Last Updated on 18 Jan 2021 by Ginny Vail
San Francisco is a fun place with great food and lots to do. Create your perfect San Francisco Itinerary with these customizable 1, 2, and 3-day itineraries.
San Francisco is a beautiful and fun city with a great many things to do and see. If this is your first visit and you only have one day, deciding what to see can be as straight forward as taking in the most popular sights: ride a cable car, tour Alcatraz, and visit the Golden Gate Bridge. Just those three make a great San Francisco Itinerary, and if they don’t fill your day, just add more from our lists of suggestions.
If you have more days, our itineraries cover 1, 2, and 3-Day visits and are easy to customize. Your San Francisco Itinerary should consider your interests, time, budget, and the weather.
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With this article, you can plan and customize your visit to San Francisco. Here are some of the things you’ll get:
- Suggested Itineraries for 1, 2, and 3-Day visits with a copy you can download and save
- Lists of sights, organized by type, to help you customize the itineraries to suit your interests
- Best time to visit San Francisco
- Getting around San Francisco on public transit
- A few food and drink suggestions
Here are suggested itineraries for one, two, and three-day visits. Please customize them to suit your interests, time, and budget. There are details about these sights and many more in the section: Create Your Own San Francisco Itinerary.
1 Day in San Francisco Itinerary
On the first day:
Ride a Cable Car — These unique and exciting little cable cars are like a theme park ride except you’re swooping up and down hills on real city streets with real traffic. There are 3 cable car lines, but take the Powell-Hyde Line if you can because it’s the longest run and climbs the highest up Russian and Nob Hills.
Location: The Powell-Hyde Line runs between the Wharf (Hyde & Beach) and Downtown (Powell & Market).
Tip: Ride in the early morning when lines are shorter and the cars are less crowded.
Pier 23 Café (Waterfront cafe near Alcatraz Landing) at Pier 23 on the Embarcadero
Tour Alcatraz — The infamous former prison on an island in San Francisco Bay.
Location: Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero
Tip: Get tickets early; they often sell out days/weeks in advance.
Golden Gate Bridge — Considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the bridge is San Francisco’s most iconic sight.
Location: The bridge spans the entrance to San Francisco Bay and connects the city to Marin County.
If you have more time after visiting the bridge, consider these sights:
- Go to Coit Tower
- Visit Chinatown
- Wander around North Beach (Little Italy)
Franciscan Crab Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf or
Original Joe’s in North Beach (601 Union Street)
Tip: Joe’s is Italian but don’t miss their amazing Hamburger Sandwich on sourdough.
Comstock Saloon — It’s one of the few remaining traces of the Barbary Coast.
Location: On the corner of Pacific and Columbus.
2 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
On the second day:
Morning & Afternoon
Golden Gate Park — There’s so much to see and do in this 1,017 acre park that you can easily spend all day. Here are the top sights to choose from:
- California Academy of Sciences (CADS)
- De Young Museum
- Japanese Tea Garden
- Conservatory of Flowers
- Botanical Garden
- Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill
Tip: There are bike and surrey rentals in the park and, on weekends and holidays, a free shuttle runs the length of the park on JFK Drive.
CADS and the de Young both have cafés or
Beach Chalet on the Great Highway at the west end of the park (overlooking the Pacific Ocean)
Union Square — Is a beautifully landscaped plaza in the upscale shopping district.
Dinner & Drinks
Johnny Foley’s Irish House, a popular Irish Pub one block from Union Square.
Location: 243 O’Farrell Street
3 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
On the third day:
Exploratorium — Experience “science, art, and human perception” with over 650 hands-on exhibits. It’s a gold mine for inquisitive minds and children love it.
Location: Pier 15 on the Embarcadero
Tip: Skip the long-line by buying tickets online.
Exploratorium’s Seaglass Restaurant
After the Exploratorium, take a historic F-Streetcar from Pier 15 to Market and 3rd Street. Walk east on 3rd to Mission Street. There are two must-see parks and four museums at or near this location.
Museums and Parks — all of these except the Asian Art Museum are South of Market at or near Moscone Center (3rd and Mission):
Salesforce Park — An amazing 5.4-acre park and garden on the roof of the Transit Center.
