Heading to California and wondering what to do, and what you must absolutely check out, this 3 days in San Francisco itinerary and travel guide has you covered.
3 days in San Francisco Itinerary: Travel Guide and tips
San Francisco, or the City by the Bay, is a peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. It’s known for the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and its LBGT-friendly mindset. The city has the second-largest community in the Chinatown area in all of the US – right after New York.
The city was founded overnight in 1848 by the large-scale migration of people from all over the world, also known as the 49ers after the first gold was found. In eight years, over 300,000 people migrated to San Fran during the California gold rush.
San Francisco is a very progressive city, 3 days in this open-minded place is sure to broaden your horizons. The hippie movement emerged here in 1960, and all around the city, you’ll notice a culture of tolerance and free love.
The city is home to a variety of backgrounds and cultures and has countless good restaurants and great shopping districts. It’s jam-packed with wonderful activities – find out more about all the top things to do during 3 days in San Francisco below.
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Travel Tips for San Francisco 3 day itinerary
GETTING TO SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco is served by the San Francisco International Airport, also known as SFO (for San Francisco and Oakland for San Francisco International Airport). You can easily fly there from other cities in the United States, or from Europe and Asia.
Belgian citizens need an ESTA, for a maximum stay of 90 days. You can apply for the ESTA online. Your passport needs to be valid during your stay.
We stayed 3 days in San Francisco during our USA West Coast road trip. You can also travel to San Francisco by road, and add a road trip from Las Vegas, Nevada or explore more of Northern California from SF.
You can also travel to San Francisco by train or bus via Amtrak. Amtrak makes stops in Jack London Square in Oakland, and from there you can catch a ferry to downtown San Francisco. Or hop on a bus via Greyhound, or FlixBus and connect to San Francisco from Oakland.
HOW TO MOVE AROUND SAN FRANCISCO
With two million inhabitants, San Francisco is surprisingly not super large, but you will rapidly cover a lot of miles. The best way to explore the city is on foot or by bike, which you can rent for $32 a day at Ferry Buildings Bike Rentals. Reserve your bike online in advance to save 20%!
The city also has an excellent network of cable cars, subways, and buses. Try to avoid getting around by car. If needed, it’s better to opt for an Uber.
WHEN’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SAN FRANCISCO?
Although the city is in sunny California, the temperature can fluctuate at times. You’ve got the best chance of enjoying pleasant weather between June and October. The rest of the year is markedly colder and there is a lot more rainfall.
San Fran is a windy city, so always quite a bit cooler than the actual temperature dictates. A wind jacket is recommendable all year round.
Where to stay in San Francisco Travel Guide
Four days and three nights are recommended to fully discover the city. Make sure you book your hotel well in advance – as San Francisco is expensive!
If you’re cautious, try to avoid the Tenderloin neighborhood if possible. The neighborhood has a large population of homeless, drug users, and people living in poverty.
In 2008, a type of plague broke out due to the number of droppings on the street, and every month 1200 (!) drug syringes are collected off the streets. In short, it’s probably a neighborhood that you would rather not walk through, certainly not with small children and definitely not at night.
The safest neighborhood in town is Nob Hill, which is located near the financial district and South Beach. Crime rates are the lowest in this area.
The downtown area is also a good neighborhood to consider if you like to stay at the heart of the city.
Here are a couple of hotels that will ensure you have a pleasant stay in San Francisco:
FAIRMONT SAN FRANCISCO
With its excellent location in the heart of Nob Hill, this hotel is an absolute must. The classic and luxurious rooms will give you a well-deserved night’s sleep. More info and booking can be found here.
HANDLERY UNION SQUARE HOTEL
Looking for a hotel with a pool? Handlery Union Square Hotel is definitely worth a shot. It’s handily located between the nicest shops and finest breakfast spots in the city. More info and booking can be found here.
INTERCONTINENTAL MARK HOPKINS SAN FRANCISCO
The InterContinental Mark Hopkins in San Francisco offers modern but elegant accommodation options. This towering historic landmark on Nob Hill has a penthouse restaurant, with sweeping views over San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are cable car stops just outside the hotel. More info and booking can be found here.
CABLE CAR HOTEL
Looking for a slightly cheaper stay in Nob Hill? Cable Car Hotel is an excellent choice. Cable Car Hotel offers rooms with a private or shared bathroom – and it has a tram stop right outside the door! More info and booking can be found here.
Top Things to do during a long weekend in San Francisco 3 days
Day 1 of 3 day San Francisco Itinerary
On day one of your 3 day San Francisco itinerary, visit the iconic landmarks of the city such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Park area, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and finish the night with some shopping at Union Square.
Visit the iconic Golden Gate Bridge
A trip to San Francisco is only complete when you have walked or cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was on both of our bucket lists and we really enjoyed the trip. You can cross the bridge by car, by bicycle or on foot.
