What To Do In San Francisco In One Day – Recommendations From A Local
We've had our share of friends and family visiting us and having to play tour guides in San Francisco. There are some quintessential things to do and places to see in San Francisco that we would never skip out on. It's easy to see the amazing attractions and some unique places that the city offers for those staying a week or so. However, if you've only got one day to explore, there are just some spots that you can't skip. After, experiencing these San Francisco exemplary attractions and unique areas, we came up with the best ones to check out all in a day!
See The Golden Gate Bridge - A Must Do When In San Francisco
If San Francisco's most famous landmark wasn't on the top of your list of things to see, you need to put it on there ASAP. Why wouldn't you???
I'm not sure if there's anyone that would argue that the Golden Gate Bridge is the most iconic structure in San Francisco. If anyone sees a photo of the Golden Gate, they will, most likely, know where that is.
Let me tell you a little side story here to prove my point even further.
Before immigrating to America, my mother had a dream about living in California. In her dream, she remembers seeing the Golden Gate Bridge very vividly. The crazy thing is, she had never seen the Golden Gate before. Not even in pictures. Kinda weird, right?
Anyway, if there's one place to see on a visit to San Francisco, it HAS to be the Golden Gate bridge.
There are several ways to see and experience this red/orange-colored suspension bridge. If you have some extra time or want to skip some of the attractions below, you can park on one end and walk the one-mile length of the bridge. You'll have to walk back another mile to get to your car again so keep that in mind. I prefer going an hour before sunset. The glow is just perfect!. My personal favorite time of year is in September. There tends to be less chance of fog during this month.
But hey, the fog adds a bit of magic to the experience, anyway.
Best View Of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco
- Vista Points - There are two on the north end of the bridge near the Marin Highlands. My personal favorite is the one on the west side just because it's a higher elevation, giving you a complete view of The Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
- Kirby Cove - If you don't mind a quick hike down, you'll enjoy some peace and quiet on a little beach here with amazing views of the bridge.
- Treasure Island - This one is my little secret weapon for showing friends and family an awesome view of the city. You will need to drive across the Bay Bridge, heading towards Oakland. Exit at Treasure Island and drive down the main road. You can park there on the left and enjoy the panoramic, picture-perfect scenery!
Pier 39 And Fisherman's Warf
I know you may be thinking these places are too touristy for a local to be recommending.
But you can't miss this.
As far back as I can remember living in the Bay Area, we've taken friends and family visitors to Pier 39. It's just one of those places that isn't anything special, per se, but it's still a fun experience.
What draws me to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Warf is the location. You can technically walk along The Embarcadero starting from the Ferry Building all the way down to Fisherman's Warf, passing each pier with views of The Bay and cities across the way as you stroll.
The Pier 39 area is filled with stores, restaurants, and cafes geared towards the masses of tourists that visit each year. One of my all-time favorite restaurants there is the Rainforest Cafe. However, there are so many treats you can enjoy at Pier 39, including donut holes, Ghirardelli Chocolates, and my personal recommendation: clam chowder in a bread bowl.
This is a great area for families and kids will absolutely love the barking and sunbathing sea lions at Pier 39!
Twin Peaks - Best Views Of San Francisco
Want to see the entire Bay Area in one shot?
Head over to the twin summits in the geographic center of San Francisco. Just under a thousand feet up, they are sure to provide the BEST VIEW of San Francisco. The wind up here can be pretty intense, so remember to take a jacket regardless of when you visit.
Some of the things you can spot from the Twin Peaks hilltops include Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Transamerica Building and other city skyscrapers. Additionally, on a clear day, you can check out Berkeley and Oakland across The Bay!
Painted Ladies AKA Seven Sisters
These colorfully painted houses in the style of Victorian architecture are iconic of San Francisco. Providing a postcard background (is that why they call it "Postcard Row?") to your travel photos, they are a fun feature of this town to check out. Driving around the city, you'll encounter lots of Victorian houses with bay windows, but something about these houses all in a row makes them pretty special.
Where To Stay In San Francisco:
You can just drive by and see them, or park and walk by for Instagram-worthy photos. However, remember that people actually live here so be respectful of their space. I would suggest having a quick little picnic in the park across the street (Alamo Square Park) You can just chill for a minute and enjoy the beautiful architecture.
I have grown up in the Bay Area and it took me almost 25 years to go see this famous "Full House" row of colorful buildings. Don't be like me. You need to go see The Painted Ladies on your one day visit to San Francisco.
Lombard (Most Crooked) Street - Another San Francisco Must See
So, to continue on the top, not to be missed things to do in San Francisco, we suggest a quick stop at Lombard Street. The "Most Crooked Street In The World" is not something you need to see, but you can also drive it!
Though it's a short section of the street that becomes twisty-turny, it can still take a while to drive down. These sharp turns where designed to make it easier to drive down the steep hillside, but you still need to drive very carefully and slowly. It doesn't help that this street has become a popular attraction and there is usually some bit of traffic congestions as well.
Nevertheless, you can find a parking spot on a side street and go to the base of the 8 turns to get some good shots of the whole things with cars coming down. The view from the top is also gorgeous!
Bonus Suggestion: Check out the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
Union Square & China Town
Originally, I had listed China Town in this article but then took it off. I felt that China Town wasn't quite THAT unique to San Francisco as there are China Towns all over the U.S. It is, however, still an interesting part of town and perhaps should be added to a two-day itinerary of the city.
- Check out Dragon's Gate - China Town's landmark entrance.
Having said that, Union Square is not that exclusive of a spot either, but I really like the vibe here. You can shop at some upscale department or boutiques here. There are numerous hotels and restaurants in this area as well.
One thing to note about this area is the Cable Car turn around located at the corner of Market and Powell. To get there just head south on Powell from Union square and you can witness how they turn the cable cars around!
- Ride a Cable Car - Experience the up and down "rollercoaster" rides on the cable cars in San Francisco.
The Financial District - Learn Architecture Facts and Secrets!
You may think that the Financial Distrct in San Francisco is all about business, but there are some interesting things you can learn by taking a guided tour of this area. You will get a chance to learn some fascinating architectural facts and "secrets" from an professional individual who has done research on the topic. Taking the Architectural Space and Place Tour with context travel gave us a deeper glimpse and understanding of the history of the area as well as and introduction to some of the spaces we were not previously aware of. Burried ships, secret tunnels, public open spaces (some with great views) are just a small part of this amazing tour!
Disclosure: We were guests of Context Travel for the Architectural Space and Place in San Francisco tour. However, all opinions of the experience are our own.
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About the Author
Hi! I'm just a California girl addicted to travel and adventure with a passion for art and dance on the side. Born in Iran, but I consider myself a citizen of Earth, adhering to the belief that "The world is but one country and mankind its citizen." I strive to make a positive impact on everyone I meet and learn as much as possible from them. My degree out of college is in Marketing. However, I entered the hospitality business at an early age and worked my way up to hotel management. After about 13 years in that industry (5 of which I was a hotel assistant manager), I made the decision to move to Thailand and leave the 9 to 5 grind behind. My husband and I set off for a life of living abroad and hopes to continue traveling the world, just 3 months after our wedding. It all started with the two of us, along with our cat, together in Thailand. Can't wait to see where life takes us next!