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San Francisco In 3 Days

Compared to other major cities, San Francisco is quite a small town, with just a handful of major sights and museums. Much of the city’s charm is in its neighborhoods, so look beyond the big names and explore the stairways and alleyways that are the heart of the city.

Day 1: Union Square, Chinatown, and North Beach

Start your first day in Union Square, but don't be too early: the focus of this neighborhood is shopping, and most doors don’t open until 10 am (11 am on Sundays). At the cable-car turnaround at Powell and Market streets, hop aboard either line and ride over Nob Hill and into Chinatown. Browse the produce stalls and markets, peruse herb shops, and explore alleyways. Have your camera ready as you pass from Chinatown into North Beach, the old Italian quarter: Broadway looking down Columbus and Grant is one of the most interesting cultural intersections of the city. Walk Columbus Avenue—stopping for espresso, of course—then head toward Coit Tower up Filbert Street, which becomes the Filbert Steps, one of the city’s many stairways. Keep your eyes—and ears—open for Telegraph Hill ’s famous wild parrots. Take in the views at the top and the tower’s WPA-era murals of California’s history, then head back into North Beach for dinner or cocktails.

Day 2: Ferry Building, Alcatraz, and Fisherman’s Wharf

Get up early and head to the gourmet marketplace at the Ferry Building; Saturday morning’s picture-perfect famers' market is the best time to visit. Gather provisions and head north along the Embarcadero to Pier 33, stopping to read the historical markers along the way. You should buy tickets to the next stop Alcatraz, in advance since tours frequently sell out; plan to spend a few hours exploring the former prison island. Afterward, head north to Pier 39, where you can browse through the overpriced stores if you're on a kitschy-souvenir hunt. Otherwise, follow the barking to the sea lions basking just north of the pier. At Fisherman’s Wharf, return to early-20th-century San Francisco at the delightful Musée Mécanique, then grab an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista. As tempting as it might be to dine on the water, most restaurants here have less-than-spectacular food. A better and cheaper option is to pick up some to-go Dungeness crab from one of the outdoor vendors and eat as you stroll along the waterfront. Or hop on the Powell–Hyde or Powell–Mason cable-car line for better dining on Russian Hill or in North Beach, respectively.

Day 3: South of Market, Civic Center, Golden Gate Park, and Golden Gate Bridge

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (or SFMOMA, as it's known) is currently closed for construction, but there’s still plenty of art in the South of Market neighborhood. Check out the striking Contemporary Jewish Museum or the Museum of the African Diaspora, and then consider a short stop at the California Historical Society or the Cartoon Art Museum. Take a break in expansive Yerba Buena Gardens, then hop a beautifully restored vintage F-Line streetcar down Market Street to Civic Center and the Asian Art Museum. Now head to the city’s favorite green space: Golden Gate Park. Explore the park’s eastern end, where you’ll find the Conservatory of Flowers, the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. In the afternoon head north to the Golden Gate Bridge (wear layers—that wind can be brutal!) for a quick photo op. The adventurous may choose to bike or even walk across the bridge to Sausalito (a 5- to 6-mile trip), a Mediterranean jewel of a small town. Have drinks along the boardwalk then hop a ferry back to the city; be sure to check the schedule; the last ferry usually leaves before 7 pm.

San Francisco In 5 Days

Day 4: The Castro and the Mission

Ride the antique trolleys to the western end of the F-Line in the Castro. Stroll down Castro Street, under the giant rainbow flag and past the art-deco Castro Theatre, window-shopping and stopping at any café that might tempt you. You can north to the Haight and see its beautiful Victorians while treasure hunting in the many vintage shops. Otherwise, head east on 18th Street to the Mission and Dolores Park, one of the city’s favorite hangouts, then visit Mission Dolores and wander rows of centuries-old gravestones in the tiny cemetery. Be sure to hit the "Valencia Corridor" (Valencia Street between 16th and 20th streets), dipping into independent bookstores, hipster cafés, and quirky shops. Don't miss the area's vibrant, often politically charged murals. Stay in the Mission for dinner and drinks; this is the city's best neighborhood for restaurants and watering holes.

Day 5: Other Neighborhoods

Not many visitors venture to these lesser-known spots, but you’ll know the city better for having explored these hoods. In Japantown, visit the two-building Japan Center mall, with traditional Japanese restaurants, toy stores, and tea shops—the Kinokuniya Bookstore is a favorite. Contrast that with a visit to the J-Pop Center on Post Street, with funky shops that reflect modern Japanese pop culture. Head north on Fillmore and explore another world: swanky Pacific Heights, with its wine shops, high-end boutiques, and elegant home-decor stores. Cross Van Ness to Polk Street and see the transformation Polk Gulch is making, from gritty bars and donut shops to fancy lounges and unique stores. Continue north to Russian Hill and terraced Ina Coolbrith Park for broad vistas of the bay. Ascend the Vallejo Steps and you're within easy reach of the hill's best hidden lanes, including Macondray Lane. Continue north to zigzag down crooked Lombard Street. Finally, head back to Hyde Street for dinner at one of Russian Hill's trendy eateries.

If You Have More Time

With more than five days, you can begin to explore the Bay Area. Cross the bay to Oakland; take a quick swing through Jack London Square—new restaurants are giving it a lift—before heading into Chinatown and Old Oakland for shopping and dining. While waiting for Uptown’s happening arts and nightlife scene, head into Berkeley and spend an afternoon scouting the university and touring the Gourmet Ghetto north of campus. Alternatively, you can head north from the city to majestic Muir Woods; if you’ve never seen the redwoods—the largest living things on earth—this is a must. Wine lovers will want to head to wine country: world-famous Napa Valley or lower-key Sonoma Valley both merit an overnight stay.

Tips

Much of the beauty of San Francisco is outdoors. If rain threatens, head to indoor sights in SoMa, Civic Center, and Japantown. Believe it or not, Muir Woods is also lovely (and less crowded) in the rain.

Caution: Japantown, Civic Center, SoMa, the Mission, and even Union Square have or border areas that can be sketchy, so be alert.

Be sure to visit these sights during the day: Union Square, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, SoMa, Civic Center, Golden Gate Park, the Haight, and Japantown,

Great day or night: North Beach, the Castro, the Mission, Pacific Heights, Polk Gulch, and Russian Hill.