Visiting somewhere new for the first-time can be overwhelming. You need to decide what to do, where to stay and where to eat as well as book flights or trains in some cases.
Well, luckily for you I’ve done all the research for you and come up with a detailed list of over 16 of the most popular things to do in San Francisco over 5 days. San Francisco is known as one of the quirkiest and open-minded cities in the USA – it’s population of close to 1 million is a mix of hippies, tech-geniuses and other interesting folk. As you can guess some of the best things to do in San Francisco involve the famous Golden Gate Bridge – you can cycle over it, cruise under it and even fly over it on a helicopter tour. Of course, Alcatraz is a must-visit whilst in San Francisco but I’ve also listed some quirkier activities like the Exploratorium, Lincoln Park Steps and Mrs Doubtfires House.
In this blog I detail the very best things to do in 5 days in San Francisco! It sure is a jam-packed itinerary…
How many days in San Francisco is enough?
Most tourists find that 5 days in San Francisco is the perfect amount of time to get a true feel of the city. In 5 days in San Francisco you can explore all of the downtown neighborhoods like Haight-Ashbury, Castro and North Beach as well as visit Alcatraz and Sausalito. However, if you want to visit more far-flung areas like Napa, Carmel-by-the-Sea, which are two of the cutest towns near San Francisco then I recommend extending your stay in San Francisco to one week.
Day 1: Mill Valley; Muir Woods and dinner at Pier 39
Pay a visit to Mill Valley
Mill Valley is a charming little town built at the base of Mount Tamalpais. It’s just over 30 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco and has a very European feel to it. This sweet little town certainly captured my imagination!
Some great annual events in Mill Valley and well worth checking out include – Mill Valley Film Festival; Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting; the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival and Winterfest.
Getting here from San Francisco – catch the Line 70 bus from the Civic Center; hop off at Marin City Hub and hop on Line 17 to Mill Valley Depot.
Explore Muir Woods
Just minutes away from Mill Valley is the very popular Muir Woods National Monument which attracts thousands of tourists daily. In fact, this is a great family-friendly activity in San Francisco! A visit to Muir Woods offer the opportunity to see giant redwood trees – one of the few areas to see these trees in the Bay Area. There’s a range of hiking trails at Muir Woods all varying in difficulty and length. Worth noting is reservations are required for all vehicles and tourists to the Woods – you can catch the Route 66 Shuttle from Sausalito, Marin City, or Mill Valley if you don’t fancy driving here. Entrance to Muir Woods can work out pretty costly, current rates as follows:
- $8.50 per vehicle
- $3.25 per person for a space on the Route 66 shuttle
- $15.00 per person entrance fee to gain entry to Muir Woods
Have dinner at Pier 39
Pier 39 is known to have some of the freshest and best seafood in San Francisco. There are 12 restaurants here, most specializing in seafood but there is a Hard Rock Cafe here too where you can indulge in delicious burgers. This is an extremely popular place to dine because of the epic views across San Francisco Bay and to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Some of the best restaurants at Pier 39 include Fog Harbor Fish House, Crab House and Eagle Cafe.
Day 2: Golden Gate Bridge; Sausalito; Alcatraz
Cycle the Golden Gate Bridge
Easily one of the most famous sights in San Francisco, if not all of California – the Golden Gate Bridge is an icon. I highly recommend cycling or walking the bridge, instead of driving it as traffic can be a nightmare at certain times of the day and parking on both sides of the bridge – the San Francisco side and the Sausalito side is very limited.
The Golden Gate Bridge is 2.1 miles in length and and it will take approximately 25 minutes to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Some avid cyclists can complete the one-way journey in 10 minutes, it all depends on how fit you are and how often you stop. You can either cycle both ways or return by ferry from Sausalito and drop your bike back off at the rental store when you come off your ferry. The Western footpath of the bridge is for cyclists only, but beware it is two-ways so cyclists will be coming towards you too.
