A First Timer’s Guide to San Francisco

Hey friends! A few week ago, my husband and I travelled into California to embark on a quintessential American journey down the West Coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Similar to me, you may have this on your bucket list for your upcoming travel.

As a girl originally from the East Coast, I never actually made the journey west and this year seemed like the perfect time to go.

We wanted to see as much as possible with only a few days in each destination. This is because we decided to make our trips shorter but more impactful this year, so it was definitely very fun packed and hectic (in a good way!).

If you are short on days to embark on this type of trip, this itinerary will help to take you around the beautiful city of San Francisco without sacrificing any of the must-see sights in 3-5 days.

One thing to remember is that every neighbourhood in San Francisco has its own flavour. From colourful Victorian houses, cutting-edge start-ups, old-time hippies and an international crowd, at every corner and side street, you are bound to find some pleasant surprises.


Top Things to See and Do in San Francisco

Day One – Embarcadero/Downtown

What to Do:

  • Powell-Hyde Streetcar – Just outside of Embarcadero station, you can hop on to the historical streetcars that roams around the city. Because of its rolling hills, San Francisco can be difficult for those with weak legs. The stretch of Hyde Street is one of the most scenic part of the trip as colourful Victorian houses roll on by like a movie scene.
  • Ferry Building Market – On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays, you can see the foodies from all over San Francisco making their pilgrimage to buy the best local farm produce. This is where Hog Island Oyster Co. is located and Acme Bread for its famous hand-crafted loafs.
  • Alcatraz – In its previous life, it was a federal penitentiary. Now it’s a must-see attraction for both locals and international visitors. Why? You ask. Well, keep your camera in your hand because the views are pretty sweet from Pier 33 on the ferry to the island.


Day Two – The Mission

What used to be a 18th century Spanish Mission area, now the Mission is synonymous with the hipster vibes with superb choices to eat and shop.

What to Do:

  • Mission Dolores Park – Have a picnic! Grab your Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream cones and head to the top of the park where you’ll get one of the best views in the city. Plus you can watch the city and its people at the same time.
  • Valencia Street – If you are still hungry after the picnic, head down to Valencia Street for one of the best brunches in the city at Tartine Bakery. Then after, walk off the lunch by browsing the boutique artisan shops and top up on your second ice cream at Smitten (newly opened on Valencia Street).
  • Balmy Street – Hop into a Lyft to get to this street lined with whimsical murals, from robots to unicorns to political messages. You can pretty much have an Instagram field day here, I guarantee it.


Day Three – Golden Gate Bridge and The Coast

What to Do:

  • Golden Gate Bridge – Rent yourself a bike and ride west along from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are spectacular, you may even want to ride slower to see the sights. The Presidio is a beautiful park with lots of festival and events happening throughout the year.
  • Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 – Stop by for lunch at Boudin Bakery for the must-have clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. Then head out to see the sleep seals sunbathing on the docks. These little sleepy creatures are pretty cute and hilarious to look at as they hop around on the docks.
  • Golden Gate Park – Cycle along the ocean back to the park and you might even spot some buffalos by Spreckels Lake (yes they are in San Francisco!). While you are there, also check out the Japanese Garden which will transport you to a new zen state. Also don’t miss the California Academy of Sciences, which weirdly has its own mini rainforest and aquarium.


Day Trip 1 – Monterey Bay

(Drive from San Francisco to Monterey Bay is 2 hours and 45 minutes.)

What to Do:

  • Santa Cruz Boardwalk – About 2 hours into the drive, you’ll arrive at Santa Cruz, one of the most historical boardwalks in the state. Have a quick game of mini golf before you hop back into the car for the rest of the drive.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium – This is slightly weird of me but I just love aquariums because they transport me to a whole different world. At Monterey Bay, this is the biggest aquarium on the West Coast of America. It is also home to the Pixar movie, Finding Dory. The best part is lunch at the inside cafe, where you’ll get a pair of binoculars to look out at the sea life next to your table. You can easily spend several hours here.


Day Trip 2 – Sonoma County and Muir Woods

(Drive from San Francisco to Muir Woods is 40 minutes and then another 40 minutes to Sonoma Valley. Total journey is about 1 hour and 20 minutes.)

What to Do:

  • Muir Woods – Considered a national monument, this beautiful park is known for its towering old-growth redwood trees. The air is so fresh here that you’ll want to bottle it up to take home. Come here early before the crowds arrive!
  • Jacuzzi Winery – You that famous hot tub company that is now known as Jacuzzi? Well, this family business decided to launch a winery as well. They are pretty good at it too. Make sure to climb the 2 stories watchtower for the best picturesque view you’ll ever see.


Thanks to San Francisco Travel for collaborating on this trip with us, and to the partners we worked with on this trip:

We had a blast and can’t wait to return again!

A useful guide for your first trip to San Francisco and the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. 3 day itinerary in San Francisco, travel tips to San Francisco

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