San Francisco is one of the most populated cities in California, and it’s well worth a visit since it differs from other cities like LA and San Diego.
The city boomed after the Gold Rush, and it continues to be a popular destination today. You probably already know of some of the popular sites in the city like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Painted Ladies, but there are also many hidden gems to discover.
This guide has the best three-day San Francisco itinerary and everything else you need to know before you visit for the perfect trip.
Why three days?
Three days is perfect to see enough of San Francisco to leave you wanting more without wearing yourself out trying to see too much in a huge city. You can see the popular sites and have time to explore some of the less talked about places.
A lot of the places you should visit in San Fran are scattered about. I made the itinerary so you see all the city’s best places in the most logical order possible.
Let’s get started.
Day 1 in San Francisco
Ready for your first day in San Francisco? You’re starting your trip with some of the city’s most iconic and recognizable parts, including a cable car ride, a special street, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Powell Street Cable Car
First up is one of the city’s historic cable cars. Cable cars were invented to help residents get around the city and up the steep hills without walking or relying on horses.
Taking the cable cars is not the easiest way to get around the city, since there are only three lines and the small cars fill up fast. But, it is well worth riding one once during your stay for the experience. A one-way pass costs $8 unless you have a Muni day pass, then the cable car rides are included.
You can get on the cable car at any stop, which is every couple of blocks along the line. But, I highly recommend starting at the end of the line if you want an easier time getting in the car. You will still have to wait in line, but you can hop on an empty car once you get to the front of the line.
There are a couple of cable car lines in the city, but the Powell Street Cable Car is the most popular, and it will take you to the next stop on your itinerary for the day. Start your ride at Powell and Market Street. If you get an early start to your day, you shouldn’t have to wait long for a ride that takes you up Nob Hill.
You can ride the car all the way to the water in the north part of the city. But, to follow the itinerary, you want to get off at Lombard Street, which is your next stop!
And, if you want to learn more about these historic cars, make a stop at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. The museum has antique cars and exhibits about how these work on the city’s steepest hills.
Lombard Street is a normal street, except for one block of the street in which it becomes twisty and is what makes it so notable.
The street is distinct, with eight hairpin turns where you can drive downhill from west to east. Even if you do not have a car, you can visit the street to take some pictures and watch the cars wind down the road.
You can walk down the street yourself, but in a straight line along the side of the road. And remember, people live in the homes adjacent to the street, so be respectful when you are here and taking photos.
One of the coolest ways to experience the curvy street, especially if you do not have a car during your visit, is to take a GoCar tour. You and a buddy can drive these cars around the city as you follow a GPS to the popular attractions. The audio guide tells you about the sites you are seeing and the history of the city, just like you would hear on any other tour. The tour also takes you to the bridge, which is your next stop today anyway!
Check availability for the tour below:
Golden Gate Bridge
Ready to end your day at one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world?
The Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937 to connect San Fran to Marin County across the bay. When it opened, it was the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world, and it is still an architectural wonder today.
There are a lot of viewpoints around the bridge. I suggest getting as close to the bridge as you can and then wandering around the park to the viewpoints. There is also a visitors center and some mini exhibits where you can learn about the bridge and the construction process. Crissy Field to the east of the bridge is a good spot to watch the sunset.
You can also walk or bike the bridge. If you go to the other side opposite the city, you will get some unique views of the bridge and the bay compared to what most people see from the SF side.
Just know that you can get some cloudy and foggy days in San Francisco, so check the weather and plan accordingly if you want to see the sunset. You can always head over to the bridge after you visit Fisherman’s Wharf or watch the sunset from the wharf on day two!
If you want to see the bridge from a unique perspective, take a Bay Boat Cruise. You will go under the iconic bridge, see the city from the water, and circle Alcatraz Island. You get an audio tour to help you understand the sites you are seeing, but it is optional, so you can also just enjoy the sights and take pictures as you please.