There are special lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, which makes crossing the bridge super pleasant.
Tip: Visit the bridge in the early morning or late afternoon. It’s one of the top attractions, so you need to make sure to avoid the crowds as much as possible.
We rode across the bridge on bikes, and I can assure you that I had goosebumps during our ride.
Explore the Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a lovely addition to your stay in San Francisco. Take into account the amount of time it takes to properly explore the huge Golden Gate Park.
The park includes the California Academy of Sciences with a fantastic planetarium and the Japanese Tea Garden. The entrance prices for both attractions are quite expensive, but the park is still definitely worth a visit nevertheless!
If you are a Disney fan, do stop by the Walt Disney Museum. This museum showcases the life and legacy of Walt Disney. The entry fee is about $20+ USD for adults.
Crissy Field is also a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is a former U.S. Army airfield, closed after 1974.
Depending on the weather on your day of the visit, take a walk along with the Crissy Field, and snap photos of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
From the Golden Gate Bridge, head to the must-do Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s classic tourist-oriented USA to the extreme, but you simply cannot skip it.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the Historic Waterfront District of San Francisco. Not only will you find many typical restaurants and souvenir shops here, but you can also spot dozens of sea lions sunbathing alongside Pier 39! As the Bay area is protected, these funny animals always have enough food.
Book this 2.50-hour tour of Fisherman’s Wharf.
Top tip: Visit Alioto’s Restaurant, the oldest food establishment in town. It’s a historical restaurant, located in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The crab and seafood stew with a spicy tomato sauce is the specialty of the house.
You can also visit the Ferry Building Marketplace, and I am sure you will find some cafe or restaurant that will delight you. Tons of places to eat here.
Also, located very close to the Fisherman’s Wharf is Ghirardelli Square. This 3 level restaurant is a must-stop for ice cream and chocolate lovers. There is a 5-star hotel in the Marina area as well.
Take a ferry ride to Alcatraz
Alcatraz needs to be at the top of your San Francisco bucket list as well. The infamous prison, where notorious gangsters such as Al Capone and Bumpy Johnson were detained, will give you goosebumps.
Take an audio guide for the full experience to listen to all mesmerizing stories. You can book your tickets online. The ticket revenues are used for the maintenance of the national parks and the audio guides are included in the entrance fee.
You might like this tour: Bike tour and trip to Alcatraz.
Day 2 of San Francisco Itinerary 3 days
Ride the San Francisco cable car
A ride on one of the world-famous cable cars should definitely be near the top of your to-do list when in San Francisco!
The city is very hilly (some hills can go up to 300 meters high). The cable car system was designed in the late 19th century, and the cable trams still run through the city for 20 hours a day.
They are without a doubt moving monuments – although these days it’s a challenge to keep the trams moving with the influx of cars and cyclists. The cable cars are still steered manually and controlled mechanically.
The ordinary trams in this city are also an eye-catcher, as they’re brought from all over the world to be used here (there’s a good chance that you might ride on a tram from Rome or Paris!).
If you’re intrigued and want to know more, make sure you visit the Cable Car Museum.
Drive through Lombard Street
Take a trip up to one of the most famous views in the city. Lombard Street is a very steep street with many turns – try not to get too sick if you drive through it by car!
Visit the Painted Ladies at Alamo Square Park in the evening
Hang out at Alamo Square Park with its beautiful view of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ in the evening. You may recognize the Painted Ladies from the opening theme of the original 90’s TV series ‘Full House’.
It’s probably one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco, and they’re definitely some of the most famous houses in the world.
Book this tour to explore the neighborhood with a local guide.
Day 3 of 3 day San Francisco itinerary
Day three in San Francisco is all about exploring the cultural scene of the city
Check out the SFMOMA
If you like modern art, a stop at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a must. This massive museum was opened in 2016 and its exhibits span across 7 floors. You can book your tickets online in advance.
Visit the Haight Ashbury district
The birthplace of the hippie movement in 1960, known worldwide as the Summer of Love. On every corner of the street, you will find keepsakes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. There are also plenty of interesting record shops and trendy food joints.
An alternative option is to visit the Mission District, which is one of San Francisco’s prettiest neighborhoods. There are beautiful boutiques, restaurants, and more.
Wander the Castro District
Visit Castro district, the heart of the LGBT movement. In this part of the city, rainbow flags hang from almost every facade. Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was founded here, the now world-famous organization that is committed to raising money for HIV-related matters.
Castro is regarded by many as the gay capital of the world!
Relax at Ocean Beach in the evening
San Francisco also has some wonderful beaches. Ocean Beach is the largest beach in the city, and it’s the perfect spot to hang out on a sunny day.
The long stretch of city coastline is the ideal place for surfing – but there’s nothing wrong with just relaxing on the lovely beach and spending the day doing nothing.
