Last updated on April 25, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, following extensive travelling in San Francisco

San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days – 3 routes with self-guided walks

One size does not fit all.

In this guide, there is not only one San Francisco itinerary for 4 or 5 days, but 3 of them to suit families, couples, or a bit of everything with free walks and activities

There is no much point in suggesting the Children Museum to couples or a romantic sunset cruise to small kids.

The third San Francisco itinerary, with a bit of everything, works very well for adults and active couples.

Without further ado, let’s dig into it.

You can read also

San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days – In a nutshell

Having 4 or 5 days in San Francisco will give you the possibility to explore beyond the city, into the Bay area.

There are so many amazing destinations easily reachable from the city. 

I am thinking here of the Muir Redwood Forest or the wine countries of Sonoma and Napa Valley, or why not a trip to the nearby Oakland and I could keep going with so many things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area.

San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days
San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days

I this guide I have marked Day 5 as optional, to bypass (or swap) if you stay 4 days in San Francisco.

  • San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days for couples: San Francisco can be such a romantic city. So many oustanding viewpoints, hidden corners and secret lanes and alleys full of street art and murals. Discover the Mission District, explore Chinatown, enjoy Little Italy. If you can afford it, have a helicopter trip over the city with your partner, a ride that you will remember forever. Read below a detailed plan for 3 days in San Francisco for couples
  • San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days for families: You can have a real blast with your kids in San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to start and possibly sleep. There are activities and museums planned for kids and loved by adults like the Exploratorium, the Children’s Creativity Museum or the Zoo. But there is so much more to never get bored in the Golden City. Read more below for the best family itinerary with day-by-day activities
  • For a bit of everything: Still not happy with all the options above. In this itinerary I mix a bit of everything, art, culture, little gems, unusual spots and some active time. Read below for more details

Here below, a Google Map with lots of things to do and places to see that I have organised and shared for you to use in this 4 or 5 days San Francisco itinerary.

Things to do in San Francisco
Things to do in San Francisco – Check the shared Google Map for all the attractions

San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days for couples

Day 1

Start your trip to San Francisco visiting the Mission District, usually called just The Mission.

This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, enclave of the Mexican-American community.

You will notice the Central and South American influence in many aspects of The Mission life, from the churches to the tasty restaurants, from the shops to the street art.

I have drafted a full self-guided walk of the Mission District with 10 stops that you should not miss.

I have included a few interesting and bohemian shops, like the Pirate Supply Store and Paxton Gate, as well as the unique Peephole Street Cinema and, of course, a couple of eateries and restaurants.

You can also decide to join a food tour with 6 stops in The Mission, a unique way to taste and enjoy the local Mexican-American culture.

Food tour in The Mission

Mission District Walking Tour - Self Guided
Mission District Walking Tour – Self Guided

In the afternoon, you can visit one of the oldest gay neighborhoods in the USA, The Castro.

This is an eclectic and multicultural area with the own center in the GLBT Historical Society Museum.

Through dynamic and surprising exhibitions, the museum highlights San Francisco’s rich history and culture of homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgenders.

For a better understanding of the area and the queer movement in San Francisco, world famous in the 70s and 80s, you should join this LGBTQ Castro Walking Tour.

Alternatively, head to Union Square for some shopping and have a stroll in the unique Salesforce Elevated Park.

Day 2

The second day will be more dedicated to the north side of the city.

Start with a stroll in Chinatown, you can use my self-guided itinerary with 10 stops, including a handy map.

Begin your walk from the Golden Gate, just off downtown San Francisco, to finish in Columbus Avenue, the gateway to Little Italy.

There are a few interesting places to see and visit along the walk, including a break for a drink at the characteristic Li Po Cocktail Loung

You can also think of joining a culinary walk where you will get much more information about the Chinese culture and cuisine.

For lunch, you can either stay in Chinatown, or walk a few hundred meters on the Columbus Avenue to Little Italy, where you will find two iconic places, the Liguria Bakery, for a take-away focaccia, and the Piccolo Forno Restaurant.