Day 2 in San Francisco
Are you loving San Francisco so far? Next up on day two of this itinerary are some more popular attractions in the city. It’s time to explore a historic neighborhood and take a boat ride to one of the most infamous islands in the world.
Your first stop today is Chinatown, which is the oldest Chinatown in the country, having been established in 1848. It is also one of the largest residential areas for Chinese people outside of Asia.
Chinatown was established and continues to grow thanks to its affordable housing, which makes it a popular place for Chinese immigrants to go when they arrive in the US. There are a lot of Chinese cultures, languages, and customs that the neighborhood has held onto, even as the area has faced problems throughout its history.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed much of the neighborhood, but one prominent building stayed standing: Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. You can visit the San Francisco Landmark during your visit to Chinatown.
You can explore the neighborhood on your own, but if you are interested in the history of the neighborhood and its significance in the development of the city, a walking tour is the way to go. You can do a standard walking tour or try a Chinatown Food Tour, as the neighborhood has some of the city’s best food.
Other than the restaurants, you will find a lot of shops with everything from Chinese snacks to clothes and souvenirs. You will also see many murals on the walls and architecture that make you feel like you are actually in China.
Next up is another must-see attraction in San Francisco: Alcatraz Island. The 25-acre island was home to one of the most intense maximum-security prisons from 1933 to 1964. There are also gardens on the island, and it is home to many birds.
You will want to book your tickets to Alcatraz in advance if you are targeting a specific date or time. The tour has two options: a daytime tour and a night tour.
Both the day and night tours come with an audio guide for you to use as you tour the prison. And you also have the option to attend other educational talks and walks put on by the park rangers. You can learn about the prisoners, the guards, the history of the prison, and some attempts people made to escape from the prison.
The day tour usually sells out pretty quickly for weekends, so unless you are flexible on when you visit, book ahead. The good news is that there are 15 departure times to choose from, so there should be tickets available for most days you are traveling here.
The night tour is a unique experience as you will be able to see the sunset from the island and tour the prison in the dark, which makes for a spooky night. However, there are only two departures for the night tour five nights a week, so they book up further in advance than the day tours.
If you take the night tour, you should try to have dinner before you depart for the island, as many of the restaurants by the pier will be closed when you get back. However, the ship that takes you to and from Alcatraz does sell some drinks and snacks.
After you get back from Alcatraz, you’ll arrive at one of the piers at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s known for being a touristy area, but it is a fun place to wander around. There are lots of restaurants and shops, many of which sell seafood and souvenir gifts.
The best part of visiting the wharf is the views from the bay. Head out onto one of the piers for a good view where you can see the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. Don’t miss out on seeing the sea lions who live on the wharf.
If you have extra time to spend today or need something to do before boarding for a night tour to Alcatraz, there are a few museums on the wharf. You can visit the Musée Mécanique to see old-timey machines, the always silly Madame Tussauds, or the Museum of 3D Illusions for some unique photo ops.
A couple of blocks west of the wharf (and within walking distance!) is the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. The shop has a big dessert menu and a chocolate gift shop. You can stop by the shop for a sweet treat to end your night. The shop is part of the larger Ghirardelli Square, which also has a brewery, boutique shops, and restaurants.
Day 3 in San Francisco
Your final day in San Francisco is here, but don’t worry; it’s a fun one! You’ll be spending the day outside, so check the weather before you head out. And, wear your best walking shoes as you have a hike and a garden tour to enjoy!
What better way to start your last day in San Francisco than with a hike to one of the best views in the city? Twin Peaks is on the western side of the city, away from downtown.
The name Twin Peaks comes from the two hills in the center of the city. They have an elevation of 925 feet, making them the second highest point in the city. Eureka is the name for the north twin, and Noe is the south one.
The hike to the top is well worth it for 360-degree views of the city. It should take you 20 minutes or so, depending on where you start and your fitness level. Once you reach the top, admire the view and spend some time exploring the rest of the 64-acre park.
