San Francisco in 5 Days: everything you need to know

Explore the Californian city and its surroundings. San Francisco will make you fall in love

Matteo Gramegna

Matteo Gramegna

11 min read

San Francisco in 5 Days: everything you need to know

San Francisco | ©Paul Sableman

A five-day route is perfect to see most of San Francisco's attractions. Its icon is the Golden Gate Bridge that connects the metropolis with Marin County.

The red silhouette emerging from the mists is the typical postcard of the city. However, there is much more to see. Chinatown, Alcatraz, and the Walt Disney Museum are just a few of its landmarks.

Day 1: Downtown & Chinatown

Chinatown, San Francisco| ©Ken Lund
Chinatown, San Francisco| ©Ken Lund

To warm up, the first day's journey begins in the heart of the city. To get here you can take the subway and get off at Powell Street or Montgomery St. Station.

Start the route between Market Street and Union Square

In San Francisco, streetcars are true icons. Their silhouettes going down and up the slopes are a typical postcard of the city.

You may not know that there is a line (the F) that uses old vehicles purchased from other cities in Europe and the United States. The best spot to see them is between Market Street and Union Square.

Before taking some pictures you can get your strength back with a good breakfast. A few meters from Union Square is Honey Honey Cafe, an establishment with a wide variety of crepes but also bagels, sandwiches and more (599 Post Street).

Book your tour bus in San Francisco

Tour Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinese community is the oldest in the United States. It occupies a large area and its focal points are Grant Avenue (with the famous Dragon Gate) and St. Mary's Square, the square that houses the statue of the politician and ideologue Sun Yat-sen. In addition to the above attractions, there is much more to see:

  • Stockton Street, a street that will transport you to the markets of Beijing or Shanghai. There are thousands of traditional stores with fruits, food, bazaars and much more.
  • Sing Chong and Sing Fat, the first two buildings erected after the 1906 earthquake. Their appearance is reminiscent of oriental architecture.
  • Old Telephone Exchange, the former headquarters of a telephone exchange. The telephone operators had to know five Chinese dialects by heart as well as the name and address of each customer.
  • Portsmouth Square, the original nucleus of the city
  • Old St. Mary's Church, a church built in the mid-19th century. It was one of the few buildings to survive the terrible 1906 earthquake.

For more information about the sights and activities, I recommend reading the post explaining what to see and do in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Climb Nob Hill

Nob Hill, San Francisco| ©Dave Glass
Nob Hill, San Francisco| ©Dave Glass

A short distance from Chinatown is the exclusive neighborhood of Nob Hill. If you are traveling to San Francisco with children you can take them to Huntington Park which has a playground for the little ones.

Another district landmark is the Cable Car Museum, a comprehensive streetcar collection (1201 Mason Street).

Stroll North Beach

To end the day, North Beach is always a good idea. It is known as the "Little Italy" of San Francisco since it was home to a large colony of transalpine immigrants.

Before ending the day in a restaurant - I personally recommend Sotto Mare - you can spend some time exploring the neighborhood.

A must-see is Grace Cathedral, a Gothic-style church reminiscent of Paris's Notre Dame. Next might be the Coit Tower, a monumental tower in the shape of a flute. It rises on top of a hill and from its observation deck you can enjoy one of the best views of San Francisco.

Book a bike tour in San Francisco

Day 2: Alcatraz and the waterfront

Alcatraz| ©Mark Shepherd
Alcatraz| ©Mark Shepherd

The San Francisco jail is a mythical place. Books and movies have shown us its ambiance but nothing can replace a first-hand experience.

Visit the most famous jail in the world

San Francisco Bay is home to one of the most impregnable places on the planet. Alcatraz Island is world famous for the federal prison that was in operation from 1933 to 1963.

It housed America's most dangerous criminals and almost no one managed to escape. The only escapees were Frank Morris and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin, but that is another story.

Once on "the Rock" (The Rock, the nickname of the island) you can visit the playground, the cells, the dining room and other rooms. Tickets usually include an audio guide in different languages that will reveal the secrets of its most famous inhabitants.

If you have time, after the visit to the prison I recommend reaching the nearby Alcatraz Lighthouse. From there you can enjoy one of the best views of San Francisco.

  • How to get there: you will have to take a ferry from Pier 33 at Fisherman's Wharf. The ride takes just over 10 minutes.
  • Price: a single ticket costs approximately $28.
  • Useful information: you can visit every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Book a tour of San Francisco and Alcatraz

Explore Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf| ©Eugene Kim
Fisherman's Wharf| ©Eugene Kim

After visiting Alcatraz you can spend the rest of the morning in this area of the city. Fisherman's Wharf is the original core of San Francisco.

