From unpredictable weather to iconic spots such as the Golden Gate Bridge, from meeting friends at lively restaurants & cafes to enjoying interesting museums with our daughter, it seemed like we never had enough time in our San Francisco itinerary. 4 days in San Francisco passed by so quickly!
The family trip to the US west coast got booked early this year. Do check out our 2-weeks USA West Coast Itinerary. Early enough to get accommodation inside Yosemite national park and Grand Canyon national park! But the hub for this holiday was the beautiful city of San Francisco, where we spent 4 fun-filled days and then a delightful weekend getaway to Napa Valley. I would definitely recommend at least 3 to 4 days to experience what San Francisco has to offer.
Day 1 of San Francisco itinerary: Golden Gate Park, Science Center and drive to an iconic viewpoint
We had taken a long flight to San Francisco from Delhi the evening earlier. But jet lag ensured we were up early and though a bit tired, we wanted to make the most of the sunny day. We took an uber to Haight district to catch up with friends. The uber driver talked incessantly about how cold it was just a week earlier and that we were lucky to get this amazing weather in the city.
San Francisco is a smorgasbord of culturally-rich neighborhoods and Haight- Ashbury area was a lovely introduction. Our friends had chosen an upscale cafe, that turned out to be perfect for a Sunday brunch.
Golden Gate Park
To make the best of the warm, sunny day, these friends suggested a walk in the Golden Gate Park. There was a live opera playing when we reached the park. What a lovely way to spend the afternoon!
The city is blessed to have lungs in the form of the Golden Gate Park, a must-visit on your 3 or 4 days in San Francisco.
1000 acres plus of picturesque landscape for the city dwellers to enjoy. It is difficult to imagine that this was once a vast expanse of sand dunes. What a transformation!
After listening to some opera music, we spent time in the delightful Japanese Tea Garden. The Japanese-style garden is styled and maintained with the same harmony and beauty that one expects from this Asian culture.
It also gave the kids a chance to run around without any supervision. There is a Tea house where you can enjoy a lovely cup of tea and sample some Japanese refreshments.
California Science Center
This is definitely something I would put on the list of family activities in San Francisco. We walked right across from the Japanese Tea garden, got our tickets, and witnessed a huge dinosaur skeleton in the lobby. Things were looking promising! But we needed a plan on what to do and where to go first in this large Science Center which has a natural history section, an aquarium, a tropical rainforest, a planetarium and more.
My daughter, unlike me, did not enjoy the talk on ‘How mankind would survive on Mars?’ much. She was instead, enthralled by the plants and creatures in the tropical rainforest, thoroughly enjoyed the visit to the large aquarium, dipped her hands in cold water to pet the starfish, and absorbed parts of the 400,000 years of human evolution at the natural history section.
Drive to Fort Baker
We met another set of friends for an early dinner at Souvla in Mission district. The wrap was light on the stomach which ensured we had room for the next place, Dandelion Chocolate. Their drinking chocolate is absolutely divine!
The hot chocolate set us up well for the chilly windy place we landed up next. Again, friends spoke about the clear day that was presented to us. They drove us across the Golden Gate Bridge towards Fort Baker. It took us some time to find a spot for parking.
But so worth the effort. We enjoyed what easily has to be the best view of the Golden Gate bridge!
For more amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, check out this post by a local.
The day ended with a glass of wine at a cafe opened late in Sausalito with easy conversation and laughter, stuff that make holidays memorable.
Day 2 of San Francisco itinerary: Ocean views and a vibrant neighborhood
We spent time away from San Francisco, first to visit the Grand Canyon national park and then to Yosemite national park. So the second full day in this lovely city was after a week. Many folks spend time in Los Angeles on the west coast and then drive from LA to San Francisco.
We met a bunch of friends who live in the city and around in the Bay Area during this trip. Our friends took us to a lovely bistro near Ocean Beach for brunch today. What an amazing cafe for views – blue open skies, clear views of the Pacific Ocean, and the horizon in the far distance!
Not my idea of a beach
Both my daughter and the friends’ kids were looking to play with the sand at Ocean Beach after being confined to restaurant chairs for two hours. But coming from a tropical land, my idea of a beach is warm water, warm weather, and palm trees. Ocean Beach is nothing like that!
It was a warm, sunny day – I am beginning to get suspicious of the famed San Francisco fog – but the wind was still cold.
The kids went about making sandcastles and generally having a blast. My daughter happily dipped her toes in the freezing water of the Pacific Ocean and wanted more.
