THE ESSENTIAL WEEKEND TRAVEL GUIDE TO SAN FRANCISCO- WHAT TO DO, SEE, EAT AND EXPERIENCE IN THE CITY BY THE BAY
I recently took a quick, weekend trip to San Francisco, California. We crammed so much into the short trip, that I don't think anyone would believe it was only 3 days of activities. Our first day was spent getting the lay of the land, exploring our surroundings, wetting our feet with all the food options available. Our second day, we spent 7 hours doing a self-guided walking tour of all of the main neighborhoods and sites. The walking tour turned out to be the single most valuable activity that we did. I feel like we saw nearly everything! I left San Francisco feeling like I understood the heart of the city, what makes it so great and why people love it so.
In this guide, you'll find details of where to stay, where to eat, what neighborhoods to visit, the main attractions, and our exact walking tour. This guide is perfect for first-time visitors!
top 3 tips
1. ALWAYS bring an umbrella. I'm serious. Stick it in your purse every single time you head out, even if the sun is shining. We bought umbrellas on TWO different occasions after forgetting to bring the umbrella we bought the previous day.
2. Uber is not always the most efficient way to get around- in fact, we found Uber to be slow, inefficient, and really expensive. Instead, I would suggest to walk when possible, and take the BART when it's convenient. Use Uber as a last resort rather than a first- we spent way too much time in Ubers on our first evening there- and got dropped off at an entirely wrong location.
3. Bring a jacket every time you go out- even it feels warm and looks sunny..it will get colder and you will be freezing. I made this mistake on the first night and did not make it again.
where to stay:
Whenever we travel, my preference is always to stay in a smaller boutique hotel. I love the uniqueness, coziness, and service at these hotels. We stayed in this stylish, boutique hotel right next to Union Square called Hotel Zelos. I highly recommend staying here! The location was fabulous, we were close to every activity we wanted to do. Also, Union Square is a short commute to most of the must-see neighborhoods an sites of San Francisco. Across the street from our hotel, we had Macy's and Forever 21, and right next door there was a Trader Joe's. Our room was huge, and there was a fun, trendy hotel bar called Dirty Habit where we enjoyed dinner and delicious cocktails one night. The staff at the hotel were all really lovely and helpful, and for San Francisco, the rates here are super reasonable. In some cities, we like to stay in touristy areas and in some cities we do not. For San Francisco, I read multiple articles encouraging visitors to stay downtown near Union Square or Fisherman's Wharf to be close to the action and the places you'll want to visit. I recommend this approach too, commutes can be lengthy in San Francisco to get to one neighborhood or another and I cannot imagine staying further out or staying outside of the downtown area.
what to do in san francisco: a majority of these included in the walking tour guide below
visit Fisherman's wharf
visit pier 39
the flower market
ride the California cable car line
visit the ferry building marketplace /farmers market
visit crissy field/golden gate park
Alamo Square to see the painted ladies
Where to eat: places we tried and loved
We stopped at Tartine for an afternoon pick me up on our first day in town. I recommend the sandwiches (which we didn't order but looked good) and maybe a pastry.
Mama's on washington square
Mama's was on almost every list I found about San Francisco, and after eating there, I can easily see why. We had the MOST amazing brunch here. We waited 2 hours in the line (they don't take reservations) and it was cold and rainy outside. We persevered though, and we both agreed it was worth it. Our meals were BOMB, I ordered the Monte Cristo (a french toast like turkey and gruyere sandwhich that is meant to be dipped in homemade rasberry jam) and Paul ordered the North Shore Omelette. We also shared the Eggs Benedict. Of those three, make sure at least one of you orders the Monte Cristo. It was overwhelming how good the food was here. Wait it out. That is the best advice I can give you. The staff is really nice and helpful here and they are happy to point you in the right direction. Ask for recommendations and follow them!
