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What to Do In San Francisco When You Only Have Three Days

Becky Hart | May 10, 2024

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To fully experience the San Francisco and the Bay Area could take weeks, if not longer. But luckily, you can hit many of the major highlights in just a weekend.

With this three-day itinerary for San Francisco, you’ll see the best the city has to offer whether you’re on a microcation or making SF part of a full California adventure.

Getting To and Around San Francisco

Train CabsIf you’re flying to San Francisco, you have two main options: San Francisco International Airport (SFO) or Oakland International Airport (OAK). It might be easier to find a direct flight or one at the time you want out of SFO, but it will cost you.

You can almost always find less expensive flights through OAK. It’s then only about a 30-minute drive to downtown San Francisco. There’s also a BART (subway) station at the airport if you choose not to rent a car or get a ride-share.

Once you’ve arrived, you’ll probably want to rely on public transportation for getting around San Francisco. If so, get a Clipper Card. This makes it easier to take advantage of the BART, Muni buses, and cable cars. You’ll simply scan the prepaid card each time you board.

Some attractions will offer discounts on admission with your Clipper Card or proof using public transit, too.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

San Francisco is an expensive city, which you’ll notice quickly when you’re looking for a place to stay. If you’re trying to save some money on hotels and don’t mind taking the train in and out of downtown San Francisco every day, look for a place in Oakland where prices tend to be more reasonable.

Staying in San Francisco has its charms, though. With so many neighborhoods, each with its own personality, where you return “home” each night might be part of the fun.

Based on our itinerary below, look for accommodations in the Mission District. It’s a quirky neighborhood with colorful flair. One of the most common words to describe the area is “hipster.” Use that information how you will.

The Pacific Heights neighborhood will put you in a relatively central location for many of the tourist highlights, including the Painted Ladies, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Golden Gate Bridge. It is on the upscale side, so perhaps keep looking if you’re traveling on a budget.

Finally, the Fisherman’s Wharf is a favorite for families visiting San Francisco. This is largely because of its proximity to kid-friendly attractions, whether that’s restaurants everyone will enjoy, interactive museums, or outdoor room to roam.

Whichever neighborhood you choose, weigh your options when deciding between a hotel and vacation rental. San Francisco has a major challenge with homelessness. Some attribute this to rental properties pricing out locals and making the problem worse. If this is a concern for you, opt for a hotel instead.

Weekend Itinerary for San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge

Day 1: Golden Gate Bridge and Art

Few things in San Francisco are more iconic than the Golden Gate Bridge. To go to the City by the Bay and not see it is missing out, even if you’re trying to avoid over-touristed sites.

For fewer crowds and a unique experience, go where the locals go to see the Bridge. Battery Godfrey offers a view not often seen unless you’re “in the know.” It’s part of Fort Scott and the Presidio of San Francisco. Although it’s managed by the National Park Service, it’s free to visit.

Battery Godfrey is also a good spot to start your walk across Golden Gate Bridge, the perfect activity when you’re looking for free things to do in San Francisco.

Give yourself a few hours to walk (or bike) across the bridge and explore the neighborhoods on the other side. It’s about 1.5 miles from one end of the bridge to the other.

Assuming it’s not too foggy — a common occurrence on the bay — you'll see amazing views. Even if it is foggy, though, it’ll be quite the experience to wade through the low clouds while still being on terra firma.

Make your way to Battery Spencer or the Golden Gate Observation Deck a little farther inland. If you have the time and stamina, explore Sausalito. The small town is praised for its charm with colorful houseboats and waterfront views.

Fuel up on delicious seafood before heading back across the Golden Gate Bridge. You can either walk back or take the Sausalito Ferry.

South of the bridge in Golden Gate Park is the de Young Museum, featuring American and global art. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the observation tower sticking up from an otherwise relatively flat building. The tower offers 360-degree views of the city and bay.

Inside, check out artwork and textiles from around the world. There’s something for everyone, from paintings and Japanese prints to fashion exhibits and the occasional organ concert.

If you take public transportation — the Muni or BART — to the museum, ask about a discount. The de Young properties, which also include the Legion of Honor, offer reduced-price tickets to visitors who use public transit.

There are plenty of one-of-a-kind places for dinner around Golden Gate Park, whether you’re in the mood for pizza (Fiorella Sunset), Korean (Han Il Kwan), Japanese (Volcano Curry), or a nice little wine bar.

Day 2: Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz Island

Fisherman's Wharf SignageHop on a cable car and head to Fisherman’s Wharf. While it is one of the top tourist destinations in the city, it’s also popular among locals. It’s no wonder. The piers are chock full of shopping, restaurants, attractions, and, of course, sea lions.

