Let’s get one thing straight – one day in San Francisco is not enough. Not even close! The city offers so much to do and see (and eat!) that you’ll find yourself wishing you had more time to experience it all.
From its breathtaking natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods, and a quirky hippie spirit, San Francisco is a city unlike any other. Spending one day in San Francisco will give you just enough time to see all of the city’s major tourist attractions, and get a little taste of what makes it special.
Given that the city is only seven miles long and seven miles wide, it’s definitely still possible to see San Francisco’s highlights in one day! One day is better than nothing, and hopefully seeing the best of what the city has to offer will leave you wanting more (and please, oh please, plan for at least 3 days next time!).
As someone who lived in San Francisco for over a decade, I’ve done the planning for you to help you see the best of San Francisco in a day! It includes some of the most iconic experiences, a taste of the city’s beauty, and even squeezes in some time for some local gems.
Looking to see the best of San Francisco in a day? Keep on reading so you can plan the perfect one day in San Francisco itinerary!
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Who is this one day in San Francisco itinerary for?
This one day in San Francisco itinerary is ideal for first timers, who are looking to see all of the city’s top attractions with only limited time.
Look, trying to see San Francisco in a day is a really short amount of time. It is still very much possible, but remember that you aren’t going to see it all! There are places that are my all-time favorite spots in the city as a local, but that I left out because they are out of the way from the main sights.
Some people might complain that this itinerary is “touristy,” and for the most part, it is meant to be exactly that! However, I did try to throw in some of my favorite gems as well as insider tips so you’ll see why San Francisco is such a special place.
If you’ve never been to the city and you want to see all of the top sights in San Francisco in a day, then this itinerary is perfect for you!
This is a super fast-paced itinerary, and you won’t be able to spend a ton of time in one single place. I included a bunch of suggestions of what you can do at every stop, but pick and choose the one or two things that appeal to YOU and forget the others – you won’t have time. It will be kind of like a “choose your adventure” day!
You will also need to get an early start on this 1 day in San Francisco itinerary as we will pack a lot in! Getting an early start will also help you avoid most of the crowds in the biggest tourist traps, as we will get those out of the way (and quickly!) first, so you can spend more time in the more interesting parts of the city.
Weather + best time to go to San Francisco
You might think that because San Francisco is in California, the best time to visit is in the summer. Wrong! While, yes, summer is the city’s high tourist season (the crowds and hotel rates are at their highest after all), locals will tell you that summer in San Francisco is, well, kind of freezing.
You know that quote “the coldest summer I spent was a summer in San Francisco,” which was supposedly uttered by Mark Twain (but it actually wasn’t)? That mostly rings true.
While parts of the city get relatively sunny and warm in the afternoon, the fog typically covers the city in the morning and late afternoon/evening hours. There are even certain neighborhoods that are famous for being blanketed in fog all day, every day (the Sunset, the Richmond, and near the Golden Gate Bridge).
One plus of visiting in the summer is that the days are long – the sun doesn’t even set until almost 9pm at the height of the season – so that is more hours of daylight to do more things during your one day in San Francisco. If you do decide to visit in the summer, bring a jacket – I’m not kidding when we say it gets cold!
However, locals know that “real” San Francisco happens in the fall. In September and October, the city experiences an Indian summer and suddenly the sun makes an appearance! The weather is consistently warm and pleasant, and we love to spend our time outside during those months. There also aren’t as many tourists than in the summer, which is also a plus.
Winters are relatively mild in San Francisco (but cold compared to LA and Orange County), but it does rain sometimes and the rain is short – not ideal. There is surprisingly not as much fog, however. And if you do visit during the winter, I highly recommend coming during the holiday season – the city is absolutely magical when decked out in Christmas lights and decorations!
Spring is also an ideal time to visit, although it is rather short. It is a beautiful time to visit, however – the city comes alive with colorful blooms everywhere you look (it is personally my favorite time in the city!).
Getting Around in San Francisco
Let’s get one thing out of the way – I HIGHLY recommend not driving! At first glance, it might seem much faster to drive between stops on this itinerary, but TRUST ME, it ends up being more of a hassle.
Parking is scarce and you can literally be driving around for 30+ minutes looking for a spot, especially near the most popular tourist attractions. Metered parking usually runs $3-4 an hour on average, but can be up to $8. Garage parking is even more expensive, and can cost you up to $30 an hour during peak times.
Plus, car break-ins are increasingly common these days (if you DO end up driving, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT leave any valuables in the car – and make sure nothing is visible!). It’s just not worth the hassle to get around the city by car.
So how should you get around while trying to see San Francisco in a day?
Many of San Francisco’s top sights are within walking distance of each other. I always love wandering around the city on foot because you really get to take in the unique vibe of the area. However, those hills are no joke and there are a few spots on this itinerary that are not walkable from each other.