Location: There are several entrances to the 3.5 block-long Transit Center along Natoma or Minna Streets between Beale and 2nd. Take the escalator or an elevator to the 4th floor.
Yerba buena Gardens — Park, gardens and a lot more covering the Moscone Convention Center.
Location: Enter the 5-acre Esplanade on Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Streets, or any of several entrances to the 2-block complex.
- Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St. in Civic Center)
- Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St.)
- Museum of the African Diaspora (685 Mission St.)
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd St.)
Day 3 Alternative
Not up for museums or parks/gardens? Consider these alternatives:
- Go to Crissy Field and walk the Golden Gate Promenade; it has gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay, and city skyline — and it’s free.
- Check the lists of sights in the Create Your Own San Francisco Itinerary section and find something you’d rather do.
Dinner & Drinks
Garden Court at the Palace Hotel (2 New Montgomery Street) or
Kate O’Brien’s Irish Pub (579 Howard Street)
Map with Pins for 1, 2, and 3 Day Itineraries
The locations of the sights in the 1, 2, and 3 Day Itineraries are shown on the map below: orange for Day 1, purple for Day 2, green for Day 3, and blue for places to eat.
Create Your Own San Francisco Itinerary
Because one size definitely does not fit all, this article also includes lists of attractions to help you adjust the itineraries or build entirely new ones to suit your interests. Click the buttons below to jump to the lists of sights. The details for each sight include a brief description, location, and link to the sight’s official website
It’s best to go to the official websites to get current details about days and hours of operation, ticket prices, information about special events, and, if required, to purchase tickets. If that information was included here, this would be a book — an immediately out-of-date book.
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
Weather-wise, mid September through mid November are the best. The summer fog (nature’s air conditioner) has stopped rolling in and the winter rains haven’t yet started. The rest of the year, the weather is mixed: some days are sunny and gorgeous, some are rainy or foggy.
There are many beautiful warm days in the summer, but when the inland areas of California heat up, the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. The temperature can quickly drop 20-30°. That’s why the souvenir shops sell so many sweatshirts.
The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.Attributed (without confirmation) to Mark Twain
Even in winter, there are always some nice sunny days. Just bring layers of clothes and when you pack your day bag, include a sweatshirt or nice warm jacket.
Getting Around San Francisco
I drive, but in San Francisco, I prefer taking public transit. The streets are congested and parking is scarce and expensive. With the MuniMobile transit app on my smartphone, I plan my route, know when buses will arrive, and pay my fare. By combining walking with public transit, I move around the city with ease.
For detailed instructions for using public transit, see Roving Vails post San Francisco Excursions Using Public Transit. The post provides information about:
- Routes and instructions for getting to Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
- Fares and ways to pay
- Apps and maps
- Public transit options in San Francisco
Where to Eat and Drink in San Francisco
These are a few of my favorite places in San Francisco. It’s a pretty eclectic mix because I tend to favor places with interesting locations, decor, and histories:
- Beach Chalet & Brewery in Golden Gate Park is actually two restaurants in the same building. Beach Chalet is on the second floor overlooking the ocean. Park Chalet is on the back patio with both indoor and outdoor seating. Checkout the depression era art on the first floor.
Location: 1000 Great Highway at the west end of Golden Gate Park
- Bistro Boudin is on the second floor of the Boudin sourdough bread bakery. It has great food in a spacious restaurant where you can enjoy a crab or corn chowder bread bowl without the downstairs crowd. Customers are also welcome to visit the free museum with its 40-foot long catwalk overlooking the bakery.
Location: Fisherman’s Wharf (160 Jefferson)
- Comstock Saloon is a genuine remnant of San Francisco’s wild Barbary Coast. It wasn’t always called the Comstock, but it’s been a Saloon since 1907 and the mahogany bar with its beveled fanned mirrors, a tiled trough along the base of the bar (don’t ask), and, of course, the pukka walla fans are all original. The food choices are a bit unique; the cocktails are awesome.
Location: 155 Columbus Avenue (Columbus & Pacific)
- Franciscan Crab Restaurant is on the waterfront and most tables have a view. It’s a favorite for family get-togethers and we typically share a Sizzling Iron Skillet of roasted crab.
