5 Days in San Francisco: what to do and where to eat
San Francisco is usually included in every classic, on the road Californian trips that either start or end there. For this reason, to Frisco is normally dedicated a very limited space, as it appears that the city is doomed ‘regular’ and does not have much to offer. But actually, San Francisco deserves more than a hit-and-run visit in order to be appreciated in all its beauty and vitality, two things that made it the most expensive, and yet the most open, city of the United States of America.
San Francisco: relevant information
- At your discretion you can either try to stay in a comfortable area or a quiet one: in the first case, you will be able to move by foot, in the second one you will definitely need a taxi. I would suggest North Beach if you are looking for something comfortable or Cole Valley if you are more into the second category.
- Try arriving in San Francisco around the time of dinner or at least at night: this way you will end up falling asleep right away (especially if you didn’t sleep on the plane).
- Make sure to set the alarm for the next morning, otherwise, you will be stuck in bed experiencing a “backwards” jet-lag.
- Download Uber and Lyft, sign up and use the two apps, in turn, picking one over the other only on the basis of price, to move around in the city.
- San Francisco is a difficult city to see on foot because it’s all uphill. You will definitely need comfortable shoes, a scarf and a raincoat on hand because the weather is rarely forgiving and you could end up needing a knife to cut through the fog.
Everything you need to know to organize your trip to San Francisco
San Francisco: things to do and where to eat in 5 days
The itinerary on the things to do and where to eat in 5 days in San Francisco is purely based on my experience as a traveler that mainly focuses on the wine and culinary traditions of the places. It is designed for having a sufficiently satisfying experience capable of including all kinds of food. To move around in the city, just jump on a taxi wherever you are: as you will find out, my itinerary is quite detailed and foresees a certain keenness for walking. But if you don’t like going around on foot and you still would like to see everything, you just need to take a cab. They are cheap and super comfortable. The itinerary is designed for 5 full days, excluded the outwards journey and the trip back home. At the end of every day, you will find a very detailed map with all the indicated locations. It will help you to plan every single day perfectly.
Day 1: North Beach & surroundings
After waking up and some coffee, head straight for Union Square to buy the City Pass from San Francisco Visitor Center. It’s 89$ for one adult, it lasts 9 days and it includes several interesting landmarks.
If you are hungry, plan a nourishing brunch at the local Dottie’s True Blue Cafe. Try the hot, black coffee to go with a plate of blueberry pancakes or with the classic American breakfast with crispy bacon and flavored potatoes.
From here go towards North Beach, passing by Chinatown: once you are at Washington Square, you can choose the starting point of your tour, which absolutely has to include Columbus Avenue and the super famous City Lights Bookstore, the Arthur Ferlinghetti’s library specialized in beat generation’s books. In the same area, you will find a lot of places where you will be able to drink or eat something. If you didn’t go enjoy a brunch at Dottie’s earlier, my advice is to go eat at Tony’s, the restaurant that won, for 7 years straight, the title of “Best Neapolitan Pizza Place in the World”, or to go eat to Mama’s, probably the most famous restaurant in San Francisco. For this reason, you should be ready to wait in a long queue, especially on the weekend, to enter and again to just place your order. But, trust me, it’s worth it.
However, if you are looking for a quick snack without sitting somewhere, then it would be a crime not to suggest you Molinari Delicatessen or Liguria Bakery. Both offer Italian focaccia and amazing sandwiches, following the traditions of the Italian immigrants that really live there.
After these stops, a difficult climbing awaits you, one that will take you to the Coit Tower. From up there, you will be able to admire San Francisco as a whole. But the walk to reach the tower is even more beautiful. From the Coit Tower, I strongly suggest you take a taxi or just the public transportation, you will need some rest before dinner.
For your first dinner, you can pick between two very different places, in two different areas of the city: Omakase, if you are looking for a peculiar culinary experience since it is a Japanese restaurant with 1 Michelin star where the food is pure art, or Mama Ji’s, a high rated Chinese restaurant in Castro. And if you have some energy left after dinner, then let me tell you this: go to Cervecería de MateVeza or to the Magnolia Brewing Company. You need to try these places for the amazing beer and the incredible atmosphere.
