Sample 3 day itinerary for first-time visitors to San Francisco.
We visited San Francisco for the first time over the Christmas holidays and I was able to check two items off of my travel bucket list. We stayed for 4 nights and had three full days for sightseeing as we arrived in San Francisco on December 28th late in the afternoon and departed the morning of January 1st. It wasn’t enough time to explore as much as I would have liked but we were able to see most of the must-see attractions in the city.
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Arrival in San Francisco
We thought we were going to have most of the afternoon for sightseeing but a flight delay out of Toronto meant that we arrived later than planned. It was late afternoon by the time we had checked into the Fairmont San Francisco in the Nob Hill neighbourhood. We had a look around the hotel and the festive decorations in the lobby which included a walk-through gingerbread house and a large Christmas tree and decided that there was just enough time for a quick walk before dinner.
We wanted to have an early dinner because it had been a long day and we were still on East Coast time but we thought a quick visit to Union Square could be managed beforehand. Although I knew that there were hills in San Francisco, I hadn’t really appreciated exactly how hilly the city was until we headed out on that first walk! As we headed down to Union Square I was worried that I would tumble forward and on the way back up to the hotel we huffed and puffed with occasional breaks to catch our breath. The residents of San Francisco must be in some seriously good shape!!
Union Square is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. The historic square was built in 1850 and named for the violent pro-Union demonstrations that took place there on the eve of the Civil War but today the landmark park is surrounded by luxury shopping, hotels, restaurants, art galleries and theatres. There is also a cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets where you can catch a cable car on either the Powell-Hyde or the Powell-Mason line. You will also find the 90 ft. Dewey Monument (topped by the Goddess of Victory) which was dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt after the Spanish-American War in the middle of the square.
We had a quick walk around and stopped to take photos of the Tony Bennett heart sculpture titled America’s Greatest City By the Bay. I was a bit disappointed that this was the only one of the Hearts in San Francisco sculptures that we found. In retrospect I should have done some research on where they were located ahead of time instead of just expecting that we would find them as we wandered the city. (After returning home I discovered that there is an online map that tracks current locations of the heart sculptures made for Hearts in San Francisco which would have been useful beforehand.) There was also a large Christmas tree in the square, a giant Menorah and a busy ice skating rink making it an even more popular destination during the holiday season. While we were there we popped into the lobby of the Westin St. Francis across the street to see the Enchanted Sugar Castle which is part of the hotel’s holiday display.
We headed back to the hotel planning to have a quick bite to eat during Happy Hour at the Tonga Room but weren’t able to get in so eventually resorted to room service and called it a night.
Day One – From The Painted Ladies To Fisherman’s Wharf
Both of my daughters are big fans of Full House so it was a priority for them to see San Francisco’s Painted Ladies. For that reason, we decided to take a cab directly there on the morning of our first full day so we could be sure to fit it in without running out of time. The Painted Ladies, also known as Postcard Row or the Seven Sisters, are a series of colourful Victorian row houses set against a backdrop of the modern San Francisco skyline. The row of Queen Anne style houses on Steiner Street in the historic Alamo Square Park district have appeared in an extensive list of films and television shows but it’s the fans of Full House that made them a popular tourist destination.
When we visited the park was closed and fenced off due to construction except for a small viewing area directly across from the houses. We were still able to pose for some photos although we weren’t able to get photos with the city skyline. One of the highlights of the morning was meeting a friendly dog named Elsa who lives in one of the houses out for her morning walk. Elsa is an actor who will be appearing in an upcoming movie so you could say we met a Hollywood star.
Fun Fact: Although the Painted Ladies and Alamo Square Park appear in the opening credits, none of these houses are the actual house depicted in Full House. The front of the house seen on the show is actually a house located at 1709 Broderick Street. Super-fans might want to track it down for a photo but we decided that we didn’t have enough time for that.
After consulting a map, we decided to walk from Alamo Square Park to the Civic Centre area of the city and get a cab from there to Fisherman’s Wharf. Civic Center is an area of downtown San Francisco (Van Ness Avenue and Market Street) that contains many of the city’s largest government and cultural institutions. The area was built early in the 20th century after an earlier city hall was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. The buildings here include San Francisco City Hall, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, War Memorial Opera House, the Supreme Court of California, and the San Francisco Library, Main Branch.