You can rent a bike from Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rentals on 2157 Lombard St, for as little as $29! They also rent electric bikes available for rent if you’re not keen on a workout.
This guided 3-hour bike tour includes bike rental, a knowledgeable guide and photo stops for as little as $55!
If you would prefer to walk the bridge this will take about 35 minutes each way, the Eastern footpath is for pedestrians only. Again, you can choose to get the ferry back from Sausalito if you prefer.
Explore the gorgeous town of Sausalito
Sausalito is often described as a laid-back town with an almost Mediterranean vibe. It’s small at just over 2.2 square miles and has a population of just over 7,000 people. I’m sure this gorgeous town tops the wish-list of ‘places to live if I won the lotto’ for a lot of people.
Imagine a different way of life at the Houseboats (over 500 of them) that occupy the waters at the Northern end of the town. Rent a kayak or go on a boat tour to see the best of Sausalito from the water. Or simply browse through the many boutique stores that line Main Street.
Seafood is a must when dining in Sausalito – some must-try seafood restaurants in town include Scoma’s of Sausalito at 588 Bridgeway and Seafood Peddler Restaurant and Fish Market. For non-seafood fans head to Napa Valley Burger Company or Taste of Rome. For coffee try Firehouse Coffee & Tea on Johnson Street.
Cruise to Alcatraz
One of the most famous prisons in recent history, Alcatraz was once home to infamous gangster Al Capone. Alcatraz closed in the 1970 and started welcoming visitors not long after in 1973. It’s no surprise then that one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco is a guided cruise tour of Alcatraz!
The tour of Alcatraz prison itself is via a self-guided audio tour which is really informative. It’s so interesting to see the prison cells and hear the stories of former inmates. Included in your ticket, you can visit the historical gardens of Alcatraz which has stunning views of San Francisco Bay and explore any exhibitions being hosted in the Industries Building. Allow 2.5 hours on Alcatraz.
This 4 hour San Francisco city tour includes your entrance ticket to Alcatraz, it costs from $120 per person.
Day 3: Lombard Street; Coit Tower; Ocean Beach
Known as the most crooked street in the world because of it’s 8 hairpin bends, Lombard Street is definitely a must-visit in San Francisco CBD. In fact, it’s one of the most photographed streets in the world.
At busy times, drivers need to wait up to 30 minutes to drive down this narrow winding street. Personally, I’m not a confident enough driver to drive the world’s most crooked street, so, I prefer to walk it and take lots of photos. The center sections of the street are filled with bright and colorful flowers, making the street uber-photogenic in Summer and Spring especially.
Sp, how did Lombard Street come to be – well, if you’ve visited San Francisco previously you’ll know the city is full of hills. Well, in the 1920’s when cars were becoming popular, the idea to turn some of San Francisco’s streets into curved streets to make it easier to drive down was formed. As a result, Lombard Street went from a steepness of 27% to 16%.
The easiest way to get to Lombard Street is to hop on the Powell/Hyde cable car, that begins at Fisherman’s Wharf.
This two-hour guided walking tour includes a tour of Lombard Street as well as off-the-beaten-track sights in downtown San Francisco. Tickets cost from $80 per adult.
Climb Coit Tower for a fabulous city view
Coit Tower is 210 foot tower that offers fabulous views of downtown San Francisco. It was built back in 1933 in an attempt to make the city’s skyline more beautiful. The viewing platform at the top of the tower, can be reached by elevator from the Gift Shop – tickets for this cost $9 per adult.
Many people believe Coit Tower was built to resemble a firemans hose, because Lillie Hitchcock Coit whom the tower is named after was a patron of the San Francisco Fire Brigade. However, this is just a coincidence.
There are many beautiful murals on display inside the tower, they were painted by a group of local artists in 1934.
