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One Day in San Francisco

Updated: October 31, 2023
 By Britt

This post offers several one-day itineraries for spending 24 hours in San Francisco, including budget-friendly and kid-friendly itineraries as well as a 3-day option.

As local walking tour guides, we not only live here, but we also show San Francisco off to visitors every day.

And, many of our tour guests only have a day to explore the city, so this is something that

We've used our personal experiences to help craft this one-day itinerary, as well as the other options.

Normally, this 1-day San Francisco itinerary is focused on activities you can enjoy during the spring or summer months, but since it is quickly approaching winter, we've changed it up a bit with tips related to the holidays!


SAN FRANCISCO IN ONE DAY

This itinerary has been created by a tour guide of the city to help you get the most out of your visit to San Francisco, even if you're running short on time.


8:30 am - 9:30 am: Breakfast in North Beach

The first thing you're going to want to do is to pick up some breakfast.

We'd recommend stopping in at Mama's on Washington Square. They have some of the best breakfasts in San Francisco.

You'll be in a perfect location to walk around the city, right next to North Beach/Little Italy, Chinatown, and Fisherman's Wharf.

This family-owned restaurant is an institution, so be sure to get there early to avoid the long lines!


10:00 pm - 12:00 pm: A Free Walking Tour

The best way to start any trip to a new city is with a walking tour to help you familiarize yourself more with the area.

We offer several different name-your-own-price walking tours including our:

The All-in-One Tour is 6 hours and includes a break for lunch.

Though it will take up a large part of your day, this tour is a fantastic introduction to the city of San Francisco.

The other tours are each just 2 hours and focus specifically on the history of that neighborhood.

If you're not sure which tour is best for you, read our comparison of each.

We also have a post covering where to find the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.

Holiday Advice: Although it's a bit colder during the winter months, it's still a good time to take a free walking tour in San Francisco, because some landmarks you pass by will be decorated with Christmas lights!

Here are a few of the best spots for holiday lighting and decoration that are often included on most walking tours:

  • Union Square
  • Market Street
  • Ghirardelli Square
  • Fisherman's Wharf
  • Embarcadero Center

If you want to see even more festive decorations, check our post covering where to see the best San Francisco Christmas lights.


12:00 pm - 1:00 pm: Lunch at Fisherman's Wharf

While there are hundreds of great options for lunch in San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf is a great location full of wonderful seafood restaurants.

From fresh fish caught that morning to San Francisco Dungeness crab, you can't go wrong with a meal at the Wharf.

But the most popular, and the most traditional, typical San Francisco meal you can get is clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

Alternatively, you can also pop by the Boudin Bakery and try some of their fresh sourdough!

Our favorite location is Alioto's restaurant.

If you go upstairs to the restaurant, you can get a great table by the window overlooking Fisherman's Wharf.

If you're in the mood for some delicious seafood, then check out our post comparing the best seafood restaurants in Fisherman's Wharf!

Perhaps after lunch, you might even have the energy to visit the nearby Aquarium of the Bay.


Holiday Advice:

As it's nearing the winter and holiday season, it's worth noting that Fisherman's Wharf is often covered in festive decorations during this time of year.

The major attraction here will be the singing Christmas tree, which plays festive music throughout the season.

You might also be able to catch the annual Fisherman's Wharf Lighted Boat Parade depending on when you visit!


1:00 pm - 2:00 pm: Go to a Christmas Market

Usually, we'd recommend that you take this time to go on a San Francisco Bay cruise around the city, but as it gets a bit more chilly outside in the winter, that isn't really as good of an idea.

However, there are a lot of holiday and Christmas fairs that open up during this time of year, allowing you to purchase unique handmade gifts and trinkets from local artists and craftsmen.

Why visit souvenir shops when you can find the perfect memento at one of these local holiday markets?

Here are a few of our favorite Christmas markets to visit in San Francisco:

  • Great Dickens Christmas Fair
  • San Francisco Swedish Christmas Fair
  • Sunset Holiday Mercantile
  • German Holiday Market
  • SFMade Holiday Fair

For even more options, check our post on things to do for Christmas in San Francisco.


