As a local in the San Francisco Bay Area for the better part of two decades, I always recommend that visitors come and stay awhile. The city of San Francisco has dozens of museums, historical sites, outdoor excursions, vistas, and weird and wonderful attractions to visit. Day trips from San Francisco from Muir Woods to Wine Country offer even more unique and memorable adventures.
San Francisco is certainly a destination worthy of a week or more of your travel time. But sometimes you just don’t have that kind of time!
Luckily, there is so much that can be accomplished in a single day in San Francisco, even with kids in tow. Here is how to get a taste of the City by the Bay’s many flavors in just 24 hours with this step-by-step San Francisco 1 day itinerary for all types of travelers.
Best of all, many of the offerings in this itinerary are entirely free to see! All you’ll really have to pay is for some form of transportation between each attraction and a little food along the way.
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Top Tips for San Francisco in a Day
The key to a successful visit to San Francisco in a single day is to stick close to downtown. While there are so many worthy attractions farther afield (particularly in Golden Gate Park), you will simply lose too much time in transit hopping all over the city. Sticking to the iconic inner neighborhoods like Chinatown, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Union Square will allow you sample a diverse offering of attractions with minimal time wasted.
While San Francisco has ample public transit, it can sometimes be a bit slow or just not easily serve where you need to be. As the founding city for both Uber and Lyft, ridesharing services are alive and well in San Francisco. And they are pretty inexpensive for the distances a tourist will need to cover. If you only have a day, paying to take a few Lyft and Uber rides is often well worth it for the time saved, especially if multiple people are traveling together.
You can also do this itinerary with a car of your own, but parking in some neighborhoods is a challenge unless you pay the big bucks for garages. If you have babies and toddlers too little for Lyft and Uber without a car seat, I’ve indicated public transit alternatives when available. (But do check out my guide to travel-friendly car seats and boosters, because purchasing one of those products may make ridesharing possible even with little ones!)
1 Day San Francisco Itinerary Step-by-Step
First Stop: Presidio Tunnel Tops & Golden Gate Bridge Views
Location: 210 Lincoln Blvd.
Start your morning with a view of the Golden Gate. Head into the Presidio to the new-in-2022 Presidio Tunnel Tops to see the majestic bridge from a closer vista. Presidio Tunnel Tops is a unique attraction where a green space was built atop the Presidio Parkway tunnels to reclaim more natural space in the urban environment.
If you are traveling with kids, make sure to leave a few minutes to explore the amazing playgrounds and open spaces. Depending on the day, you may even be able to grab quick coffee and breakfast pastry to fuel up for your sightseeing adventures (there’s usually a food truck serving coffee that opens at 9am on weekends and other food vendors at 10am daily).
Mornings in San Francisco are sometimes quite foggy during certain times of year. Watch the weather to make sure you at least have enough visibility to see the bridge. But don’t let the weather dissuade you from starting here unless the fog is truly pea soup thick. Often mild and moderate fog and clouds billowing around the bridge’s reddish orange spires make for even better photographs than on a perfectly clear day.
Second Stop: Palace of Fine Arts
Location: 3601 Lyon Street
From Presidio Tunnel Tops, it’s a very easy 15 minute stroll to the Palace of Fine Arts. En route, you may want to pass by the Lucasfilm Building in the Letterman Digital Art Center. There, a fountain featuring a statue of Yoda is located – sure to be a hit and a memorable photo opportunity for any Star Wars fan in the family.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a magnificent structure built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition held in the city, an event that was instrumental to the rebirth of San Francisco after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake. It was intended to be a temporary attraction but its display of Greek and Roman architecture and rotunda proved to be so popular that it was rebuilt using more durable materials to become the permanent landmark that still stands today. Watch the swans in the reflecting pool or use it as a backdrop for some photos.
Third Stop: Alamo Square
Location: Steiner Street between Hayes & Grove Streets
Can you really go to San Francisco without getting a photograph of the world’s most photographed Victorians? No way. Grab a quick Uber or Lyft from the Palace of Fine Arts up and over a few hills (about a 10 minute drive) where you will find the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square. Yes, these are the buildings that have a starring role in the credits of the 1980s sitcom Full House.
(Note: If you are using public transportation on this itinerary, it may be wise to skip this stop as it takes you a bit out of the way with fewer transit connections. If you skip Alamo Square, it’s easy to take the 28 or 30 Muni bus lines from near the Palace of Fine Arts and arrive within three blocks of the next stop, Lombard Street.)
Fourth Stop: Lombard Street
Location: Corner of Lombard Street & Hyde Street
Another short Uber or Lyft ride from Alamo Square will deliver you next to Russian Hill and Lombard Street (direct your driver to the corner of Lombard and Hyde). Walk down the sidewalk steps of the famed “crookedest street in the world” and get some photos at the bottom.
If you are arriving by rideshare, you may even be able to negotiate a car ride down the switchbacks with your driver. The line builds for Lombard Street later in the day, so mornings are an ideal time to see the street with fewer people and less traffic back up.
Fifth Stop: Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39
Location: 100 Jefferson St (& Blocks Surrounding Taylor Street & Jefferson Street)
From the bottom of Lombard Street, it’s just a 10 minute walk along Leavenworth Street (downhill!) to Fisherman’s Wharf. Head north in the direction of the water – you can’t miss it. Then turn right on Jefferson to walk along the waterfront. If you want to swing by Ghirardelli Square en route for a chocolate break, that requires only about two blocks of backtracking.
