San Francisco is an easy city to get wrong. Many tourists spend their entire visit checking off all the clichés: The Haight-Ashbury Intersection, a ride on a cable car, the sea lions of Fisherman’s Wharf, and an Italian dinner on Columbus Avenue.
If you want to do San Francisco the predictable way, then your itinerary is available to you in the previous paragraph. If you want a little more substance to your weekend, then have a look at the guide below. We’ll even do you a favor and help you check off the clichés without making them the main destinations.
It’s a fairly small city, just 49 square miles—and square at that; it’s spread 7 miles on each axis. If you plan your weekend around different neighborhoods, you can cover a lot of ground without even needing a car. Just load up a BART card and a 3-day Muni pass, and you’ll be set. (Just don’t activate the MUNI pass until the second of your 4 days, per our outline below.) Oh, and bring a sweater and a good pair of walking shoes. It gets cold, and you’ll be covering lots of ground—often uphill.
Where to Stay
Almost every hotel in San Francisco is in Union Square or Downtown (they’re adjacent neighborhoods). While it’s going to feel super touristy to do this, it’s also a really good location to start and end each day, since nearly every route on the buses, trams, cable cars, and BART pass through here. If you want to take the BART to or from the SF or Oakland airports, it’s also very convenient.
If you’re interested in staying at a no-frills boutique hotel (that is both beautiful and newly renovated), then Hotel Triton is a great choice. And yes, ‘no-frills boutique hotel’ sounds contradictory, but that’s because Triton focuses on everything you need and isn’t trying to wow you with any BS: Its rooms are tastefully modern, with a vivid color palette that polarizes no one. (How is that so hard to get right?) With three core classes of rooms and suites, you can spread out as much as you need, then head down to breakfast at Café de la Presse, Triton’s onsite French Bistro, or Herlen Place, for some American-style brunch. There’s a 24-hour fitness center, a cozy study, and equally stylish lobby for quick meetings.
If you want something a little more elevated and a little disruptive of the norm (which is oh-so San Francisco in the first place), book a room or suite (or the 6,200-sq. foot penthouse) at The Battery. The Downtown venue feels like a homegrown SoHo House, in that it’s a members-only club. However, guests in their 14-room hotel get to enjoy all of its onsite benefits, from private exhibits and events to a wellness center and various bars and restaurants. Rooms vary in style, some boasting exposed brick, floor-to-ceiling windows, and panoramic Bay views.
What to Do in San Francisco
This is a neighborhood guide, arranged in a way that’ll maximize the things you get to see and do while you’re in town. It looks daunting on this side of your trip, but it’s manageable when you take it in order, step by step. Plus, you’ll practically be an expert by the time it’s through.
Thursday Afternoon and Evening: Union Square + Chinatown + North Beach
Assuming you arrived midday and checked into your Union Square/Downtown hotel, you’ve spent a good chunk of your day. So, instead of making haste with your long to-do list, stay on foot in the area. You can hit the big flagship stores and see the cable cars taking off along Market Street in Union Square (don’t ride one just yet), then walk up to Chinatown for your first dinner. (Start by walking through Dragon’s Gate at Bush and Grant Streets.)
House of Nanking is a longstanding and fancy-ish favorite of locals and tourists alike, though it can be hard to get a table without a reservation. If you want something a little more homey, authentic, and a lot more familiar, go around the corner to Hunan Home, which has been a staple in Chinatown for nearly 40 years.
There isn’t a lot to see in Chinatown by evening, and you can make the short trek back here by daytime if you want to explore its markets or visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Otherwise, the one meal will suffice.
If Chinese is not your preferred cuisine, walk over to North Beach, the land of Coppolas and Beatniks, for some Italian fare. Just don’t make the mistake of eating anywhere on Columbus Avenue, since there are a lot of overpriced, gimmicky joints. You can’t fail with a fancy dinner at the trattoria Ideale, or even the quick counter service at Golden Boy Pizza. After, bar hop along Grant Avenue Savoy Tivoli and The Saloon; they’re some of the city’s longstanding staples. You can sneak past the seedy lights of Broadway into the back alley at 15 Romolo or down Columbus to Tosca for a nightcap, marveling at the Beatniks’ City Lights Bookstore, the copper-green Sentinel Building (where many a historic film was produced by Copolla and co), and the Transamerica Pyramid, SF’s most notable skyscraper (now dwarfed by the phallic Salesforce tower).
If you want some entertainment with your drinks, book a show at the over-the-top Beach Blanket Babylon. The venue was founded in 1974, and has since followed the journey of Snow White as she seeks Prince Charming. The cast of musically talented comedians updates the show quarterly, skewering anyone relevant in modern pop culture. (This is a gem you’ll certainly recommend to future SF visitors.)
