If you’ve never been to San Francisco before, you’re in for a real treat. While it’s relatively compact in size, it’s packed full of varied neighborhoods, incredible food, beautiful sights, and intriguing history/architecture.
However, it holds so much cool stuff to see and experience that it can be hard planning out an itinerary. We have an itinerary that never fails, maximizing your time and including activities that are well worth it. Let’s jump right in!
Day 1: Golden Gate Bridge, Crissy Field, Alcatraz, and More
If you get to San Francisco bright and early, try starting your day out in Union Square and grab a coffee and pastry. In fact, if you can stay at least your first night here we highly recommend it. The Handlery Hotel is a great value for the price and location, though there are some stories of ghosts hanging around!
Golden Gate Bridge
It’s very likely that you already saw the bridge coming into the city, but you’re surely going to want to spend more time taking photos. It’s undoubtedly one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, and definitely the most famous in the city. If you’d like, you can walk or bike across it for the best views.
If that’s not for you, there are tons of great viewing angles from a distance. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is our favorite, as it not only offers fantastic views of the bridge, but various hiking trails and even a Walt Disney museum inside.
While you’re over here, you may as well head on over to Crissy Field, which is perfect for having a picnic, running around, or kicking back and relaxing. The harbor views seen here are fantastic, and if you’re not down with the picnic idea, Warming Hut located at the west side has plenty of snacks, drinks, souvenirs, and sweaters if you get too chilly out there.
The Palace of Fine Arts
Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, it was originally constructed out of plaster, wood, and burlap and designed by Bernard Maybeck. It was rebuilt in the 1960s and 70s, and is the only structure from said exposition which is currently still standing on this site.
The stunning rotunda and lagoon are one of the most iconic spots in San Francisco, and is often the site of many weddings and other important events.
Take some time here to stroll around and enjoy the fantastic views of this gorgeous piece of history. This social spot is perfect for hanging out with your significant other, friends, or the whole family to play giant jenga, cornhole, ping pong, and other games.
There are also many entertainment events that go on here, so check their website out.
Alcatraz is another significant piece of US history, and was home to some of our worst (or most talented?) criminals. Whether you’re a history buff or simply want to get to know the area more in-depth, you can’t miss taking the ferry out to the island that Alcatraz sits on.
Taking a tour of Alcatraz is always a smart idea, because the rangers are very knowledgeable and have years of experience on the island. Their personal anecdotes are nothing to balk at, either!
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most charming places in San Francisco, displaying just how important the fishermen are to the city. Here, you’ll be able to watch them working away as they’ve done for nearly 100 years.
While the food here is often pretty expensive for what it is, you can’t go wrong with a delicious warm clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl on a chilly day!
Lunch at Waterbar or Anchor Oyster Bar is a solid move, too.
After all that walking around, you deserve a bit of a break! Head on over to Dolores Park for some breathtaking city views and some photo ops. For a more historic aspect, check out Misión San Francisco de Asís or Mission Dolores.
As the oldest structure (still standing) in SF, it’s worth learning about and was established the same year as the US!
If you’re looking to stay in a place other than Union Square, the Mission District is an excellent alternative full of incredible Mexican food and cocktails.
Day 2: Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Chinatown, and More
After grabbing a quick bite to eat, get yourself a one-way ticket for the cable cars and hop on one from Market Street. This is a quintessentially San Francisco was to get around – not to mention, it’s pretty fun and offers some amazing views from the hills! If you already have a CityPass, you don’t have to purchase a separate ticket as they already come included.
Situated just south of Russian Hill Park, hop off at Lombard Street by taking the Powell/Hyde line which starts at Fisherman’s Wharf. This street has a very interesting history, beginning in the 1920s when automobiles really started to become more popular.
Many of the hills in the city were simply too steep and scary to drive, so a local named Carl Henry sprouted the idea of creating curved streets with sharp turns. Watching people navigate these turns is quite entertaining and looks like some kind of race track!
(Side note: for an even deeper education on this unique mode of transport, check out the free Cable Car Museum)
You can see the 210-foot tower on Telegraph Hill from various spots throughout the city, though if you’re looking for some of the best 360 views of the bay we recommend heading to the top.
Built in 1933, it sports almost 30 frescos by various artists to depict life during the Great Depression in San Francisco. Not only is it a beautiful place, but it’s a place where you’ll learn a lot about the history of the local and national struggles our countrymen and ancestors faced.
Neighboring Chinatown is one of the most special places in the world. Aside from the one in New York City, SF’s Chinatown is the largest and one of the oldest.
The iconic Dragon’s Gate is perfect for photo ops, but the labyrinth of streets and alleys lined with delicious food spot, temples, teahouses, cocktail lounges, and more is what really makes it the place to go. Don’t make the mistake of not grabbing some dim sum here and enjoying the insane views!
