One Day in San Francisco
If you have a day or less in San Francisco, your sightseeing strategy is very simple: either pick one major museum or one attraction you really want to see and work the rest of your day around that, or avoid all major attractions altogether, and just walk and take the cable car to get a feel for the city's diverse neighborhoods.
For the former, we'd recommend the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (or SFMOMA, as it's known) and the Golden Gate Bridge. For the latter, start in Union Square, but don't be too early: the focus of this neighborhood is shopping, and most doors don’t open until 10 am (11 am on Sunday). At the cable-car turnaround at Powell and Market Streets, hop aboard either line and ride over Nob Hill and into Chinatown. Browse the produce stalls and markets, peruse herb shops, and explore alleyways. Have your camera ready as you pass from Chinatown into North Beach, the old Italian quarter: Broadway looking down Columbus and Grant is one of the most interesting cultural intersections of the city. Walk Columbus Avenue—stopping for espresso, of course—then head toward Coit Tower up Filbert Street, which becomes the Filbert Steps, one of the city’s many stairways. Keep your eyes—and ears—open for the famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. Take in the views at the top and Coit Tower’s WPA-era murals of California’s history, then head back into North Beach for dinner or cocktails.
Three Days in San Francisco
With more time, you have a chance to see the sights, eat all the amazing food, and really get to know the city. The Mission neighborhood is the first stop, for breakfast and coffee, perhaps a cappuccino at Four Barrel Coffee and croissants at Tartine. With some pastries in hand and fortified by caffeine, head to nearby Dolores Park. The park’s southwest corner offers your first of many steep climbs. It also presents a panoramic view of the city skyline.
It’s a short walk to Castro Street, the heart of the city’s gay population and culture. Allow time to browse the shops and snap some photos of the ornate marquee and giant rainbow flag at the classic movie palace Castro Theatre at Castro and Market. From here, it’s a steep climb, but short mileage-wise trek, to the city’s “it” corridor, Divisadero and its chic cafés and vintage shops. At Hayes Street, hang a right and ahead is Alamo Square Park, with the backdrop of the beautifully painted Painted Ladies Victorian homes, made famous by the TV show Full House. This is the view of San Francisco.
It’s all downhill from here . . . at least until the late afternoon. Stroll down the hill along Hayes Street and check out the sleek boutiques of Hayes Valley. Lunch just a few blocks away at Zuni Café, a fine-dining staple that defines California Cuisine.
Back on your feet, continue down Market Street, San Francisco’s “Champs-Élysée,” which sadly is also one of its more struggling corridors, as is evident in the street life. There are many important sights to see here, including the Twitter headquarters and its must-photograph “@Twitter” sign at Market and 10th Street. Walk one block off Market Street to admire magnificent City Hall and its grand rotunda. Catch a ride here to the beautiful Chinatown Gate entrance to Chinatown at Grant and Bush Street. Continue along Grant Street to Columbus Avenue and explore North America’s oldest Chinatown. Hang a left at Columbus; after it crosses Broadway, Chinatown evolves into the city’s Italian neighborhood, North Beach. The Italian influence continues to dwindle but can be found in cozy espresso cafés, like Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe overlooking Washington Square Park. After a much-needed espresso jolt, get ready for another steep climb up Telegraph Hill, home of a community of parrots and Coit Tower, with its mesmerizing views at the top.
Back down the hill, immediately head to Columbus Avenue and have a coffee or a drink. Wrap up the day with dinner at Mister Jiu’s, the city’s game-changing contemporary Chinese restaurant by chef Brandon Jew. Everything is stellar and has an intriguing spin, but be sure to start with the prawn toast and sea urchin cheong fun.
