widely use as one would think for a city of its size. If you are only in town for a few days, I recommend spending the extra money for an Uber/Lyft so that you can maximize your time seeing the city, not waiting at a bus stop.
- Never leave your room without your jacket. Although San Francisco can be warm and beautiful in the sun, many areas of the city are breezy and cold, especially at some of the higher elevations or by the Bay. I made this mistake big time by only packing a thin jacket (and two pairs of platform heels). I would have been better off with a thicker coat, extra scarf, and flats.
- Prepare for sticker shock. San Francisco is a big, popular city, and its prices reflect that status. Although you can find affordable eating options, the cost of living in the city is high. I’d compare it to Manhattan (or more).
SUGGESTED 2 (1/2) DAY SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY
This itinerary assumes that you are coming south from Sonoma/Napa in a rental car. If you will be visiting Sonoma/Napa AFTER your trip, reverse the itinerary. If you are not renting a car, consider other transportation options. All activities are described in more detail later in this post.
- Hit the road early from Sonoma, stopping at Muir Woods for an hour on your way in to San Francisco.
- Stop for lunch, then check into your Union Square Hotel (recommendation below).
- Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Dinner and drinks. Feel free stay out late, just not too late. You have an early start tomorrow!
- Coffee and bagels at Philz.
- Ride the cable car from the Powell Street Station to Fisherman’s Wharf. Explore the Wharf, then stop into Boudin Bakery or Bistro Boudin for lunch.
- Tour Alcatraz. (Be sure to book your tickets in advance!)
- Walk down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, taking note of the Ferry Building closing time before you go. Grab a snack.
- Hop into an Uber and tour a few of San Francisco’s iconic neighborhoods.
- Have your car drop you off at dinner.
- Dessert at Bi-Rite ice cream.
DAY 3 (half day before you depart):
- Breakfast at Tartine or the Mill, stopping for a cup of Blue Bottle coffee along the way. Pick up a loaf of bread to take home with you.
- Lunch in Chinatown.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN FRANCISCO: Hotel Recommendations
You will likely be doing a lot of walking in San Francisco, so the neighborhood you choose for your home base is important. We opted for Union Square. While a little touristy, it’s within easy walking distance of top sites, including the Powell Street cable car station, Chinatown, and the Ferry Building. It also is a shopper’s paradise. If you want to hit up major retailers while in San Francisco, you’ll find a plethora steps from your hotel.
We stayed at the Sir Francis Drake Kimpton Hotel, and the location was as ideal as I’d hoped. My mom first introduced me to the Kimpton hotel family a few years ago, and I have been a fan since. Each hotel is unique, and the Sir Francis Drake is no exception. The décor is Renaissance inspired, and the hotel worked little touches of the theme throughout the building, from the rooms, to the gorgeous lobby bar.
What I loved the most about the Sir Francis Drake—in addition to the special touches like a complimentary wine reception and free wifi—was the hospitality. I’ve found that many big-city hotels can feel detached in a “you give us your money, we give you a room” sort of way. Not the Sir Francis Drake. Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted, assisted with our bags, and provided with an area overview and list of hotel amenities.
BEST SAN FRANCISCO ACTIVITIES
San Francisco Cable Car
It’s three-way tie between which San Francisco activity is the most “touristy”: riding the cable car, visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, or walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. My recommendation: do all three!
To maximize your cable car experience, purchase your cable car tickets ($7 one way for adults) at the Powell Street station, then prepare to stand in line. The line is long at all times of day, so be sure to build in extra time. You can choose to sit on an outward-facing bench, or stand and hold the outside rail. Guess which one I picked!
Ride the cable car past Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you like, you can exit a stop early at Lombard Street and walk the last several blocks to Fisherman’s Wharf, but we were happy riding the cable car all the way.
An ultra touristy, inarguably fun shopping and dining area, Fisherman’s Wharf is worth visiting for the people watching alone. Souvenir shops abound, but for the best prices, you are better off shopping for your goodies in Chinatown. Be sure to stop by Boudin Bakery to see, smell, and taste the legendary fresh-baked sourdough and into Ghirardelli for an over-the-top chocolate dessert.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is iconic, a feat of architecture, and fun to walk across—at least for the first half mile. Walking the bridge was a bucket list item for me, and I’m so happy that we did it, even if my feet did hurt at the end.
The Golden Gate Bridge is often covered and fog, but we were fortunate to score a sunny, clear day. In retrospect, I would have double checked the weather report, though I don’t think the fog would have stopped our visit.