Mr. Holmes Bakehouse
We left the house around 7:20 am on Monday in an attempt to beat the line and everything being sold out at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. It worked out well, there was absolutely nobody in the shop at the time, allowing me plenty of time for cheesy neon sign pictures and deciding what to order. In retrospect, I am so happy we had this extra time and no one to rush us- it was an important decision! Just a note, the cruffins don't cone out til 9am daily. The salesgirl delivered this message to multiple people that came in after to us. I didn't really care but the others seemed disappointed so I think it's worth noting. Don't worry though, we ordered THREE amazing pastries from here and devoured them within minutes. There are plenty of mouth-watering options. We tried a Donut with a delicious tropical Guava Berry (or something like that) filling, a Chocolate Chip Pastry and a Blueberry Muffin Cake thing. I sort of wished we had gotten ONE more thing... to share of course...
Chinatown was a part of our walking tour and it was full of fun things to see, do and experience. It's a bustling neighborhood so prepare yourself for that. Also, make sure to eat at least something in this neighborhood, we stopped in a restaurant for an afternoon "snack" but it quickly turned into a full meal. It was unique Chinese food that we aren't quite used to, but delicious nonetheless.
Hops & Hominy
Hops & Hominy was definitely a last minute dinner decision for us. We showed up on Saturday night without a reservation and were able to get seats at the bar within minutes. It was really cool inside, and the food and drinks at the bar were extremely satisfying. We shared a few different things and were so happy that we stumbled upon this place. It's definitely a great addition to any San Francisco itinerary.
The Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building
The Farmers Market is only on certain days (we happened to catch it on a Saturday) and it did not disappoint. There was live music and so much going on! It was jam packed full of people, food, flowers and fun artisanal things to buy. We shared a plate at the Taco/ Mexican stand with a really long line (obviously a good sign). The food was really good and not too expensive. We really loved the scene here, and we easily could have spent a few more hours listening to the music and people watching, but we had to keep it moving on our walking tour.
Boudin Bakery was a perfect pit stop on our tour. We split one Sourdough bread bowl with New England Clam Chowder. We were on a tight itinerary so opted out, but I've heard that you can also do an interesting bakery tour upstairs and watch the bread being made.
Other Suggestions that we didn't get to try
Where to drink:
Locals love Philz coffee, apparently. They have really unique coffee drinks as well as fun, somewhat more traditional blends.
I had a Strawberry Matcha Latte (with Boba) from Boba Guys and it did not disappoint. I insisted upon making this our first stop in San Francisco, literally after we dropped our bags off at Hotel Zelos. Paul had the Dirty Horchata and loved it as well. I wish we had stopped here multiples times.
Bourbon + Branch
Bourbon + Branch is a speakeasy cocktail bar. You need a secret password to get in. Make reservations here beforehand. Fun tip, there is another secret speakeasy INSIDE of Bourbon + Branch that we didn't know about until it was too late to make reservations...it sounds REALLY cool so make reservations there too!
Omni Hotel Bar
This hotel bar is on the top level of the swanky Omni hotel with AMAZING views of downtown San Francisco. We went on Sunday night and were seated in the bar right next to the window. I was mesmerized by the view for hours.
As previously mentioned, our first night there, we opted to stay in at our hotel bar, Dirty Habit, and had dinner, apps, and drinks here. They had fun cocktails and really good plates to share. If you're located near Union Square, it's a perfect place to start or end your night.
The Buena Vista Cafe
The Buena Vista Cafe is the absolute coziest place, we had delicious Irish Coffees (and a show) here.
The Walking Tour-self guided
The tour takes approximately 6 hours but of course, can take shorter or longer depending on your needs. I found that I was having so much fun and excited to be seeing so much in one day, I was energized to keep exploring! I began to crash near the end but we were so proud of what we accomplished. The tour begins near The Ferry Building and ends at Union Square.
The tour starts at the Ferry Building. In order to speed up the non-essential parts of this tour, we took the BART to the Embarcadero station. After getting off the Bart and walking towards the Ferry Building, we stopped at Philz Coffee to fuel up before hitting the Ferry Building and exploring the Farmer's Market. We stopped here for a bit to listen to the live music and enjoy the scenes. It was a REALLY nice stop and if you happen to be in San Francisco on one of the days where the Farmer's Market is running, definitely visit for a bit. There are some famous spots for food and drink in the Ferry Building, Cowgirl Creamery being one of them. We didn't try anything from here, but it looked really good! We had a shared meal at the taco station called Primavera, a Mexican breakfast place that I definitely recommend trying.
