The City by the Bay is one of the most sought after places to visit in the U.S. When you travel to San Francisco, you have the option of exploring so much more, since Sausalito, Muir Woods, and Napa Valley are all nearby.
It can be difficult to whittle down your list of “must dos” to a single day, but that’s the beauty of travel: taking the time to explore and adding to your list of future adventures.
San Francisco is a city of hilly sidewalks and old-fashioned trolleys. The public transportation and walkability means you can go without renting a car when visiting here, which helps if you’re on a budget, especially since parking in downtown San Francisco can be quite costly. And there is no shortage of activity in this thriving metropolis, here’s how to plan a perfect day in San Francisco.
What to Do
Although tour bus options are a good way to explore a lot in a little amount of time, it only gives the highlights and doesn’t often leave time to explore each attraction or neighborhood as much as you might like. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods and each has its own unique vibe and culture that makes it special.
The North Beach neighborhood embodies a rich history and some of the best food you’ll find in San Francisco. Rich in its Italian roots, a stroll through these streets mean you’ll run into restaurants that have been around for decades, serving the neighborhood homemade pastas, house-cured meats, and delicious coffee and Italian pastries that will leave you wanting more.
To get a literal taste of this neighborhood, take the Local Tastes of the City Walking Tour. A well-versed guide will take you through the historic blocks and make stops at famous eateries such as Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (a place where Chance starring Hugh Laurie was recently filmed), Mona Lisa, and Molinari Deli to name a few. Not only will get to sample delicious focaccia, margherita pizza, and homemade meatballs, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about some of the oldest establishments in this neighborhood, its borders, and what makes North Beach tick.
While in North Beach, walk the paths the Beat writers did back in their heyday. City Lights Bookstore should be on every book lover’s list. Duck into the alley to photograph beautiful murals, and then, head inside to Vesuvio Cafe next door, a favorite among authors Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Sitting catty-corner to the bookstore is the Beat Museum, where for a minimal admission fee, you can look through the archives of rare photos, books, and manuscripts of some of the most prolific writers of a generation. They also offer walking tours every Saturday afternoon.
Where to Eat
Wherever you travel, it’s important to eat the food of the city. Fisherman’s Wharf neighbors North Beach where you’ll find Boudin Bakery’s main location, which offers free admission to their mini museum, while you’re waiting for your lunch. Get free samples of sourdough bread and watch the breadmakers below bake up loaves and loaves of the yeasty goodness that calls San Francisco home.
Lining the walls of this museum, you’ll see what other foods got their start in this city. Some might be surprised to learn here is where the fortune cookie was created, as well as cioppino and crab louie salad. But you can’t leave San Francisco without at least tasting clam chowder in a bread bowl. Not sure where to get your selection? Walk down the street with the numbered food stalls to sample as much as possible and try to pick a favorite.
Where to Stay
Although it’s enticing to stay near Fisherman’s Wharf, it can also be more expensive being that close to the water. A better option is Union Square, a more centralized part of the city. Hilton San Francisco Union Square is but a few blocks from the BART and close to the Powell Street trolley car that will take you all the way down to the Wharf.
The hotel has all the amenities you could possibly want, plus comfy beds and gorgeous views. A bonus of a stay here includes its jaw-dropping, 360-degree view of San Francisco from the 46th floor. CityScape is its newest offering and you can sip cocktails while looking out high above the city. It’s the perfect way to wind down the day and maybe even take a few selfies.
Parc 55, a sister property of Hilton Union Square, is another convenient option that offers up killer views. Opt for the suite space here, if you want to spread out. It’s perfect if you’re traveling on business or want more room because of the living space, multiple windows, and setup of the rooms. Plus, you’ll see it as soon as you pop out from the BART (which you should take from the airport for a cheaper ride).
When There’s Time for Extra
If you find yourself with a few extra hours in your perfect San Francisco day, head to Clarion Alley in the Mission neighborhood, make a stop by the Port of San Francisco, or take a Haunted SF Tour from Wild SF Walking Tours.
Clarion Alley is like no other because it’s filled with gorgeously painted murals from the city’s local artists. Many of them represent a chosen theme and it’s worth the visit to this cultural neighborhood (there’s a food tour here as well).
The Port of San Francisco is home to the weekly farmers markets, but also has vendors indoors ranging from homemade pasta makers to an ice cream parlor to artisans selling chocolate, cheese, and other edible and non-edible treats. If you’re feeling extra energetic during any part of your visit, you can follow the path along the water from here all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Finally, to learn about historical figures and ghosts that haunt the city, the Wild SF nighttime tour starts in Union Square and take guests through different spots throughout the Tenderloin neighborhood. San Francisco definitely deserves more than just one day, but if 24 hours is all you have, this will give you a true taste of the city.
Courtney Hartmann is a freelance writer and social media junkie. Korea-born and Kansas-bred, this girl has a zest for life on the move. She’s called both coasts home, NYC for a brief period and San Diego since 2010, to explore new opportunities and fun adventures. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @mscourtneybeth.