You’ll be back in North Beach for breakfast on your final morning, so there’s more to see by day.
Friday: Russian Hill + The Wharf + Fort Mason and Crissy Field + Golden Gate Bridge + Presidio + Land’s End + Baker Beach
Today’s your big day to ride a cable car. It’s first on the list, so go get in line at Market Street bright and early. Your 3-day MUNI pass won’t work, so just pay the fee to get your yuks. You’ll ride the tracks through Union Square, China Town, Nob Hill, and get out at Russian Hill, at the top of Lombard Street (the famed ‘most crooked street in the U.S.’, with its eight hairpin turns down one city block). After, stroll up and down Russian Hill’s side streets if you want more picturesque, bougainvillea-dotted photographs. (One detour worth taking is to Macondray Lane, the inspiration and setting of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (though in the series he changes its name to Barbary Lane.)
Then, walk to Fisherman’s Wharf, for the other super-touristy point on today’s agenda. Don’t dawdle here. Note the sea lions that lounge and bark at each other, get a free sample at Ghirardelli Square as you walk west, and resist all temptation to rent a bike for the Golden Gate Bridge (walking it is far superior). Maybe you booked a visit to Alcatraz, which isn’t in this itinerary (since it will eat up much of your day). If you did book it, your boat leaves from Pier 33.
From Ghirardelli, walk out to the Aquatic Park Pier. Snap you photo, then head up the hill just before the pier, to the left. This will wrap around to Fort Mason Park, and onward toward the Golden Gate Bridge. If you aren’t keen on walking the few miles to the bridge (understandable, but a big loss nevertheless), you can catch a bus across Cow Hollow and to the Presidio, where you can hike up to the bridge. However, if you’re willing to walk all the way, you’re in for a stunning stroll. First, it’s probably smart to stop for lunch at easygoing Radhaus or upscale Greens in the Fort Mason Center.
After refueling, walk the perimeter of the water, past the boat docks of Gashouse Cove and the fields of Marina Green. You’ll get views of the Golden Gate all the while, the highlight of which is when you hit the sands of Crissy Field Beach. There’s a tiny footbridge after the first stretch of sand; after you cross it, turn right and walk along the sand for the most beautiful stretch of the hike. You’ll join the dog walkers—and, more importantly, the happiest dogs on the planet—and might even see some rowers, sailors, shipping boats, and sea lions as you go. This is peak bliss, people.
After the sandy stretch, you can caffeinate at the Warming Hut and walk up the hill to the pedestrian entrance of the bridge. (Alternatively, you can stay on the road and walk to the base of the bridge, for an equally spectacular vantage point on the red wonder. From the top, you’ll simply cross the bridge and come back the way you came. (Hold onto your hats.)
After, since you’re none too eager to walk, just get yourself to the Presidio, the forested 1,500-acre patch of green that covers the northwest corner of the city. It’s worth getting lost on a hike here, but it’s probably a good time to relax in the backseat of an Uber. Point your driver to the Sutro Baths, a 19th-century public bathing complex, now in ruins but with the same stellar oceanfront views. From here you’ll walk (sorry!) 25 minutes to Lands’ End Labyrinth, then another short trek to Baker Beach. Now you can kick back in the sand and enjoy views of both the bridge and the Pacific sunset.
Hail a car to the hotel to freshen up for dinner, then go for your reservation at Zuni, just down Market Street.
Saturday: Embarcadero + Ocean Beach + Golden Gate Park + Haight-Ashbury + Alamo Square + Fillmore + Nob Hill + Tenderloin
Saturday starts breezy, as you snack your way through the weekly Farmers Market at the Embarcadero Center. After that, hop on the N-Judah train underground at the Embarcadero MUNI station. This is the first stop, and you’re riding it all the way to the second-to-last one. You’re pointed back to the ocean, this time a couple neighborhoods south of where you were yesterday. (This neighborhood is called the Outer Sunset.) Get out at Judah St. and 46th Ave, where you’ll pop into Trouble Coffee for their famous cinnamon toast. It might be smart to put your name in at Outerlands a few doors down, in case there’s a wait. You can browse the shops between the two in the meantime, or if the wait is particularly long, you can trek over to Ocean Beach for the freshest expanse in the city. (Also a good place to go for a run.) Savor another coffee after lunch, which you can refill at the loved-and-adored Java Beach Café just before crossing the Great Highway to the sand.
Depending on your energy and leisure time, you can either start the stroll into Golden Gate Park from the far west end, or you can hop the bus or train back inland. Your target is the east end of the park anyhow, so it might be worth saving time and energy and just hopping on transit. The destinations are plentiful here: Poke through the de Young Art Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, or just kick back in the Robin Williams Meadow to appreciate some calm in the center of the city.
