Planning a trip to San Francisco? If you have 2 days in San Francisco or less, we have the perfect itinerary written by a local to make the most of your short visit. Read on for the best things to do, where and what to eat, where to stay and other insider travel tips.
2 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
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– Written by Katherine from Bright Lights of America –
San Francisco is one of those inspiringly beautiful places that is on bucket lists the world over. This San Francisco itinerary is perfect for travellers who don’t have a lot of time to spend in the city by the bay. It hits all the great destinations that you just can’t miss, plus a few hidden gems that locals love as well. You’re bound to have a fantastic time, no matter what you do, but this San Francisco itinerary will give you all the tips and advice you need to fit in as much as possible.
I moved to San Francisco in 2015 and fell in love with it. I also fell in love with a born-and-bred San Franciscan around the same time, and over the past few years we’ve explored the city and its surrounds like locals.
SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY: DAY 1
We’ll be focusing on the North Beach area of San Francisco for your first day in San Francisco. This is when you’ll get to see some of the landmarks that San Francisco is most famous for, and some of the best views the city has to offer. Strap on your walking shoes and bring a jacket (whatever time of year it is) because San Francisco is also known for its micro-climates. While it will be sunny and warm in one area, it can quickly turn to windy and overcast so it’s best to be prepared.
Ride a Street Car
With the exception of the Golden Gate Bridge, nothing screams San Francisco more than riding a street car. There are still some beautiful historic street cars winding their way around San Francisco’s bends and up its steep hills. Start your day by riding either the E car (Embarcadero line) or the F car (Market Street and Wharves line) over to Pier 33.
They both stop at Bay Street, where you’ll be able to catch a ferry over to Alcatraz Island. But don’t think too far ahead while you’re on your way. Take in the beautiful wood paneling of the street car, and watch the city whizz by.
Street Car information is available at SFMTA.
The biggest tip I can give, is that those who are non-negotiable on a visit to Alcatraz have to book well in advance, sometimes months before your trip, to ensure there are still spots available on the ferry to Alcatraz. Once you arrive at Pier 33, jump in line for the ferry and prepare to grab a seat that will give you a great view.
It’s said that San Francisco is best seen from the water, and while there are lots of great vantage points, I have to agree that seeing the city from a ferry in the middle of the bay is a great way to do it. Your ferry ticket pays for entrance to the prison island, along with a short guided tour up to the jail, if you opt to take it. Once inside Alcatraz, you’ll be taken through the prisoner processing area – where some of the country’s worst criminals were stripped, washed, and issued their prison attire. Read more about Alcatraz.
From here an audio guide will walk you through the building that served as a prison from 1934 to 1963 for the likes of gangsters like Al Capone. It quickly got a reputation for being an inescapable prison, because the freezing waters of the bay were not forgiving to those who managed to make it out of the cells alive. But Alcatraz isn’t just about the prison, take your time on the island, see the garden if it happens to be open, and wander at your leisure before hopping back on the ferry to Pier 33.
Lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf
You’re bound to have walked up an appetite right now, so walk or catch a street car about 500 metres north to Pier 39, also known as Fisherman’s Wharf. There are plenty of lunch options to choose from here and some are better than others. I’ll recommend one lower priced option and another that’s a little more fancy and has a killer view.
Budget Lunch Option: Boudin Bakery
Boudin is one of the most famous San Francisco bakeries for a reason – it makes amazing bread and pastries. I would definitely recommend trying the clam chowder bread bowl to warm you up and because clam chowder is another one of those things you have to taste in San Francisco. For the less hungry and adventurous, Boudin Bakery offers a range of sandwiches, salads and soups, plus it has a kid’s menu.
Hours: Daily from 9am-8pm
Fine Dining Lunch Option: Chart House
Chart House is a fine dining seafood restaurant located over the water, on the end of Pier 39. We took a friend and her husband to celebrate her birthday, and the views and food were both spectacular. Take the opportunity to walk around the restaurant (if it’s not too full) for views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco Bay and its sea lions. Then settle in for a steak or seafood lunch, Chart House’s lunch menu also offers sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads.
Hours: Daily 11.30 am-3pm and 3pm-9pm.
See the Sea Lions and Wander Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s equivalent of a board walk in many coastal cities and towns. It’s got an amusement area with sideshows and lots of souvenir shops, but be wary, this is a very touristy area of San Francisco and things are priced accordingly. The biggest reason for visiting Fisherman’s Wharf is to see the sea lions, who regularly loll about on floating piers in the marina. You will smell them before you see them, that’s a fact, especially if the wind is blowing in your direction. A small group of the sea lions stay in the marina year round, but most of the 300-strong colony migrate to the Channel Islands during the summer.
San Francisco Skyline From Coit Tower
Hopefully you’re not feeling too full from lunch, because you’ve got a climb ahead of you. The walk to Coit Tower is just one kilometre from Fisherman’s Wharf, but you’ll be experiencing the full rise of San Francisco’s hills in the short distance. You’ll be glad you made the climb though, because Coit Tower gives you 360 degree views of the city, the bay and all the Golden Gate bridge in one go. The towner atop Telegraph Hill was built in 1933 as a monument to the city’s volunteer fire fighters, and is said to be built in the shape of a fire hose.