Explore North Beach neighborhood
I should mention that despite its name there isn’t actually a beach at North Beach! The area is known locally as “Little Italy” because of the sheer amount of Italian eateries and stores, thanks to the massive Italian community living here.
It’s under a 15 minute walk to North Beach from Coit Tower.
Take a stroll down Grant Ave. with its unique stores and head to Broadway for the best bars and restaurants. Plus, if you’re a lover of books or lovely bookstores you can’t miss City Lights bookstore on Columbus Ave. After dark, come to see the ‘Language of the birds’, which is essentially a number of illuminated books that look like they’re hanging from the sky. This permanent art installation is at the corner of Broadway and Columbus Avenue.
If you’re feeling hungry be sure to grab an award at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. And for non-pizza food items hit up Original Joe’s, a must-try that’s been serving the people of San Francisco for more than 100 years.
BONUS ADDITION: Visit the house from Mrs Doubtfire
One of my favorite places to visit in San Francisco is the ‘Mrs Doubtfire House’, I’m a huge fan of the 1993 movie and Robin Williams. The house is located at 2640 Steiner Street, near Pacific Heights. It looks a little different to the movie, what you’d expect after almost 30 years but it’s still a must-see for any movie fans. In fact, the house was recently sold for $4.5 million.
Day 4: Haight-Asbury; Castro; Chinatown
Spend time in cool Haight-Ashbury
Once the beating heart of the hippie movement in the 1960’s, today, Haight-Ashbury is famous for the brightly colored Victorian houses, cool restaurants and quirky boutiques. Once, a working class neighborhood – now many of the homes have been bought by tech-types. Which has changed the vibe a little, but, it’s still an awesome neighborhood to visit.
Downhill on Haight Street still retains the alternative vibe the area was known for with alt-bars, consignment shops and music shops selling vinyl records.
The former grateful dead house at 710 Ashbury St. is a must-see as well as the former Jefferson Airplane house at 2400 Fulton St.
FYI – this fun game will help you discover the rich history of Haight Ashbury neighborhood by solving clues and unlocking stories on your phone. It costs as little as $4.50 per person!
If you’re in San Francisco to party – then look no further than Castro, San Francisco’s gay neighborhood and home to the best bars and night clubs in the city. Which are gay and straight friendly.
Twin Peaks Tavern on Castro Street with its floor-to-ceiling windows is one of the originals, it opened in 1972. Catch a show at the Castro Theatre and pay a visit to the GLBT Historic Museum on 18th Street is the first stand-alone gay museum in the U.S. It celebrates the San Francisco’s renowned gay cultures past with exciting exhibitions and workshops.
Castro is also one of the best parts of San Francisco to go thrift-shopping with a plethora of second-hand stores, some even stock designer pieces at very cheap prices. One of the best is Siu Generis on Market Street.
Would you believe San Francisco’s Chinatown is the biggest in the U.S, yep, it’s roughly half a mile by a quarter of a mile. And has a population of approximately 40,000 mostly Chinese immigrants.
The entrance to Chinatown, called Dragon Gate is one of the most photographed spots in San Francisco, it can be found on Grant Street. The Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings also on Grant Street are typical Chinese structures and were some of the first buildings in Chinatown, having been constructed in 1906.
Foodies will love Chinatown, because it has some of the best places to eat in the whole city. Dim Sum is of course extraordinarily popular, and the best place to try this is at Delicious Dim Sum on 752 Jackson Street or Good Mong Kok Bakery at 1039 Stockton Street. As well as excellent Chinese restaurants there’s teahouses, bars and souvenir stalls. The famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where you can watch fortune cookies being made, is located on Ross Alley.
Did you know – San Francisco’s Chinatown, specifically Ross Alley has featured in several recent movies including Dead Pool and Godzilla!
