“If you’re going to San Francisco…“ (as Scott McKenzie sings!), we bet that you’re keen to tick off as many bucket-list activities as possible.
But are you doing San Francisco in a day?
If so, it won’t be possible to tick off absolutely everything.
But you can certainly get the essence of this pulsating west coast city and take in a few of its most noteworthy sights – like the Golden Gate Bridge, North Beach (Little Italy) and crooked Lombard Street.
The city of San Francisco is one of our favorite places on the northern California coast.
We’ve visited the city a few times, sometimes just for a day, but also for longer stints.
We’ve enjoyed both fan-favorite and unique things to do in San Francisco – and figured out what works best for a 24-hour itinerary.
So whether you’re visiting San Francisco for the day by cruise ship, spending 24 hours here as part of a Cali road trip or fitting in some layover time before your next flight – and you want to know how to spend a day in San Francisco – our guide will help you squeeze the most out of this world-class city!
How to see San Francisco in a day?
Depending on your travel style, abilities and tastes, there are several different ways to spend a day in San Francisco.
Do you love to walk?
Well, first, you could explore the city center independently on foot, perhaps using public transport for longer distances or if you get tired.
You could even take a ride (correction: you should take a ride!) on one of the city’s famous cable cars.
Alternatively (or in addition), you might like one of these four top guided tours we’ve sussed out to help you best enjoy San Francisco in 24 hours.
San Francisco day tours
One-hour San Francisco Bay cruise
A one-hour cruise in San Francisco Bay (with skip-the-line tickets) is the perfect “first time in San Francisco” activity.
Offered by the Blue and Gold Fleet, it’s a great way to view the city skyline from the water. You’ll see Alcatraz Island and look up at the Golden Gate Bridge as you cruise under it.
As it’s short and sweet, it’ll leave you plenty of time to see the city’s other attractions too.
Two-hour, small-group guided tour of San Francisco
Fancy some fun on an in-depth tour in a vintage Volkswagen bus?
Then check out this 5-star rated Painted Ladies San Francisco tour!
The group size is only 7 people, and because you’re in a mini-bus, it can access places that other bigger buses can’t.
You’ll drive through all the must-see San Francisco neighborhoods (like Haight-Ashbury and North Beach) and visit attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts and more.
You’ll also hear fascinating stories about the city’s history from your tour guide and sip California wine and craft beer too (on afternoon tours).
Hop-on hop-off bus tour
The hop-on hop-off bus takes you around San Francisco’s landmarks. (We always find hop-on hop-off buses are a great way to get an overview of a city.)
With one ticket, you can get on and off the bus as many times as you want in a 24-hour period – so it handily doubles up as transportation on your one day in San Francisco.
If you stay on the bus, the total circuit time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
All-day San Francisco tour
You want it all? You got it!
See the best of San Francisco on this top-notch, 9-hour San Francisco mini-bus tour.
Starting at Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll first see San Francisco’s best neighborhoods (North Beach, Pacific Heights, etc.) before driving to Muir Woods National Monument. Then you stop in Sausalito for lunch.
Afterwards, you’re dropped off for the Alcatraz part of this SF tour.
(We cover in more detail all of these places below.)
One-day San Francisco itinerary: Best places to visit
Let’s assume that you plan to explore the city on foot on your own.
San Francisco city center is chock-a-block with landmarks, attractions and museums.
Here are the best places to visit in San Francisco city center in a day.
Golden Gate Bridge
Synonymous with San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge straddles the Golden Gate Strait, connecting the city to Marin County.
The bridge has achieved global fame as one of California’s best landmarks, so no San Francisco itinerary would be complete without gazing at it!
It was the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed in 1937. Today, over 100,000 vehicles cross it every single day.
You can take in mesmerizing city views by walking across it (provided you aren’t faced with some typical Bay Area mizzle, which is a mix of mist and drizzle).
