San Francisco is a city in boom time, which means there’s so many restaurants, shops, activities, museums, institutions and events to check out that three days go by in the blink of an eye. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. If it’s your first time here, here’s your three-day itinerary.
Day 1: Sightseeing
Let’s be honest, you’re not going to come to San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Walking across the two-mile span is always a popular choice, but why stop at just one San Francisco landmark when you can see so many more? How? Simple: Rent a bike. Start at the Ferry Building, the 118-year-old structure that once served as the gateway to the city. The transport terminal once saw 60,000 commuters a day in the early 1900s, when the city could only be reached by ferry from the north and east bay.
Once the Bay Bridge was built in 1936, the building fell into neglect until 2003, when a major renovation restored the building to its former glory and filled its halls with Bay Area coffee roasters, bakers, bread-makers, and chocolatiers that is now the Ferry Building Marketplace. Get the day started with a caffeine kick from Blue Bottle Coffee. Opt for a pour-over or, if it’s particularly warm morning, their famous New Orleans-style iced coffee, spiked with chicory for an extra swirl of flavor.
Now to your bike: Ferry Building Bicycle Rentals does daily rentals, which includes a map of biking paths throughout the city. For today, ride north up the Embarcadero, past the skyscrapers of the Financial District and into the bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s just one big hill—it’s okay if you need to walk your bike—that winds up into Fort Mason, a public park where locals often spread out blankets and play lawn games on the weekend. Then it’s flat through the Marina Green and Crissy Field, where you can gaze out at Alcatraz and Angel Islands across the bay or watch sailboats and windsurfers chase the waves under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Outlooks offer great vista points for your family portrait.
Once across the bridge, ride downhill to the town of Sausalito, the bayside oasis full of shops to explore and restaurants to refuel. Reward yourself with a glass of wine and a prosciutto and arugula flatbread at Bar Bocce, where you can sit by their outdoor stone fire place, play a game of bocce, or just collapse on the grass next to the waters of Richardson Bay. Lappert’s Ice Cream on Main Street is also a suitable treat. To get back to the city, catch the ferry from Sausalito Point (don’t worry, there’s plenty of room for your bike, too).
Catch the ferry close to sunset and you might see pelicans dive-bombing the bay waters for dinner on the ride back.
Day 2: Living Like a Local
Now that you’ve got the major sightseeing out of the way, relax and unwind with the locals in the Mission District. Located in the heart of the city’s seven square miles, the Mission has had a renaissance of sorts in the past five years, becoming the city’s culinary epicenter. As such, your brunch options are endless. Foreign Cinema is an incredibly popular destination, thanks to its delicious farm fresh omlettes and organic pop tarts—just be aware there will probably be a wait. The Sycamore on Mission Street is another great option, a bit more casual with a great back patio for sunny mornings.
But it’s a San Francisco rite of passage to wait in line for one of Tartine Bakery’s candied orange morning buns—a pastry well worth the hour-long wait. Walk off your meal by taking a stroll down Valencia Street, which is full of local boutiques and shops. Gravel & Gold holds treasures made by local women artists, from quirky printed tops to original prints. Mission Thrift is the opposite of curated, but it is full of good vintage finds. For funny gifts for friends back home, stop into Therapy, which has clothes and infinite nicknacks.
At this point, you’re probably hungry again. Lucky for you, food is what the Mission does best. And you can’t leave the neighborhood without having some Mexican food. Taqueria Cancun serves up killer nachos loaded with beans, meat, and creamy guacamole. But the neighborhood's crown jewel is La Taqueria, whose burrito was hailed as the best burrito in America by FiveThirtyEight.
Mission Dolores Park is a local’s favorite place to lounge for a few hours in the sun with a view of downtown. But first, stop by Dog Eared Books, the neighborhood's signature mom-and-pop bookstore, and grab yourself some reading material to whittle away an hour or two in the grass.
Just like every other meal, your dinner options are nearly endless. If it’s Italian you’re after, head to Locanda where you’ll find Roman-style fried artichokes and fresh made pastas. If you’re looking for a meal that’s more beer-centric, Monk’s Kettle offers hearty fare like grilled corn risotto and brisket burgers with a beer list that’s way longer than the menu. Don’t worry, there’s more to do here than just eat all day. Mission Bowling Club has six lanes available for reservations (and some mean fried chicken to nimble on between strikes).
Urban Putt is just a few years old and has 14 mini golf holes that are perfect for all ages—except after 8 pm, when the crowd is 21-plus and Moscow Mules are on tap. Finally, there’s the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where you can catch the newest indie flicks fresh off the festival circuit as well as the big blockbusters—all with a cocktail in hand, because after all, this is San Francisco.
Day 3: Enjoying the beach
San Francisco isn’t your typical beach town—its coastline is often shrouded in fog. But it still borders the Pacific and it’s worth a visit. You can head out to Baker Beach for a new perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge (at this beach, it’s actually behind you). There’s also nearby China Basin a smaller, rockier beach that just a touch further out into the crashing waves. Keep your eyes peeled for humpbacks, they like to hang around the Mile Rocks Lighthouse, which sits two miles outside the Golden Gate.
Sutro Baths is home to a stunning piece of coastline where you can wander through the concrete ruins of a public bathhouse that burned down under somewhat suspicious circumstances in 1966. From Sutro Baths, you can also wander along the Presidio’s Coastal Trail. If the fog’s not in town, head out to Ocean Beach. The three-and-a-half mile stretch of sand is the last barrier between San Francisco city limits and the wild Pacific. Grab a sandwich from Java Beach Café on Judah Street and then head out watch surfers brave the cold and current to catch their wave.