4 Days in San Francisco – Your First Trip to the City by the Bay

categories: Northern California

San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world in my opinion. The city is only about 6 miles by 6 miles squarish, which is about twice the size of the island of Manhattan, but in that 46 square miles it packs in a lot of hills, some great food, some interesting ethnic neighborhoods, some interesting history, nearly 900,000 people and a unique personality.

You could easily spend more than a week or a month in San Francisco and longer in the greater San Francisco Bay area, but I have seen a number of people looking for what to do in San Francisco in a long weekend, 4 days. So here is how to spend 4 somewhat hectic, always lovely and delicious days in the City by the Bay.

San Francisco Skyline

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Covid-19

I am writing this article in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of this writing, many if not most of the museums in San Francisco are closed but other attractions like Alcatraz and bay cruises have reopened.

Day 1 – Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz

We can debate which neighborhood is the heart of San Francisco. Is it the Mission District with the oldest building in the city? Is it Nob Hill with some of the historic mansions? Is it the Barbary Coast where miners and sailers caroused at the time of the gold rush that made the city? Is it the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?

I am going to stake a claim that for most tourists it is the shoreline from Pier 39 to Fisherman’s wharf. This area is some of the best and the worst of San Francisco rolled into one. It is a street party with some of the best street performers and some of the oddest (yes bushman, I am talking about you). It has some great historic attractions and some tourist traps (Ripley’s Believe It or Not! San Francisco Dungeon, and not one but two wax museums). But this is where I am going to start your tour.

Alcatraz Island Tour

One of the best San Francisco sites is the tour of Alcatraz Island which was a former fort and more famously an infamous prison. Let’s mention Alcatraz because if you want to tour Alcatraz you need to build your day around this roughly 3-hour tour. You will absolutely need to get tickets in advance, and in some seasons this means weeks or months in advance.  You should also either get a guided tour or the excellent audio tour which has the story of the prison told by former prisoners and guards.  Alcatraz tours leave from Pier 33.

(see more in Alcatraz Island – The Definitive Guide to Touring Alcatraz).

Harbor Tour

The boat out to Alcatraz will give you some great views of the city but if you did not reserve your tickets in time then I would suggest instead you take one of the harbor cruises on the Blue and Gold / Red and White Tours. The tours are about the same, but Blue and Gold are the colors of nearby U.C. California Berkeley and Red and White are the colors of nearby Stanford. The fleets were started by rivals from those two schools. The Blue and Gold tour is covered as one of the 4 attractions of the San Francisco CityPASS.

The Red and White fleet is between Pier 43.5 and Fisherman’s Wharf. The Blue and Gold Fleet is just to the west of Pier 39.

Alternatively, You can also rent a boat in San Francisco with a local captain to take you on a custom harbor tour.

Pier 39

Pier 39 is a shopping pier but I recommend it to all tourists for a few reasons. If you don’t get out to Alcatraz then you will get some of the best views of the island from the end of the pier.

Pier 39 has a resident group of sea lions. These sea lions are not tame and have chosen from time to time to disappear but generally, you can get a good look at a bunch of sea lions being lazy in the sun.

Besides these pinniped performers, Pier 39 also tends to have some of the best street performers in the area. So stop by the stage at the end of the pier to see someone juggle fire, ride a unicycle, or perform feats of magic. Another great place for street performers is at the cable car turnaround in front of Ghirardelli Square, but the difference is that performers must audition to get on the Pier 39 stage.

Optional Activities near Fisherman’s Wharf

If you are a history buff there are 3 things that I would point out in the area. The first is that you can tour a World War 2 submarine, the USS Pampanito, on Pier 45. You can also tour a number of historic ships at the nearby Hide Street Pier and the nearby San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center.

If you brought your kids … or you can borrow someone else’s kids… the Exploritorium is a hands-on science museum at Pier 15.

Ride a Cable Car

If you stay near Union Square or Market street then one of the best ways to get back to your hotel is to ride one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars. The lines can be long at the Powell / Mason cable car turnaround at Taylor and Bay and even longer for the Powell / Hyde turnaround at Jefferson and Beach.  The best way to ride is standing and hanging on the outside.

Food in Fisherman’s Wharf

When you are in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, if you are a seafood lover then this is probably one of the best places in the city to try the local seafood, crab especially. There really is a fishing fleet still in the area, although smaller than it once was. Scoma’s Restaurant or Alioto’s Restaurant are two traditional favorites, but there is always someone trying something new.

For more touristy food, buy a walk-away shrimp cocktail, a loaf of sourdough bread, or chowder in a sourdough bread bowl from Bodin’s. Save room for an ice cream sundae at Ghirardelli Square.

Shopping in Fisherman’s Wharf

There are some nicer shops in the area, but real shoppers will want to get to Union Street or Union Square. Fisherman’s Wharf is where you buy your souvenir sweatshirt. You buy it not because you want a souvenir sweatshirt but because you thought California would be warmer. They sell a lot around 3 pm or later when the fog rolls in under the Golden Gate Bridge. You can also get your usual souvenir t-shirts here.

