What to Do in San Francisco If You Don't Have Much Time

View from Alamo Square in San Francisco Pixabay

San Francisco has earned its reputation as America’s most beautiful city. But there’s tons to see and time is fleeting. Our whirlwind tour helps you prioritize the sights whether you’ve got one, two, or three days to spare in the City by the Bay. Day One focuses on four famous neighborhoods—Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, and Chinatown. Day Two lets you explore spooky Alcatraz Island and relive 19th-century grandeur on Nob Hill. The third and final day is filled with food, art, and culture. So let’s hop a cable car and get going—there’s not a minute to lose!

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On Union Square in San Francisco Pixabay

Start your tour at this lively urban square, named for a series of uproarious pro-Union demonstrations staged here on the eve of the Civil War. In 2002, a $25 million renovation replaced stretches of lawn with a 245-foot-long granite floor and scattered greenery, turning it into a welcoming and memorable plaza. All that remains from the old square is the 90-foot Victory tower, dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt after the Spanish-American War. In winter, the square gets decked out with thousands of twinkling decorations, including a colossal Christmas tree.

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The Powell-Hyde cable car in San Francisco Christopher Kern

Head to the cable-car turnaround at Powell and Market streets and hop on the Powell-Hyde line. The first of these englineless, open-air vehicles started running in 1873. As the cable car takes you over Rusian Hill, pay attention as you crest Hyde Street at Greenwich Street—you’ll catch your first glimpse of the beautiful San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island.

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A sea lion at Pier 39 in San Francisco Swaminathan / Flickr

The cable car drops you by San Francisco’s most-visited attraction, which has history and lots to do. Though the wharf is rife with tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, it’s still a must-see. Highlights include Ghirardelli Square of chocolate fame, the ship-shaped Maritime Museum, the sourdough purveyors of Boudin Bakery, and the lounging sea lions at Pier 39 (pictured above).

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Lombard Street in San Francisco Ramgeis (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Wikimedia Commons

“The crookedest street in the world” is in fact not even the crookedest street in San Francisco (that distinction belongs to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd in Potrero Hill). Zigzags were added to Lombard in the 1920s because the street’s 27-degree pitch was too steep for automobiles. Today, cars are permitted only to descend, but pedestrians can take the stairs up or down on either side. The street is loveliest in spring, when the hydrangeas bloom.

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Coit Tower in San Francisco Ken Cedeno

The 210-foot landmark atop Telegraph Hill was erected in 1933, thanks to money donated in the will of local character Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Inside the tower’s base are murals by several artists who studied under Mexican master Diego Rivera. Commissioned as part of the New Deal, the artwork has a pro-worker motif that caused a stir in its day. The fee to ascend the tower is worth it: A 360-degree city view awaits. While on Telegraph Hill, keep your eyes peeled for a large flock of green parrots. No one’s quite sure how they got here.

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City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco Pedro Cambra / Flickr

Immigrants from Genoa and Sicily who pioneered the Bay Area’s fishing industry settled here in the 1870s, establishing a lively array of Italian restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and bars. In the 1950s, these spots became havens for some of the era’s most influential writers and artists. Today, the neighborhood exudes a combination of Mediterranean warmth and bohemian spirit. Step into the storied City Lights Booksellers & Publishers (261 Columbus Ave.; pictured above) to pay tribute to Beat Generation authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

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Red paper lanterns in San Francisco's Chinatown Pixabay

More than 15,000 people live in San Francisco’s most densely populated neighborhood. Walk down Grant Avenue for eclectic knickknacks and imports, and Stockton Street for authentic eateries, fragrant grocery stores, and herb shops. At the end of these teeming streets, try the bubble tea at Tuttimelon (601 Broadway), and at 56 Ross Alley, pop into Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to stock up on prophetic sweets.

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Alcatraz Island Pixabay

Beginning in 1934, this island housed a maximum-security prison for the country’s most hardened criminals, including Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. Given its sheer cliffs surrounded by frigid waters and treacherous currents, Alcatraz was considered inescapable. (Now it's hard to get in—so make an advance registration.) However, the prison’s upkeep cost a fortune; all supplies had to come by boat. After three convicted bank robbers escaped in 1962 using sharpened spoons and a makeshift raft, the prison closed. The island remained unoccupied until 1969, when Native Americans took it over, bringing their civil-rights demands to the foreground. They were removed in 1971, but not before Congress passed more than 50 legislative proposals supporting tribal self-rule. Today, the National Park Service manages Alcatraz. Once there, you’ll receive a headset that plays an audio tour with riveting tales from former guards and inmates. For an eerie evening experience, take the Alcatraz After Hours tour.

