Looking to venture to San Francisco for your next trip? There’s one thing you need to know: This is not your average city. Instead, San Francisco is a unique and beautiful mix of 36 neighborhoods, each with its own story and style. In fact, there are so many unique places and hidden gems in this place that it would take months just to explore them all. That’s why building a San Francisco itinerary is so important. Rather than just giving you a list of where to go, we’ll give you the ins and outs of planning your perfect San Francisco adventure. Here are the best ways to explore the city like a local.
Starting your San Francisco Itinerary – how to get there
Since San Francisco is a major city, arriving by air is the most convenient option. There are three major airports in the city: San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), and San Jose International Airport (SJC). While SFO is the largest, SJC is the newest, with more connections to other parts of the world. If possible, I recommend flying into SFO due to its proximity to the city and ease of use of the public transit system. If you need to fly SJC you can still access the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit system), however. Just be aware that your commute time will be nearly twice as long (2+ hours). The Oakland airport is small and not too much further from the city center than SFO. Just be prepared to make a few extra transfers, if you go that route.
Having one of the best public transit systems in the US and notoriously terrible traffic, it’s recommended that you ditch the car for this trip. If you need to bring a car, however, just make sure you account for parking fees. Some hotels can charge over $100 per night for parking. If you are on a road trip, consider leaving your car in long-term parking and enjoying a break from driving.
Public Transit in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the best cities in the world when it comes to public transit. The MUNI bus and train network is extensive and covers most of the city. MUNI is the city’s public transportation authority and ticket prices are relatively cheap. For example, a one-way trip on route 49 between Fisherman’s Wharf and downtown costs between $2.00 and $2.50. You can also buy a Day Pass for $5, which allows unlimited travel on all buses and light rails until the end of the next day. For tech-savvy travelers, you can download the MuniMobile app to pay your fares online.
If you want to travel outside of the city, you can buy (or download) a Clipper Card, which allows you to transfer between bus, rail, and light rail. You can also use a Clipper Card to pay bills, order food, and get discounts at various locations.
Museums to Visit
There are so many museums in San Francisco that it would be impossible to see them all in one trip. However, to really get a feel for the city, you should pick a few to visit. Some of the best museums in San Francisco include:
- de Young Museum – This museum is famous for its collection of American art, from the 19th century to the present day. It also has a number of permanent exhibitions, including one on the Gold Rush.
- California Historical Society – If you’re interested in California’s history, this is the place to visit. It has a large permanent collection as well as a number of traveling exhibitions.
- California Academy of Sciences – This is one of the world’s leading museums for discovery and educational outreach. It has a large collection of natural and cultural specimens, as well as a number of interactive exhibits.
- The Exploratorium – Another one of the best museums in the city, this science center has interactive exhibits, hands-on activities, and an extensive permanent collection. If you are traveling without kids, I’d highly recommend the Night Life (adult-only) options for the Exploratorium and California Academy of Science.
- The Musee Mecanique – This museum exhibits over 300 coin-operated vintage and antique musical and mechanical devices, all in working condition!
Where to Dine
San Francisco is a culinary melting pot, with many great restaurants from around the world. When deciding where to dine in San Francisco it’s best to pick your desired neighborhood first and then pick from an array of well-rated restaurants. Some of the best neighborhoods to dine include:
- The Mission – Built around the Mission Dolores, this neighborhood remains heavily influenced by Latinx culture. The food here is no different. Visiting a taqueria in the Mission is a great way to experience San Francisco’s food scene. Some staple restaurants in the neighborhood include El Techo, Limon, and Lolinda.
- Japantown – Perhaps the name speaks for itself, but this neighborhood is a great place to explore Japanese culture and food. Some restaurants to consider are Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup and Marufuku Ramen.
- The Castro – Known as a center for activism around LGBTQ+ rights, this neighborhood has also solidified its place amongst the best places to eat. When you are in the area make sure to check out Kitchen Story, Delfina, and Starbelly.
- Nob Hill – Known as one of SF’s more upscale neighborhoods, Nob Hill’s food scene has earned its place on the map. Some notable restaurants include Ryoko’s, Swan Oyster Depot, and Lers Ros.
- Marina – located on the northern waterfront, this part of town is right next to the water with lovely views. It should be no surprise that delicious restaurants have found their homes here like Isa Restaurant, Blackwood, and Delarosa.
Where to Shop
While San Francisco is known for its many art museums and cultural attractions, it’s also a great place to shop. From vintage clothing to modern art, there are many great places to shop in this city. Some of the best shopping areas include:
- Union Square – This is probably the best-known shopping area in San Francisco. It’s a bustling and interesting area, with a healthy range of shops for any budget. While you find a large variety of stores, it is mostly dominated by chains and mid to high-end luxury brands.
- Fillmore Street – This shopping area is more friendly to local stores and is a mix of unique botiques as well as some household names. Being entirely outdoors, this is also a nice area to spend the day, complete with tons of cafes and delicious restaurants,
- Fisherman’s Wharf – Located on the northern waterfront, this is a great area for family-friendly activities, souvenir shops, and beautiful views. With that said, it can feel a little touristy but is still worth a stop.
The Parks of San Francisco
You can’t really experience the west coast without spending some time outdoors. The temperate climate and iconic views are just a few reasons to add a visit to the park to your San Francisco itinerary. Some of the best parks in the city include:
- Golden Gate Park – One of the best known parks, Golden Gate Park is located on the western side of town. Despite its name, you can actually not view the Golden Gate Bridge from this location (more on that soon!). Instead, you’ll find a lovely stroll through various gardens, memorials, and muesuems that terminates at the beach. This is definitely worth a stop and can be easily paired with a visit to the California Academy of Sciences or the de Young Museum.
- The San Francisco Presidio – The largest park in town, the Presidio is actually designated as a national park by the US government. An old military base, this park offers a ton of historical buildings, hiking trails, and stunning, up-close views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- The Golden Gate Recreation Area – Not to be confused with the more urban, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Recreation Area is located on the northwestern side of town and is your best stop for untarnished nature. A major attraction is the rugged coastline and views of the Golden Gate bridge. Experiencing the rocky, foggy coast of northern California should be on any traveler’s checklist.
- Coit Tower – This is an iconic San Francisco landmark that’s worth visiting. It was named one of the Best 10 Modern Art Museums in the World by the Modern Art Museum of San Francisco and offers great views of San Francisco’s unique topography and architecture.
Creating the Best San Francisco Itinerary for Your Travel Style
Now that you know some of the main activities in San Francisco, it’s time to plan your itinerary. We recommend mixing matching activities from different categories. Make sure to leave some downtime so you don’t tire yourself out. A great example would be to mix an indoor activity (like the Exploratorium) with a long sit-down lunch and then an outdoor activity (like a stroll through Golden Gate Park). As you see, the possibilities are endless!
Ready to Plan Your Trip?
If you’ve ever considered San Francisco, then now is the right time to travel there. With a vibrant art scene, distinct culture, and delicious food, San Francisco is an amazing getaway that combines mental stimulation with a relaxed west coast vibe. Its wide variety of sights and experiences make it an ideal destination for any traveler. Just take some time designing your San Francisco itinerary to make sure you get the most out of your trip.