Location: Fisherman’s Wharf (Pier 43)
- Garden Court in the Palace Hotel is an elegant restaurant under a beautiful glass domed ceiling. The Palace Hotel has a long, interesting history and has had lots of famous and infamous guests.
Location: 2 New Montgomery Street
- Johnny Foley’s Irish House is a very popular Irish Pub with good food and a beautiful bar.
Location: 243 O’Farrell Street (a block from Union Square)
- Kate O’Brien’s Irish Pub is a popular pub near Salesforce Park and Yerba Buena Gardens. I’ve been there many times with kids and grandkids, and we always enjoy the décor, beer, and burgers.
Location: 579 Howard Street
- Original Joe’s has not always been in North Beach, but it’s been a San Francisco favorite since 1937. I understand their Italian food and steaks are great, but I love Joe’s Famous Hamburger Sandwich so much that it and a Caesar salad are all I’ve ever tried.
Location: 601 Union Street
- Pier 23 Café is a waterfront favorite on the Embarcadero. They serve seafood, sandwiches, and drinks on their back patio/deck overlooking the bay. It’s all very enjoyable.
Location: Pier 23 on the Embarcadero
Popular Attractions in San Francisco
The infamous former federal penitentiary sits on a small island in San Francisco Bay. It’s operated by the National Park Service and is one of the city’s top attractions. The ticket includes the ferry ride and an excellent Cellhouse Audio Tour with stories told by former guards and inmates.
Two really important details about tickets:
- Buy tickets early because they often sell out days or weeks in advance.
- ONLY buy tickets from Alcatraz Cruises. It’s the only vendor authorized by the National Park Service and the only tour that actually disembarks on the island for a tour of the prison.
Aquarium of the Bay
This popular aquarium features aquatic creatures from San Francisco Bay including sharks, jellyfish, river otters, and a lot more. Walk through the transparent tunnel as sharks, bat rays, and schools of anchovies swim over and around you.
Location: Pier 39 at the Wharf
Time: About 90 minutes
Link: Aquarium of the Bay
San Francisco’s cable cars are truly unique. It’s like a theme park ride except you’re on real city streets with real traffic. They’re unique, exciting, and just a bit scary as they swoop down hills and roll through busy intersections. Of the three cable car lines, the Powell-Hyde Line is the most interesting because it travels a bit further and goes higher up Nob and Russian Hills.
Tip 1: Ride early in the morning to avoid long lines and crowded cars.
Tip 2: The single ride cable car fare is $8 for everyone (with no transfer or hop-on-hop-off privileges), but the 1-day downloadable Muni Visitor Passport is only $13 and is good all day on cable cars, streetcars, Muni Metro, and buses. Download the passport on the MuniMobile app or a Clipper Card.
How cable cars work: Cable cars are unlike any other transit system; they run on rails like a streetcar, but they don’t have a motor. Instead, the Gripman operates a large grip lever, which grabs and holds onto an underground cable. Large engines and winding wheels, in the Cable Car Powerhouse, pull the cable in a giant loop beneath the streets and pull the little cars along at 9.5 mph (15.3 km/h).
Location: The 3 cable car lines are: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California. Both Powell Lines travel between Powell and Market and the Wharf, but on the Wharf end, Powell-Mason ends at Taylor and Bay; the Powell-Hyde Line ends at Hyde and Beach. The California Line runs on California between Market and Van Ness.
Time: About 15 minutes one-way
Link: Cable Cars
California Academy of Sciences (CADS)
CADS is a very up-close, hands-on, science and natural history museum. It has an impressive aquarium, living rainforest, an excellent planetarium, dinosaur skeletons, live penguins, a white alligator, and more. Its mission is “to explore, explain, and sustain life.”
Everything, from the aquarium at the bottom to the living roof at the top, is first class. It’s a great place for everyone and is super popular with kids.
Tip: The Planetarium is included with the CADS ticket, but go to the Planetarium entry and pick up a Planetarium ticket for entry to a specific show and time.
Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park
Time: Allow at least 3 hours, especially if you see the Planetarium show.
