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The Essential Guide to the Perfect Three-Day Weekend in San Francisco

San Francisco holds a special place in our hearts. This is the only city where we canceled our flight just so we could extend our stay. In fact, we love it so much that we vowed to move there one day! Our dream is to eventually sell off everything, buy an RV and drive around the country for a year before we set up shop in the bay area.

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What is there not to like about this city? Within a short weekend you can see all of the major sites in downtown, visit wine country, see the giant redwoods, and drive along the coast that car commercials are made of. If you are planning your first trip to San Francisco, you are in for a real treat, and we hope you fall in love with it like we did.

Before our trip, we spoke with friends who used to live there and browsed online to find the best activities, sites and restaurants. You’ll find all of our recommendations in this post, and we’ve even included a suggested itinerary to help you make the most out of your trip.

San Francisco in 3 Days: Our Tips and Top Picks

SAN FRANCISCO TIPS

  • Bring a jacket and umbrella. We visited in the summer and even though the temperature was in the high 60’s, the wind off the bay made it feel very chilly. It also drizzled on and off and apparently fog is very common in this area.
  • Stay in downtown. We stayed outside the city near the airport to cut costs and ended up spending way more money renting a car and driving to and from the hotel. Not to mention a lot of time was wasted driving.
  • Some of the hills are very steep. This applies to both driving and walking. You could easily bottom out a car when driving or find it impossible to park in the city for fear your car will roll away. Consider taking the cable car or other form of public transportation to get around if you are not used to driving in hilly areas or mountains.
  • You have to pay a toll to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. This can only be done by Pay-By-Plate or with a FasTrak responder. Make sure if you rent a car that you talk about this with the car rental company beforehand.
  • Buy a City Pass with the Alcatraz Island Day Tour You’re going to see the sites anyway and you’ll save 45% on the top attractions. You also get unlimited cable car rides.

 

SUGGESTED 3-DAY SAN FRANCISCO ITINERARY

 Detailed descriptions are provided later in this post.

DAY 1: Explore Downtown

  1. Alcatraz – Book your tickets in advance and go early in the day to avoid large crowds.
  2. Farmer’s Market at Ferry Building – Open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Check out their website for hours of operation.
  3. Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39– Make your way over to the pier to see the sea lions laying out in the sun.
  4. Lombard Street – Ride over to the Russian Hill neighborhood to see the hairpin turns and hear cars screeching their brakes as they drive down the hill.
  5. Painted Ladies – See the colorful Victorian style homes before heading to dinner.

DAY 2: Visit the Muir Woods & Wine Country

  1. Chrissy Field – Start your day trip off with this scenic viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  2. Golden Gate Bridge – Keep in mind that you have to pay a toll when crossing the bridge.
  3. Sonoma – Enjoy lunch in downtown Sonoma. Research a couple wineries you would like to visit while in the area.
  4. Napa – You may only be able to visit 1-2 wineries in this area before heading back to San Francisco.

DAY 3: Drive Along the Coast            

  1. Stinson Beach – Park in the public parking lot and walk down the beach until you reach the Siren Canteen. Grab a fresh fish taco or crepe at this quaint restaurant while overlooking the beach.
  2. Point Reyes National Seashore – Drive along Highway 1 until you reach this area. Keep in mind that cell service will be very poor from here on out.
  3. Point Reyes Lighthouse – Drive for about 40 minutes until you finally reach the lighthouse. It is only open Friday through Monday until 4:30 pm. Check out the website beforehand for special hours or alerts.
  4. San Francisco – Take the fastest route back to San Francisco to get there just in time for dinner or to catch a redeye flight.

 

HOTELS IN SAN FRANCISCO

We highly recommend staying in downtown San Francisco, near Union Square, the Financial District, or the Embarcadero. Depending on the time of the year and how early you book, you can find 3-4 star hotels in the $200-$300 range. Summer (June-August) is peak season for the bay area so make sure to book ahead of time if you want to save on a hotel.

We visited San Francisco the first week of December and prices were in the $300-$400 dollar range even when we booked a month out so we stayed at the Sofitel (now Pullman) in Redwood City. Although this hotel was beautiful and reasonably priced, it took about 30 minutes to get to and from downtown. Don’t make the same mistake we did!