In the afternoon, head to North Beach through the Pioneer Park.

This is actually quite a steep hill that you can hike to the top to access the Coit Tower, one of the best viewpoint in San Francisco.

Take your way down through the Greenwich steps, between a lush vegetation and lovely houses.

Once down in the pier area, take a boat to tour the bay, including some navigation under the Golden Gate Bridge.

You can select between a 60-minute and a 90-minute boat trip, which includes also the circumnavigation of the Alcatraz Island.

90 Minutes Boat Trip     1 hour boat trip

San Francisco - Chinatown walking tour
San Francisco – Chinatown walking tour

Day 3

Start the day on a high with a helicopter tour of San Francisco, the best way to see the city from the top.

The flight lasts around 20 minutes and you will get to see and experience so much, one of the best tours you can get in San Francisco.

A couple of tips here.

Try to make it as early in the morning as possible (usually they start at 10am). This is the time of the day with less wind.

You can also take a small flight to see the city and the bay from the top. It is a great idea, but the helicopter gives a more stable experience.

The flight, the transportation etc will keep you busy for the entire morning.

In the afternoon, head to the beautiful Golden Gate Park for a walk and a visit to the local Botanical Garden.

If you have time, you can also contemplate of visiting the de Young Museum, famous for its contemporary and modern art exhibitions.

To close the day, go for a sunset drink at the Beach Chalet Brewery, on the western side of the park, right on the beach. Food is also available.

Day 4

This is going to be an active, however comfortable, day out of San Francisco.

Rent an e-bike and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to the other side of the bay.

The E-bike is such a convenient way to explore the city.

It easily overcomes the effort to ride the (in)famous San Francisco hills especially with windy conditions, so typical over the bridge.

Make your way to the Battery Point observation deck for a few great shots and memories.

If you do not feel tired, ride west and follow the Conzelman Road for more spectacular viewpoints.

Then turn back and make your way into the east coast down to Sausalito a lovely village where you can easily spend the afternoon before getting the ferry back to San Francisco.

Keep in mind that the ferries have a first-in first served policy for the bikes.

Close your day in San Francisco with a sunset cruise in the bay.

Sunset Cruise   

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Battery Spencer viewpoint
View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Battery Spencer viewpoint

Before going into day 5, here are a few accommodations that are perfect for couples and the organised experiences I have suggested here for couples

Day 5 (optional)

Close your vacation in San Francisco on a day trip to one of many places to experience in the San Francisco Bay.

My favourite 2 destinations are:

You can visit both of them on your own, with a rented car, or you can join an organised Winery Tour or Muir trekking tour

Sonoma & Napa Valley    Muir Trekking Day

Walking in the Muir Woods National Monument
Walking in the Muir Woods National Monument

I have written a full post on day and half-fay trips to destinations in the San Francisco Bay.

I have included 14 easy to get places that you can visit on your own on the ferry, a rented car and you can join an organised tour.

Best places in the San Francisco Bay

Best places to visit in San Francisco Bay Area [Unique, Outdoor, Couples, Families]
Best places to visit in San Francisco Bay Area [Unique, Outdoor, Couples, Families]

San Francisco itinerary in 4 or 5 days for families

Day 1 

What a better place to start your family vacation than the Fisherman’s Wharf, the most popular area of San Francisco for kids.

Why?

Because of the many attractions so beloved by the kids.

Start your exploration from the bottom end of Pier 39 where you will see the massive Sea Lions sunbathing. 

Then step into the Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze for some fun with the children.

For a few selfies, you should not miss the unique Museum of 3D Illusions and for a few photos next to famous musicians, actors and politicians, step into the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

I have designed an exhaustive self-guided walk in North Beach with maps and attractions that you should check before heading there

To close the day, why not taking a boat trip into the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge?

You have a 60-minute option or go for the 90-minute boat trip that includes the circumnavigation of the Alcatraz island too.

To make it inside the prison, join this 4-hour Tour that includes a guided tour of the Fisherman’s Wharf area, a real no worries experience.