There was a treat planned for adults as well. Kite flying! Our friends had got cool octopus-shaped kites and flying them with the wind whipping around us was harder than it looked!
Drive across Golden Gate Park to Twin Peaks
We cut across the Golden gate park, this time from the Ocean Beach road. We made a quick stop at the Dutch windmill and the small tulip garden next to it.
The Golden Gate park authorities commissioned the construction of 2 windmills to pump groundwater for park irrigation in 1902. These fell into disrepair when electric water pumps made them obsolete.
We also stopped at the Bison park for the kids, but apparently, the bison were all hiding and there was nothing to look at but the vast grassland!
The drive to Twin Peaks was worth the fabulous views of the entire city spread below. The clear day ensured we got stellar views of the city, the bay, and the 2 bridges – the Golden gate bridge and the Bay Bridge.
We wanted a different experience from the hotel in downtown and chose an Airbnb in the Mission district.
This neighbourhood is home to the city’s hipster generation and there are loads of cool bars, cafes and restaurants to explore. The huge Dolores Park is used extensively by locals to socialise and picnic.
An early dinner at one of the best Italian restaurants in the city wrapped up the day well.
Day 3 of San Francisco itinerary: Playing tourist: Alcatraz Tour, Fisherman’s Wharf and Exploratorium
We had an early start today so we had to make do with a croissant and coffee at our lovely Airbnb kitchen counter.
Alcatraz Prison Tour
We had booked the tickets to Alcatraz island online and opted for the first tour of the day at 845 am – a good option because of lesser crowds. These tours get sold out quickly especially, so make sure you book tickets 2-3 months in advance.
All Alcatraz Island tours depart from and return to Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, located along San Francisco’s northern waterfront promenade. A short ferry ride gets you to ‘The Rock’, one of the most famous maximum-security prisons in the US.
The audio tour at Alcatraz has to be one of the best-recorded audio tours I have experienced. Lucid, with information delivered in a crisp and engaging way, the drama of the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ and another escape attempt comes through clearly, the audio instruction direct you to various sections of the prison in a structured way so that even with the crowds, your experience doesn’t get diluted.
Strolling around Fishermen’s Wharf
It is a good idea to explore Fishermen’s Wharf, right before or after the Alcatraz island trip. Touristy for sure, but a done thing on your first visit whether you are spending 2 or 4 days in San Francisco.
We strolled to Pier 33 and the kids delighted at the sea lions antics. The early start to the day gave us hunger pangs at noon which was a good time to grab an ocean-view table at Fog’s Harbour and hog on fresh seafood.
It was a clear and sunny day, just lovely to walk around this historic area. You realise that my suspicions of the famed foggy days in San Francisco are justified, don’t you?
We stopped to see an engaging breakdance performance by a talented group of street artists. We walked across Boudin bakery – they started baking sourdough bread in 1849! A touristy yet great place to have soup in a bowl of sourdough bread.
Walking across a small stretch of beach, we reached the Ghirardelli store. The kids wanted ice-cream but this is hardly the place for the best chocolate now that there are newer options in the city.
Fun time at Exploratorium
The next 3 hours were spent at Exploratorium. If you are going to San Francisco with kids, make time for this museum/activity center. Their exhibits are based on the core notion of evoking curiosity, for a person to question, and figure how various things work. My 7-year old daughter had a lot of fun. Some exhibits delighted her more than others! Some of the more complex exhibits would be of interest to older kids and even adults.
This is a massive place, you could spend a day here easily (they do allow stepping out during the day and coming back within the same ticket).
Day 4 of San Francisco itinerary: Ferry Building, some shopping at Embarcadero area and driving down the crooked street
The weekend was spent at Napa Valley where we enjoyed some delicious wine tasting and fresh farm produce. And, in no time, it was our last day in the lovely city of San Francisco. We were staying in the downtown area. We decided to make use of the nice, sunny day (again!) and walked up to the historic Ferry Building.
Visit the Ferry Building and stroll around the Embarcadero area
The Ferry Building with its tall clock tower has been the icon of the San Francisco waterfront for more than 100 years. Until the 1950s, ferries were the main transport form to reach San Francisco. But the 2 bridges – Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge – along with cars made the daily commute by ferryboat obsolete.
It now is a public food marketplace that showcases artisanal and local produce. They also have a Farmers Market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. For more info, check their website.
Post lunch and some cheese buying at the Ferry Building, we strolled around the Embarcadero area and did some more shopping – Cask has a great selection of whiskey, gin, and other alcohol. The last evening was spent with friends over dinner and conversation at a Mexican restaurant.
