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4 Days In San Francisco Itinerary For First Time Visitors

4 Days In San Francisco Itinerary For First Time Visitors

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Ahh San Francisco. Where you expect to find Californian beachy vibes and instead find a fun cosmopolitan city, complete with its own fog named Karl, who no doubt gets mentioned once or twice within this 4 days in San Francisco itinerary.

You might be wondering how many days in San Francisco is best for your first visit, and surprise surprise, we think 4 days is a good amount of time. 

Why? 

Well because first of all, we wouldn’t recommend spending any less than 3 days in San Francisco. Otherwise, you’d barely scratch the surface of this unique city. 

Views of Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach

But we’d also say that you won’t need as long as a week here. That’s not to say you couldn’t fill up the time easily; but just that it’s not necessary.

Instead, 4 days in San Francisco is a nice go between and is a good amount of time to allow you to see some of San Francisco’s most famous sights, as well as one or two lesser known gems and you’ll even have the chance to head out of the city on a day trip to Muir Woods and Sausalito.

Sound good? Still have dreams of visiting San Francisco? Excellent. Here’s how to make the most of a 4 day weekend in San Francisco…

4 Days In San Francisco Itinerary At-A-Glance

4 Days in San Francisco Itinerary At-A-Glance

Day 1: Lombard Street, Pier 39 and Alcatraz Island
Day 2: Muir Woods, Sausalito and Battery Spencer
Day 3: Chinatown, Japanese Tea Garden and Golden Gate Park
Day 4: Golden Gate Bridge and Baker Beach

Day 1

The first day of this 4 days in San Francisco itinerary should feel easy like a Sunday morning followed by a haunting afternoon at Alcatraz Island.

Lombard Street

On the first day of your San Francisco itinerary, start off easy with a quick photo opportunity at the famous switchbacks of Lombard Street.

Lombard Street, San Francisco

This street is home to eight sharp hairpin turns, which are said to make it the most crooked street in the world. While I personally wouldn’t drive down it, it’s fun to walk along the side of it and watch cars try to navigate the turns.

This street is particularly pretty in the warmer months when the hairpin turns are framed by green shrubs and colourful flowers.

Lombard Street

Pier 39

San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Embarcadero districts are popular with both tourists and locals alike. 

Pier 39 is especially popular as it’s home to souvenir shops and arcade games, as well as hundreds of sea lions who have made Pier 39 their home and basking space for over 30 years now. 

Lefty's Store, Pier 39, San Francisco

You can get here by walking for roughly 30 minutes from Lombard Street and it’s an enjoyable stroll as you’ll have the sea views in the background to enjoy.

Also, Pier 33 is nearby, which is where you can catch an afternoon ferry to the legendary Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island can be found in San Francisco Bay roughly 1.25 miles from the city.

Welcome to Alcatraz Penitentiary sign

Between 1934 and 1963, it was a federal prison and home to some of America’s most dangerous gangsters, mobsters, robbers and murderers including Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, James “Whitey” Bulger and many more.

Much like Azkaban Prison in the Harry Potter series, Alcatraz is known for being somewhere that’s almost impossible to escape from. But that didn’t stop plenty of prisoners trying…

And in 1962, the bank robbers Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers succeeded! They used sharpened spoons to dig through the prison walls, left papier-maché dummies in their beds and floated away from the prison on a raft made of raincoats. 

While they were never found, many believe they drowned at sea because of how choppy and freezing San Francisco Bay would have been at the time.

Administration Building at Alcatraz

Today, you can hop on a ferry for fifteen minutes from Pier 33 and head off on a self-guided audio tour around the prison grounds and cell blocks. You’ll even be told about the escape attempts including the story above so be sure to listen out for those.

Note: Due to the island’s popularity, you should aim to book your ferry tickets at least 3-4 months in advance of your trip and you’ll likely spend half a day on Alcatraz Island.

Day 2

Fancy escaping the hustle and bustle of the city for a day? The infamous Californian redwood trees await… as does delicious Sausalito ice cream.

Muir Woods Day Trip

Whether you choose to drive yourself or join a guided tour, you’ll only need to be in the car (or coach!) for roughly 30 minutes before finding yourself at the incredible Muir Woods.

Redwoods at Muir Woods, California

There are several different walking trails to follow within Muir Woods; each of varying lengths and difficulties from an easy 1 mile circular trail to a moderate 5.2 mile half-day hike.

If you have joined a tour from San Francisco then you’ll probably have around 90 minutes to 2 hours to explore the woods, which gives you a flavour for just how majestic these trees really are.

On the shorter walking routes, there are fewer inclines and wooden walkways to follow so escaping the hustle and bustle of San Francisco to Muir Woods is an ideal day trip even if you have mobility issues.