What was once an important industrial area linked to the fishing industry is now a colorful pedestrian avenue and a must on any trip to the "Golden Gate City".

One of its most photographed spots is Pier 39, a favorite spot for sea lions. These large mammals are very common in this area of California but rarely concentrate in the heart of a metropolis.

  • How to get there: you will find yourself at Fisherman's Wharf as soon as you get off the ferry.
  • Price: free (except for stops at bars, stores and restaurants)
  • Useful information: a few meters further on, at Pier 45, you will find the Musée Mécanique, one of the most curious museums in San Francisco. It gathers old arcade machines, music boxes and other vintage objects.

Book a San Francisco cruise

Eat the freshest fish in San Francisco

To take a break and appease your hunger, you won't have to go far. Fisherman's Wharf concentrates an endless number of restaurants specialized in fish and seafood.

Make a note of these names: Fog Harbor (Pier 39), Scoma's (1965 Al Scoma Way) and Bistro Boudin (160 Jefferson Street), although the list could be longer.

Meet a historic American ship

Have you ever been inside a submarine? If the answer is "no" and you're a little curious, just head over to Pier 45. Here rests the USS Pampanito, a submersible vessel that performed a number of exploits during World War II.

The USS Pampanito survived more than 70 battles and currently receives more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Once inside you will discover how life was lived on board while learning its most famous anecdotes. I can safely say that it is one of the best museums in San Francisco.

After seeing the ship, if you like American sports and want to see how the locals feel the passion, I recommend going to Players Sports Grill & Arcade, a bar that broadcasts NBA, MLS, NHL, Nascar races and other live events (2 Beach Street).

Book NBA tickets

Day 3: Yosemite National Park

Yosemite| ©Edward Stojakovic
Yosemite| ©Edward Stojakovic

This gigantic protected area is about 160 miles from the metropolis. If you want to visit it on your own, you will have to drive more than 3 hours and pay an entrance fee of about $35.

Personally, I recommend you to book a tour to Yosemite from San Francisco to enjoy a more complete route.

Reach Oakdale

This Californian city is known as the "cowboy capital of the world". In the oldest nucleus survive the typical houses of the Wild West, street art and a bronze statue portraying a cowboy. It is a good intermediate stop as the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite takes more than three hours.

If you woke up early, you can stop at Bloomingcamp Ranch Bake Shop for breakfast. At this farm they prepare apple pies, cookies, cakes and other treats.

From there you can easily reach Oakdale and take a stroll through downtown before getting back on the road.

Stay open-mouthed at Yosemite Valley

America's great parks are spectacular in both size and uncontaminated wilderness. Yosemite Valley meets the definition: its granite mountains intermingle with forests as far as the eye can see.

If you've chosen a tour, the bus will stop at a scenic point so you can enjoy the view.

Book your tour to Yosemite National Park

Admire the falls

Yosemite| ©Ken Lund
Yosemite| ©Ken Lund

Yosemite's waterfalls are located around Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge. A loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall (the "lower" falls) but you can also hike to the summit. In this case, you should spend at least half a day hiking.

If you visit San Francisco in June, you will see the falls at their peak. In August, on the other hand, they may be reduced to a small trickle of water.

Discover the photographs of Ansel Adams

Before the tour ends, there is one last thing to see: the Ansel Adams photograph collection. A small house in the middle of the forest preserves his best photographs, from his youth to his last works. He had a great passion for nature and his slides motivated the institution of several natural parks.

End the day at Mister Jiu's

One of San Francisco's many nicknames is "Baghdad by the Bay," a clear reference to the city's cultural diversity. Here you will find a large Chinese community and several restaurants specializing in Peking roast duck. For one of the best, I recommend Mister Jiu's (28 Waverly Place).

The restaurant offers traditional Cantonese cuisine with a California twist. In addition to the duck, I recommend you try the roasted quail or the baked trout. To deepen your knowledge about the typical food, I recommend you to read the post about the best food tours in San Francisco.

Book a food tour in San Francisco

Day 4: Muir Woods and Sausalito

Muir Woods| ©Bill Taroli
Muir Woods| ©Bill Taroli

An extended stay in San Francisco is the perfect excuse to explore its surroundings. In my opinion, it's worth getting away from the city to walk in the woods of Muir Woods National Park and discover Sausalito, a charming village a few miles from the "City by the Bay".

You can travel on your own or choose a guided bus tour to Muir Woods and Sausalito.

Immerse yourself in nature in Muir Woods

To get away from the hustle and bustle, you don't have to go far from the city. Muir Woods National Park is located about 25 kilometers from San Francisco and can be easily reached by traveling Federal Route 101.

