If you are a first-timer and have 3 days in San Francisco, you can see a lot of the city and get a good idea of its atmosphere and of what it has to offer.
Incredibly multi-cultural, with an out of this world art scene, blissfully open-minded and liberal, it’s easy to fall in love with San Francisco. This is one of the most beautiful, lively, interesting cities in the US.
Mind you – I don’t think 3 days in San Francisco will do this city (in fact, to any city!) justice. But if that is all you have, you may as well try to make the most of it.
Having said that, I have good news for you: if you prepare in advance – planning your itinerary, booking entrances to the most popular attractions, sticking to the plan and keeping good timing – you’ll manage to see a lot of the city and you will even get a chance to relax and take in the incredible vibe. And needless to say, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to dine at one of the many fabulous restaurants scattered around town.
What if you have no time to draft an itinerary, or your trip is a very last minute thing though? Worry not – I am here to help! I have put together a great San Francisco 3 day itinerary, which tells you exactly the things to do in San Francisco in 3 days. All you have to do is making reservations for your flights (unless you’ve already done that), your accommodation (I have tips about that, by the way) and the various attractions.
In this post, I will prepare a great San Francisco itinerary which is logic in the sense that you will visit attractions close to each other on the same day, so that you don’t have to count too much on public transportation. I will also share some useful information on where to stay in San Francisco, how to get there and how to move around. And since this is one of the most expensive cities in the world, I will do my best to share some money saving tips.
Continue reading to discover how to make the most of your 3 days in San Francisco.
A Day By Day Itinerary For 3 Days In San Francisco
One thing I want to stress is that if it is your first-time in town and you only have 3 days in San Francisco, but want to see the most popular attractions, you should stick to a planned itinerary. Booking attractions in advance and joining a guided San Francisco tour here and there will help you save some time – and also some money.
I will tell you whenever I believe you need to make advanced reservations or book a guided tour during this San Francisco 3 day itinerary. Follow it religiously, and you’ll have an incredible 3 days in San Francisco.
The assumption of this itinerary that you have at least 3 full days in San Francisco (which implies sleeping there 4 nights, or at least getting there very early on the morning of day one). You’ll need to have an early start every day – it’s tiring, but worth it.
This itinerary allows you to visit attractions that are more close to each other on the same day, so that you can walk from one to the other and minimize the use of public transportation or taxis.
I have included all the things you should to in San Francisco in a short amount of time – those you shouldn’t go home without having seen them. As this itinerary is packed, I recommend eating lunch on the go – grabbing a sandwich or a quick bite – and sitting down for a meal in the evening. You may even want to book your table at one of San Francisco’s best restaurants.
Continue reading to discover what to do during your 3 days in San Francisco.
Day 1: The Classics
This 3 days in San Francisco itinerary starts with what – in my opinion – are the unmissable attractions. Your first stop is Alcatraz. You will visit the Ferry Building, and finish at the Golden Gate Bridge, where I recommend going on a sunset cruise.
Map of day 1 San Francisco itinerary
To give you a better idea of the itinerary you need to follow, I have created a map that you can see on Google Maps by clicking here. You’ll be able to get exact directions from one place to the other, places to visit along the itinerary – in case you feel like adding to it!; where to stop for a bite or a drink along the way. Feel free to remove places you are not interested in, or to add to the itinerary and make it even more packed.
You can’t visit San Francisco and not go to Alcatraz Island – that’s why I am recommending it as your very first stop. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was a maximum security prison, located on an island in San Francisco Bay. The prison was built in 1910 – 1912 as a military prison; it became a federal prison in 1934 and operated until March 1963, when it was closed due to the very high maintenance costs.
Throughout time, Alcatraz held some of America’s most ruthless criminals – one of them being Al Capone – who were moved there since the waters of San Francisco Bay area are so cold, and the currents so strong that it was impossible to escape the island. It even became the subject of some very famous movies, such as Escape from Alcatraz.
Read about Robben Island, Cape Town’s prison island, in my post “17 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Cape Town.”
Tours of Alcatraz usually start at 10:00 am, but if you are willing to pay more you can even enter as early as 8:00. This more expensive option means having the place to yourself.
The following are the best tour options – all of them also include a San Francisco tour:
- VIP Alcatraz Early Access and City Cable Car Tour – this is the only tour that lets you on the island as early as 8:00 am. It’s worth it if you have limited time and want to visit as many places as possible in one day.
- Straight to the Gate – escape from the Rock Bay Area cruise
- San Francisco grand city tour with Alcatraz ticket
- Alcatraz Island and hop on hop off tour
- San Francisco VIP segway tour with Alcatraz ticket combo
Ferry Building, Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf
Once you get off the Alcatraz Ferry, you will be on Pier 33 of the Embarcadero. This is your chance to go for a walk along that area, which basically is San Francisco Bay Waterfront (but if you are lazy you can take the street car to the other end!) and a fun place to visit year-round.