The Bookshop Where Beat Poetry Lived
South of Coit Tower (don’t worry, it’s mostly downhill now), is the Italian district and City Lights Bookstore. It was founded back in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, as an independent book shop. It is also a publishing house, and as such, was home to some of the more famous beatniks such as Allen Ginsberg and the poems of the Indian Hungry Generation. Today it is still an independent book shop and publishing house, spread over three floors in a building that seems to have once been a house. It has the old charm of book shops past and is one of my favourite places to visit in San Francisco. Continue down Grant Avenue, and into Chinatown.
The Hustle and Bustle of Chinatown
As of 2012, 21 per cent of San Francisco’s population was of Chinese descent, so it stands to reason that the city also has a thriving Chinatown district. You’ll find all the shopping you could ever hope for, at more realistic prices than at Fisherman’s Wharf, so it might be a good place to stock up on souvenirs. As you wander down Grant Avenue you’ll see the Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings, on the corner of California Street. These were the first two buildings that were built in Chinatown after the great earthquake of 1906, that virtually levelled San Francisco. Continue down Grant Avenue and you’ll notice lots of great little shops along your way, until you get to the intersection with Bush Street, where the Chinatown Dragon gate stands. It was a gift from Taiwan back in the 1960s and features carved dragons and koi fish.
Dinner at Hops & Hominy
Just a block south of the Chinatown gate is a southern food joint that will knock your socks off. Aside from the southern comfort food like shrimp and grits and St Louis style ribs, Hops & Hominy also serves up American microbrews that will impress your tastebuds. I visited with my cousin who was on a trip from Australia, and I would have eaten another bowl of the shrimp and grits if I could fit it and she loved the pan-seared pork chop.
SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY: DAY 2
Hopefully you’ve had a nice rest because today is another big day, filled with sights and a little more nature than yesterday. You’ll need comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty, and those layers again, possibly a few more than yesterday, because we’re going hiking.
Muir Woods Half Day Tour
It’s best to book a full day or half day tour of Muir woods rather than renting a car and driving up yourself. Parking is very limited and you now have to book your parking spot in advance online, otherwise you’re not going to find a spot to stop. Most tours, such as Extranomical’s half day tour, will pick you up from your hotel in the morning, which is also nice if you want a bit of a lie-in. The reason you’re going to Muir Woods is to see the majestic Redwood forest that soars above and around you. Your drive to the forest will also take you over the Golden Gate Bridge, and if you choose the right tour, you’ll also have a photo stop along the way. Muir Woods is home to some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world, so rest assured, you’ll drop your jaw in awe.
A Lunch Stop in Sausalito
Most Muir Woods tours will stop in Sausalito for lunch and a little wander around. Sausalito is an old ship-building town in San Francisco’s North Bay, but now, seeing as it’s prime coastal real estate, Sausalito is packed to the brim with art galleries, fancy restaurants, boutique fashion and homewares stores, and some expensive places to live. You can usually opt to stay in Sausalito and catch the ferry back to San Francisco, or you’re also able to take your tour bus back.
Head to the Sausalito Bakery and Cafe for a quick and highly recommended lunch of the usual cafe fair of soups, salads, and sandwiches. But the best part, for the non-Americans, are the sweet treats. You will definitely notice that restaurants and food manufacturers go very heavy on the sugar, but the Sausalito Bakery holds back a bit, so their pastries aren’t sickly-sweet.
If you’re staying in Sausalito for a while, head to the Plaza Vina del Mar fountain and park and go for a walk along the bridgeway before catching a ferry back to the San Francisco Ferry Building.
San Francisco Ferry Building
The Ferry building is another option for lunch, because it has been turned into a Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and over the weekends, but it also has a range of produce shops open downstairs throughout the week. I would highly recommend getting a sample of cheese from Cow Girl Creamery, or a coffee from Bluebottle. If you’re a baseball fan, take the E Street Car to AT&T park from the Ferry Building and take in a game, or tour the stadium.
Wander Golden Gate Park
From the Ferry Building I’d suggest taking an Uber to Golden Gate Park, but you can also catch the 5R Muni that will take you 12 stops to Fulton Street and Arguello Boulevard. Golden Gate Park is long and narrow, and there are plenty of things to see and do within its leafy, green walls. You might just forget that you’re in a major city. Visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden and remember San Francisco’s most famous comedian Robin Williams at the meadow named for him.
You can also take in a few museums if you’re keen. The California Museum of Sciences and the de Younge Fine Arts Museum face each other across Music Concourse Drive and are both great places to while away an afternoon. Garden-lovers and Japanophiles will love the nearby Japanese Tea Garden, which is the oldest public Japanese garden in the country and has its own distinct flavour. Keep walking along John F Kennedy Drive and you’ll come across the Bison paddock, complete with six female bison grazing. You’re also bound to stumble across the Dutch windmill on Martin Luther King Jnr Drive, on your way out to Ocean Beach.
Watch the Sun Set at Ocean Beach
Cross the Great Highway and you’ll be right on Ocean Beach to watch the sun set over the water. There are also fire pits along the beach in case it’s a little bit chilly. It’s a beautiful stretch of coast line that culminates in Cliff House up on the hill, and the remnants of Sutro Baths – a bathhouse that was open to the public in the late 1800s.
Dinner at Cliff House
Finish off your day with dinner at Cliff House for more spectacular ocean views, and a look over Seal Rock. You have a couple of dining and drinking options to choose from at Cliff House, from the bistro, bar and lounge, cafe and the restaurant. Choose depending on the amount of money you’d like to spend on dinner, because the food is all on par with what you’d expect.
Already done these and looking for more great things to do in San Francisco? Check out the San Francisco Bucket List.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN FRANCISCO
The best places to stay would be either close to Union Square, or in the North Bay close to the Embarcadero. These are both relatively safe areas and you can get some great deals in some of the smaller hotels. While we haven’t stayed in San Francisco hotels, since we live here, we have had friends and relatives come to visit, and they have recommended:
- White Swann Inn: 845 Bush Street, San Francisco
- Hotel Beresford: Union Square, San Francisco
- Hotel Diva: 440 Geary Street, San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO TRAVEL TIPS
This is where I give you all the tips that locals tend to know, but visitors aren’t up to speed on. I cannot stress enough the importance of bringing warm clothes to San Francisco, not matter what time of year it is. It will be warm and sunny in some spots but at the same time, it will be cold, windy and overcast in others. Don’t be one of those tourists who is shivering away in a singlet and shorts, you won’t have as much fun as if you were fully prepared.
How to Stay Safe in San Francisco
Like any other city, San Francisco is safer in some parts than others. I’d recommend staying away from the Tenderloin District if possible, as it is the area where a lot of homeless and mentally ill people congregate. Because of this, it also attracts drug dealers and isn’t the nicest part of town to walk through. It’s not a huge deal if you have or want to walk through it though. Just keep your wits about you and keep an eye on your belongings.
Homeless people are by no means confined to the Tenderloin though, so be prepared to see them begging on the streets, some in wheelchairs, and others with obvious illnesses. There will also be tents and blankets under overpasses, in parks and other places where it is easier to sleep at night. They aren’t any danger to you, but it can be very confronting and heartbreaking if you’re witnessing San Francisco’s homeless population for the first time.
If you have a rental car anywhere in San Francisco, know that smash and grab robberies are very common in the city and the Bay Area. Police and car rental companies suggest never leaving anything in your rental car, pulling down one of the back seats so thieves can see you have nothing in the boot of the car. Some rental companies also suggest leaving the car unlocked so that windows aren’t smashed to gain entry. Above all, never leave important or valuable items in your car, even if they are concealed.
How To Get Around San Francisco
Unfortunately, the best way to get directly from A to B in San Francisco is to take an Uber or a Lyft. It’s cheap, easy to find, and will take you exactly where you want to go. There are also Muni buses and the underground BART trains that you can take for longer journeys if necessary. If you are travelling further down the Bay Area peninsula, the aboveground Caltrain is also an option. For more information on using public transport in San Francisco, visit the SFMTA website.
If your time is short there are several half and full day tours that can provide you with an overview of San Francisco, including bike tours, segway tours, bus tours, hop on hop off bus tours and luxury van tours.
If you are looking for a unique experience, consider a tiny GoCar tour, ‘70s-era VW bus tour or a custom private tour in a convertible MINI Cooper.
Renting a car is also another option, but keep in mind that parking is extremely limited and sometimes prohibitively expensive around tourist areas. And they are also targets for thieves.
Katherine is an Australian expat who has lived in San Francisco for the past three years. She writes about life as an expat in the US, and travelling the country, at Bright Lights of America. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Need some more California inspiration?
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This is great info!! Pinned it for later. I can’t wait to get to San Fran someday.
This is almost the perfect list! My cousin lives in Silicon Valley and we were talking about taking a few days to go to San Francisco so she can show me around and the book stores, Alcatraz, and streetcars we’re all on my immediate list of things I had to do there! Plus of course the cliche Bridge shots and the angular houses. I love that you included a lunch idea and a budget lunch idea, so clever.
Than you for this great post! I loved the bakeries and the tips about seeing the city from the ferries.
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Such a great list! I have always wanted to visit San Fran, especially to see Alcatraz, but there are so many other things on here that look great too! Thanks for all the tips!
I loveeeeee San Fran!! Thanks so much for this handy guide!!! Will save for later for sure 🙂
Thanks for this article. I’m literally going for 2 days in sept. Would you recommend to stay close to fisherman’s wharf? Would you say that is a safe are to stay close to do everything on this itinerary ?