How to Spend 24 Hours in San Francisco

San Francisco skyline from Mission Dolores Park, California.
San Francisco skyline from Mission Dolores Park, California. | © PHOTO.ZOOMMER.RU / Alamy Stock Photo
Amanda Limond

San Francisco is ideal for a week vacation, or at least a weekend, but when a flight cancellation or a road trip pit-stop lands you in the Bay Area, Culture Trip has you covered. Having only one day may seem daunting, but with some tips on public transportation and a great pair of walking shoes, this city is yours.

Here’s the game plan. When faced with the challenge of conquering San Francisco in 24 hours, one must choose only the best spots to see. Don’t be put off by what could seem like too much (six different places might look intimidating), because San Francisco conveniently offers great public transportation, and walking can be extremely rewarding. Many times people find new areas or shops they love because they decided to walk for 20 minutes, instead of waiting for a bus. Fortunately our list can be checked off going down from the top, or up from the bottom, but we’re going to start at Dolores Park.

A morning in Dolores

Mission Dolores Park is a beautiful outdoor space with sweeping views of downtown San Francisco. Its vast lawns are popular for picnics, dancing, relaxing, and it even offers a playground for the kids. There are numerous cafés and bakeries around the park, a block or so away, if you want to grab a breakfast bite or coffee nearby. You can then stop here to watch the early morning bustle around the Mission, and appreciate how gorgeous this city is from afar.

From here, it’s probably a good idea to get acquainted with the public transportation – in particular, Muni (later in the day, it will help you to have an idea of what you’ll need to take). You should walk from Dolores Park to your next destination, Alamo Square, because it’s a cute area and a morning walk will wake you up and help you get used to the hills.

Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco

Trek to Alamo

Alamo Square: one of the most famous areas of San Francisco, and one of the most beautiful neighborhoods. The Painted Ladies houses are located right here, and always a hit with tourists. The walk will really pay off, because on the way you can find awesome shops or cafés, and when you arrive the view is truly breathtaking. Click away with those cameras.

Here is your first chance to hop aboard a bus – one block from Alamo Square is a stop for the 5-Fulton bus. The 5-Fulton bus will take you through town again and you can look out your window and see this part of the city in motion. It’s about a 30-minute ride so your feet can rest before you get to Union Square.

Alamo square

Shopping, photos, and lunch near Union Square

Union Square will most likely be busy, loud, and amazing. This is a foolproof pick for practically anything you might have on your must-see list. Tall buildings, restaurants, shops, events, street carts, and music are everywhere in Union Square. As a classic part of San Francisco, the area showcases the charm and beauty this city offers, and if you happen to travel here in winter, there’s even an ice rink.

You’ll probably spend quite a bit of time here, so it might be a good idea to grab lunch in the area as well. Try walking to Chinatown to enjoy some authentic and delicious Chinese food, or stop by one of the many restaurants surrounding the square before you hop over to your next destination: Lombard Street.

Union Square public park, San Francisco

Pit stop at Lombard Street

The famously twisted Lombard Street leaves visitors surprised that cars can even make it down the hill. It is a crucial stop because this street is the type of thing you can only find in San Francisco. Take your pictures, hike up or down the super steep hill, and prepare for your next destination.

Fifteen minutes from here by foot will take you the six blocks to Pier 39. Let’s go!

Lombard Street on Russian Hill, San Francisco

An afternoon at Fisherman’s Wharf

After a refreshing and beautiful walk, you will have arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf. Pier 39 is overflowing with restaurants, museums, shops, sea lions, and tons of boats. It may be smelly in some parts, but it’s so incredibly classic, you won’t even mind. There are frequent street performers and vendors that will catch your eye on every block, and so many seafood restaurants you won’t be able to choose which one you want to go to. We recommend taking your time here, stopping wherever you want and watching the sea lions flop around. For dinner, try ordering a bread bowl with the soup of your choice. At this point, it’s almost mandatory for a San Francisco tourist.

After you eat, it should be close to sunset. This is perfect. Now your journey leads you to your final and most important stop: the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pier 39, Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco

Sunset grand finale at Golden Gate

From Pier 39, this will be the most complicated mode of transportation you have experienced thus far. The 47 bus connects with the 28, which will take you straight to the bridge. The 20-minute bus ride should be optimal timing for getting there as the sun sets. The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautifully grand landmarks in California – seeing it in person, you’ll realise it’s even bigger and better than you imagined. Soak up the last few minutes of daylight, and take in the iconic surrounding views.

Skyline and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Nightcap anywhere you want

If you have any energy left (or want to sooth your leg muscles with a relaxing drink), it’s time to check out the abundant nightlife. Options for having a drink at a cool bar in this city are almost endless, so it’s hard to go wrong no matter what neighborhood you pick. While you could head back downtown or near SoMa for a lively night out, we also suggest trekking back into the more central heart of the city near NoPa or Lower Haight if you want to experience drinking as the hip locals do. And a bit further south, the Mission and Castro districts are perhaps the most recommended next-door neighborhoods to choose for some of the best and most happening San Francisco nightlife (which are both easy to land upon if you do want to try this itinerary backwards).

Twin Peaks bar in Castro, San Francisco.

At this point, a taxi is probably your best bet for getting around. And, of course, these rides are also easy options for making it back to bed afterwards.

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