Tip: Take a bus or Uber directly to the Golden Gate Toll Plaza, which is where the visitor center is located, as well as where you can begin your walk. Do not make the mistake of arriving at Golden Gate Park and thinking the bridge is near. It’s actually quite a walk from the park to the bridge, so depending upon how much time and energy you have, you may want to consider transportation.
Our visit to “The Rock” was one of the most engaging and interesting parts of our visit to San Francisco. The island prison offers some of the most beautiful views of the city, as well as a look back in time.
An audio tour narrated by former Alcatraz guards and inmates brings the prison to life. I found myself wowed over and over as I wound through the narrow aisles and viewed the tiny cells.
Be sure to book your tickets well in advance (they sell out days and even weeks ahead of time) and arrive 30 minutes early to board the Alcatraz ferry. If you do an online search, you’ll find several companies with similar names all offering Alcatraz tours, but Alcatraz Cruises is the official one (and the one you want). When you arrive at Alcatraz, make a beeline for the audio guide, complete the audio tour, then use any extra time you have remaining to explore the island.
San Francisco has the largest Chinatown in the country, and it’s worth wandering, even if only for an hour. You’ll find the iconic gate locating at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Street, but my favorite part was finding the streets with as little English and as many Chinese grandmothers as possible. Scope out the assortment of funky produce, as well as the meat and seafood shops, tea shops, medicine shops, cookware shops…have I mentioned there are a lot of shops?
Chinatown is also a great place to find souvenirs. Prices are very cheap, but don’t be surprised (or upset) if you find the exact same t-shirt for $.50 less three stores down the round. There’s always a better deal to be discovered, but don’t let that reality slow you down.
Chinatown is also an excellent place to grab authentic food on the cheap. Check out my San Francisco restaurant section below for more info.
Loaded with local eats and products, a stroll through the Ferry Building is a delight. Come for a full meal or graze as you go.
Muir Woods National Monument is a National Park and home to a beautiful redwood forest. No matter how many photos you’ve seen of these famous trees, no picture can do them justice. Stand at their feet, breath in their sweet evergreen scent, and feel at peace with your own smallness in contrast to nature’s grandeur.
Muir Woods is located just north of San Francisco, so it’s a perfect stop on your way to or from Sonoma.
Parking at Muir Woods is…challenging. Existing parking lots are inadequately small, so you’re likely to drive quite a ways past the park in desperate search for roadside parking. Consider taking the shuttle or arriving right when the park opens at 8 a.m..
You can spend as much or as little time at Muir Woods as you like. I’d allow for an hour minimum to stroll along the main path and see the trees (easy walking—any comfortable shoes will do), or you can stay for longer and enjoy one of the longer hikes or bring a book to stay and relax a while.
City Views and Neighborhoods
One of my favorite parts of San Francisco included exploring its different neighborhoods. A few to check out:
- Castro District: One of the most vibrant gay/lesbian communities in the country and world. Be sure to check out the cheeky names of the different businesses, particularly the laundry mats and beauty salons.
- Twin Peaks: Breathtaking views of the city. Warning: it is WINDY up here.
- Land’s End: More gorgeous views.
- Painted Ladies: Five iconic Victorian houses located on Alamo Square park. This is a great place to bring a picnic and people watch. Full House lovers, the “Full House house” is a few blocks away. We didn’t go see it, but Wikipedia tells me the address is on Broderick Street.
Navigating San Francisco neighborhoods is admittedly difficult without a car. You could pick one or two to explore on foot, ask a Lyft/Uber driver to take you around for an hour or so, or combine a neighborhood driving tour with a trip to wine country in your rental car.
San Francisco Restaurants
In lieu of going for the fancy of the fancy, when I created our restaurant itinerary for San Francisco, I decided to pick restaurants where we might eat on a regular basis if we lived in the city. I asked my friends who live in the area where they go to eat dinner, and that is where we went too. I was not disappointed.
For a Casual Dinner:
B Star Bar: Sister restaurant to Burma Superstar, which is as legendary for its food as it is for its epic waits, B Star Bar takes reservations and is serving up some seriously delicious chow. Every bite at B Star Bar surprised and delighted us.
One of the best parts of eating in San Francisco is the availability of ethnic cuisines of all kinds. This was my first time trying any kind of Burmese-influenced food, and it was outstanding. Must orders: the fried Brussels sprouts, duck fried rice, and tamarind margarita.
