24 Hours in San Francisco: One Day Itinerary
Visiting San Francisco for just a day? Or perhaps you reside in the city, and just need some activities to pass the time? In this article, travel enthusiast Alicia Broggi shares her favorite activities to plan out if you only have 24 hours to spend in San Francisco!
Last updated: September 15, 2023
9 min read
San Francisco is a fantastic city to explore in 24-hours. It’s geographically small (around 7 miles by 7 miles), but packs a big punch! It is home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, the sensory explosion that is Fisherman’s Wharf, and of course the iconic Golden Gate bridge.
Beyond the city itself, the natural beauty of the Bay and the surrounding hills is stunning. And from the many hills within San Francisco, you’ll get sweeping views of the cityscape.
“SF” – as locals now call it – has changed dramatically from its Spanish-mission origins and gold rush boom days, while retaining some of the same adventuring spirit. During the gold rush, the city had a lawless vibe. And in the 1950s and 1960s it famously drew countercultural musicians and writers like the “Beatniks” of Jack Kerouac fame.
While it continues to draw creatives of all kinds, it is also now home to major offices for big tech companies, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Salesforce. And big tech is shaping our future.
On the surface, big tech might seem to have little in common with counter cultural art and prospectors. But there is a high value for creativity and trailblazing in all three. In this city, it shows. So pack your bags, and I’ll help you pack your schedule with some of the unforgettable experiences and must-see sights of SF.
Golden Gate Bridge
First up is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Whether you walk, bike, or drive, this architectural wonder is worth a visit. Its Art Deco style and bespoke color of “Golden Gate International Orange” were inspired by the surrounding water and hills.
You can grab a coffee at RoundHouse to get up-close views, or from the nearby Crissy Field, before actually crossing the bridge. If you wish to plan your visit around SF’s equally iconic fog, consult this incredibly helpful web guide, which includes a live camera on the bridge.
Visit Local Bakeries
After the bridge, make an event of breakfast and sample the fantastic baked goods in this foodie town. This is also a great way to experience different neighborhoods of SF, and they each have their own vibe. Try out b. patisserie in the trendy Lower Pacific Heights, for instance, if you want to experience an American twist on French pastries and the modern salon de thé.
Or, for something more Italian, try Rose’s Café in quaint and inviting Cow Hollow. Those options are both fairly close to the Golden Gate Bridge. You could also grab an Uber (or hop on Muni, the city’s public transportation system) to go farther afield.
For a homegrown SF feel, with outstanding coffee and baked goods (try the breads!), check out The Mill in Alamo Square or Tartine in one of its three SF locations.
Ride the Cable Car
From breakfast, catch a ride on one of the city’s famous cable cars. I recommend taking the Powell/Hyde Cable Car at the Hyde St & Greenwich St stop toward the Powell & Hyde Cable Car Turnaround, which is right by Fisherman’s Wharf.
By starting at the Hyde St & Greenwich St stop, you will skip the big lines of Union Station. When you get on the cable car, try to snag a seat on the front right for the best views. From there, you’ll see the photogenic Lombard Street (with its beautiful houses, steep descent, and hairpin turns), the financial district, Alcatraz, and the Bay.
Take in the dance of the cable cars after you disembark at the turnaround. Then, if you’re a chocolate lover, indulge in a quick detour to Ghirardelli Square.
SF’s famous chocolate factory has been repurposed as a shopping center, with restaurants, boba tea, and even miniature golfing. But it’s Ghirardelli’s flagship Chocolate Experience Store that makes this a stop on my list. Don’t stay too long though!
Make sure you arrive at Fisherman’s Wharf in time to enjoy its many attractions. You’ll also want to save a little time to savor some fresh seafood for lunch. At Fisherman’s Wharf, the famous Pier 39 is a must-see, especially for families. Pier 39 alone boasts a carousel that was handcrafted in Italy. It also has the trippy Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, the Aquarium of the Bay, and sea lion viewing.
Another must-see is Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with its collection of wild, unexpected, and downright strange things. Fisherman’s Wharf, as the name implies, is also the historical center of the city’s fishing industry. Fishermen can still be seen working at their craft. So take in that view for a reprieve from the bustling activity of the entertainment centers.
Then, for lunch, be sure to try the Dungeness Crab or a clam chowder, ideally outdoors, in the sea breeze! There are many places to eat around Fisherman’s Wharf. But a few restaurants that get rave reviews are Fog Harbor Fish House, Crab House at Pier 39, and Scoma’s Restaurant.
After lunch, take a walk to the Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33. Here, you can catch a ferry to Alcatraz Island, the former US Penitentiary which once held notorious criminals like Al Capone. The island is now managed by the National Park Service. The private company Alcatraz City Cruises owns the only ferries that make this fifteen-minute trip.
You can use their website to buy tickets in advance, ensuring a spot on the day. These tickets are all-inclusive, covering the tours and fees for your visit to the prison-come-museum and park.
A person can easily spend at least two hours on “the Rock.” No food is sold on the island, so make sure you are full beforehand, or stock up on the ferry!
Make your break from Alcatraz and recover your land legs with a short walk to Coit Tower, which offers sweeping 360-views of SF and the Bay. A small fee is charged to access the tower’s observation deck; it’s worth it.