Redwood tree knocked over at Muir Woods, California

Sausalito

While you’re in this area, your tour may also stop off at Sausalito, which is a quaint seaside city overlooking Richardson Bay and part of San Francisco Bay.

Sausalito is also home to a heavenly ice cream parlour. In fact, our tour guide told us Lappert’s Ice Cream sells the best ice cream in California… quite some accolade. And to be fair, their ice cream sandwiches are heavenly and there are so many different flavours of ice cream to try!

You usually get around an hour to explore Sausalito, which is ample time to take a few photos across the harbour and indulge in some delicious ice cream!

Battery Spencer

If you’ve got a particularly nice tour guide then they sometimes also make a quick pit stop near Battery Spencer on the way back from Sausalito.

Here, you get a superb viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge, which you’ve likely seen in the movies.

Day 3

Today is all about feeling zen and admiring the Asian influences behind this great Californian city.

Chinatown

You can’t possibly visit San Francisco without seeing its infamous Chinatown. 

Although it might seem like every city has one, the one in San Francisco is colourful, sprawling and has incredible architecture to admire.

Chinatown, San Francisco

Head here in the morning when it’s less busy and peruse the myriad market stalls and independent shops in search of some cool souvenirs while snapping photos of the intricate buildings, lamp posts and arches.

Chinatown, San Francisco

Japanese Tea Garden

From the throngs of Chinatown, hop on an electric trolleybus to Golden Gate Park, and within an hour, you’ll be in a beautiful Japanese oasis

The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the highlights of Golden Gate Park and is a labyrinth of paths, ponds, sculptures and monuments inspired by Buddhist and Shinto spiritual beliefs. 

Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco

The teahouse at the heart of the garden is well worth the pitstop too as you can try authentic Japanese food and drinks like matcha tea, edamame sandwiches, green tea cheesecake and kuzumochi while looking out over bamboo and other pretty plants.

There’s also a shop nearby, which is full of interesting Japanese products, so this is also a great place to pick up a few unique souvenirs.

It’ll feel like you’ve stepped from China to Japan in just one day and is a very zen way to spend your time in San Francisco.

Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco

Golden Gate Park

If you’ve got time left on your third day in San Francisco then there is lots more to see and do within Golden Gate Park.

From watching university students play frisbee and other classic “teen” sports to casually pedalling around Stow Lake and even spending some time in botanical gardens, Golden Gate Park is well worth spending the time wandering around.

You won’t have time to see it all (it’s huge!) but you can get a quick snapshot of it and some of its more famous highlights.

Day 4

The final day of this San Francisco 4 day itinerary sees you taking in the views of the city’s most iconic landmark followed by breathing in the sea air and enjoying some beach vibes.

Golden Gate Bridge

No trip to San Francisco could possibly be complete without admiring the Golden Gate Bridge from every angle. 

If you’ve followed our San Francisco itinerary so far, then you would have driven across it, seen it from the other side at Battery Spencer and now it’s time to admire it from its official and most famous viewpoint.

Depending on where you’re staying in San Francisco, you’ll probably spend around an hour or two on the bus to get here, but it’s well worth doing.

Golden Gate Bridge covered in fog at the top

Don’t be surprised if the bridge is surrounded by a thick fog (even on seemingly sunny days!) Fog is incredibly common around the San Francisco Bay Area; so much in fact that locals have nicknamed it “Karl the Fog”. 

Spend some time taking photos of the bridge from the viewpoint, head to the visitor centre if you’re interested and even walk along some of it if you want to. 

But don’t wear yourself out too much as the next stop on this 4 days in San Francisco itinerary is a meandering walk along the California Coastal Trail to Baker Beach.

Baker Beach

From the Golden Gate Bridge viewpoint, it’ll take you around 30-40 minutes to walk to Baker Beach via the California Coastal Trail.

Views of San Francisco Bay from the California Coastal Trail

Along the way, you’ll come across lots more superb viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as historic gun batteries, towering trees and fantastic views of the coast.

But the crown jewel at the end and where you’ll probably want to spend the rest of your afternoon is the sandy Baker Beach, which has excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge on one side, and in our opinion, is the most relaxing way to end your final day in gorgeous San Francisco.

Justine sitting on Baker Beach

Where To Eat

There are a hundred and one different eateries (and then some!) dotted around San Francisco, so we couldn’t possibly even try to tell you where to eat. 

But there are a few places, which have stuck with us over the years and so we just had to note them down for you…

Before our first trip to San Francisco, a local sold The Cheesecake Factory near Union Square to us as the perfect place to grab a slice of cheesecake and admire the city lights of Union Square from above. 

Union Square in San Francisco at night

She was right. 

Not only was our slice of cheesecake delicious and practically the size of my head but the views from the terrace were also pretty epic. 

