San Francisco is the awesome city of California and one of the bucket-list places that you shouldn’t miss. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States of America. Our 4 days in San Francisco Itinerary was amazing, as we explored the city highlights and more.
Salil has traveled to San Francisco numerous times, but it was my first trip to the city. And this San Francisco Itinerary is definitely a MUST read for all first time visitors. We love exploring cities, so when Salil was visiting family in San Francisco, I could not resist but join him.
The city is known for its Mediterranean weather (where temperatures remain moderate all year round and rarely gets any snow in winter), amazing landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown district, Alamo Square (Full House shoot location), cable cars, Sausalito, Coit Tower, to name a few.
Over the years, San Francisco has received several nicknames by locals, tourists, and magazines. Nicknames include “The City by the Bay”, “Fog City”, “San Fran”, and “Frisco”. It is also affectionately called “The Paris of the West”, or simply “The City”.
Perfect 4 Days in San Francisco Itinerary for first timers
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How to spend 2 to 4 days in San Francisco
If you really plan your trip well and book attractions ahead of time, you can explore the city highlights of San Francisco in 2 days.
- Day 1 – Explore city highlights like Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz, ChinaTown
- Day 2 – Continue with city highlights like the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito. Use the 2 day hop on and hop off bus tour to get to these places. We found it to be super convenient.
- Day 3 – See more of San Francisco (you can switch them to any of the above days) by exploring the City Hall, SF MOMA, experience a cable car ride
- Day 4 – Get out of the city for a wine tasting tour or a national park tour from San Francisco. We highly recommend doing a tour instead of driving all the way and back to the city (and then catch a flight the next day)
Planning a trip to San Francisco 4 days
Ways of getting to San Francisco
San Francisco is well connected via air and roadways. San Francisco’s airport is located within San Mateo County. (San Francisco International Airport)
- There are many ways to reach SF city from the airport. Get San Francisco airport transfer to and from the city here (car)
- Or public transport here – This transit pass includes access to the airport, shopping areas, downtown and more
- If you are flying to San Francisco, look for cheaper flights to San Jose. San Jose is located 50 minutes away from the San Francisco Airport. Accommodation (hostels and hotels including airbnb accommodation) will be slightly cheaper in San Jose as compared to San Francisco.
- Using CalTrain to reach San Francisco from San Jose, Standford, Menlo Park, Mountain View to reach San Francisco – If you are staying in any one of these suburbs, then utilizing the Cal Train will save you money. Typically the train journey from the suburban areas to San Francisco takes 30 – 45 minutes. The Caltrain is valid per zone and with crossing each “zone” the fare prices are slightly different. One way ticket costs between $3.75 to $15 (for all 6 zones). A day pass is generally cheaper, so definitely consider buying one if you will be using the Cal Train multiple times a day. Check Caltrain fares here
Where to Stay in San Francisco?
There are luxurious options for accommodation in San Francisco. Some of them offer stunning views of the sea and the Golden Gate Bridge and some come with great hospitality. The hotels mentioned here are located near Fisherman’s Wharf (the itinerary is structured with the Fisherman’s Wharf as the starting point, meaning less travel time for sightseeing).
We normally choose a centrally located hotel (in the mid-range budget), so that sightseeing and exploration are easy. Depending on your budget (and the season of travel – peak or off-season), you might find one of the hotel recommendations to suit better than the others. We have included both luxury and budget options for San Francisco hotels.
Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco – Upscale hotel located near the Fisherman’s Wharf
- Great location, close to sightseeing spots in San Francisco
- 4 star hotel with stylish rooms, pool and a heated outdoor pool
- Book your stay at the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf
Stanford Court San Francisco – 4 star hotel located in the Financial District
- Good location – access to tourist spots
- Elegant rooms, good hospitality
- Awesome views and on site café
- Book your stay at Stanford Court San Francisco
White Swan Inn – 3 star bed and breakfast style hotel
- Located in the financial district – good location and accessibility
- Rooms come with a vintage (floral décor). Good value room rates
- The INN does wine socials and provides gourmet breakfast (and cookies)
- Book your stay with White Swan Inn
USA Hostels San Francisco – Hostel
- Modern hostel, with amenities (location)
- Free breakfast (and Wi-Fi)
- Hostel conducts group activities as well
- Check out USA Hostels San Francisco
Pro- tip: You may also consider staying in San Jose or MountainView. The only thing to remember is the commute (roughly 45- 50 minutes one way and the fare). Click here to browse for San Jose hotels OR hotels in MountainView. Food or access to trains is easy from these two areas to San Francisco.