Link: California Academy of Science
This tall, graceful tower atop Telegraph Hill is a monument honoring the city’s firefighters. The interior walls of the tower’s rotunda are covered with depression era murals funded by the Public Works of Art Project. The top of the tower has great 360° views of the city and bay.
Tip: Purchase tickets in the gift shop to ride the small elevator to the top.
Location: In Pioneer Park at the top of Telegraph Hill. You can take the #39 Muni bus from North Point and Stockton Streets or get some serious exercise by walking up the Filbert steps.
Time: Allow about an hour at the tower.
Link: Coit Tower
According to my grandchildren, this is the #1 place to go in San Francisco. With over 650 hands-on exhibits, it’s a gold mine for inquisitive minds where visitors explore “the world through science, art, and human perception.”
Location: Pier 15 on the Embarcadero at Green Street. Both the E and F Line historic streetcars stop right in front.
Time: Allow at least 3 hours. Sometimes we spend the whole day with a break for lunch in the onsite Seaglass Restaurant.
There are lots of restaurants, shops, bike rentals, and a variety of tour operators. The wharf is also home to these sights, which are popular with Kids:
- Musée Mécanique (see details in the Free Museums section)
- Ripley’s Believe it or Not
- Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
Location: Along the city waterfront between Pier 39 and Aquatic Park. The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable cars and the E and F Line historic streetcars all stop at the Wharf.
Time: As much as you have
Link: Fisherman’s Wharf
Golden Gate Bridge
Considered one of the seven modern wonders of the world, the bridge is San Francisco’s most recognizable attraction. You can walk, run, or bike on and across the bridge, and, except for parking, it’s free.
Stop in the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and pick up a free Presidio map, which includes points of interest and trails. If you’re up for a hike, there’s a 0.5-mile (.8 km) trail down to Fort Point and/or Crissy Field. The trail begins near the Welcome Center.
Location: The bridge spans the entrance to San Francisco Bay and connects San Francisco to Marin County. Parking at the bridge is metered and limited, but it’s easy to get to the bridge on public transit.
Time: Allow at least, a couple of hours to visit the bridge (including transit time), and likely more if you walk all the way across and back. It’s 1.7 miles (2.7 km) each way.
Link: Golden Gate Bridge
Food, crowds, souvenirs, more food, entertainment, public restrooms, even more food and souvenirs. Biggest attractions at Pier 39:
- Sea Lions
- aquarium of the Bay
- Double decker carousel with interesting creatures to ride
Location: The entrance is on the Embarcadero at the foot of Powell Street. Both the E and F Line historic streetcars stop right in front.
Time: as much as you have, or want
Link: Pier 39
San Francisco Zoo and Gardens
This large, well maintained zoo has more than 2000 creatures including many exotic and endangered animals. There is also a beautifully restored 1921 carousel, a train ride, and a petting zoo. No pandas, but they do have Koalas.
Location: Sloat Blvd. and the Great Highway on the Pacific Coast. The L-Taraval (Muni Metro light rail) ends about 2-blocks from the Zoo entrance.
Time: Allow at least 2-3 hours
Link: San Francisco Zoo
Parks and Gardens in San Francisco
San Francisco Botanical Garden
San Francisco Botanical Garden is 55-acres chock full of trees and plants from around the world. View the downloadable map to see the huge variety of flora and how it’s organized. The Rhododendron Garden is an amazing sight in spring when so many are in bloom.
Conservatory of Flowers
Opened in 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers is a glass and wooden greenhouse modeled after Kew Gardens in London. It houses rare and exotic plants including bromeliads, carnivorous plants, and giant Amazon lily pads.
Location: 100 John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park
Time: 30-60 minutes
Link: Conservatory of Flowers
Crissy Field in Presidio National Park
Crissy Field is a 100-acre waterfront park with beaches, a tidal lagoon, acres of grass, picnic areas, and gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the city skyline. The Golden Gate Promenade runs through Crissy Field.
For decades, Crissy Field was the airfield for the Presidio Army Base. When the base closed in 1994, Crissy Field was a contaminated, dilapidated mess. It took 20 years, thousands of volunteers, and about $35 million to restore the land and create the beautiful and popular park it is now.