Make sure to walk towards Pier 39, where you will find a great shopping area. That’s also where the Aquarium by the Bay and the sea lion colony are located, so you may want to pop in to take a look at these wonderful animals.
Continue on to explore Fisherman’s Wharf – it’s a must-do if you have 3 days in San Francisco. Yes, it is very touristy and quite crowded – but there’s a good reason for that. This is the Historic Waterfront District of San Francisco, where you’ll find some fun things to do, and an infinity of good restaurants. Make sure to stop by Pier 39, a fun mix of souvenir shops, bars, restaurants and even a carousel in the middle; Ghirardelli Square, and to admire the famous sea lions.
TIP: Avoid eating at Pier 39 if you are on a budget – with tourists also come very high prices. A better option may be Ghirardelli Square, home of the famous Chocolate Company, and the Ferry Building, which is packed with good restaurants.
Money Splurging TIP: If, on the other hand, budget is not an issue, head straight to Boudin Bakery for the best clam chowder you’ll ever have; or to Scoma, a fantastic fish and seafood restaurant.
You can book a good guided tour of Fisherman’s Wharf here.
Palace of Fine Arts
This is one of the most iconic buildings in San Francisco. Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, rebuilt in 1965 and having undergone several restoration works (both for the building and the garden surrounding it), it now hosts art exhibition and it’s a popular wedding location.
TIP: Make sure to check out Lombard Street on your way to the Palace of Fine Arts! For reference, Lombard Street is the one with the 8 hairpin turns.
Lyon Street Steps
You could head straight to Crissy Field if you want, but it’d be a pity to miss the incredible views from Lyon Street Steps. These 322 steps may be challenging, but you’ll be rewarded with a splendid panorama which includes the nearby Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco Bay and the beautiful mansions of the Pacific Heights District. A nice addition to your 3 days in San Francisco itinerary, don’t you think?
Crissy Field is one of the most chilled places in San Francisco – the kind of place where you’ll see people waking their dog, families with children, and people running or exercising. It will be a nice place to relax and spot some local life before heading to the final stop for the day.
Golden Gate Bridge and cruise
Much like Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge is a top tourist attraction in San Francisco and you simply can’t miss it – it has to be included in any 3 days in San Francisco itinerary. Whether you look at it from above, on a helicopter tour, from below, from a cruise, or opt for a more eco-friendly option and ride a bike or walk across it (there are a bike lane and a pedestrian walkway along the entire length of the bridge), you just have to go.
If you want, you can even treat yourself to a cruise or a tour that take you across the bridge. I have selected the best:
- Golden Gate Bay cruise
- Golden Gate Bridge Tour: Taking History to New Heights
- San Francisco sunset cruise by luxury catamaran
Day 2: The Quaint Neighborhoods
Your second of your 3 days in San Francisco will be just as packed and it is all about walking and enjoying the views. You’ll finish off at Coit Tower, from where you’ll be able to admire a fabulous sunset. Make sure to head out nice and early.
Map of day 2 San Francisco itinerary
You can download the map for your second day in San Francisco itinerary here.
The Haight-Ashbury district is where the hippie movement was born in the 1960s; the home of the counterculture movement. This is the area that helped spur the Summer of Love of 1967. It now is a very interesting neighborhood to explore (especially for hippies and pot smokers), with Victorian buildings, vintage shops, record stores, eateries and cool cafés and an overall artsy vibe which is probably just a reminiscence of what it used to be in its heyday.
If you want, you can even go on a guided tour of Haight-Ashbury – The Counter Culture Tour: Haight & Ashbury’s Summer of Love.
If I read the name Twin Peaks my mind inevitably runs to the 1990s TV show that kept me awake at night as a teenager. In San Francisco, Twin Peaks actually are two hills from where you can get incredible views of San Francisco. You can hike up or – if you are in a rush – take an Uber. Since the views are so nice I thought I’d add it to your 3 days in San Francisco itinerary – even though it is not among the most well-known attractions.
Castro is so close to Haight-Ashbury and on the way to Mission Dolores Park, so I thought I’d add it to this 3 days in San Francisco itinerary. This is the gay neighborhood of San Francisco. Among its landmarks there are the rainbow crosswalk and the Castro Theater, as well as the GLBT Historical Society Museum. You’ll also find plenty of interesting shops, good cafés, great bars and nice restaurants. If you want, you can even join a guided tour of Castro. You can book it here.