The hike is best done in the morning if you want cool weather. Even though the city never gets too hot, it can feel hot when the sun is shining, especially when you are hiking. Just remember, the view from the top is best on a clear day and not when it is foggy. You are quite high up, so even a little fog will diminish the view.
You will have to hike back down the mountain if you want to catch a bus to your next destination. Alternatively, a rideshare service can pick you up from the top.
San Francisco Botanical Garden
Next up is the San Francisco Botanical Garden where you will encounter 55 acres of plants in the city. The botanical garden is part of Golden Gate Park which is also worth exploring if you have more time today or if it looks more interesting to you than the botanical garden.
There are nine thousand species of plants in the garden that come from all over the world. Many of the plants are those that prefer higher elevations and cooler temperatures, which is why they thrive here.
If you are interested in learning about the plants and the gardens, you can take a walking tour of the gardens with one of the experts. They will show you around the gardens, highlight some of the most popular areas and plants, and answer any questions you have.
The botanical garden also has a lot of cool places to take pictures, so bring your camera and your cutest garden outfit. Just maybe change after your hike to Twin Peaks!
If you don’t want to get lost in the expansive garden, download the map on your phone. It will help you find the plants that interest you and not spend your day trying to find the exit when you are ready to leave.
Finally, end your day at the iconic Painted Ladies. The row of houses exhibits some of the city’s most popular Victorian homes, although thousands are scattered about. The row of homes was built between 1892 and 1896 and is the definition of picturesque.
The best view of these houses is across the street from them in Alamo Square Park. The homes are colorful, and the painting makes their style pop.
By coming here later in the day, you might be able to beat the worst of the crowds and have an easier time taking all the pictures you want in front of the iconic homes. If you time it right, you can be here for the golden hour, which not only helps your photos but it also is beautiful to watch the sun go down over the city.
Make sure you explore the rest of the park for more good views of the city. On the northeast side of the park, you can get a good view of downtown San Fran, and it’s a cute place for an evening stroll before you head to dinner.
If you need dinner suggestions from the park, you can head north to Japan Town or south to the Mission District, both of which have some great restaurants and bars.
Alternatively, you can head back to the Golden Gate Bridge tonight if you want to try to catch the sunset. It is easy to get to both the Painted Ladies and the bridge from the botanical garden.
What to Know Before You Go
Now that you have your San Francisco itinerary planned out, there are a few things you should know before you visit.
First, the weather will likely be cooler than you are expecting. Yes, California is known for its sunny warm weather, but San Francisco is an exception. The city is usually in the ‘50s to the ‘70s Fahrenheit depending on the time of year you visit.
It gets quite chilly in the mornings and evenings when the sun is not shining, especially when you are by the water. Make sure you bring a jacket and even some gloves and a hat. But also have some layers underneath, so you aren’t too hot when you do see the sun!
Next up, as I’ve briefly mentioned, San Francisco is big. You cannot walk across the city without wearing yourself out and wasting most of your day. This itinerary that details three days in San Fran was carefully crafted so you can easily get between places using buses, cable cars, and your own two feet. If you choose to modify the itinerary at all, make sure you check to see where everything is and whether or not your route makes sense.
The public transportation system connects the city well, and it’s easy to understand, especially if you have maps on your phone that will tell you exactly what bus or train to take. I have more details about using public transportation in the city below.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
As I’ve mentioned, San Francisco is big! You will not be able to walk everywhere unless you want to spend the majority of your three-day itinerary walking around. That’s why staying in a hotel with a good location is important if you want to have a good trip.
I recommend the Omni San Francisco (500 California Street, Financial District). The hotel is in the perfect location in downtown San Francisco. You are near a BART train, multiple bus stops, and a cable car for climbing up those steep hills. When you aren’t out exploring the city, you have plenty of restaurants and bars nearby.