I was so impressed by the classical architecture and wished that I could have spent more time here to take photographs but we wanted to have sufficient time for exploring Fisherman’s Wharf. We stopped just long enough to have a quick snack and then called an Uber to take us to the waterfront. We lucked out with a great driver who drove via Lombard Street so we could experience the city’s crookedest street. We intended to walk back at some point to take photos at Lombard Street but never found time to fit it in.
Fisherman’s Wharf, located on San Francisco’s northern waterfront extending from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35, is the most-visited destination in San Francisco. I had read ahead of time that it was crowded and touristy but this was my first time visiting San Francisco and I wanted to see it anyway. The bustling area has a multitude of souvenir shops, street performers of various sorts, a variety of restaurants and attractions such as the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39, Madame Tussaud’s, and a historic carousel. The wharf area is also where you can catch the ferry to Alcatraz or head out on a boat tour of the bay.
Our Uber driver dropped us off in the thick of it and we made our way through the holiday crowds toward Pier 39 to see the sea lions. San Francisco’s famous sea lions started hanging out at Pier 39 after the 1989 earthquake and have become a popular attraction on the waterfront. We had to fight the crowds to get close enough to see them but it was well worth it as these marine mammals are a delight to watch. The clam chowder served in a bread bowl at Boudin Bakery had come highly recommended so I had also planned to stop there while at Fisherman’s Wharf but the lines were so long that we decided to postpone that for another day.
Fisherman’s Wharf was every bit as crowded as I had been warned but I’m glad we visited anyway. It is worth it for the views of the bay alone and to see the sea lions lounging at the pier. On a return visit to San Francisco, I might still head down to this area for a walk but I would do it first thing in the morning before the crowds were at their peak.
Once we had seen the sea lions we headed back toward historic Ghirardelli Square for some ice cream and a stroll around the shops. Ghirardelli Square was originally a chocolate factory built late in the 19th century that was transformed in the 1960s into a retail complex housing a number of unique shops and restaurants and later designated a National Historic Landmark. It was getting late in the day so we had some delicious ice cream at one of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company locations and then browsed the square a bit before heading back to our hotel to get changed for dinner.
Shopping Tip: Ghirardelli chocolates make a tasty souvenir and/or gift for friends and family back home – we brought several bags back with us! They can be purchased at one of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company shops, in other retail stores around the city or even at the airport.
Day Two – The Golden Gate Bridge Area and More
First on the agenda on our second full day in San Francisco was the Golden Gate Bridge. The iconic 1.7 mile long suspension bridge which crosses the Golden Gate strait linking San Francisco to Marin County was opened in 1937 and is now considered one of the wonders of the modern world. Pedestrians are able to cross the bridge during daylight hours.
The concierge at our hotel advised us to head to Crissy Field in order to get a good view (and photos) of the bridge. We had an Uber drop us off close to the bridge where we took photos and then walked along the waterfront back toward the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a lovely, warm morning and there were many people (and dogs) out walking and running along the water. I have always wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge (and my birthday seemed like the ideal day to do it) but we decided that the time required would mean skipping another attraction so I satisfied myself with just taking photos. Perhaps some day I will return to San Francisco and walk the bridge.
Fun Fact: International Orange was selected as the colour of the bridge because it provided visibility in the fog for passing ships.
We continued our walk toward the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District which was built in 1915 on land reclaimed from San Francisco Bay as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. The Palace was saved from demolition after the exposition but fell into ruin and had to be completely demolished in the 1960s and rebuilt. The palace was built to resemble Roman ruins and features a classical dome-covered rotunda and curved columns.
The architectural landmark is also surrounded by a lagoon where you will find swans floating gracefully by. Today the site belongs to the City of San Francisco and is a lovely park where you will find both visitors and residents out for a stroll or enjoying a picnic. This is one of the most-photographed sites in the city and has been featured in numerous film and television productions. If I had been by myself I would have spent more time here taking photos but my family doesn’t always wait patiently so we walked around the site and then headed to our final stop for the day.
A refurbished army barracks is home to The Walt Disney Family Museum located in the Presidio of San Francisco which was previously an active army base and now serves as a National Park. The museum was founded by Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, as a tribute to her dad with a mission to “inform present and future generations about the man and, through his story, to inspire them to heed their imagination and persevere in pursuing their goals“.
