Okay, as a local I’m going to tell you a secret: San Francisco really is the most beautiful city on earth. And the day of the week you visit really matters. All the tourist sites are worth it, but only if you can go on a weekday. We are a small city, our population has grown exponentially in the last few years, and if you don’t want to spend your vacation waiting in lines, you will schedule your time in San Francisco from Monday-Thursdays for typical tourist-ing. If you are here on a weekend, do more local things – heed this advice, and I promise, you will have an amazing experience!
Also – everything depends on the weather, always check, always bring layers. There are seven micro-climates (meaning it is literally different weather from neighborhood to neighborhood) and a good rule of thumb is the closer to the ocean you get, the foggier it will be. The Mission District is the sunniest/warmest, and downtown is usually sunny and a big wind tunnel. Our nights are cold, like, really cold. Pack accordingly, you do not want to be that person who didn’t know going in and had to buy a fleece “San Francisco” sweatshirt at Fisherman’s Wharf to survive the Alcatraz tour.
So, on to the fun stuff!
24 hours on a Weekday in San Francisco:
Go get your “must-do” SF stuff done on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and do museums on Tuesdays (many are free!). Go to Alcatraz, as much for the views on the boat ride over as for the history of it all. Do it early, and enjoy. Afterwards grab an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista overlooking the bay, before walking over to the glorious and historic North Beach neighborhood for lunch. This is about a 30-minute walk with some hills. If you don’t want to walk, catch a cab and ask them to swing by the bottom of the famous Lombard Street on the way (worth seeing, not stopping).
When in North Beach, head up Columbus Street and pass lots of enticing cafes on the sidewalk. Enjoy how they enhance the atmosphere, but resist their temptations and make your way to Molinari’s Deli for a sandwich instead. Call ahead so you just need to pick it up, and bring it back to Washington Square Park to sit on a blanket, eat, relax and people watch. Enjoy the views of the Saints Peter & Paul Church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio got married, locals practice Tai Chi, and others bask in the sun. Take your time here.
When you’re ready, walk up Grant Street passing all the cute boutiques and grab a coffee from Café Trieste on the way to stop by City Lights Bookstore. This is an amazing SF landmark that can’t be missed. Get a sense of beatnik/hippie history and buy something to support their business.
From there you’ll continue on Grant Street and notice how it’s drastically transitioned into Chinatown in a matter of blocks. Be sure to take it all in, even though there will be lots of people and wind and cars on this busy intersection.
Once on Grant Street, enjoy the scenes of the greatest Chinatown in the country. To your left are amazing views of the bay bridge, to your right are some of the steepest hills in a city anywhere. The other side of the hill on Grant Street drops you into downtown, where you can either shop shop shop anywhere from Barneys to Gap and everything in between; or skip it and head to grab a drink to take it all in. I recommend grabbing a cab to The View for reasons described in its name, the Top of the Mark to experience “Old San Francisco” (and great views as well!), Trick Dog if you want an amazing cocktail in a more local neighborhood, or to Cigar Bar for a cute outdoor patio.
Instead of heading to a “dinner out”, weekdays are the best time to see what the arts in our city have to offer! You’ll often find cheaper deals, more local offerings, and less competition for last minute tickets.
For Movies: Historic theaters like the Balboa, The Presidio, or The Bridge
Weekday honorable mention:
Start your day at the Museum of Modern Art, and head to the Legion of Honor museum immediately afterwards. Hike the Land’s End Trail afterwards, and have dinner at the Cliff House after wandering around the Sutro Baths while you wait. These views and this balanced day will show you the magic of our San Francisco landscape like no other.
About the weekend:
Weekends in the city are amazing, but they require more planning. These are the times to check out street fairs, local neighborhoods, or even go visit our favorite town across the bay, Oakland.
If you are into our food scene, you must make reservations for brunches and dinners on opentable.com as soon as you know you’re coming. Wait times without them are nuts. If you forget to do this, head to Oakland for a great food scene and shorter wait times.
Check out local blogs to see what the weekend events are on Broke Ass Stuart, SF Weekly, or the Bold Italic. My favorites are Bay toBreakers, Carnaval, Hunky Jesus Easter Sunday in Dolores Park, How Weird Street Fair, Stern Grove Festival, Pride, Fillmore Jazz Fest, the Folsom Street Fair (NOT for kids), Treasure Island Music Festival, Super Hero Street Fair, Off the Grid in the Presidio and Pug Sunday.
24 hours on a Weekend:
Sleep in a little, it’s vacation! Grab brunch at Foreign Cinema because you made a reservation. Enjoy their yummy, critically acclaimed food and signature brunch cocktails.
After brunch wander up to Valencia street and browse some of the boutiques and funky shops, eventually winding your way to the gorgeous Dolores Park to people watch. Make sure you walk to the top to take in the view, it’s one for the books (and the ‘gram!). If you want ice cream, head to 18th Street & Dolores and go across the street from the ice cream shop with a line winding around the block, to the Bi-Rite Market and buy a pint from the freezers in the back with a couple spoons – same stuff, no lines.
After awhile at Dolores, head left up 18th street to Castro street and either grab a drink at one of our LGBTQ bars or simply pass through taking in the history and funky rainbow sidewalks. If you’re lucky, maybe there’s an awesome sing-a-long at the Castro Theater.
Head right when you get to Market Street and stop by Café du Nord for an appetizer and enjoy the funky, underground vibe.
From there take a cab to spend the rest of your evening on Mission Street in the Bernal Heights area with locals at El Rio for a busy, indoor/outdoor funky vibe, Virgil’s for fancier cocktails and a less-busy version of El Rio, The Knockout for punk rock, or Iron & Gold for a cute place to talk. All of these bars are great, and within a block or two from each other.
For what it’s worth, sunrise is worth seeing and Alamo Square is a great place to watch it come over downtown (and the famous Painted Ladies) in the morning. Tack this on to the start or end of your 24 hours in San Francisco for the full experience!
Weekend Honorable Mention:
Take the ferry to Oakland’s Jack London Square in the afternoon after spending the morning at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Grab a drink at the historic Last Chance Saloon and some yummy Mexican food at Nido. While in Oakland catch a show at The New Parish or Starline Social Club; or just some cocktails at The Legionairre.
Check out Morgan Shidler’s spectacular photography on morganshidler.com