Perched on top of Telegraph Hill, you can test your knowledge of the city’s architecture. Try to pick out some of the big tech skyscrapers from the skyline, but mostly just take in the cityscape. And while you are there, listen for the wild parrots that live in the area.
Dining in Chinatown
All of the fresh air, sea spray, and hill walking may build up your appetite, and Chinatown is just the place to sate it. Whether you are looking for a Michelin-starred restaurant like Z & Y, dim sum (try City View Restaurant), or something to carry with you and eat outdoors, the options are prolific.
You can even visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory! There are also plenty of bars, from the trendy Vesuvio Cafe to the shabby-chic dive bar Buddha Lounge. And if you decide you’re actually in the mood for Italian, instead, Chinatown is right next to Little Italy.
Of course, the fantastic food is only one aspect of Chinatown’s cultural riches. According to the Chinatown website, “San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America.”
And for more cultural enrichment, consider popping into the Chinese Historical Society of America. Here, you’ll learn about some of the challenges Chinese immigrants in America have faced. Or visit the architecturally bold Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.
Be sure to check the opening hours for the day of your visit first though. I you are out of luck, visit the open air Portsmouth Square, which is commonly called “the heart of Chinatown” and has historical statues and signage.
Most visitors approach Chinatown from the other direction. So, if you come from Coit Tower, on Telegraph Hill, you will need to cross Chinatown to get to the famous red flags of Stockton Street to go through the dramatic Dragon’s Gate entrance. This is very walkable and a perfect excuse to stop in some of the antique stores and souvenir shops.
If you like a good book, consider also stopping at SF’s most famous bookstore. This is located between Chinatown and North Beach: City Lights. The bookstore and publishing house was founded by famous poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin.
Take a Walk
One treasure trove in SF is its spectacular parks. If you wish to squeeze in a post-dinner stroll, beyond Chinatown, get some ice cream on the way. Take an Uber to the famed Salt & Straw ice cream shop in the charming Hayes Valley.
The menu features flavors as conventional as Chocolate Gooey Brownie and as innovative as Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper, Arbequina Olive Oil, and Black Olive and Brittle Goat Cheese. My personal favorite is Honey Lavendar. Beware the line, though!
From there, take a stroll uphill past local boutiques (including a shop for the tech-fave footwear Allbirds) to Alamo Square Park. While this is by no means the most spectacular or grand of SF’s parks (you’ll want to check out Golden Gate Park or the Presidio for that), Alamo Square is a tranquil spot with fabulous views.
Uniquely, it abuts the colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses called “the Painted Ladies” or Postcard Row. (They famously featured on Full House, for those of you familiar with the glory of ‘80s and ‘90s TV.) This is a popular photography spot.
Music, Dance, and All that Jazz
For after-dinner entertainment, choose between world-class performances at the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony, or Broadway SF. Both the SF Opera and SF Ballet perform at the War Memorial Opera House, and the building has its own allure.
It is constructed in the Beaux-Arts style, with clean lines and doric columns offset by large, arched entrances and sculptural details. The Opera, the Ballet, and the Symphony each offer artistic excellence. And Broadway SF has premiered shows before they went to Broadway, and hosted national tours of Broadway productions.
Suffice it to say, the arts performances in SF are truly world class. Check out the San Francisco Theater website to find out what shows are being performed across the city during your stay, and the Symphony calendar can be seen here.
If you are looking for a little soul instead – or want to round off the night – try one of the city’s famous jazz clubs. San Francisco takes pride in its deep history with jazz and blues. Live jazz performances can be found every night of the week.
You might try the SFJAZZ Center, for example, for its wide variety of jazz music, as well as music influenced by jazz. Or check out Black Cat for a more low-key, romantic vibe. If you are looking for something a little more vintage, or retro, try the old-school Club Deluxe. Alternatively, get dressed to the nines for a night out at Bix!
Where to Stay
After all of this running around, you are going to want a convenient, reliable place to stay. There are some great Airbnb and Vrbo listings in SF, which give the feeling of being in a “real home”, but the regulated convenience of a hotel might make sense for a 24-hour visit.
Hotels and hostels abound in the city. So, so narrow down your options by considering the proximity to where you are ending your day, safety, and whether you want to gain exposure to a specific neighborhood.
Excellent accommodation options are available at various price points. At the high end, the luxurious Fairmont San Francisco is situated at the top of Nob Hill, with incredible views, and it is an institution unto itself.
A family-friendly alternative is the Argonaut Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, which won the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award in 2022 for consistently high reviews and rankings. At a lower price point, but still offering plenty of character and convenience, are the (also family-friendly) Hotel del Sol in the Marina District and the Hotel Zephyr at Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you are traveling on a shoestring budget, try Green Tortoise Hostel it gets strong ratings, is located in North Beach (not far from Fisherman’s Wharf), and includes breakfast in the room rate.
By the end of your trip, you may find yourself humming the famous refrain, “I left my heart in San Francisco” and wanting to return for a longer stay. There is so much to enjoy in this small city! Although a day’s visit is just skimming the surface, you will have packed in a lot.
Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, riding a cable car, joining the bustle on Fisherman’s Wharf, experiencing Chinatown, and taking in the world-class arts and music scene will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.
And when you do decide to plan a longer trip, check out our other posts covering even more of the sites and activities around this small but mighty city on the sea.