When it comes to the west coast of the USA, few cities can compare to San Francisco. San Francisco makes a great city break, and with 3 days in the city, you can explore it beyond the typical tourist attractions.
San Francisco is home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Victorian architecture, cable cars that run its steep hills, and Karl – the fog. That’s right, the dense fog that often envelops the city even has its own name and personality!
San Francisco is the ideal cultural destination. Its museums are beautiful inside out while the city’s history is rich and diverse. San Francisco has the oldest and biggest Chinatown in the country while the Mission District is the perfect place to experience the Latino culture.
The city is a haven for foodies. You can dine on burritos in taquerias, pick dim-sums of a moving cart, and experience the great food hall of the Ferry Building. From a tour of the notorious Alcatraz Island to wine tasting in Napa Valley, come with us to see the highlights of San Francisco in 3 days.
Note: this San Francisco blog post was written for Our Escape Clause by Ketki of Dotted Globe. Thanks for joining us, Ketki!
Table of Contents
- Day 1 in San Francisco Itinerary: Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island
- Day 2 in San Francisco Itinerary: The Embacadero, Chinatown, Lombard Street + Beyond
- Day 3 in San Francisco Itinerary: Mission District, Napa Valley + Twin Peaks
- Alternative Day 3 in San Francisco Itinerary: Redwoods + Wine Country
- Where to Stay for 3 Days in San Francisco
- Where to Eat During 3 Days in San Francisco
- Getting Around During A 3 Day San Francisco Itinerary
- When to Visit San Francisco
Day 1 in San Francisco Itinerary: Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island
There are so many things to do in San Francisco that it is hard to decide where to begin. On your first day in San Francisco, start your itinerary at the city’s most iconic attraction, the Golden Gate Bridge. Explore the nearby area then end your day with a cruise to the famous Alcatraz Island.
Admire the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
A visit to San Francisco is incomplete without visiting the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. This landmark bridge spans the Golden Gate Strait and is considered to be an engineering marvel.
We would recommend starting your visit at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center.
Located in the Presidio of San Francisco, this is where you can learn information about the history, architecture, and construction of the bridge. You can also buy souvenirs including postcards, t-shirts, magnets, and more. You can also take beautiful photos of the bridge from the Welcome Center.
Then you can walk up to the bridge to admire it up close. The bridge is about 2 miles long but you can walk as far as you want–unsurprisingly, you’ll find some of San Francisco’s best Instagram spots along this route.
You should ideally walk at least up to the first tower for cool pictures and to see the bay from the bridge. You can also bike across the Golden Gate bridge for a unique experience.
Explore the Presidio.
The area surrounding the bridge is known as the Presidio of San Francisco. The Welcome Center is located here as are many other attractions including the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field, The Walt Disney Museum, and Fort Point.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful, historical building built in the Roman style of architecture. It has majestic columns, dome, and statutes of gods and goddesses. Around the Palace, there is a pond that has ducks, swans, and geese. It is peaceful and good for taking photos.
Crissy Fields is where you can relax, photograph the Golden Gate Bridge from the water, and people watch. You can see families having picnics, enjoying a day on the water in kayaks and paddleboards, and locals taking their dog for a walk. Crissy Fields also has a beautiful beach area.
If you have time, visit the Walt Disney Museum and Fort Point. The Walt Disney Museum is dedicated to the work of Walt Disney. Exhibits, videos, sketches, and music narrate the history of Disney. Kids especially love visiting the museum. You can tour the historic Fort Point to know more about the Pacific Coast’s maritime history.
Watch the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the popular waterfront area of San Francisco. It is popular with tourists and several of San Francisco’s famous restaurants are located here. You will also see souvenir shops, carousel rides, street performers, and ships moored at the harbor. The Fisherman’s Wharf is crowded and touristy but you do need to visit it to understand its attraction.
One of my favorite things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf is to see the sea lions on Pier 39. You will spot a huge group on the docks. These are protected sea lions and have been living at Pier 39 for decades. You can watch them bark, enjoy the California sun, jump, fight, and swim in the water. You can also see the cute pups with their mothers.
Tour Alcatraz Island.
Several San Francisco Bay tours depart from Fisherman’s Wharf including the popular Alcatraz Island cruise. Alcatraz was the famous federal prison where the country’s most dangerous criminals were held. Now it has been converted into a museum and is one of San Francisco’s top attractions.