In that case, I also threw in some instructions on how to get around on public transportation. There are three separate transit systems that run through the city. However, for this itinerary, you will only be taking Muni, which runs the city’s buses, light rail, streetcars, and cable cars.
I highly recommend downloading the Muni Mobile app and purchasing a day pass. A regular one-day pass costs $5, or you can purchase one with cable cars included for $13 (which I recommend for this itinerary). It is super easy and your phone works as a ticket so you don’t have to fumble around for small bills or deal with purchasing a Clipper card (the Bay Area’s reloadable transit card) if you only have one day in San Francisco.
Hop-on, Hop-off Bus
A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is also an ideal way to get around during your 1 day in San Francisco. It is an efficient way to get around and see all of the city’s highlights, while someone else figures out the transportation for you. At under $50, it is also much cheaper than trying to get around via ride shares.
I used to always turn my nose up at these tours, but don’t knock it until you try it – I recently did one and it was such a fun way to get around the city!
It was such a cool way to see the city, even for someone who lived there for so long. Be sure to sit on the top deck (bring a jacket though) – it is so fun and you’ll get such a cool perspective of the city! I also appreciated the audio commentary that goes with the tour, and even learned a thing or two about the city that I never knew before.
These hop-on, hop-off tours are really an awesome way to see all of San Francisco’s highlights, especially when you are trying to see San Francisco in one day. The route takes about 2.5 hours if you don’t make any stops, but I highly recommend that you stop and explore some of the attractions (I’ll tell you exactly which ones here!).
The tour makes about 20 stops at some of the most popular sights in San Francisco (most of which are included here), including Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alamo Square, and Golden Gate Park. It even crosses the Golden Gate Bridge (which saves a TON of time than walking across it yourself)!
As both Uber and Lyft are headquartered in San Francisco, ridesharing is an easy and efficient way to get around the city. Cars are plentiful and you can usually find one without much of a wait.
The only caveat to taking an Uber or Lyft around the city is that the costs add up – depending on the distance traveled, you can be paying $10-25, and even more if surge pricing is in effect. If you are on a budget, I recommend looking at other ways to get around.
What to bring on your one day in San Francisco
Here are some of the essentials that you should bring with you to help you have the perfect day in San Francisco –
- A jacket: You just never know when the weather is going to turn from warm to freezing cold, so be prepared! A packable puffer like this is ideal, as it is lightweight, warm, and takes up minimal space.
- Comfortable shoes: You’ll likely do a lot of walking (and the hills are no joke), so comfortable shoes are a must! My favorite travel shoes are Allbirds and Rothy’s (and both of them are San Francisco-based companies too!)
- Power bank: You’ll likely use your phone a lot for navigation, and to snap tons of photos and video of the beautiful city – don’t let your battery run out! I never leave home without this power bank to help keep my devices charged.
- Reusable water bottle: San Francisco is a pretty green city, and makes a conscious effort to reduce the use of single-use plastic. Plus, the tap water is actually pretty good. Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it throughout the day to stay hydrated!
Is San Francisco safe?
Generally, yes. However, San Francisco has gotten a ton of bad publicity in recent times about its growing homeless population, thefts, and hate crimes. Because of this, you may have heard that San Francisco isn’t a safe place.
One thing to note is that in terms of violent crime, San Francisco has lower rates than in other major cities across the United States (it doesn’t even break the top 50).
Unfortunately, the city’s homeless population has exploded over the years and it is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. You’ll see homeless encampments in certain areas of the city, and might even come across human feces while walking down the street.
Addiction and mental illness is also a very real problem amongst the homeless population, and you might encounter someone on the street who is just yelling at no one in particular. They are usually harmless, but don’t engage with them.
Most of the time, the homeless people just keep to themselves, or ask for money and/or food and are harmless. Remember, they’re people too.
Just remember to exercise street smarts and use common sense – keep belongings close, don’t flaunt your flashy electronics or expensive jewelry, and don’t wander around late at night. If you are driving, don’t leave any valuables in the car, and don’t leave anything visible in the front – car break-ins are VERY common!
The Perfect One day in San Francisco Itinerary
Let’s get one thing out of the way – Union Square isn’t that cool. I know all the tourists flock there, but locals just don’t get the appeal. It’s kind of dirty and well…boring.
Sure, there’s a ton of shopping to be done there, but it’s all big box stores and big brands that you can find anywhere else. If you really want to do some shopping in San Francisco, there are tons of unique boutiques and shops elsewhere in the city. And honestly, there are better things to do, especially if you are trying to see San Francisco in one day.
I will admit that the one time that it is worth spending time in Union Square is during the holidays – there’s a gorgeous Christmas tree here, as well as an outdoor ice rink. It truly is magical!
Otherwise, don’t spend a whole lot of time here.
