3-Day San Francisco Itinerary: Top Things to Do
San Francisco is one of the most popular cities to visit in the US not without a reason. Today’s guest post from Lizzie is about best things to do in San Francisco in 3 Days with lots of useful travel tips.
If you are planning a trip to the USA then a visit to San Francisco is a must.
With a rich and progressive history, as well as some fantastic weather year-round (minus the fog of course), you will find so many things to do in the city.
Even when you’ve only got a few days to spare, that’s more than enough for you to enjoy everything that San Francisco has to offer.
We have put together a guide ideal for those looking to spend 3 days in San Francisco.
This includes exploring the top attractions as well as the best places to eat, drink, and sleep to help you plan your own San Francisco itinerary in the future.
Getting from the Airport to the City
Most people fly to San Francisco, and getting from the airport to downtown is relatively straightforward. You can get a taxi or an Uber and depending on the traffic you will arrive in the downtown area in about 30 minutes. Costs for this vary but would be at least around the $40 mark.
If you are looking for something a little cheaper but still want to be dropped off at your hotel door, you can get the Supershuttle or a Go Airport Shuttle for around $16. The ride can sometimes take over an hour and this is dependent on both traffic and how many other passengers are in the shuttle bus. If there are a number of stops before your hotel this obviously adds to the time.
The cheapest way to get from the airport is via the BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. Once you collect your baggage follow the signs to the BART station. You will most likely need to get on the AirTrain to get to the station.
Once at the station, you can purchase your tickets which get you downtown and these are usually less than $10 per person. Not to waste your time, you can purchase a BART ticket now.
Once you’re able to make your way out of the airport, there’s really very little left to worry about. Public transportation in San Francisco is quite good.
The closest station to Union Square is Powell Street Station. This is handy if you are staying in this area, but if you are staying in other areas you will need to get a bus or tram to your final destination. All in all, this is the cheapest way to get to downtown San Francisco and on the plus side, you also don’t have to sit in traffic.
Check this 2-week West Coast Itinerary
Getting around San Francisco
If you have ever seen pictures of the steep, winding streets of San Francisco you will know that driving is no easy feat in the city. On top of that, parking fees can be expensive, so your best bet for getting around the city is to use public transport.
The good news is that public transport is relatively easy to negotiate and cheap too. If you are spending 3 days in San Francisco, then you should consider purchasing a Visitor Passport.
These provide you with unlimited travel on the Muni, Muni Metro, Historic Streetcars and Cable Cars, for a specified period of days. A 3-day pass will set you back just above $30 per person. You can purchase the passes at various locations including the San Francisco Travel Visitor Information Centre.
Another great option is purchasing a city pass, which includes not only public transportation but also the entrance to numerous attractions and discounts in various shops.
Other great options to get around San Francisco:
- Self-guided bike tour
- Guided electric bike tour (will be easier with all those hills)
- Segway tour
- Hop-on hop-off bus tour
- Renting a car
How much time do you need in San Francisco
Ideally the longer you spend in San Francisco the better, as there really is so much to see and do. As you will see in this guide, 3 days in San Francisco is a decent amount of time to see the main attractions and get acquainted with the city.
If you have the opportunity to spend a little longer you will obviously get to see a lot more, and even plan some day trips away from the city. Our 3-day San Francisco itinerary covers all the top things to do in the city and is ideal if you are visiting for the first time and want to see the best tourist spots.
Is San Francisco Safe
One question we get asked a lot is whether San Francisco is safe. Whilst exploring San Francisco you will notice that there is a large homeless population. It might be intimidating at first especially when people come up to you asking for money but based on our experiences we never felt threatened.
There are a few areas such as the Tenderloin that are more densely populated with homeless people and you might want to avoid these areas particularly at night. Like any big city you need to have your wits about you, and pickpocketing is quite common especially around tourist areas, but all in all, it is generally pretty safe. Use your common sense, and don’t flash cash around and you should be fine.
Don’t forget to get a travel insurance for your trip.
Where to stay in San Francisco
One of the best areas to stay especially when you only have 3 days in San Francisco is Union Square.
It is close to the BART station which makes getting to and from the airport a breeze, and it is also within walking distance to numerous bars and restaurants.
Stay particularly near Market Street, where public transportation is abundant. This can help you move around San Francisco with ease. It’s easy to get public transport around here and the Muni, the historic F trams, and the streetcars all stop in this area, too.
In San Francisco, you don’t have to worry too much about not having any place to stay. In fact, when you kick-start your search process for places to stay, apps and websites like Koala will present you with a myriad of opportunities. There’s an accommodation for every budget you have, whether it’s a hotel, a house, an apartment, a timeshare rental or a resort.
