San Francisco: 1 Day, 3 Ways

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Film locations, hippie hangouts, historic buildings and great wine – here’s how to see it all in 24 hours

Arguably the most beautiful city in the US, San Francisco rises from one of the world’s great natural harbours where mountains bow down to the Pacific Ocean. It has provided the scenic backdrop for countless movies and TV shows, so when you arrive at Pier 35 (or 27 for larger ships) you’ll feel instantly at home. With so many different things to see and do, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you’re sailing in pre or post-cruise, here’s three different ways to spend one day in the California city.

1. First time

8.30am You could spend a perfectly enjoyable day just exploring the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s waterfront promenade. Its centrepiece is the Ferry Building. This grand edifice served as the city’s gateway until the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were opened in the 1930s. Reinvented as a market hall, it’s a great place for a bite to eat.

10am Alcatraz Island is just a 15-minute ferry ride from Embarcadero’s Wharf 33. With an excellent audio guide, ranger talks and historic gardens to explore, you should allow at least two-and-a-half hours for your visit. You’ll also need to book in advance and arrive at least 30 minutes before your ferry departure.

Alcatraz Island, just a 15-minute ferry ride
Alcatraz Island, just a 15-minute ferry ride from San Francisco

1pm Fisherman’s Wharf remains one of the city’s top attractions. It’s very commercialised these days, but the resident sea lions are worth seeing and you’ll want to try the clam chowder, served in a hollowed-out loaf. Alternatively, you’re only a few blocks away from the culinary delights of San Francisco’s Chinatown – the largest anywhere outside Asia.

3pm San Francisco is famous for its cable cars, and Fisherman’s Wharf is on two of the network’s three routes. For the past 150 years, these heritage-listed vehicles have hauled their passengers up and down the city’s inclines and the experience is exhilarating, but bumpy. For transport buffs, there is a free cable car museum on Mason Street. Lombard Street has featured in many movies because of its famous hairpins, and the Powell-Hyde Cable Car, from Fisherman’s Wharf, stops at the top, giving you a great photo of the parade of cars below.

Cable cars, San Francisco
After 150 years, the city’s cable cars still pull the crowds

5pmTime to head for Pier 39. One of San Francisco’s main shopping, entertainment sectors and some of the city’s best restaurants. Here you can enjoy a happy-hour cocktail or one of California’s world-class wines while admiring views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the harbour.

The Basics

2. Been there? Go here!

9am Just across the Golden Gate Strait lies Sausalito. A pretty bayside town with a colourful history that includes gold-rush millionaires, bootleggers, fishermen, shipbuilders and brothels. Today, it is on the edge of the Napa wine region and makes a perfect day out from the big city. Most people arrive by boat, but if you’re feeling active, hire a bike and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the spectacular views. Sausalito itself is a place just to saunter and soak up the atmosphere. Keep an eye out for its colourful communities of houseboats.

The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square
The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square

12pm It was in the city’s bohemian Haight-Ashbury district that the Summer of Love began. With local residents Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead providing the soundtrack. In Haight-Ashbury today, you’ll find plenty of characters still living the hippie dream, together with murals of Hendrix, vintage books and albums, and plenty of shops selling psychedelia. Book a tour that includes the brightly-coloured Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.

3pm Donald and Doris Fisher accumulated a three-billion-dollar fortune from their clothing businesses, Gap and Banana Republic. They used it to indulge their passion for 20th century modern art, building one of the world’s great collections of works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder and Cy Twombly. You can see it all at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. If you visit only one modern art museum in your lifetime, make it SFMOMA.

The Basics

San Francisco neighbourhood
The Summer of Love district was home to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead

3. Family fun

10am The Exploratorium moved to its present location on Piers 15 and 17 of the Embarcadero in 2013. But don’t tell the kids it’s a museum, just let them have fun. With more than 650 hands-on exhibits, they can stroll inside a tornado, amble across a bridge of fog and prove Galileo was right by dropping a feather.

1p Founded in 2012 by local woman Alexandra Kenin – then a Google executive. Urban Hikers SF can take you off the tourist track to reveal some of the city’s more surprising sights. This may be a crowded metropolis, but on a three-hour walk, you might find yourself wandering through a eucalyptus forest or discovering a hillside dam built after the catastrophic fire of 1906. If you have older children (10+) with a sense of adventure, they’ll love it.

3pm You’re right – Walt Disney had no real ties with San Francisco at all. But the Walt Disney Family Museum opened in the Presidio district in 2009 as a non-profit foundation dedicated to explaining the life of the world famous animator. Don’t expect adventure rides, because this is nothing like the commercial parks in LA and Florida. Gallery 8 is dedicated to “Walt and the Natural World” – a reminder that Disney invested in wildlife documentaries long before Sir David Attenborough joined the BBC.

San francsisco trail
Urban Hikers SF in total is three hours long

The Basics

San Francisco travel facts

  1. September and October are the best times to travel, with temperatures in the low 70s (Fahrenheit).
  2. The US Dollar is used in San Francisco.
  3. British travellers are required to complete a Electronic System for Travel Authorisation at least three days prior to traveling to the US.
San Francisco attractions
San Francisco is very popular for vineyard wine tours

Top 15 San Francisco facts you might not know

  1. In most American cities, you have to park with your car pointing in the direction of the traffic on the correct side of the road; otherwise you will be ticketed and fined.
  2. During the Great Depression, not a single bank in San Francisco failed. In fact, business was so good that the city constructed the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge during the Depression.
  3. Levi Strauss invented denim jeans in San Francisco for the Gold Rush miners who needed durable yet comfortable clothing.
  4. The United States’ first Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco in 1848. Perhaps ironically, the Japanese Hagiwara family invented “Chinese” fortune cookies.
  5. Before it was renamed to San Francisco, this small city by the bay was called Yerba Buena, good herb in Spanish.
  6. San Francisco has the second largest Chinatown outside of Asia.
  7. San Francisco also has the largest and oldest Japantown in the United States.
  8. The city was built on more than 50 hills.
  9. San Francisco is home to the largest competition of American wines in the world.
  10. The first electric TV was invented in SF in 1927 by Philio Farnsworth.
  11. The United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco.
  12. There are only around 830,000 people that live within the city and county.
  13. You will never run out of new restaurants to try here. At any given time, there are more than 3,500 restaurants open in SF.
  14. San Francisco sees around 17 million tourists each year.
  15. It hosted the last official concert of Beatles in 1966.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published April 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.