San Francisco is a city rich in history and diversity. It makes a great place to spend a long weekend.
I’ve laid out a three-day itinerary but we tend to cram a lot of travel into a short amount time so if you’ve got extra time to spend and like to pace yourself, you might want to stretch it into four days.
BEFORE YOU GO:
If you are hoping to catch a game, San Francisco has professional football, baseball and basketball, you should check the schedules and ticket availability. If your dates are flexible you might be able to schedule your trip around your favorite teams in San Francisco. Big ticket games can sell out so if you absolutely don’t want to miss the game, buy your tickets early.
If you want to visit Alcatraz (and you should) get your tickets as soon as you know the dates of your trip. Don’t even think about trying to buy tickets once you arrive in town because you will miss out. I wanted to take a night tour and couldn’t get a ticket a month in advance.
If you are flying into town, decide if you need to rent a car. San Francisco has great public transit including a subway station that you can catch at the airport. The city is walkable to a degree but some areas are extremely hilly and difficult to walk. If you are going to rent a car and are traveling on a budget, check with your hotel about parking costs. At the hotel we stayed at, parking a car overnight was $80!
Look into whether or not you want to invest in a City Pass. In full disclosure, our friends at City Pass gave us two complimentary passes to try it out. If you are interested in the destinations provided and plan on using public transportation it’s worth the $89 investment ($66 for kids). Note, the pass includes buses and cable cars but not the subway.
Bring a sweater or jacket! Regardless of the time of year you visit, San Francisco can get cold and be very windy. We went in June and found that it could be extremely warm and chilly in the same afternoon.
Now, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk about your trip.
1) Aquarium of the Bay – The aquarium is included in your City Pass. The Aquarium primarily features creatures native to the Bay Area. It is a small aquarium and it won’t take you very long to get through it. We enjoyed the otters and the exhibit that lets you touch a starfish. One benefit to the aquarium is that you can re-enter as many times as you like during the same day which is a good reason to do it first. If you have kids and downtime, it makes sense to go through again later.
2) Alcatraz – You pick up the cruise ship to Alcatraz very close to the aquarium. Obviously, the timing is all going to depend on the time of the ticket you purchased. In our trip, they wouldn’t let us board the ship earlier than our ticketed time.
Once you get in line you will board a boat for a brief cruise to Alcatraz Island. Once you arrive on “The Rock” you can move about at your own pace and the entire tour is self-guided. We’ll talk about the cell house tour momentarily but don’t neglect walking around the island and checking out the beautiful flowers and birds that make the island their home. There are a lot of good photo opportunities and it is a very nice place to enjoy nature.
The cell house tour was simply amazing. You are given a headset and as you walk through the building your tour is narrated by guards and inmates who spent time at Alcatraz. This method brings the old building to life in a unique way. You will see the cells of the prisoners who made the famous escape as well as the warden’s office, recreation yard and more. You’ll even get a chance to step into the cells for a unique photo op.
Depending on the day, you might get to see a unique presentation. The day that we were there a lady who grew up as a child on Alcatraz was giving a talk. I was surprised to learn that Alcatraz housed dozens of children in private homes away from the prison area.
Getting to hear stories from someone who lived the history is an experience you won’t want to miss.
3) Explore Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf – This part of town is touristy but it’s still worth checking out. There are a bunch of places to eat in the area. I really enjoyed Boudin’s which is famous for its sourdough bread. The location in this area offers a tour of the bakery and in addition to lunch and dinner, you can buy special breads and pastries to take back with you. We also had a great dinner at Nick’s Lighthouse. Nick’s has been around since the 1930’s and the restaurant is small with an old school feel. Prices were very reasonable. I had a delicious steak sandwich on sourdough, my wife loved the pasta and clam chowder.
Optional stops. This area has a Madame Tussaud’s as well as a Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Don’t get me wrong, these are fun places to go and if you’ve never been to a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum you need to check it out but if you’ve been to one somewhere else, I would pass.
4) Have a drink at Pier 23 – If you didn’t bring the kids on the trip and you would like to have a night cap before heading to the room, Pier 23 is a great place to stop. It’s an older bar with reasonable drink prices. When we stopped in they had a guy playing old music on the piano. It closes early so you can’t pull an all-nighter here but a bus stop is directly across the street so it’s convenient to move on to the hotel or your next place after you leave.
