I’ve been raving to everyone about how amazing this city is since I visited in May, so I wanted to share my San Francisco itinerary for a one week/7 day trip. It was my first time visiting the USA (more on that here) and San Francisco was quite the place to start with. I have to admit I spent the first couple of days wandering around gawping and in a bit of a daze, which was a mixture of jetlag and the general overwhelming nature of the US. But after I’d adjusted and got into it, I was able to take it all in more. San Francisco is definitely one of the most interesting and unique cities I’ve ever been to.
We hardly ever drive and SF has public transport, which is one of the main reasons we picked it as our starting point for our first trip to the USA (Boston, MA was our second port of call). That and the fact it’s laid back, left wing and very cool with loads of stuff to do and a thriving veggie/vegan food scene. It ticks all my proverbial boxes.
So here’s my 7 days in San Francisco itinerary, featuring everything I did/saw/ate each day (with emphasis on the eating). I hope it’ll be handy as a general travel guide for anyone’s first time there or for anyone planning a week in San Francisco who is overwhelmed by everything there is to do…
Day 1: Get your bearings
Instead of flying into SF, we went to Oakland airport, which is only a few miles away from SF but has much cheaper flights – top tip there. It’s dead easy to get to San Fransisco from Oakland once you land. You just get the BART (metro), changing at Coliseum station briefly then ride that beast all the way into the city centre. It took about 30 minutes.
The apartment I’d booked wasn’t available on the first night so we spent that in a hotel in the Financial District. We dumped our luggage and headed out to get the daylight on us to avoid jetlag (this really works, I swear). Our first port of call was the beautiful Ferry Building Marketplace. This is an indoor permanent market full of amazing local food and gifts and drinks. We ended up returning later in the week because we loved it so much, but for now we had beers sat outside in the sun at Fort Point Beer Company before wandering through the shops inside in a daze.
To get our bearings a bit, we walked a few miles up the main road (The Embarcadero) that runs parallel to the sea and the metro lines. By a few miles, I mean two miles. It felt like a long way after a 12-hour flight, let me tell you.
By the time it got to early evening, I was seriously flagging. Speaking of flags, there are LOADS of them in America. That was one of my first impressions, along with how much water is in their toilets. Anyway. We headed into Chinatown for an early meal. San Francisco’s Chinatown when you’re dazed and confused is quite overwhelming. It’s huge. But yes, obviously we had food in mind and headed to Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant for the best vegan Chinese I’ve ever tasted.
Day 2: Brunching, exploring and modern art
I’d researched having brunch at Bluestone Lane because day 2 was a Sunday and seemingly everywhere closes in the Financial District apart from there. It was really good and probably the healthiest thing I ate all week, as my horrifically tight jeans will now attest to.
Our first port of call after that was the centre of ‘downtown’: the Union Square area. This was the main hub for shopping, with all the big names etc. Despite shopping being as important as eating to me, I’m not fussed about going to anywhere other than small independent shops when on holiday. Most brands you can get anywhere these days so what’s the point? So I’d just use this area to have a look round. You’ll be overwhelmed by the homelessness issue there though. Incredibly sad. Unfortunately, you do need to be on guard at night too. I’m a well-seasoned traveller by now and work in not-the-safest city, but even then I found the tension noticeable.
On a lighter note, Union Square is a bustling place by day and the actual square itself is flanked by some heart-shaped street art. I left my heart in San Francisco etc. Mildly diverting fun fact: the images painted on the hearts change with the seasons.
I felt like we really got a sense of the scale of the city just by wandering around both Union Square and the sea front (Embarcadero) bit. The scale, by the way, is huge.
Our first proper activity, if you will, was a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). What a place. You have to go there. Absolutely massive, beautifully laid out and er, very easy to get lost in (as I discovered). We spent two entire hours there and had lunch in their cafe, which was lovely. I always feel awkward getting photos in art galleries, so I have nothing to show you. But that’s good because if you go, you can take in the VASTness for yourself.
‘Home’ for the week: Noe Valley
After lunch, we headed to our apartment in Noe Valley, an area I’d researched and found was one of the nicest of SF. SF is all SO area-dependent. You can walk five minutes and go from a swanky shopping district to a homeless camp very quickly. It’s full of contrasts.
Anyway, Noe Valley was indeed gorgeous. THE HOUSES. Oh wow. It’s a real-life Instagram feed. I couldn’t have picked a better location – or a better apartment. I’ll detail that later in the ‘where to stay’ part of this post though.
The view below is from the bed in the apartment!
We had a walk round Noe Valley, stopping to eye up the ridiculously gorgeous pastel-coloured wooden houses.
