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San Francisco, one of the oldest and stateliest cities on the West Coast of the US, is a fabulous and fun city with plenty to do over four days. From citywide orientation tours that highlight the many neighborhoods and squares to ghost tours of the city or Alcatraz, San Francisco delights travelers in search of great food and drink wild west and Gold Rush history, or architectural marvels like the Golden Gate Bridge. Four days in San Francisco allows you to immerse yourself in the life of the city. If you have more time in the city I recommend these great weekend getaways close to San Francisco.
4 day San Francisco itinerary for first-timers
4 days in San Francisco – Day One
Take a tuk-tuk tour
Start off your four days in San Francisco with a tuk-tuk tour to orient yourself in the city. This 2.5-hour tour begins in either Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf and takes riders to some of the most famous sights of San Francisco, like Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and the famed Dragon Gate, Alamo Square, the Painted Ladies, the Legion of Honor, Haight Ashbury, and North Beach among others.
Visit some of San Francisco’s Famous Neighbourhoods
Union Square is famous for its shopping. This is where you’ll find all the big shops, like Tiffany’s, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and more. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown on the West Coast and this particular one is the oldest Chinatown in North America AND the largest enclave of Chinese outside of China. It’s home to a lot of small souvenir shops that are perfect for inexpensive gifts. It’s also home to the fortune cookie factory, where you can see how they are made and sample fresh fortune cookies!
North Beach, also known as Little Italy, has retained much of the Italian flavor that came with the immigrants arriving between the two World Wars. This is evident in the restaurants, like Tony’s Pizza Napolitana, delis, cafes, and Italian bakeries.
Washington Square is at the center of North Beach, and at the heart of the square is Sts. Peter and Paul Church, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio took their wedding photos. The church is also featured in several movies, including Dirty Harry and What’s Up, Doc?.
Climb Coit Tower
Coit Tower is a slim white column on the top of Telegraph Hill. It was completed in 1933 and is named for its benefactor, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a local eccentric and patron to the city’s firefighters. The inside of the tower’s base is lined with murals painted in the mid-1930s. There is also an observation deck accessible by elevator, which provides 360-degree views of the city and the bay.
Take an Evening Ghost Tour
One of the best ways to see San Francisco’s dark side is on a nighttime ghost tour. I suggest two tours: the Paranormal Investigation Tour or the Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour. What’s the difference between the two? The Paranormal investigation tour is much more than a ghost tour that tells stories: it’s an immersive, hands-on experience where you’ll hunt for real ghosts in known haunted places, alongside a paranormal expert. You can use ghost hunting tools including EMF ghost meters, infrared temperature detectors, dowsing rods, and more. The Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour, on the other hand, is a lesson in the city’s haunted history. You’ll visit mysterious and ghostly places that have played host to unexplained deaths, serial killers, scandalous murders, and more.
4 days in San Francisco – Day Two
Explore Fisherman’s Wharf
Begin today at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s most famous waterfront. This area dates back to the 1800s, and the fishermen who moved into this area alongside the Gold Rush pioneers. Most of the neighborhood was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire, so what we see today is a modern development.
However, the love of the sea and fishing remains evident in the community. The neighborhood includes attractions such as Madame Tussauds, Aquarium by the Bay, and Pier 39, where you can spot sea lions lounging in West Marina. These “sealebrities” are famous and protected; at the nearby Sea Lion Center visitors can learn more about these playful creatures.
Cruise San Francisco Bay
From Pier 39, take a cruise on San Francisco Bay. There are a number of boat tour operators that take guests out. You can choose from sailing, catamarans, jetboats, cruise boats, and wine tasting tours.
From the water, you’ll see many famous structures, like the Ferry Building, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the skyscrapers of modern San Fran.
Shop til You Drop at Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square is another highlight of Fisherman’s Wharf. The original Ghirardelli Chocolate Company’s factory fell into disrepair following the company’s move to its current location and was purchased by a group of locals in the 1960s. Today, it is a lively mix of retail shops and attractions, continually on the cutting edge of San Francisco. You can take a cooking class, do wine or cheese tasting, or shop at local boutiques.
One of the unique vendors in Ghirardelli Square is The Cheese School – for cheese and wine tastings. The classes they offer range from tastings to hands-on classes to professional classes where you can learn about the ins and outs of making your own cheese on a professional level. For an introduction to cheese, opt for one of their tasting + pairing classes.
Another great stop at Ghirardelli Square is Buena Vista Cafe. Stop here for a taste of the first Irish coffee in the US. As the legend goes, two men perfected the Irish coffee one of them had had at Shannon Airport in Ireland in the 1950s. The experimentation took time, and after a few setbacks, they had the right drink. Today, the cafe serves up to 2,000 Irish coffees per day!! In 2008, the cafe earned the world record for the largest Irish Coffee by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Ride the Cable Car
Taking the San Francisco Cable Car is on every visitor’s must-do list, and I highly suggest the Powell/Hyde line, which ends at Ghirardelli Square. The cable cars are a fantastic way to get around the city and see the view. You’re allowed to stand on the outside of the cars, which offer some of the best views as the cars transit the city.
Walk Along Market Street
San Francisco’s Market Street is one of the busiest shopping streets in the city and nominally runs from the Embercado to Van Ness. It’s good for shopping at the Westfield Centre or for bargain shopping at Ross and Marshalls. Being one of the main arteries of the city, Market Street is also host to local parades or festivals. As of January 2020, parts of the street are car-free.
4 days in San Francisco – Day Three
Indulge Your Inner Artist
SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, includes 33,000 works of art, including paintings, photography, sculpture, architecture, media arts, and more. Some of the most famous artists within the collection include Matisse, Kahlo, Hadid, and O’Keeffe.
