Planning a trip to Northern California? Carving out at least one day in San Francisco is a must. Famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, exotic food markets, and its diverse culture, California’s fourth-largest city has plenty to offer travelers.
Even if you only have 24 hours in San Francisco, you’ll be able to absorb the unique vibe of this hilly, yet walkable, city. On your San Francisco itinerary, you’ll soak in breathtaking views, rolling hills, exotic food markets, serene parks, charming beaches, and world-class museums. All the while, you’ll enjoy its diverse restaurants and eclectic food as you wander through quaint neighborhoods.
Ready to experience the best of San Francisco in a day? Make the most of your time-crunched trip with this complete guide for visiting San Francisco in 24 hours.
Where to go in San Francisco in one day: A complete itinerary
Soak in the glorious Golden Gate Bridge
Start your day in San Francisco by admiring the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Head over to the scenic Marina District and onto Crissy Field, where you can see the bridge up close.
As you’re on a time-crunch, cross your fingers for a crisp and fine morning; too much fog will blur the views. If you luck out with perfectly clear day, you can take lovely photographs with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Even if it’s slightly cloudy, you can still snap some stunning pictures; the clouds will simply add ambiance to the reddish-orange outline of the bridge.
When you’ve maxed out your shutter button, grab some delicious coffee and hot breakfast from a nearby café to fuel up before continuing on.
Take a stroll around the historical Palace Of Fine Arts
If you love historic architecture, don’t forget to stop by the Palace of Fine Arts. Not far from Crissy Field, you can reach the venue in 5 minutes by car or 20 minutes on foot. You’ll easily be able to spot this architectural wonder on Marina Boulevard.
This exquisite structure was built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific exposition held in San Francisco. Completely renovated in 1964 and 1974, the Palace of Fine Arts is one of the only surviving structures from the exposition. The site was designed in Greco-Roman style, based on the concept of an ancient Roman ruin.
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of San Francisco’s most recognizable landmarks and a lovely place to take a leisurely walk. Stroll around the peaceful lagoon or relax near the outdoor rotunda before moving on.
Wind down twisty Lombard Street
After wandering about the grounds, continue your 24-hour San Francisco itinerary by heading towards Lombard Street. Ten minutes from the Palace of Fine Arts by car or 40 minutes by foot, Lombard Street is widely known as one of the world’s most crooked streets. Walking down the sidewalk steps of Lombard Street is a fun and must-have experience while spending time in San Francisco.
Lombard Street features eight downhill twists, turns, and zigzags downhill between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street. With its unique beauty, the picturesque street attracts millions of tourists every year. The picture-perfect red brick-paved roads, surrounded by colorful flowers, are worth a visit for anyone visiting San Francisco.
Want to save your energy on the way to Lombard Street while experiencing a cultural icon? Hop aboard one of San Francisco’s world-famous cable cars. Walk from the Palace of Fine Arts to the corner of Hyde and Beach Street, near the Hyde Street Pier, to catch a cable car ride up Hyde Street into the Russian Hill neighborhood.
You can purchase individual cable car tickets throughout downtown or onboard with exact change. If you’re staying in the San Francisco Bay area for a few days, consider installing the MuniMobile or Clipper for convenient access to transit tickets, including cable cars.
Soak up San Francisco’s maritime vibes at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
Walk ten minutes from the bottom of Lombard Street, and you’ll reach the Fisherman’s Wharf. One of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, this historic waterfront district is a must, even if you’re only planning a one-day itinerary. The wharf emanates into the waters of San Francisco Bay from Jefferson Street.
Besides its touristic appeal, Fisherman’s Wharf is also vital for the city’s fishing industry. Surrounded by world-class restaurants and local souvenir shops, the wharf charms visitors with its welcoming ambiance. Not far away from the piers, you’ll also find Ghirardelli Square, a shopping center famed for its world-famous chocolate factory.
The history of Fisherman’s Wharf dates back to the Gold Rush days when Chinese and Italian fishermen fished offshore. They started setting up stands on the beach, selling oysters, crab, shrimp, and other seafood.