I know that it’s one of those iconic spots in the city, so I’ve included it as the first stop on this itinerary. If you spent the night in San Francisco, this is where most of the city’s hotels are situated so it is an ideal place to start.
Do not spend more than 30 minutes here and then move on to the next activity!
Hop on a cable car
Yes, I know it is touristy and kinda expensive ($8 for one ride), but a cable car ride is one of those iconic San Francisco experiences that is SO fun and absolutely worth it!
San Francisco is home to the last remaining manually operated cable car system. Invented right in the city by Andrew Smith Hallidie in 1873, the system had 23 lines in operation at one time, but only three remain today.
Hardly anyone actually uses the cable cars to get around the city – they’re mostly a tourist attraction these days. But there is nothing quite like hanging off the edge while going up and down those gnarly hills, taking in the views, and feeling like you’re going to smash into a passing cable car going in the other direction.
It’s all a uniquely San Francisco experience that is absolutely worth it in my eyes – even as a local!
You can hop on at the turnaround just a few blocks away at Market and Powell streets, or you can try to see if you can hop on at the stop in front of Union Square (but it’s the second stop so they might be full).
If you want to snap a photo of you on the cable cars, there are usually lots of empty ones parked just before the turnaround and the operators are happy to let you snap a few photos (some of them will even help you take them).
You can jump on either the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde line. Get off on Hyde & Lombard to head over to our next stop.\
Known as the “crookedest street in the world,” the section of Lombard Street between Leavenworth and Hyde streets features eight sharp hairpin turns, which were created to offset the natural steep grade of the street, which was thought to be too dangerous.
In reality, Lombard Street is not the crookedest street in the world – not even in San Francisco, actually. That title belongs to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd streets in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.
Still, Lombard Street is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions and is still well worth a visit. The street is home to some of the city’s most beautiful (and expensive) mansions, as well as well-manicured landscaping, and some of the most stunning views of the city.
This might be the one place on this 1 day in San Francisco itinerary that may be more fun with a car – it’s such a unique experience to drive down those hairpin turns. It is not absolutely necessary though – it is still worth it to take in the beauty of the homes, the flowers, and the views while walking up and down the street.
Just remember that it is a real, working street and that people live here – don’t jump into the street, and be quiet and respectful!
Pier 39 + Fisherman’s Wharf
I am going to come right out and say it – Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are my least favorite areas in the city. Quite frankly, it is a giant tourist trap and is often full of crowds, lacks any charm or character, and much of it is, well, kinda lame.
Still, it is worth seeing at least once in your life, which is why you should make a quick stop, even if you’re trying to see San Francisco in a day. Just don’t spend too much time here – there are much more interesting places to see!
I suggest coming earlier in the day – it gets packed with crowds in the afternoon and evening and is just not enjoyable at all!
Here are some actually cool things that you can do in this area:
- Watch the sea lions sunbathing at Pier 39 – they are super cute and so amusing!
- Have a bowl of clam chowder, preferably in a sourdough bread bowl. I know everyone says Boudin Bakery is *the* place to go, and while it is solid, it is hella touristy. I suggest going to Scoma’s or Fog Harbor Fish House.
- Grabbing a burger at In-n-out is one of those quintessential California experiences, and if you’ve never had one, it’s well worth making a stop here, as Fisherman’s Wharf is home to the only location in San Francisco. Be sure to get your burger animal style (it’s part of the secret menu and comes with caramelized onions and pickles).
- Order an Irish coffee at Buena Vista Cafe, known as the establishment to have introduced (and perfected) the drink to America. It’s a favorite with locals and tourists alike!
- Snap some cute photos at Umbrella Alley. This is where you’ll find the Greetings from San Francisco wall by Greetings Tour, as well as a collection of tons of other Instagrammable murals and artwork by local San Francisco artists.
- Grab some quarters and head to the Musee Mecanique, a museum/arcade that features a collection of antique, coin-operated games and machines. They also have one of the only old-school photo booths in the city!
- Indulge in an ice cream sundae at Ghirardelli. Yes, this is touristy AF but that hot fudge sauce is super addicting and I can’t help but order a sundae every time I happen to be in the area (or at a Giants game). Also stop by the retail store for a free sample of chocolate!
After you are done at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (remember, don’t spend too much time here!), either hop on the 30 bus or walk towards North Beach.
The next two stops on this 1 day in San Francisco itinerary explore some of the most unique and vibrant neighborhoods in the city. The first is North Beach, which has a strong Italian-American heritage that dates back generations. It was also a hub for the 1950s Beat Generation, which influenced the 1960s counterculture movement.
You’ll see plenty of signs of the Italian influence while walking through North Beach – the streets are lined with Italian trattorias, espresso shops, bakeries, and more. Eating is one of the best things to do in North Beach, and it is an ideal neighborhood to stop for lunch (but so are the next two stops on this itinerary).
