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Perfect 4 Days in San Francisco Itinerary for first timers

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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. 

4 days in San Francisco Itinerary tosomeplacenew
4 days in San Francisco Itinerary tosomeplacenew

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. Salil is lucky his family lives there and is acquainted with neighborhoods (where to live, work) and what to see as a tourist. Because you only have 4 days in San Francisco I am sure you are seeking to cover the best sites and attractions as possible in a short period of time. This is where our expert itinerary comes into place – written with combined efforts of a frequent traveler and San Francisco locals

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

4 days in San Francisco Itinerary
4 days in San Francisco Itinerary

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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 or a weekend in San Francisco.

Planning a trip to San Francisco Itinerary 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 the 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

How to spend 4 or 3 days in San Francisco

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. 

Luxury Hotels 

Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco – Upscale hotel located near the Fisherman’s Wharf

Stanford Court San Francisco – 4-star hotel located in the Financial District

Mid-range 

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 

Budget

USA Hostels San Francisco – Hostel

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.

Japanese Gardens in San Francisco 4 day itinerary

Map & Sightseeing Tips: 4 days in San Francisco Itinerary 

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. 


 

Day 1 of San Francisco Itinerary – Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz Island, Chinatown

Fisherman’s Wharf

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 the San Francisco area and around, start at the Fisherman’s Wharf.

Pier 39 Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco
Pier 39 Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf has a long history, it speaks volumes 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

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, every day is a big festival here – with balloons, cotton candy, food, souvenirs, and whatnot. 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 latter part of the 19th century. The bell at the Ferry Building was inspired by the Giralda bell tower in Seville Spain.

Pier and the Port Terminal Areas, Fisherman's Wharf
Pier and the Port Terminal Areas, Fisherman’s Wharf

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).

Alcatraz Island

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.

Inside cells of Alcatraz Jail
Alcatraz

You can take a guided tour of 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.

Chinatown

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.

San Francisco China Town
San Francisco China Town

If you are hungry or if you LOVE Chinese food, try the 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 of San Francisco Itinerary – Explore 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
Golden Gate Bridge

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. This bridge was part of my USA Bucket list for years, and I am glad I was able to check it off!

You might also like: Golden Gate Bay Cruise

Golden Gate Views
Golden Gate Views

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 an art 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.

Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts

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 the 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?

Japanese Tea Gardens San Francisco Pagoda and Buddha Statue
Japanese Tea Gardens San Francisco

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.

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-kilometer 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 houseboats of all shapes and sizes, yachts, and of course fancy restaurants facing the Golden Gate and the sea.

Sausalito Fan Francisco
Sausalito

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 (lookout) 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 unspoiled 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 of San Francisco Itinerary – 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).

Alamo Square and Painted Ladies
Alamo Square and Painted Ladies

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.

San Francisco City Hall
San Francisco City Hall

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 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.

Get the entry tickets to the SF MOMA here

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).

Cable Car in San Francisco Lombard Street
Cable Car in San Francisco

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.

Day 4 0f San Francisco Itinerary – 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! Here are some San Francisco day trip itineraries for inspiration. 

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.

Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay

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.

Visiting San Francisco Travel Tips

Golden Gate Bridge in 4 days in San Francisco itinerary

How to spend 2 or 3 days in San Francisco? 

You can use this itinerary to plan your 2 or 3 days in San Francisco. Day 1 and 2 will allow you to explore the city’s highlights and relax in the evenings – this is the perfect weekend San Francisco itinerary. 

If you are wondering what to do in 3 days in San Franciso. It’s easy. For a third day in the city – choose between day 3 or 4 of this suggested itinerary. If you love to explore the countryside opt for a day tour to Napa Valley or Half Moon Bay. 

Best way to travel in and around San Francisco

During our trip, we utilized a mix of public transportation, hop on & hop off tours plus day tours. It is possible to pre-pay for attractions online, and ahead of travel to stick to a budget limit. We didn’t take any taxi or uber. 

San Franciso has a good network of public transportation, and depending on your hotel location you may not need to book a taxi. Being a touristy city, you will also find different tours to choose from.

In this post, we included the best tours that are available via our favorite tour provider GetYourGuide.  GetYourGuide offers free cancellation with a full refund, should the tour be canceled or if you wish to cancel – 24 hours prior to the tour. 

San Francisco Tours

We have already included our top tours and attractions tickets above, here are some of the best-reviewed tour favorites!

 

 

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

 

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge

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

Insurance 

Regardless of your travel duration, medical insurance is a must and essential while traveling to the USA. Click to get insurance quotes for San Francisco 4 day itinerary –  insurance quotes here

Budget for 4 day trip to San Francisco 

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 4 days in San Francisco

Here are some packing essentials for San Francisco 

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 of the city, then it is possible to do that in San Francisco in 4 days. The attractions listed here 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 four days in San Francisco Itinerary. If you are extending your trip, find some inspiration below.

San Francisco Trip Planner: Resources for California San Francisco Travel

Other USA Travel Resources

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Pin: San Francisco Itinerary 4 Days for first time visitors – The best way to Spend 4 Days in San Francisco and Napa Valley 

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4 days in San Francisco Itinerary
San Francisco Itinerary 4 days

 

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12 Comments

  1. I love San Fran (especially because it is where I got engaged!) I love how you mapped out 4 day including a day trip to Napa! I love the Golden Gate area.

  2. I love San Francisco! You put together quite the itinerary and fit a lot in only 4 days. I have been many times and I never get bored. The view of the Golden Gate bridge never gets old.

  3. I love San Fran (especially because it is where I got engaged!) I love how you mapped out 4 day including a day trip to Napa

  4. Wow super blog I can’t miss these places in my visit to SanFrancisco. Just my seeing your info graphic feeling to explore. Thanks for such a great post.

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