On your visit, make sure to stop by Pier 39, where you’ll spot sea lions catching some rays on the docks. If you’ve got time on your Pier 39 visit, stop by the Sea Lion Center to learn more about these adorable sea mammals.
Don’t forget to grab some lunch before you leave Pier 39. Try the city’s classic clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl at a kiosk or a restaurant like Pier Market Seafood Restaurant or Boudin Bakery. Be prepared to stand in line, especially if it’s peak tourist season. Either, it’ll be well worth the wait!
Experience the thriving café culture of North Beach
Want to experience San Francisco’s eclectic urban vibe? Stop by North Beach. Located south of Fisherman’s Wharf, this cozy little neighborhood snuggles up in the northeast of San Francisco.
North Beach sits adjacent to Chinatown, Russian Hill, and the Financial District. Also known as San Francisco’s Little Italy, the quarter is home to a large Italian-American population.
Give your walking shoes a workout and experience the area’s thriving café and bar culture. Home to plenty of authentic Italian restaurants and coffeehouses, North Beach is one of the liveliest spots in town. Walking along Columbus Avenue, the neighborhood’s main drag, you’ll cruise by numerous cafés, delis, bookstores, and bakeries.
Wander around Chinatown
Want to experience San Francisco’s diverse urban appeal first hand? Carve out time for Chinatown. A short walk down Columbus Avenue from North Beach, San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatowns outside of Asia and one of the oldest in North America. It’s home to one of the largest Chinese communities in the United States, with over 15,000 residents living in the blocks surrounding Stockton Street and Grant Avenue.
Marked by the historic Dragon’s Gate, the diverse neighborhood is a fantastic place to wander around. To get a more traditional feel, accompany the locals as they shop for vegetables, herbs, and seafood in the neighborhood’s eclectic markets.
Built up an appetite walking around Chinatown? Visit some of the area’s small local restaurants to try some authentic Chinese snacks.
Shop ’til you drop at Union Square
Need a break from sightseeing? Embark on some retail therapy at Union Square, one of San Francisco’s major shopping districts. An 8-minute walk from Chinatown, Union Square is a wonderful place to drift around, exploring the shops. The neighborhood is full of artisan boutiques and designers. You’ll stumble upon a variety of cool shops selling clothing, artwork, and home-related items.
In the mood for the theatre? Pick up theatre tickets from the ticket booth opposite St. Francis Hotel in Union Square Plaza. If you’d rather spend your time shopping, visit Macy’s Department Store. This branch of Macy’s is the largest west of New York City, spanning several buildings.
If you’re craving an evening snack or a drink, stop by one of the many wine bars and bistros around Union Square. Pull up a chair at a patio with outdoor seating, sit back, and enjoy a cocktail while watching people explore the square.
Visiting San Francisco in winter? You’ll also find an ice-skating rink set up inside Union Square for families to enjoy some winter fun.
Unleash your inner foodie in the Ferry Building
Love trying unique foods? Throw a visit to the Ferry Building into your 1-day San Francisco itinerary. Just one mile from Union Square, you’ll reach the marketplace, located at the corner of The Embarcadero and Market Street. The Ferry Building is home to a thriving farmer’s market filled with a multitude of shops, including many specialty food shops.
At this superb food destination, you can see farmers peddling everything from fruits to street food. Walking alongside the shops packed with delicious food is a feast for the senses.
You’ll have to explore the Ferry Building marketplace on your own. There are no public guided tours available, though, you can often see private groups running food tasting tours around the building. Whether you’re visiting the marketplace with friends or with young children, it’s a surreal experience for all food lovers.
Peruse artwork at the must-see San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
If you’re an art lover, don’t miss out on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A 20-minute walk from the Ferry Building via Market Street, the famed art museum is a fantastic addition to your San Francisco itinerary.
The SFMOMA boasts a cutting-edge building and innovative art displays. It’s the first museum on the West Coast entirely devoted to 20th-century art. Currently, the SFMOMA displays a total of 33,000 pieces of art.
The modern art exhibits include paintings, sculptures, architecture, photographs, and many more. With a span of 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, the SFMOMA is one of the largest museums in the world devoted entirely to modern and contemporary art.