Visitors can purchase cruise tickets at Fisherman’s Wharf. The cruise includes ferry transportation to Alcatraz Island and an audio tour of the island. The island is located 1.25 miles from the shore. On the island, you can tour historic buildings including the federal prison, military fort, and a lighthouse.
During the audio tour, you will learn about several famous inmates that were held here. You will learn about their crimes, attempts to escape, and the life of prison guards and families who lived on the island. Alcatraz Island is a fascinating place and visitors love to see it. Also, the views of the city skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge from the cruise are worth the ticket.
Day 2 in San Francisco Itinerary: The Embacadero, Chinatown, Lombard Street + Beyond
On your second day in San Francisco, explore some of the city’s quirkier attractions including the crooked Lombard Street and the huge Chinatown. Though assuredly, this day is for the foodie in you. Eat at the city’s famous eateries at Ferry Building and enjoy dim sums before feasting on chocolate at the famous Ghirardelli Square.
Stroll along the Embarcadero.
The Embarcadero is the waterfront promenade between the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building Marketplace. I love walking along the Embarcadero and admiring the city skyline. You can see San Francisco’s famous buildings including Coit Tower while walking here. Walk along the Pier 14 which extends into the sea and watch the locals fishing and going for a stroll.
The Embarcadero is great for noticing activity around you. You can people watch and look out for ships and ferries. Spot the sculptures along the walkway. Numerous cafes, eateries and even museums are located along the Embarcadero. As you walk towards the Ferry Building, you can see the Bay Bridge in the distance.
Eat at the Ferry Building Marketplace.
The Ferry Building is a landmark structure in the city. It has historic architecture and is beautiful to look at. In the past, this was where ferry passengers landed. Now, the Ferry Building Marketplace is home to a huge food hall – in fact, one of the best in the country. As you go inside, be sure to look up at the beautiful ceiling.
Inside you will find iconic San Francisco eateries selling gourmet cuisines. You can feast on tacos, eat fresh oysters, sample wines, and have a grand time. Along with the eateries, you will also find the San Francisco Farmer’s Market inside the Ferry Building. Here you can buy fresh produce and artisan goods as souvenirs for your trip.
Explore the alleys of Chinatown.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is a major tourist attraction and a must-see stop on your 3 day San Francisco itinerary. It is old and has distinct oriental architecture. The entrance to the Chinatown is marked by the Dragon Gate and inside you will find several historic buildings, Chinese style lamp-posts, red lanterns, and Asian decor. There are many murals inside Chinatown.
Walkthrough Chinatown and explore its alleys. You can eat dim sums, Peking duck, egg custard tarts, and sip bubble tea among other delicacies. Check out the souvenir shops and window shop fascinating artwork. Spot unique shops selling lucky bamboos, kites, and lanterns.
Take the cable car to Lombard Street.
See what we did there? Combined two attractions in one! Instead of walking, you can ride the iconic San Francisco streetcars to Lombard Street. Take the Powell-Hyde line from Chinatown and get off at Lombard Street. Riding the streetcar is a fun way to get around San Francisco.
The cable car will drop you at the top of Lombard Street, which is perfect because it is easier to climb down this steep street than go up. Stairs are located at the ends of the street and you can take photos of the famous curves and beautifully landscaped houses as you walk down. Walk all the way down to Ghirardelli Square for some chocolate.
Feast on chocolate in Ghirardelli Square.
Ghirardelli Square was where the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory was once located. The 15 feet tall white sign of Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco is one of the most popular photo spots in the city.
While the factory is no longer here, Ghirardelli has 3 stores in the area. Our favorite is the Original Ghirardelli Chocolate Marketplace. They have hot chocolate, chocolate truffles, baking chocolate bars, and even hot fudge sundaes. The smell of chocolate wafting through the air is delicious.
Ghirardelli Square and the surrounding area also have many retail shops, including San Francisco bookstores, boutique stores, and more. You can shop for souvenirs, jewelry, artwork, candles, fragrances, and apparel. Several restaurants and eateries are also located in the square. Pick one that catches your interest and enjoy a nice sit-down meal.