If you want to sample some of the best of the food offerings here and in neighboring Chinatown (which we will be exploring next), I highly recommend taking this food tour, which takes you to some of the top eateries in the area, including some of my personal favorites! (You can also opt to take a food tour of just North Beach.)
Some cool things you can check out in North Beach:
- Browse the iconic City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous bookstores in the United States and known as a gathering place for the 1950s Beat Generation. If you want to experience more of the Beat culture, check out the nearby Kerouac Alley and Vesuvio Cafe (right behind City Lights), or the Beat Museum.
- Take in the views from Coit Tower – just know that it’s a steep trek up (you’ll get to walk up the beautiful Filbert Street steps, though)! The Art Deco-style tower was built in the 1930s as a tribute to the city’s firemen. You get 360 degree views of the city from the top of the tower, but even the view from the base is pretty stunning. There is also a collection of murals inside at the base, depicting California’s history.
- People watch in Washington Square Park – and admire the beautiful architecture of the Saints Peter and Paul Church, known as the Italian Cathedral of the West.
- Stop for a dessert break at Stella Pastry and Cafe – you’ll find a large selection of authentic Italian pastries and desserts. Everyone loves the cannolis here, but personally I LOVE the tiramisu. Grab a few cookies to go too!
- Grab some pizza – North Beach has several of the top-rated pizza spots in the city, including Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (helmed by 13-time world pizza champion Tony Gemignani), Golden Boy Pizza (authentic Sicilian slices or squares – hits the spot and cheap but cash only), and Tommasso’s (where Francis Ford Coppola frequently dined).
- Grab some freshly baked focaccia bread, straight out of the oven, at Liguria Bakery – it is family owned and has been in North Beach for generations!
- Dine at Original Joe’s, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 100 years and serves up hearty, authentic Italian dishes. Get the ravioli as your side, and be sure to order their butter cake for dessert (trust me, you’ll be obsessed)!
After exploring North Beach, you will venture into another one of the city’s most vibrant ethnic neighborhoods. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of America, the oldest Chinatown in North America, as well as the most densely populated neighborhood west of Manhattan.
Chinatown is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, but it is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city. This is because you also get to see a slice of the daily life of the community here, whether you come across people playing chess or doing tai chi in Portsmouth Square, or residents selecting the freshest Chinese produce in the many markets that line the bustling Stockton Avenue.
Grant Avenue is the main tourist drag in the neighborhood, and is especially picturesque with vibrant red lanterns hanging from above. You’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants here to browse through. However, do not spend all of your time there – there is a labyrinth of smaller side streets and alleys in Chinatown, and you’ll get a much more authentic experience if you spend some time wandering through these as well.
You can also learn more about the neighborhood, the city’s Chinese American culture, and get a sampling of the top eats here on this Chinatown walking food tour.
Otherwise, here are some options for things to check out while exploring Chinatown:
- Grab an egg tart at Golden Gate Bakery – if you are lucky enough to catch it open! They have seemingly random hours (so much that there are websites and social media accounts that tell you if it’s open or not), but the egg tarts here (as well as the other authentic Chinese pastries) are divine if you can get your hands on one!
- Snap a photo of the Dragon Gate, the official entrance into Chinatown at Grant and Bush Streets, and the only authentic Chinatown gate in the country.
- Take a tour of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company – did you know that the fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco? You can take a tour of the factory (it’s one of the best free things to do in San Francisco, but a donation is suggested), buy a bag of imperfect fortune cookies at a huge discount, or create your own custom cookie with a personalized fortune.
- Sample some dim sum at Good Mong Kok Bakery – it’s a takeout joint, but it has some of the best authentic dim sum specialties in the city!
- Explore China Live, a two-story modern food emporium and marketplace, sort of like a Chinese version of Eataly. You’ll find a tea bar, retail shop, a casual restaurant, and a fine dining restaurant.
- Check out the Wok Shop, which has been in Chinatown for over 40 years and sells woks in every size and variety of wok imaginable. It is seriously one of the most unique shops you’ll find in the city!
- Grab a mai tai from Li Po Lounge – it is super divey but has been a Chinatown institution for years! They are super tasty but be careful – they are STRONG!
After exploring Chinatown, walk down California Street (or take the 1 bus) towards the Ferry Building.
The Ferry Building has always been one of my all-time favorite places in San Francisco – the foodie in me loves all the culinary delights here, and the architecture lover in me loves the beautiful historic building itself. It is one of those places that I always ended up bringing out of visitors.
The Ferry Building has been standing in the city since 1898, when it was the largest project undertaken in the city. The Beaux-Arts style building, inspired by European architecture, features elegant arches and a 245 foot clock tower.