The San Francisco Bay is best seen from the water with a harbor tour/cruise, and is a view most visitors don’t get to see. If you’ve already seen enough of the bay from visiting Alcatraz, then head straight to the Castro instead.
While it’s known for being a gay neighborhood, it’s open to everyone and has plenty of delicious restaurants and fun dance clubs.
If you’re looking for a quick snack/pick-me-up, check out El Castillito for a burrito and an agua fresca.
Even if you aren’t interested in flower power or rock music, it’s one of the few neighborhoods in San Francisco that wasn’t affected too much by the 1906 earthquake. Due to this, you’ll find plenty of beautiful Victorian homes here.
Aside from that, this place was once home to revolutionaries, famous singers/bands, and was ultimately the center of the hippie movement and American counterculture in the 60s. From vintage clothes shopping, bookstore-diving, or experiencing the eclectic and eccentric, you’ll find that here.
Any music lover will feel at home in Amoeba Music, full of countless new and used vinyl and CDs, posters, and tons of other music-related finds.
If you’re into coffee, check out Ritual Coffee Roasters on the corner of Haight and Central which helped kick off the artisanal coffee movement in the bay area.
Day 3: Yosemite National Park
Are you looking to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the city? While San Francisco is packed full of activities, it can be overwhelming after a couple of days. Why not recharge your batteries and venture into the rugged beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains?
Try out a Yosemite day trip from San Francisco which will take you for a whole day adventure. Travel on a luxurious van or bus through all kinds of Gold Rush towns which have seemed to freeze in time.
Your tour guide will tell you all about their history and allow for plenty of time to walk around and take photos before reaching Yosemite.
The insane natural attractions like Yosemite Falls and granite Half Dome and El Capitan cliffs are simply marvelous. There are plenty of climbers who dare ascend the latter two, and it’s always entertaining to watch them take on these gigantic walls.
If you’re into athletics or like to stay active, you’re sure to appreciate the hikes among the sequoia trees that have been around longer than anything else you’ve seen on your trip so far.
Your van will take you back to the city, just in time for dinner. We recommend grabbing a seriously stacked sandwich at the old-school Italian-American Lucca Delicatessen.
They’ve been satisfying locals for almost 100 years, and inside offers plenty of Instagram-worthy views with salami hanging from the ceiling.
Grab a sandwich for dinner and take a box of pasta with you to enjoy in the hotel while you watch a movie in bed.
Day 4: Beat Museum, Ferry Building, Muir Woods
Start out your day by fueling up at the Ferry Building Marketplace. If you’re a foodie, this will seem like a little paradise to you. During the week there are plenty of food stands outside, while on the weekends you’ll be able to enjoy a large farmer’s market.
Normally during the week they open at 10 am which is perfect to grab something delicious before heading to the museum.
The Beat Museum is all about the Beat Generation, which is quite a fascinating moment in history You’ll see a vast collection of rare books, letters, and much more from crucial cultural icons like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
De Young Art Museum is an excellent alternative, and if you’re into art or photography we can’t recommend it enough. You’ll see art all the way from the 17th century to more contemporary works. Not to mention, there’s a wonderful view on the 9th floor at the Observation Level.
Choose the afternoon departure option and reserve a day trip tour out to Muir Woods. You’ll be back in time for dinner, yet still get to see the ancient coastal redwood forest. There’s nowhere else on planet earth quite like it.
You’ll travel around in a luxury coach and have a pro tour guide to entertain and educate, as well as answer any questions you may have.
This protected nature reserve allows for plenty of thought, fresh air, and time to walk around and enjoy this tranquil place. You may even spot some critters like the Stellar’s Jay, ladybugs, banana slugs, and much more.
Depending on the tour you select, you may also stop by the Mediterranean-style Sausalito, which feels like you’ve been transported to Italy.
Day 5: Wine Country
You’d be remiss to spend this many days in San Francisco and not see the nearby wine country! The world-famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions are quite close, and also offer a break from the rush of the city.
Day trip wine tours from San Francisco come in both half-day and full-day options, so you can pick whichever works best for your schedule. Even the half-day options are a wonderful experience, and nice if you want a “taste” of the experience but don’t want to commit your entire day to it (or if you want to see Sonoma or Napa – not both).
The rolling hills and vineyards are so gorgeous, and make for some lovely photo ops as you travel around in a luxury coach. Your tour guide will offer an educational commentary as you cruise on, as well as information on wine making history and procedure.
On the full-day tours you’ll oftentimes get to see both Sonoma and Napa, and get some time for lunch while overlooking the countryside. Most also include both small-scale wineries and serious bosses, with each offering wine tastings.