July 9, 2022
San Francisco in 3 days
3 days is the typical time frame that visitors dedicate to San Francisco. In this article, I will try to detail what I think is the best route to visit San Francisco in 3 days, designed not only to see the so-called must-see attractions but also to experience the city more fully. San Francisco is in fact a city with a unique atmosphere and should be explored in-depth to capture its most authentic personality.
Day 1: Downtown and the Hills of San Francisco
On the first day, you’ll explore the city’s main neighborhoods and viewpoints on foot. You will only take public transport once but, as we’ll see, San Francisco is the only city in the world that can turn a cable car into a real attraction.
There’s no better way to start the day than with a good breakfast, especially in a beautiful setting like the market at the Ferry Building in Embarcadero. Within this famous market you’ll find a wide selection, which will increase even more on the days when the farmers’ market is set up in the square in front (Ferry Plaza Farmers Market). I suggest you sit at a small table on the pier to have your breakfast, where you can hear seagulls, feel the morning breeze, and watch street musicians in an exceptional atmosphere.
After breakfast, cross Embarcadero Plaza and go on Clay Street. As you keep going, you’ll begin to catch a glimpse of the Transamerica Pyramid, a true symbol of the Financial District and the San Francisco skyline.
As soon as you reach the Transamerica Pyramid, turn right onto Montgomery Street and then continue on Columbus Avenue to reach North Beach, a neighborhood with many features that make it worth visiting. First of all, it has Italian roots, as testified by a large number of cafes and restaurants (such as Vesuvio or Caffè Trieste), but that’s not all. Here there are also still traces left by the Beat Generation, starting from the City Lights Bookstore, the hub of alternative culture at the time of the Beat movement, the museum dedicated to the movement (Beat Museum), and an entire alley full of murals dedicated to Kerouac (Jack Kerouac Alley).
On Broadway, in the same area where you’ll find the Beat Museum, you can’t help but notice some large, clearly visible signs, which are reminders of (around the mid-80s) the famous Barbary Coast red light district that was located here.
Now go back south, because there are 2 other interesting areas, which are Chinatown, the largest Chinese community in America, and Union Square, one of San Francisco’s iconic squares. Heading south on Kearny Street, you’ll come across Portsmouth Square, the perfect place to watch the daily traffic flow of the Chinese neighborhood, and a prelude to Grant Avenue, one of the main arteries of Chinatown, where the Dragon’s Gate is also located.
Once past the picturesque arch, you’ll notice a change in the scenery. Dragons and red lanterns will give way to famous brands and boutiques. You will soon arrive at Union Square, the vital center of the city, where you will see the Victory Goddess monument right in the middle of the square (Dewey Monument).
After taking a stroll around the square, it’s time to take a break. Head about 3 blocks south to the cable car stop (Powell St & Market St ), which is not only a convenient means of transportation, but an attraction in itself. Take the red Powell/Hyde line and get ready for a very special trip.
Get off at Lombard Street & Hyde Street, on Russian Hill, to admire the first nice view of the day (it’s only the first in a long series). Below you’ll see a unique winding flower-filled street winding. This is Lombard Street. Walk down Lombard Street and from there continue your walk up Jones Street. After about 3 blocks, you will reach Macondray Lane, a small alleyway and historical site that passes by gardens and private homes.
You will then continue on a wooden walkway that can be crossed in a few minutes to enjoy a beautiful view of Coit Tower. This will be exciting especially for fans of Armistead Maupin, whose Barbary Lane from the book “Tales of the City” is inspired by this small street.
Not far from Coit Tower there is Ina Coolbrith Park, a small city park not frequented often by tourists, where you can enjoy a remarkable view of Downtown San Francisco. This is one of your best places to take a picture of the San Francisco Skyline, so do not miss this opportunity!
So far in this itinerary, you have caught glimpses of Coit Tower, the final destination of the day. It is an observation tower on Telegraph Hill, the hill facing Russian Hill. To reach it, you’ll cross Washington Square, one of the liveliest squares in North Beach (yes, you cross through this neighborhood again), where you will notice Saint Peter and Paul Church.
The easiest (and least tiring) way to get to Coit Tower is to climb up Greenwich Street (as shown on the map above), but on the way down the hill I suggest you take the Filbert Steps or Greenwich Steps, which lead through pretty gardens and private residences.
Once you get to the base of the tower you can already enjoy a beautiful view, in addition to the beautiful murals inside the tower. To climb to the top (by elevator) you will need to buy a ticket.
Day 2: Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf
The second day is dedicated to Alcatraz and the lively neighborhood of Fisherman’s Wharf, with 2 little treats at the end that are not very well known.
The morning, or a good part of it, will be spent visiting Alcatraz, so I suggest you plan to spend about 3 hours between boarding the boat, visiting the island, and the return trip (even if the trip to and from the island lasts only about fifteen minutes, keep in mind that ferries leave the island every half hour). To board the boat, you must go to Pier 33.
Once back on the mainland, walk along the bay until you reach Pier 39, the most commercial soul of Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic wharf of San Francisco, that has become one of the city’s most vital gathering places. At Pier 39 you can have fun entering its bizarre shops and see the sea lions sunbathing on the piers. Continue along the bay and you will find yourself surrounded by many attractions from historic ships to unique museums. You could spend hours here without realizing it.
You will eventually make your way to Ghirardelli Square, the historic square with shops and restaurants where you will find the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, founded in the mid-nineteenth century and now a historic landmark of San Francisco.
After walking through Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s time to go to the next stop – one of the most iconic cafes of San Francisco – Buena Vista Café. It’s a must stop while in the city. You will find there amazing atmosphere and unbeatably best Irish coffee you have ever tried.
To get to the last stop of the day you will have to take public transportation or you can continue on foot. Taking the 30 Stockton bus (about a 15- minute ride) is one of the most convenient ways to reach one of the most beautiful monuments of San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts, which was used as a location for the movie “The Rock”.
Day 3: The Golden Gate Bridge and Residential Neighborhoods
For the last day of the trip, we saved the undisputed symbol of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the famous red bridge over the bay. There are many ways to visit the Golden Gate Bridge. You can get there by car, by bus, or by bike. I recommend the third option. “Crossing” the red bridge over the bay by bike is one of the most pleasant memories I cherish of the city.
The next stop is Alamo Square, the square near the famous Painted Ladies. The hill in the park is the perfect spot to take one of the most classic pictures of San Francisco.
After taking pictures, you will head to another residential neighborhood that is rich in history – intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Street, the heart of Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood where the Hippie movement was born. House in which Jimi Hendrix lived is in this neighborhood. To reach it from Alamo Square you can continue with your bike, take a nice walk (about 20 minutes), or use the bus (on the 21st).
Finally, if you have time and energy left, you can take a walk in the neighboring Golden Gate Park, one of San Francisco’s great parks, so rich in attractions that it deserves almost a day to itself (you should consider it if you have a fourth day of sightseeing available).