Back then, it was the primary transportation hub in the city, serving over 50,000 people a day who took the ferry across the bay. The construction of both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, along with the use of cars, made the Ferry Building obsolete but it reopened in its current form in 2003. You can still take the ferry in and out of the city from the Ferry Building (it is an awesome day trip for when you have more time!).
You’ll find everything from artisanal bread, cheeses, olive oil, chocolate, coffee, and more at the Ferry Building (it is basically the San Francisco version of Pike Place in Seattle. There are also a number of both counter service and sit-down restaurants. It also hosts one of the city’s most popular farmers markets every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
You can literally spend all day checking out all the vendors in the Ferry Building (and eating all of their offerings!), but as you are trying to see San Francisco in a day, this will be a relatively quick stop. Still, it would be a shame to not make a stop here, even if it is a quick one!
Here are some of the best vendors to check out at the Ferry Building – you won’t have time for them all, but you can pick and choose the few that interest you the most!
- Grab a loaf of freshly baked bread at Acme Bread – you can grab a baguette for a picnic (which might be perfect at our next stop!), or try one of their pastries (the apple turnover is a favorite!).
- Snack on an empanada from El Porteño – the authentic empanadas have the most deliciously buttery crust with hearty fillings. The carne (beef) is a favorite here!
- Satisfy your sweet tooth at Miette – I love their cupcakes and macarons, and their cookies and candies make perfect gifts.
- For an afternoon pick-me-up, grab a cup of coffee from Blue Bottle – to be honest, I don’t love Blue Bottle as much as I did when I first moved to San Francisco (and you can find it everywhere now). But they are one of the original purveyors of third wave coffee and San Francisco is the place that started it all..so if you’ve never tried it, this is a good place to do it.
- Grab a scoop of ice cream from Humphry Slocombe. Order the Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with corn flake bits) – no ifs, ands, or buts.
- If you’re an oyster fan, Hog Island Oyster Co. is a must – they have the freshest Tomales Bay oysters + a selection of other seafood dishes. Sit on the patio and enjoy some beautiful views of the bay!
- Sample some artisanal chocolates from Recchiuti Confections and Dandelion Chocolate, both produced locally in San Francisco.
- Peruse the selection of ceramic home goods at Heath Ceramics. Each piece is handmade in their factory across the bridge in Sausalito and is well-designed, timeless, and beautiful. Try not to buy out the whole selection 😉 (I’m always tempted to every time I’m here!)
- Order a bento box at Delica – I love sampling all of the salads, agemono (fried items like tonkatsu and croquettes), Japanese deli items, and more. They also have tasty sushi, if you’re in the mood for that!
- Feast on a burger at Gott’s Roadside – it’s a modern spin on classic diner food. If you’re not that hungry (I feel ya, there’s a lot of food on this 1 day in San Francisco itinerary!), grab a shake instead!
- Sample some California olive oil at Stonehouse – they are known for their citrus olive oil!
- Sip on a glass of wine at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant – they have an extensive list of wines in many varietals from all over the world, with a large emphasis on California wines. If you need a recommendation, ask – they will help you pick the perfect one! (PS they also have a great selection of bottles under $15 if you’re looking for a souvenir!).
After sampling all the delights at the Ferry Building, head onto Market Street to catch the 5 bus towards Alamo Square (you can also call an Uber or take the hop-on, hop-off bus).
Alamo Square + Painted Ladies
Alamo Square is home to the Painted Ladies, aka the most famous Victorian homes in the city. You’ll find a postcard worthy view of the beautiful homes here, with the San Francisco skyline in the background – one of the most iconic views in San Francisco!
(Photo tip: to get the full skyline, head towards the top of the hill. If you just want the Painted Ladies in the background or not have other people in your shot, take it from towards the bottom of the park.)
One of the most photographed locations in the city, Alamo Square is also famous for being on the opening credits of the TV show, Full House. Many mistakenly believe that the Tanner family lived in one of the Painted Ladies; in actuality, the real house that was used in the show is on Broderick Street in Pacific Heights (and is much less pretty, in my opinion).
The Painted Ladies date back to the late 1800s, and are classic examples of homes built in the Queen Anne era, with multiple balconies, large porches, and are 2.5-3.5 stores tall. The houses aren’t cheap, either – the last time one of them came on the market, it was listed for $4 million!
Alamo Square is one of the best spots in the city for a picnic, if you have some extra time and want to relax for a bit (it’s the perfect place to enjoy some of those treats you picked up at the Ferry Building!).
Go ahead and admire the Painted Ladies and snap some (or lots of) photos, but be sure to look around the square as well – the homes behind and to the side of Alamo Square are equally stunning as the Painted Ladies.
Afterwards, walk down Fell Street, or hop on the 5 or 7 bus towards Haight-Ashbury.
The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is one of the most well-known areas in San Francisco, often referred to as the “hippie” district. This is where the Summer of Love came to be in the summer of 1969, when Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead once lived and performed in the neighborhood (the homes of the latter two still stand in the district today).