San Francisco Itinerary 4 Days – Exploring San Francisco in 4 days
For sightseeing in San Francisco, we recommend using the hop on and hop off sightseeing tour for 1 or 2 days. During our visit, we used the 2 day pass. Most tours commence at the Fisherman’s Wharf – so it makes sense to explore this attraction first and then join the bus route. Grab your hop on and hop off city pass 48 hour with Alcatraz tickets.
This 48 hour pass is a good value for transport to city attractions for 2 days. It also includes a tour of Alcatraz, tickets to Madame Tussauds and a 45 minute night tour.
San Francisco Itinerary Day 1 Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz Island, Chinatown
Start your first day in San Francisco with some coffee and crepes at the Fisherman’s Wharf. Take a stroll, enjoy the lovely breeze as you start your day exploring this new city.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a well known neighborhood in San Francisco and quite popular with tourists. This touristy neighborhood is located along the waterfront area of San Francisco. It is filled with sea-food restaurants, cafes and souvenir stores. Most day tours to San Francisco area and around, start at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
Fisherman’s Wharf has a long history, it speaks volume of the sea and the fishing community and its contribution to the state. To learn more about the city’s past in a unique way, hop on a cable car for sightseeing. This one also includes an optional walking tour (s). You can learn all about it here. This tour is perfect if you wish to explore the major highlights (minus all the research work).
Within walking distance are the Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39, Pier 35 and the Ferry building. Ghirardelli Square is a restored neighborhood that once housed a Ghirardelli chocolate factory. Today it is a sprawling retail square.
Pier 39 is another shopping center located at the Fisherman’s Wharf. There are tons of activities to indulge in at the Pier 39. Although very touristy, everyday is a big festival here – with balloons, cotton candy, food, souvenirs and what not. This center is usually quite busy and is better to explore in the early hours when it opens.
On the east side of the Pier 39 is the Pier 35 – the largest cruise terminal in San Francisco. You will also notice a big terminal close by, it is the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was constructed and opened in the later part of the 19th century. The bell at the Ferry Building was inspired by the Giralda bell tower in Seville Spain.
After all the sightseeing (and walking), settle down for brunch (or an early lunch) at the Fisherman’s Wharf. Try some fish and chips, with a light beer (c’mon, you are on vacation).
From Fisherman’s Wharf, you will see an island far away. That is Alcatraz Island. I remember watching a documentary on Discovery Channel about the Alcatraz prison and the atrocities meted out to the prisons – it is scary and gruesome. Today guided tours are available for visitors who wish to learn about its history.
The Alcatraz Island first came into prominence when a Spaniard mentioned about Alcatraz – the land of pelicans. Over the years, a lighthouse was created for sea safety.
Due to its isolated location, Alcatraz was later used as a military fortification and a federal prison. When the federal prison was in operation, it was believed to have kept the hard criminals at bay. Most notorious of them all was Al Capone, who was imprisoned here. It is also believed that no one has ever escaped this prison.
You can take a guided tour of the Alcatraz Island. You will have to take a ferry (15 minute ride on way) to reach the island and back (another 15 minutes), with a 1.50 to 2 hour guided tour at the island. Here is a guided tour of Alcatraz with city tour.
After exploring Alcatraz Island, it will be late afternoon. If you want to relax and take your mind off from the dark history of Alcatraz, then head to Chinatown. It roughly takes about 12 minutes to reach Chinatown from the Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest Chinatown in North America. It was built in the mid 19th century and portrays the stories of Chinese immigrants to the country. What will take your heart away are the red lanterns that are hanging all over the neighborhood, along with the dragon gate. It is worth taking a stroll here and enjoying the ambiance.
Everything here looks like you are in a different world altogether. This neighborhood had maintained many of the old traditions and customs for years.
If you are hungry or if you LOVE Chinese food, try hot and sour soup, with Schezwan Chicken and noodles for dinner. They are delicious.
After ChinaTown, you can either call it a day or spend some time at the Union Square area before heading to your hotel.
Day 2 Golden Gate Bridge, Crissy Field, Palace of Fine Arts, Japanese Tea Gardens, Sausalito
Day 2 of San Francisco Itinerary is to check off the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is the city of San Francisco’s iconic landmark. So much so it is sometimes used synonymously with San Francisco as well.
Golden Gate Bridge Park Area
The Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering marvel and a California Historical Landmark. Today there are other areas like the Crissy Field, Palace of Fine Arts and the Japanese Tea Garden – which form a part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area.
As you might already know, the Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge. You can reach there by car or train or by taking a bus tour. Once you are at the bridge, you can walk across (like I did and took pictures) the bridge, learn about the bridge’s history and mechanisms at the information center or picnic at the Crissy Field.
Allot 2-4 hours at the Golden Gate and the nearby recreational area. If you love to walk or take a light hike, then head to the Crissy Field.
You can easily reach the Crissy Field by arriving at Fort Point (located just below the Golden Gate Bridge). Originally used as a military airfield, today it is home to some of the stunning views of San Francisco. You can hike, bike or picnic here (they have designated picnic areas). Be camera ready for photographs.
Palace of Fine Arts
Located close to the Crissy Field is the Palace of Fine Arts. It is a monument structure that was built in 1915, for the Panama Pacific Exposition for arts exhibition. The original structure was completely demolished, with only the steel frame remaining on site. It was reconstructed later with lighter concrete material and walkways, and other structures were built around it.
The Palace of Fine Arts gives a twist to the landscape with its Greco-Roman details. It is a popular event and wedding venue.
At the Golden Gate Park and nearby recreational area, you will find restaurant options for lunch (includes Crissy Field and Golden Gate Information centre – small café)
Japanese Tea Gardens
From the Palace of Arts, head to the Japanese Tea Gardens. These gardens were created as part of World’s Fair and this oldest public gardens just stayed after the Fair/exposition. Over the years, many improvements and additions were made. The gardens are beautiful with Buddhist and Shinto religious structures and tons of greenery all around. My favorite structure here was the pagoda. Isn’t it pretty?
The Japanese Gardens also has a tea house. Try some matcha tea here.
After a fun filled but relaxing day at the Golden Gate, I think there is still time for absorbing more stunning views of the Bay City. Let’s head to Sausalito.
Located just a ferry ride away is the community of Sausalito. Sausalito is situated at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. From the Golden Gate Bridge (south side of the bridge) it is about a 10 kilometre walk/drive to cross the bridge and reach Sausalito. It is a perfect way to enjoy a romantic dinner in this lively waterfront (but expensive and luxurious) neighborhood.
Sausalito gets a steady stream of visitors due to its close proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge. Sausalito is a waterfront community and so you will find house boats of all shapes and sizes, yachts and of course fancy restaurants facing the Golden Gate and the sea.
Depending on what time of the day you arrive in Sausalito, there are a few things worth doing here
- Vista Point – No matter what time of day you arrive here, Vista Point (look out) offers panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge
- Battery Spencer – This is another observation deck that is open for 24 hours. This historic fort with give uninterrupted and unspoilt views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay area
- Rodeo Beach – Great for taking a stroll after dinner or just to watch the sunset in Sausalito.
Day 3 Alamo Square, City Hall, Cable Car Ride, Lombard Street
Alamo Square and Painted Ladies
Day 3 of San Francisco starts with a beautiful morning at the Alamo Square. The Alamo Square Park is a residential neighborhood in San Francisco that was popularized with the TV sitcom “Full House”. Today visitors of the park and the city admire the painted ladies and you can take a stroll or picnic here at the park square. Try to arrive in the morning to enjoy the uninterrupted views (and also to score a parking spot).
Spend as much as time as you like. This place does get busy around noon, so time to head for lunch.
San Francisco City Hall
After lunch, head to the City Hall, located just 5 minutes away from Alamo Square. The San Francisco City Hall is the administrative seat of government for the City and County of San Francisco, California. San Francisco City Hall Docent Tour Program provides guided tours to the public. Tours are for 45 minutes to 1 hour in duration.
If you do not wish to tour the City Hall, we would still recommend admiring the monument’s architecture from the outside– it is beautiful.
SF MOMA – San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is attracting locals and visitors alike to its 170,000 square feet of gallery space in the Bay City.
It is newly renovated with more displays on every floor (and more stairs). Tickets for adult entry are $25 USD (you can save up to 45% with the San Francisco City Pass). The SF MOMA is open Friday–Tuesday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. Thursday. They are closed Wednesdays. You can easily spend 2-4 hours here. More about the SF MOMA activities.
Cable Car ride at Union Square to Lombard Street
From the SF MOMA, head to Union Square. No, not to go back to the hotel. But to take a cable car ride from Union Square to Lombard Street.
You must have seen images of a steep, crooked street in San Francisco – that’s the Lombard Street. The Lombard Street stretches from the Presidio east to the Embarcadero. The crooked part of Lombard Street is located in the Russian Hill neighborhood (eastern side).
You can opt for a cable car ride, starting at the Union Square and taking you to Lombard Street. The cable car operating here is the Powell-Hyde cable car – it takes you to the top of the block on Hyde Street.
San Francisco operates 3 types of cable cars – Powell-Mason (brings you to the Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf Area), Powell-Hyde (Lombard and Fisherman’s Wharf) and the California Line.
San Francisco Itinerary Day 4 – Napa Valley or Half-Moon Bay and Mountain Valley
For 4th day itinerary, take a day trip from San Francisco. If you like wine and are ready to splurge, then Napa Valley is a great option. If you do not drink, but wish to take a day trip and explore more of San Francisco – then Half Moon bay is your answer!
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley day tour
Located only 1.50 hours away from San Francisco is the beautiful Napa Valley. Napa Valley is known for its wine and picture perfect vineyards and if you are a wine lover (or love the countryside), this is a great day trip option. There are tons of day tour options for Napa Valley and typically they range for 6-8 hours.
Here is a suggested day tour from San Francisco to Wine Valley Napa and Sonoma.
Other then the Napa Valley wines, there is the Napa Valley wine train that runs through the valley and is a real treat to experience. You can also experience hot springs, gourmet food and in some ways get transported to Tuscany 🙂 Here is another Wine Valley tour, this one includes three wine tours and lunch. You have to be at least 21 years of age to experience wine tours in the state of California.
Half Moon Bay & Mountain Valley
If you are not into wine and would rather visit a beach, then Half Moon Bay is the answer. Located in San Mateo County, Half-Moon Bay is about 45 minutes (drive) away from Mountain View. This coastal town has a very laid back feel to it as compared to the bustling Bay Area. You can grab a bite or two to eat and hike or picnic on their beaches.
The town that services the Half Moon Bay gives a very small-town vibe, with colorful stores and cafes. You can easily spend 4-6 hours at the beach and the nearby town (or the whole day, totally up-to you).
In the evening, if interested you can head to see Infinity Loop (Apple’s Head Office) and some of the other Corporate Offices located in Mountain View and the nearby Bay Area. Stay in the Bay area for dinner in one of the multi-cuisine restaurants.
Another option is to head to Mission District in San Francisco for the evening. The Mission District is a vibrant neighborhood with colorful murals, music and a hipster vibe. Enjoy the street art, do some vintage shopping and satisfy your taste buds with some awesome burritos.
San Francisco Travel Tips
Travel Documents for San Francisco
If you are traveling to the USA and do not possess passports from the 38 Visa Waiver countries, then a visa is required. US travel visas can be applied from your country of residence ahead of your travel dates. A tourist visa will allow you to travel and stay in the US for 6 months at a stretch.
Carry your passport and visa, while you are traveling to and in the USA
Travel medical insurance is essential while traveling to the USA. Get insurance quotes here
San Francisco is not very cheap to travel to. You can, however, plan ahead and budget your stay within affordable means. On our visit, we found that on average with 3 meals, coffees, transportation (taxi and CalTrain), you could spend around $125-150 USD per person per day.
- A few meals can be had at fast-food chains or with grocery shopping (try In and Our Burgers, Dunkin Donuts)
- San Francisco City Pass or Mega Pass was a good way to save on admission fees and tours
- Get Hop on and Hop off bus tours to commute to tourist spots instead of transit or cab
- Book tours, hotels and flights ahead of time and online
- You can save money by buying a day pass for CalTrain
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
June through August are busy tourist months and things like – flights and hotels could be expensive. September and typical spring months are good for travel, especially from March to April – before the busy tourist season kicks in.
My first trip to San Francisco was in April and the weather was pleasant, with occasional winds. Evenings were slightly cold, but bearable to walk outside and enjoy the evening or night.
In December, although the wettest month, there are tons of holiday and Christmas festivals happening in town including whale watching at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you are visiting the Napa Valley, consider coming in September to enjoy the harvest season. Things could get very expensive though for accommodation, but if you plan just a day trip, you will be fine.
Weather in San Francisco
San Francisco’s temperature remains moderately warm throughout the year. September and October are usually the warmest months. December being the wettest and January the coldest months.
We do recommend carrying a light jacket at all times, regardless of when you travel. It does get chilly (cold) in the evenings and night. Take a pack-able jacket with you.
As a Canadian living in the northernmost capital city, San Francisco weather sounds blissful to me. It has a Mediterranean climate, as it is surrounded by water on three sides. Temperatures never drop below freezing point in winters.
Although San Francisco may not flaunt sunny blue skies all the time and occasionally fog might disrupt your photos, it is still an awesome all year round destination to visit.
What to pack for San Francisco?
Here are some packing essentials for San Francisco
- Waterproof and pack-able jacket – Carry a waterproof jacket or a trench coat to protect yourself from rain or chilly evenings. Here is my favorite trench coat. Click here to shop our favorites FOR HIM & FOR HER
- Light Cardigan – A light cardigan in a neutral color will match with most of the outfits. Black and beige are my favorites. LOVE this cozy cardigan, click here to find out
- Trendy Jacket: Style your outfit with a trendy denim jacket or a faux leather jacket. > Buy my favorite denim jacket here.Check out the faux leather jacket Buy it here
- Scarf: A pretty scarf to dress up your outfit or cover up while taking a stroll in the evening. Buy this beautiful baby pink square scarf
- Dress or flowy tops: Carry dresses or flowy tops to shine under the sun. I love dresses. Buy this gorgeous maxi dress here
- Walking Shoes: For all the walking at the Fisherman’s Wharf or Alamo Square, a comfortable pair of walking shoes are essential. These are waterproof sneakers with an upbeat style. Buy yours here
- Sunglasses : Buy my favorite Ray Bans here
- Sunscreen: Get yours here Vichy sunscreen
- Facial Mist: Stay moisturized and refreshed all day long, keep a facial mist handy. Buy my favorite rose water facial mist here
- Clear Travel Pouch: I am in LOVE with this cute clear pouch. Great size to carry all beauty essentials. Buy yours here
- Universal Adaptor: Buy your adapter here to charge electronics overseas (if traveling outside of North America)
- Power Bank to charge electronics on the go. Buy yours here
- Travel Document: Organize your travel documents in an RFID protected organizer Buy a travel document organizer wallet here
Day Tours from San Francisco
We already mentioned a few options for a day tour from San Francisco. Here is a quick list for you to consider if you wish to explore more of California while staying in San Francisco
- Napa Valley with lunch – 9 hour – Book your tour here
- Full day Muir Woods and Sonoma County tour – Check the tour here
- Head to Yosemite National Park for a day – get all the tour details here
- Not a day tour – but a 3-hour food tour to the North beach here
Conclusion – Is 4 days in San Francisco enough
If you are interested in exploring just the city highlights and take one relaxing day trip outside San Francisco, then 4 days is more enough. The attractions in the first 2 days are not located close to each other (like in Europe’s cities – city center), so travel time is required.
Using the sightseeing bus to reach there is a smart idea. This bus tour is just a convenient way of commuting in the city without driving or having to track down all the spots on your own.
We hope you enjoyed our 4 day San Francisco Itinerary. If you are extending your trip, find some inspiration below.
Additional Resources for California San Francisco Travel
- Road Trip Itinerary – West Coast USA with San Francisco
- Find California Road Trip inspiration
- Extending your stay beyond San Francisco? Get inspiration for romantic getaways in California.
- California and one of the bucket-list destinations
- Road trips in California
- Get hotels guide to San Francisco
- Looking for a gluten free guide to eating in San Francisco? Find out here
- Find out what to buy in San Francisco – San Francisco souvenirs guide
Other USA Travel Resources
- Winter Destinations in the USA to visit
- Find out the Romantic Things to do in Las Vegas here
- Get an itinerary inspiration for Las Vegas
- Guide to Grand Canyon – Which is better North, South or West Rim
- Choose awesome day tour to Grand Canyon from Las Vegas
- Or get the hotel guide to Las Vegas Nevada
Last Update: January 10 2020
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
San Francisco Itinerary 4 Days – How to Spend 4 Days in San Francisco