Day 5: Golden Gate Park; Exploratorium; Bakers Beach; Ocean Beach
Get lost in Golden Gate Park
This is the 3rd most-visited Park in the U.S (behind Central Park in NY and National Memorial Park in Washington D.C). Golden Gate Park is a whopping 1,017 acres and home to Bison Paddock where you can spot a herd of bison grazing, unusual for this part of the country and the Conservatory of Flowers which is the oldest building in the Park. Here, there are over 1,700 species of plants, many of them rare.
The Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest such garden in the country and was constructed in 1894. The Garden is 3.5 acres and filled with Japanese maple, cherry trees and more. Cherry blossom season is an especially popular time here, this is from March to April.
Most of the roads in Golden Gate Park are now car-free and it’s very popular with locals exercising and families playing and picnicking in one of the many green areas.
Have fun at the Exploratorium
Characterized as “a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one. The Exploratorium is more than a museum—it’s a gateway to exploring science, art, and human perception. Let your curiosity roam free through hundreds of exhibits across 6 galleries.
The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15, entrance fee costs from $29.95 per adult. It’s closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Take a stroll on Bakers Beach
On a clear day one of the best places to go is Bakers Beach near the Presidio district. This mile-long beach has one of the best photo opportunities in all of San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge right next to you. You’ll also be treated to views of the Marin Headlands and Lands End!
It’s a popular spot for photographers and land fishing. There’s also many picnic benches here, so, pack a picnic and take in the breathtaking views. From Bakers Beach you can access a few awesome walking trails, including the 3 mile Lands End Trail and Mile Rock Beach.
Lincoln Park Steps
A 22 minute walk from Bakers beach, via 26th Ave and California St is Lincoln Park Steps.
One of the most recent art projects in the city, the Lincoln Park Steps are located very close to Lincoln Park Golf Course. They are so bright and colorful, and typically quiet especially if you visit in the morning like we did.
Visit Ocean Beach
This 6-mile long San Francisco beach is popular with surfers. The beach is so huge that it spans the entire Sunset District, starting at Cliff House and ending at Sloat Boulevard.You will also find some fun things here including the famous Beach Chalet and the San Francisco Zoo.
San Francisco Zoo is located on the Southern end of the beach. It’s a fun place to visit for kids of all ages. Here you can see a variety of animals from polar bears to gorillas.
Ocean Beach is just a 7 minute walk from Golden Gate Park, via Lincoln Avenue.
What is the best month to visit San Francisco?
The best time to visit San Francisco is in September, October or November. That’s because the warmest temperatures are typically felt in Fall and there’s less rain and fog! Also, there’s less tourists meaning you will have some of the city’s top sight pretty much to yourself!
Best Hotels in San Francisco
The Westin St Francis – conveniently located at Union Square, all rooms have great city views and there’s a number of on-site dining options as well as a fitness center.
Fairmont San Francisco – a 5-star hotel located at the top of Nob Hill, the Fairmont is renowned with luxury and many of the hotels rooms offer views of Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. The on-site restaurant is famous, the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar serves Polynesian food and has live entertainment nightly.
Hotel Zephyr – is located just 300 meters from Fishermans Wharf plus the rooms are all nautically themed! There’s an on-site mini-mart as well as a shared lounge and a games room.
Phoenix Hotel – this 1950s motor lodge has had a stylish makeover recently. This is one of the only affordable, indie boutique hotels in San Francisco!
Thanks for reading!
Taking a trip back to where I was born for the first time since 2009 and Paul’s first time ever on American shores. We had just over a week to see all of San Francisco’s sights. It rained the whole time, California isn’t known for its rainy weather, in fact, before we landed the state had been pretty much in a drought with tight water bans in force but boy did we bring the rain with us, The Californians were very happy, we were not. Oh well, onwards and upwards. It was mainly frustrating for me, because I had packed all my cute bohemian dresses but ya know what we tried not to let it put a dampener on the trip (see what I did there! )
P.S I’ve also written a very detailed blog post on the best things to do in Seattle, I’d love if you could check it out!
PIN IT FOR LATER!