48 Hours in San Francisco ~ The Ultimate Bucket List Itinerary
San Francisco is full of excitement, and the cultural, commercial and financial heart of Northern California. My daughter’s family now calls this area home, so it was time for me to pack my bags and check out the town sometimes called Paris of the West for myself!
San Francisco’s famous iconic landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, lure nearly 17 million visitors to the city every year. These world-renowned spots are worth visiting even if you’ve lived there for years.
But that’s not all! There is so much to see and do in the San Francisco Bay area you could easily spend weeks here trying to see everything. Don’t you wish you had that much time off? I know I do!
Even if you have just a short time to spend in San Francisco, take a look at this bucket list worthy itinerary and discover for yourself the many adventures San Francisco offers.
If you don’t want to hassle with driving in San Francisco traffic, check out these public transportation options.
Cruise San Francisco Bay
Make your way to the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf and take a sunset cruise through San Francisco Bay. This one is a no brainer, as a bay cruise is one of the favorite attractions in San Francisco.
Two-hour sunset cruises take you across San Francisco Bay with outstanding views of the city skyline, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Sausalito. Enjoy a light appetizer buffet and a choice of beverages from the bar. Relax and unwind from a busy work week as you listen to the captain’s live commentary and watch the spectacular sunset or select a twilight cruise during winter months.
Take a Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
The world’s most photographed bridge and its iconic 746-foot tall towers have watched over San Francisco Bay since 1937.
Even when shrouded in fog, the Golden Gate Bridge never fails to impress. The view is spectacular, whether you get a glimpse from the city (try Crissy Field, Fort Point and Baker Beach for best vistas), the Marin Headlands or by passing over its span – bikes and cars are permitted access across the bridge 24-hours a day while pedestrians can cross between 5:00 am – 6:30 pm.
Alcatraz Island Tour
Converted from a lighthouse station to a military prison in the 1870s, this formidable fortress sits 1.5 miles offshore in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It was home to the most notorious criminals during the early 20thcentury, such as Al Capone (Scarface) and Machine Gun Kelly.
Today, visitors travel to “The Rock” via ferry from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Once there, the 45-minute, self-guided audio cell house tour is narrated by former inmates and guards and shares details of harrowing escape attempts, prison riots, and the 19-month long occupation by Native Americans who demanded reparation for broken treaties in 1969.
Watch a Baseball Game with the Giants
AT&T Park is home to the San Francisco Giants, the revered professional baseball team where the Class A affiliate Augusta Greenjackets players hope to one day play.
A classic urban ballpark with an old-time feel and amenities of a modern ballpark, the stadium sits right on San Francisco Bay. You won’t be disappointed when you head out to AT&T Park and enjoy its breathtaking views.
The San Francisco Giants were originally the New York Gotham’s before moving to San Francisco in 1958. They have won the World Series 8 times, the most recent being in 2014.
Hang Out with Sea Lions at Pier 39
After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, animated, barking California sea lions began “hauling out” on K dock at Pier 39. It remains a mystery why they chose this location but the protected bay, teeming with an abundant food source of fish and squid that seals prefer, has kept them coming back to this spot year after year.
Watch the group, which is mostly made up of younger males, frolic all year-long from the wooden walkway behind Pier 39. Weather permitting, listen to the on-site naturalist who provides commentary and answers questions daily between 11:00 am and 4:00 pm.
While the number of sea lions at K dock rise and fall with the seasons, available food supply and natural migration patterns, the world-famous sea lions always have a home at Pier 39.
Hike the Presidio Trails
If you want to experience the area’s pristine natural spaces but don’t have enough time to explore neighboring Marin County, the Presidio is the perfect alternative.
This park is perfectly situated at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, affording incredible views from nearly every vantage point. In addition to stunning landscapes, the Presidio features 12 scenic hiking trails that vary from easy to challenging, taking hikers through a beautiful coastal forest and the Marin Headlands.