Day 2: Fisherman’s Warf, Pier 39 e Marina
Again, wake up, drink some coffee to recover from the jet-lag and head straight towards Fisherman’s Warf and Pier 39, but first I highly suggest you enjoy an American breakfast at Joanie’s Happy Days Diner, just to start your day in the best way possible: tons of pancakes, sided by bacon or scrambled eggs with some toasts. From here, I recommend starting by visiting the Pier 39 where, besides a couple of shops, you will find the well known, photogenic Sea Lions having fun. Then head towards Fisherman’s Warf where you cannot miss a stop at the Ghirardelli chocolate shop. You can see its sign from very far away, you can’t miss it. After that, visit the Boudin, a legendary bakery that bakes bread with Sourdough since 1849. Leaving the Bouding, stop at the Bistro and try the traditional soup served within a loaf of bread (which you can taste in the bakery as well!). And finally, to conclude at best, spend a few minutes at the candy Baron and try the Salty Water Taffy, butterscotch gumdrops with different tastes and flavors.
After that, plan a visit to Alcatraz. If you want, you can do it during the day, but make sure to book it on time because they run out of seats very quickly. After, or instead of visiting Alcatraz, take a cab and go to the Golden Gate Bridge, and when you are there, just admire its greatness. Also, if you want to take a image lazy photo of the bridge just like Giuseppe did, you have to go to Battery Spencer towards Sausalito. If you want to admire the bridge from below, then you just need to reach the most reachable place of all, Fort Point. Just walk towards the lay-by where you’ll be able to touch the copper plate with your own hand, just like all the runners do before getting back on track.
And, if you still have some time, I suggest you end your day in the Marina area. If it’s Friday, definitely stop for dinner at the Off the Grid, a food trucks’ “gathering” that invade the place with food and beer.
Day 3: Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park & Japantown
Wake up, drink some coffee and get ready for spending half a day in the area of Haight-Ashbury where, in 1967, the hippie community gathered to reclaim their right for their physical, verbal and spoken freedom. Before beginning the visit, however, have a brunch at Zazie, in the Cole Valley area. Ask for a table outside if the day is sunny or enjoy a coffee with locals at The Grind Cafe. The area is full of psychedelic shops and super hipster places. My personal advice is to go have lunch or breakfast at the Pork Store Cafe, their huevos rancheros and cheese sandwiches are to die for) and then visit Love on Haight, a shop famous for its psychedelic clothes and accessories that will remind you of the glorious Summer of Love of 1967. At Love on Haight, you will find Sunshine Sunny, a girl that has dedicated her life to revitalize the area of Haight-Ashbury by founding a charity that helps the local homeless people. Sunny and her Council of Love raise money for other charities as well (Taking it to the Streets, Huckleberry House, Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, Walden House & Rock Medicine), all of this in the hopes of bringing more credit to the summer of 1967 and to the changes that were made those days.
I’m not even kidding, my mind and my heart were right over the moon after seeing such an incredible reality. But if you have some energy left, you could get on with your day at the Golden Gate Park, where you will be able to visit the Japanese gardens and the De Young Museum, until reaching the Painted Ladies. After getting here, you swing by JapanTown to immerse yourself in the Asian culture. Pass by Benkyodo and take with you a tray of mochis. Then go try some amazing ramen at Ramen Yamadaya. You can also keep moving, reach Geary Street and have dinner at State Bird Provisions to taste real Californian food.
Day 4: Castro & Mission
Wake up, drink some coffee and head straight for Castro, where you can enjoy a great breakfast or lunch at the Kitchen Story, where you can eat Eggs Benedict before diving into one of the most interesting blocks of San Francisco, with strong ties to the history of global and American human rights. Before arriving at the Castro Theater, visit Hot Cookie if you want to taste the most buttery cookies in very naughty and sexy shapes. Continue your day heading for the Rainbow Crosswalk, the famous pedestrian crossing that truly represents the spirit of the city. Later, stop for a drink at Harvey’s, a name that comes from Harvey Milk, first elected openly gay politician in the United States of America. If you have some time left or if you are really interested you can visit the LGBT History Museum on the 18th street.
