How to spend 48hrs in San Francisco – what to see and do
How to spend 48 hours in San Francisco, the uber cool Californian coastal city that may be small but is home to the huge Golden Gate Bridge and a lively arts scene
How to spend 48hrs in San Francisco - what to see and do
San Francisco, home to the infamous rolling sea fog, the Golden Gate Bridge and a hippie vibe that has continued long after the original flower power days of the 1970s. This uber cool Californian coastal city maybe small, only 7 miles across, but it sure does pack a punch with a wealth of historical landmarks and an exciting cultural mix which has fuelled a lively arts and food scene.
As far as major American cities go, what San Francisco lacks in size it really does make up for in major tourist sites and attractions making it the ideal city break or stopover destination when visiting the USA. Even if you are restricted to two or three nights in the city, you could easily tick off some major bucket list experiences with an easy to navigate 48hrs in San Francisco itinerary.
Planning your 48 hou rs in San Francisco
As with all city breaks or stopover destinations, the key to covering a lot of ground in a short period of time is to be organised, pre-plan your days with a degree of flexibility and pre-book any popular tourist attractions in advance. This advice goes without saying for the Alcatraz Island tour; considered to be the most visited site in San Francisco, this eery island prison requires pre-booking to guarantee a visit with tickets going on sale 90 days ahead of departure.
Also decide how you are going to get around San Francisco before arriving; with only 48 hours to cover the major sites, an open-top bus tour or a go car self-drive are possibly the easiest options. For the slightly more adventurous, the CBD and iconic Golden Gate bridge can be easily navigated with a bike from Blazing Saddles at Fisherman’s Wharf. From here you can cycle along the waterfront and across the 1.7 mile suspension bridge independently or as part of a guided tour. There is the option of hiring an electric bike to make things a little easier as well as the opportunity to bike across to Sausalito and take the ferry back across the Bay. Free guided walking tours are also available from Free Tours by Foot as well as audible tours offering visitors the chance to get a real feel for living in San Francisco.
If you are short on time, it is advisable to plan where you are going to eat and make any table reservations at busy restaurants in advance of travelling. A top tip here would be to spend some time on Instagram or Trip Advisor and find out where the locals are eating. As with all city destinations, be prepared to put in the miles navigating the city; San Francisco is notoriously hilly so although the distances you are covering maybe small, physically it can be demanding.
Ensure you bring sensible walking shoes and plenty of layers as the weather can change quickly, with the freezing sea mist rolling in off the water most days.
Although the climate in San Francisco is unpredictable at the best of times, with the opportunity of experiencing four seasons in one day, it is considered best to visit the city during the months of September and October when the skies are normally clear with much less chance of fog. It is a common misconception that San Francisco is always warm and sunny during the summer months with temperatures often failing to reach more than 18 degrees during June to August. Remember to bring warm clothes, and pack for full days out exploring all that this fabulous city has to offer.
Where to stay for 48 hours in San Francisco
If you only have 48hrs in San Francisco it is worth being strategic with where you choose to stay and base yourself in either one of the two major tourist zones within the city, Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf. Both districts offer a variety of accommodation to suit all travellers and budgets as well as being served by excellent transport links, making it easy to navigate the city if short on time.
The Union Square Plaza and its adjoining districts are considered the central shopping, hotel, and entertainment hub of San Francisco, linked by traditional cable car from Powell Street as well as the Metro and BART subway systems. The Fisherman’s Wharf area is a bustling waterside tourist mecca, linked to the inner city by streetcar and cable car and is well known for its seafood restaurants, tourist attractions and the much-loved but often grumpy sea lions at Pier 39.
For my 48 hours in San Francisco itinerary, I recommend the Hotel Zeppelin; this funky hotel really echoes the rebellious vibe of the city with its vinyl wall art and eclectic interior reflecting the city’s bohemian past. Located on Post Street, one block from Union Square this stylish hotel offers the perfect base for couples to explore San Francisco easily. For those travelling as a family, The Holiday Inn - Fisherman’s Wharf is always a firm favourite with the hotel offering great amenities at a reasonable price.
48 hours in San Francisco – the Itinerary
Day One - Morning
Start your 48hrs in San Francisco with breakfast at Lori’s Diner located on the corner of Stutter Street, one block from your hotel and Union Square. This traditional 1950s diner harks back to a bygone era of big hair, roller skates and open-top Cadillacs. Open 24 hours a day, serving breakfast through to dinner, this huge dose of Americana never fails to disappoint visitors. Make sure to try the Cable Car pancakes and take advantage of the generous portions ahead of a full day of sightseeing.