You’ll still see signs of flower power and those hippie days here, whether it’s in the colorful homes or vintage signs. Walking through Haight-Ashbury, you can almost imagine what Summer of Love must have been like back then. You can even take a walking tour that gives you an insight into the neighborhood’s history, and the Summer of Love.
To be honest, Haight-Ashbury isn’t my favorite, but it’s still worth a quick walkthrough, as it is an iconic part of the city’s past. However, if you are short on time (not surprising when trying to see San Francisco in a day), feel free to skip it and move on to the next stop.
One thing that I do love about Haight-Ashbury is the abundance of colorful homes and storefronts. If you walk down the main drag, you’ll find plenty of shops and businesses with boldly colorful facades, often adorned with rainbow colors and bright floral graphics.
If you walk away from the main corridor and start walking along the side streets, you’ll also come across some of the city’s most beautiful houses. If you want a break from the madness of the main drag (I don’t blame you), take some time to wander through these streets. Some of my favorites are a group of Victorian homes on Waller Street, which sort of remind me of a jeweled-toned version of the Painted Ladies.
If you love vintage clothing, there are a ton of vintage boutiques lining the streets of Haight-Ashbury, with some unique period pieces. One of the city’s best Goodwill thrift stores is also on Haight. And, if you need costume pieces (perhaps a tutu, or some funky tights), then Haight-Ashbury is your place to go – you’ll find plenty of options here! If music is your thing, then you also need to make a stop at Amoeba Records, the largest independent music store in the world.
If you’re looking to escape to some peace and quiet, you can also climb up the hill to the top of Buena Vista Park. This is San Francisco’s oldest park and is one of its hidden gems. You’ll find secluded walking paths and one of the city’s only remaining oak groves, as well as a stunning view of the city from the top.
Hungry, or in the mood for a cocktail? Check out Cha Cha Cha, which serves some delicious Cuban tapas (their potatoes are the BEST) and amazing sangrias. Also check out the Alembic, which has some of the best craft cocktails in the city (especially if it’s Girl Scout cookie season, as they do cocktail pairings!).
Afterwards walk down Page Street to John F Kennedy Drive, or take the N light rail, 5 bus, or 7 bus towards Golden Gate Park.
Golden Gate Park
Did you know that San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is the third most visited park in the United States? Over 24 million people visit it each year. At 1017 acres, it is also larger than New York City’s Central Park, contrary to popular belief.
So obviously, there’s plenty to see and do in Golden Gate Park and only having one day in San Francisco, you won’t see it all. Not even close – you can easily spend the entire day here and still not see it all! But it is still well worth it a quick stop to see some of the highlights of what makes up this beautiful urban oasis.
If you want to see the park as a whole, you can also rent a bike for a few hours and make your way from one end to the other (you can even take it to the next stop, and bike on the Golden Gate Bridge afterwards!). You probably won’t have time to make very many stops since you have limited time, but you’ll be able to see the whole thing!
Otherwise, I suggest centering your visit to Golden Gate Park around the Music Concourse area, which is also where many of the park’s top attractions are situated. This is also where you will find the Academy of Sciences and the DeYoung Museum, two of the city’s most popular museums. You won’t have time to visit them (each of them can easily take up an entire afternoon!).
However, do make your way up the Harmon Observation Deck in the DeYoung Museum to check out some amazing views of the park and the city. Many people do not realize that it is there, and it is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. Simply go up the elevator, and press the button for the eighth floor.
Other things you can check out during your visit to Golden Gate Park:
- Japanese Tea Garden: The oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. It is beautiful year-round, but especially stunning in the spring (when the cherry blossoms bloom), and the fall (when the foliage turns colors). Check out the pagoda, the half-circle bridge, or stop for a cup of tea.
- San Francisco Botanical Garden: This 55-acre urban oasis showcases over 8000 different kinds of plants and flowers from around the world. You’ll see everything from a redwood grove, succulents, tropical plants, and more. It is especially beautiful in the spring, when the magnolias bloom.
- SkyStar Observation Wheel: This 150-foot tall observation wheel was installed in 2020 for San Francisco’s 150th anniversary and will remain in place until 2025. You’ll get panoramic views of the downtown skyline, the Pacific Ocean, and beyond.
- Take a walk around Stow Lake: This pretty man-made lake in the center of the park features a waterfall, a Chinese pagoda, a boathouse, and several bridges. If you feel up for it, you can also rent a rowboat or paddle boat.
- Conservatory of Flowers: One of the first buildings built in the park, built in a classic Victorian style, and is the oldest public wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, you’ll find five galleries featuring rare and exotic plants from around the world.
