3 Days in San Francisco Travel Guide
San Francisco, California, famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, is a popular and widely traveled destination in the United States. From historic sites, to its diverse culture scene, there is a lot to pack in this small peninsula. This post here is my 3 Days in San Francisco Travel Guide to help you make the most of a long weekend in the Golden City.
While you can spend a whole month discovering San Francisco, in 3 days you can explore popular sites, take the amazing tours, and eat delicious food. Hitting landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the boat tour to Alcatraz, and eating dim sum in Chinatown, are all that are musts for your first time to this city. If you’re able to spend more time in San Francisco, there are even other destinations that are driving distance such as Napa Valley.
Whether you’re coming for the sites or good weather, San Francisco is a must visit location for any different type of traveler. Check out this post for when to go, where to stay, how to get around, what to expect, and what to do when planning your trip to 3 days in San Francisco!
Here is my Ultimate 3-Day San Francisco Travel Guide to start planning your trip!
When to go...
San Francisco is a year-round destination, there is no wrong time to visit. California is known for its amazing weather. Planning what you want to do and what you want to avoid is the first step to picking the best time for your visit!
Fall is usually the best time to visit San Francisco. The weather is often the warmest during this time, staying in the 70s. With sunny skies and little to no rain, the temperature combined with limited tourist traffic is a great time to visit.
Spring is also a good time to visit. Temperatures are a bit cooler than fall, but the tourist traffic is still lower than what it would be in the summer.
Summer is a popular time for tourists to visit San Francisco, or California in general The weather is typically cooler than fall, however, there are also winds and fogs. Be prepared for accommodations to be more expensive and plan ahead when booking.
Winter has winds making the temperature seem cooler than it might be. However, if you don’t mind the cooler temperatures, prices are pretty good deals. Keep in mind that this is the rainy season for San Francisco.
Where to stay...
There are many different areas you can stay in San Francisco. Each neighborhood can vary in vibes, history, weather, and price. It’s important to plan what you want to do, as getting around San Francisco can be a bit hectic. I recommend staying in a hotel as it can be hard to find a short-term Airbnb rental. Below are the three neighborhoods I would choose to stay at!
We stayed at Union Square when the first time we visited San Francisco. This is a popular spot for tourists to stay as it is centrally located, close to transit, and filled with hotels. While it doesn’t have much charm compared to other neighborhoods, we found it easiest to stay here.
The Westin St. Francis on Union Square is an option if you are looking to stay in Union Square. One thing to notes it that most of the hotels in this location are on the upscale side.
North Beach is the Italian American neighborhood in San Francisco. If you choose to stay here, not only will you great views, but you will get to enjoy the great food of Little Italy and Chinatown, as Chinatown is close by.
Haight-Ashbury is probably one of the coolest places to stay in San Francisco. It’s an iconic neighborhood with lots of history. However, it is a big hipster neighborhood, so I would stay away if that’s not your thing.
How to get around...
There are a couple of airports to fly into if you’re staying in San Francisco. SFO, OAK, SJC are three airports that are within less than an hour of getting to San Francisco. When booking flights, I would check all three to see which one has the better price.
While staying in San Francisco, I would resist renting a car. There aren’t many parking spots, and the ones available are expensive. If you’re road tripping in or out of San Francisco, or need to rent a car for a certain reason, you can find rental companies in the city to rent for your arrival or departure of San Francisco.
The Muni bus and metro system, cable cars, PresidiGo Shuttle and ridesharing are common ways to get around San Francisco.
For our short time there, we got around a lot on foot. We also utilized the Hop On Hop Off bus to get to the big tourist sites of the city.
What to expect...
San Francisco is a beautiful place! There aren’t many “rules” you need to know before visiting, however these are a few things to expect.
1. No one calls it San Fran or Frisco, you will be branded as an out of towner if you do!
2. Bring a good pair of walking shoes as you will be walking a lot in the city! Walking is the best way to explore.
3. Bring layers! Even in the fall, which is usually the warmest time of year, it can get chilly in the morning or evening. Temperatures can vary greatly during the day and winds might make it feel cooler than it actually is.
4. Keep in mind that San Francisco has a lot of homeless residents. This might come as a surprise to some visiting the city for the first time. Many are in a dire situation so remember to be compassionate!
