San Francisco is one of the most charming cities I have ever visited. I only spent 3 nights and 2 days in San Francisco, but during my short time there I completely fell in love with the city. Its hills, beautiful Victorian houses, ocean views and unpredictable weather remind me a lot of my hometown. With its many restaurants, San Francisco is also a wonderful place for foodies.
Here is my recommended itinerary for two days in San Francisco.
How to Get Around San Francisco
San Francisco has a public transportation system called MUNI that has buses and a metro, but if you only have two days, Uber or Lyft would help you get around much faster. Uber and Lyft are very popular in San Francisco. There is even a designated Uber/Lyft pickup area at the airport, something that I have never seen in Canada yet!
Renting a car is also an option, but as the city has many steep hills to navigate and parking is difficult to find, having a car may end up being a burden. It is common in San Francisco for thieves to smash car windows.
SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY DAY 1: BAKER BEACH, LOMBARD STREET, GHIRARDELLI SQUARE, FISHERMAN’S WHARF, PIER 39, COIT TOWER, ALCATRAZ
View the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach
Take an Uber to Baker Beach, which has one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Uber can drop you off in the parking lot and from there it is a short walk down to the sandy beach. There is a public washroom nearby.
In early March, Baker Beach was very peaceful, with just a few people fishing or walking their dogs. I enjoyed watching the waves crash against the shore. It was my first time seeing the Golden Gate Bridge!
Nudity is permitted at Baker Beach, so don’t be surprised if you see a few naked people sunbathing on the beach. Fortunately I didn’t see any when I was there (the weather must have been too cold).
Visit Lombard Street
Known as the most crooked street in the world, Lombard Street has eight sharp hairpin turns and is located on a steep hill. If you have enough energy, you can walk up the hill, but if you want a good photo of this curvy street, the best place to take it is from the bottom of the hill. Keep in mind that there will probably only be a lot of cars there during rush hour.
Photo via Chris Parker on Flickr
I took Uber to Lombard Street from Baker Beach but the Powell-Hyde cable car also stops right in front of it.
Eat a Delicious Sundae at Ghirardelli Chocolate
From Lombard Street you can walk downhill to Ghirardelli Square, which is most famous for being the headquarters of Ghirardelli Chocolate. There is a gift shop here where you can sample chocolate and buy some to take home. In the basement, there is a small exhibition area where you can learn how chocolate is made as well as an eating area. I tried the Muir Woods Black Cherry Vanilla Sundae, which was absolutely delicious!
In the square outside Ghirardelli Chocolate, there is some interesting 19th century style architecture and fountains.
Stroll Along Fisherman’s Wharf
From Ghirardelli Square, take a short walk along the seaside promenade towards Fisherman’s Wharf.
I was surprised to see several people swimming without wetsuits even though it was only about 12C on land! It must have been far colder in the water.
Some people (especially locals) dislike Fisherman’s Wharf, saying that it is too touristy and crowded, but I loved it! I found the area very charming and it reminded me of Eastern Canada where I am from. In early March, there were not many tourists.
Watch the Sea Lions at Pier 39
At the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf is an area called Pier 39. Pier 39 is most famous for the sea lions which lie on docks at the marina. Sea lions suddenly started hanging out at the pier in 1989, but scientists are not sure why.
The number of sea lions fluctuates throughout the year. Sometimes there are just a few, while at peak times there can be more than 1000! Usually many sea lions leave during the winter and return in the spring. When I visited Pier 39 at the beginning of March there were several dozen sea lions there. If you are in San Francisco and want to check if any sea lions are there before you head down to the pier, there is a live webcam on this website where you can watch the sea lions.
It was very entertaining watching the sea lions. It was hard to decide where to look because there was so much going on! Some sea lions were just napping, while others were fighting playfully. Every few moments a sea lion would jump up suddenly and bark loudly. One of the docks was so full of resting sea lions that it looked like it was going to tip over any second! Some sea lions had to climb over the others in order to jump back into the ocean. One time a sea lion tried to hop onto a dock only to be pushed back into the ocean by an angry bull (male sea lion).
Try Clam Chowder at Boudin Bakery
While there are many food stalls and restaurants selling clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf, Boudin Bakery is often called the best place to eat clam chowder in San Francisco. The chowder is served in a special sourdough bread bowl. It is so creamy and tasty!
I highly recommend that you eat your chowder inside as I saw many large, hungry seagulls swarming around tourists who were eating outside. I even witnessed a seagull poop on one unfortunate woman’s head!