After exploring the park, head towards 19th Avenue & Lincoln or Fulton & Park Presidio to catch the 28 bus towards the Golden Gate Bridge (you can also catch an Uber/Lyft or take the hop-on, hop-off bus).
Golden Gate Bridge
If there is only one thing you see on your 1 day in San Francisco, make it the Golden Gate Bridge. This is San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, and one of the most photographed bridges in the world. Seeing it in person is like nothing else – one look, and you’ll see why. Even after living in the city for so long, the bridge still manages to take my breath away.
Be prepared and make sure you have a jacket on you! The areas surrounding the bridge tend to be chillier and windier than the rest of the city.
What side of the bridge you end up on will depend on what mode of transportation you took to get there – if you took public transit, you will end up on the south side (the San Francisco side). If you took the hop-on, hop-off bus, you will end up at the Vista Point on the north side (the Sausalito side). If you drove or took an Uber/Lyft, you have your pick of which side you want to end up on – each side has its charms, and I will list them below.
It is not necessary to walk across the entire bridge – it spans 1.7 miles across, so walking to the other side and back will take you a bit of time. It’s also often cold and windy on the bridge. I do recommend at least walking a short part of it, because seeing the towers of the bridge up close is like nothing else!
There really are no bad views of the Golden Gate Bridge – they are all beautiful in their own way! But here are some of the best ones you may want to check out, depending on which side of the bridge you end up on:
San Francisco side
- Fort Point: If you happen to catch it when the fort is open (check the hours though – they are fairly limited), you’ll get a unique perspective that makes it seem like you’re directly under the bridge. If not, the view from the outside is still spectacular – watch the surfers try to catch some waves under the bridge.
- Batteries to Bluffs trail: One of my favorite hikes in San Francisco, because it showcases the city’s most popular landmark with its surrounding natural beauty. There are spectacular views throughout!
- Golden Gate Overlook: This Insta-famous view showcases two eucalyptus trees perfectly framing the bridge, with its towers vertically stacked right on top of each other. You can find it by navigating to the Langdon Court parking lot.
- Marshall’s Beach: One of my favorite views of the bridge! You can access it from the Batteries to Bluffs trail – look for a sign with a turnoff to the stairs that lead to the beach. If you walk further up on the beach towards the bridge, you’ll feel like you’re right up against it, and find a secluded cove.
- Battery Spencer: My all-time favorite view of the bridge! This is where you get that postcard-worthy shot of the bridge with the city skyline in the background. I especially love it because the bridge looks larger-than-life here. It is about a 15 minute walk from the Vista Point and well worth the uphill climb!
- Hawk Hill: If you keep heading further down Conzelman Road, you will come across the Hawk Hill viewpoint. This one is unique because it almost feels like you’re standing on top of the bridge!
- Fort Baker: You’ll find this view if you head down the hill from the Vista Point. You’ll find a small beach, with a view of the beautiful bluffs and the hills of San Francisco in the background.
After exploring the area surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge, take the 28 bus towards the Palace of Fine Arts, or take an Uber/Lyft or the hop-on, hop-off bus. If you find yourself with extra time, you can walk from Fort Point and through Crissy Field – it’s a beautiful walk!
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most opulent landmarks in San Francisco, and is well worth a stop on your itinerary. Originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, the Palace is built in the Beaux Arts style and features Grecian-style colonnades and a tall central rotunda.
Spend some time walking through the entire perimeter of the Palace, walking through the columns and under the dome, and through the grassy area.
Walking through the grounds, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Europe. The architectural details of the columns and the dome are absolutely stunning. I especially love the motifs that adorn the inside of the dome and have to look and admire them every time I’m here.
The Palace is surrounded by a pond and greenery, perfect for a picnic or people watching. It’s an especially popular spot for photographers, and at any given time, you’ll find multiple wedding, engagement, and quinceanera photo shoots going on. It’s pretty fun to watch.
It is also a popular venue for weddings, concerts, and events – I can see why, it is truly beautiful here!
Afterwards, hop on the 28 again and make your way back towards the Fisherman’s Wharf area, where you can choose from several options for ending your one day in San Francisco itinerary.
How to end your one day in San Francisco itinerary
We are almost coming to an end to your perfect day in San Francisco – hopefully you have fallen in love with the city as I have. We have packed in a lot when trying to San Francisco in one day!
I’ve come up with three possible options for how to end your day. What you choose will depend on your priorities, and what your personal preferences are (see, I told you it’s kind of like a choose your own adventure day)!
Option 1: Alcatraz night tour
You didn’t think you’d have time to see Alcatraz when trying to see San Francisco in one day, did you? If you really, really want to see the famous island prison (it is one of the most famous attractions in the city, after all), then ending your day with a night tour is your best bet.
The Alcatraz night tour is a unique way to see the island and the famous prison that resides on it. It almost gives the experience a spooky feeling. Plus, you get some stunning views of the San Francisco skyline and waterfront lit up with twinkling lights!