When you arrive at the Omni, you’ll immediately feel at home with the state-of-the-art amenities, helpful staff at the tour desk, and luxurious rooms. You have the option of rooms with a king bed or two full beds, depending on who you are traveling with. No matter what type of room you go with, the beds are comfy, and you’ll get a good night’s sleep after climbing the city’s hill all day.
The Best Time of Year to Visit San Francisco
As I mentioned in the Know Before You Go section, San Francisco has pretty consistent weather year-round, so there is not necessarily a bad time to visit. But depending on when you are visiting and what kind of weather you like, you may find that certain times of the year are better than others.
If you are coming from somewhere in winter, you can escape your snowy and cold location for the warmer city of San Francisco. Even in the coldest month of January, temperatures rarely drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. So, San Fran is the perfect winter destination if you want somewhere without snow.
But, if you are traveling in the summer and are looking for a warm destination to get a tan and show off your summer clothes, San Francisco is not the destination for you. The temperature rarely reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and it feels much colder when the sun is not out.
If you enjoy a mild climate and do not care about the seasonal weather in other parts of the country, you can visit San Francisco any time of the year and you will have a nice time.
Other than the weather, you should also consider the seasonal events that take place in the city if you want to visit for something special or avoid crowds.
As with anywhere, holidays and the weeks and months when kids are not in school will be the busiest. Prices will be higher, and you will need to book in advance if you want to secure tickets for the attractions. If you are on a budget, try visiting in the off-season, especially since San Fran is a more expensive city, to begin with.
How to Get Around San Francisco
The best way to get around San Francisco is with public transit. The buses go all over the city, and all the attractions in the itinerary have at least one bus stop nearby, if not more.
It is easy to use the public transportation system for three days in San Francisco since they offer a three-day visitor pass. There are also one and seven-day passes if you are staying for longer or shorter.
The BART trains also connect San Francisco to other areas surrounding the bay and the San Francisco International Airport. The cost to ride BART is not included in the Muni passes, so be sure to buy these tickets separately if you plan on utilizing them.
Another option is to use rideshare services, but they are not always the fastest option, and the supply of rideshare cars can vary. If you prefer rideshare over public transit, you should not have any issues getting cars, but you might have to wait longer than expected when you need a ride during peak times.
You can also rent a car which is helpful if you plan to drive outside of the city, but there is limited parking in the city, and driving between attractions will likely be more hassle than it is worth. With traffic and limited parking, especially near the destinations in the itinerary, you will spend more time driving around than enjoying the city.
Furthermore, whether you park at your hotel or a garage nearby, parking will add up over the course of your visit. It won’t be worth it if you follow this three-day itinerary and stay in the city for the duration of your visit.
San Francisco Safety
Finally, let’s talk about staying safe in San Francisco. When you look at the numbers, San Francisco is safer than many US cities. But there are still a few things to know.
San Francisco is an increasingly expensive city, which means the poorer people are unable to afford housing, and the homeless population is growing. Unfortunately, this leads to increased crime and theft, so be aware of the people around you as you walk through the city and take public transit, especially in touristy areas.
Whether you are traveling with a group or solo, you will feel safe, even as a female, as long as you take the normal safety precautions. Do not go out alone at night, and keep an eye on your belongings and drinks when you are out.
If you are walking around, keep your phone away. Otherwise, you will become a target for theft. Also, try not to look lost, as this is a dead giveaway that you are not from the city and might not be familiar with where you are. This is also true on public transportation, as you do not want someone to snatch your phone right before the bus or train pulls away.
When you book tour or attraction tickets, book through the official website or with an authorized seller like Get Your Guide. Scams are not common in the city, but you would rather be safe than end up with a fake ticket somewhere.
If you are used to traveling or living in cities, San Francisco is not much different than any other city. Stay in the touristy areas, be aware of your surroundings, and try to blend in with the locals. You will be fine and will have a great time in San Fran!