Start in Union Square and admire the grand outdoor plaza that could fit in any European capital. It’s surrounded by the city’s luxury department stores, and the 97-foot Victory Monument column commemorating Commodore George Dewey’s defeat of the Spanish fleet at Manila in 1898 resides in the center. Give your legs a rest this morning and take the Powell-Hyde cable car that weaves up and down Nob Hill and Russian Hill from its loading spot by Union Square. After the requisite selfies as you dangle from the outdoor poles, get off the cable car at Lombard Street. This flower-adorned, curvy street is best viewed in the morning before there are more tourists than blossoms. When you're ready, walk a block or two away and request a car to head to Pier 33, where the Alcatraz boats depart. Generally, 2½ to 3 hours is a good amount of time for the boat ride and tour of “The Rock,” a federal prison until the ’60s. Avoid disappointment and secure Alcatraz tickets in advance online.
Back on the mainland, walk along the Embarcadero, a former elevated freeway turned palm tree–lined thoroughfare along the bay that is the de facto official venue for San Francisco joggers and stroller walking. For lunch, head to the Ferry Building, which is indeed the public transit ferry terminal, in addition to being a spectacular food hall filled with all sorts of vendors and artisans showcasing why the Bay Area is one of the greatest places to eat in the world. Save room for desserts such a chocolates by Recchiuti. As a bonus, if it’s Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, the city’s most extensive farmers’ market gathers outside the building.
Spend the late afternoon in the sprawling San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), a magnificent museum of modern art that is a 460,000-square-foot behemoth, with more than 1,000 works from its large collection on display. You won’t make it through all the galleries, so start with highlights, like the third-floor sculpture garden with a living wall and signature works by the likes of Wayne Thiebaud and Andy Warhol, plus Alexander Calder’s mobiles. If you want to linger a little longer here, dine at SFMOMA's in-house restaurant, In Situ.
Finally, take a short car ride up steep Nob Hill to two grande dame hotels of the city, the Fairmont and the Huntington. Their two bars are San Francisco classics for wildly different reasons. The Big 4 in the Huntington is all about piano music, dim lighting, an old-school vibe, and stiff classic cocktails. The Fairmont’s Tonga Room is as kitsch as it gets with its lagoon and ultra-tiki atmosphere. The mai tais aren’t so bad, either. Choose one for a nightcap. Or both.
After you've explored the city’s urban and residential sides, this final day is all about nature. If it’s a weekend, get a head start on the brunch crowds by racing out toward the Pacific. Then, enjoy San Francisco’s “unofficial official meal” at Outerlands, a surfer-cool, reclaimed wood–paneled restaurant that is often cited as the city’s best brunch. If it’s a weekday, Outerlands still has a terrific breakfast and lunch menu that isn’t too different from weekend brunch. Walk a few blocks to Ocean Beach and enjoy the sea salt–kissed air.
If there were more time today to do it, the walk all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most stunning in the country, but it would take several hours. Take a car to Baker Beach, just to the western edge of the bridge. The views from here of the bridge are magnificent, even dreamy. Afterward, climb up the steep Battery to Bluffs Trail, hang a left on Lincoln Boulevard, follow the trail along the road for another gorgeous Golden Gate overlook, and follow the trail to the Golden Gate Bridge’s parking lot. The views from the bridge are beautiful, but the experience can take a lot of time . . . and is frightening if you are even vaguely afraid of heights. Today, bypass the popular walk across the bridge and follow the steps down to Fort Point at its base. The walk from here to Crissy Field, an expansive grassy area that used to be a military airfield, is one of the more spectacular in the whole Bay Area. There are two bridges in view, the skyline, and lots of fresh air. Yes, welcome to California. End your walk at the Palace of Fine Arts, an elegant, colossal monument built in 1915 for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition world's fair.
For one final neighborhood, dinner, and drink, use the “Mrs. Doubtfire home” as the starting address, at 2640 Steiner Street. This is the heart of Pacific Heights, the city’s deep-pockets district, with splendid mansions and views on each block. Walk down nearby Fillmore Street and admire the price tags and high-end boutiques. Then, for your final dinner, head to the wildly inventive State Bird Provisions, to enjoy a feast of globe-spanning contemporary creations served dim sum–style. Make reservations at State Bird Provisions at least a month in advance.