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  • Writer's pictureAmy Leggett

How to Explore San Francisco in One...YES ONE...Day!

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

San Francisco is an amazing city with so much to see that most people take at least three days to take it all in. You could easily fill a whole week with activities (including day trips to outlying areas like Napa/Sonoma or Yosemite...although these areas are entitled to a trip all their own!). I have been to San Francisco on many occasions and am usually there for at least a long weekend. However, on this particular trip, my friend Ann and I were doing an epic journey down the northern California coast and only had limited time (limited=a day!) to spend in the City by the Bay. Ann had never been to San Francisco so we had to be very efficient in our planning to fit in as much as possible. From my previous visits, I had several things I wanted to show her that would have easily filled the day. But Ann is an expert researcher and came up with some additional things to check out that I had never seen and we wanted to add them to the already busy agenda. Lucky for us, we are both hyper-organized and compulsive planners. So between the two of us were were able to come up with a ONE day schedule that pretty much covered the whole San Francisco area. If you only have a day, you can use our plan to make sure you really SEE San Francisco. However, I recommend that you take this itinerary and spread it out over a few more days if you have the time. It would certainly be more relaxing!

The "San Francisco in One Day" Agenda

Following is the list of the things you can do in San Francisco in a day. You can do them in any order that makes logical sense for you depending on where you are staying. We stayed at a motel right across from the Presidio, so our day started there. I should also note that we did have a car that allowed us to drive to some of the places, but if you are adventurous and looking to get in your steps for the day you can walk (but be prepared for some intense hill workouts as you walk the steep streets!). Alternatively, you can grab Ubers to get to some of the more out of the way locations.

First Stop-The Presidio

The Presidio is a national park located at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was originally home to native people, then subsequently became a military post under flags of Spain, Mexico and the U.S. It is 1,491 acres (5% of the total area of San Francisco!) and includes museums, hotels, restaurants, hiking and biking trails, scenic overlooks, picnic areas, beaches, a golf course and other things I am sure I am forgetting because there is SO much there. Entry to the Presidio is free. We walked along a path that took us down to an area called Crissy Field. This restored area used to be an airfield and now has wide green fields for picnicking or sports, a marshy area for bird-watching and nature observation, a wide beach with a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay, and nice flat trails for walking or biking. This is one of many spots in San Francisco to get a great picture with the famous Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

Second Stop-Marina District/Fisherman's Wharf

From Crissy Field, we followed a walking path heading toward the Marina District and Fisherman's Wharf. The path goes along the coast, so on the way we had more amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as some great looks at Alcatraz. We walked along the harbor and saw all the beautiful boats anchored there (with the ever-present Bridge in the background) as well as some of the beautiful colorful homes which line the street across from the harbor in the affluent Marina District. Ann is a big coffee drinker so when we spotted a coffee truck parked near the Marina Green with a LONG line (always a good sign) we figured we had to stop for some refreshments. I don't drink coffee, but scored a delicious chocolate croissant! The guys working the truck were extremely energetic and friendly so it was a nice boost to our morning.

After our coffee break, we continued along the path to the Fisherman's Wharf area. Fisherman's Wharf is VERY touristy, but you can't come to San Francisco and not see it. That would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Fisherman's Wharf has a lot to see so there is bound to be something for everyone. There is the iconic Ghiradelli market place where you can get delicious chocolate or ice cream treats, the sea lions who are usually swimming and sunning at Pier 39, tons of touristy shops to pick up that souvenir you think you have to have (but then don't know what to do with it when you get home), great restaurants and of course great people watching. Fisherman's Wharf is also where you pick up the ferries to Alcatraz or nearby Sausalito (which we didn't have time for this trip). Unfortunately, we also missed the Pier 39 sea lions because of the season (we were visiting in June but I have included pics from a previous trip I took during September when they were there).

We ate lunch at the iconic Boudin Sourdough restaurant. They are known for their clam chowder served in sourdough bread bowls. As I don't like seafood and Ann wasn't that hungry, neither of us had that specialty dish so I cannot personally recommend it. However, as noted above about the coffee truck, when there is such a buzz about something there is usually a reason. So, if you like clam chowder, you should definitely put it on your "Must Try in San Francisco" list! Boudin's also sells sourdough loaves in the most adorable animal shapes that kids (or kids at heart) would love! We were able to watch the masters at work creating these masterpieces.