Alternatively, head to Golden Gate Overlook to catch a view of the bridge itself.
Palace of Fine Arts
Now stroll over to the Palace of Fine Arts.
Built for the Panama-Pacific World’s Fair in 1915, the Palace of Fine Arts is free to visit.
The Neoclassical monument was built for the fair to demonstrate how San Francisco had recovered after the 1906 earthquake (a calamitous natural disaster that left half of the city’s residents homeless).
Today, it hosts different art exhibitions plus theater and music events.
It’s a lovely spot to stroll about – the lagoon in front is peaceful. So don’t be surprised if you see a newly married couple getting their wedding photos taken here!
San Francisco is known for its hills. But it’s also home to the most crooked street in the world.
Say hello to Lombard Street!
Situated on Russian Hill, Lombard Street is renowned for its eight hairpin turns and is one of our favorite places in the city.
It was created in 1922 when cars didn’t yet have the power to accelerate up steep hills. The road was redesigned to make the climb up easier.
However, while Lombard claims to be the “crookedest street in the world,” many locals suggest that the crown actually belongs to Vermont Street, some three miles to the south.
Record-breaking or not, seeing Lombard Street is a quintessentially San Francisco experience.
You’ll catch views of landmarks like Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge as you walk or drive down this street. There’s also a cable car that lets you gawk at the street from above.
A 10-minute walk from the bottom of Lombard Street will take you to the Embarcadero. This wide seaside street and promenade runs along much of the city’s eastern shore.
The cruise ship terminal is found here. Tour boats for the famous prison island of Alcatraz also leave from one of the piers.
You’ll notice lots of people bicycling along the Embarcadero’s protected bike lane. (San Francisco is very bike-friendly!)
You’ll find Fisherman’s Wharf at the north end of the Embarcadero.
The original wharf was built back in the mid-19th century. But the Fisherman’s Wharf you see today was rebuilt after the catastrophic earthquake of 1906.
Famous for its fishing boats, nautical atmosphere and fresh seafood restos, it’s a playground for tourists – one of the most visited tourist attractions in San Francisco, in fact.
Ignore the tacky souvenir shops and stop for some delicious Dungeness crab.
Smile instead at the sea lions that hang out on the dock at Pier 39. And perhaps take a cable car ride to get a bird’s eye perspective of the whole area.
Hidden steps up Telegraph Hill
A buzzing neighborhood in San Francisco and one of its seven hills, Telegraph Hill takes its name from a telegraph station that dates back to 1795.
Huge portions of the hill were removed in the past to be used as street pavements all over the globe, which has led to it being dubbed “the hill that’s been around the world.”
The best way to get to the top of Telegraph Hill is to climb up one of San Francisco’s hidden staircases.
Two stretches of Filbert and Greenwich Streets are too steep for cars. So there are staircases instead: the Filbert Steps and Greenwich Street steps.
Along the way, you pass pastel-colored “gingerbread” houses (some date back as far as 1870) and pretty flower-filled gardens. In a way, these houses are hidden treasures, as the only way to reach them is by climbing up the steps.
And if you turn around, you’ll get gorgeous views of the bay going up.
We think we counted 377 steps climbing up the Filbert Street steps from the bottom on Sansome Street.
Then there are still another 100 or so steps to get to Coit Tower, one of the attractions at the top of the hill (covered next).
It’s heartrate boosting work, for sure. But the stellar views and scenery make it all worthwhile!
(For a change of scene, you can take the Greenwich Steps back down.)
In the 1930s, Lillie Hitchcock Coit wanted to beautify the city, so she had the 210-foot Coit Tower built atop Telegraph Hill.
The white Art Deco tower rises up in the middle of Pioneer Park on Telegraph Hill, and it’s one of the best places to ascend for city views. You can either climb up more steps to the top or take the elevator (there’s a small fee).
There are also some fascinating historical murals at the base of the tower.
Painted in 1934, these murals depict what life in California was like during the Great Depression.