4-hour Tour with Alcatraz    90 Minutes Boat Trip     1 hour boat trip

Little Italy and North Beach walking tour
Little Italy and North Beach walking tour

Day 2 

I always love when I talk with my kid, and he reminds me of that trip or those experiences.

Even more when he says “Oh, I remember that, I learned it in that museum..

Day 2 is going to be busy with 2 museums that will stimulate the creative side of your children: the Exploratorium and the Children’s Creativity Museum.

Visit the Exploratorium in the morning (avoid the queue and buy your tickets in advance).

The aim of the museum is to explain children and adults the dynamic of the world through exhibits, digital installations and webcasts.

There are both indoor and outdoor galleries where, for example, you will understand the perception of light and colours, or you will create a rainstorm.

You could easily spend the entire day inside, and in this case, you can have your lunch at the local restaurant.

I suggest, before travelling to San Francisco, to check out the museum calendar. They always have special events and exhibitions.

Are you done with the Exploratorium and ready for another experience?

Have a walk to the downtown area, however, stop first at Pier 7 for the beautiful view of the city buildings.

Then keep walking a few hundred yards to have lunch at The Bird (crispy chicken and chips).

This restaurant not only offers delicious food at a reasonable price but it’s also so close to the next destination, the Children’s Creativity Museum.

As the name implies, this is a museum dedicated to the stimulation of the children’s creativity with exhibitions and activities organised over 2 floors.

The ground floor is for the little ones, meanwhile the first floor is dedicated to the grown-ups with robotic and computer related work.

And for the little ones, don’t miss a round on the LeRoy King Carousel, over 100 years old and still working so well (runs are not included in the museum ticket)

View from Pier 7 to the SoMa and Union Square area
View from Pier 7 to the SoMa and Union Square area

Day 3 

Nothing beats family time at the Zoo and you can have a day in the wild at the San Francisco Zoo.

It started in 1846 as a grizzly bear haven  but was shut down to give way for development.

It was then reopened in the 1940s and has been a favourite tour spot for over 800,000 annual guests.

The zoo is home to almost 2,000 exotic animals and sits on 100 acres of land near the ocean. 

There are about 7 zones in the zoo that you can visit.

The African zone has animals like giraffes, zebras, kudus and so much more.

There is the Outback trail that has animals from the Land Down Under like Koalas and Kangaroos.

You can also check out the Cat Kingdom where you can see tigers,lions and leopards.

Both kids and adults can learn more about these exotic animals as well as more about wildlife conservation.

There is also a steam train, carousels and more exhibitions for you to enjoy. 

Dedicate your day to the zoo visit because there is so much you can experience there.

Just make sure you carry enough water and snacks – and wear comfortable shoes for the walk!

If visiting in the weekends or during the school holidays, you should consider buying your tickets in advance to skip the long queues.

Zoo tickets

Lovely kangaroo with her little one
Lovely kangaroo with her little one

Day 4

On this day, we will explore a couple of unique places in San Francisco.

The first one being the San Francisco Performing Arts Centre.

It is considered one of the top attractions in the area and is perfect for lovers of opera and ballet.

The arts museum has 6 halls that you can visit and marvel at. This is the home of the San Francisco Ballet and Opera.

Who knows, you might get a chance to watch one of the many heartwarming performances held there.

Spend your afternoon at the San Francisco Railway Museum.

We know that the kids and, to be honest, many adults, will be excited about it.

It’s located in the South Market area. It’s directly opposite the Ferry Building if you want to venture out to Alcatraz Island.

What makes this small museum perfect for families is that kids can experience the train life in the life-size streetcar.

They can learn about the history of trains and the railway during the tour.

It’s free entry for all. 

View of Treasure Island and San Francisco in the background
View of Treasure Island and San Francisco in the background

Before going into day 5, here are a few accommodations that are perfect for families and the organised experiences I have suggested here for families

Accommodations and experiences for families:

Day 5 (optional)

Spend a day at Pier 39 and visit the sea lions and the Aquarium of the Bay.