Things to Do
There are endless things to do in San Francisco, you will never find yourself looking for something to do. For our first time we got the 2 Day Hop-On, Hop-Off San Francisco Tour. You can find more information about the tickets here. This made it easy to hit the major landmarks and get around the town.
I’ve mapped out things to do during the day. You can switch up activities based on what works for you. This is the itinerary we followed when we went, and it worked well for us!
Day 1 (Morning) - Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful historic building built in Roman style of architecture. You can walk around the palace, admire the work, and sit by the pond with ducks and other sorts of animals. This is another great place for taking photos. Next time we come, we want to come back at night as the Palace lights up making it great for additional photos.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, about 10 minutes away is Lucasfilm. If you search around enough you can find the Yoda Fountain.
Walt Disney Museum and Fort Point are other nearby attractions if you’re interested.
From the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field is a 20-minute walk. The grass fields and sandy beaches have different trails and offer more view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Day 1 (Afternoon) - Golden Gate Bridge
You can’t go to San Francisco and not see the Golden Gate Bridge! Whether you drive through, walk or bike it is a must do on your visit.
We recommend public transit (or the Hop On Hop Off pass if you get it) as parking is limited. If you’re coming from Cirssy Field, the Welcome Center is a 15-minute walk. From the Welcome Center, you can walk 1.7 miles, which takes about 35 minutes and get to the Vista Point. This is a great place to get your photos! At the Vista Point you can catch another Hop On Hop Off bus back down.
Note that the best time to visit the Golden Gate Bridge is in the late afternoon (after 3:30 PM), typically when the fogs have settled. Plus, the cyclists will be on the other side of the bridge, and there is better lighting during this time!
Day 1 (Evening) - Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is popular to tourists and locals alike, making it a must do on your visit to San Francisco. Be prepared for crowds and tourists, the atmosphere is lively and exciting!
Pier 39 is fun for adults and kids alike. Be sure to check out the sea lions basking in the sun. We chowed down on clam chowder for dinner here, and it did not disappoint.
If you’re feeling for a sweet treat, head to Ghirardelli Square for delicious desserts.
Day 2 (Morning) - North Beach / Chinatown
The great thing about both these locations is that they are super close to each other. Start the morning walking around Washington Square and grab breakfast. You can then head to Coit Tower where you take an elevator to the top and enjoy 360-degree views of the city. This is the perfect time to grab an espresso as you take the 20-minute walk to Chinatown.
Once in Chinatown you can explore the alleyways and shops. Don’t forget to eat some dim sum!
Day 2 (Afternoon) - Lombard Street
You can kill two birds with one stone by taking the cable car to Lombard Street. The Powell-Hyde line from Chinatown will take you to Lombard Street. Riding the streetcar is an experience you should have while in San Francisco.
The cable car will bring you to the top and you can walk down the steps. Once at the bottoms be sure to grab a picture of the winding steps going to the top.
Day 2 (Evening) - Alcatraz Tour
This was the one thing we were unable to do on our most recent visit, however I have it at the top because I have only heard so many good things about it. A boat tour to Alcatraz Island, the infamous federal prison, is on the top of my list the next time I go.
You can purchase tickets for tours here. Make sure to plan when booking. If you’re able, the night tour is supposed to be a unique experience!
Day 3 (Morning) - Mission District / Haight-Ashbury
Start your morning in the Mission District! The Mission District is an evolving neighborhood with Latin roots and a hipster vibe. Walk around and check out restaurants, lounges, stores, and murals. Be sure to try the famous Mission-style burritos. If you’re into nightclubs, they have some good ones here as well.
Not too far away is another lively neighborhood, Haight-Ashbury. This neighborhood is known more for its hipster and counterculture vibes. Spend some time strolling the shops, Victorian buildings, murals, and foods!
Day 3 (Afternoon) - Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park can easily be a whole day’s worth of activities. The park is huge and filled with different sections. However, you can easily go and just walk around. We strolled around the main part of the park. A few attractions require payment, plan accordingly if you want to visit one of them.
We saw the Japanese Tea Garden and thought it was very beautiful and filled with lots of history!
Day 3 (Evening) - Painted Ladies
Located in Alamo Square, the Painted Ladies are some of the most famous houses in the world. You will find tons of people taking photographs here. The best time to grab a photo of the beautiful Victorian architecture is when the sun is setting.
If you want to tackle on an extra adventure, about a 20-minute walk away is the “Full House” House if you want to grab a picture!