Some were painted by artists who admired or studied under Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who was married to Frida Kahlo. (No wonder they remind us of Diego Rivera’s murals!)
Also stroll about Pioneer Park around Coit Tower.
It’s a tranquil oasis in the city, where you can rest, recharge and – and always a treat in San Francisco – admire the bay sprawling beneath you.
North Beach (Little Italy)
Many of the immigrants from Genoa and Sicily who moved to San Francisco in the early 1900s settled in the North Beach area, setting up scores of Italian restaurants, cafés and bars.
Today, the vivacious neighborhood of North Beach is renowned as San Francisco’s “Little Italy.”
Stroll around. Perhaps stop for pasta or pizza – chased by gelato, of course!
Or you could even sip and nibble on this highly-rated North Beach food walking tour.
You’ll also find the City Lights Bookstore (a favorite spot for George) in North Beach.
It was founded in 1953 as a left-leaning literary hangout.
Today, this paradise for bibliophiles has a vast selection of books on every conceivable topic from classic European literature and contemporary poetry to sexual politics.
San Francisco is home to one of the largest Chinatowns in the U.S.
Walk down Grant Avenue from North Beach and you’ll hit SF’s Chinatown.
Enticing Asian restaurants serve hot noodle soups and the wafting smells of fresh dim sum tease your nose here.
Once you’ve eaten to your heart’s content, visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, where you’ll learn how fortune cookies are made.
If you’re in San Francisco during Lunar New Year (usually in February), this Chinatown is home to the largest Chinese New Year parade outside of Asia.
The Times Square of San Francisco, Union Square is a vibrant hub in the heart of downtown SF.
An ideal spot for people-watching and soaking up the urban atmosphere, the square is home to a variety of high-end restaurants like Ula Restaurant & Tapas Bar and Akiko’s Sushi Bar, along with department stores such as Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
We also loved Apple’s flagship SF store.
If you’re looking for a luxury hotel in San Fran, many are located close to Union Square. Our pick, the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco (covered in more detail below), is just a 10-minute walk away.
One of the city’s “Seven Hills,” Nob Hill is an affluent neighborhood that’s home to posh hotels and historic mansions.
Dating back to the 19th century, Nob Hill was first populated by wealthy businessmen known as nabobs.
In particular, the “Big Four” group of railroad barons – Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington – built extravagant mansions in this part of San Francisco after making their fortunes as founders of the Central Pacific Railroad Company.
The Fairmont San Francisco crowns Nob Hill.
It was the world’s first Fairmont and has accommodated a host of celebrities throughout the years, including the Rolling Stones, Marilyn Monroe and the now King Charles of Great Britain.
For a city break, it’s one of the most romantic getaways in the United States.
You might like to pop in to its Tonga Room, a tiki bar built around a pool with a floating thatched-roof stage, for an umbrella cocktail.
Those cocktails aren’t cheap, but the thunder and tropical rain showers that blow through every 30 minutes are free!
The famous Painted Ladies is a row of seven colorful Victorian-era homes in the Haight-Ashbury district, known as the “Seven Sisters.”
These pastel-colored Queen Anne houses are strung along Steiner Street, across from Alamo Square Park.
Private homes, they’ve become famous for their gingerbread-style gables, stained glass panels, porches and other intricate architectural details.
Stroll down the street as you imagine days long gone – it’s about as close as you can get to Bridgerton in California! Or cross the park to take a photo of the Victorian homes with the iconic San Francisco skyline in the background.
There are actually more Painted Ladies than just the Seven Sisters.
The term refers to any historic home built in the late 19th century or early 20th century, painted in three or more colors. So you’ll find quite a few in the Haight-Ashbury district.
Fun fact: Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane all lived in various Painted Ladies in the 1960s.
If you happen to be visiting San Francisco on a gorgeous clear day – and you’re keen on some exercise – you might want to make a beeline straight to Twin Peaks.