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View of Golden Gate Bridge from Lands End trail at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco Julie Jordan Scott / Flickr

Lovely Lincoln Park in the city’s northwest corner has expansive lawns, eucalyptus trees, an 18-hole golf course, and gorgeous ocean views. Walk north to the Lands End trail head in Golden Gate National Recreation Area for a view (pictured above) of the Marin Headlands—and the world’s most famous bridge. Conditions are best in the afternoon, when the fog has burned off and the sun makes the Marin hills appear golden. Don't forget to check out the Monets, Rembrandts, and Rodins housed in the nearby California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

 
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Interior of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco Daderot (CC0) / Wikimedia Commons

Completed in 1964, this grand Episcopal church stands on the site of a mansion that was destroyed in the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Pay special attention to the building’s main doors—they're replicas of Ghiberti’s bronze Gates of Paradise in Florence—and the Singing Tower to the right of the main entrance, with its 44-bell carillon. To mitigate the damage of any future quakes, the cathedral’s exterior is made of reinforced concrete beaten to achieve a stone-like look. Inside, notice the 1840 organ and the impressive stained-glass windows, some of which depict modern figures such as former Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, poet Robert Frost (a San Francisco native), and Albert Einstein. 

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Top of the Mark in San Francisco Travis Wise / Flickr

This famous hilltop neighborhood is named for its wealthy former residents, or “nabobs,” as San Francisco elites were then known. Look around to see some of the city’s most prestigious hotels and expensive real estate. For a postcard-worthy panorama of the city, head up to the InterContinental’s penthouse lounge, Top of the Mark (pictured)and toast the view with a cocktail.

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Produce for sale at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco mary.thengvall / Flickr

On Tuesdays and Saturdays (and from spring to fall, on Thursdays and Sundays as well), dozens of regional food producers set up booths just outside the 1898 Ferry Building along the waterfront (at the Embarcadero and Market St.). Saturday mornings are busiest, as locals show up to stock up on fruits and vegetables, baked goods, cheeses, and flowers. Local restaurants serve gourmet breakfasts on Saturdays, too.

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View of the Bay Bridge from the Embarcadero Promenade in San Francisco BenBench (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Wikimedia Commons

This lovely stretch of waterfront extends from AT&T Park to Fisherman’s Wharf. A wide sidewalk and sweeping bay views make it a perennial favorite for pedestrians and joggers. Notice the Embarcadero Ribbon, a 2.5-mile continuous line of glass encased in concrete. The 13-foot metal pylons and bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk are imprinted with photographs, poetry, and historical facts. After sunset, the Embarcadero provides the perfect vantage point for enjoying Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights, a sparkling, shapeshifting art installation on the Bay Bridge (a daytime view of the bridge is pictured above).

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The Garden Court at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco Carol M. Highsmith (Public Domain) / Wikimedia Commons

The extravagant Palace Hotel astounded San Franciscans and bankrupted its owner, who allegedly committed suicide a day before the 1875 grand opening. Three decades later, the hotel was ravaged by one of the many fires following the 1906 earthquake. The place was restored to glory and reopened in 1909, along with its showpiece, the Garden Court. This impressive atrium’s domed ceiling is made from 80,000 glass panes and houses the relaxing Garden Court Restaurant. After absorbing the court’s grandeur, step into the Pied Piper Bar for a look at the Maxfield Parrish mural—and maybe a Charlie Chaplin cocktail, made with absinthe and rye.

 
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A Tomás Saraceno exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Michael Fraley / Flickr

After a three-year closure, SFMOMA reopened in 2016 to become America’s biggest modern art museum—it’s now 10 stories tall. The collection, amassed since the museum’s opening in 1935, includes more than 30,000 works by such artists as Picasso, Matisse, O’Keeffe, Pollock, and Warhol. One of the first major museums to recognize the importance of photography, SFMOMA also showcases the work of Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Man Ray, and other luminaries of the lens. Outside on the terrace, sculptures stand amid 16,000 native plants.

Photo: a Tomás Saraceno exhibit at SFMOMA

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Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco Gary Stevens / Flickr

This science and nature museum in Golden Gate Park is an expansive, interactive world of discovery that mesmerizes anyone who visits. There’s an incredible array of animal specimens both terrestrial and marine, captivating planetarium shows, and a four-story rainforest. While you’re in the park, stop for a meal at the Beach Chalet, an airy restaurant and brewery near the ocean. Don’t miss the 1930s-era fresco murals in the adjoining Golden Gate Park Visitors Center.

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Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Pixabay

We’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to do in San Francisco. With more time (or on subsequent visits), you can bike across Golden Gate Bridge to the charming village of Sausalito; have tea at the Japanese garden or admire American art at the de Young Museum, both in Golden Gate Park; relive the Summer of Love in the hippified Haight-Ashbury district; pay your respects to AIDS memorials or sample LGBT nightlife in the Castro; snap photos of Victorian architectural landmarks like the Painted Ladies townhouses near Alamo Square; and so on. Trust us: You’ll want to come back. We hear some people have even left their hearts there.     

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