Location: On the waterfront between Baker Street and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s part of Presidio National Park.
Time: At least an hour just to wander the lagoon and waterfront and take in the views.
Link: Crissy Field
Golden Gate Park
The biggest and best known sights in the park (CADS, de Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, and Botanical Garden) all have their own entries in this article, but there is much more to the park. It’s a 1,017-acre urban oasis packed with gardens, lakes, trails, a great children’s playground, and even a Bison Paddock. It’s also the venue for a variety of free concerts and festivals.
On weekends and legal holidays, a free shuttle runs around the Music Concourse and along John F. Kennedy Drive making stops along the way. You can also rent a bike or a surrey to travel around the park. There’s a parking garage under the Music Concourse and free parking on the streets, but John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to private vehicle traffic on many weekends and holidays and during special events.
Location: Golden Gate Park is a 3-mile long, half-mile wide strip between Fulton Avenue on the north side and Lincoln Way on the south side. Parking is scarce, but getting there on public transit is easy.
Time: You can easily spend the whole day. For example, visit CADS, have lunch, visit the Japanese Tea Garden, go to Stow Lake, checkout the waterfall on Strawberry Hill, stop by the Bison Paddock, and you’ve pretty much filled the day.
Links: Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park Map (Downloadable PDF)
Golden Gate Park Free Shuttle
Golden Gate Promenade
The Promenade has the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and the city skyline. It’s a 2-mile (3.2 km) trail that runs through Crissy Field along the waterfront. The promenade is wide, flat, fully accessible, and you can walk, run, bike, push a stroller or wheelchair, and bring your dog (leashed, of course).
Location: The trail runs along the Crissy Field waterfront between the Marina District and historic Fort Point.
Time: For a brisk walker or jogger, probably 20 minutes max. It takes me an hour or two, but I wander around the lagoon, take lots of photos, and sit and watch the windsurfers.
Link: Golden Gate Promenade
Japanese Tea Garden
The beautiful, peaceful 5-acre garden is complete with Koi ponds, Temple Gate and Pagoda, a Zen garden, a moon bridge, a bronze Buddha, a 9000-pound Peace Lantern, and a Tea House serving tea and refreshments. We can thank Makoto Hagiwara for the beautiful garden. He built and maintained it between 1894 and 1925.
Location: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park (next to the de Young Museum)
Time: About an hour; perhaps more if you have tea and take lots of photos
Link: Japanese Tea Garden
The Legion of Honor Art Museum, Lands End Trail, and a public golf course are all located in Lincoln Park. This 100-acre park on the Pacific Ocean has beautiful views of the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin Headlands.
Location: Located in San Francisco’s northwest corner with about 2-miles (3.2 km) of rugged Pacific Ocean shoreline.
Time: Depends on what you do. Visiting the art museum or walking the full Lands End Trail would each take a couple of hours.
Link: Lincoln Park
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was a World’s Fair and celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The faux Greco-Roman ruin is a very popular photo op, especially for wedding photos.
Location: 3601 Lyon Street & Marina Blvd.
Time: About 30 minutes to wander through the ruin and checkout the swans and other wildlife in the pond.
Link: Palace of Fine Arts
Presidio National Park
The Presidio is a former US Army base that is now a 1500-acre National Park. It’s a gorgeous location on both the ocean and bay and has beaches, picnic areas, trails, and all of these:
- Presidio Visitor Center
- Walt Disney Family Museum
- Lucasfilm’s Letterman Digital Arts Center
- San Francisco National Cemetery
- Fort Point
- Crissy Field & Golden Gate Promenade
- Baker Beach
Strategically located at the southern entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Presidio began as a Spanish garrison in 1776. It passed to Mexico for a couple of decades, and then served as a US Army base until the base closed in1994.
Location: Start at the Visitor Center: 210 Lincoln Boulevard on the Presidio’s Main Post.
Time: Allow 15-30 minutes for the Visitor Center; then add time for whatever else interests you. For example, add 2-hours for the Walt Disney Family Museum and 90-minutes to walk the Ecology Trail to Inspiration Point and back.