The museum has ten galleries that cover distinct periods of Walt’s life (1901-1966) beginning with his childhood and continuing through the launch of his career as a cartoonist, the development of Walt Disney Studios, the hardships of the war years, his dream of Disneyland and finally his legacy.
The museum uses multimedia exhibits narrated using Walt’s voice, interactive galleries, drawings, cartoons, family photos and artifacts to share Walt’s story with visitors. There’s even a magnificent scale model of Disneyland known as “The Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination” that is so incredibly detailed that you will have a hard time pulling yourself away from it. The model represents the park with attractions that existed or were in development during Walt’s lifetime.
The museum also offers film screenings, workshops, talks, and studio activities as well as limited-engagement exhibitions (Wish Upon a Star: The Art of Pinocchio when we visited) in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall which have an additional admission fee. There’s a small cafe serving sandwiches and salads as well where we were able to grab a bite to eat before touring the museum. Our family of three adults and a teenager quite enjoyed the museum and would recommend it for families with older children and teens as there isn’t much to hold the attention of toddlers or younger children.
(Read reviews/purchase tickets for the ” rel=”noopener noreferrer” target=”_blank” title=”Walt Disney Family Museum on TripAdvisor”>Walt Disney Family Museum on TripAdvisor)
On the way back to the hotel to get ready to celebrate my birthday we detoured a bit to walk through Chinatown which is located between the Financial District and Nob Hill. We didn’t have much time but it was nice to stroll through the area and at least get a sense of it although one could easily spend an hour or two here as there’s so much to see (and eat). San Francisco’s Chinatown is said to be the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America as it was established in the 1860s.
We entered the neighbourhood by way of Dragon’s Gate (aka Chinatown Gate), the traditionally decorated gateway arch that marks the entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue. We stayed mostly on Grant Avenue which is considered to be the more touristy area of Chinatown with bustling shops and silk lanterns hanging from banners across the street. Apparently Stockton Street is the more authentic part of Chinatown but we didn’t have time to investigate thoroughly.
Day Three – Alcatraz and Cable Car Rides
Our older daughter flew home early the morning of December 31st so she could spend New Year’s Eve with her friends and three of us were left to fit in as much as possible on our final day in San Francisco. First on the agenda was heading back down to Fisherman’s Wharf to catch the ferry to Alcatraz Island. The ferry leaves from Pier 33 and it is recommended that you arrive at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled boarding. We arrived much earlier than necessary so had some time to walk around prior to boarding the ferry.
Travel Tip: The National Park Service strongly recommends making advance ticket reservations to visit Alcatraz. Timed tickets are available about 90 days in advance from Alcatraz Cruises which is the official source for tickets to Alcatraz. Tickets may be purchased online and e-tickets printed at home. Alcatraz tickets are all inclusive. The ticket price includes the ferry transportation service provided by Alcatraz Cruises, the cell-house audio tour provided by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act fee. Purchase your tickets as far ahead as possible. I waited until two weeks prior to our trip and there were only a couple of time slots still available. We would have been very disappointed if I had waited too late.
A tour of the small island of Alcatraz (also known as The Rock) in San Francisco Bay just a mile and a quarter from shore is a highlight for many visitors to the city. Alcatraz has a fascinating history that includes use as a United States Fort and home to the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast in the mid 1800s, a maximum security federal penitentiary that has housed some of the country’s most notorious prisoners from 1934-1963, a 19 month occupation by Native Americans beginning in 1969, and designation as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972.
Upon disembarking from the ferry, visitors arriving on the island are greeted by National Park rangers who give a brief presentation before everyone heads uphill to the main building where you can pick up the audio player for the self-guided audio tour narrated by former correctional officers and inmates (approximately 35 minutes long) included with your ticket. We opted to skip the audio player and just do a self-guided tour using the map and written guide provided ($1 for the written guide). There is also a theatre playing a 17 minute orientation video which covers the 200 year history of Alcatraz Island and provides an excellent introduction before starting either an audio tour or a self-guided tour of the island. We toured the cell-house and then walked around the island to see the lighthouse and the surprisingly beautiful gardens. At various points around Alcatraz you will find fantastic views of San Francisco Bay, the mainland, Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge.
Travel Tip: Make note of the posted times of the return ferries when you disembark onto Alcatraz and then you can time your visit accordingly to minimize waiting. Be sure to dress warmly as recommended because it can be quite windy and cool both on the boat and on the island and wear comfortable shoes as much of the walking on the island is up steep hills.