Crooked street in the world!
There was a surprise in store, a joy ride that the kids won’t forget in a hurry. Before dropping us back to our Airbnb, our friends drove us to Lombard Street, the famous zig-zag road in San Francisco.
Lombard Street has a famous one-block section with 8 crazy turns ensuring its tag as the “the crookedest street in the world”. It is a major tourist attraction and I wonder how the residents even live with so many people going up and down and clicking pictures all day long!
Instead of standing down and clicking photos of this section, the best way to experience it is to go down by a car. And if you have an expert driver like my friend, then nothing like it. My friend let go of the brakes and we all squealed. “We want a repeat”, shouted the kids! A happy way to end our time in this lovely city.
The next morning was a frenzy of packing, saying goodbyes before leaving for the airport. It felt like we didn’t have enough time to soak in this city. Plus I wish we had more time in California to take a trip to San Diego which is a great family destination.
Would you believe it – Just as we were leaving the city for our flight back home, the fog rolled in!
Arrgghh, and now to deal with jet lag after the long flight back to India, or maybe not, thanks to these pro tips to beat jet lag.
If you are planning a trip to the US west coast, you may find these other blogs useful –
Amazing wineries & vineyards to visit in Napa Valley
Yosemite National Park with kids: Our top experiences
Top experiences to take in the vast grandeur of Grand Canyon South Rim
Orange, red, yellow & purple hues: All the warm colors of nature at Lower Antelope Canyon
Sedona in a day: Stunning red rocks landscape, family fun adventure and more
Disneyland Hacks: Planning a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth
Disneyland California Itinerary: Enjoy the best rides with your kids
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Have you visited San Francisco? Which is your favorite season to visit the city?
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SFO does look like a treat. I have been quite keen to get there ever since my hubby returned from a short trip there. Those crazy criss cross roads, the Golden Gate bridge and tons of things to do there ….definitely my kind of a place. Loved your tour of the Alcatraz island. I am all up to see that prison. Lovely pictures.
Thanks Ami, we got clear days to take lovely pics. It is a beautiful city with like you said, tons to do and explore.
San Francisco looks like so much fun. There are sights but also the cozy athmosphere: it must have been cool to watch the break dance show, I enjoy these sport/dance events a lot!
The fact that it was a street performance made it even more enjoyable.
Great itinerary lots to see and do especially for families. I haven’t been to San Francisco so I do appreciate all you can do in a few days. I look forward to getting there to check out the Mission District, Exploratorium and Fishermans Wharf
Dorene, if local culture, hipster neighbourhood, good food and cool cafes is your thing, you will love Mission.
What an amazing wall of street art in the Mission District! It looks exactly like the kind of place that I choose to stay at. The weather looks like it was perfect and your shot of the bridge is spectacular!
We found unreal weather. No one believes me when I tell them I saw the bridge crystal clear on all days!
You were SO lucky with the weather! That shot you got of the Golden Gate Bridge — I’ve been to San Francisco several times, and have never had weather good enough to get that kind of photo of the bridge. It’s always been partly shrouded in fog. But I do love the city, and it sounds like you had a wonderful time. And no, the beach here is definitely not a place I want to put on my swimsuit and get in the water. Walking with a windbreaker and enjoying the sand and water, yes.
Ann, you know I am highly suspicious of the famed foggy shots of the GG Bridge now..lol!
I have not driven up to Twin Peaks for the view, I will have to be sure to do that next time I am in SanFran. I love the Haight district and spent a morning wandering the gorgeous homes in the neighborhood. I agree, not a fan of Ocean Beach
My daughter enjoyed the Ocean Beach so I am glad we spent an afternoon there. SF has such interesting neighbourhoods, just loved the city.
You definitely don’t go to San Francisco for the beach. There are spots that are unbelievably pretty and some amazing sunsets too but that water is just so cold. We went to Haight-Ashbury and were really impressed with just how cool the community was. It had cool, hippy,historic eye candy everywhere.
We spent just a morning at Haight-Ashbury and wished we had more time there. Definitely hippy and amazing.
We’ve been to San Francisco once but felt as if we didn’t explore enough.There is so much to see and do. We were lucky and booked Alcatraz tickets in advance and that was by far my favourite attraction there. We actually met a prisoner signing one of his books.
A warden has written a book on Alcatraz recently and was at the store signing his book copies. Deginitely an enjoyable tour.