4 Days in San Francisco: itinerary for first-timers

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San Francisco is remarkably diverse and a fun city to explore. Home to the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz prison, and many other attractions, San Francisco is a bucket list destination for many. It might be a bit overwhelming to plan your first trip to San Francisco with so many activities to choose from, the city’s proximity to national parks, and one of the world’s most famous wine regions – Napa Valley. To enjoy San Francisco at a leisurely pace I recommend this 4 day San Francisco itinerary for first-time visitors.

When I first visited San Francisco over a decade ago, I did not understand its nickname, “the fog city,” because I never saw fog. The nickname became clear to me on my return trip in early November. I woke up in my rented Airbnb room, looked through the window, and was barely able to see the other side of the street. It wasn’t until later in the day that the skies got a bit clearer, but in certain areas of the city, especially surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog lingered for hours.

The fog is quite a phenomenon in San Francisco, which is known for its microclimate. There might be fog on one side of town while the other side is perfectly clear. It comes and goes throughout the day. Due to these sudden changes in the weather, it is a good idea to always carry a jacket, even in summer.

Of course, San Francisco is not always covered in fog. I learned from locals that the best time to visit to get warm weather and clear skies is in September and October. Now, let me share some destinations that should make it to your list if you’re planning a trip to the fog city.

San Francisco Itinerary: Day 1

Take a tour of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is most infamous as a former federal prison. It is currently a National Historic Landmark managed by the National Parks Foundation. Tours of Alcatraz are offered several times a day. Evening tours are particularly popular. If you’re interested in visiting Alcatraz, make sure you book your tour well in advice. I booked a month in advance, and the evening tours were already full. Day tours are self-guided. You receive headphones and a recorder, and you sightsee on your own.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco - view from the pier 39

The day tour is well designed, leaving you plenty of time to explore all parts of this vast historic penitentiary. You can always pause and take a break. If San Francisco is not covered by fog, the view from the island is really nice. Between boarding a ferry to the island and actual sightseeing, you get to spend several hours at Alcatraz. I felt that the tour was well organized and I enjoyed being guided through different parts of the former penitentiary and hearing many interesting stories including prisoners’ attempts to escape from Alcatraz.

Grab a bite to eat at Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf is a touristy side of town that offers postcard-worthy views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz in the distance. There are plenty of restaurants with great waterfront views as well as grab-and-go places offering clam chowder soup served in bread bowls, fish and chips, lobster sandwiches, and other delicious foods.

Say hello to sea lions on Pier 39

You can’t miss the playful sea lions sunbathing at Pier 39 and barking loudly. Sea lions, currently protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, started arriving at Pier 39 in the early 1990s and made it their home. What started as a few hundred had already become 1700 by the end of 2009. Today, they are one of the main attractions of Pier 39.

Sea lions at pier 39 in San Francisco

San Francisco Itinerary: Day 2

Stop at the Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is a rotunda-style building right by the lake, with columns on both sides. It was originally constructed in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful building covered with many sculptures. It is a great place to admire the architecture and take a break by the lake and watch swans. Because of its picturesque nature, you will find not only tourists but also photographers taking wedding or portrait shots.

Explore the Golden Gate Bridge from all angles

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of San Francisco’s biggest attractions. It could take several hours to explore the bridge from different angles. It takes at least 40 minutes just to walk one way across the bridge itself. Buses can take you from one side to another, and you can also bike, which is quite a popular activity. I chose to walk and enjoyed the breeze and the view of San Francisco in the distance. If you drive, you will need to pay a toll when entering the city from the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are a few viewpoints to consider for bridge viewing from different angles. If you’re going north from San Francisco, there’s the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center to the right of the bridge. Further away to the right is Crissy Field. Both are great for a good view of the bridge.

My personal favorite was catching a glimpse of the sun setting at Marshall’s Beach. The view from Baker’s Beach located right next to Marshall’s Beach was equally nice, although it was a bit further away. Once you cross the bridge, Vista Point is to your right and Battery Spencer is to your left. Both locations allow you to not only see the bridge but also a panoramic view of San Francisco. They are well worth a stop, especially Battery Spencer, which is on top of a hill.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco - view from Marshall's Beach

Visit the Golden Gate Park

The Golden Gate Park is a large park area covering over 1000 acres. You could easily spend half a day or more relaxing there. The Golden Gate Park offers many attractions. You can have tea at the Japanese Tea Garden, sniff roses at the Rose Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, or botanical gardens; visit the California Academy of Sciences museum, or wander all the way to the Dutch windmill. Most of these attractions are located on the east side of the park, besides the Dutch windmill, which is in the far northwest corner. Renting a bike or doing a Segway tour might be the best way to see all that the park has to offer.

Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

San Francisco Itinerary: Day 3

Ride a cable car to Lombard Street

Lombard Street, or the part of it that stretches from Hyde Street to Leavenworth Street, is one of the most crooked streets in San Francisco. It is a steep hill with eight sharp turns. To fully enjoy the experience, you can either drive down the street or walk on the sidewalk on either side. You can’t miss this one-way street. There will be people all over the place trying to get the perfect photo. One way to get there from Fisherman’s Wharf is to take a cable car. Cable cars are San Francisco’s historic cars that only run in Downtown San Francisco. Hop on and off as you please.

Visit San Francisco’s ethnic neighborhoods


There is a large Chinese community living in San Francisco, making Chinatown quite big. Chinatown in San Francisco is one of the prettiest ones, in the United States, where many large cities feature a Chinatown. The Dragon Gate, at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush Street, is the entryway way the most photogenic street: Grant Avenue, from Dragon’s Gate to Broadway. Grant Avenue has lampions hanging from one side of the street to the other and there are restaurants and stores on both sides with plenty of colorful buildings. You can’t miss it.


There are plenty more ethnic neighborhoods in San Francisco I encourage you to consider. This time around I opted to visit Japantown, and I was glad I did. I was interested in exploring a new neighborhood, and sushi sounded particularly delicious that afternoon. Japantown is much smaller than Chinatown. The Peace Plaza is the prettiest part of the district. There’s a five-tier Pagoda and plenty of restaurants and stores to explore.

Take a closer look at the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square

Located at Steiner Street across from Alamo Square, the Painted Ladies are a colorful row of Victorian and Edwardian-style houses. The Painted Ladies were originally built in the 1890s and repainted in the 1960s during the colorist movement. The Painted Ladies of San Francisco are also known as the Seven Sisters or Postcard Row. Even though they are the most popular buildings among tourists and popular media, the neighborhood is well worth the walk. There are plenty more Victorian and Edwardian-style buildings to view as well.

Painted Ladies of San Francisco

Take in the city view from Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks are two hills that are a fantastic location for a panoramic view of San Francisco. On a lucky day when there is no fog, you might see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Don’t be discouraged if there’s fog — it tends to move quickly, and the view is worth the wait. Twin Peaks are a bit of a distance from the closest bus stop. You will need to do some climbing up the hill. However, if you choose to drive or take a rideshare service, there’s a parking lot on top of Twin Peaks.

San Francisco view from Twin Peaks

San Francisco Itinerary: Day 4

Make a day trip to Napa Valley

If you’re a wine fan, a visit to Napa Valley is a must. Napa Valley is an hour away from the Golden Gate Bridge and requires at least a day of exploration. I recommend spending a few days there to get a chance to fully experience Napa Valley. There are plenty of wineries that require a prior reservation to visit. Some of the most popular activities include the wine train, bike tours, or hot air balloons. If you only have one day to make a trip to Napa Valley, several tours run from San Francisco that pick you up from your hotel and organize the day for you. If you’d like to learn about Napa Valley, I discuss it more in this article.

Logistics for planning your San Francisco trip

Accommodation in San Francisco

I found San Francisco to be quite a pricey city. Even though I had the option of free accommodation in San Mateo, south of San Francisco, I opted for an Airbnb room in San Francisco. I entertained the idea of staying away from the city and explored different transportation options and prices. Ultimately, I decided that even if I saved money on my accommodation, it would take a significant amount of time to commute to the city every morning by Caltrain.

Ultimately, I am glad I settled on the Airbnb room in San Francisco. I wanted to be right there enjoying the city, which is what I came for in the first place. It was a great choice. Since I stayed in one of the San Francisco neighborhoods, I was able to explore more neighborhoods and see how locals live. If you’re looking to be close to all the attractions, you might opt for Union Square or its surrounding areas. Union Square is one of the most popular tourist destinations due to its central location and access to public transportation.

Food in San Francisco

San Francisco is a diverse city with many good food options depending on your preference. Even though the prices might be higher as compared to other U.S. destinations (after all, you are visiting the most expensive city in the U.S.!), portions are generous. I found that two good meals a day with snacking in between was perfectly fine for me. Many good restaurants and grab-and-go options are available in tourist spots such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, or the Ferry Building. Depending on what you crave, you might also want to explore one of the many ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Japantown, or the Mission District, just to name a few.

Transportation in San Francisco

If you arrive at the San Francisco International Airport or the Oakland International Airport, you can easily get to the city with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) electric train. San Francisco public transportation is well developed and will take you almost anywhere you need to go. The San Francisco bus system is called Muni, and the metro system is called Muni Metro. There are also famous historic cable cars and streetcars still in operation — a tourist attraction you won’t want to miss. A lot of tourist destinations are close to each other, allowing you to easily travel by foot, bike, or scooter if you so choose. To get a more detailed overview of how to navigate San Francisco and how to save money, follow this link.


San Francisco is a vibrant and diverse city. I always find new places to discover, and every visit is a different experience. I hope that this 4 day San Francisco itinerary helped you identify some destinations for your next visit.

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