Our main port of call was Whole Foods to get some breakfast bars in for the days we weren’t going for some kind of extravagant brunch. WHY DO WE NOT HAVE WHOLE FOODS IN THE UK OUTSIDE OF STUPID LONDON? It’s my spiritual home. More on that here but suffice to say they had vegan beef jerky and we were in there for over an hour.
That night, we ate in Noe Valley. There are loads of nice restaurants and bars there but I won’t link to the place because it bankrupted me and wasn’t worth it. Better options are available.
Then we slept for approximately 12 hours. Goodbye jetlag.
Day 3: Tram/cable car ride, walking tour and beer
Dolores Park was just round the corner from Noe Valley. We walked through it in the morning and had a good dog-watching session. People watching is nothing compared with dog watching. SO many cute dogs. Also, a decent view of the city. It was really overcast (and bloody freezing) but still clear.
We headed to downtown and did the touristy thing of riding a wooden old-fashioned tram up one of SF’s many, many, MANY hills. Do you like hills? You’re going to be cursing them after a week in San Francisco.
Anyway, the tram. Something I forgot to mention in my weird things about America post the other day was that they call trams ‘cable cars’. Cable cars in British English are those things that take you up a mountain in the air to go skiiing or something, FYI. I could not bring myself to adjust to the lingo.
Anyway, it was worth doing – who doesn’t enjoy hurtling up a hill in a creaky wooden contraption?
Our main activity for the day was doing the excellent Free SF walking tour. It lasts 2 hours 30 minutes and meets daily in Union Square at 10am and 2pm.
You don’t need me to tell you which time we did (who is ready before 10am on holiday?).
You also don’t need me to tell you that I was all over holding the sign for the group photo…
After the tour, we headed to Haight-Ashbury for exploring, then drinks and food. Haight-Ashbury is the mural-filled hippy area where you have to go if you’re into flower power. It was home to the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and similar chaps in the 60s but is still v hippy now… As proven by the clock on the corners of the two main roads Haight and Ashbury (hence the name). This clock is permanently set at 4.20. If you don’t know what that means, ask Snoop Dogg. Oh and you’ll find Amoeba Records in Haight-Ashbury too: the largest independent music shop in the world (we also went to the sister branch in Berkley).
We had beers at Magnolia Brewing Co and got talking to a complete legend called Stuart, who was a local, and then a complete melt called Janet, who was a closet racist from New Zealand. Good times. I had an excellent sour beer. Hours passed and so did the beer. I ended up with a hand-written list of recommendations for things to do from a lovely lady with an adorable dog (whose names I immediately forgot).
Food then happened at Sparrow Bar and Kitchen just round the corner from the pub. We had a quinoa cake that you’d write home about. Unfortunately I was too drunk to photograph it. Uber!
Day 4: Hash browns, a day trip to Berkeley and the best bar in SF
Another day, another stomach-expanding breakfast in the US of A. I think Chloe’s Cafe has to be one of the best breakfast/brunch places I’ve ever been to. It was literally round the corner from our apartment (another excellent reason to stay in Noe Valley).
It was incredible. Sort of like being in someone’s living room and being given their nan’s homemade food, if their nan was a chef and morbidly obese. Amazing. I would be the size of a house if I lived near it.
We usually do a day trip on all our city breaks after the first few days, to break it up a bit. This was the day for said day trip. We headed out to the neighbouring university city Berkeley, which I’ll cover in a separate post soon (someone remind me to add the link to ‘A day trip to Berkeley‘ here when I get round to writing it!).
When we got ‘home’ from Berkeley, we went for drinks at Toronado in Haight Ashbury, somewhere my colleagues, the internet and the nice lady and her dog had all recommended. This was the best bar we went to and probably one of the best bars I’ve ever been in. SO many sour craft beers that were actually sour-sour and not just pretending that a Haribo Tangfastic had once been near them. Chris was in his element too because there were about a million hoppy beers. I don’t recall the end of the night but I think it involved a vegan hotdog and shrieking.
Day 5: Breakfast, baseball, beach, bridge and other things beginning with B
Yet another insane brunch to start the day. When in America… This one was from Noe Valley’s local eatery Griddle Fresh. We had pancakes and tea (English breakfast tea was surprisingly easy to get!) and eggs and hash browns and a small heart attack to follow. Hash browns are normally those crunchy little potato things, right? Needless to say, they had a different take on them in the US, in the form of a giant thin and crispy lattice-type affair. It was the size of the whole plate and absolutely delicious. One of many reasons my jeans now don’t fit.
Our main activity for day 5 was to see a baseball game. Baseball is a sport much revered in the USA but baffling to the rest of us. It’s basically rounders. Definitely one of the many weird and wonderful things about America. I really don’t like sports apart from equestrian ones but this was especially unfathomable.