2:30 pm - 4:30 pm: Visit the California Academy of Sciences

San Francisco is home to some of the best science museums in the world. 

The California Academy of Sciences is an incredible museum that really appeals to visitors of all ages.

We love its exhibits on earth science and natural history, as well as the aquarium, living roof, and planetarium.

They also have a four-story living rainforest!

The California Academy of Sciences, which is in Golden Gate Bridge Park, is about a 15-minute cab drive from the pier.

You can get in for free at either one with your city discount card, saving you $35!


Holiday Advice:

Don't worry if it's running a little late, because California Academy of Sciences actually holds a special NightLife Holiday Bazaar every year.

This event takes place on certain nights during the holiday season, and it usually includes plenty of great places to eat or drink and of course interesting gift ideas!


5:00 - 6:30: Take a ride on San Francisco's famous cable cars! 

A ride on San Francisco's historic cable cars is a must-do for any first-time visitor to the city.

Of the 3 different public transportation lines, Powell-Hyde is by far our favorite, running alongside both Hyde Street and Powell Street.

On this route, you will journey across Lombard Street, known as the “Crookedest Street in the World,” and then past Union Square.

From here, you can enjoy stunning views of Coit TowerAlcatraz Island, and San Francisco Bay.

You will also pass by the Cable Car Museum, which is well worth a visit if you have the time!

The ride concludes near Nob Hill, which is a spectacular place to watch the sunset.

If you plan to have dinner at our #1 recommendation (see below), then stay up here and then take the cable car back down after you eat.

It runs until 1 a.m., so there's no need to worry about timing.

Otherwise, if you'd rather dine at our #2 recommendation, then take the cable car down Russian Hill as it's near Fisherman's Wharf.

If you'd prefer option #3, then it doesn't matter too much whether you ride the cable car back down or not as you'll need to hop in a cab to get there anyway!

Read our full post on How to Ride San Francisco's Cable Cars.


7:00 - 8:30: Have a Well-Deserved Dinner

You have hundreds of great dining options around San Francisco. If you want to narrow it down, we have a few favorites:

  • Tacorea: Recently relaunched from the old name of Jasmin's Cafe, this is one of the best budget meals in the city. You can get a fantastic dinner here for just a few bucks.
  • La Taqueria: If you're looking for another great southwestern restaurant, consider this location that makes Mission-style burritos!
  • Hog Island Oyster Company: If you're going to visit this city, you really need to eat some of the world-class seafood we have to offer here. You can get some of the freshest fish, oysters, and other ocean foods. Hog Island is a great place to start!
  • Tony's Pizza: Every city in America is going to tell you that they have the best pizza in the world. And since we're representing SF, of course, we're going to say that San Francisco has the best. But we have the awards to back it up!
  • Ferry Building: This is actually a great place to look for a quick bite if you can't decide what you want to eat. They have a lot of great local options to choose from.

Holiday Advice:

If you're planning to visit during the holidays, it's worth noting that some locals consider it traditional to eat Dungeness crab for Christmas.

Here are a few places where you can usually find them:

  • Seafood Center
  • Sun Fat Seafood
  • Crab House at Pier 39
  • Fog Harbor Fish House

If you know what you're doing, you might even want to try renting a boat and catching them yourself.

Sometimes you can even buy Dungeness crabs right off the boats in Half Moon Bay!


Wrapping it Up

San Francisco is one of the greatest cities in the world. That's what keeps all of us living here! (And also why it's so expensive to visit here!)

You can't possibly see everything in one day on the ground, but if you happen to have a 24-hour layover here, you might as well go see everything you can.

And if you get through the items in this guide, you will have gotten a good feel for what this city has to offer.


ALL-IN-ONE TOUR

If you only take one walking tour in San Francisco, it should be this one!

We will take a trip through the best parts of SF to show you all the greatest sights.