Links: Presidio National Park
Presidio NP Visitor Center
Presidio Trails Map (Downloadable PDF)
Salesforce Park (Roof Top Garden)
San Francisco’s new Salesforce Transit Center has an incredible 5.4-acre rooftop park on the fourth floor. It covers the entire roof of the 3.5 block-long building with over 50 species of trees and 230 species of plants. There are also free classes, activities, and concerts held in the park.
Location: Enter the Transit Center anywhere along Natoma or Minna Streets between Beale and 2nd. Take the escalator or an elevator to the 4th floor.
Time: Allow at least 30 minutes to walk the full loop, admire the trees, plants, and flowers and read some of the signage. Add more time if you just want to sit and contemplate how they created this amazing landscape on the roof of a 4-story building.
Link: SalesForce Park Garden Guide
Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park
Stow Lake is in the middle of Golden Gate Park; Strawberry Hill is in the middle of Stow Lake, and Huntington Falls is on the hill — all are manmade. Take one of the two bridges to Strawberry Hill and Huntington Falls. There are trails up and around the hill and views from the top.
There are great photo-ops including waterfowl and rows of turtles sunning themselves on floating logs. You can also rent a boat (pedal, row, or electric) and explore the lake.
Location: Stow Lake is behind (west of) the Japanese Tea Garden. You can walk or, if driving, turn onto Stow Lake Drive from either Martin Luther King Jr. Drive or John F. Kennedy Drive. Parking is free along Stow Lake Drive.
Time: 1 hour; 2 hours if you rent a boat
Link: Stow Lake
Yerba Buena Gardens
Covering most of 2-square blocks, the park is above underground parts of Moscone Convention Center. The entire complex includes the Esplanade, an Ice-skating rink, a children’s playground, and a beautifully restored 1906 Carousel.
The 5-acre Esplanade is a park with a large lawn area, stage, gardens, and great public artworks. The Esplanade hosts a variety of free public concerts, performances, and festivals. The best reason to visit the Esplanade is the incredible memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King behind a huge waterfall.
Location: The most direct entrance into the Esplanade is on Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Streets.
Time: Plan an hour just to see the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial, wander the grounds, and see the garden and scattered artworks. If you have children with you, allow time for the playground and carousel, and maybe the ice-skating rink.
Link: Yerba Buena Gardens
Art Museums in San Francisco
Asian Art Museum
In addition to special exhibits, the permanent galleries contain “more than 2,000 artworks from all the major cultures of Asia.” Some items are thousands of years old.
Location: 200 Larkin Street in Civic Center
Time: 1-2 hours
Link: Asian Art Museum
Contemporary Jewish Museum
The museum’s purpose is to “make the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a twenty-first century audience.” It has no permanent collection; instead, it hosts exhibits from other institutions.
Location: 736 Mission Street (between 3rd Street and Yerba Buena Lane)
Time: 1-2 hours
Link: Contemporary Jewish Museum
De Young Museum
The de Young is housed in a beautiful building with a perforated copper skin. The museum’s permanent collection includes thousands of American paintings, sculptures, textiles, and more from the 17th to 21st centuries and collections from Africa and the Pacific.
The de Young always has multiple special exhibits from around the world, so visiting never gets old. While there, take the elevator to the top of the 144-foot (44 m) tower for an expansive view of the city.
Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park
Time: About 2 hours; more if you see all of the exhibits
Link: De Young Museum
Hyde Street Pier & Maritime Museum
The Pier and Museum are both part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. There are eight historic vessels on display — all from the late 1800s or early 1900s.
The Maritime Museum is in the historic Art Deco Aquatic Park Bathhouse. It has thousands of items on display dedicated to local maritime history and culture. Hilaire Hiler painted the whimsical lobby mural in the 1930s as part of the WPA Federal Arts Project.
Location: The Maritime Museum is at 900 Beach Street (at Polk). The Hyde Street Pier, as you might guess, is at the foot of Hyde Street
Time: About 2 hours
Link: Hyde Street Pier & Maritime Museum
Legion of Honor Museum
This stunning French neoclassical building, on a hill above the Golden Gate, has a remarkable collection of European paintings, and ancient art. The entry courtyard is home to one of the full-sized replicas of Auguste Rodin’s famous 1880 sculpture, The Thinker.
