One summer my friend and I decided to book a much needed vacation to San Francisco. I’ve been there a few times since I have family out there, but she had never been to the West Coast so I was so pumped to show her the city! I love that San Francisco isn’t like any other city out there, it’s quirky, colorful, historic – it’s just San Francisco.
We went for a quick weekend trip, flying out on a Thursday and leaving Sunday. Our days were jam-packed seeing as we only had 2 full days to see everything, but we got so much done. It was exhausting, but we had the best time! So I wanted to share a quick guide to San Francisco for anyone interested in visiting this amazing city.
W H E R E T O S T A Y
We stayed at the Marriott Marquis in Union Square. We wanted to be relatively close to everything, so we thought this was a great location and the hotel is huge so they had all the amenities we wanted. Union Square is where all the major retail stores are, and we were right by a Nordstrom and a Target which was perfect! Once we got there, they actually upgraded our room so we had a great view of the bay If you’re looking for a moderately priced hotel, definitely check it out!
Another thing we loved about our hotel was when we checked out, we asked the doorman to call us a cab to take us to SFO, and they actually had some SUVs waiting outside to take guests to the airport for a flat $50 fee! Considering our taxi getting from the airport to our hotel was about $70, we jumped right on in. Excellent customer service all around, I really can’t recommend the hotel enough!
Our first night, we went up to the amazing lounge at the hotel called The View for a drink, it has amazing views of the city so I for sure recommend checking it out even if you aren’t staying at the hotel. If you do go, try the Blackberry Bay (if you’re over 21 of course). Then we decided to just eat a late dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, B55 Craft House. They had great burgers that were the perfect late night snack. Also, San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so everything is here is pretty costly, just keep that in mind.
We started out heading to Sears Fine Food for brunch. It was supposedly a San Francisco institution that had amazing Swedish Pancakes – so, like we had to go. I had heard that it can get very, very busy and long lines form outside, so we were nervous we wouldn’t get a table. It was literally like a 5 minute walk from our hotel. We got there around 11-11:30am on a Friday and we only waited maybe 10 minutes? There wasn’t a line at all, so we might have gotten really lucky. For sure, try the Swedish Pancakes or the French Toast. Also the mimosas, and the bacon – I’m sure everything good actually.
After brunch, we walked a block down towards Union Square to catch the Powell-Hyde cable car to get to Fisherman’s Wharf. We did have to wait for quite a bit to get a cable car that wasn’t already full, but we were willing to wait. When we finally got our cable car, we took it all the way down to the Wharf, it literally drops you off like 3 or 4 blocks away – super easy. We walked around the Wharf and made our way down to Pier 39.
There are so many unique shops and things to see on the Pier, so you could spend a couple hours there. There’s also an area where you can go to view the Sea Lions! Fun Fact: apparently, the sea lions started showing up on the pier after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. You can see them lounging on some floating islands or swimming around in the water. It’s pretty cool. We ate lunch at Boudin Bakery, makers of the famous San Francisco Sourdough bread. If you don’t stop here, you’re missing out big time.
Then we decided to make our way up to Coit Tower. Now there are a couple of ways to get up there, the easiest being taking a car. We did not do that. We chose to do it the difficult, painful way. There are 2 hidden staircases that take you up there – the Greenwich Stairs and the Filbert Street Stairs. Since we were near the Embacardo, we went to the Greenwich Stairs. The view is super pretty and you pass by some really cool homes. It’s a very cool experience if you’re into things like exercise. I, however, wanted to die. There were probably a million steps (exaggerated but whatever). For real though, it was a really cool experience that everyone should try once. The views you get of the entire city are just incredible, so that made it worth it, but I’ll Uber next time…
By the time we made it down the steps, we had to head over to Pier 33 to catch our boat to Alcatraz. If you’re interested in booking a tour, we booked through Alcatraz Cruises and we were really happy with our experience. There are a lot of other places to buy tickets, but not all of them are legit so make sure you’re buying from a reputable source. We booked for the last tour of the day, which was really really cool because as you got closer to Alcatraz it got darker and the fog (aptly named Karl, btw) was rolling in, so it was a super spooky setting – totally perfect!
Our second day was a little more relaxed than the first, but we still had a full day ahead of us! Before we left for breakfast, we bought San Francisco double decker bus tour tickets through the concierge at the hotel. I think each hotel is affiliated with a different company, ours was affiliated with the Big Bus Tour. We also got a discount booking through the hotel, so if you’re looking to do a tour, try booking it through your hotel first rather than the tour’s website. Since we were in San Francisco for such a short amount of time, we thought doing a bus tour of the city would help us get a better view of everything that we might otherwise not get to see. We would also get a bit of the history of the city. We enjoyed the tour, but honestly, we weren’t totally happy with it. Every person who was working the tour was incredible sweet and funny, but we felt the tour could have given us a bit more information or taken us on a better route. It was also a bummer that the fog was pretty heavy that day so we didn’t have a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
We stayed on the bus for most of the day, but got off at Golden Gate Park for our first stop of the day. We just walked around to kind of get a lay of the land, but if we had more time we would’ve tried to go to the California Academy of the Sciences. We did try to go to the Japanese Tea Garden, but didn’t realize you had to pay to get in so we just stuck our heads in to get a glimpse and continue on our way. We hopped back on the bus and our next hop off was at Chinatown. It’s the largest/oldest Chinatown in the country, and it’s a very cool place to explore. We hopped right back on the bus and made our way back over to Fisherman’s Wharf. We were starving so got off there to grab a bite to eat at In n’ Out. If you go to California without going to In n’ Out, what are you even doing?