1) The Exploratorium – If you brought your kids with you, this is a must do and it’s included on the City Pass. If you didn’t bring the kids, no reason why you can’t still enjoy it but the City Pass gives you the option to use the ticket for admission to the DeYoung Museum (you can do both if you go on the same day if you are very adventurous).
The Exploratorium has tons of interactive exhibits based on science. You could spend hours here and your kids could probably make a day of it. If you kids are old enough to read, they can do a bunch of the exhibits on their own but you are going to want to participate too. I recommend making it your first stop of the day, after breakfast, because it can get crowded. We went on a Wednesday in summer and it quickly filled up with school groups.
2) Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise – If you bought the City Pass, a cruise on the Blue and Gold fleet is included. The tour was an hour long and takes you past Alcatraz, Angel Island and under the Golden Gate Bridge. The day that we went, the water was very choppy and made it difficult to get great pictures. We also found it to be extremely windy so the jacket or sweater you packed will come in handy. If you didn’t buy the City Pass, you can still get a ticket on the Blue and Gold but there are other companies that offer similar cruises. We didn’t have to make reservations and were able to walk right into a line for a ride. I recommend you check in advance just to make sure because this may differ if they are busy.
3) Musee Mecanique – .On Fisherman’s Wharf is the Musee Mecanique which is a museum fit for all ages. It is a large collection of mechanical games from the 1900’s to the present day. It is free to walk in the museum but most of the games cost between a quarter to fifty cents. We probably spent an hour checking out the different games, especially the ones from a bygone era most of which I had never seen before. I had a ball playing a baseball game from the 1930’s. Be sure to check out the huge replica of a carnival that comes to life for a few coins, I guarantee you will be blown away.
4) Ghiradelli Square. A short walk from the Wharf is Ghirardelli Square where you can watch how they make their famous chocolate inside the ice cream and while you are there, treat yourself to one of their delicious ice cream sundaes.
5) Ride the cable car. If you think of San Francisco the cable cars are probably one of the first things that come to mind. You will already be in the area to board and your trip isn’t complete until you’ve been on one. The cost of $7 one way but it’s included in your CityPass. You can also take the bus or street cards with the Pass.
6) Check out the Giants. AT&T Park is consistently rated one of the top parks in MajorLeague Baseball for its aesthetic beauty. At the end of a full day, a night game is a great way to unwind. If you aren’t a big baseball fan, I recommend checking Stubhub.com to see if you can grab a cheap ticket (the day I went, tickets were as low as $7) and spend a few innings checking out the park. You’ll notice McCovey Cove outside of right field where people are sitting in boats and kayaks in the Bay waiting for a home run. There are a bunch of unique food choices but I recommend you try the garlic fries which they conveniently serve with a couple of mints.
1) Haight-Ashbury. If you were in town in the mid to late 1960’s if you were at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury you would be in the epicenter of the hippie movement. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and more roamed this area and people were all over in search of peace and love. Today, some of that feeling still lives on.
There are some great vintage clothing stores and Amoeba Music boasts one of the most extensive music collections anywhere. You could easily spend a couple hours browsing the shops and taking in the vibe of the area.
2) Golden Gate Park – Haight Street runs into Golden Gate Park which is a great place to unwind. You’ll see people napping in the park or playing music. Venture further in and kids are playing ball or enjoying a large playground. Also on site is the California Academy of Sciences (Admission is included with a City Pass). The Academy has an awesome rain forest dome as well as a small aquarium, penguin exhibit as well as several other displays.
3) Walk the Golden Gate Bridge – Don’t be fooled by the name of the park, it is a good distance from the bridge so I would recommend public transit or taking an uber. While you are walking the bridge spend some time at Presidio National Park. There are so many things to do in the park you could easily spend an entire day there. Your kids certainly won’t get bored and will wear off any extra energy before heading back to the hotel.
4) If you are kid-free for the weekend, head up to the SOMA district to the Marriott Marquis which is the home of The View. This bar boasts panoramic views of the entire city.
The drinks are priced reasonably for a big city bar (beers are about $7 which is about the average in town) and it makes for a very romantic evening. If you want to get your pick of the tables, get there when it opens at 4 although seeing the city after dark is breathtaking.
If you have extra time:
There are so many great places to eat, drink and see that it is impossible to do in one trip, especially if you only have a long weekend. If you have a little extra time you certainly want to check out the hairpin turns walking Lombard Street.
Muir Woods National Monument boasts impressive redwood trees.