Day 3 in San Francisco Itinerary: Mission District, Napa Valley + Twin Peaks
On the final day of your 3 days in San Francisco, you’ll have time to explore the city beyond its most touristy spots and potentially seek out some of San Francisco’s hidden gems. Go off the beaten path and see thought-provoking murals in Mission District. Tour the wineries in Napa Valley and buy a bottle to take home. End your day at Twin Peaks where you can enjoy the city from above.
See the murals in Mission District.
San Francisco’s Mission District has many attractions. Mission Dolores, located in this neighborhood, is the oldest building in the city. It survived the devastating San Francisco earthquake that destroyed the entire city.
The nearby Mission Dolores Park has great views of San Francisco. Mission District is also good for foodies. Here you will find several taquerias serving the famous Mission-style burritos. Several famous restaurants and nightclubs are also located in this area.
A hidden gem in Mission District is the fascinating murals painted in and around Balmy Street Alley. The murals were painted in defiance of oppression and political conditions in Latin America and soon grew to include current political issues. The murals here are thought-provoking and fascinating. You can also go on a guided tour of the murals.
Go wine tasting in Napa Valley.
Napa Valley is California’s most famous wine region. It is located an hour away from San Francisco and has some of the state’s most famous wineries.
If you have a designated driver, consider renting a car and taking the iconic Highway 1 for a scenic Pacific Coast Highway road trip to reach the Napa Valley. Along the drive, you will see coastal views and lush vineyards as you head towards Napa.
If you have to pick one winery, visit Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga. The impressive castle is inspired by the castles in Tuscany and is beautiful. Along with wineries, Napa Valley also has breweries, distilleries, gourmet bakeries, and farm to table restaurants and is delightful to spend a day relaxing in the fresh air.
Alternatively, consider booking a day trip to Napa Valley–this one is a highly-recommended choice–and spending part of your final day enjoying the beauty of northern California without worrying about driving or logistics.
Book your wine country tour from San Francisco today!
Prefer to drive? Shop rental cars with Discover Cars to find the best deals for you!
Admire the view from Twin Peaks.
If you drove yourself to Napa Valley, when you come back to the city, head up to Twin Peaks. There is plenty of parking at Christmas Tree Lookout Point, one of the main viewing areas at Twin peaks.
From Twin Peaks, you can see beautiful views of the bay area. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, the island of Alcatraz, the San Francisco skyline, and the city spread out before you. There are viewing binoculars on top of Twin Peaks that let you see the city up close.
There are also many hiking trails in the Twin Peaks park and this is a wonderful place to go for a stroll. At night, you can see the whole city lit up and take stunning photos. It gets windy at Twin Peaks, so wear jackets before coming here.
Alternative Day 3 in San Francisco Itinerary: Redwoods + Wine Country
Prefer to spend your entire final day exploring northern California beyond San Francisco?
If so, consider this incredibly popular tour, which will show you the stunning beauty of California’s gigantic, 1,000-year-old Redwood trees, followed by several wine tastings and even a fantastic photo op of the Golden Gate Bridge as you head back into the city!
If you dream of seeing some of northern California’s most iconic landmarks and are limited to a long weekend in San Francisco, this is undoubtedly the best way to do so.
Book your Redwoods + wine tour leaving from San Francisco today!
Where to Stay for 3 Days in San Francisco
San Francisco has tons of neighborhoods that are distinct from each other in architecture, history, and vibe.
To stay close to the attractions, shopping, and dining you should consider the Union Square area. If you love historic neighborhoods with vintage buildings, stay in Haight Ashbury. For a budget stay close to public transportation, consider the vicinity of Chinatown or South of Market (SoMa).
Tilden Hotel — It’s really hard to find a San Francisco hotel room for cheap, especially if booking within a month of your trip. Your best bet is the popular and reliable Tilden Hotel. While the amenities are nothing fancy, it’s clean, standard, and, most importantly, located in the bustling Union Square so you are close to everything.
Hyatt Regency San Francisco — Located in the Financial District and boasting excellent reviews, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco is a great option for families and couples. You will be staying close to the Embacadero and within walking distance of the Ferry Building eateries.
Hotel Nikko — On our most recent visit to the city, we stayed at the gorgeous and extremely popular Hotel Nikko in Union Square.