After breakfast, walk through Union Square, enjoying the shops as you go before making your way to the cable car turnaround at Powell Street where you can board and head all the way to the end of the line at Fisherman’s Wharf. This hair-raising journey is not for the faint hearted, often the trolleys are packed with the most sought after spots to stand at the front and sides of the cable car. The views of the city as you climb and then descend the hills are spectacular but for those that like to feel more secure, make sure to take a seat and hold on tight
Disembark the cable car at the Powell/Mason cable car turnaround, here you are rewarded with a spectacular view across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. Its an easy walk from here into the Fisherman’s Wharf area with plenty of tourist sites along the way, Madame Tussauds and the Aquarium of the Bay are both popular with the latter included in the City Pass. This pre-booked tourist pass covers unlimited rides on the cable cars, the chance to visit four top attractions at a time that suits, and a bay cruise, all included over a 9 day validity period. From here make your way to Pier 39 specifically where you will be greeted by a huge gang of very noisy sealions chilling out on the pontoons. After picking up the San Francisco staple of the same name from Chowders, now is a great time to consider jumping on an open top bus tour of the city. If you only have 48hrs in San Francisco then the Big Bus Tour offers visitors the opportunity to tick off all the major sites easily and quickly. Join the tour at Pier 41 Fisherman’s Wharf and travel the Red Route with guided commentary in 10 languages. Sites worth stopping for along the route include The Presido Park for stunning Golden Gate and bay views, Coit Tower offering panoramic views of the city, the Golden Gate Park covering 55 acres including the Botanical Gardens and of course the twisting Lombard Street.
Finish your tour for the day back in Union Square where you can easily access your hotel in time to freshen up for dinner in Chinatown.
Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest of its kind in North America; a proud neighbourhood that is centred on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, a mere 10 minute walk from Union Square. Pass under the Dragon’s Gate and begin an exciting sensory overload of street markets, hawker stalls, and eateries as you walk around the district, marvelling at the street art along the way.
Begin by visiting China Live located on Broadway, this two storey emporium is filled full of Chinese food, drink, and craft; the perfect one-stop shop if you are short on time in San Francisco. If you can find it down Ross Alley, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory which has been in existence since 1962 is also worth a visit.
When choosing where to eat in Chinatown the possibilities can be overwhelming, from a quick takeaway to a 5* restaurant and everything in between. If you enjoy Dim Sum, make a bee-line for Dim Sum Corner opposite Old St. Mary’s Cathedral where you will be spoilt for choice with any number of delectable bite-size offerings paired with traditional hot tea or contemporary bubble tea.
Dim Sum Corner
After dinner head to Buddha Lounge, just up Grant Avenue, for a nightcap. This kitsch yet cool cocktail bar specialises in Buddha Beer and Chinese Mai Tais so ensure you sample at least one of each! If the plan is to continue the party long into the night, then Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge back on Grant Street is the place of Chinese Karaoke dreams and a guaranteed great night out.
Day Two - Morning
First stop on your second day in San Francisco is the Ferry Building for breakfast, you could choose to walk this downhill route along Market Street, which will take approximately 20 minutes, or you could jump on the F-line streetcar at 5th/Union Square all the way to the end of the line. The Ferry Building Market Place is brimming with history having been the transportation hub for those arriving by train initially during the Gold Rush days and later by ferryboat travelling across the bay.
Nowadays this elegant building is home to an exciting artisan food scene and packed with places to easily pick up breakfast on the go. There is also an on-site farmer’s market every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays that attracts upwards of 40,000 shoppers per week. Enjoy a caffeine hit from Blue Bottle Coffee and a pastry from the Acme Bread Company, both located within the Ferry Building, before making your way out towards the water’s edge. Here you can sit and enjoy views over both the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge as well as out to Alcatraz Island, your next stop.
Prior to your 48hrs in San Francisco, you will have pre-booked your Alcatraz Island ticket to guarantee entry to this popular tourist attraction.
You will need to allow at least 3 hours for the return trip, however on a nice day you could easily spend much longer on the island exploring. The tours depart from Pier 33 Alcatraz Island between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf so allow plenty of time to travel here and come prepared for your trip.
The roads and hills on Alcatraz Island are steep, the ferry can be choppy, and it is advisable to pack enough food and drink for the duration. The weather can also change quickly, and it can be bitterly cold whilst out on the ferry in the bay, so pack layers, sensible shoes, and warm clothes. The advice from locals would be to pre-book the first ferry of the day over to Alcatraz, this departs at approximately 8.45am and will allow you time to experience the island with minimal visitors.
Another tip would be to book a mid afternoon ferry over to the island, so you are returning across the bay at dusk when the city is looking at its prettiest. Whatever time you choose to visit, it is an absolute must either way so factor this into any 48hrs in San Francisco itinerary and work the rest of your trip around it.
You will no doubt be exhausted after your second day exploring San Francisco; if you are departing the ferry from Alcatraz early evening then my advice would be to stay local to Fisherman’s Wharf or the Ferry Building for dinner. Both options offer countless takeaways, cafes, and restaurants with a quick and easy commute back to your hotel afterwards. Applebees Fisherman’s Wharf is a firm favourite; this much-loved neighbourhood grill and bar serves an extensive food and drinks menu to suit all tastes. For something slightly more high-end, the Crabhouse at Pier 39 is home to its signature dish, the ‘Killer Crab’, and spectacular views of the bay area.
After dinner, hop on a trolley bus or streetcar and make your way back towards Union Square from where you can make a pilgrimage to the famous Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop for dessert. Located on the corner of Market Street and New Montgomery Street, the Ghirardelli family have been making chocolate and gelato in the city since they first arrived from Italy back in 1849. Their flagship store is the perfect place to end your 48hrs in San Francisco and a great place to pick up any last minute souvenirs before departing.