With so much to see and do, a weekend in San Francisco seems like hardly enough time. Contributor Lori Tripoli offers an itinerary and suggestions for making the best of the time you have!
Ever stood at the San Francisco waterfront looking at that big island in the bay and wondered how many times you will visit the city without venturing to Alcatraz? Some of us have.
A handful of visits over the years for work with a day or two tacked on to see what I could yielded mostly a hodgepodge of results. Yes, I’d made my way to the giant firehose nozzle that is called Coit Tower, driven down and walked up the corkscrew of Lombard Street (admittedly, not the most logical of choices), and practiced being carefree and full of flower power during a stay at the Red Victorian on Haight Street. But I hadn’t been to Alcatraz or to the Presidio or anything.
But how many times am I going to go to places just to skip popular destinations because they are so touristy? It was time to see the sights in San Francisco. Here is how to maximize your mileage and see as much as you can in a weekend.
Select your lodging based on locale
On this adventure, I chose the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake just up from Union Square. Named for the English vice admiral who landed in California in the 1500s, the hotel happens to be conveniently sited at a streetcar stop that will take passengers to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Another good choice is the nearby Hotel Triton, right next to the Chinatown Gate. This proximity made our search for the perfect bubble tea an easy walk. My favorite is the tapioca tea I found in Café New Honolulu, the sort of place where the menus are mostly in a language not my own and the patrons seem not remotely to be tourists. In short, it was perfect!
Get a bird’s eye view in the Starlight Room
Our first destination was within easy reach; we just needed to shoot up to the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake’s 21st floor to the somewhat faded glory of the Starlight Room. Here, we enjoyed a quick cocktail and panoramic views of the city while feeling nostalgia for the ‘70s thanks to the disco ball hovering over the dance floor.
Economizing once again on our commute time, we had dinner at Scala’s Bistro, located at street level in the Drake. Indulge in the ‘Bostini’ Cream Pie, a twist on the classic, for dessert! Being a tourist is easy.
Visit the wharf, prison, and water in a whirlwind
With a noon-time departure for Alcatraz on our schedule, we headed to Fisherman’s Wharf in the morning and beat the crowds at the Aquarium of the Bay by getting there when it opened. With a little time to kill afterward, we cruised the shops on Pier 39 and ate a savory breakfast at the Crepe Café before boarding our boat to Alcatraz over at Pier 33.
Our audio tour of “the Rock” (Alcatraz) added context to the rows of cells we observed. Once home to the likes of Al Capone, the facility to some of us did not quite seem to live up to its reputation. Cells, for the most part, were singles. If you have to do time, having your own room on an island seems not such a bad place to pass the years.
Upon return to the mainland, we barely had time for a Ben & Jerry’s cone before boarding a Blue & Gold Fleet boat tour for an hour-long bay cruise that took us past the sea lions on Pier 39 and beneath the Golden Gate bridge. Afterward, we grabbed some lobster rolls at the Crab Station before visiting Madame Tussauds for some campy fun.
Catch up on an evening bus tour
Our day was still not done! Next we opted for the Panoramic Night Tour on the open deck of a double-decker bus, courtesy of Big Bus San Francisco. We looped around the city, learned where Irish coffee was invented, observed some intriguing new architecture, and headed to Treasure Island, just off the Bay Bridge, and back before calling it a night.
Find a Disney without a line
On our last full day, we retrieved our car and headed to the Presidio, a long-time military installation that is now a multi-use national park and home to businesses and museums. At the Walt Disney Family Museum, we learned about the big risks taken and a few career setbacks experienced by the creator of the happiest place on Earth. Satisfied that we had seen as much as we could in the short time we had, we headed to Morton’s The Steakhouse (well-prepared veggies there are great for herbivores!) for one last indulgent dinner before catching an early morning flight home.
IF YOU GO
Plan your transportation and agenda beforehand
- San Francisco is a very walkable city, but one that also happens to feature some very steep hills. Getting about on foot is great for cardio, but on this trip, we decided to get around in a mix of ways—a little bit car, a little bit public transportation, a little bit of self-power. The city has also been described as a great place to drive but a terrible place to park. As such, we opted for a hotel that offers valet parking.
- Because the city gets some 25 million visitors and convention participants in a year, we planned this trip ahead of time to make sure we would be able to get into our must-sees. The big lure on this visit was Alcatraz; once we purchased our tickets online, we built much of the rest of our schedule around that activity.
- For even more convenience and to economize a bit, we got a San Francisco CityPass, which gave us unlimited use of cable cars and Muni transportation as well as access to some sites.
Bring a sweater!
- San Francisco can be quite a windy city, even more so when you are on a boat or an open-air double-decker bus.
Disclosure: The San Francisco Travel Association provided partial support for the author’s visit.