Just southwest of The Castro ‘hood, the two peaks are about 925 feet above sea level. And the views you get from the top are arguably the most epic in the entire city.
You can drive up one of the peaks, but for a workout, you can choose from a few different hiking routes.
The Creeks to Peaks Trail that begins in Glen Canyon Park is a popular trail. It’s just under two miles one way.
Or you can go on a guided urban Castro and Twin Peaks hike up to the summit of Twin Peaks, meeting your guide at the historic Castro Theater (five miles roundtrip).
Golden Gate Park
So you’ve already taken in the major San Francisco city sights. And you’d love to spend some time outside in nature.
Then exploring Golden Gate Park is probably one of the best San Francisco experiences for you!
Sprawling over 1,017 acres (1.73 square miles) west of Haight-Ashbury, this city park is actually larger than Central Park in New York City. It’s also the third most visited park in the United States.
You can play tennis, fish or go cycling there. Or just go for a walk through the landscaped gardens.
Both of these parks are within the Golden Gate park grounds.
California Academy of Sciences
Uh oh. It’s raining! And you really don’t feel like sploshing around on the streets, getting drenched walking this way and that.
Enter the California Academy of Sciences.
Located within the Golden Gate Park, it’s a wonderful institution made up of an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. And it’s one of those San Francisco attractions that’s perfect to visit on a rainy day.
Admire more than 400 cool gems and minerals in the geology collection, see nearly 40,000 animals in the aquarium (from African penguins and sharks to giant Amazonian fish) and enjoy the beautiful butterflies in the 4-story rainforest exhibition.
As it’s such a vast museum, most people take three to five hours to look around the entire complex.
If you add the California Academy of Sciences to your San Francisco one-day itinerary, skip the line by reserving your tickets in advance.
Ending your 1 day in San Francisco
When the sun goes down, San Francisco doesn’t stop. There are a ton things to do in San Francisco at night – from cruises to fun food tours to shows.
Sunset sail on the San Francisco Bay
The best place to take in one of California’s west coast sunsets?
The sea, of course!
We’ve sailed with Adventure Cat Sailing Charters on one of their day tours. It was a blast to take in the city from a different perspective, feeling the wind in our hair as we sliced through the water.
The city views are probably even more striking as the sky changes color and the lights on the buildings begin to sparkle.
This 90-minute sailing tour with Adventure Cat takes you around San Francisco Bay on a luxury catamaran.
Sip on a glass of wine as you gaze at the city’s landmarks on one side and the fiery sun dropping over the horizon on the other. It’s perfect for couples.
Dinner at or near the Ferry Building
Ending your day with a fine dinner is pretty much a rite of passage in San Francisco.
One great spot? The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero waterfront.
Built in 1898, the building was the main transportation hub for commuters who traveled to and from the city by ferry.
Today, it’s a bustling food market with gourmet food stores, snack stalls, restaurants and coffee shops – you can nosh on everything from fresh tacos to authentic sushi.
We also love Coqueta, which is nearby on the waterfront.
This 50-seat show-stopper has wood floors, cowhide rugs and views of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
It features a Spanish-influenced menu of tapas like duck-and-pork meatballs and grilled razor clams with salsa verde, along with paella.
North Beach pizza-and-pub crawl
If you didn’t have the chance to visit North Beach during the daytime, how about this pizza and pub crawl in the evening? It’s offered on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, starting at 4:00 pm
The neighborhood is a lively place to visit any time of day, but on this tour, you’ll experience it as it comes to life and the pubs star to ring out with music in the evening.
A local will take you to the best spots to eat the doughiest, cheesiest pizza ever – you’ll be thinking you’re in Sicily!
Theater or show
There’s no business like show business!
San Francisco has one of the biggest performing arts scenes in the country.
It’s home to the San Francisco Ballet, the American Conservatory Theater and the San Francisco Symphony. So for ballet, theater and classical concerts, check these sites to see what’s on when you’re in town.
