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Top 10 Things to See in San Francisco in Three Days

Updated on January 18, 2016
Catherine Stolfi profile image

Catherine is an independent research consultant at NASA Langley with degrees in English, Biology, and Environmental Science (M.S.).


When I visited San Francisco for the first time, it was for an annual conference as a student and I only had three afternoons to see the entire city. I planned accordingly before my trip and took in as much as possible over a long weekend trip to this foggy city. In three days I was able to visit Alcatraz Island, ride on the famous cable cars, visit the celebrated piers of the Wharf, see Alamo Square Park and walk along Haight Street. The trick to seeing everything without losing any sleep is by mapping out your visit perfectly to see all this city has to offer.

My conference was until 2 o'clock everyday but there was a positive turn to only having afternoons free in this city; the morning fog rolled in thick and white and by the afternoon the sunny California skies cleared it up. I stayed at a hotel that was a short 10-minute walk from the piers; the Golden Gate Holiday Inn located in the heart of the city. If you only have a short time to spend in this city, I recommend you stay somewhere within walking distance to the piers and/or somewhere close to cable car or bus stops, that way you can make yourself around the downtown area quickly.

Sea Lions on Pier 39
Sea Lions on Pier 39 | Source

Day 1

1. Mel's Diner

The first stop in San Francisco was the world famous Mel's Diner where I had a good old American meal of burgers and fries.

2. Hyde Street Pier

Since it was such a close walk, my group made our way to the Hyde Street Pier after our afternoon meal. Here you’ll see locals bike riding and rollerblading mixed in with the tourists there to shop, visit the historic ships and ogle over the breathtaking view of Alcatraz from the shore.

3. Haight Street

We knew we could revisit the priers later to browse the local shops so we decided to ride the cable cars, the only moving national historical landmark, down to Haight Street. We took two of the three trolley lines to get there: California and Powell-Hyde. Haight Street is a west coast version of New York City’s St. Marks Place, for those New Yorkers familiar with this famous street. The California version is filled with antique and vintage shops, tie-dye filled storefronts and the California's store chain, Amoeba Music.

3D Rendering of the steep hill landscape in San Fran
3D Rendering of the steep hill landscape in San Fran | Source

Day 2

4. Alamo Square Park

That morning we ate at an all-day breakfast restaurant called Moulin Café. The food at this family owned restaurant was incredible, not to mention reasonable. Our next stop was Alamo Square Park where you can get a perfect view of the famous line of Victorian houses positioned side-by-side on one of the city’s steep, sloped streets. This is a great photo opportunity because you can relax on the grass in the park with a perfect view of the city at the top of one of San Fran’s large hills.

5. Fisherman's Wharf

That night, we had reservations to eat dinner at the restaurant Alioto's, which is located next to the seafood market in Fisherman's Wharf down by the pier. We had time before our meal to shop at the little shops at the Wharf for trinkets and locally made items.

6. The Golden Gate Bridge

By the time it was time to eat, the sun was starting to go down. From our window at the restaurant we had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the sun setting behind it. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time for a window seat at this eatery.

Day 3

7. Pier 39

We knew we’d make our way back to the piers again before we left on a flight back to the east coast and luckily it was the mildest days of all our time there. Pier 39 is home to the city’s sea and sunbathing creatures, the resident sea lions, where you’ll find locals and tourists alike snapping shots of these sea animals sleeping and frolicking at the edge of the wharf.

8. Alcatraz Island

We had to stop ogling over the resident sea lions and admiring the uncountable number of sailboats on the bay because it was time for our scheduled trip to Alcatraz Island.

We boarded our ferry from the pier to set out across the bay towards “The Rock” where the tour is half the island visit and half the ferry ride. Have your cameras ready during this trek because you will have views of the Golden Gate Bridge you can’t get anywhere on land. The Island also plays host to nighttime “spooky” visits, though this island is eerie enough without the nighttime environment. As you approach, you’ll see painted in large red letters “Indians Welcome Here,” revealing to the 18-month occupation by an Indian tribe before the island became a historical landmark.

All the visitors to Alcatraz take an audio tour. I placed my pair of headphones on and followed our tour guide as we passed through abandoned rooms and cells. A story that was retold as we walked past the tiny cells that will always stick with me is how the inmates, due to the close proximity to the main laid, could hear the laughs and talking of those celebrating off the piers for New Year's Eve.

9. Chinatown

Our last meal in San Francisco was in Chinatown. This part of the city is filled with narrow, steep streets and an astounding amount of Chinese influence is seen in all the shops and restaurants. We ate at the ingeniously titled restaurant, Chinatown Restaurant. We were called in by a host of the eatery even though there was no convincing needed. We ate on the balcony, which was quite tiny and seemed as old as the city itself. It was, however, one of the best meals I had on our trip.

Trolleys | Source

More time is always needed in such a big metropolis that has so much to offer but I’ll take home with me the experience of a unique city that sets itself apart from others.

10. San Fran’s Historic Transportation

San Francisco’s transportation is among the most diverse in the world consisting of the world famous cable cars (or “trolleys”), historic streetcars, electric coaches, diesel buses and alternative fuel vehicles. Cable cars (or “Trolleys”) were introduced in September of 1873. The Clay Street line started public service in San Francisco using underground cable. In April 1892, Streetcars’s top three lines and the first electric streetcars with Pier Streetcar overhead wires began running. Electric buses (or trolley coaches) are buses with motors powered by electricity from overhead wires. San Francisco has the largest trolley-bus fleet of any transit agency in the U.S. An interesting transit lingo fact is that “Trolley” refers to the trolley poles on the roof of the vehicle that are used to transmit the electricity from the overhead wires.

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    • profile image

      Cooper Harrison 

      19 months ago from San Francisco, CA

      Great ideas!


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