Pier 39 is the next stop on the walking tour. To get here, exit the ferry building and turn right and walk down the Embarcadero. There are definitely some characters to see on this street! Keep walking until you reach Pier 39 with loads of tourists and the famous Sea Lions! Plenty of touristy attractions here- a Hard Rock Cafe, an Aquarium, Bubba Gump, etc. We skipped these tourists spots and walked through to the Sea Lion viewing area. They are really cute!! I was surprised at how enjoyable this part was. Definitely worth a view. You aren't going to find any San Francisco locals here, but for a first timer in town, I think these touristy stops are absolutely necessary!
Continue walking in the same direction (North) down the Embarcadero. In a few minutes you will be at Fisherman's Wharf. This is another touristy hot spot- but there are some can't miss things here! There is a fun penny arcade/museum called Musee Mechanique that we stopped at, just to walk through it. This is also where the famous Boudin Bakery is, a great place for Sourdough bread bowls and New England Clam Chowder Soup.
If you continue walking this route, eventually you'll reach Ghiradelli Square. There are a lot of fun things around here. Before we reached the square, we stopped at The Buena Vista Cafe, the inventors of Irish coffee. Watching the bartenders make the Irish coffee is truly a (messy) art. We stayed here for a bit and enjoyed our drinks, then headed up the block to Ghiradelli square. We actually had been to Ghiradelli Square the previous evening, where we did some quick exploration and stopped in to a winery store to sample some wines. We actually spent over an hour in the winery having fun with staff and talking to locals- and ended up buying a case of wine to be shipped home (whoops)! Because it was our second visit to Ghiradelli Square, we just did a quick walk through and tried some chocolate samples. They supposedly have amazing desserts here if you're into Chocolate Sundaes and that sort of thing!
The Russian Hill neighborhood is up next and oh man you guys, prepare for some HILLZ. This neighborhood is hilly AF and your legs will be BURNING, I can almost guarantee that. Walk East on North Point and make a right on Hyde street. Continue on this street until you reach the iconic Lombard Street. The views from this street are really cool, and the views from the bottom looking up are interesting too! It's sort of just a "go and look at it" type stop, then you can move on. It's pretty, but not too much to it.
Little Italy/north beach
We headed towards Little Italy from Lombard Street and spent a few minutes sitting in The Park on Washington Square. We didn't make any stops in Little Italy, but if we had, I would have tried the Tiramisu!
We headed to Chinatown, which is right near Little Italy. We stopped at a restaurant here to try some Chinese food. There's a lot to take in, in this neighborhood. Just soak it up and enjoy wandering down random streets and side streets.
At this point in our tour we were starting to drag a bit and were ready to start wrapping it up and get off our feet! We made a mad dash to Union Square from here...
We headed to Union Square and this was luckily, where we were staying. I was pretty happy about staying right downtown (for like the millionth time this trip) and we made a quick stop at Macys before heading back to our hotel.
Final notes on the walking tour + Sunday activities
I do want to be upfront with you all, and share that this walking tour is INTENSE, and packed. There were definite moments in Russian Hill after scaling this giant mountain that I was not feeling it. I persevered though, and it was all worth it. Feel free to skip any neighborhoods or sites that don't sound particularly appealing to you. This tour worked our perfectly for us and it allowed us to quickly and efficiently hit all the spots on my San Francisco Itinerary! We did this tour on Saturday.
On Sunday, we headed to Alamo Square to view the pretty Painted Ladies, the iconic SF rainbow colored houses, and then headed to Crissy Field to take in some views of Golden Gate Bridge. Sunday was a lot more relaxed for us, and we headed to the Omni later in the evening for drinks after taking the California Cable Car line to get there! Definitely ride a Cable Car in SF. It's not always the most efficient mode of transportation, but hanging off the side and holding on for dear life is SO much fun!! Especially up and down the hilly streets.
Painted Ladies/ Alamo Square
The Marina/ Crissy Field + Golden Gate Bridge
I hope you find this guide useful and enjoy San Francisco! I absolutely love it there and am looking forward to returning in the near future. Have you ever been? What was your experience like?