The Legion was built to honor the troops who served in WWI. When it opened in 1920, it was dedicated to “our brave boys who gave their lives to their country in the Great War.”
Location: 100 34th Avenue in Lincoln Park
Time: About 2 hours
Link: Legion of Honor Museum
Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD)
MOAD uses exhibits and programs to document, connect, and celebrate the cultural heritage of the people of Africa .
Location: 685 Mission Street (at 3rd)
Time: 1-2 hours
Link: Museum of the African Diaspora
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
The postmodern building is striking inside and out and would be worth seeing even if it were empty. But it’s not empty; it houses one of the largest collections of modern art in the U.S., including works by familiar artists like Frida Kahlo, Richard Serra, and Andy Warhol.
Remarkably, parts of the museum are free. There are “45,000 square feet of art-filled public spaces” where no ticket is required.
Location: 151 3rd Street (between Mission and Howard)
Time: You can easily spend half a day here. My personal museum limit is about 2 hours.
Link: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Walt Disney Family Museum
This museum tells the life story of Walt Disney and the evolution of animation at Disney Studios. The story is told in chronological order using photos, videos, and state-of-the-art interactive exhibits. The last exhibit in the museum includes Walt’s train and a fun model of Disneyland.
Free Museums in San Francisco
Cable Car Museum
This is more than a museum; it’s the real cable car barn and powerhouse. From the upper level, watch the huge engines turn the winding wheels that pull the cables running under the streets. The cable car Gripman operates a grip lever, which grabs the underground cable.
The cable pulls the car along the street at 9.5 mph (15.3 km/h). There’s another viewing area downstairs where you can see the large sheaves that guide the under-street cables.
Location: 1201 Mason Street (at Washington Street)
Time: About 30-minutes
Link: Cable Car Museum
Fire Department Museum
Housed in a cavernous room at Firehouse Station 10, the museum includes antique fire trucks and fire wagons. The collection includes Broderick Engine No. 1, which was built in 1855 and was the first fire wagon built in California. Display cases line the walls and are filled with Firehouse equipment and Firemen’s personal effects like uniforms and helmets.
Location: 655 Presidio Avenue (near Pine Street)
Time: About 45-minutes
Link: Fire Department Museum
This museum has the world’s largest collection of penny arcade games, and mechanical instruments. Many of the mechanical wonders are over 100-years-old and most are still in working order. The museum is free, but operating the machines requires quarters, and, of course, there are change machines: $5 per child sounds about right.
Location: Pier 45 at the foot of Taylor Street in Fisherman’s Wharf
Time: As long as the quarters last
Link: Musée Mécanique
Wells Fargo History Museum
This small museum is well worth visiting. It has several exhibits from the California Gold Rush including a Wells Fargo Overland Coach used in the 1860s, gold dust and ore, photos, paintings, and interactive exhibits.
Location: 420 Montgomery Street (inside Wells Fargo Headquarters)
Time: Less than an hour
Link: Wells Fargo History Museum
Interesting Neighborhoods in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the biggest and oldest in the country. It’s teeming with people, interesting architecture, restaurants, and shops. There are herb shops, teashops, gift shops, art and jewelry shops, and lots of shops selling inexpensive souvenirs.
Grant Avenue, festooned with red lanterns, is the main street for visitors an has lots of souvenir and gift shops, and restaurants. Stockton Street is the main shopping street for locals. This is where you’ll find roast ducks and other items hanging in shop windows.
Venture into Chinatown’s alleys too. Ross Alley is home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where you see cookies being made by hand and can buy them while they’re still warm. Waverly Place is a two-block alley whose buildings have colorfully painted balconies to match its equally colorful past.
Location: Grant Avenue, between Bush Street and Broadway, is the main Street in Chinatown. The Dragon Gate (main entrance) is on Grant at Bush.
Time: At least an hour to wander the streets and alleys. Add more it you shop or eat.
It was ground zero for the Summer of Love back in 1967. It’s much calmer now, but there are still vintage shops, bong shops, record and bookstores, and interesting cafes.
Location: Neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets.