When we returned on the ferry we had time to walk around Fisherman’s Wharf to check out some of the shops and I finally got my clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at the Boudin Bakery Cafe – it was delicious!
Fun Fact: The Boudin Bakery, established in San Francisco in 1849, is San Francisco’s oldest continuously running company.
An absolute must for most tourists visiting San Francisco is riding on one of the city’s historic cable cars. The manually operated cable car system was established late in the 19th century in order to transport people up and down the steep hills of San Francisco. Today there are three remaining lines which transport millions of passengers annually and the system has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
One of the Alcatraz Ferries employees suggested that our best bet for fitting in a cable car ride without a lengthy wait was to take a cab to the Financial District and catch the California Street cable car line back to our hotel. The California Street Line runs east-west from Van Ness Avenue to the Financial District and is not as busy as the other two lines as there tends to be more residents than tourists riding it. It crosses the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines at California Street/Powell Street in Nob Hill. We were fortunate that we caught the last cable car of the day as they were shutting down early because it was New Year’s Eve and I would have been very disappointed if I had to leave San Francisco without having an opportunity to ride one.
Cable Car Tips: The SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) has helpful tips and information available on their website – How to ride cable cars. If you are riding with small children then keep one hand on them at all times. A young boy on our cable car slipped off but his father was able to jump off and lift him back on unharmed and seemingly unfazed by the mishap.
We chose to spend New Year’s Eve attending a performance of She Loves Me at the San Francisco Playhouse. The San Francisco Playhouse is a theatre company located in the heart of the Union Square Theatre District that presents professional theatre in an intimate setting. The theatre stages six Mainstage productions each year so if you are in San Francisco then it is well-worth checking out their playbill. The production of She Loves Me was fabulous – as well-done as Broadway shows in New York for a fraction of the price – and I particularly liked their philosophy of the theatre as an empathy gym:
Our theater is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we can risk sharing in the lives of the characters. We feel what they feel, fear what they fear, and love what they love. And as we walk through our doors we take with us greater powers of understanding to make our community a better place, one play at a time.
The following morning we flew back to Toronto having enjoyed a wonderful visit to San Francisco. We were able to visit most of the city’s must-see attractions but on a future visit (because I’m always planning a future visit) I would want to explore more of the city’s neighbourhoods and plan at least one day trip out of the city to explore farther afield.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Fairmont San Francisco, a AAA Four Diamond historic luxury hotel located at 950 Mason St. atop Nob Hill. The landmark hotel was set to open when the 1906 earthquake struck and the building was damaged in the ensuing fire. A young architect named Julia Morgan was hired to oversee the rebuilding of the hotel. A year after the fire the Fairmont opened and quickly became known as one of the most elegant hotels in the city. Another restoration was recently undertaken to bring the hotel into the 21st century by recreating Julia Morgan’s 1907 vision of the hotel’s stunning lobby as a grand public space with marble floors and Corinthian columns. The Fairmont has 592 elegant guest rooms and suites that combine luxurious surroundings with modern amenities.
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The hotel has a great central location as it’s near the spot where all the cable car lines meet and Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square and the Financial District are all easy to reach from here. We booked two adjoining rooms (one with a King bed and the other with two Queens) in order to have adequate space for our family of 4 for the first three nights of our stay. Our 20 year-old flew home a day earlier than the rest of us so she could spend New Year’s Eve with friends so the three of us stayed in one room for the final night.
There are a couple of dining options at the hotel but we didn’t end up eating at either of them. We had hoped to eat at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar which serves Asian cuisine in a tropical setting around a pool that has been transformed into a lagoon. I had tried to make a reservation at home but there was no availability and we opted to try Happy Hour which started at 5pm. We were able to have a look around the Tonga Room but, regrettably, weren’t able to dine as we gave up after an hour long wait. We also tried Laurel Court Restaurant located in the lobby but there was a wait there as well so we went back to our room and settled for room service. There is also Caffe Cento which offers specialty coffees, a selection of teas, fresh pastries, breakfast and lunch items.
We received assistance from the concierge a number of times with directions, sightseeing recommendations and dinner reservations and they were always quite helpful.
Travel Tip: Be sure to sign up for Fairmont’s Presidents Club if you aren’t already a member – it’s free to sign up and members get free internet access.
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