Eat a delicious meal in Nob Hill
Dinner in San Francisco is always a succulent affair. San Francisco’s delightful diversity has led to a revered food culture. Whether you’re in the mood for Chinese, Spanish, or Mexican, there’s an option for everyone on the streets of San Francisco. And one of the best places in the city to try it all is in the Nob Hill neighborhood, just west of Chinatown.
Craving Italian food? Grab a traditional Italian dinner at the Nob Hill Café, serving delicious Tuscan food for over 20 years. Dig into your favorite pasta as you enjoy the cozy ambiance and delectable food. Make sure to call in by 5 pm to make a reservation; it can get pretty crowded in the evenings.
Where to stay with 24 hours in San Francisco
For travelers on a time crunch, the top choices for where to stay in San Francisco include around Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square, as well as the city center neighborhoods of Nob Hill, North Beach, and South of Market (SoMa).
Located on Union Square, this boutique hotel offers guests a superb location along with clean & modern rooms. It’s steps away from all the area’s most popular shops including Tiffany’s and Macy’s.
Swathed in 1920s elegance, the Omni is one of the city’s top luxury hotel picks. Besides the spacious rooms, you’ll enjoy luxurious amenities including a fitness center and on-site chophouse.
Located steps from Union Square, this luxury hotel charms with its modern rooms and amenities like a bar and terrace. If you’re visiting in summer, you’ll love the chance to cool down with a dip in the luxurious indoor pool.
More San Francisco itinerary ideas
Perched upon Telegraph Hill in Pioneer Park, Coit Tower is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. If you’ve got extra time and energy during your North Beach wanderings, Coit Tower is well worth a detour.
At 210-feet-high, Coit Tower delivers a superb 360-degree view over the city center. You’ll also love checking out the collection of frescos by local artists, depicting San Francisco in the 1930s.
While tight to fit in on a time-crunch, Alcatraz Island is one of the city’s must-see destinations. Located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the infamous island is most well-known as the site of one of America’s harshest federal prisons.
Tours of Alcatraz Island depart from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf. On the ferry ride, you’ll also enjoy amazing views of the city skyline from the bay.
The Painted Ladies
Located alongside Alamo Square Park, the Painted Ladies form one of San Francisco’s most iconic scenes. You’ll immediately recognize the famous row of colorful Victorian houses, starting at the corner of Hayes Street and Steiner Street, from several movies and TV shows, including Full House.
If you’ve got extra time, enjoy a picnic in Alamo Square Park to incredible views of the Queen Anne-style homes as your backdrop.
If you’re a fan of U.S. cultural history, Haight-Ashbury deserves a spot on your San Francisco bucket list. Centered around Haight Street and Ashbury Street, the lively neighborhood came to fame in the 1960s as the epicenter of America’s counterculture movement.
Today, Upper Haight Street reflects the district’s rebellious history with its lingering hippie vibes. It’s home to an eclectic collection of vintage boutiques, vinyl emporiums, used bookshops, and hip restaurants.
Golden Gate Park
Located west of Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park is one of the city’s finest green spaces. At over 1,000 acres, exploring the entire park could take the better part of a day on its own on your California itinerary.
The third-most-visited urban park in the US, Golden Gate Park is home to several remarkable attractions including the deYoung Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and the Conservatory of Flowers.
Muir Woods National Monument
If you can only fit in one day trip from San Francisco, make it the Muir Woods National Monument. Located north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the primeval forest is the Bay Area’s finest outdoor escape.
Prepare to be dazzled as old-growth coastal redwoods tower above, reaching into the foggy skies. At the national park, you’ll find several long hiking trails to fully immerse yourself in the expansive nature. Don’t rush your visit here!
Need a break from the city for the sea? Meander over to Ocean Beach. Sitting on the city’s western edge, this stretch of white sand and rocky outcrops is San Francisco’s longest shoreline and one of the most popular beaches in San Francisco.
Ocean Beach stretches for about 3.5 miles and is the perfect place to stroll and catch a sea breeze for a quiet afternoon. If you want to take a dip, however, you might want to save it for elsewhere: The currents at Ocean Beach are quite strong and the water is chilly.