If you haven’t Airbnb-ed a place in some other district and find yourself near Fisherman’s Wharf, the first tip is to get out of there. Union Square is still touristy, but it’s worth seeing and good for a stroll. Honey Honey is a solid breakfast spot.
Hopefully you’ve had enough sense to come to the city when the crowds are sparse, but can still appreciate some decent weather; October is a good middle ground. The reason why will become apparent as you walk down to Powell Street Station and check out the line waiting for the cable cars; during the summer, it’s not unusual to wait a couple hours to ride.
There are actually three different routes for cable cars around the city, but the most popular one runs between Powell and Hyde Streets, all the way to Ghirardelli Square, home of Ghirardelli Chocolates; grab a cup of hot chocolate and help yourself to some free samples. You’ll need the energy for what’s to come.
Rent a bike. Prices vary. Blazing Saddles is a popular choice, but Park Wide, though more expensive, offers pickups at nearby Fort Mason and drop offs at the Ferry Building. Enjoy the fair weather and wind along the water as you cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge – give yourself enough time for pictures! – and into Sausalito.
If you’re in decent shape, it will only take about an hour to cycle from Fort Mason into Sausalito, maybe two if you give yourself enough time to appreciate the views at the bridge and vista point. Sausalito Taco Shop is a solid choice for a budget lunch, but there are plenty of other places within walking distance: Napa Valley Burger Company. Enjoy the view of the bay and check out galleries like The Art of Dr. Seuss to pass the time until the next ferry.
The ferry from Sausalito back to San Francisco ($6.25 with a Clipper Card) only takes 30 minutes but offers amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city itself, and a closer look at Alcatraz (better than waiting for one of those tours). You’ll get dropped at the Ferry Building – naturally – where you can peruse local shops for wine and fine foodstuffs if you need to bring back gifts. Some days there’s a farmer’s market right on the Embarcadero.
Once you’ve returned your bike rental, hop on board one of the F trains for $2.25. Although part of San Francisco’s Muni system, all of the cars running on this line have been reclaimed from old street car systems across the globe, including Milan and Philadelphia. Stay on this train all the way to the end of the line, carrying you through the Financial District and Market Street until you see a huge rainbow flag: your entrance to the Castro.
Immediately after you exit the car, you might be hungry and thirsty. Fortunately, Hot Cookie, with its erotic macaroons and delicious baked goods, is right across the street. Wash that down with a Philz Coffee after a short walk window shopping.
Take some time to appreciate the architecture all around you. Some of the houses here survived the great fire of 1906, like the Caselli Mansion. You may not have time to see the Painted Ladies near Alamo Square, but properties in the Castro are well maintained and visually stunning
Assuming it’s a Sunday – even if it’s not, it’s still a good plan – you should walk over to Dolores Park and enjoy some of the craziness that only San Francisco can offer: dancing robots, acro yoga, and of course one of the friendly ladies openly selling pot brownies. Hopefully, you’ve had time to grab a six-pack of some of the city’s local brews: 21st Amendment and Anchor Steam are close by, with Lagunitas based in Sonoma County.
By the time you’ve danced and drunk to your heart’s content, the sun may have already disappeared behind Twin Peaks and left you shivering; in this city, save October, warm nights are mysteriously absent despite a scorching day. Now you’re close enough to the Mission District to appreciate some genuine Californian Mexican food: I’m partial to the fajita burritos at Little Chihuahua, but El Faro and Taqueria Cancun are solid choices as well.
To wrap up the evening, you’ve got the whole world at your feet:
Maybe you’re in the mood for a romantic view with a loved one? Grab an Uber to the top of Twin Peaks for a truly peaceful look at the city sparkling under the moonlight.
Maybe you still need to experience some San Francisco wacky fun? See if you can spot a naked person walking down the street. Or just stand outside the 16th St BART Station and listen to a street band.
10 Tips for 24 Hours in San Francisco
- Walk or cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge
- Eat some Ghirardelli chocolates
- Escape to Sausalito by ferry or bicycle
- Check out Free & Cheap or local events
- Eat at Off The Grid
- Visit in October; the nights are actually warm
- Drink Anchor Steam and 21st Amendment brews
- Save room for tacos and burritos in the Mission
- Take a break and just walk; you’re sure to find a restaurant you like, something scenic, and something crazy.
- Enjoy a nighttime view of the city at Twin Peaks
Matador articles for San Francisco trip planning
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12 food experiences you need to have in San Francisco before you die
A quick travel guide to San Francisco’s arts and culture scene
Escape to adventure: San Francisco
A quick travel guide to San Francisco’s food scene
11 experiences you need to have in San Francisco before you die
Cabs: Just take Uber or Lyft. But keep in mind many drivers aren’t from here and don’t know how to navigate downtown.
BART: Use it to and from the airport for $8.65.
Muni: San Francisco has light rail trains and buses that can take you all over the city for $2.25
Bikes: Useful no matter where you are. We even have a naked bike ride.
Foot: From the Bay to the Breakers, this city is only 7.5 miles across. It’s walkable if you really get in a bind, but remember the hills…
Ferry: Public ferries will take you to Vallejo, Angel Island, Tiburon, Larkspur, and Sausalito. If you want to go to Alcatraz, you need to book with Alcatraz Cruises.