An audio tour is included with the tour, which provides commentary about the island and its famous prisoners.
Tours start from Pier 33 – the start time varies depending on the time of year (right now they depart at 6pm). They are also super popular and can book up weeks in advance – if you are interested in this, book ASAP!
Also note that there is only one official vendor for Alcatraz tours (Alcatraz CityCruises by Hornblower). Double check to see that you are booking from the authorized tour company!
Option 2: Sunset bay cruise
If you missed out on Alcatraz tickets, or you want a relaxing activity to end your day, consider taking a sunset cruise around the bay. This 90-minute cruise sails by some of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks on a luxury catamaran, so you can see them from the water.
I always love seeing cities from the water and San Francisco is no different. It’s also a great way to rest your feet (you’ve probably been doing a lot of walking!), sit back, relax, and take in the views.
One thing I love about these bay cruises is that you get to see both of San Francisco’s bridges from the water, and sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. It gives it such a unique perspective and is really such a cool thing to see!
You’ll also get to sail by Alcatraz, so if you missed out on the night tour, this is a good consolation.
Option 3: Bay Bridge Lights + Dinner in the Mission District
This last option is ideal for those who want to explore another one of San Francisco’s neighborhoods and get more of a local experience.
From the Fisherman’s Wharf area, walk along the Embarcadero back towards the Ferry Building. Here, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the waterfront and the Bay Bridge. You can even stop by some of the piers for some photo ops (Pier 7 is my favorite, because you get a symmetrical view of the Transamerica building).
Right after the sun sets, the twinkling Bay Bridge Lights will come on. This is one of my favorite sights in the city – seeing the lights twinkle as the sky changes from pink to blue is a magical sight. This was meant to be a temporary installation, but it was such a local favorite that it caused an uproar when it ended, so they brought it back!
When you come back near the Ferry Building, continue on to Market Street and take the BART train from Embarcadero Station (You can also take an Uber/Lyft if you don’t want to deal with public transportation.)
Get off at 16th Street and Mission – this will put you in the heart of the Mission District, and you will have many options for dinner and drinks! The Mission is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city.
It has origins as where the city’s Latino population set its roots. You’ll find plenty of taquerias, carnicerias, and markets lining the streets. Today, it is also a hipster haven, with plenty of trendy restaurants, boutiques, and bars opening up in the neighborhood (sadly, gentrification is becoming a problem because of this).
I suggest making a quick stop at Clarion Alley, which is filled with dozens of murals. It may not be as vibrant as seeing it in the daytime, but it is still worth seeing it. Many of these murals call attention to important social justice issues, including gender and race equality, gentrification, and more.
You’ll have many options for dinner to end your day, depending on your tastes and budget:
- La Taqueria or El Farolito: This is the perfect opportunity to try out a Mission style burrito, and these two joints are known to have the best of the best. My personal favorite is El Farolito (I’m sorry, but I want rice in my burrito), but you can’t go wrong with either.
- Foreign Cinema: For a super romantic vibe – they play movies at dinner! They serve Californian cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. Everything I’ve had here has been amazing, but the fried chicken is a favorite.
- Cha Cha Cha: I mentioned this spot earlier, but there is a second location on Valencia Street. You’ll find delicious Cuban tapas here – the potatoes and sangrias are a must!
- Limon: Shareable Peruvian food, perfect for groups. I love the ceviche and the roast chicken here!
- Lolo: I love the vibe of this place – the interior is so cute! You’ll find a modern spin on Mexican cuisine here, served tapas style. Their cocktails are fantastic as well!
- Farmhouse Kitchen Thai: This is a bit off the main strip, but I had to include it here as it’s one of my favorite restaurants in the city. They have some over-the-top Thai food, that all tastes as good as it looks! I love the fried chicken here (which is served with a side of curry, roti bread, and blue rice), but I’ve loved everything I’ve had here.
- Pakwan: They have affordable, authentic Pakistani food. The lamb dishes here are amazing! They are also open late, so it is a good late-night option.
What would you do with one day in San Francisco?
You might also like:
San Francisco Bucket List
The Best Views of the Golden Gate Bridge
120+ Free Things to Do in San Francisco
40 Amazing San Francisco Hidden Gems
Best San Francisco Views
18 Amazing Sunset Spots in Francisco
50 Most Instagrammable Places in San Francisco
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Caroline is a Southern California based traveler, writer, and photographer. She travels all around California, the US, and the world in search of the most colorful places, the most delicious food, and bucket-list adventures. Her aim is to inspire other travelers discover how to add more adventure and joy to their lives. On Pictures & Words, you’ll find detailed guides + itineraries, along with vibrant photos to help you plan the the most epic trips. When she’s not traveling, Caroline also runs half marathons.