This luxury hotel has been recently renovated in an Asian theme. Amenities like on-site restaurants, a salon, and an indoor pool as well as the wonderful staff and rooms will brighten your stay, and its phenomenal location will ensure you always have the best of the city at your fingertips during your 3 day weekend getaway in San Francisco.
Where to Eat During 3 Days in San Francisco
If you enjoy dining outside, then you are going to love San Francisco. The city continually ranks among top cities for foodies in the country. In San Francisco, you can savor a variety of cuisines, eat at food carts, and attend wine tasting events, all less than a mile away from each other.
Here are some of the top places to eat and drink when exploring San Francisco in 3 days!
Boudin Bakery & Cafe
While the iconic Boudin Bakery has many locations in the city, the original on Fisherman’s Wharf is full of character and is must-visit for tourists.
At Boudin, you can find Frisco’s take on the New England clam chowder: delicious clam chowder soup in a sourdough bread bowl! Boudin’s bakes the bread fresh and the taste remains the original, first-served in 1849.
Golden Gate Bakery
While San Francisco’s Chinatown is full of eateries excelling at dumplings, pork buns, and Peking duck, the most crowded eatery in the neighborhood remains the Golden Gate Bakery. This bakery is said to have invented the fortune cookie. Their egg custard tart is a sweet, creamy pastry that often gets sold out within hours of opening the bakery.
For chocolate lovers, a visit to the Original Ghirardelli Ice cream & Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square is a must. Here you can try samples, drink coffee and hot chocolate, buy the Ghirardelli chocolate bar, and eat hot fudge sundaes.
Taqueria El Farolito
This taqueria in Mission District is said to be where the Mission-style burrito originated. Chances are you have eaten the Mission Burrito before without realizing it. This burrito is huge and has lots of extra rice, beans, cheese, sour cream, and other toppings. It tastes delicious!
Buena Vista Cafe
Buena Vista Cafe is located on the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and is famous for its Irish Coffee. This perfectly blended concoction of steaming coffee and Irish whiskey is topped with lots of whipped cream and is said to be the best in the country.
Getting Around During A 3 Day San Francisco Itinerary
San Francisco is a very walkable city. Rather, we would say that you need to walk around to experience the vibe of this trendy west coast city. The city’s crooked streets, uphill roads, and beautiful architecture can best be seen while walking.
The majority of the tourist sites are located close together and the way we have planned this San Francisco 3 day itinerary, you can easily walk around the first two days. For the third day, we recommend renting a car just for Napa Valley if you would prefer not to book a tour.
That brings us to the question, what if you already have a car? Even then, we would recommend parking it at the hotel and exploring the city on foot. Parking in the city is expensive and risky – car break-ins are quite common in touristy areas. The roads are small and difficult to drive if you are not used to the steep hills and slopes.
What if you prefer to not walk? A better way to get around is to use ride-sharing services, including Lyft and Uber, as needed.
You can also ride the cable cars to get around the city. The bus and metro system – MUNI – is also convenient to get around using day passes.
Another great way to see the city is by biking. You can bike across the gate as well as to Napa Valley – though that is for experienced bikers. A variety of bike tours are available all over the city.
Want to explore San Francisco by bike?
This well-reviewed bike tour is a great way to get started!
When to Visit San Francisco
The best part about visiting San Francisco is that it is a year-round travel destination. It never gets freezing cold in the city while unexpected foggy and rainy days cool the city during summer so you can ideally plan a trip any time of the year.
That being said, San Francisco really shines in the fall from September to November. The crowds are way lower than the peak summer season and temperature is warm enough to dip in the water.
Another great time to visit is spring. The temperature is mild and while the city does receive April showers, it’s not as bad as further up along the coast in Northern California. Plus, you can see spring blossoms across the city and wildflowers in the parks.
Summer is the peak travel season and tourists come from all over the country to enjoy the city’s attractions. You may find huge crowds at popular destinations such as the Golden Gate Bridge Visitor Center and Lombard Street. Also, hotel rates are on the high side. Be ready for sudden climate changes – high winds and dense fog – to spoil your day on the beach.
Winter is yet another great time to enjoy this 3 days in San Francisco itinerary. During the holiday season, you can see the city decked up in lights and festive cheer. Things can get chilly along the coast or at high altitudes like the Twin Peaks, so pack in a jacket/sweaters. Also, be prepared for a few rainy days.