The Best of San Francisco in 48 Hours
Let me start off by saying that I don’t recommend only 48 hours to see all of San Francisco.
The city is too great and there’s just so much to explore! And while San Francisco may seem small in comparison to cities like Chicago and New York, a lot of what the city has to offer is well spread out throughout the 47 square mile peninsula.
I used to have a sort-of love-hate relationship with San Francisco. On one hand, the city feels a little gritty. Many of the 60’s era Victorians are in dire need of a fresh coat of paint and there’s no shortage of drifters throughout the city.
But then, there’s something really charming about San Francisco too. A city built on counter-culture, where conformity is a four letter word. You start to fall for those old Victorians painted in various shades of pastels. The free-spirited locals could care less about what you think, and there’s something awfully refreshing about that.
But that carefree San Francisco culture is now under threat. Today’s San Francisco is a clash between hippie culture and tech-driven gentrification, with artisan coffee shops and wacky record stores co-mingling on the same block. With the city at a crossroads between old and new, there’s never been a more important time to visit.
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Where to Stay in San Francisco
With San Francisco being as huge as it is, options for where to stay are really endless (you can read more on our favorite San Francisco neighborhoods for families here).
If you’re short on time though, you’ll probably want to stay centrally located in neighborhoods like Russian Hill, North Beach, or Nob Hill. These are all located close to the wharf, as well as the rest of the major tourist destinations this post covers.
A few hotel options to consider:
Hotel Zephyr | This funky waterfront hotel is just a few steps from Fisherman’s Wharf and all of the attractions along the bay. With each hotel room decked out in maritime-themed decor (and not in the cheap, kitschy sense), you’ll have an unforgettable stay for sure.
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Hilton Financial District | Nestled in between Chinatown and the Financial District, the Hilton Financial District is your classic modern high-rise hotel. Its two restaurants on-site and spacious rooms make it ideal for families and couples alike.
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Hotel Griffon | Away from the hustle and bustle, Hotel Griffon is a quiet retreat still close to the waterfront (and the F line muni which brings you directly to Fisherman’s Wharf). Another perk? The Ferry Building Marketplace with its weekend farmers market is just a few steps away.
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San Francisco has a fairly decent public transportation network, but some places will be a little harder and more time consuming to get to than others this way. While walking is always a good way to see a city, the hilly streets make getting around on foot a bit more strenuous.
While parking can be notoriously difficult to find (and in certain places, the prices obscene), I would still recommend renting a car for at least 1 or 2 days to see the harder to reach places like Marin County and Golden Gate Park. For the rest of the time, a combination of public transportation and walking should get you just about anywhere you want to go.
If you only have a short amount of time to see San Francisco, or you just want to cram all of the touristy stuff into the first couple of days and get it out of the way, here’s how you can cover the very best of San Francisco in 48 hours!
Powell-Hyde Cable Car Ride
Off to an early start, make your way to the Powell-Hyde cable car turntable first thing in the morning. We left our car at the Hyde Beach Garage because, while expensive, it was most conveniently located to where we would start and end our day. We arrived at the turntable just after 9 am, and the line started stacking up quickly shortly thereafter. If you can make it before 9 am, you’ll be able to hop on the first car without waiting too long.
The Powell-Hyde cable car cruises from the wharf past the top of Lombard Street, through Chinatown, past Union Square and ultimately ends at Market Street downtown. Bring cash (exact change not required), so you can quickly pay the operator for your trip. You can buy a one-day pass for use on all the city’s public transportation ($20), or just a one-way cable car pass ($7) which we opted for.
As we rolled up and down the hilly streets, Evelyn wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. The car got quite crammed as people hopped on and off, so if you can snatch an outside seat, you’ll be more comfortable and have better views. Since it was chilly and we were riding with Evelyn, we chose to sit inside in the back of the car so we could still get some of those hilly views.
Have more time? Hop off the cable car at Union Square for some shopping and a photo op with the famous “Hearts in San Francisco”.
Ferry Building Marketplace
Hopping off the cable car at Market Street, walk just across Market and you’ll see the F Line muni tracks. Make your way over to the stop and get ready for another ride. A one-way ticket on the classic streetcar costs $2.25, and you will need exact change for this one (if you don’t have a pass already). If the muni is super packed like it was on the day we arrived, the operator might not even try to collect from you, but better to be safe than sorry. Be prepared to pack in like sardines; the F line muni gets pretty full during the busy tourist season.
The F Line will take you down Market street and then along the Embarcadero. You can ride it all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf (as we did), but I’d suggest a stop at the Ferry Building Marketplace first. Inside you’ll find tons of food vendors and on Saturdays and Sundays, a huge farmers market taking place outside. There are a handful of restaurants inside where you can an early lunch (if you’re an oyster fan, don’t miss Hog Island Oyster Co.).
Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf
If you’ve stopped at the Ferry Building, you can either walk the 30-minute jaunt along the Embarcadero to Pier 39, or hop back on the F Line (just be prepared to pay the one-way fare again). From here you’ll have great views of Coit Tower, the wharf and Alcatraz in the distance. Just behind Pier 39, you’ll find the beloved sea lions sunning themselves on the docks (though we learned the hard way that in summertime their appearance will be hit or miss!).
Do a little souvenir shopping on the pier or eat lunch along the wharf (just be prepared to pay tourist prices).