Third Stop-Powell-Hyde Cable Car/Lombard Street

Like Fisherman's Wharf, you can't go to San Francisco and not ride a cable car. That is sacrilege! So imagine our disappointment when we found out that the cable cars had stopped running during the pandemic and were not scheduled to restart until August! There is nothing like riding an open air cable car up and down the steep streets of San Francisco. I was so disappointed that my friend was going to miss that experience. But the Travel Gods were looking down on us! We went to the Powell-Hyde cable car station (located across from the Ghiradelli Marketplace) and found the cable car operators were training and preparing for the August re-opening. Ann asked if we could get a ride and they offered to give us a free short ride from Fisherman's Wharf up to Lombard Street (which is where we wanted to go to anyway). Just goes to show it never hurts to ask, because you might get exactly what you want! So Ann and I got on the cable car with one other bold soul who must have asked for a ride and took a trip up, up, up the steep street. It was the best cable car ride I have ever had because there weren't crowds of people blocking my view and it was free! We got dropped off right at the top of Lombard. Perfect! And we didn't have to walk up that hill!

Lombard Street is that famous "crooked" street that you always hear about. It gets its reputation from the eight tight turns in one block. It is located in the Russian Hill District just a short (uphill) walk (or if you are lucky, cable car ride) from Fisherman's Wharf. You can walk up or down Lombard Street depending on which side of the block you find yourself on or you can drive down the one way winding street. In addition to the multiple curves, Lombard is also know for it's beauty. The homeowners on Lombard all maintain beautiful landscaping which adds to the iconic reputation.

Fourth Stop-Painted Ladies/Haight-Ashbury/Union Square/Chinatown

At this point we went back to get the rental car to continue our explorations. We plugged in our destinations to Google Maps and took off. First stop was the famous "Painted Ladies" across from Alamo Square at Hayes and Steiner Streets. You may recognize the Painted Ladies from the opening of Full House. It is one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco. The open space of Alamo Square across the street provides the perfect location to get a good photo of the Painted Ladies with the San Francisco skyline behind them. It would probably be a great photo op at dusk, but our jam-packed agenda didn't allow much leeway for that kind of timing. In addition to the Painted Ladies, there are other Victorian homes around Alamo Square that don't get the same attention, but are just beautiful (if not more so!).

We hopped back in the car and drove a short distance to the historic Haight-Ashbury District to step back in time. The District was one of the main spots for hippie and counterculture activity in the 1960's and it maintains that vibe. Back in the day it was home to revolutionaries and famous singers such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. My subsequent research on the area indicated that you can drive by the old Grateful Dead home (710 Ashbury St.) and the old Jefferson Airplane home (2400 Fulton St.). We didn't know to do that, but make a note if you head to this area and are a fan of either of those bands. The Upper Haight area is filled with boutiques and hip restaurants, as well as flamboyant clothing stores, piercing and tattoo parlors, while down the hill in Lower Haight there are alternative bars, consignment stores and music shops with old vinyl. There is definitely a cool, hippy vibe to the place that is totally different then the rest of San Francisco. We didn't take the time to get out and walk around, but it is on my "To Do" list the next time I go back.

After we left Haight-Ashbury, we cruised by Union Square in the central downtown area. Union Square refers to a one-block plaza and the surrounding area that has the largest collection of department stores, upscale boutiques, gift shops, art galleries and beauty salons in the U.S. There are also many hotels in this area. I have stayed in the Union Square area on past trips and it is a nice central location, especially if you are interested in shopping while in San Fran. A few blocks from Union Square is Chinatown. We just cruised by the Dragon Gates this time, but I have enjoyed the delicious Chinese food served up here in the past and can confirm that it was delicious! There are so many restaurants to choose from, but I don't think you can go wrong with any choice in Chinatown.

