Known as the City by the Bay or SF for short, is a world-renown destination known for its stunning geographical beauty, diverse population and a vibrant culture. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean to the west and lush national parks to the east, what began as gold rush town has become an international destination for artistic dreamers, ambitious entrepreneurs and free spirits.
With a history dating back to the 1800’s and a rapidly changing urban landscape, it is a city that cannot be thoroughly explored in a few days. However, if you are short on time, you can still see, experience and sample a good portion of it with good planning and execution!
Read on for a guide of how to spend 72 hours in SF to maximize your itinerary:
The first day is all about culture and SF has it in spades. With one of the oldest and biggest Chinatown in North America and the world, it the logical place to start.
Begin your day right by heading to House of Nanking to sip on herbal teas and eat some delicious dim sum – tasty Chinese small plates and delicacies. Once you’re all fuelled up, walk up the street to Eastern Bakery (est. 1924) to load up on traditional treats and snacks before exploring the neighbourhood. Like many other areas in SF, there are many colorful and Instagramable murals you can take photos with to jazz up your IG!
Once you’ve taken in the tradition in Chinatown, head to the nearest BART Station and get yourself a Clipper Card. It costs $3 for the card and you can pre-load it with credits to navigate the tap-in / tap-out system. Take the subway to 24th and Mission Station and get off to find yourself in the heart of SF’s trendiest and hip neighbourhood.
Walk down 24th Street (known as “Calle 24” to the local Latin community) and soak up the South American vibes with music and urban artwork. Head down to La Taqueria, a famous Mexican restaurant immensely popular with the locals and visitors alike, and get yourself a mouth-watering Super Taco for $7.50, complete with salsas, meats and guacamole.
Once you’re done, stroll down Mission Street to see the grittier side of SF before rounding the corner at Valencia Street, filled with boutique stores and bars / cafes. Be sure to cut through Clarion Alley to check out the colorful and politically thought-provoking wall murals.
Walk uphill to the tranquil Dolores Park, a large green space popular with views overlooking the city. It’s a popular spot on sunny weekends, packed with families having picnics, friends hanging out and people walking their dogs.
As the sun starts to get low, it’s time to head to the last destination of the day – Twin Peaks. Order yourself an Uber (use promo code garyl960 for $5 off your next ride!) or Lyft and get a ride to the top of the posh Midtown neighbourhood for spectacular, 180-degree panoramic views. Trust me, you don’t want to be hoofing it up the steep hills of this area just to save a few dollars. Enjoy the sunset and nighttime views overlooking the entire Bay Area.
Once you’ve taken in the million-dollar views (because that’s what real estate properties cost up here!), get another ride share down to the nearest BART Station and take the subway back to your lodgings. While the subway system is relatively efficient, the local busses are notoriously unreliable; you are better off paying a bit more to end your day on a smooth note and rest up for another big day.
Today is about natural and aesthetic beauty. We start with a morning jaunt on the flowery and unique Lombard Street for an iconic photo. The steep hills will be a good warm up for your legs in preparation for the rest of the day! Proceed to Saint Frank Coffee in Russian Hills for a reward and grab yourself a ham & cheese croissant along with a strong java to go, because there is no time to waste.
Walk down Polk Street and arrive at the Anthony Bourdain approved Swan Oyster Depot for some no-frills, fresh over the counter seafood. This restaurant is a SF institution, serving up casual seafood fare. It’s best to get here before noon, as the lineups can be out the door and they’ll soon be turning away patrons. Be sure to bring some dollars as it’s cash only.
Once you’re filled with fresh ocean-side goodness, make your way over to the Palace of Fine Art in the Marina District. Originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, it’s a beloved monument to locals and visitors alike for its Roman and Greek inspired architecture. Flanked by a turquoise green lagoon, it’s been renovated multiple times and populated with all sorts of wildlife – the perfect juxtaposition of man-made sophistication and nature beauty.
No visit to SF is complete without a visit to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge – once the longest suspension bridge in the world. Walk along the sandy trails of Crissy Field along Mason Street for a relaxing stroll. It’s a local favorite that’s surrounded by ocean & beach on one side and the bridge in the backdrop. If you have the energy, proceed down Marine Drive to Fort Point for a unique bridge-backdrop photo without all the tourist hoards near the Visitor’s Center.
Wind down your afternoon by heading over to the Presidio Visitor Center, the starting point for the National Historic Landmark situated within the city itself. Once you’ve stocked up on water and snacks, spend some time hiking the large park and sit down for a picnic to experience the calming energy of its natural open spaces. If you’re lucky enough to be here on a Sunday for a Presidio Picnic event, you’ll be treated to lawn games, food trucks and other cool activities for kids and adults.
After a hard day’s sightseeing, reward yourself with a delicious prime rib dinner carved to perfection at the acclaimed House of Prime Rib on Van Ness Avenue. Whether you pair it with a smooth glass of wine or an ice-cold beer, it’s bound to reward your taste buds. Call it a night early at your hotel / hostel / Airbnb (If you’re new to the platform, click here to get $35 USD OFF your stay!) and recharge, as tomorrow is another big day.
Start the day off bright and early at Pier 39, a popular tourist destination along the docks and marina. Grab a casual break-fast with coffee to go and take a look the hundreds of California sea lions lounging on floating platforms. While there are many restaurants, bars and shops along the promenade, I don’t recommend lingering too long as most as overpriced tourist traps.
Proceed to Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, where multiple ferries and tours depart for Alcatraz Island hour. Be sure to plan your visit and purchase ticket well ahead of time online, as they can sell out days in advance due to the massive popularity of the landmark. Allow for 3.5 hours round-trip for the standard day tour and up to 6.5 hours for the combo tours.
Assuming you were up nice and early to get things done, you now have the afternoon to go check out Sausalito and Muir Woods. Head down to the San Francisco Ferry Building and get ferry tickets for a thirty-minute ride to the sleepy county just a few miles northwest of SF. By this point, you should be pretty hungry. Find your way to Fish., sustainable seafood restaurant that serves up their fresh daily catch in generous portions.
If you’re making good time, hop on a shuttle to Muir Woods from Bay St & Bridgeway St. The shuttle runs on all weekends and holidays. The last shuttles of the day fill up quickly, so plan your departure time accordingly and be sure to book your reservations ahead of time. The National Park is filled with dense coastal redwoods and impressive Giant Sequoia trees. Whether you are an avid hiker or a casual stroller, there are plenty of trails and photogenic viewpoints for everyone.
Once you’re back on the SF side, wind down your last evening with a pint of ice-cold local beer and the tastiest burgers at Super Duper Burger in the Marina District. Be sure to reward yourself for the intense day’s sightseeing with some classic milkshakes and garlic fries as well.
Bonus Trip Ideas
- Catch a San Francisco Giants baseball game at the beautiful, water-side Oracle Park
- Cheer on the Golden State Warriors at their new multi-billion-dollar home at the Chase Center
- Get an insider tour at Facebook / Google / Apple headquarters in Silicon Valley (only if you have the right connections)
If you followed the above recommended itinerary to a tee and maximized your short but eventful time in SF, I salute you! It is jam packed and requires stamina along with some solid execution to pull off. If you didn’t get to all of it, no worries – all the more reason to visit again.
Whether you are a young backpacker looking to have a good time on a shoestring budget, someone on a family vacation or couples’ trip, SF is a city with something for everyone. Although it is not the cheapest destination by a long shot, the Bay Area’s natural geographical beauty and abundance of cool activities will ensure you have a great trip.
Have you been to SF yet? What's the one spot you can't wait to check out or think is a can't-miss? Leave a comment and let me know for the next trip!
Until next time,