One Day in San Francisco

Aerial view San Francisco
Piriya Photography / Getty Images

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 exciting and popular sights. And without wasting too much time standing in line, running around town, or elbowing your way through the crowds

Things to Know

If you want to visit Alcatraz, it will take almost half a day, by the time you take the ferry out there, look around and get back. In that same amount of time, you could see several other sights instead. If you think you must go to Alcatraz, reserve ahead (to avoid standing in a long line or finding the tour sold out). If you take their evening tour, and you'll have more daylight time to see other things.

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, and waste too much time looking for parking places.

San Francisco in a Day by Cable Car and Walking

Cable Car in San Francisco Chinatown
Betsy Malloy Photography

If you like to walk (most of it on reasonably flat streets), this itinerary will let you take in as much of the San Francisco experience as can be managed in a single day.

Learn how to ride a San Francisco cable car ahead of time. Get the current ticket prices and learn all the tricks for how to ride. It will be cheaper to buy a Muni Passport for this trip than to pay each time you board. 

  1. Drive to the Golden Gate Bridge first. On your way back, drive down "crookedest" Lombard Street, which looks prettiest in the morning sunlight.
  2. Start the rest of your day at Union Square. There's a garage right beneath the square. Next best (and slightly less expensive) is the city-run garage at Fifth and Mission Streets or the Sutter Stockton garage which is between Union Square and Chinatown at the intersection of those streets.
  3. Use the Union Square visitor guide to get an idea of what you want to see in that area. Then catch any cable car from the stop at Powell and Market Streets.
  4. 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 Avenue, using the Chinatown visitor guide which includes a walking tour route.
  5. Turn left on Columbus and use the self-guided tour for a walk through North Beach. Stop for a coffee and a little people-watching at any of the coffee shops along the street.
  6. Follow Stockton over the hill to take a look around Pier 39.
A pizza place with neon signs and people sitting outside on Columbus Ave
TripSavvy / Melissa Zink 

An alternative to the route above: Instead of the cable car, take the Market Street Railway trolley from Union Square to the waterfront. Explore the Ferry Building Marketplace, then walk along the waterfront to Pier 39.

No matter how you get to Pier 39, follow the waterfront using the guide to Fisherman's Wharf to find out what to see and how to see it. Grab a quick bite to eat at Boudin Bakery for their famous sourdough, or from one of the sidewalk vendors at Fisherman's Wharf.

If you're craving San Francisco's most famous chocolate or want to do some shopping, continue to Ghirardelli Square. But first, check your watch and prioritize your remaining time.

If you have time and didn't see Lombard Street in the morning, catch the cable car at the Hyde Street turnaround. Get off at the top of Lombard and walk down. From the bottom of the hill, walk downhill on Lombard to Columbus, where you can catch the cable car again.

If you want to get back to Union Square without waiting in a long line for the cable car, walk just a few blocks to the Powell-Mason Cable car stop at 2350 Taylor Street, where the lines are reliably shorter than they are at the Hyde Street turnaround.

San Francisco in a Day using a Motorized Trolley

Hornblower Classic Cable Cars take you around town in motorized vehicles that look like the San Francisco cable cars. While the body looks like a cable car, it doesn't provide the same fun, exciting ride as a real cable car does.

The trolleys travel past most of the popular spots, with frequent departures during the day. You can get on or off at the locations listed on their web page, but take care when reading the lists because you will only see others in passing, including the Golden Gate Bridge. They say their tour takes three hours, but by the time you get on and off to explore every stop, it will take much longer.

The trolley runs in a circular route and will eventually get you back to where you started.

San Francisco in a Day With a Tour Company

Double-Decker San Francisco Sightseeing Bus
Betsy Malloy Photography

If you want someone else to show you around, many companies offer day tours in San Francisco. They promise 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. And you have 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, choose a company that uses a van or small shuttle bus, so you have a better chance of seeing things out the windows. The most fun company offering this option is Vantigo, which uses fully restored vintage 1971 Volkswagen Type 2 Transporter buses that will make you feel like you've been transported back to the Summer of Love.

Or even better, 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. It might cost a little more than that cheap-o bus tour, but it can transform your day in San Francisco from "blah" to "wow!" Rick at Blue Heron Tours and Jesse at A Friend in Town are both long-standing tour guides with a love and appreciation for the city that is infectious.