Fifth Stop-Land's End-Coastal Trail

Land's End is a hidden gem in San Francisco. It is not one of the more obvious attractions, but is certainly one of the most beautiful! The Coastal Trail at Land's End is a hike that takes you along the rugged coastline, weaving in and out of cypress forests. There are great views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. It is generally an easy hike, but there are portions where there are increases in elevation that are moderately challenging. You can make it as easy or hard as you like. Even a short walk along the flat part of the trail will give you breathtaking views. If you are a photography buff, be sure to bring your equipment because there are numerous spots to take amazing photos! Below are some examples of the different shots you can get at different spots on the Trail. (Disclaimer: I am a novice photographer so imagine the pictures you can get if you are an expert!) If you go a decent distance on the Coastal Trail, out and back will probably take one to two hours depending on how far you go and how often you stop to take selfies! In my opinion this is a "MUST SEE" when you go to San Francisco. Helpful hint: There is a visitor center with restrooms by the parking lot nearest to the old Cliff House. I would park there and visit the restroom before you head out.

Sixth (And Final!) Stop-Golden Gate Bridge Park

After the busy day of sight seeing we had, it was time to head out to Sonoma/Napa Valley for the next stop on our California Coastal journey, but before we actually drove over the Golden Gate Bridge on our way out of town, we stopped at the Golden Gate Bridge Park at the base of the Bridge. Here you can get the "up close and personal" shot of the Bridge (like the one at the beginning of this blog). There is also a visitor center area with restrooms, information, souvenirs of the Bridge and food. If you walk down a path past those buildings, you come to a nice little spot to grab the perfect Golden Gate Bridge selfie.

So there you have it, how to explore San Francisco in ONE day! If you can stay longer, I would definitely recommend it, but it can be done if timing only permits a short stay.

Some Additional San Francisco Tips

Here are some other general tips for traveling to San Francisco:

  • Mark Twain once said "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Just because it is in California, doesn't mean it is warm! September is the warmest month in San Francisco, so that may be the best time to visit if you have flexibility. Otherwise, be sure to pack clothes for cooler temperatures or at least throw a jacket and a pair of jeans into your suitcase.

  • Along the same line as necessary apparel to pack, be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes. You will be walking around a lot! You will also be walking up STEEP hills, this is guaranteed no matter what direction you are heading. Although San Francisco is a trendy town and you may be inspired to wear those cute, stylish sandals, you will be regretting that choice pretty quickly. In this case it is better to feel good then to look cute. Save those cute shoes for Napa!

  • Don't be alarmed by the fog you will wake up to every morning. San Francisco is known for its fog, but it generally burns off by mid-day (but this doesn't mean it will be warmer...see above!).

  • You will hear this over and over when you visit San Francisco, but do NOT leave any valuables in your car whenever you are parked. Car break-ins are rampant. Even with all the warnings, I overheard a couple of different people talking about getting their car broken into and their things stolen. They are not joking when they warn you about this problem. If you can't take it with you, try to leave everything else in your hotel or at the very least in the trunk out of sight.

  • Stay away from the Tenderloin District. This is an area of high concentration of homeless and is known for being dangerous. As in a lot of other places, the pandemic has hit San Francisco pretty hard and has increased their already large homeless population. I didn't see an extraordinary increase from my prior visits, but just be aware that this is a problem in some areas, particularly the Tenderloin District.

  • We didn't do it on this day due to time constraints, but I highly recommend a tour of Alcatraz if your agenda allows. You take a ferry over from Fisherman's Wharf and can tour the famous prison. It is very interesting (not to mention the amazing views of the San Francisco skyline you can get while on the ferry!).

  • Another thing we didn't do this time that I have done in the past is a ferry over to Sausalito for the day. Sausalito is a quaint little town with cute boutiques and many restaurants. It gives you the opportunity to get out on the water and enjoy all the coastal views while also letting you see a different location.

I hope this blog inspires you to plan your visit to the City by the Bay (hopefully with a few more days to explore!). I highly recommend a trip to San Francisco if you haven't been yet. As you can see, there is so much to see and do! I welcome any other tips or suggestions from your travels to San Francisco as I definitely hope to go back again!


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