Only in San Francisco – The Bushman

Somewhere between Pier 39 and Fishermans Wharf keep a sharp eye out for the Bushman. This is a street performer whose entire act is composed of hiding behind two hand-held branches and jumping out at tourists. You can usually spot him because a crowd of his former victims is across the street waiting for someone else to be caught.

Day 2 – Golden Gate Park and Golden Gate Bridge

For your second day, I am going to send you to the northwest corner of the city where you will find two of the most well-known attractions in San Francisco: Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge. In between is a section of the Golden Gate National Recreation area which is the old Presidio of San Francisco.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

There are a number of things to see in Golden Gate Park including 2 windmills, a bison herd, the De Young Museum of modern art, the Botanical Gardens, the Shakespeare Garden, and the Conservatory of Flowers. With this short itinerary, I am going to recommend two: The Japanese Tea Gardens and the California Academy of Science.

If you are a fan of art and not of science I would still skip the De Young Museum in favor of either the Palace of the Legion of Honor (fine art) which is north of the park near Land’s End or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art near Moscone Center and Market Street.

Japanese Tea Gardens

The Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park are one of the most beautiful and one of the most peaceful spots in the city. You can take the time for tea at the tea house but I would probably recommend skipping that for most people. No pets are allowed in the garden.

California Academy of Science

The California Academy of Science went from a good science museum to a great science museum with its upgrade in 2009. In that year they added a living roof with 1.7 million California native plants. They also added a 4 story tall rainforest. The museum also includes the Steinhart Aquarium and a planetarium.

Clement Street

Just north of the park is the neighborhood of the Richmond. Clement Street in the Richmond is a great spot to grab some lunch as there are a number of great restaurants there. If you are a reader, Green Apple Books in the Richmond is one of San Francisco’s two best bookstores.

The Presidio

The green zone just below the Golden Gate Bridge is the Presidio. This is where the original Spanish Fort that guarded San Francisco was built. It continued to be a U.S. Army base until it was closed in 1994 and it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. For this itinerary, I will just mention that the Walt Disney Family  Museum is in the Presidio and can be an alternative to the California Academy of Science for diehard Disney fans.

Golden Gate Bridge

I recommend walking the Golden Gate Bridge to get a better view of this beautiful Art Deco Bridge but also to get some great views of San Francisco and San Francisco Bay. I like getting to the bridge in the middle to late afternoon just before the fog starts to roll in (often around 3 pm). This allows you to see the bridge in sunlight and then also in its foggy mood. The best place to access the Bridge is from its southern end. If you have a car, parking rules change from time to time. There is limited parking at the southern end and some more parking below the bridge at Chrissy Field and Fort Mason.

Some will prefer to bike the bridge or visit it on a photo walking tour.

walking the Golden Gate Bridge

By the way, Chrissy Field was San Francisco’s first airport before someone put a bridge there. This is where the China Clipper flew off to adventure in the days prior to World War II. Fort Mason is a Civil War era fort just below the southern end of the bridge.

Day 3 – Union Square, Nob Hill, and Chinatown

On day 3 we will visit some of the centers for shopping, arts, history, and culture in San Francisco.

Union Square

Union Square

Union Square is where you can find many of the high-end stores in San Francisco like Macy’s, Tiffanys, Saks 5th Avenue, Williams Sonoma, and Apple. Combined with nearby Market Street it is one of the more popular shopping areas in the city. But Union Square is also home to events throughout the year. In the wintertime, there is usually an ice skating rink and a giant Christmas tree in the park. Instagrammers love to take their pictures with the two large hearts (as in “I left my heart in San Francisco”) in the square.

Start your day with a traditional breakfast at Sears Fine Food near the square.

This is also the heart of the theatre district with a number of theatres within about 3 blocks of here including the Curran which often hosts national runs of Broadway shows.

Union Square also has a number of San Francisco’s high-end hotels like the historic Sir Francis Drake Hotel (now  a Kimpton Hotel). The Sir Francisco Drake is just up the hill from Union Square on Powell Street. You can’t miss it as its doorman is dressed as if he lived in Tudor England.

Power Street Cable car on Nob Hill

Nob Hill

Today we are going to do some walking and walking in San Francisco means hills. We are going to head up Powell Street to Nob Hill. We are following along the Powell Street cable car line so wave at the tourists… they love that. We are heading to a place where you can learn how these cable cars work.

Nob Hill is where all the rich people built their mansions. When you talk about rich people in San Francisco you have to give a nod to the “Big 4”:  Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington, and Stanford. These are the 4 backers of the Central Pacific Railroad.

The InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco was built on the site of the Hopkins mansion which burned in the fires after the 1906 earthquake. The Top of the Mark bar in the hotel has great views of the city.  Huntington Park is where the Huntington mansion was located. The Pacific Union Club (very exclusive) is the only one of the mansions that survived 1906. It was built as the mansion for silver magnate James Clair Flood.

Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral is a Gothic-style Episcopalian cathedral that sits on the top of Nob Hill. Take a peek at its interior and its two labyrinths (one inside and one outside).

Cable car barn

Cable Car Barn and Museum

This small free museum at Mason and Washington won’t take long to visit but you will enjoy San Francisco’s cable cars more after you spend an hour or so hear learning about their history and how they work. A cable car has no motor. It has a “grip” which is a large pair of pliers that grabs onto a moving cable. The huge motors that move the cable are in this building and all the cable car lines are run from here.

Chinatown gate - San Francisco

Chinatown

Two blocks east of the Cable Car Museum is San Francisco’s Chinatown which is the largest outside of Asia. This was a neighborhood that dates back to the Chinese workers from southern China that came over to build the Central Pacific Railroad. You can find the iconic entry gate at Grant and Pine. Grant Street is the most touristy of the area with lots of shopping opportunities, but it is worth a walk down Sutter street also to see where the locals shop.

Take a peek into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to watch fortune cookies being made or pick up some fresh ones. I think you should not walk through Chinatown without stopping at a local bakery for an egg custard tart or a red bean paste cookie.

Lunch

I don’t have a favorite place for lunch in Chinatown but there are a lot of opportunities, or if you prefer Italian you can head over to Columbus for North Beach traditional Italian Neighborhood.

Explore on Your Own

This part of your itinerary can be accomplished in half a day if you make a good start. If you want to hike more hills you can hike more to Russian Hill for a view of Lombard Street or up to Telegraph Hill and Coit tower for some great views of the city.

If you want to dive deeper into the food scene this is a great chance to take a food tour of North Beach or Chinatown. Or you can use this time to visit the Embarcadero and its farmers market and food shops.

If you are a history buff you can hop in a VW bus and do the San Francisco Love Tour to learn about the hippies and the Summer of Love.

Oracle Park

San Francisco Giants

This is a great evening to take in a show, or if the San Francisco Giants are playing, a baseball game at Oracle Park. This is a great baseball park and the Giants are fun to watch, even if being a Giants fan can sometimes be torture. The cheap seats in the View Section have a great view of the bay.

Day 4 – Side Trip

There is more to see in San Francisco than you can do in 3 days, but if you only have 4 days I would take some time to see a bit of the rest of the San Francisco Area.

You can get to Yosemite National Park and back in a day, but I would recommend not trying to add Yosemite to this quick trip unless you think you won’t get back to California.

If you are a wine lover, you can easily add on a day at vineyards in Napa or Sonoma. You will either want to take a day tour, take the wine train, or rent a car to get to that area north of the city. Sonoma is a bit over an hour from San Francisco.

Monterey

You can also do a day trip down to the beautiful Monterey Penninsula but that will be about a 2 to 2.5 hour drive each way.

If you want to get outside and take a hike, you can get to the Point Reyes National Seashore by car in about an hour or to the Marin Headlands just the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco CityPASS / Go San Francisco Pass

If you plan to do at a few of the attractions below then a San Francisco CityPASS might be a good option to save you money.

  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure
  • Choice Ticket: Choose between Aquarium of the Bay OR The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Choice Ticket: Choose between Exploratorium OR San Francisco Zoo & Gardens

Another good option is the Go San Francisco All-Inclusive Pass with 25+ Attractions and Tours. You can get this pass in durations or 1, 2, 3, or 5 days. This pass includes a Hop on Hop Off Bus and admissions to the California Academy of Science, Madame Tussauds, The San Francisco Dungeon, the Exploritorium, a cruise, The Aquarium by the Bay, the Walt Disney Museum and more.

Getting Around San Francisco

I don’t love driving in San Francisco and the parking is worse than the driving. If every car in San Francisco stopped moving at the same time there would not be enough parking places for them. Hotels in the city will charge something like $40 a day for parking in downtown. The public transportation is good and Uber is very readily available. You can get from the airport via BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to Market Street which makes staying in that area advantageous.

Where to stay

I like staying in the Union Square area as it is more convenient for getting around the city and offers some of the best nightlife. Both Kimpton and Joie de Vivre have some nice boutique hotels in the city. I have had great stays in the Hotel Palamar on Market (now the Hotel Zelos) and the Parc 55.


Booking.com

San Francisco Heart

Conclusion

I have been coming to San Francisco for the last 56 years and the city still has not lost its charm for me. It is a beautiful city. It is a delicious city. Occasionally, it is a maddening city. It is a city with problems like homelessness. It is a city that never met a protest it didn’t like. It is a frightening city to drive and a tiring city to walk. It is a city where you will need to bring a sweatshirt or jacket… always.

But, it is a city where you will lose your heart.

How to tackle San Francisco in just 4 days. An itinerary of what to do, eat and see in the City by the Bay. #san-francisco #sf #sfo #california #itinerary #4-days #things-to-do-in How to tackle San Francisco in just 4 days. An itinerary of what to do, eat and see in the City by the Bay. #san-francisco #sf #sfo #california #itinerary #4-days #things-to-do-in

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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