 

TOP ACTIVITIES IN SAN FRANCISCO

Alcatraz

This is a must-see when visiting San Francisco! Make sure to purchase tickets early as they book up quickly. The official ferry for the tour is Alcatraz Cruises although many other companies advertise tickets. Pay close attention to instructions for the arrival time and departure location so you don’t miss the boat (no pun intended)!

On the cruise, you will get a panoramic view of the city and Golden Gate Bridge as you make your way over to the island. Keep and eye out for sea lions in the bay and take some pictures of Coit Tower shortly after departing.

Once you arrive on the island, grab the audio guide for a self-guided tour throughout Alcatraz. You’ll learn how it came to be known as one of the most dangerous prisons in the world and the stories behind some of the infamous criminals. The guide also talks about those who tried to escape and the few that were successful. We don’t want to spoil the rest of the stories, but just know this is a really cool place to check out. Make sure to give yourself time to explore the grounds after you see the jail.

Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building

We visited the market on Saturday around lunch time, and grabbed small bites at a few select stands. The most notable was a vegan donut from Donut Farm, which offered the best donuts we have EVER eaten. Runner up would be the curry from Delica. We also had some great oysters and view of the bay at Hog Island Oyster Co.

No matter what type of food you prefer, there are food and drink stands for every craving. Stands are located both in and outside the Ferry building, and there are a ton of novelty shops as well.

Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39

Here you will find street performers, shops, and mostly chain restaurants, but it is worth checking out. If you’d rather skip all of the touristy stuff, then you can make a bee-line to the docks, otherwise known as Pier 39, to see the sea lions and a gorgeous view of the bay.

Lombard Street

If you have a car and feel brave enough to drive down the winding turns, then start at the top of the hill at 1099 Lombard Street. Otherwise, go to Leavenworth and Lombard for a photo op. Watch out for cars as these are working streets.

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Painted Ladies

The Painted Ladies consists of 5 beautifully colored homes that sit right on the hill with the back of the homes facing the bay area. It is a perfect photo opportunity and the parking is really easy since they’re right in front of a park.

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Chrissy Field

Stop here for one of the best viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can even bike or walk along the bay if you have time.

Golden Gate Bridge

This iconic landmark is another must-see and hard to miss when visiting San Francisco. And guess what, it is not actually gold! It’s name comes from the body of water it crosses. The orange color was chosen so it would stand out in the fog. Source: http://www.sftravel.com/golden-gate-bridge

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During the day, you can bike or walk the 1.7 mile long bridge. Bike rentals are not available at the bridge so check out the area for the closest bike rental shop. Make sure to check out the pedestrian hours ahead of time.

If crossing the bridge by car, keep in mind that a toll is required and can only be paid by Pay-By-Plate or a FasTrack responder.


 

BEST DAY TRIP ACTIVITIES FROM SAN FRANCISCO

Muir Woods National Monument

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be an ant looking up at the world? In the Muir Woods, you literally feel like you’re on the set of Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The trees are incredible with the tallest one being over 250 ft. tall. We’ve never seen anything like it and we highly recommend going!

Sonoma

When you are in San Francisco, going to the wine country is a must if you like to drink. But make sure you plan a whole day for it. If you do not want to drive, you can take a wine tour where the tour company picks you up at your hotel and brings you to the wineries.

Make sure to check out downtown Sonoma. We looked around the shops and ate lunch at El Dorado. Afterwards, we visited a couple wineries, including Cline Cellars.

Napa

We spent a lot of time in Sonoma so our time in Napa was shorter. Plus Napa is another 30 minutes from Sonoma.

Was it worth visiting? Probably not on a day trip alone. Unless you have a winery in mind and can fit it into your schedule. Otherwise, Napa is probably another trip in itself.

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At the very beginning of Napa Valley, we stopped at Mayo Winery and learned about the wine-making process. We found that most of the wines in Sonoma and Napa are aged with an oak barrel, which gives the wines a different taste than wines that are in aluminum barrels. That one was free! The rest you’ll have to visit wine country to find out yourself.

Stinson Beach

This little beach town was one of the highlights of our trip. We read about The Siren Canteen restaurant on Yelp, so we went to check it out. It is a little hard to find, because you actually have to walk out on to the beach to find it.