Have more time? Take the ferry from Pier 33 over the bay for a tour of Alcatraz Island. I highly recommend booking tickets online, as they sell out weeks in advance during peak season. But it is more than worth the trip!
Jefferson Street from Powell to Leavenworth is a traveler’s nightmare, looking more like Vegas than San Francisco with their overpriced American chain restaurants and t-shirt shops, one right after the other. BLEH. Avoid the area by walking a couple blocks south along North Point Street, and then hanging a left on Leavenworth. Hike the steep hill for another 4 blocks and you’ll find yourself at one of the next most visited places in the city, Lombard Street! Also known as the “crookedest street in the world”, the picturesque street makes for a cool photo op.
Have more time? Back at the bottom of the hill, stop at Ghirardelli Square to pick up some of San Francisco’s hometown chocolates before retrieving your car from the garage.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Finally, end your day at one of the most instagrammed spots in SF, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. They’re a little bit off the beaten path, so a car will be the easiest way to get there, but it’s also not too far of a walk from the Judah muni line if taking public transportation.
The steps were a community effort led by two local artists, with help from 300 of the neighborhood’s residents. Each of the 163 steps contains a different mosaic pattern, which all work together to create the larger design. You’ll also find lots of tiles with special messages on them, since 220 of the community’s neighbors paid to sponsor a tile. They sure are a beautiful sight to see, and a great way to end a busy day!
Ready for another busy day, you’ll want to get up early again and head straight to Coit Tower. Located in the North Beach neighborhood, parking can be tricky as there is no parking allowed at the top of the hill around Coit Tower on weekends. This means you’ll have to rely on either a parking garage at the bottom of the hill, or you can try your luck with finding street parking nearby. We lucked out with a spot on the street that was in between Coit Tower and Chinatown. With Evelyn strapped in the Ergobaby, we made the steep climb up to the tower.
The tower opens at 10 am, but since we got there closer to 9:30 (and Matt didn’t really feel like climbing the tower with an extra 25 pounds strapped to him), we opted not to wait around for it to open. Instead, we took in the views around the tower from the base (still well worth the trip if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee!). Though I should add, many fences have been set up around the perimeter to help prevent soil erosion, so if you have the time, you’ll get your best views from the top.
We, on the other hand, had our hearts set on some lunch!
From North Beach, it isn’t too far of a walk to Chinatown. So we swapped the Ergobaby for the stroller and arrived just in time for dim sum at Great Eastern Restaurant.
After a little research (aka, googling), I found that Great Eastern would be our best bet for quality dim sum in Chinatown itself. We ordered 6 dishes and were thoroughly satisfied. You can read all about our dim sum experience here!
Have more time? After dim sum, head up Jackson Street for a quick stop at Ming Lee Trading. You’ll find plenty of Asian imported goodies for a cheap (and tasty) souvenir.
Street Art in the Mission District
Next, drive down to the Mission District for a completely different cultural experience. An increasingly eclectic neighborhood with large Latino influences, The Mission is home to the greatest concentration of murals in the city. This wasn’t our first time in the Mission, but we had a couple of new experiences to check off of our list.
You could really spend the entire day exploring the neighborhood if you wanted. A ton of San Francisco’s best restaurants call the neighborhood home and Precita Eyes Mural Arts host guided mural walks for those who want to take a closer look. As for us, we did our own walk down Clarion Alley (one of the more famous mural displays) and then popped into Tartine Bakery for an afternoon sweet treat. With a line out the door, we took our pastries to go.
Have more time? Relax and enjoy the beloved Dolores Park, just a couple of blocks from Tartine Bakery.
Alamo Square & the Painted Ladies
Backtracking a bit, we drove north from the Mission to Alamo Square. The park is located just across Steiner Street from the Painted Ladies (those famously colorful Victorian homes that always grace postcards, and eh…that one popular show).
I’d hoped to take our Tartine pastries with us and do a little picnic in the park, ‘Full House’ style. But I’d missed the memo that Alamo Square closed last April for renovations, and won’t reopen until early next year! So while we didn’t get to lay out on the grass and take in some of the gorgeous San Francisco views from the top of the hill, we did still get a few of those iconic photos for the memory book.
Golden Gate Bridge & Battery Spencer
Finally, hop back into the car one final time and head across the Golden Gate Bridge. Even with the hoards of tourists trying to get across, they’ve made it fairly efficient to travel to and from. The toll across the bridge is $7.50 (traveling back into SF), but they don’t use toll booths anymore…you’ll get your invoice in the mail weeks later. 🙂
This was Evelyn’s first time across, though I’m not sure she grasped the enthusiasm and instead decided to take a car nap.
Across the bridge, we skipped the tourist-filled Vista Point, and drove to the opposite side of the 101 to Battery Spencer. The battery offers those postcard views of the Golden Gate Bridge and city skyline from a unique vantage point. Parking can be tricky, especially on clear summer days, but if you have the patience, it’s worth hanging around (i.e. stalking) to find a spot.
Have more time? Drive just a few minutes further north, and you’ll find yourself in the seaside city of Sausalito. Sushi Ran on Caledonia Street is an awesome local favorite for the freshest sushi. After exploring Sausalito, make time for all that Marin County has to offer, including the Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais and the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
And that’s it! The most essential San Francisco in 48 hours! Are you up for the challenge?