Pizzaria Delphina: If you want to eat where the locals do, snag one of the five tiny tables at Pizzaria Delphina. The pies here are filling, flavorful, and offer a creative assortment of toppings. I opted for the broccoli rabe pizza with cream, and Ben went for the house made sausage with peppers. Both were excellent. Next time I come back, I’m going for the clam pie.
You can also dine at the more upscale Delphina restaurant, located right next door to Pizzaria Delphina in the Mission neighborhood. Delphina restaurant takes reservations, and all of the smells wafting through the door while we waited for our table at the Pizzaria just about caused me to switch dining locations!
Blue Barn Gourmet. If I lived in San Francisco, I would pick up lunch or dinner here at least two nights a week. Visit one of Blue Barn’s city locations for giant, fresh salads loaded with seasonal produce or a Panini sandwich served on classic San Francisco sourdough. A side of fries is mandatory.
Boudin Bakery and Bistro Boudin: No matter what time of day you arrive at Fisherman’s Wharf, a bowl of clam chowder served inside a legendary Boudin sourdough bread bowl is mandatory. You’ll find several Boudin locations throughout the city, the largest of which is at Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can watch the famous sourdough be made.
The Fisherman’s Wharf location includes both a casual bakery café and the slightly more upscale Bistro Boudin. The line at the café was miserably long, so we opted for a quiet bistro table upstairs. Our sunny view of the Wharf was more than worth the few extra dollars spent on our meal.
Chinatown: An excellent option for either lunch or dinner. I don’t have a specific restaurant to recommend, but a meal in Chinatown is a San Francisco experience not to be missed. My advice: pick any restaurant that is filled with Asian customers, with a menu that lists the names of dishes in Chinese before it does English. Ben and I were the only non-Asians in the restaurant we picked for lunch, and I could barely read the menu. Our meal was incredible.
Coffee aficionados, rejoice. San Francisco is a mecca for excellent locally roasted coffee, expert preparation methods, and baristas so good, they insist on putting the cream and sugar in your coffee for you.
Although I’m certainly not the most discerning when it comes to my morning (and afternoon) cup of joe, I do appreciate a good brew. I made two early A.M. treks to stand in line at two of San Francisco’s most famous coffee shops, Philz and Blue Bottle.
Philz Coffee: You’ll find light food options (I went for a toasted bagel with spicy hummus and olive oil), but the real reason to come to Philz is the pour over coffee. Philz’s iced mint mojito coffee is legendary (the four people in front of me in line and the six people behind all ordered it), but I opted for a creamy warm gingersnap instead. I’m not usually a fan of sweetened coffees, but sipping that golden liquid was like drinking the nectar of the gods. My only regret is not ordering two.
Blue Bottle Coffee: Started 10 years ago in Oakland by a self-professed coffee lunatic, Blue Bottle Coffee has grown from a garage operation to an internationally recognized success story. Blue Bottle is now available in four cities around the globe, but the coffee is still roasted using vintage gear and delivered to customers within 48 hours of roasting. Observing the baristas at work here was like watching a science experiment (or an episode of Breaking Bad).
The coffees I ordered at Blue Bottle and Philz were the two of the best cups I’ve had in my life. If I had to choose, I would pick Philz, but I recommend you try both and decide for yourself.
For Breakfast and Dessert:
Tartine Bakery: Visiting Tartine, one of the the best known bakeries in the world, was a pilgrimage for me. I couldn’t decide between the celebrated morning buns, fluffy scones, or almond croissants (my favorite pastry), so we ordered all three.
The almond croissant stole the pastry show, but my favorite item turned out to be the loaf of rye bread I brought home as a souvenir. I suggest you do the same.
A note for planning: Freshly baked sourdough and baguettes are sold starting at 4 p.m. and sell out quickly. If this is the bread you are after, be sure to plan accordingly.
Bi-Rite Ice Cream: Once voted “Best Ice Cream in America” by GQ magazine, Bi-Rite serves up scoops of heaven. The Blue Bottle Coffee and Salted Caramel are two of the most celebrated flavors, but of the five (yes five) flavors I tried, the crème brulee was my undisputed favorite.
THE QUICK & DIRTY: What you Need to Know to Visit San Francisco
Could Have Skipped It: Blue Barn Gourmet (so delicious, but does not need to be a destination unto itself).
Heading to San Francisco? Don’t miss my Sonoma Travel Guide!
Thanks to the Sir Francis Drake hotel for offering us one complimentary night stay. As always, all opinions are my own, and thank you for reading my travel guide!