We had to wait a while to get back on a bus because the line at the stop was so long. That was also something we didn’t really like was the amount of time you had to wait to catch a bus. We spent a lot of time waiting, too much time actually. Anyway, once we got back on we continued until we got to Alamo Square. The bus doesn’t actually go by it which was surprising to me, because when I went on a bus tour a few years ago there, they drove right past the square so you didn’t have to get off the bus and walk to it in order to see the Painted Ladies (aka the Full House house). Fun Fact: the actual Full House house isn’t one of the Painted Ladies, it’s actually located somewhere else in the city.
At this point in the day we were pretty tuckered out, so we called an Uber to take us back to the hotel. Let me tell you, Ubers in this city are convenient but so slow, so just keep that in mind. We actually just chilled out in the room for a while watching Property Brothers or something, but decided since it was our last night we needed to go out and do something (seeing how it was only like 7:30pm lol). We went online to find a bar to go to, at first we went to this place called SPiN, which was portrayed online as a bar that had games in it, but when we got there we quickly realized it was not that at all. It was a Ping Pong Social Club where a bunch of friend groups went to sit, chat, play ping pong and drink very eccentric drinks. We were not fans so we turned right around and went to our next choice, Pacific Cocktail Haven, which we absolutely loved! It’s a pretty small place, but we luckily got there like 30 min before the crowds came in, so we were able to grab the last table. The drinks were so good and it had a really nice atmosphere, I highly recommend it. After we finished our drinks, we headed back to the hotel and called it an night.
HOW TO GET AROUND
I mentioned the ways that we got around the city earlier, but I just wanted to recap it again and explain how to use them a bit more since transportation in cities you haven’t been to before can be confusing. With Uber nowadays, we really never have to worry about how we’ll get around, but San Francisco has so many different ways to see the city you have a ton of options.
GoCar Tour – We didn’t know about the GoCar Tour until the day before we arrived to the city, but it seems like such an awesome thing to do. Basically, you get your own little 2 person Go-Kart type car that has a pre-loaded routes to take you around the city and to all the different attractions. You can actually park it and go to the different attractions and then get back in and continue your tour. It also gives you some history and background of the city while you’re driving.
Cable Car – No experience is more San Francisco that riding a cable car, it’s the way people in the 1870s got around the city. If you’re able to, try to stand on the outside, it’s a once in a lifetime experience and the views are incredible. There’s different lines that take you to different parts of the city, we took the Powell-Hyde line to get from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. Check out this website to figure out what route you should take and where the stops are. If you download the MuniMobile app on your phone, you can buy tickets to get on the cable car from anywhere. It’s $7 per ride.
Bus Tour – We used the double decker bus tour to take us around the city on our second day. It may not have been the most efficient way to get around, but we were able to see the whole city and learn some history about it at the same time. You can hop on/hop off as you please for however long your ticket is good for. There are 2 companies that you can book with – Big Bus Tour and City Sightseeing tour.
Muni/BART – San Francisco’s transportation system is called Muni and BART. There are large buses and metro trains that run through the city. We didn’t use these, but if you’re in the city for more than two days, you may find it’s an easier option.
Uber/Lyft – the most obvious option, but as I said before, like in any city, the service can be either really good or it can be really slow. We used it a couple of times while we were there and every driver we had was so nice.
OTHER PLACES TO SEE
Catch a Giants game at AT&T Park
Lombard Street – the crookedest street in the world
The Ferry Building Marketplace
The Walt Disney Family Museum – a must for any Disney fan. Done this twice and loved it each time.
Walk or ride a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge
Visit the Sutro Baths – was once the largest indoor swimming complex in the world, but now just eerie ruins.
Marvel at Palace of Fine Arts
Take a cruise on the Bay
Explore the Castro
OTHER PLACES TO EAT
Mama’s on Washington Square
Mr. Holme’s Bakehouse (instagram famous)
Hops & Hominy
Hollow Cow (great brunch w/ bottomless mimosas)
Tonga Room Tiki Bar
The Slanted Door ($$$)
TIPS + TRICKS
- Avoid staying in the Tenderloin district. It’s right on the outskirts of Union Square, but it’s the most dangerous area of the city.
- San Francisco is made up of micro-climates, so the weather can be unpredictable, which makes packing a little difficult. It’s much colder than you would expect it to be during the summer. So for example, on the first day I wore a sweater, jeans and a jacket. Most of the day I wore the jacket around my waist, but I was very comfortable in the sweater. I did get very hot after we climbed the steps to Coit Tower, but otherwise I was fine. But I needed the jacket once we got close to Alcatraz because the temperature dropped like 10 degrees. On day two, it was freezing when we were by the Golden Gate Bridge, but normal temperature in Chinatown – you just have to be ready for anything.
- Make reservations for Alcatraz at least 2 weeks before you go. We booked ours over month out because we knew we wanted to do the nighttime tour, but when I went to Alcatraz the first time a few years ago, I bought my tickets day of. You just never know how busy it’s going to be, so better to be safe than sorry.
- Pop Culture Fun Fact: Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio got married at City Hall in San Francisco. When I found out about this I totally geeked out.
- There’s a Wave Organ in Marina Green that is activated by the waves of the bay.
- If you have the time, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge is a town called Sausalito that is a very cute, quaint area. Any time I’ve brought up San Francisco to anyone, they always so to go to Sausalito. The double decker bus tours have routes that run there if you’re interested!
Whew, that was a lot. I’ve got finger cramps. I hope this was helpful to help you plan out your trip to San Francisco. It’s such a cool and unique city, so it’s impossible to do everything in one trip and there’s a lot that I haven’t experienced yet myself. I love being in this city and can’t wait to go back!
Have you been to San Francisco? What are your favorite things to do?