From here you can meander down Haight Street (watch for the Ashbury crossing, though it’s fairly underwhelming). You can stop into record shops, thrift stores, smoke shops, and more. Don’t spend too much time, as it’s more of a gimmick than a relic these days. Turn left toward Alamo Square Park when you get to Scott Street, where you’ll get that postcard-perfect view of the Painted Ladies houses.
Dinner is in Fillmore: It’s fine Indian fare at DOSA. It’s fun to explore Fillmore, too, once home to the city’s jazz and blues scene. Now it’s got high-end bookstores and boutiques, and it’s charming any time of day. Head slightly northeast after dinner, to Hyde Street, where you’ll hear the soft whir of the trolley cable. This neighborhood is Nob Hill. Stop into Bacchus Wine Bar or Café Meuse for a nightcap, or Swensen’s Ice Cream for dessert.
If you’re not too tired, it’s worth heading south into the Tenderloin to the tiniest hole-in-the-wall gay bar, Aunt Charlie’s. It’s an attraction, even for locals, since it has some of the best drag shows in the country. The Saturday shows are at 10 p.m., reservations recommended, with a $5 cover.
Sunday: Hayes Valley + Castro + Mission + Noe Valley + Twin Peaks + East Bay
Start your morning with breakfast at Stacks in Hayes Valley, which is a 15-minute walk through Civic Center (with lots of cool government buildings to see), or a couple stops away on the bus and train. Hayes has lots of nice boutiques as well, so you can take a half-hour or more to explore the shops.
Now, hop on the train down Market to 17th and Castro. Weekend mornings procure a nice bustle in the Castro, and you’ll see lots of people walking their dogs or enjoying coffee. You can point yourself eventually to Unionmade, the best curated menswear shop in California (and maybe the entire U.S.).
This places you right next to Dolores Park. Cue up for an ice cream at Bi Rite or fresh pastries at Tartine Bakery to eat in the park. You can also grab some tall boys from a corner store (leave them wrapped in the paper bags) and crack them open in the park (situated at higher grades, for better views), before you head to lunch. (Yes, more eating.)
Have a stroll down Valencia Street to do more window-shopping, and burn off your snacks before you devour a famous Mission burrito. (The Mission is also where the city’s latin population—primarily Mexican—resides.) It’s always hotly contested as to which burrito is the best, but the votes usually fall in line for La Taqueria (my favorite), El Farolito, Pancho Villa, and Taqueria Cancun. Regardless of where you go, get one with all the fixings, an order of chips and salsa, and some horchata to chase. You might want to loosen your belt as a precaution.
After lunch, hail a car up to the top of Twin Peaks—or walk the hour haul if you need to wear off your burrito. (It’s a beautiful stroll through the residential Castro hills and buzzy Noe Valley, too. Otherwise, give yourself an hour here after Twin Peaks.)
Go freshen up at the hotel, and hop the BART to Downtown Oakland or Berkeley. Unfortunately you won’t have more time to explore either on this short trip, but a dinner and nightcap will partially atone. In Oakland, try Flora or Hopscotch. In Berkeley, you can get your hands dirty at Angeline’s or have the finest meal of your life at Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse (they book one month in advance, so mark your calendar to contact them exactly that long before the date). You can toss back a pint at Berkeley’s notorious Albatross Pub or have something more refined at Make Westing in downtown Oakland.
Hail a car back to “the city”; while it might cost $30-50 to get home, it’s wonderful to experience a drive across the long Bay Bridge, and to see San Francisco glowing on the approach. If you prefer to BART, just know that it closes after midnight, and that service will be intermittent on Sunday evening.
Monday Morning: North Beach and Telegraph Hill
Congrats, you’ve covered the bases. Sure, there’s more, like Alcatraz and Angel Island, or a drive north into the Marin Headlands, Napa and Sonoma, plus a Giants or Warriors game. Build that in if you’ve got more time, or save it for your next visit. (And spend more time over in East Bay.)
As for your final morning, walk yourself back to North Beach, up the bustling Montgomery Avenue as people commute into work. You’ll pass under the Transamerica Pyramid as Montgomery graduates into Columbus. Go first to old Beatnik hangout Caffe Trieste for coffee. If it’s not actually Monday for you, then hop in line early at Mama’s on Washington Square for breakfast. (They’re closed Monday, sadly.) Otherwise, end with another city staple, Mo’s Grill, where they’ll fill you up for your flight home. After breakfast, squeeze in a walk to the top of Telegraph Hill to the base of Coit Tower, which is a memorial to the firemen who battled the city’s five big fires. (It’s shaped like a fire hose.) You’ll get one last perspective on San Francisco—a city of perspectives—until your inevitable return.