Once there, you have two options: to cross it on foot or by bicycle. By the way, if you like two wheels I recommend you to read the post about best bike tours in San Francisco.

In the forest you will see many squirrels and, with a little luck, also deer and beavers. Actually, its biggest attraction are the giant sequoias that can reach 150 meters high. Muir Woods opens at 8:00 a.m. and closes shortly before sunset, so pack comfortable shoes and hit the trail!

Book your tour to Sausalito and Muir Woods

Stroll along Sausalito's Bridgeway Promenade

The second stop of the day is a peaceful Mediterranean-style town. Sausalito is beautiful and Bridgeway Promenade is its most famous postcard.

The avenue starts at Richardson Street and ends at Princess Street but you can keep walking along the coastline. From here the view is great.

Eat at Salito's Crab House & Prime Rib

After such a busy morning, I'm sure you'll be hungry. If I had to choose among the restaurants with a view, I'd choose Salito's (1200 Bridgeway). Their specialties are crab, creative sandwiches and seafood.

Sausalito's| ©Gary Bembridge
Sausalito's| ©Gary Bembridge

Rent a canoe

Before returning to the metropolis, I recommend a water activity. In Sausalito you will find several agencies that rent kayaks. One of these is Sea Trek, which also organizes canoe trips on San Francisco Bay.

You don't need to be an expert! There are options for all levels and in any case you will have an expert guide at your disposal. These routes run along the coastline and are perfect for a different perspective of the city. If you prefer, you can opt for Paddle Surf. In this case you must have some basic knowledge of the discipline.

Dinner at House of Prime Rib

The Golden Gate City is famous for its fish and seafood dishes. However, change is nice and what I propose for this last day is a typical American steakhouse: House of Prime Rib. It is located at 1906 Van Ness Avenue, a stone's throw from Lafayette Park.

Its star dish is the English-style marbled beef ribs. To achieve excellent flavor and perfect texture, each cut of meat is aged for 21 days. It also has a wine cellar with local and imported wines. House of Prime Rib is open from 17:00 to 22:00 (Monday to Friday) and from 16:00 to 22:00 (Saturday and Sunday).

Day 5: the beach

Ocean Beach, San Francisco| ©Sharon Mollerus
Ocean Beach, San Francisco| ©Sharon Mollerus

For the last day, I thought of a relaxing plan to return home with recharged batteries. To say "go to the beach" is often reductive. Luckily, San Francisco has a lot to offer.

Relax in the sun

If you like big sandy beaches Ocean Beach has to be your goal. Being interested by winds, it's a surfer's paradise. You can check the surf forecast at Surf Forecast.

On the other hand, if you prefer something wilder I recommend going to Mile Rock Beach. From here you can enjoy a wonderful view over the waters and the Golden Gate Bridge.

To get there you will have to walk a long trail (about 1 mile) and go down about 240 steps. The starting point is the visitor center (680 Point Lobos Avenue) which has maps of the place.

Stroll through Golden Gate Park and visit the Young Museum

To call it a park is to limit what this area represents. This green area occupies a large swath of the city and has several attractions.

One of these is the De Young Museum whose iconic silhouette was designed by Pierre De Meuron. Its collection is divided into two parts: works from the 19th and 20th centuries and a large exhibition of African art.

Around its perimeter are small lakes, a Japanese garden, picnic areas, a historic windmill and much more. In the area closest to the ocean you can see a herd of American buffalo living in the wild.

Reserve tickets for the Young Museum

Reach a San Francisco Icon: The Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies| ©Mark Gunn
Painted Ladies| ©Mark Gunn

In Golden Gate Park, near the De Young Museum, you can exit at Fulton Street and take the #5 bus. If you get off at the Mcallister St & Pierce St stop, you will be just a few minutes walk from the famous Painted Ladies, Victorian style houses with their elegant pastel colors.

They are located on Steiner Street, a street next to Alamo Square Park, and are the most photographed buildings in the city. In the same area are other residences built between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Others worth mentioning are in the nearby Haight-Ashbury, the old bohemian neighborhood of the city.

For a bite to eat you can opt for Nopa, a restaurant that uses ingredients harvested in Northern California. The menu changes weekly and the reviews are excellent. It also has a good wine selection (560 Divisadero Street).

What to do in San Francisco in case of rain?

San Francisco after a rainy day| ©Eric Sonstroem
San Francisco after a rainy day| ©Eric Sonstroem

San Francisco's weather is quite unpredictable and rain showers are quite common. Luckily there is no shortage of options to stay under cover. I recommend you to read the post about the San Francisco Aquarium and the articles dedicated to the California Academy of Science or the 10 things to see in San Francisco in winter.

Book your tour bus in San Francisco