GOOD TO KNOW: Bi-Rite Creamery makes some of the best ice-cream in town and it’s right between Castro and Mission District. Just sayin’!
Mission Dolores Park and the Mission District
The Mission District is a cool place to get a proper idea of the mixture of Mexican and American cultures in San Francisco. It was once known as the Mission Lands, referring to the lands that were part of the Misión San Francisco de Asís and named after Mission Dolores Parish, which was built in 1776.
It’s an interesting neighborhood to explore, which has retained its Latino character despite its gentrification. Make sure to admire the street art on Clarion Alley and to pass by Mission Dolores Park, a favorite hangout spot especially at weekends – the views from there are absolutely breathtaking.
You can book a guided street art and food tour of Mission District here.
Alamo Square’s ‘Painted Ladies’
If you think about San Francisco, the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square definitely come to mind. These houses – which became even more famous than they already where with the TV show Full house – are beautiful, colorful examples of Victorian style architecture, and what’s even better about them is that right behind them you can see the skyline of San Francisco.
If you like modern art, a stop at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a must – skip it if it is not your thing. This massive museum was opened in 2016 and its exhibits spans across 7 floors. You’ll find pieces of famous artists including Frida Kahlo. You can book your visit here or here.
Union Square is mostly a shopping hub, with department stores and designer boutiques, art galleries and plenty of nice cafés. This part of town is always busy with life, but also extremely expensive, so I don’t really recommend to do anything other than sightseeing.
From there, you can also hop on the famous San Francisco cable car to get to Chinatown. It’s a short ride, really – but this is an unmissable (albeit touristy) thing to do that. Just so you know, those cable cars have been running since 1873!
If you have 3 days in San Francisco, you really have to go to Chinatown. Did you know that San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the oldest around? It was created in 1848 and since then the Chinese community has become an integral part of local society. This is also the most densely populated area in the US (I was honestly convinced that would be Manhattan!). In Chinatown, you will be entertained by all sorts of shops – from leather shops to butchers and fruit stalls.
Make sure to visit the Fortune Cookie factory (San Francisco is where these popular cookies were invented) to learn about the history of this famous cookie, and if you have time join a guided food tour of Chinatown. You can book it here.
North Beach and Coit Tower
One thing I have noticed traveling around the US is that Chinatown and Little Italy are often right next to each other. San Francisco is no different. Close to Chinatown there’s North Beach, aka San Francisco’s Little Italy, where the Italian American influence is still very much a thing. It’s the kind of place where you’ll find all sorts of Italian grocery stores and bakeries, as well as Italian-American restaurants.
If you fancy trying the best specialties, you can join a North Beach and Little Italy guided food tour, which you can book here.
The best day to end this day of exploration is by walking up to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. If you make it in time, hang out for sunset as the views are splendid.
Day 3: Finally chill!
Your last day in San Francisco will be a much more relaxed one and for once you don’t have to head out at the crack of dawn (unless you are leaving that night, in which case an early start is recommended). You will visit the fabulous Golden Gate Park and hang out at Ocean Beach.
Map of day 3 San Francisco itinerary
You can download the map for your final day in San Francisco itinerary here.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco what Central Park is to New York: it’s biggest, most impressive city park. It definitely is a nice addition to your San Francisco 3 day itinerary and a real must-see, and you can easily spend half-day there.
Golden Gate Park, which was inaugurated in 1894, is massive, and inside you’ll find San Francisco’s Botanical Garden (admission for non-residents is $7 USD), as well as a few museums: De Young Museum is an art gallery, whereas the California Academy of Sciences includes a fantastic planetarium and is known for its hands-on activities. The only downside is that they are both quite expensive – but honestly, the California Academy is oh so worth it.
Lands End and Ocean Beach
Lands End is another beautiful park of San Francisco, where you will find a nice network of walking trails along the cliffs. The views of the ocean from there are stunning, and you can even see the remains of the Sutro Baths, a complex of public saltwater swimming pools.
Ocean Beach is the longest beach of San Francisco, a place where locals go to surf and even just hang out.
BONUS: The Best Day Trips From San Francisco
If you have a bit more time in San Francisco, or decide to ditch a few of the attractions recommended, you may even include a day trip out of the city even if you only spend 3 days in San Francisco. The ones below are the most popular ones.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the US most famous national parks. It honestly deserves more than a day, but if that is all you have you may as well go. Visit it for a chance to admire the giant sequoias. If you need a guided tour you may want to consider this one.
Another beautiful place that can be easily explored on day trips from San Francisco is Muir Woods, home of the Californian Redwood trees. There are several tours departing daily from San Francisco, such as this one.