When you’re deciding what to do in San Francisco with kids, Fisherman’s Wharf delivers. It’s fun and free to watch the sea lions basking in the sun at Pier 39, dipping in an out of the water, and making all kinds of noise.

The Aquarium by the Bay is one of the best in the country with thousands of underwater creatures to face eye-to-eye. Sharks, fish, jellyfish, otters, and more await. The aquarium is part of the CityPASS ticket, which can help you save money on admission at many of the major attractions in San Francisco.

Check out the Maritime National Historical Park. It includes the Maritime Museum as well as five “floating museums.” These are historic ships — schooners, ferryboats, and tugs — dating as far back as 1886. Admission is $15 or free for children aged 15 and under.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also where you can catch a boat out to Alcatraz Island. For 30 years, The Rock served as a prison for some of the country’s most infamous criminals, including gangster Al Capone. Choose between self-guided audio tours or guided options to dive even deeper into this strange part of American history.

You have to buy tickets for Alcatraz Island in advance. And be warned — they go quickly. Plan to spend at least two to three hours on the island, including the short boat ride. Ferry service is included in the cost of admission.

Across Beach Street from the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is the Ghirardelli Experience and Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. These two stops serve up decadent sundaes, milkshakes, and bakery favorites. Plus, you can visit the chocolatier station at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience to watch the chocolate being made.

There’s nearly 200 years of sweet history in this compound, making it worth the visit and the sugar high.

If you’re looking for some food that’s more on the savory side, you're in the right place. Choose from any number of restaurants to get your literal fill of clam chowder, crab, and tasty seafood treats. Or if you’re more into turf than surf, try In-n-Out Burger, a favorite West Coast chain.

Day 3: Mission District and the Painted Ladies

Painted LadiesPut together your own culinary tour of San Francisco with an outing in the Mission District. This area’s all about Latin American food, whether Mexican, Salvadoran, or some unique fusion.

It’s a great spot for lunch or dinner, but if you’re stopping by early in the morning, keep an eye out for one of its independent coffee shops.

Tartine Bakery has a sit-down service if you’re looking for something hardy. But if you just want to grab something to go on your way to the next stop, you can’t go wrong with the bakery offerings. Pastry, tarts, cakes, and bread fill the menu. It isn’t cheap, but it is freshly made with plenty of flavors and some vegan and wheat-free options.

Nearby, the Painted Ladies are a row of Victorian houses so named their colorful facades. It’s an image you’ve probably seen photographed dozens of times, not even counting the opening credits of the TV show, “Full House.”

The houses, still lived in by locals, run alongside Alamo Square Park. The park gives you a perfect spot to take all your own pictures with downtown San Francisco in the background. Some say the best time to visit is during sunset, making those shots even more dramatic.

Pack some snacks or a picnic to relax in the park after a few full days of sightseeing.

What to Pack for a Weekend in San Francisco

Knowing what to pack for a weekend in San Francisco means understanding what the weather in the Bay Area can be like.

The main things to remember are that it can be windy, and it can change in a hurry. One minute you’re in a t-shirt, burning under the sun, and the next, the wind off the bay has blown in the fog and there’s a chill in the air that has you reaching for an extra sweater.

When you’re packing light for your San Francisco vacation, focus on mix-and-match clothes that you can layer as the weather shifts. Throw a raincoat in your bag. San Francisco does see more rain than Southern California, and with cooler mornings and evenings, you might appreciate the bit of extra warmth, too.

If you follow our itinerary, you’re going to be on your feet a lot, too. Pack comfortable shoes.

San Francisco packing list

  • Base layer shirt, such as a t-shirt or long-sleeved t-shirt depending on the season
  • Sweater or sweatshirt (wrinkle-free so you can stuff it in your daypack when the sun comes out and still look great when the sun goes down)
  • Jeans (they’re great for any occasion)
  • Waterproof coat
  • Gloves and hat if you’re visiting in the winter
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Travel-size umbrella, especially if you go to San Francisco between November and February
  • Sunscreen
  • Reusable water bottle (you won’t find many plastic bottles if you forget your own)
  • Reusable tote bag (single-use plastic bags at stores are often only available for a charge or not at all)

Travel Insurance for San Francisco

Like we said, San Francisco is an expensive city. Trip expenses add up quickly here.

When your prepaid bookings are nonrefundable, protect them with travel insurance. It could reimburse you for those insured trip expenses if you have to cancel your trip for a covered reason. It also offers protection for trip delays, trip interruption, lost or damaged luggage, and much more.

If you’re visiting San Francisco from abroad, consider travel medical insurance. This coverage can pay for your medical expenses if you get sick or hurt during your trip. And the cost of travel insurance is significantly less than what you could end up paying for medical care in the U.S.

Find the right plan for you at SevenCorners.com or talk to a licensed Seven Corners agent before you travel.

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