We visit Gold Rush criminals, Nob Hill palaces, Chinatown secrets, and North Beach delights, and take a cable car ride to see the entire city in one day.

Note: To sign up for this tour, you will be charged $8 per person for your cable car ticket.

We will give you the ticket when you arrive at the tour. If you cancel the tour in advance, we will refund the cost.

Take this five-hour (lunch break included) tour through the best parts of San Francisco:

Sites we cover include:

  • The oldest buildings in San Francisco
  • Backstreets and hidden alleys of Chinatown
  • Sunken Gold Rush-era ships buried underneath the city
  • Nob Hill mansions of the 1800s
  • The biggest cathedral in the city
  • Modern skyscrapers of Downtown San Francisco

...and many more!


Tour Information:

Reservations: REQUIRED. Click here to reserve. Groups of 6 or more must contact us before booking.

Where: We meet at the Transamerica Pyramid, at the corner of Montgomery & Washington Streets. Use our Google map for directions to the tour starting point. Look for your guide in the orange shirt.

Duration: The tour lasts about 5 hours, which includes a lunch break during the tour. The total walking distance is about three miles (5 km).

When: View our Calendar

Cost: This is a name-your-own-price tour. That means the tour is free to take, and at the end of the tour, you decide how much the tour was worth to you. Our guides are happy to take cash or credit cards, whatever is most convenient to you!

Save even more money in San Francisco with a discount tourist pass!


ONE DAY WITH KIDS IN SAN FRANCISCO

For more ideas about visiting San Francisco with kids:


8:30 am - 9:30 am: Breakfast along the Bay

Once again, we recommend starting the day with a hearty breakfast near North Beach, Chinatown, or Fisherman's Wharf.

One of our favorite restaurants that are very conveniently located and overlooking the San Francisco Bay is Eight Am.

It features a very family-friendly menu and homecooked food that will keep your family full until lunchtime.

After breakfast, take a stroll along the pier and get some great photos of the Golden Gate Bridge before it gets too busy.


10:00 am - 12:00 pm: Walking or Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Tour

Whether you're traveling with kids or not, we always recommend that you start the day with a tour. As mentioned above, we have many different walking tours including:

Our guides know all the tricks when it comes to keeping kids entertained, so each of these is well-liked by kids of all ages.

However, if you're not sure your family will be up for a walking tour, then consider taking a hop-on-hop-off bus tour!

This way you can familiarize yourself with the city and move at your own pace.

Check out our full post comparing the different hop-on, hop-off bus tour options so you can choose the right one for you.


12:00 pm - 1:00 pm: Lunch at Pier 39 

Pier 39 is a fun and vibrant place to have lunch with the kids.

Browse the local shops, listen to talented street performers, visit the Aquarium by the Bay, and enjoy a hearty serving of clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, a signature San Francisco dish since the mid-1800s!

Also, be sure to say hello to the sea lions who have been making Pier 39 their home since 1990.


1:00 pm - 2:00 pm: Go Ice Skating

Like many cities around the world, you can expect to find a lot of ice skating rinks opening up all over San Francisco during the winter.

Some of the best spots are open year-round, but you'll also find some near Christmas markets or notable attractions.

Here are some of the better locations where you can go ice skating in San Francisco:

  • Union Square
  • Embarcadero
  • Yerba Buena Ice Skating

For more information about this and other festive activities, make sure to read our full post covering things to do for Christmas in San Francisco.


2:30 pm - 4:30 pm: Visit the Exploratorium

Though we love the California Academy of Science, nothing beats the Exploratorium for kids.

Their hands-on exhibits let you experiment with science yourself and will keep your family entertained for hours!

3. Academy of Sciences

Located conveniently along the water, it is just a 10-minute walk from Pier 39, so this is a perfect activity to follow your boat cruise!

TIP: You can get in for free with your city discount card, saving you $35!


5:00 pm - 9:30 pm: Watch a Holiday Show

San Francisco has a rather prominent Off-Broadway presence, and it really shines during the holiday season.