Time: Whatever you want it to be
Link: Haight Ashbury
Japantown is a nine-block area anchored by the Japan Center mall. The 3-block long mall has shops and stores including a Kinokuniya Bookstore, Daiso Japan, the Kabuki Hotel and theater and several restaurants. Over the years, we’ve enjoyed several family gatherings there at the Benihana Restaurant.
The Peace Plaza in Japan Center has a 100-foot-tall Peace Pagoda surrounded by cherry trees, and a 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture with three panels depicting the Japanese experience in San Francisco: the Issei pioneers, WWII Internment, and present-day life. Japantown also has a self-guided History Walk that weaves around the 9-block neighborhood with 16 interpretive signs that recount the history and experiences of the Japanese American community.
Location: Begins in the northeast corner where Fillmore Street and Geary Blvd intersect.
Time: An hour to walk through Japan Center and wander the neighborhood plus more to eat and shop.
Besides Mexican food, the main visitor attractions in the Mission are Mission Dolores, the Mission Murals, and Mission Dolores Park:
Mission San Francisco de Asís is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco. Built in 1776, it’s part of the chain of missions built under the direction of Father Junipero Serra. Father Serra and his mission building project are understandably quite controversial now because Native Americans were forced to do the building.
The Mission cemetery is pretty interesting with lots of headstones dating back to the 1800s. In the early 1850s, many Irish were driven from Ireland by the famine and drawn to San Francisco by the gold rush. This explains why several of the old headstones have Irish names.
Location: 16th Street and Dolores
Time: About 30-minutes — more it you linger in the cemetery reading headstones.
Link: Mission Dolores
Murals are everywhere in the Mission; they add vibrance, meaning, and identity to the neighborhood. Some are comical or whimsical; many are art with a message. Precita Eyes Muralists offers mural tours, and they also sell Mural Maps.
Location: While the murals are everywhere, don’t miss, Balmy Alley (off 24th Street between Treat & Harrison), the 24th Street Mini-Park (24th & York), Clarion Alley (between Mission & Valencia), and the Women’s Building (3548 18th Street).
Time: At least 1-2 hours to see just the above locations.
Link: Precita Eyes
Mission Dolores Park
This is a really popular park with a great children’s playground and beautiful view of the city skyline.
Location: between 18th and 20th Streets on Dolores
Time: 30-minutes just to see the park; more to hang out and enjoy it.
Link: Mission Dolores Park
North Beach is my favorite San Francisco neighborhood. It’s Little Italy with lots of Italian restaurants and coffee shops, and red, green, and white flags and décor everywhere. My favorite thing to do in North Beach is to simply wander around and take in the sights and aromas:
- Walk through Jack Kerouac Alley; it’s like a wormhole in space with Chinatown on one end and North Beach on the other. While there, stop to appreciate the mural on the side of Vesuvio Café.
- Stand on the corner of Broadway and Columbus and look for the Banksy street art (hint: look up).
- Stop by Molinari Delicatessen (373 Columbus) for a takeout sandwich and have a “people-watching” picnic in Washington Square.
- Visit the Comstock Saloon. Their Cherry Bounce is my favorite drink.
There’s a lot of history in North Beach. City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio Café, and Jack Kerouac Alley are reminders that this was home to the Beat Generation. The Old Ship Saloon and Comstock Saloon are reminders that this area was once the infamous Barbary Coast.
Location: North Beach is the area from Broadway north to Fisherman’s Wharf and from Columbus Avenue to the waterfront.
Time: Take and hour and just wander.
Link: North Beach
Union Square is a beautifully landscaped public plaza, which covers an entire city block. It’s in the heart of the shopping district and is surrounded by upscale shopping, restaurants, and hotels.
Location: Downtown: bordered by Geary Blvd. and Stockton, Powell, and Post Streets. Both the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car lines stop at Union Square.
Time: 15-30 minutes to wander through and around the square plus more for shopping (BTW, there’s a huge Apple Store on Post across from the square).
Link: Union Square
It’s little wonder that 26 million people visit San Francisco annually. There are so many sights to see and things to do and never enough time to do everything you want. I hope this post helps you discover the possibilities and to create your perfect San Francisco Itinerary.