Other places to see in SF in 24 hours
We’ve covered the top things to see in San Francisco in one day – mostly attractions in the city center itself.
But there are other popular attractions that are just a little way out of the city. They can be reached on half-day or full-day trips.
If you have extra time to spare, consider the following places.
Foreboding Alcatraz (aka “The Rock”) is an attraction unlike any other. Once one of the most notorious prisons in the world, it sits on a rocky outcrop in San Francisco bay, just over a mile offshore.
In 1934, during the federal government’s full-scale war on crime, Alcatraz was re-fortified into the world’s most secure prison. It’s been the topic of numerous films and TV shows over the years. (Al Capone spent 4½ years behind bars here.)
Alcatraz ceased to hold prisoners in 1963 because it was too expensive to run. It was opened to the public ten years later.
It’s possible to visit Alcatraz Island on a trip from San Francisco, although it will eat into quite a few of your 24 hours in San Francisco.
This quick Alcatraz express visit (3 hours long) takes you first by van to walk the Golden Gate Bridge and then heads over to the ferry for a visit to the notorious jail.
Muir Woods is home to Northern California’s legendary giant redwoods.
You’ll step into another world as you walk through the forest and gaze upwards at trees that rise up 250 feet and more!
Visiting Muir Woods is one of the best things to do in San Francisco in a day if you’re into nature and the outdoors.
However, you’ll need a minimum of half a day to explore this coastal redwood forest. So if you have your heart set on seeing it, you’ll need to forfeit some of San Francisco’s urban attractions.
This top-rated, small-group San Francisco, Muir Woods and Sausalito tour combines visiting Muir Woods with a visit to the town of Sausalito, which is often dubbed “California’s prettiest.”
Angel Island is also well worth adding to your San Francisco itinerary (especially if you’ve seen the main sights before).
But it’s usually a full-day trip.
Once you understand the island’s history, you could take a hike to the top of Mount Livermore – Angel Island is a state park and a great place for hiking.
Where to stay overnight on a 24-hour San Francisco itinerary
If you’re spending a night in San Francisco, here are our recommendations for hotels.
Ritz-Carlton San Francisco
The service is second to none here, with no task being too much for the helpful staff.
The hotel is housed in a neoclassical building that once served as the headquarters for an insurance company (in 1909). Its exterior is adorned with ornate décor; the interior matches the same level of elegance.
We stayed in a Club Level Room, with a super king-sized feather bed with 400 thread count sheets, plush seating and huge windows.
With all the food and drink offerings throughout the day, the Club Level at this Ritz-Carlton is worth the extra spend.
One of the best boutique hotels in San Francisco, Hotel Drisco is located in the upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood.
Inside, cozy bedrooms feature comfy beds, traditional furnishings and luxury bathrooms. You’ll also find a small on-site fitness center (plus you have free access to a nearby YMCA).
A complimentary continental breakfast is served daily, and there’s a free wine and cheese reception each evening.
White Swan Inn
The White Swan Inn is a quirky mid-price B&B in the heart of San Francisco (in lower Nob Hill), just a short walk from Chinatown.
Experience top-notch hospitality as you step into this Victorian-style inn and are shown to your room. Rooms come with spacious ensuite bathrooms and working fireplaces; some have four -poster beds.
That wraps up our post on what to do in San Francisco in one day!
Could this be the perfect day in San Francisco?
While you could spend years enjoying sweeping views from virtually every hill and taking in the city’s extraordinary history, your one day in San Francisco will leave you feeling inspired, entranced and eager to return.
Obviously, you can customize our guide to a one-day trip to San Francisco. You want to be sure your top bucket-list spots are on your itinerary.
But whatever you end up doing, we bet that you’ll leave your heart in San Francisco – it happens to the best of us!
Pssst! Save this San Francisco travel guide for later on Pinterest!
Photo credits: 8, 9, 11 to 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase