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.
3 days aren’t really enough to do San Francisco justice. But if that is all you have, you may as well try to make the most of it. Prepare in advance; reserve tickets for the most popular attractions and stick to a plan, and you’ll be able to see loads.
Continue reading for the best San Francisco 3-day itinerary, packed with useful tips.
The Best Itinerary For 3 Days In San Francisco
The assumption for this itinerary is that you have an entire 3 days in San Francisco, which means you’ll be sleeping there for 3 or 4 nights. Here are some useful tips for you:
HAVE AN EARLY START – Plan to start exploring no later than 8:00 am.
HAVE LUNCH ON THE GO – And a full meal for dinner. You can go to one of San Francisco’s best restaurants.
GET SKIP-THE-LINE-TICKETS – Book tickets for the tourist attractions you want to visit. I’ll tell you which ones require advanced bookings.
VISIT ATTRACTIONS CLOSE TO EACH OTHER – I drafted this itinerary so that you get to visit attractions that are more close to each other on the same day, so as to minimize the use of public transport or taxis.
FOLLOW THE SUGGESTED ROUTE – I will link to an itinerary to follow via Google maps. Get transportation to the starting point and back, if necessary. Download the map so you can use it offline.
You will be out most of the day. If you feel the itinerary is too packed, skip an attraction or two!
Continue reading to discover what to do during your 3 days in San Francisco.
Day 1: The Classics
Map of day 1
Get your map by clicking here.
You can’t visit San Francisco and not go to Alcatraz Island.
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 – among them 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. It even became the subject of some very famous movies, such as Escape from Alcatraz.
Tours of Alcatraz usually start at 10:00 am, you can book yours here.
Ferry Building, Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf
Once you get off the Alcatraz Ferry, you will be on Pier 33 of the Embarcadero. San Francisco Bay Waterfront is a fun place to visit year-round. Walk towards Pier 39, where you will find a great shopping area with shops, bars and restaurants, and even a carousel in the middle, and where the Aquarium by the Bay is located.
Continue on to explore Fisherman’s Wharf, the Historic Waterfront District of San Francisco, where you’ll find some fun things to do. Check out the Musee Mécanique, a fun collection of old-school arcade games. Ghirardelli Square is where admire the famous sea lions.
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, packed with good restaurants. The best clam chowder in town is at Boudin Bakery.
Palace of Fine Arts
On the way to the Palace of Fine Arts, check out Lombard Street, famous for the 8 hairpin turns.
The Palace of Fine Arts 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 exhibits and it’s a popular wedding location.
Lyon Street Steps and Crissy Field
The 322 steps of Lyon Street may be challenging, but you’ll be rewarded with a splendid panorama with views of the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco Bay and the beautiful mansions of the Pacific Heights District.
Crissy Field, in Presidio – the former military post close to the Golden Gate Bridge – is one of the most chilled places in town, perfect to spot some local life.
Day 2: Golden Gate Bridge
Map of day 2
You can download the map for your second day in San Francisco itinerary here.
You can walk this itinerary the other way around if you want to visit Golden Gate Bridge at sunset!
For a truly hassle free day, consider joining a guided tour. Take Walks San Francisco in a Day: Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf & Cable Car Ride is an excellent option. The tour is guided, it lasts 8 hours and costs just $80 USD, and hits all the attractions on this day’s itinerary.
You can book the tour here.
Golden Gate Bridge and cruise
This is one of the unmissable places to visit in San Francisco – head there as early as possible! You can opt to bike across it, or take a cruise – but you simply can’t miss it!
The best views of Golden Gate Bridge are from Torpedo Wharf, which is at water level. Alternatively, you can go to the Postcard Viewpoint. They are less crowded than the main visitor center. For a different perspective and a more local spot, go to Battery Godfrey – the views from there are stunning – or to Marshall Beach or Baker Beach.
North Beach and Coit Tower
North Beach is 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.
After you are down browsing the area, you can walk up to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. It’s also a great sunset spot!