From Castro, take the 20th and walk towards Mission, passing by the Dolores Park. Stop just for a moment to admire how crowded is the hill that faces the city. It’s truly amazing. When you are doing, keep going down the 18th street and stop at the Tartine Bakery for something sweet. From here, you need to go to Valencia Street, which is the very heart of Mission together with Missions street, where you will find a huge South American community. My personal advice is to definitely go check out the murals of Clarion Alley and Balmey Alley with a local guide capable of telling you about the history behind them and their meanings. The best way to truly enjoy Mission is to have dinner there: I could suggest you try the super famous Taqueria, but to me, it was a huge disappointment. It’s not worth the cue. I recommend instead Gracias Madre, a Mexican restaurant of incredible quality in Mission, Aster on Guerrero Street or Al’s Place on Valencia Street. They are all food places that serve revisited American cuisine in a very particular way. Also, if you want to enjoy the nightlife of San Francisco, do yourself a favor and walk until Union Square. Go on top of the Macy’s building for some cheesecake from Cheesecake’s Factory and put an end to your day.
Day 5: Financial, Chinatown & Twin Peaks
Wake up, drink your coffee and head towards the financial district for a walk right between the unique skyscrapers of San Francisco: start from the Transamerica Pyramid, then go to the Yerba Buena area to see its gardens and the Moscone Center. Stop for breakfast or a brunch at the Grove Yerba Buena. From there, walk back to Union Square and take a spot in the cue for Cable Car. Personally, I don’t think the experience is worth it, but if you leave San Francisco without experience it, everyone will tell you made a mistake. The Cable Car goes through all the city, but I suggest to stop close to Lombard Street and get off to take a picture from the top of this very famous, winding street (if you manage to, given the jungle of tourists). Afterward, come down using the sideways streets.
From here, in around 30 minute and passing by North Beach, you will get to Chinatown, which is the last stop of your trip in San Francisco. Lose yourself in the streets, through the shops of this surreal area of San Francisco. It’s the biggest Chinatown in North America and also the biggest one outside of Asia. The main streets are the Grant, more touristic, and the Stockton, the more authentic one. Definitely, check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, eat a Dim Sum at Wing Sing Dim Sum (it’s not super clean, but it’s really famous!) and end your day at Mister Jiu’s for the most incredible Chinese dinner you will ever have. If you are lucky and the days are still long, take a taxi to get to Twin Peaks to admire the city from above. It’s the best way to end up your stay in San Francisco.
5 Days in San Francisco: other suggestions
- For a different experience, book a bight visit to Alcatraz: it’s evocative, suggestive and it will allow to immerse yourself in a different world. You will definitely see a special side of one of the most touristic landmarks of the city.
- For a 60s-ish experience, book a tour with the Flower Power Bus which will let you see the city on board the classic bus. However, do not expect to visit the locations associated with the Sixties (Like the Summer of Love) because, in the end, it’s just a regular sightseeing tour… just on a different vehicle.
- If you have the time or you want to, you can visit the San Francisco Bay. Book a tour on a sailboat or something like that and you will be able to pass right below the Golden Gate. It will be very relaxing.
How to organize a trip to California
Other foodie places and restaurants to be tried in San Francisco
- 10 historic places in San Francisco: click here for the full list;
- Plow, for its relaxing mood and the simple, but genuine food;
- Foreign Cinema because if you are obsessed with cinema and good food this is the place for you;
- Swensen’s Ice Cream because you never say no to a good, vintage and tasty ice cream;
- The Mill for the cinnamon loaves of bread;
- Deli Board for amazing sandwiches and the incredible servings;
- Bob’s Donuts for their gigantic donuts.
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