Here are some of the best places for you to stay:
- The Intercontinental. This hotel chain lives by its name and standard, no matter where in the world they’re located. The rooms are spacious, modern, and the amenities will leave you having a relaxing stay. A tip is to ask for a room on one of the highest floors. There, you’ll have some of the best views of the entire city.
- Noe’s Bed And Breakfast. If you’re traveling with family, this is one of your best places to stay in. You get the opportunity to live in a charming Victorian house right at the central Noe Valley neighborhood. This is your chance to experience life in the city as a local.
- The Fairmont San Francisco. If you’ve got a little bit more to spend on your budget for an expensive hotel, let it be The Fairmont. Staying here gives you a clear picture of historic San Francisco. It’s no surprise that influential people have all chosen to stay at The Fairmont in the hundred years that it’s been in service.
- USA Hostels San Francisco. If staying in a hostel is your thing, then USA Hostels San Francisco is an excellent choice. Here, there are four mixed-bed and four female-only dormitories. If you fancy a private room, they also have this to offer for two guests per room. When you stay at this hostel, you even have the bonus of having a free city tour.
For more tips on where to stay in San Francisco, find an appropriate accommodation in San Francisco here
To learn more about planning a perfect trip to any destination in the world, check my trip planner!
Top things to do in San Francisco
We have narrowed down our list of the top things do in San Francisco on a 3-day break. All these places you can explore on your own by buying a San Francisco 3-day city pass or with a hop-on hop-off tour.
Postcard Row is probably one of the most photographed parts of San Francisco. It includes a row of colorful Victorian style houses referred to as the ‘Painted Ladies’ with an incredible view of the city skyline in the background. It basically provides you with a postcard-perfect photo opportunity.
You might recognize the houses from TV shows such as Full House or movies like Mrs. Doubtfire. The houses are located at 710-720 Steiner Street and sit right across from Alamo Park. If you visit it is important to respect the fact that these are peoples’ homes, as we have heard tales of tourists walking in the houses and showing themselves around. That is definitely not ok.
Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most recognizable structures in San Francisco has to be the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge provides easy access between San Francisco Bay and Marin County, as before the bridge was built people would have to get the ferry across.
The bridge opened in 1937 and was the longest suspension bridge ever built at the time. If you get the chance to visit nothing beats driving across the bridge with the wind in your hair.
Alternatively, you can also walk across and you get some pretty amazing views of the San Francisco skyline.
Golden Gate Park
California is also famed for its redwood trees and if you visit Golden Gate Park you will get to enjoy nature at its finest. The park spans around 1,017 acres and there are so many places to explore, from the tranquil Japanese Tea Gardens to the several picnic areas.
Historic Cable Cars
Not to be confused with the historic streetcars, the San Francisco Cable cars are one of the last manually operated cable cars in the world. The cars originally opened in 1873, so riding them today is a real treat.
You can either sit down or stand whilst hanging off the side of the cars for a more exciting ride. The cable cars do get quite busy and are very popular with tourists, but they definitely add something a little different to your San Francisco itinerary.
Haight Ashbury is synonymous with the hippie movement of the 60’s, in fact, some argue that this is where it all began. These days you can still see remnants of its hippie past through the quirky storefronts and laid-back feel to the area.
It is a fun place to explore particularly if you are into vintage clothes or alternative music, or even if you just want to sit down and relax with a cup of coffee.
Lombard Street is one of the steepest streets in San Francisco and was too steep for most vehicles in the 1920’s. But by creating 8 sharp turns this decreased the gradient and made it easier and safer to travel down the road.
These days it is one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions, and at peak times you may have to wait over 20 minutes to drive down the street! If you are visiting on foot though you will get the chance to take in the views from the top of Lombard Street, whilst brakes screech in the background. You can also admire the beautiful homes and gardens too.
Pier 39 was developed in the 1970’s in an attempt to get the tourism industry going, and walking around it today it is fair to say it worked. There are a number of attractions including an aquarium and 3D rides as well as shops, restaurants, and bars.
You also get some amazing views of Alcatraz from here as well as a chance to see the famous sea lions. Apparently, the sea lions moved into the marina of Pier 39 after an earthquake in 1989. So many of them arrived that the boats actually had to leave. Although it is probably a good thing as they do draw in quite a lot of tourists.
Also, learn about free things to do in Boston
One of the most notorious prisons in US history is of course Alcatraz. With infamous former inmates such as the Birdman and even Al Capone, the former prison is high on the list of things to do in San Francisco.
Make sure you book your tickets well in advance as they sell out quite quickly. The audio tour is incredible and you get a fantastic insight into what life was like for some of the prisoners.
Rising from the top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is a cylindrical concrete tower that makes up part of the city skyline. There is an observation deck which you can reach by elevator to enjoy some expansive views of San Francisco.
