The ultimate tourist guide on what to see & do when visiting San Francisco, California for just 24 hours.
We visited San Francisco during our 3-week coach tour through the ‘Golden West’, and our itinerary included a whole day of free time in the city. Of course you can’t see everything in just one day, but with our planning, experience and hindsight, I think we have found the perfect way to see the best of San Fran in just one day. Let’s go!
08:00 Breakfast at the Boudin Bakery. The best way to start the day is with an ocean view, freshly ground coffee and the Boudin Bakery’s signature sourdough french toast. Steeped in San Franciscan history and home of the original mother dough, the Boudin Bakery is best enjoyed at The Bakers Hall, Fisherman’s Wharf. They are open from 8am, 7 days a week. My advice: buy a little something extra to take with you as a snack for later! Remember to snap your picture with the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf sign as you pass it – this is your best opportunity as it will only get busier throughout the day!
09:00 Hop over to Alcatraz Island. Famous for all the wrong reasons, a visit to the prison is a must-do on a trip to San Francisco. The first ferries depart from Pier 33 at around 09:00 each day, the full schedule of which can be found on their official website here. Pre-booking is strongly advised as visitor numbers are strictly limited. Allow 3 hours for the experience, including ferry transportation. The interactive audio tour is definitely worth paying attention to as it explains what you’re seeing and helps transport you back to when Alcatraz was a real working prison. Keep your eyes peeled because you never know – you might even get to meet a past inmate and have him autograph your souvenir!
12:00 Ponder as you wander around Pier 39. The epitome of seaside tourism! Roll-up, roll-up for selfie spots and sea lions! Expect shops, restaurants, arcades, music and more tacky souvenirs than you can shake your bum bag at! It is aimed at tourists for good reason, so go and enjoy yourself! Click here for a sneak peak on what to expect!
13:00 Lunch time! You will be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, so follow just your gut (and your nose). Whether you decide to stay on the pier or venture further west along Jefferson Street, you will be surrounded by delicious temptations. If you really can’t decide, you can’t go wrong with a classic clam chowder, followed by a delicious ice cream sundae at Ghiradelli’s chocolate shop and cafe.
14:00 Stroll down Lombard Street. Time to walk off those calories! Lombard Street is one of the world’s most recognised roads due to it’s 8 switch-backs and use in almost all films set in the city! Unsurprisingly it is just a road, so take your pictures, then take a hike!
14:30 Hang out in Haight-Ashbury.The original ‘Hippie district’, Haight-Ashbury is also home to a number of well preserved Victorian houses, in a similar style to the neighbouring row famously known as the ‘Painted Ladies’. Be prepared to see all sorts of free spirits on your journey! Curious? You should be – vintage boutiques and quirky bars await!
16:00 Soak in the sun at Golden Gate Park. There is so much to see and do here, from the Botanical Garden to the Bison Paddock, Strawberry Hill to the Dutch Windmill by Ocean Beach. Quite frankly, one day isn’t enough time to truly explore all that San Fran has to offer, but if you are visiting during the summer months, you could still have 3-4 hours of daylight to enjoy. Ideally you would have a whole day to take it all in, but if not, seize this moment!
Sunset at the Presidio. Sunset will fall between 16:30 -20:30 depending on the time of year you visit, so you may want to have dinner first, or indeed bring a romantic picnic. The Presidio of San Francisco is a beautiful park and recreation area, offering views of the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun sets just beyond.
Dinner in China Town. If cultural history is your thing, you will love learning about the Chinese influence in this wonderful city. If (like me) you just enjoy the food, this is the place for you too! There is a lot to choose from here, so ask a local for their recommendation, or turn to your friend TripAdvisor for advice.
Drinks in Union Square. Still got the energy? Good for you! Head on down to Union Square where a plethora of trendy bars and swanky clubs will entertain you until the small hours. Ready for bed? Hop on a trolley or call a cab to take you for your well-earned rest!
Where To Stay
We stayed at the Holiday Inn San Francisco Golden Gateway which, in my opinion, offers the best of both worlds in terms of cost and location. If you have stayed in an IHG Holiday Inn hotel, you will know the standards and service to expect. The hotel is technically classed as a 3*, and I usually don’t stay in anything less than 4*, however I would say your money is well spent here. It is clean, modern and well located on Pine Street. If you plan to be out of your hotel room more than you’re in it, this is your best bet. Better still, if you are an IHG Rewards member, you can earn or spend points on your stay too. What’s not to love?!
We found this to be the biggest hurdle in terms of seeing a lot in a short space of time. There are a lot of options, but not all of them are practical. I would steer clear of the ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ buses altogether. We booked these before we travelled and wasted time waiting for buses that would inevitably turn up full as they ran in a continuous loop. You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of taking the trolleys, public service buses, cabs, Uber, hiring a bicycle and walking. Quite honestly, you will likely end up doing a bit of everything! Google Maps makes the city look easy to navigate, and whilst the grid-like roads and seemingly close highlights look great on paper, this city is hilly and the pavements are hard. We usually walk everywhere, but after 5 or 6 hours pounding the pavements, we started to feel the need for speed. For short visits, your best value solution is to buy a MuniMobile Visitor Passport, as this gives you unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars, and cable cars throughout San Francisco. Available to purchase in 1, 3 and 7 day increments, the Muni Visitor Passports can be bought and used via the MuniMobile smartphone app for just $13* per person, per day, or at kiosks and ticket centres around the city. For more information, see the official SFMTA website here.
Top Traveller Tips
- Thanks to geography, San Francisco is typically covered in a blanket of fog every morning, and depending on the weather, it can hang around for hours! Don’t rise early expecting a picture-perfect sunrise. Instead, prepare your hair for humidity.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Like, really comfy. Worn in, but not worn out. Pounding the pavements is hard going, and with urban elevation like nothing we’ve ever experienced before, even Joe’s calves needed a day to recover! I can’t stress enough how important this tip is!
- Remember to hydrate. It’s easy to get caught up in the exploration, but if you want to keep going all day, you need to keep sipping.
- Take layers. The fog first thing keeps the mornings cool, but once the sun burns through it can get quite hot. One minute the sea breeze will send a chill right through you, the next you are stripping off for a sun tan!
Got time for a longer stay? There’s so much more to see!
- Stroll along the bay and soak up the artistic atmosphere in Sausalito.
- Indulge in some retail therapy with some shopping at Union Square.
- Take a trip down memory lane and visit the Walt Disney Family Museum.
- Watch the San Francisco Giants play baseball at a home game in Oracle Park.
- Slide south to Silicon Valley. You can read more about this buzzing tech-hub on Visit California’s website.
Take A Hike!
- Explore the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but remember to take your camera, sturdy shoes and plenty of water!
- Tackle the Twin Peaks (Eureka Peak and Noe Peak) and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping city views.
Great For Kids
- The Exploratorium, described as a ‘hands-on science museum’, is located at Pier 15 and is a great way to get those curious minds working.
- Say ‘hi’ to the exotic locals at San Francisco Zoo.
- Have fun in the sun building sandcastles at Ocean Beach.
- If you have older children or adults who are really interested in WWII, check out Pier 45 and the USS Pampanito for a look in to San Francisco’s Naval history.
*Please note, all prices, links and recommendations are valid at the time of publication. This article may contain affiliate links.
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