Start your day at the Aquarium of the Bay (buy the skip the queue tickets here) and experience sea life in a safe space.

There are 300-foot long tunnels which allow visitors to walk through and see the beautiful sea creatures in their habitat.

There are 3 main exhibitions for you to check out which include jellyfish, rays, otters and Sevengill sharks.

There are large tanks in the aquarium lobby as well as touch pools in the aquarium where you can touch and play with the rays and sharks – safely, of course.

While you are at Pier 39, you can visit the sea lions colony and experience them in their habitat.

Also operated by the Aquarium of the Bay, the Sea Lion Centre lets families learn more about the creatures.

There are video presentations and interactive displays that you can enjoy while at the centre.

End your day by visiting the shops and numerous eateries along the pier.

The famous Sea Lions at Pier 39
The famous Sea Lions at Pier 39

4 or 5 days for a bit of everything

Day 1

Start your vacation in the city on a high with a helicopter trip over San Francisco and under the Golden Gate Bridge, a unique experience.

It will take you the entire morning, including transfer, a short debrief and, of course, the flight itself.

After lunch, head to the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Founded in 1935, this was the first contemporary art museum on the west coast of the USA.

Following a re-design and refurbishment lasted 3 years and finished in 2016, the SFMOMA reopened with triple the space, or 170,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space fully dedicated to its extensive collection of art pieces.

You will be happy to know that almost a third of the museum is free to enter, mostly the permanent collections. Great if you are on a budget trip.

Exhibitions include works of architecture, design, photography, media arts and paintings.

You can easily spend the entire day there and even have your lunch inside, at the acclaimed cafe.

This is the most popular museum for contemporary art in SF and it is not unusual to experience long queues at the entrance, especially on weekends (buy your tickets in advance here)

The only drawback is that Wednesday is closed, time it right.

View of Little Italy from the Coit Tower
View of Little Italy from the Coit Tower

Day 2

Rent an ebike for a real loop of San Francisco. 

You could do the same even with public transportation, but it would take much more time.

I have added a map below with the full route.

Start your day from the Fisherman’s Wharf area with a trip to the Presidio where you can visit The Palace Of Fine Arts, originally built over 100 years ago as a temporary monument and rebuilt over 50 years ago in the form that you can experience it today. 

The view from outside is magnificent…..and free.

Keep riding to the Golden Gate Overview, an awesome viewpoint of the bridge from the west side.

You could also ride over the bridge with the bike, however, if you decide to go on a day of trekking to the Muir Redwood Forest on Day 4, you would end up on the same spots.

Next, it’s time for a beautiful view and some relaxing time at China Beach.

For coffee and lunch, head to Home Coffee Roasters, a favourite of the locals also for its healthy food.

Keep riding through the Golden Gate Park to two iconic artistic stairways, the Hidden Garden Steps and the Mosaic Stairway, both great spots for a few photos.

Hopefully, you had some sugar on your coffee break because you will need that for the climb up to Twin Peaks on Christmas Tree Point

This is the spot with the best view of San Francisco and the Bay.

Head down through the Castro area, famous for its LGBT movement back in the 70s and 80s and still very active.

You can visit the GLBT Historical Society Museum for more of an insight

Next stop is Alamo square where you will get to see the Painted Ladies, the Victorian houses in different colors with the downtown in the background, filmed so many times in movies and TV serials.

If you are in need of more caffeine, have a stop at The Mill, another great spot for coffee, very popular with the locals.

Make your way back to North Beach through Japantown first, and then Chinatown.

As a last stop ride down the popular Lombard Street, famous for its switchbacks.

You could do this loop even with a push bike, however, it is going to be tough because of the hills, sometimes steep, and the occasional head wind, not as uncommon in San Francisco.

The ride is roughly 20 miles long. Make sure that the bike battery has enough capacity.

If tired, or the battery is running low, cut the Twin Peaks and Chinatown to save miles and energy (especially for the Christmas Tree Point).