The museum opened in 1935 and was the first museum on the west coast to feature 20th-century art. It is located in the bustling SoMA neighborhood near the Yerba Buena Gardens.
Ride the Rails along F Street
Leaving the museum, take the iconic F streetcar to the Castro District. The F line is a light rail line operating almost exclusively with historic streetcars from San Francisco between the Embarcadero and the Castro District. The historic cars on the line come from cities around the world, though many are retired San Francisco cars.
Taste Exquisite French Pastries
Local San Francisco bakery, Le Marais Bakery, has a location on Sanchez Street, in the Castro District.
This bakery was opened by French native Patrick Ascaso, who sought to recreate the boulangerie of his childhood France. As much as possible, they use local and organic ingredients from Bay Area producers.
Go Back in Time in the Mission
Mission Dolores is the oldest building in San Francisco, having been established in 1776 by the Franciscan Order. It is also known as the Mission San Francisco de Asis. Most visitors go to see the mission, which has survived the Mexican War of Independence, the Gold Rush, and the many earthquakes, though many go to also see the rose garden and the Indian ethno-botanic garden.
There is also an 18th-century mural, painted by Native Americans, which is considered the “best-preserved example of art from the period of the first contact with Europeans.” Visitors are welcome for Catholic mass and for the blessing of the animals. The nearby Dolores Park offers visitors panoramic views of the Mission District, downtown, and both the San Francisco Bay and East Bay.
The Mission District, which is home to the Mission Dolores and Dolores Park, is a diverse and lively neighborhood. Known for its street art, the neighborhood is home to two arts organizations: one artist collective that facilitates artists’ work in Clarion Alley, and one that provides tours of the colorful murals. This neighborhood is also famous for its Mexican food, so be sure to visit Taqueria El Farolito for tacos and chili rieno!
4 days in San Francisco – Day Four
Shop Local at the Ferry Building
San Francisco’s Ferry Building – once a bustling port terminal and the only way most people could get into the city – is now home to a marketplace featuring independent, local artisans. The space is vast: at its peak as a commuter terminal, nearly 50,000 people per day passed through.
Today, the enormous building at the terminus of Market Street is an incubator for small businesses, regional producers, and those seeking to grow the community and culture of downtown San Francisco.
Walk-in Famous Footsteps at Alcatraz
Alcatraz, a notorious island prison in the San Francisco Bay, is a National Historic site and one of the city’s top attractions. But it wasn’t always either one. “Founded” in 1775 by Spaniards charting the bay, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that it was used regularly. The first owner was a Mexican, Julian Workman, who built the lighthouse. In the early 1850s, the Military Governor of California bought the land, and it was later requisitioned by the US Government and turned into a military reservation.
A fort was built on the island during the American Civil War, and it held prisoners but was never the site of a battle. In the 1930s, Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary and was over the years home to Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Mickey Cohen, among others. It closed in the mid-1960s and became a National Historic Site in the 1970s.
Go Hands-on at the Exploratorium
The Exploratorium is a popular, hands-on science, art, and human perception museum. Many of the exhibits help us understand electricity, optical illusions, centrifugal motion, and sound waves, among others. One of the most entertaining exhibits is the Tactile Dome, which is an exercise in blindness. Visitors navigate on their hands and knees through a path of total darkness, challenging and heightening our sense of touch. The Exploratorium is open every Thursday night for adults only; the rest of the time you’re likely to come across a lot of school kids.
Marvel at the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts was originally constructed in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition and is one of the few remaining structures from the exhibition. When the exposition ended and many of the other palaces were destroyed, a small group of people banded together to save this one.
It was designed to showcase art, and continues that function to this day, though its also a popular spot for weddings, photographers, conferences, and more. The polygonal structure resembles a Greek ruin, with a line of colonnades to either side and a shallow pool in front.
Walk Across the Bridge
Round out your trip to San Francisco with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s just under two miles across, and depending on how fast you walk, it could take about 30-45 minutes to cross the bridge.
How to get to and from SFO airport
Public transport is the best and easiest way to get to and from the San Francisco Airport (SFO). The airport is serviced by the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the CalTrain commuter rail, as well as numerous bus lines. The BART can take passengers into the city center in 15-20 minutes or less.
Charter shuttles and buses, private limousines, and taxis are another way to get into the city. Any car service will take approximately 30 minutes to get into the city and can be as high as $70.
San Francisco CityPass
The San Francisco CityPass allows visitors to some of the city’s top attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, Aquarium of the Bay, and the Exploratorium OR SFMOMA. It also offers a 3-day Cable Car and Muni bus passport for unlimited rides. If you plan to visit the attractions, this city pass offers almost a 50% discount on the admission fees. It is an excellent value!
How to get around San Francisco
The best way to get around San Francisco is by public transport, either Muni bus or metro, or cable car. With the CityPass and the 3-day Muni passport, you can use any bus, metro, or cable car to get around the city. If you’re in town for more than 3 days, you can purchase a separate pass.
Uber and taxis are also prevalent, though you may find there are places these cars cannot go.
San Francisco is a fantastic city to spend a few days in. From its history as a pre-American settlement to its emergence as a thriving port and one of the gateways to America, San Francisco holds a lot of secrets. You can explore these in the many buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake and in the ghost tours of the city’s underground. Explore the culture of the city in the Mission, at the Ferry Building, and at Ghirardelli Square. The influences of both Asian and Spanish-Mexican culture are very evident here, as is the current focus on local producers and products. Four days in San Francisco will introduce you to the wonders of this western city, and you’ll probably want to come back for more.
For more information on San Francisco check the official page here.