Visiting San Francisco in less than two days is possible. To optimize your time and allow you to see a maximum of things in a minimum of time, we put together a suggested itinerary. After testing it out ourselves, it’s time to share it with you.
About this trip …
It was my second time in San Francisco. The first time was a few years back with a group of friends from grad school, between the end of classes and graduation. We had a blast road-tripping through Las Vegas, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, LA and finally the San Francisco area. But that’s really a story for another time…
This trip was an all girl one, with my mother and two family friends. Unfortunately, Monsieur Chéri could not make it this time. My mother had never seen San Francisco and we had limited time there, as we had flown from Europe to attend a wedding. Thus, I had to come up with a schedule that would allow her to get a good look at the city without losing time figuring out what to do and what to see.
In the end, we spent two days in San Francisco, one day driving around the Napa and Sonoma valleys, two days attending the wedding in Half Moon Bay and an afternoon in the Silicon Valley.
– What to expect –
I am not gonna lie to you : seeing all this implies some efforts. Yes, you are going to walk a lot! But I swear that it will never be boring and it will be totally worth it.
Union Square, Chinatown, the Transamerica Pyramid, the Filbert Street steps and Grace Marchant garden, the Coit Tower, the Embarcadero, the sea lions at Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the streets around the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field, the Golden Gate bridge, Alamo Square Park and the Painted Ladies, Hayes Valley, the City Hall, the San Francisco Library, the United Nations Plaza and Nob Hill.
Alcatraz, the hippie neighborhood, a cable car ride on the Powell-Hyde line to Lombard St. the crookedest street in the United States (some say the world).
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– On the map and in details –
Morning itinerary : From Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf
We started the day early and left from Union Square at 8:30 a.m, cameras and map in hand.
Because I had heard a lot about Boba guys, which appears to be some kind of local must, we headed North on Stockton St. to get a macha latte (scroll down for my review below).
Then, moving on to Bush St., we found ourselves in front of the Dragon’s Gate and entered Chinatown walking up Grant Avenue. It goes up but it’s very manageable. Look around for mural paintings, Chinese lanterns, unique facades and painted stairs. To me, much more interesting than the dozens of stores. In front of Old St Mary’s Cathedral, we loved the contrast between the Chinese lamp post, the church made of bricks and the modern skyscraper. An example of an interesting coexistence between different times and cultures.
To exit Chinatown, we made a right on Clay St. The street goes down until Montgomery St. There, look up! You are at the foot of the Transamerica Pyramid, the iconic building of the San Francisco’s skyline. We turned around it and took Sansome St. towards Filbert St (go North).
The Filbert St steps and the Coit Tower
When you reach Filbert St. from Sansome St, the Filbert Street steps that lead to the Coit Tower are to your left. Take them, you won’t regret it. The first steps are in concrete but you’ll quickly find yourself on wooden stairs in a middle of a wonderful garden and very cute houses. Need I even mention the view that you get on the bay? We loved that part of the itinerary. However, I found the Coit Tower to be quite ugly.
Reaching the Coit Tower allows you to have a 360° view of the city of the San Francisco and its bay. It’s very beautiful and if you look well, you can even spot Lombard St. and its tight curves (with your eyes, not on my pictures unfortunately).
After enjoying the view, we took Greenwich St. to go back down (for a change). Although this walk was not as nice as the one on Filbert St., it was still enjoyable.
The waterfront and its piers
Once at the Embarcadero, we made a left to Pier 39, famous for its sea lions. Here, I am going to be very honest: this place is like the Disneyland of San Francisco. Everything is clearly made for tourists. Not really our thing even though we took some nice pictures of the port, Alcatraz etc…
Still headed West, we got to Fisherman’s Wharf around lunch time and stopped at Boudin Bakery’s flagship (scroll down for the review).
Afternoon itinerary : From Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate bridge and from the Painted Ladies to Nob Hill
Our afternoon was structured in two parts. First, we took a long walk along the water and through the beautiful streets of the Marina to reach the Golden Gate Bridge. Then, we took a cab to Alamo Square Park. And from there, we resumed our walk, from the infamous Painted Ladies to Nob Hill, through Hayes Valley.
Objective Golden Gate Bridge
After a good meal, we walked all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. It looks like nothing on the map but it’s actually quite long and goes up at times. At the beginning, we followed the waterfront to Fort Mason. Then, we crossed a beautiful neighborhood through Beach St. Totally worth it: we took tons of pictures of houses with different architectural styles. Very nice.
Why take Beach Street? Because we wanted to see the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts and its park. The palace as you see it looks nothing like the original one, built in 1915 for the international Panama-Pacific exposition. Here, sit down in the grass or on a bench and enjoy the quietness and beauty of the place.
Next, make your way to Crissy Field. Yes, that’s the Golden Gate Bridge to your left. Pretty cool, no? If you are anything like me, this is a great spot for a few jumping pictures. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you mine!
Continue towards the bridge. When you reach the “Warming Hut”, look for the stairs on your left. They will take you to the Golden Gate Welcome Center.
In my opinion, it is half way through these stairs that one can find the best post for great pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Change of scenery
In front of the Welcome Center, we took a cab to Alamo Square Park, (about 20$ which was decent since we were four). If you prefer the bus, take the 28 (in front of Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center) to Geary St. Then, hop on the 38 and stop at the level of Steiner St. You’ll find the park by heading South (it goes up). At the corner of Steiner et Hayes, you have a spectacular spot to take pictures of the Painted Ladies. That’s your typically postcard of San Francisco! If you go inside the park (on the hill), you’ll enjoy a stunning view of the city.
Let’s walk some more!
After the Painted Ladies, we took Hayes St. (towards the East). Good news: it goes down and it is an easy walk! We crossed a very nice residential area. Then, roughly after crossing Octavia St., we found a lot of little shops and restaurants.
At the corner of Van Ness Ave, we made a left. It allowed us to see the City Hall, the War Memorial Opera House and the Herbst Theatre. On McAllister St, make a right. There, you get a glimpse at the library, the UN Plaza, the Asian Art Museum and buildings of the state of California.
Finally, our walk ended by walking up Larkin St. until we reached Sutter, where our hotel was. What a day!!!
The food corner
– Day 1 –
For breakfast, we stopped at a place located one block from our hotel: the Cozy Cafe. From outside, it is not appealing at all. Yet, what a good surprise! Very fresh products, impeccable service and a very clean kitchen (visible). We were so satisfied that we went there every morning. Below, the English muffin with egg, cheddar, bacon and avocado. Yummy! Great macchiato too (against all odds).
Later that morning, I tried Boba Guys‘ strawberry matcha latte. Since, it seems to be so popular around the city, I could not pass on the opportunity to try it. Verdict: it was good. However, I am not sure that it deserves such a fuss.
We had lunch at Boudin Bakery and really liked it. The place itself, overlooking the waterfront, was great. Inside, you get to see them make the bread on the first floor. On the second, you can also visit a mini-museum on the history of the place. Quite cool. The place is famous for the Sourdough Bread. For us French, it pretty much tasted like regular bread! The food was very fresh and good. Each of us liked what we had. The clam chowder was apparently to die for and the pizza crust was unbelievable.
After a day spent walking, we were completely dead. Therefore, we chose a restaurant close to hotel. A nice man at the reception recommended the Grubstake as being the quintessential San Franciscan place. Not sure that it was but once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The place itself is a regular diner but don’t judge a book by its cover. The food was good and the service very friendly. We ordered a glass of wine from Napa and were also positively surprised.
– Day 1 –
To sum it up: if we had to do it all again, we would keep the same itinerary. I asked my fellow travelers (a teenager and two adults), if there was something they would do differently or remove. They answered that they would keep everything. Why? Because we got to see a lot of different things in a minimum of time and enjoyed the diversity of what we saw.
– Day 1 –
When to do it: I would say all year long. We did it in September under a beautiful sun and decent temperatures.
Distance: About 11 miles (mostly flat except for the stairs)
Hôtel : Hotel Carlton Joie de Vivre, 1075 Sutter St (entre Hyde et Larkin St)
Petit déjeuner : Cozy Cafe (963 Sutter St)
Collation : Boba Guys, (429 Stockton St)
Déjeuner : Boudin Bakery, Fisherman’s Wharf, (160 Jefferson St)
Dîner : The Grubstake, (1525 Pine St)
It’s often chilly in San Francisco. Thus, my main advice is to bring a warm jacket at all times.
For two days, the Lonely Planet Pocket of San Francisco is sufficient and very useful with its map. Love the small format that fits in the purse.
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– A few ideas –
Our schedule was a bit peculiar and we had to split Day 2 into the afternoon of our arrival and the morning of our departure. And because one of our suitcases didn’t make it to San Francisco, we spent the afternoon of our first day in SF shopping around Union Square.
The morning of our departure, we went to Lombard Street, after a coffee at Saint Frank (supposedly one of the top 21 coffee shops in the United States – at least so claimed the Thrillist) and a walk around Nob Hill (it goes up a lot).
Although we didn’t get to do these things this time, here are a few suggestions for Day 2, based on prior experience.
Visit of Alcatraz (takes a few hours)
A cable car ride on the Powell and Hyde line (stops at Union Square) and a stop at Lombard Street, to see the crookedest street in the US.
A tour of the hippie neighborhood (go to Hayes and Ashbury to find yourself at the epicenter of the Summer of Love)
Go shopping on Filmore St. or around Union Square