Rent an e-bike

San Francisco Ride
San Francisco Ride – Check and download the Google Map

Day 3

This is going to be a day dedicated to the eclectic, bohemian and multicultural part of San Francisco.

In the morning, have an exploration of the Mission District, where you can have your Mexican inspired lunch.

In the afternoon, head down to the nearby Castro neighborhood, famous for its queer movement in the 70s and still well alive today.

Go back to Day 1 for couples for a full description of the day.

Wandering around the small lanes of the Mission District
Wandering around the small lanes of the Mission District

Day 4

Use the last 2 days to go beyond the San Francisco city borders.

For an off-the-beaten-path destination, have a check at Treasure Island, easily reachable from downtown with a quick 10 minutes bus ride.

This is a man-made island originally built to host the city airport but repurposed to host the navy only till a few years ago.

The islands is getting more famous with the locals thanks to its regular quirky market, wine and spirit tasting, and the possibility of renting equipment for sailing and SUP.

You can read more about Treasure Island on my latest guide, with information on how to get there besides other things to do.

Treasure Island (San Francisco) things to do
Treasure Island (San Francisco) things to do

For a day of trekking, you should make your way by rented car to the Muir Redwood Forest.

This is an impressive National Park with massive century-old trees, a place that you will remember for a long time.

Having a rented can will allow you also to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge as well as have a detour along the west coast for the never ending viewpoints of San Francisco.

You can also decide to join an organised tour that will take you to Muir and Sausalito for a no worries experience.

Or why not killing two birds with one stone by booking this day-long tour to Muir and the wine country? Such an amazing experience.

Muir Woods Trip    Muir + Wine Country

Walking in the Muir Woods National Monument
Walking in the Muir Woods National Monument

 

Before going into day 5, here are a few accommodations that are perfect for everyone and the organised experiences I have suggested in this section

  •  

Day 5 (optional)

Leave the last day for two unusual day trips.

For a techie day, organise a day out to the Silicon Valley.

This is where you will see the headquarters of the famous Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple and I could keep going

Unfortunately, you will be able to enter only in the tech park of Apple, meanwhile all the other companies are not accessible, but you will be able to take a few photos from the outside.

Once in the area you should not miss also:

Join this organised tour to see the area if you do not like the idea to rent your car for the day. Usually they accept special request in case you are after a specific company.

Tour to Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley - Apple Park
Silicon Valley – Apple Park

If you made it as far as San Francisco, why not having a day trip to the nearby city of Oakland.

The trip takes only 15 minutes by Metro Rail, but the two cities are so different.

The two most representative and interesting areas to visit are Temescal & Rockridge.

Temescal is more of the trendy place to go, meanwhile Rockridge is the foodie destination.

Downtown Oakland seen from across Lake Merritt
Downtown Oakland seen from across Lake Merritt
The popular Fisherman's Wharf
The popular Fisherman’s Wharf
View of Alcatraz Island from San Francisco piers
View of Alcatraz Island from San Francisco piers
 City view on a beautiful sunny morning
City view on a beautiful sunny morning
Beautiful tams of San Francisco - A real experience
Beautiful tams of San Francisco – A real experience
The iconic tram ride in San Francisco
The iconic tram ride in San Francisco
Walking in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco
Walking in the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco
Dragon Gate in Chinatown
Dragon Gate in Chinatown
Chnatown - Wandering around the shops
Chinatown – Wandering around the shops
The Coit Tower, the Art Deco tower in Pioneer Park
The Coit Tower, the Art Deco tower in Pioneer Park
View of Little Italy from the Coit Tower
View of Little Italy from the Coit Tower
The famous Sea Lions at Pier 39
The famous Sea Lions at Pier 39
The Palace Of Fine Arts - Presidio
The Palace Of Fine Arts – Presidio
View of San Fran from Treasure Island (Yerba Buena Island).
View of San Fran from Treasure Island (Yerba Buena Island).
Treasure Island Museum
Treasure Island Museum
Womens Building in Mission District
Womens Building in Mission District
View of Treasure Island and San Francisco in the background
View of Treasure Island and San Francisco in the background
Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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