After eating lunch, there are several different activities you can choose from:
Climb the Hill to Coit Tower
Coit Tower has panoramic views of the whole city, including Lombard Street, Twin Peaks, the Financial District, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Alcatraz is a notorious island prison that used to house famous criminals like Al Capone. You catch a boat there from Pier 33. Boats leave daily about every half an hour from 8:45am to 3:50 pm. There is also a special night tour which is very spooky.
For adults, tickets are $38 each for the day tour and $45 for the night tour. Always book your tickets well in advance as they often sell out. You can book using Alcatraz Cruises’ official website.
Go on a Harbor Tour
If Alcatraz tickets are sold out or you are not interested in visiting it, you can take an afternoon cruise of San Francisco Bay. You can choose from any of the tour companies at Fisherman’s Wharf to hear commentary during your ride, but if you want a cheaper experience you can take a public ferry instead. Check the ferry’s website for prices and routes.
Eat Dinner at Fog Harbor Fish House
Fog Harbor Fish House is one of the most highly rated seafood restaurants in the Fisherman’s Wharf Area, and I was impressed with the quality of the seafood, the views, and the service. When it was time to choose dessert, the waitress brought out a tray of replicas of all the desserts instead of a menu!
SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY DAY 2: ALAMO SQUARE, PAINTED LADIES, CABLE CAR RIDE, UNION SQUARE, BATTERY SPENCER, JAPAN TOWN, CHINATOWN
Visit Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies
In the morning, visit Alamo Square Park. This park is an excellent place to view the Painted Ladies, a row of 7 colourful house built in the 1890s. They are famous for appearing in the intro of the TV series Full House. You can even have a picnic while sitting on the hill.
The park is also popular for training and walking dogs. I saw a dog walker holding the leashes of a large group of dogs!
Take a Cable Car Ride
Taking a cable car ride is a must-do activity while in San Francisco! The first cable cars were built in the late 1800s to transport citizens up and down San Francisco’s steep hills. Over the years as transportation evolved the cable cars became less frequently used.
In 1947, the city was going to shut down all the cable car lines but agreed to keep 3 cable car lines after locals protested. These 3 lines are the ones you can ride today. A single ride costs $7 and you can buy your ticket on board or at a ticket booth. If you plan to ride the cable car multiple times during your stay it would be better to buy a 1 or 3 day pass.
Many tourists wait in very long lines at the Cable Car Turn-Around at Market Street in Union Square to board a cable car, but you can avoid the crowds by just getting on at stops along the routes.
The most popular route is the Powell-Mason line, which takes passengers from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, passing by Chinatown and the Financial District along the way. This is the one I rode from a stop near my hotel to Union Square.
The Powell-Hyde route is known as the most scenic route as you will pass by interesting houses and the crooked section of Lombard Street. It will also take you up and down very steep hills.
The California route goes from east to west and is the least touristy of the three lines. You are more likely to meet locals on this route. You can get off at the Financial District or Chinatown on this route.
Explore Union Square
Union Square is a shopping and theatre district. As I mentioned above, the main turn-around for the cable cars is located here.
Admire the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer
In the afternoon, take an Uber to Battery Spencer, which is another one of the best places to view the Golden Gate Bridge. You can view the bridge from a closer angle than at Baker Beach.
The first Uber driver I got had no idea where Battery Spencer was, so I asked him to drop me off at the Vista Point next to one end of the bridge instead.
After admiring the views from there, I called another Uber. This time, the driver knew where Battery Spencer was. He dropped me off at a narrow parking lot and from there I walked down a short trail. The view from Battery Spencer was amazing! It was foggy and sunny all at once, making the bridge look even more dramatic and beautiful.
Eat Dinner in Japantown or Chinatown
After Battery Spencer, go to either Japantown or Chinatown for dinner. I ate at Marufuku Ramen in the Japan Center, a large Japanese shopping mall.
San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is the largest one outside of Asia, is an excellent place to eat some Chinese food for dinner.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
I stayed for 3 nights at the Queen Anne Hotel, a Victorian style hotel in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighbourhood. Japantown is a short walk from here and cable car stops are nearby. The hotel used to be a girls’ boarding school and it is said that room 410 is haunted by the ghost of Mary Lake, the school’s former headmistress. However, people say that she is a friendly ghost who likes tucking guests in at night just as she used to tuck her students in. The hotel attracts ghost hunters and ghost tours.
A continental style breakfast with a variety of pastries (muffins, poundcake, hard-boiled eggs, sausages) is served every morning in a large and elegant dining room. Every evening, complimentary sherry and cookies are offered in the parlour. The staff are all pleasant and welcoming. One of them even dressed up in a Victorian era dress one night.