From the string lights to the large windows overlooking the beach, this place is a true gem. Not to mention the food is fantastic. Especially the fish tacos.

It happened to be cloudy and windy when we got there so we were the only customers. At the time, we didn’t know where we were heading on our drive up the coast, we just wanted to see the famous cliffs. The owner was super nice and recommended we drive up to Point Reyes. She even gave us a paper map since she said the cell service would be poor as we got closer to the lighthouse.

Honestly, every one of our experiences led to our unforgettable trip. This restaurant was just the beginning of an amazing day trip to Point Reyes.

Point Reyes National Seashore & Lighthouse

You know the feeling when you’re driving and you ask “are we there yet?” Point Reyes Lighthouse seemed so close, but yet so far away. It felt like we were driving forever after we entered the national seashore to the lighthouse. In reality, it takes about 40 minutes.

You’ll know when you are getting close to the lighthouse when you start seeing cows crossing the road and a view of the ocean. We saw a coyote and lots of birds on our drive.

Eventually you’ll come to a parking lot where you get out to walk to the lighthouse. Along the way, you will see deer all along the cliffs.

The lighthouse was pretty cool too. They have a little museum and store, and you can either take pictures from the top of the cliff or walk down the stairs to the lighthouse.

You may even get lucky and see whales from this location. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any while we were there. Maybe next time!


 

TOP RESTAURANTS IN SAN FRANCISCO

We don’t recall having a bad meal on our trip. Every single restaurant we visited was memorable for at least one item. It is no wonder San Francisco has some of the best restaurants in the world. That is one downfall of only spending a weekend in San Francisco, because your mealtimes are limited. However, it provides a good reason to return! Try to make reservations ahead of time to get into the best restaurants.

Breakfast:

Donut Farm: All of their donuts are vegan, which doesn’t mean anything because these are literally worth driving from Florida to San Francisco for. Buy a box. You wont regret it.

Lunch:

Delica: If you are a curry lover, then this is your place. It was probably the best beef curry we ever had. They don’t just make curry though. Delica has a wide variety of tasty dishes to get like chicken dumplings and bento boxes too!

Hog Island Oyster Co.: The Ferry Building is honestly foodie land and you can eat and eat all day long. From cheese, to cheeseburgers, to Asian spots, and even desserts, you could definitely stay for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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The Hog Island Oyster Co is one of the most popular places to get a bite to eat in the building and highly rated, which is well deserved. Their oysters are phenomenal! Considering that you have eaten your way through the Ferry building and end up here, you might as well try the delicious oysters they have to offer.

Imperial Tea Court: The Imperial Tea court has a dumpling cart that they sell dumplings and bao’s to go. They are literally a must have and you can share one bao with a friend or relative (they’re big).

Dinner:

Hakkasan: If you’ve never eaten authentic Chinese cuisine before then you’re in for real treat. Hakkasan restaurants are very famous for their food and ambiance and can be found all over the world.

Be prepared to spend a little more than what you are expecting from a normal Chinese restaurant. This restaurant is pretty upscale, but it worth every penny! The Pipa duck, pepper steak and the dim sum sampler are the staple items for us when we eat at a Hakkasan.

Roka Akor: In San Francisco you wont have trouble finding a great place to eat. It’s literally a foodie heaven. Roka Akor has some amazing dishes and we definitely recommend the sushi boat for two, shishito peppers and the prime steak appetizer with shaved truffles. Are we making you salivate yet? Honestly, it was one of the best sushi experiences we had while traveling.

Stones Throw: If you are looking for a quaint and local restaurant, Stones Throw is your place. Located in Russian Hill, it has a nice vibe and its filled with locals. They are quite crafty with their foods and have a great beer selection too. From pork belly to octopus, you can get some very tasty dishes.


 

THE TAKEAWAY

Don’t miss: Alcatraz, Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building (if you’re a foodie), Sonoma, Chrissy Field, Muir Woods

If you have time: Napa, The Siren Canteen at Stinson Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore & Lighthouse

Okay to skip: Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39, Lombard Street, Painted Ladies

Things we missed: Coit Tower, Chinatown, Cable Car ride, Night Tour of Alcatraz

 

Heading to San Francisco? We would love to hear about your plans!

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