It was hard to work out if people were there to actually watch it or just to consume copious amounts of overpriced beer and hotdogs while having a good yell. I enjoyed the surreal nature of it though. I also got horribly sunburned on my right arm. Good.
The big daddy of SF attractions
After that, we went to have a good old stare at the Golden Gate Bridge. This orange whopper. It’s probably the most photographed and iconic attraction in SF. I failed miserably at getting a decent photo of it because it was cloudy on both days we had a proper view of it, but you can find squillions of photos of it on Pinterest and it’s always better to see these things in real life anyway.
Neither of us had any desire to stand on it/cross it because that’s like going up the Eiffel Tower: you’re IN the view when it’s better to look AT it. I also wanted to view it from somewhere quiet, so we opted for China Beach and made a good call.
We had the whole beach to ourselves apart from a couple of people fishing at the other end and a family of questionably friendly gulls.
Something I really want to recommend to you lot is a glorious area I ended up spending a lot of money in: Polk Gulch. It’s pretty much just one road called Polk Street but with a little bit of surrounding area too. It was full of trendy places to eat/drink and loads of independent shops. I bought a San Francisco sweatshirt from an adorable one called Picnic, which I’m wearing in the photo just down there with the beer. It was one of the nicest shops we went in all holiday.
I then needed a vegan ice cream (yes, needed) so we got the bus to Salt and Straw in the Pacific Heights district. This was somewhere I’d saved in my pre-holiday research and it was so worth it.
We were absolutely knackered from doing loads of walking and being burned to a crisp by the sun, so we just mooched around the lovely Pacific Heights shops until it was time to eat an actual evening meal that wasn’t ice cream. We went off-plan to Bun Mee. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t had before, but there is always time for Vietnamese street food.
Day 6: Ticking off the tourist list
We kicked off the day in The Castro district. This is the main LGBTQ+ district in SF and even from our brief morning there, I loved it. The zebra crossings are rainbow. It’s full of amusingly titled shops. Someone had a ‘It’s
Britney Castro, bitch’ poster in their window.
It did us well for some brunch/lunch at Orphan Andy’s (a proper grungy American diner you might get murdered in in a film but with nice grub) and a morning explore before we got the tram into downtown.
The tram (alright, shut up with the ‘cable car’) was old and wooden and lovely. A bit like the ones in Lisbon or Porto. But incredibly slow. We got off outside the Ferry Building Marketplace to visit the San Francisco Railway Museum, which is free. It was only small but worth popping in. It’s weird how much of a novelty the trams and trains are if you’re from somewhere where they’re just a part of everyday life. The museum is really well done and has plenty of retro postcards and bits and bobs to spend your dollars on.
Sea lions and are we in Blackpool?
We then made the arduous march to Pier 39 for a dose of Blackpool-like vibes. If you’re from the UK, you’ll know what I mean. Souvenir shops, tacky touristy eateries and despair.
However, you have to go to Pier 39 because SEA LIONS.
There are actual sea lions on floating decking, sunbathing and making a racket. I was a bit worried they weren’t there out of their own free will but apparently there’s plenty of natural food in the bay and they decided to descend on it themselves. I must admit, they weren’t cute (think giant slugs) but were quite amusing. Chris was horrified by them.
Lombard Street: best with a very long selfie stick
Next was another big tourist thing: Lombard Street. This was one of those things that look impressive in photos but are quite disappointing in real life.
It’s a zig-zagging road that has appeared in lots of films I’ve never seen. It is quite impressive in concept, but only really if you view it from a great height.
I tried my best to capture how it looks, so you can sort of get the idea. Imagine how annoying it would be to live on Lombard Street and have people driving up and down it with tourists taking photos 24/7. I’d move.
Fish, chips and PRISON: a winning combination
Our main activity for the day was the Alcatraz tour, preceded by fish and chips at The Codmother – mainly because I wanted to see an American take on fish and chips but also because The Codmother was handily between Lombard Street and our next stop: the Alcatraz tour. I can confirm that the fish and chips were delicious. I know, I’m surprised too. This is a country that doesn’t always use electric kettles so doing anything traditionally British well seems impressive. But like I said, they’ve got tea available everywhere now so if that’s not progress I don’t know what is.
So, Alcatraz. If you’re reading this post because you’re researching things to do in San Francisco, you’ve probably already read on multiple websites to BOOK THE ALCATRAZ TOUR IN ADVANCE. Like, months in advance. I am now here to repeat this to you. Book the bloody thing. It might not seem like it’s worth it and you might not even be interested in it at all (I didn’t think I was) but it’s SO worth doing.
I really recommend doing the evening tour. The ferry takes you over to Alcatraz island and it’s got beautiful views as the sun goes down. The tour is really well done and surprisingly interesting.
