If you've got only one day to visit San Francisco, make the best of it that you can. These are a few ways to see the most interesting and popular sights, without wasting too much time in between.
Things to Know
Visiting Alcatraz takes almost a half day, by the time you take the ferry out there, look around and get back. If you want to see it desperately, reserve ahead (to avoid standing in a long line or finding the tour sold out).
Opt for their evening tour, and you'll have more daylight time to see other things. How to visit Alcatraz
Park once and leave your vehicle there until you're ready to depart from the main tourist area. While it might seem like you can see more by driving from place to place, you'll burn up both your brakes and your good humor looking for parking places.
Day Tour by Cable Car and Walking
If you like to walk (most of it on fairly flat streets), it's the best way to take in as much of the San Francisco experience as can be managed in a single day.
Get information about riding San Francisco cable cars, including ticket prices and how to ride. It will be cheaper to buy a Muni Passport for this trip than to pay each time you board. Find out where to buy them.
- If you want to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, do that first. On your way back, drive down "crookedest" Lombard Street, which looks prettiest in the morning sunlight.
- The most convenient place to start the rest of your day's trip is Union Square, where there's a garage right beneath the square. Next best (and slightly less expensive) is the city-run garage at Fifth and Mission Streets.
- Start at Union Square, have a look around and catch any cable car from the stop at Powell and Market Streets.
- Get off the cable car where it crosses California Street, then walk two blocks east on California toward the Bay. At Grant Avenue, you will be in Chinatown. Turn left on Grant and walk through Chinatown to Columbus Ave.
- Turn left on Columbus for a walk through North Beach. Stop for a coffee and a little people-watching at Caffe Roma or any of the other coffee shops along the street.
- Follow Stockton over the hill to Pier 39.
An alternate to the route above: Instead of the cable car, take the Market Street trolley from Union Square to the waterfront near the Ferry Building, then walk along the water to Pier 39.
No matter how you got to Pier 39, follow the waterfront west toward Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. Grab a quick bite to eat at Boudin Bakery for their famous sourdough, or from one of the sidewalk vendors at Fisherman's Wharf.
Take the cable car back to Union Square from the Hyde Street turnaround. If you have time and didn't see Lombard Street in the morning, get off at the top of it and walk down. From the bottom, continue on Lombard to Columbus, where you can catch the cable car again.
Day Tour by Trolley
More flexible than a guided bus tour is a motorized trolley with unlimited hop on/hop off privileges.
To start your trolley tour, you can park near any of its stops. The trolley runs in a circular route and will eventually get you back to where you started.
The San Francisco Trolley Hop uses motorized vehicles that look like the San Francisco cable cars. They travel past most of the popular spots, with frequent departures during the day, saving you travel time. You can get on or off at Pier 41 1/2 near Fisherman's Wharf, Union Square, the Embarcadero Center near the Ferry Building or in North Beach/Chinatown.
Many companies offer day tours in San Francisco, promising to take you to more than a dozen places in just a few hours. That works out to only about 15 minutes in any one place, with no hope of lingering at a particularly appealing spot and no way to avoid the ones you aren't interested in.
If you want to take a tour to see the city, I suggest a company that uses a van or small shuttle bus, so you have a better chance of seeing things out the windows.
If you only have one day to see San Francisco, you'll want to make the most of it. The best way to do that on a guided tour is to hire a company that offers customized tours. You'll have a chance to see what you're really interested in and have much more individual attention. My friends Rick at Blue Heron Tours or Jesse at A Friend in Town both do a great job.