One of the best things about visiting San Francisco is that the city is just 49 square miles, making it an attractive sight-seeing destination when you only have a short period of time. I visited the colorful city with my Australian friends – Kath, Rob, their two little girls, and Grandma Margaret- and we had a wonderful time exploring San Francisco during a long July weekend.
San Francisco in Three Days – With only three days in which to see everything and, of course, eat and drink our way around the city, we picked just a few highlights for our must-do list and placed other activities in the “too-hard basket” (i.e. bicycling across the Golden Gate Bridge.) My biggest priority was to simply visit with my friends, but here are a few of my favorite sight-seeing destinations that we checked off of our San Francisco list.
Hike, bike, or simply gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge – The West Coast’s most enduring symbol vaults from a rocky seascape to link the northern tip of San Francisco Bay to Marin County. The bridge’s name, “Golden Gate,” refers to the body of water it stretches across (the Golden Gate Strait that connects the Pacific Ocean with the San Francisco Bay).
The bridge is accessible by car, bus, bicycle or foot. If you’re biking, head to Pier 39 and rent a bike from Blazing Saddles (or another bike shop) and head off on a self-guided cycle tour across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito where you can then catch a ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf.
We chose to walk from the Marina, following the sandy shoreline through Crissy Park all the way to Fort Point– about 2.5 miles. It’s an ideal jaunt during the morning hours when dogs and joggers also frolic through the marshlands. Before visiting Fort Point or climbing the stairs to the top of the bluff, grab a latte at the popular Warming Hut and take a moment to gape at the momentous, historic feat spanning before you.
Take a Journey on a Cable Car – San Francisco’s iconic cable cars offer a thrilling ride around the city. Cars can be caught from several different spots around the city, including the famous Powell-Hyde Line at Powell and Market streets.
Compared to the $2 per ride on San Francisco’s public buses, the cable cars are a bit pricier at $6 per ride, or you can buy a one-day pass for $15. After you hop on, grab a spot near the outside of the tram, either on the front sides where you can hang precariously off the ledge or perched on the back platform next to the conductor.
Earn your prison stripes at Alcatraz or “The Rock” – A close runner-up to the Golden Gate Bridge in terms of tourist popularity, Alcatraz sits 1.5 miles off-shore in the heart of San Francisco Bay and is a must-do on any tourist’s bucket list for San Francisco.
Visitors to the former penitentiary can see how prisoners lived, and learn about their many failed escape from “The Rock.” Entrance to Alcatraz is free; however, visitors need to purchase a ferry ticket for transportation to the island. Tickets cost about $30 and include a guided tour and an audio guide. Reservations fill up very quickly and it is advised to book your tickets at least two months in advance.
Wander around Fisherman’s Wharf –
Enjoy gusty breezes, the gentle hum of halyards, and a fresh bowl of delicious clam chowder down on Fisherman’s Wharf. After exploring the nooks and crannies of the world’s largest collection of historic ships at Hyde Street Pier, grab a loaf of sourdough bread at Boudin’s Bakery and some artery-clogging calamari or Dungeness Crab from the Jefferson Street vendors. If you have room for a special treat, top off your lunch with a sugary mass of chocolaty goodness at Ghirardelli Square.
Pier 39 and the California Sea Lions- Yes, it’s a tourist trap – lots of tchotchkes, over-priced food, and congested sidewalks, but Pier 39 is worth a short visit nonetheless, if only to stock up on miniature Golden Gate Bridge replicas and scenic postcards.
When you’ve had enough of the crowds, head to the back of the pier to check out the California sea lions at Pier 39’s K-Dock, and snap a few photos of Alcatraz Island.
Climb up Coit Tower – Perched atop several gluteus-challenging staircases is Coit Tower, a monument that offers gorgeous, panoramic views of the city. It costs $7 for an elevator to the top of the tower, or you can simply explore the monument and murals at ground level and then snap photos of scenic vistas surrounding Telegraph Hill.
Reminisce about “Full House” at the Painted Ladies- If you’re like me and grew up watching Full House, then you will recognize the Painted Ladies as the backdrop in the show’s opening credits. It’s a rather steep hike to Alamo Square, but the Victorian homes are a beautiful Quintessential postcard view of San Francisco. Grab a candid shot and then head off to a nearby cafe for a latte..or two.
Gape at the Mission District’s Street Art -The Mission neighborhood offers a quieter setting than the more heavily visited tourist attractions, and it’s worth a few hours of exploring to see this more eclectic side of San Francisco. There are numerous Mexican eateries, used book stores, and boutiques nestled in the Mission, but the best – and cheapest- sight-seeing activity is to take a walking tour to find the various murals adorning the Mission’s building facades. Like this little Van Gogh masterpiece:
EAT and DRINK your way around San Francisco- With coffee shops, farmer’s markets, ethnic cuisines, and fresh seafood galore, there is plenty to drool over in San Francisco’s foodie paradise. Luckily, Kath and Rob are coffee lovers too, so we had plenty of opportunities to stop in small cafes for an afternoon (or mid-morning) caffeine fix and snack.
If you’re in the city on a Friday evening, head down to Fort Mason Center for Off the Grid, a roaming mobile food extravaganza with drinks, music, and some of the best food that California has to offer!Got more time in San Francisco?
- Have a drink in historic Vesuvi, a bar on the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley and Columbus Street. Situated next to the City Lights Bookstore, it was once the local hangout of the Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Dylan.
- Take a day – or two- to drink your way through Napa Wine Country.
- Visit the Palace of Fine Arts, a Roman-style remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Take a leisurely stroll around the lagoon, relax under the rotunda, or enjoy a picnic on the grass.
- Sun bath at Golden Gate Bridge Park or any one of the beautiful parks in San Francisco.
My long weekend in San Francisco ended much too quickly. I had a simply fantastic time with my friends and their beautiful young girls in one of the best cities in the world, and I hope to see them again before Grace and Ella grow too much bigger. Kath and Rob (and Margaret) – thanks again for hosting me!