No matter what kind of festive musical or holiday performance you're interested in seeing, chances are there will be something you want to see with the kids.

Here are a few of the best Christmas shows this year:

  • The San Francisco Symphony Performs:
    • The Nightmare Before Christmas
    • Love Actually
    • Home Alone
  • A Christmas Carol
  • The Nutcracker

For additional options, please check out our post covering things to do for Christmas in San Francisco.


24-HOUR BUDGET ITINERARY 

For more ideas about visiting San Francisco on the cheap, check out:


8:30 am - 9:30 am: Grab breakfast from your hotel and eat it on the Bay!

Most hotels and hostels have some type of free breakfast included in their stay.

Grab a croissant or some fruit, and then head out to North Beach to enjoy beautiful views of the Bay while you are much away!

If you're staying somewhere that doesn't offer breakfast, then pop into a cafe for a quick takeaway snack.

Sit-down meals are much pricier than the food you can order to-go and they usually don't include beautiful views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

So, take advantage of your time in San Francisco and dine outside!


10:00 am - 2:00 pm: Free All-in-One Tour 

If you're really looking to get the most bang for your buck during your time in San Francisco, then we highly recommend that you take our All-in-One Tour.

This combines many of the stops featured on our other tours... and all for a price that you choose at the end!

A lunch stop is included about mid-way through, so you don't need to worry about finding the most budget-friendly restaurant on your own.

Our guides will direct you to the best places to eat, so you can just relax and enjoy the views!


2:30 pm - 4:00 pm Visit the de Young Museum 

After a long day spent outside, wander into the de Young Fine Arts Museum to see some of the best art in the country.

The exhibitions change periodically, so be sure to check their website to see what is on during your visit.

Past exhibitions include 'Summer of Love', 'Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art From the Weisel Family Collection', and“Picasso: Masterpieces from the MusĂ©e National Picasso, Paris."

And best of all? It's completely FREE!

TIP: This museum is located in Golden Gate Park, near many other popular attractions you might want to visit. If you're not interested in the de Young Museum, consider one of these alternatives:

  • San Francisco Botanical Garden
  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Conservatory of Flowers
  • Japanese Tea Garden
  • Bison Paddock
  • And more!

4:30 pm - 5:00 pm: Go to the beach 

Take a brief break from the chaos of the city to walk along the sand and dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean.

Even if it's a cold day, you should still check this off your bucket list!

And all the while, enjoying stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. There's no better place to take photos!


5:15 pm - 6:15 pm: Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge 

This is probably our favorite free activity on the list! Don't just take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge... walk across it!

If you're able to time it right, then you can go right at sunset to get some spectacular views of the Bay.

It's about 1.5 miles all the way across, so allow plenty of time to get to the other side and back.

There are restrooms on either end of the bridge if need be.

If you're planning to drive here, make sure to read our post covering parking options in the Presidio.

Also, be sure to stay close to the rail as there are lots of cyclists who use the path as well!

TIP: The Palace of Fine Arts is right next to the Presidio, so if you're looking for an alternative activity, that could be a good place to visit instead.

Although it was originally built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, it is now both a museum and an event venue!


6:30 pm - 7:30 pm: Dinner in Chinatown

Chinatown is one of the best and cheapest neighborhoods to have dinner in San Francisco.

It's also home to plenty of its own landmarks such as the Dragon's Gate.

Another fun thing to do here is to visit the Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can both see how they are made and purchase bags full of cookies for low prices!

We suggest that you ask your guide on the All-in-One Tour for specific restaurant recommendations.

However, some of the most popular places include:

  • Begonia Bistro
  • Capitol Restaurant
  • City View Restaurant
  • Hunan's Home Restaurant

Holiday Advice:

Traditionally, most Asian restaurants are open during Christmas and the holiday season, so you might want to visit Chinatown on these dates if you can't find anywhere else to eat.


RELATED POSTS: 

About The Author

Britt

Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.
Updated: October 31st, 2023
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