If you are a wine lover, then drop all other options and head straight to Napa and Sonoma Valley for a wine tasting tour. A guided tour such as this one will allow you to learn about the process of wine making and will obviously include several tastings.
Practical Tips For Your 3 Days In San Francisco
Getting a Visa
The first thing you need to consider before planning your trip to San Francisco (or to anywhere else in the United States) is that, unless you hold a US passport, you will need to get an ESTA. This can be easily obtained online and it usually has a cost of around €30 – which includes the processing fees as well.
An ESTA visa will grant you the right to enter the country and to spend up to 90 days there. It is usually valid for 2 years, which is perfect if you are planning to visit the US a few times in a relatively short time period.
Keep in mind you will need and ESTA even if you only intend to transit through the US on your way to another country.
Where to stay in San Francisco
There is no other way to put it: San Francisco is expensive, and so are hotels there. Be prepared to pay a lot of money even for a hostel. I have selected the best places to stay in town, based on budget options, for your 3 days in San Francisco.
- The Fairmont Heritage Place Ghirardelli Square is an absolutely plush aparthotel with one, two and three bedroom apartments – some with bay area views. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- White Swan Inn is located in Union Square. The beautiful, spacious rooms are decorated in classic style. Breakfast is included in the price. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel, in Union Square, has very basic private rooms as well as dorms. Breakfast is included in the price. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Guided Tours of San Francisco
This self-guided itinerary should take you around town, but a guided tour of San Francisco may be a good way to explore the city in a short time, or a good introduction to all that it has to offer if you only have 3 days in San Francisco. This San Francisco in a Day: Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf & Cable Car Ride is a great option.
When to visit San Francisco
San Francisco can get really crowded with tourists in the summer months, and very cold in the winter ones. That’s why I think the best time to visit is shoulder season, in the fall (with October and early November being the best choices) or Spring (March, April and May).
How to get to San Francisco
There are many ways to get to San Francisco!
In case you are flying, chances are you will be landing in San Francisco International Airport. BART, the trans-bay underground, connects San Francisco airport with the city. This is the most budget friendly way of getting to town and it takes just 30 minutes from the airport to downtown. You can buy your BART transfer here.
Oakland International Airport, located in the Oakland area, is where budget friendly airlines go and it’s also connected to downtown via the BART – it’s a 45 minutes ride.
Finally, you can fly to San Jose International Airport. However, this is not as well connected to the city: there is no public transportation to take you to downtown, but if you are renting a car anyways it may make sense.
By bus or train
The Amtrak train gets to San Francisco and stops in Jack London Square (from where you can take a ferry to downtown) and in Oakland.
Other options to travel to San Francisco include the bus – you can pick among many companies, including Greyhound or FlixBus.
How to move around San Francisco
Moving around San Francisco if fairly easy and if you base yourself downtown you can walk to most places. If you want to cover longer distances during your 3 days in San Francisco, you can count on the city’s bus system, MUNI, which is fairly cheap. BART, the trans-bay underground, is faster – but it doesn’t cover the entire city.
You will also want to use the Powell-Hyde cable car (which you will recognize by the maroon destination signs), or the Powell-Mason one (which on the other hand has yellow destination signs).
One-way tickets easily add up and the cost of moving around may become quite consistent. Make sure to get a clipper card for your 3 days in San Francisco – it’s easy enough to get at any pharmacy, and it’s a pay as you go system which you can top up when needed.
Another option for your 3 days in San Francisco may be to get a city pass which includes a three-day MUNI pass and skip-the-line tickets to many attractions. Keep in mind that you will need to get your BART ticket from the airport separately. You can get your San Francisco CityPass here.
The best app for car rides is Uber.
Other useful tips
Further readings about San Francisco
A guide book may be a good way to look for information when you don’t have quick access to the internet. These are the best travel guide books around:
Further readings about California
For more readings about California, make sure to check out my posts:
- 33 Unmissable Things To Do In California
- The 10 Best Places To Visit In California (That Aren’t Just Cities)
Are you visiting other places in the US? You may want to find inspiration in my other posts:
- 35 Things To Do In New York City
- A Complete Guide To Visiting The Statue Of Liberty
- A Great Itinerary For A Week In New York
- A Wonderful Itinerary For A Day In New York
- The Perfect Itinerary To See New York In 2 Days
- A Fabulous Itinerary For 3 Days In New York
- An Easy To Follow Itinerary For 4 Days In New York
- 5 Days In New York: An Easy To Follow New York Itinerary
- 10 Things To Do For A Fabulous Trip To Miami
- The best cities to fall in love with the United States
- 10 Not To Miss Hikes Near Denver
- The 23 Best National Parks In USA
Legal Disclaimer: this post is written in partnership with e-visa. The views expressed are my own.
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