Even though the Wharf can be criticized as a tourist trap, there are a few things worthy of doing on a short visit. Watch the strange street performers and snap your selfie at the famous ship’s wheel sign on Taylor and Jefferson.
If you are getting hungry at this point, plan for lunch at Boudin Bakery (160 Jefferson St.) where you can enjoy San Francisco sourdough. The classic dish every first timer must order is clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Lines can be long during peak tourist season during the lunch rush, but the experience is well worth the wait.
Finish your tour of Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39 (Beach Street & The Embarcadero). There, you will spot San Francisco’s sea lions sunning themselves on the docks and get a glimpse of Alcatraz out in the bay. If you are touring with children, be sure to take a few extra minutes to ride the double-decker carousel at the end of the pier too.
Sixth Stop: Cable Car Ride & Chinatown Gate
Location: Grant Avenue & Bush Street
Now it’s time for that cable car ride you’ve probably been waiting for! It’s $8 per person as of May 2023 so it doesn’t come cheap. The Powell/Mason cable car route originates at the corner of Taylor and Bay near Fisherman’s Wharf. You can purchase a ticket from the kiosk at the origination point of this line. Or save time and purchase fares on the MuniMobile app on your smartphone for the whole family.
Take the cable car to Powell and Bush Street, where you will hop off for a view of the famous San Francisco Chinatown Gate. The gate is just two blocks east down Bush at Grant Avenue. If you have time to wander a few blocks in to San Francisco’s Chinatown up Grant, you’ll get a distinct flavor of one of San Francisco’s many diverse neighborhoods. I highly recommend stopping in any of the small dim sum restaurants and sampling a few bites for a snack.
Seventh Stop: Window Shopping in Union Square
Location: 333 Post Street
From the Chinatown Gate, walk south on Grant for two blocks and turn right on Post Street to visit San Francisco’s shopping district, Union Square. The flagship Macy’s department store looming large over the square is rivaled only by the original New York location. Numerous boutiques and pricey designers have a presence here as well. Take some time to window shop and see the square itself.
If you happen to be visiting San Francisco during Christmas time, go ice skating at the pop-up rink that appears in Union Square each winter. Also visit the lobby of the Westin St. Francis (335 Powell Street) on the square to view the castle of suites that the hotel’s pastry chef makes each year.
Eighth Stop: The Ferry Building
Location: 1 Ferry Building (Corner of the Embarcadero & Market Street)
From Union Square, walk two blocks south to Market Street where you can take the other historic street car in the city, the F-Market. Take it heading east towards the water. Your destination is the Ferry Building on the waterfront. The fare is $3 cash which can be paid to the driver upon boarding in exact change. Alternatively, use your MuniMobile app again for easier management for the whole family as well as for a discount (MuniMobile’s fare is $2.50 for this same ride).
The Ferry Building has a thriving farmer’s market and many specialty food and other shops. If you have kids (or adults) in need of a pick-me-up, definitely grab an ice cream cone at Humphry Slocombe.
After sampling its wares, you could make the Ferry Building your dinner destination for the end of the evening. For a nicer dinner, make a reservation at the Slanted Door. The restaurant offers a modern take on Vietnamese food and has been one of San Francisco’s best restaurants for more than 20 years. (Editor’s Note: the Slanted Door is closed for renovations in 2023. For another fine dining option with water views, Waterbar a few blocks south is always an excellent choice.)
If you would prefer a quicker and more casual bite, try Gott’s Roadside. Gott’s is a classic greasy spoon founded in Napa County’s St. Helena with a distinct California twist: locally sourced ingredients, a wine and beer list, and unique dishes like Ahi Poke tacos served alongside burgers and shakes.
Ninth Stop: A Night at the Theater
Location: Various (most are in Union Square or Civic Center areas)
Not tired yet? For a late night out with older kids or without kids, San Francisco’s theater scene is alive and well. Check out the shows offered by BroadwaySF (usually at the Orpheum or Golden Gate Theaters) or the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). There’s also the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet, and so much more depending on the night and time of year.
From the Ferry Building, you have transportation choices galore to all of the major theaters, most of which are clustered near Union Square or Civic Center. Hop on either BART, Muni, or the F-Market streetcar headed up Market Street. Most theaters are located a few blocks from this route. Unfortunately, most theaters are in areas of the city where safety may be a concern, so avoid traveling solo after dark and exercise reasonable precautions as you would in any major city.
Where to Stay in San Francisco for One Night
At some point, you must sleep after a day as jam-packed as this one. Luckily, San Francisco has a number of iconic hotels with fascinating histories.
If you only have a night, I recommend splurging on more luxurious accommodations that are part of the city’s rich history like the Fairmont San Francisco in Nob Hill or the Westin St. Francis in Union Square. Both will provide memorable accommodations with San Francisco style.
If you want to stay near where this itinerary starts in the Presidio, two more lodging options to consider are the Lodge at the Presidio (newer property with room types that work for all traveler types including families) or the Inn at the Presidio (more historic property likely better for couples).
Be sure to check out my complete guide to family-friendly hotels in San Francisco that has even more lodging ideas for the City by the Bay!
Need more San Francisco travel advice? Check out these related articles:
- Best things to do in San Francisco with kids
- Free things to do in San Francisco with kids
- National parks in the San Francisco Bay Area
- Flying to San Francisco: Guide to All Bay Area Airports