But my favourite thing was how much of the old prison has been ‘re-wilded’. Nature has taken it back. Seabirds nest in the window ledges and wild flowers grow along the walls. If you only do one touristy thing, you need to do this.
I felt like Louis Theroux investigating the corrupt prison system, but with more seagulls.
Day 7: Brunch (again), burritos and beer (again)
Obviously my life revolves around food, so we headed to the much-lauded Plow for brunch after packing our bags ahead of our last day in SF. I didn’t think Americans did queuing but seemingly they do when it comes to brunch at Plow. It was absolutely worth the wait though: O, M and indeed G.
Whenever I think of our time in SF, Plow’s French toast with blueberries is up there with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. It’s in a pretty area called Potrero Hill, which is worth a mooch around while you’re there.
Then… You know when you’ve had an intense week-long holiday of cramming in everything and walking for miles in mildly unsuitable shoes? That. That hit me like a tonne of bricks on day 7. We ended up deciding to do very little. We’d got up late so brunch was actually more like lunch.
We hobbled to Mission‘s City Art Cooporative Gallery, a small gallery that’s free to enter. I don’t think my brain could’ve taken in a big gallery or museum that day. We also wandered round Mission looking at street art, gorgeous clothes shops that I couldn’t afford and of course bars.
We sought out Beer Nerds for some brilliant craft beer. It’s the first bar I’ve ever been in that includes the calories for each drink. I found that my usual (sour beer) is the lowest in calories. Take that, MyFitnessPal. This also reminded me to start thinking about where my next meal was coming from.
So much to eat, so little time
It turned out to be a ‘Mission-style’ burrito from El Farolito just round the corner from Beer Nerds. I’ve never enjoyed burritos at home but this was a whole other level. It’s quite a cult thing and one of ‘the’ things to eat in SF. I understand why. I also decided that Mission is by far my favourite SF district.
This decision was cemented when I clocked this gorgeous building (photo below) covered in a huge mural over its five storeys. It’s the San Francisco Women’s Building – a women-led non-profit arts and education centre. The mural on its exterior was created by seven women artists and features female icons from both history and fiction and the names of more than 600 women in calligraphy. Feminism and art combined. YES.
Dogs are the best way to end a holiday
I was 90% asleep by the end of the day. We headed to our last boozy stop, Barebottle Brewing Co. in Bernal Heights, for the evening. Any readers who’ve been to Mackie Mayor in Manchester or the Baltic Market in Liverpool – well, this brewery was a bit like them. A big warehouse with food stalls and loads of its own beer on tap.
And DOGGIES. Doggies everywhere. I’ve written before about how much time I spent petting dogs in the USA. I would say 50% of the petting happened in Barebottle. There was a Bernedoodle (Bernese Mountain Dog x Poodle) puppy. Need I say more?
What a perfect end to the week in San Francisco.
Next up: Boston, MA. Blog post coming soon.
Useful information: one week in San Francisco itinerary – for 7 days exploring
How to get there (and away)
Top tip: fly to Oakland Airport. It’s about 30% cheaper than flying to SF airport, and dead easy to get into SF on the metro system. We got the train down from Manchester to London Gatwick and then flew from there.
Where to stay
We stayed in this gorgeous little apartment in Noe Valley, which I’d researched and found was one of the nicest areas of SF. I couldn’t have picked a better location – or a better apartment. The owner was an absolute delight and couldn’t do enough for us. It had the BEST views, too. SF is so expensive to stay: worse than Paris or London. But this was within budget (about £99 a night) and worth every penny.
How to get around
San Francisco has decent public transport by USA standards and it’s 100% doable without hiring a car. So if you don’t drive like me, it’s a good place to go in the USA. But compared with Europe, public transport is not straightforward. I struggled to find a website/map that overlaid every type of transport so you could get your head around what the best combination to get was. There are buses, trains, retro trams, and normal trams. Oh and of course Uber, which doesn’t work unless you have roaming data so I’d recommend getting a SIM that works in the USA just in case. The most popular way of getting around seemed to be the local trains, BART. This stands for Bay Area Rapid Transport. Some lines were not very Rapid and others barely Transport. My favourite thing was probably the tram, which was handy to get from Noe Valley into the centre, and the old tram, which was fun as a tourist thing.
When to go
We went in May. It was sunny but cold. There are loads of warnings online about how weirdly chilly San Francisco is even when the actual temperature says it’s warm. I can confirm the rumours are true. It was over 18 degrees most days, which would normally be hot to me, but the wind was cold AF. I didn’t end up wearing any of my skirt/dress outfits and actually had to buy a jumper because I ran out. But then in full sun out of the wind, I was melting. May was a decent time to go though. Not too many tourists, but everything was open and bustling to a nice degree.
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