One day in San Francisco – the easiest itinerary to enjoy the best of the city
The amount of things you can see and do in one day in San Francisco can be surprising when you plan it in advance.
Unfortunately, many travellers overload their day in the San Francisco, hoping to cover as many places as possible and take countless pictures.
This is something I would not recommend because at the end of the day, you will feel exhausted and with a confused recollection of the visited attractions.
Having only 24 hours in the Golden City, I would recommend instead focusing on the most iconic sites on the north side of the city
Most of the attractions in this area are within walking distance of one another, or easily accessible by public transportation.
At the end of the post you will find also a map that you can print/save/share for your reference.
It contains all the sites that any visitor to the Golden City should include on their bucket list.
Let’s begin the journey.
Table of Contents
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- 14 Best places to visit in San Francisco Bay Area
I would recommend starting the day from Pier 39, in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
There is a shopping area as well as a few popular tourist attractions built on top of a pier.
This is where you can see a colony of sea lions lying on the docks taking a sunbath (popular in the afternoon)
Fun fact, the majority of the California sea lions at Pier 39 are male.
Pier 39 is an excellent place to learn more about sea lions, well known for their intelligence and playfulness.
It became an iconic viewing area after a group of sea lions ‘hauled out’ after an earthquake back in 1989.
As a result, it soon became a marine mammal protection zone.
The number of sea lions at the pier stood at 1,701 by 1990.
You will be able to enjoy interactive displays, videos, and other types of presentations about the life of California Sea Lions at the Pier 39 Sea Lion Viewing Area.
Aquarium of the Bay
You’re not done with Pier 39. The Aquarium of the Bay, home to 20,000 animals, is the other must-experience attraction.
See otters, hypnotic jellyfish, sharks, rays, and many other animals of the sea.
Touch pools and tunnels allow you to experience the wonders of aquatic life.
Great features of this place are the 300 feet of acrylic tunnels, such as the Near Shore Tunnel and the Sharks of Alcatraz tunnel
There are touchpools and bay labs where you can get up close to rays and other animals.
Looking for more experiences?
The Moon Jellies are displayed in a large cylinder tank at the center of the aquarium, and the Pacific Sea Nettles are installed on the wall. So much to see!
As you can imagine, this is a popular attraction. On weekends and school holidays, it is highly recommended to book your tickets in advance.
This is the most popular area for visitors in San Francisco, and for a good reason, there are so many attractions around like:
- the Musée Mécanique, famous for the vintage coin-operated pianos, animations, various bird boxes and unique slot machines
- the Museum of 3D Illusions, well known for its unique 3D illusions
- the Madame Tussauds Museum, renowned for the excellent wax replicas of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other American legends
The entire area gets quite busy from around 11am on.
Ferry tour and Alcatraz Island
The ferry tour in the San Francisco Bay should be on everyone’s must-do list even if you have just one day in San Francisco.
As part of the trip, you will also get closer to, or even inside, Alcatraz, the prison made famous by so many movies.
Being a quite popular attraction, you will find out that some dates can be sold out days or weeks in advance
I would recommend booking tickets online to avoid the queues and be certain that you will do the tour during your stay.
You can take a boat trip of 60 minutes to go under the Golden Gate bridge and then see Alcatraz (but from a distance)
You can also choose a 90-minutes boat trip which will circumnavigate Alcatraz Island.
Alternatively, you can book this 4-hour Alcatraz Tour if you’re interested in seeing the prison inside as well as a guided tour of Fisherman’s Wharf area
San Francisco Maritime National Park
Keep walking west (direction of the Golden Gate Bridge) and you will reach the San Francisco Maritime National Park where you can take some nice photos of the city skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is quite a sizeable area, including a museum with interactive displays and a few historical vessels, all describing the story of sea travel.
There is also a man-made beach, great for a swim in those hot days.
Cable Car experience
Another thing that you must do while in San Francisco is to jump onto the Cable Car which is the world’s last manually operated cable car system.
This is an experience that can’t be missed on a one day in San Francisco itinerary.
It is also a good way to see the city from a different perspective and quite a fun too.
It does not have windows, which is perfect if you want to capture some amazing photos.
I would recommend to get the cable car from the station near the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and go all the way to the city Downtown.
The Golden Gate Bridge
There are many ways to experience the Golden Gate bridge.
The first way is by ferry, as explained previously. The ferry goes under the bridge itself and you will get in the background the story of this iconic structure.
The second possibility is to drive over it and go on the other side of the bridge at one of the many viewpoints for a few photos.
In saying that, if you do not have already a car I would personally not suggest renting one for just this short trip.
Rent instead an e-bike and ride on top of it to the other side of the bridge.
It is going to be a slower trip, and for this reason you will get to enjoy it even more
It is a unique experience, and you have the possibility of stopping from time to time for a few photos.
Keep in mind that it can be windy over the bridge and this is why I suggest an e-bike over the usual push bike.
The last possibility is to join an organised tour, however it will be less of a unique experience.
Do you still have some spare time?
Otherwise, you could explore Chinatown, one of the oldest in the world
Are you after a completely different experience, more characteristic of San Francisco?
Photos of one day in San Francisco
This post was written in collaboration with Victor Rodriguez, our US expert