Alternative Option: Another option is to visit North Beach. North Beach is a neighborhood in the northeast of San Francisco. It is located close to Chinatown, so you can explore both.
In this 3 hour tour, you can combine sightseeing and dinner after at the North Beach, and Little Italy. Check it out here.
Day Trips from San Francisco to other places in California
Plan a day at Oakland, which is just across the street from the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. The hipster city has its own community, history, and several popular sports teams – and there are lots of great bars and restaurants. There’s certainly plenty to do in Oakland if you have a spare day during your stay in San Francisco.
Sausalito and Muir Woods
Visit the waterfront town of Sausalito and admire the views, eat in, and relax for the day.
On this suggested day tour, you can cover both Sausalito and Muir Woods Redwood National Monument area. Here is the tour to consider.
Yosemite National Park
Explore one of California’s iconic national parks – Yosemite on a day trip, and also go on a hike at the Giant Sequoia. Here is a full-day tour.
The tour is 14 hours long and covers stops at El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Tunnel View for photos and more. They also include an optional hike at the Tuolumne Grove Trailhead.
Pick-up and dinner at Oakdale are included. So your entire day is set. You can opt for a shared (small group) or a private tour. If you are road tripping to the Yosemite National Park, it will take about 3 hours to drive one way.
Napa Valley Wine Tasting Tour from San Francisco
For wine lovers, head to Napa Valley for an easy 8 hour day tour. Napa Valley is known for its world’s famous wine, fancy Michelin star restaurants, and lovely landscape.
For this day trip, skip the car as you will be wine tasting at 3 wineries, and sampling 5 to 6 varieties in each.
Additional tips San Francisco Itinerary 3 days
Where to find the best city views?
San Francisco is such a beautiful city. From iconic landmarks, beach views to unique neighborhoods you must visit one or all of the viewpoints to capture the city’s beauty!
- Mission Dolores Park – Not only a super nice park to chill and picnic in, but you also get a gorgeous view over the city skyline.
- Coit Tower – Visit the Coit Tower located at the top of Telegraph Hill for a panoramic view of the city.
- The Lyon Street Steps – Prepare yourself to climb 322 stairs! At the top, you’ll be rewarded with a unique view over the city – including the nearby Palace of Fine Arts, San Fran Bay, and the beautiful mansions of The Pacific Heights District.
- Twin Peaks – For the best view over the city, you have to go to the world-famous Twin Peaks. Drive to the top of these small mountains and get a preview of the beautiful view of the city. From here, you can then hike to the North and the South peaks. From the south peak, you’ll get a perfect 360-degree view of San Francisco! This climb is also definitely worth it at sunset – the view of the city after dark is super romantic.
Where to shop in San Francisco
If you love shopping, here are my top recommendations for shopping areas and labels in San Francisco
- Hayes Valley – Simply heaven for design lovers, thanks to the many haute couture and designer shops.
- Valencia Street – Trendy street with arts, antique shops, and cozy bookstores.
- Haight Street – The main street in San Francisco, once the heart of the hippie and Flower Power movement.
- Powell Street – Explore to find all the major chains.
- Fillmore street – A nice street full of cozy restaurants and trendy shops.
Where to eat delicious food in San Francisco
Here are my top picks for restaurants and cafes in San Francisco. Add them to your list on each day of the San Francisco itinerary
- Bourbon & Branch – For amazing cocktails.
- Craftsman and Wolves – Grab your daily coffee dose.
- Al’s place – Definitely worth a visit during your stay!
- Swan Oyster Depot – This family business has become world-famous for its excellent seafood. The restaurant has only 18 seats, and it goes without saying that you sometimes have to wait for hours to be seated. We waited in line for half an hour, but it’s absolutely worth the wait. Reservations are not an option.
- Ike’s Sandwiches – For the best pastrami sandwiches.
- Atelier Crenn – There are various multi-course experiences in an inviting and luxurious dining room.
- Chinatown – The culinary center of the city is a must-do for any food lover. Besides New York, it’s the best known and largest Chinatown in America. Did you know that the fortune cookie was invented here? 15,000 pieces are still folded by hand on a daily basis! You can eat well on every street corner, but make sure to try the Wonton Soup in Hong Kong Clay Pot restaurant. Besides delicious food, you will also find all kinds of shops, bars, and tea houses.
- Bun Mee – For a quick Asian bite at reasonable prices.
- Souvla – For a lovely healthy lunch.
- Japan town – If you’re a fan of Japanese food, this is the place to be. Home to the tastiest sushi and Japanese cuisine where you can find something to eat on every street corner!
Where to find beaches in San Francisco?
You can visit beaches in and around San Francisco, and here are some options
- Baker Beach
- North Baker Beach
- Mile Rock Beach at Lands End
- Marshall Beach
- China Beach San Francisco
I hope you enjoyed this jam-packed 3 days in the San Francisco itinerary. Have more questions? Let me know in the comments below.