Eating and drinking in San Francisco
San Francisco is a foodie’s paradise, and there are so many restaurants to choose from. If you are staying around Union Square though, our recommendation is to spend at least one night eating in Chinatown. There are so many really good and relatively cheap places to eat, ranging from dumpling houses to sushi restaurants and everything in between.
Another foodie recommendation, although a lot of people will argue that it is super touristy, is to try one of the clam chowder bowls at Fisherman’s Wharf. Whilst clam chowder isn’t a San Francisco delicacy, the delicious sourdough bread bowls they are served in are.
Sourdough is thought to have been created during the times of the gold rush when migrants would bake the bread using the natural bacteria in the air for fermentation. Some people even argue that the foggy climate creates the perfect yeast and bacteria for the bread. Touristy or not, we devoured the clam chowder bowls, and the best part is they are really cheap.
San Francisco is home to a lot of really awesome bars as well. From the sophisticated to the quirky.
If you are staying around the Union Square area checkout Rickhouse. It has a huge whiskey menu and they definitely make a great cocktail.
If you are looking for something slightly more lowkey though we recommend Tunnel Top Lounge and Bar. It’s quirky and the staff is so friendly and welcoming, which is important when you are trying to get to grips with a city.
3 days in San Francisco itinerary
Here is our suggested 3-day San Francisco itinerary to help you make the most of your time in the city.
Start your day at Golden Gate Park. Top sights include the Japanese Tea Garden and the San Francisco Botanical Garden filled with incredible redwood trees. You will want to spend a good half day here as there really is so much to see and do. Depending on which side of the park you visit there are a number of eateries nearby perfect for lunch.
After lunch make your way over to the Golden Gate Bridge. We did this via a city hop on hop off tour and it was incredible. We got to sit at the top of the bus as we made our way across the bridge. Despite the fact that our hair was blowing violently into our faces it was such an incredible experience. You will want to spend a bit of time walking across the bridge and back and getting your photos.
In the late afternoon, we made our way back to Union Square and decided to get the historic cable car to Lombard Street. After taking our pictures and enjoying the views, you can explore the Russian Hill area and have dinner and drinks.
We recommend starting your day with a visit to Alcatraz. You can get the F Line heritage streetcar to Pier 33, where you will need to wait for the boat to take you across. You can spend as long as you like exploring the island although 3 hours is probably enough.
After returning to Pier 33, you can make your way over to Pier 39 to enjoy an afternoon of shopping, sipping wine and getting to know the sea lions. You can also visit the aquarium or go on one of the rides located in the Pier. For food, you can eat at the Wipeout Bar or grab yourself a bowl of clam chowder.
In the late afternoon, we recommend getting on a cable car back to Union Square and having a few drinks in the downtown area. You should also try and explore Chinatown or at least make your way over for dinner.
You can either look at doing a day trip or taking a day to explore the city at a relaxed pace. Before it gets too busy you could visit Coit Tower in the morning to take in the views of San Francisco. It is also a great opportunity to explore the Telegraph Hill area of the city.
In the afternoon take a trip to Postcard Row and Alamo Square, before exploring Haight Ashbury in the late afternoon. It is also a great place to go for an early dinner and some drinks.
Day trips from San Francisco
If you have longer than 3 days in San Francisco you might want to consider a day trip. Here are some of the top day trip destinations to choose from.
Yosemite National Park
Famous for its picturesque forest and majestic hiking trails Yosemite National Park is a perfect place to go for a day trip. The park spans just over 3,000 km and you get some amazing views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. El Capitan is a great base for a day trip from San Francisco and will provide you with some great photo opportunities.
Book a group tour to Yosemite National Park here.
If you love wine, then a day trip to Napa Valley is a must. It is home to over 400 wineries and on a day trip, you can learn how to make wine as well as enjoy that all-important wine tasting.
Book a tour to Napa Valley from San Francisco here.
Big Sur is a rugged 90 mile stretch of coastline along the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the most picturesque drives in the US and is perfect for nature lovers.
Check this Big Sur and Monterrey 3-day tour
This one is a little closer to San Francisco and is located near the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a charming place with gorgeous waterfront views and is perfect for exploring at a relaxed pace.
Book a Sausalito Norcal Coastal Tour here
Famed for its picturesque seaside views, Monterey is one of the most beautiful places to go to experience the California Coastline. It is an incredible drive with seaside views, as well as some pretty impressive mansions and bridges.
3 days in San Francisco: Recap
Hopefully, this 3-day San Francisco itinerary will help you plan your trip to the city. It really is a wonderful place to visit with so much to see and do, and with an extensive public transport system, it is really easy to make the most of your 3 days in San Francisco.
Check this 3-day NYC guide for first timers