Get Your Chocolate On
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a visit to Ghirardelli Square. Unique shops and restaurants are housed within the old factory, combining the latest in retailing and fine cuisine with the flavor of old San Francisco. The project officially opened in November 1964.
Today, Ghirardelli delights visitors with its lively retail mix, while maintaining Ghirardelli’s tradition as a trendsetter for the rest of the world. In 1982 the owners applied for and were granted National Historic Register status, a move that ensured the preservation of Ghirardelli Square for future generations.
If you need even more suggestions of epic things to do in San Francisco, check out other terrific options here.
Have you been to San Francisco? What else should be added to this list of things to see and do? Let me know in a comment below.
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How perfect! I’m off to the west coast in 1 week and stopping in SF for 48h!! Perfect timing! Xx
Sweet! Have a great time Sarah!
I can’t wait to travel back to San Francisco. This post brought back so many memories of my previous trip here.
That’s great! San Francisco is a wonderful place to spend a few days…or longer!
San Francisco is on my bucket list! This was so helpful to know which places are a must.
This is a great write up. I trily went from activity to activity thinking “Yes, I wanna do that!” Especially viewing the sea lions. I could for sure kill 4 hours just watching them!
Yay! I’m glad you found things that are of interest. 🙂
I love San Francisco – I’ve only been twice and both times were just for a few jam-packed days. I especially loved the Alcatraz tour – so interesting.
I’ve never been to San Francisco but would love to go! Looks like you did a lot of fun activities there!
This is an awesome list. I’m impressed that you were able to do so much in two days. That sunset cruise sounds dreamy, and I definitely want to see the sea lions next time I visit!
I had no idea San Francisco was called the Paris of the West. Great suggestions. I went there years ago for work meeting, but would love to go back with my kids. You give great suggestions. Thank you for sharing ideas while there for 48 hours.
A couple of years ago my daughter had a weekend gymnastics meet in SF, we did many of the things you mentioned!
It has been many years since we visited. I would love to Hang Out with Sea Lions at Pier 39.
So lovely places to visit! San Francisco sure seems to be an interesting city to visit…
I was their for a weekend wedding a few years back and did everything on this list except the sunset cruise that would have been amazing, about how much do they run $$$ and is it just the two of you or a group?
Can’t believe you did so much in 48 hours!
Awesome guide! I will definitely use it the next time i visit SF 🙂
I’ve been to San Fran. I was a child though and don’t remember much. I do remember the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. We definitely want to get over there in the future.
When viewed from the bridge, the distance from Alcatraz to the mainland doesn’t look very far. SInce few escapes were able to swim and survive, it’s farther than it looks, and of course the freezing cold water played a big part in that too.
Beautiful post and beautiful city. Love the Golden Gate Bridge.
Dennis, my daughter and I walked the bridge with my 5 week only granddaughter in the stroller. It was crazy!! In a good way though. 🙂
Looks fantastic! Great pics!
Wish I’d see this post before I went last Thursday afternoon. One place I would add it the Beach Chalet at Golden State Park. They have a Beer Garden, but upstairs, the views are breath-taking. Also, The Commissary restaurant at The Presidio offers kitchen bar seating where you can interact with the chefs while the design their creations. And the food is phenomenal.
Excellent suggestions Cathy! The next time I visit, I will check these out. Thank you for suggesting them!
San Francisco is always fun! This looks like the perfect 48 hours!
Agreed! Jam-packed, but still doable in 48 hours.
San Francisco is one of my favorite cities – I can’t wait to return. The Alcatraz tour is one of my favorite things to do! It’s really great for all ages, so interesting – creepy and historical!
The audio tour is definitely creepy when you realized the perspective of the guards and prisoners. You’re right though, everyone can enjoy something about visiting Alcatraz.
Neat! I love a short guide to a city. Sometimes when I travel I don’t get a whole lot of time in one place. IF I’m in an area – I want to hit all the important things and experience the real city/town/state. Thanks for this guide. I’m bookmarking it for the next time I’m in California. Do you have one on Boston – by any chance?