Just remember to book a table if you want to admire the views at night too… it’s a popular place!

During that same trip, we were taken to Cafe Madeleine on New Montgomery Street for cake. Delicious creamy cake. 

Cafe Madeleine cakes from San Francisco

It was so good we went back two more times after that! I think we were probably on a mission to try all the flavours but we needed at least a month to do that. 

Oh well, there’s always next time!

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More Things To Do In San Francisco To Add To Your Itinerary

There are so many fun and exciting things to do in San Francisco that a 4 day San Francisco itinerary just simply can’t cover them all. 

I first visited San Francisco as part of a 2 week work trip, and when I visited with Scott, we had a whirlwind 3 days there as part of our 2 week West Coast USA and Hawaii trip.

So with that in mind, here are a bunch of other cool things to do in San Francisco that you might want to either find time for within your own 4 days in San Francisco itinerary or prolong your trip for. A day trip to Napa Valley in particular is certainly worth it!

Exploratorium

Who doesn’t love an epic science museum? We’ve always thought they’re excellent date ideas and for groups of friends too… and especially when they have adults only nights! 

San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum on Pier 15 is open every Thursday night after hours, so you can have fun trying out all the exhibits with a beer in your hand without any kids around. It’s so much fun!

Coit Tower

Found in the Telegraph Hill district, Coit Tower is 210 feet high and you can climb to the top of it for panoramic views across the city and the bay. 

It’s actually not too far from Lombard Street so you could combine the two within your San Francisco itinerary if you want to.

The Painted Ladies

Is it a plane? Is it an art sculpture? Nope, they’re houses. Victorian houses painted in pretty and colourful pastel colours. 

And the ones near San Francisco’s Alamo Square are beautiful and just a little bit Insta-famous. 

In fact, they’re nicknamed ‘Postcard Row’ so you can probably get an idea from that description alone just how pretty they are!

Yerba Buena Gardens 

There is certainly no shortage of pretty parks and quiet spaces in San Francisco and Yerba Buena Gardens is a delightful little oasis close to the Financial District.

Full of blossom trees, flowering shrubs and potted plants, Yerba Buena Gardens even has a towering waterfall and outdoor chess sets. Yep, just like the ones you’ve seen old men sitting at in the movies!

Union Square

Of all the shopping districts in the US, Union Square is most definitely up there with the best of them!

Union Square is brimming with all the designer boutiques and popular highstreet stores you’d expect to find alongside some of America’s finest; namely: Barneys, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

If you’ve ever wanted to wander around one of these iconic American department stores, but haven’t yet made it to New York, then Union Square in San Francisco is the next best thing!

Napa Valley Day Trip

If you have extra time in your San Francisco itinerary and fancy another incredible day trip, then Napa Valley is the place to be. 

Napa is roughly 50 miles northeast of San Francisco and is one of California’s most famous “wine countries” known for its delicious wine, beautiful countryside and delightful Californian weather year-round.

Not to mention Napa has multiple Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury spas to chill out in too. Napa Valley makes for one hell of a classy day trip from San Francisco.

Check out these tours on Get Your Guide to make it happen! >>

 

Getting Around San Francisco

San Francisco might seem like a sprawling network of straight roads and mega hills. But at 49 square miles, it’s actually quite a compact city (at least for America!), so there’s no stopping you from walking between some attractions if you’re able to.

That said, if you follow our San Francisco itinerary then there will be some days when you’ll need to rely on public transport to get around. Thankfully, you’ve got plenty of choice in San Francisco!

First up, there’s the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which is a popular rail network operating across the city and to/from the airport.

Another popular way to get around is via the MUNI (San Francisco Municipal Railway), which are electric trolley buses and metro trains. During our trip, we used the MUNI buses and trains more than any other transport as they were frequent, reliable and very cost effective for one-off journeys.

As it’s your first time in San Francisco, you might also want to hop on a cable car at least once. These cable cars are what we’d normally call trams and navigate some of the largest hills in San Francisco like Nob Hill. One-off rides don’t come cheap and they’re definitely more of a tourist attraction than a general way to get around but are worth it for the experience.

San Francisco Cable Car

Where To Stay In San Francisco For 4 Days

There are so many different districts in San Francisco that it can be hard knowing which one to stay in when it’s your first time in the city. 

We’d recommend finding somewhere central such as within the Financial District or Union Square (although the latter will be considerably pricey). 

Market Street also has a wide range of public transport options, so we’d recommend finding somewhere close by if you can to make things even easier during your city break.

Here are a few hotel options within these areas that come highly rated by thousands of other travellers:

Find more hotels in San Francisco on Booking.com >>
Or try Hotels.com >>


And that’s it for this 4 days in San Francisco itinerary! What are you most excited to see and do first? Did we miss anything out? Let us know by writing a quick comment below…

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