If you have 3 days in San Francisco, you really have to go to Chinatown. Did you know that this 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. It’s also the most densely populated area in the US. There are all sorts of shops – from leather shops to butchers and fruit stalls.
Make sure to visit the Fortune Cookie factory (they were invented there) to learn about the history of this famous cookie. For the best photo, head to Eastern Bakery – between Grant and Commercial St: the combination of Chinese temples pagoda, street sights and lights make it a fabulous spot.
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 and a nice place for sightseeing. You can get there from Chinatown via the famous San Francisco cable car – it’s been running since 1873!
If you like modern art, a stop at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a must. This massive museum was opened in 2016 and its exhibits spans across 7 floors. You’ll find pieces of famous artists including Frida Kahlo.
Day 3: The Quaint Neighborhoods and Golden Gate Park
Map of day 3
You can download the map for your last day in San Francisco itinerary 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 is that right behind them you can see the skyline of San Francisco.
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, which 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. Clarion Alley has some good examples of street art; Mission Dolores Park is a favorite hangout spot especially at weekends – the views from there are breathtaking.
You can book a guided street art and food tour of Mission District here.
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.
Bi-Rite Creamery makes some of the best ice-cream in town and it’s right between Castro and Mission District. Just sayin’!
The Twin Peaks 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.
This 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.
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 must see when you have 3 days in San Francisco.
The park was inaugurated in 1894. It is massive, and inside you’ll find many interesting places to visit.
San Francisco’s Botanical Garden (admission for non-residents is $7 USD) is definitely a place you should consider visiting. Another place you may want to look for is the Dutch Windmill, beautiful when the flowers in the garden are in bloom. The Japanese Garden is packed with Japanese pagodas; there’s a curved bridge and even a nice tea shop.
There also are several museums and galleries inside the park: De Young Museum is an art gallery, and the Tower, from where you can enjoy great views of the park, is free to enter; 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 hang out.
BONUS: The Best Day Trips From San Francisco
If you have more than 3 days in San Francisco, or decide to ditch a few of the attractions recommended, you may be able to go on a day trip or have time for a fun night out.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the most famous national parks in the US, and one of California’s most famous ones. 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.
If you are a wine lover, 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.
For more day trips to Napa Valley, including a stop in Carmel by the Sea, click here.
Enjoy a sports’ night out
San Francisco is home to some of the best football, baseball and basketball teams in the US. Plan to go to a game and get tickets in advance.
Practical Tips For Your 3 Days In San Francisco
Getting a Visa
Unless you hold a US passport, you will need to get an ESTA to enter US territory. This can be easily obtained online and costs around €30 – which includes the processing fees as well.
With an ESTA visa you can enter the country and to spend up to 90 days there. It is usually valid for 2 years – perfect if you are planning to visit the US a few times in a relatively short time period.
You 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
San Francisco is expensive, so you must be prepared to pay a lot of money even for a hostel. If you have just 3 days in town, it’s best you stay centrally. The following are some good places to stay, based on budget:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
How to get to San Francisco
If you land in San Francisco International Airport BART, the trans-bay underground, is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city. It takes just 30 minutes from the airport to downtown.
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.
San Jose International Airport is not as well connected to the city: there is no public transportation so you will have to rent a car.
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.
You can also travel to San Francisco by bus – the best companies are Greyhound or FlixBus.
How to move around San Francisco
If you base yourself downtown you can walk to most places mentioned in this itinerary. To cover longer distances, 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.
The Powell-Hyde cable car (with maroon destination signs), or the Powell-Mason one (with yellow destination signs) are also good ways of moving around and the best part of it is that you can get incredible views of the city from them! Hop on the Powell-Hyde line at Powell & Market: the cable car goes through Russian Hill, past Lombard Street and eventually the views open to show you the entire Bay.
Get a clipper card for the duration of your stay from any pharmacy: it’s a pay as you go system which you can top up when needed. Another option is to get a city pass which includes a three-day MUNI pass and skip-the-line tickets to many attractions. 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
Even if your trip is only a few days long, you are better off getting a good travel insurance.
For more readings about California, make sure to check out my posts:
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
- 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
- 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.