Meg, my visits to many places are short but oh, so sweet. I went to Boston when I was returning from my climb up Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. I will be posting a 48 hour guide for Boston very soon.
I have always wanted to visit San Fran. I’m definitely going to try all of these when I get there, thanks!
I hope you get to visit soon Stephanie!
So many of my favorite places in this post! A couple years ago, a coworker and I were traveling to Palo Alto, but since we beat the rest of our group by a couple hours, we took our rental into SF and went straight to Ghiradelli. Love that place!
Sweet! In more ways than one!
Wonderful! I have never been to SF either, but you really brought it to life!
Thank you Cyndi!
My family is coming to San Francisco next year… We will definitely keep these in mind!
I hope your family has a wonderful visit!
Sea Lions are my favorite! When I finally make it out to San Fran I’ll make sure to go to the pier!
My oldest daughter visited in early July and there were just a few sea lions. They are definitely migratory creatures so the population varies from time to time.
I’d love to do that hike!! SF is a great town!
I’m glad I could inspire you Nicole!
I love bucket list travel!!
As a child, “the Rock” was the scariest place I had ever heard of!
love sf. i haven’t done a lot of this stuff and i’m a californian! must get to it!
Yes, you must!! San Francisco is a wonderful place to spend a few days and very different from Southern California.
Thanks for the excellent itinerary of SF. The Alcatraz tour seems wildly interesting! I plan to get myself to the beautiful city someday.
My daughter lives there now so I’m planning to visit often!
Your photos are beautiful! This was my exact itinerary when I went to San Fran and it was perfect!
I’ve never been to the west coast, but SF is definitely on my wish list! Love your pictures too!
I love San Francisco! You’ve listed some of my favorite activities (like the pier, the bridge and the chocolate factory). I also think that riding a cable car is a uniquely SF experience. As well as eating clam chowder out of a bread bowl on the pier.
Janine, I wish I had time to ride a cable car as that is definitely on my must do list. SInce I missed it this trip, it just means I have to go back!
This post is so lovely! I just published my Ultimate World Travel Bucket List yesterday and San Fran is on there, specifically the Golden Gate and Alcatraz. I hadn’t heard of the sea lions at Pier 39 so that will definitely be another view added to my list.
That’s great Stephanie. I will have to head over to your blog and check it out!
Its been so long since I’ve been to San Francisco! This makes me want to get back there sooner rather than later!
It’s a lovely city to visit for sure!
Awesome article and beautiful pictures. We’re always looking for quick trips since sometimes we only have a day or two to see the sights so this will help if we ever get to SF
Thank you Nikki!
How cool! My fiance and I went last Thanksgiving and we walked the bridge, visited the pier, went to Alcatraz as well as Ghirardelli! Great advise! Will have to check out the other spots next trip! That first bridge pic is also gorge!!
It sounds like you had a great trip Lisa!
San Francisco is one of my favorite places & you captured it perefectly!!
Sounds great! I hope to get to San Francisco someday, and this is a great guide! Thank you!
When I finally make it to San Francisco, I’m going to spend ALL DAY hanging out with sea lions. ALL DAY. And that will be a day well spent. 🙂
Agreed Christa!! They are amazing creatures and so fun to watch. It’s a hoot to hear them barking at each other too!
I love this. Yes, there is so much to do in SF. I live here and loved your list. And, the pictures are amazing, especially the gg bridge and the sea lion. Oh, my fav tip about alcatraz is that they have sunset cruises too. It’s pretty awesome to watch the sunset on the ferry from alcatraz.
Di, you live in San Francisco? I’m jealous!!
I looooved San Francisco when we went. This guide is awesome!
It’s a great city! I’m an East Coast girl so everything West Coast is fascinating to me. So different from Georgia!
Did somebody say chocolate? I would love to go to San Fran. I heard they have good food there too.
Yes! Good food everywhere!
I have always been fascinated with San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge, Ghirardelli Square….things that remain on my travel bucket list.
I hear ya! San Francisco is a true American travel bucket list destination.