The Best 2 Day San Francisco Itinerary for First Timers


9 min read
The stunning San Francisco skyline at night

If you are one of those people looking at beautiful pictures of San Francisco and thinking that it will be you one day, don't wait anymore. Start planning your trip today!

Usually, San Francisco will be just one of the stops on a bigger West Coast journey - for example, combined with the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas. So, first-timers should spend at least 2 or 3 days maximum here.

With this in mind, here is a short but detailed 2 day San Francisco itinerary that gives you a general overview of the city and its most famous Californian landmarks, like Pier 39, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate. Less popular but still lovely spots close to town have also been included.

  • 2 day itinerary
  • Average of 5 stops per day

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2 Days in San Francisco Itinerary

San Francisco Map

Using the map of San Francisco, you can explore all the days and stops.

From Pier 39 through Alcatraz to the Twin Peaks

Seeing the sea lions at Pier 39 is a must on a 2 day San Francisco itinerary

On day one, you should focus on Fisherman's Wharf. You can't visit San Francisco without spending at least a couple of hours in this historic waterfront district. From this place, you have access to the famous and unique Alcatraz Island with the prison.

To get here, you should book your tickets ahead to guarantee your preferred day and time. You will spend no more than 2-3 hours on the island and 15 minutes on the boat to get there.

To finish your day with great views, head to Twin Peaks. From these hills, you will have fantastic panoramas of the city with its market street, all the skyscrapers, and even bridges in the background! It is just the best sunset spot in town!

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Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf

You should start the day by visiting Pier 39, which is part of Fisherman's Wharf, together with Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and some museums. Pier 39 is not as old as it looks - its development started only in 1977 and finished in 1978.

Originally, this place featured 50 stores and 23 restaurants. Many of them are still active today. The area has been changing over time, getting carousels, an aquarium, a Players Sports Grill & Arcade, and finally, the only floating restaurant in the world - Forbes Island!

But probably the most alluring attraction of all is the sea lions. They started to come to the pier in 1990, and the population has grown over the years. The city is supporting them by adding new floating docks.

When you are here, you should see the sea lions, ride a carousel, visit the aquarium of the bay and attend juggler or other performer shows.

Depending on how much time you have, what time of day it is, and how hungry you are, we recommend eating fresh seafood for lunch or dinner at the Fisherman's Wharf market nearby.

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The fascinating Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

Alcatraz Island

One of the most popular attractions in San Francisco is the trip to Alcatraz Island and the visit to the legendary prison. It operated from 1934 to 1963, and it hosted Al Capone, among other famous criminals. Now, it's such a popular tourist attraction that you should book your tickets ahead to ensure your date is available.

To get to the island, you must board the ferry at Pier 33. The ride lasts 12-15 minutes, and after landing on the island, you have as much time as you want for wandering. Just make sure to be back at the dock before the last departure. Ferries usually depart every 30 minutes.

When you are on the island, make sure to get your audio guide - it's a source of valuable information about the history of the prison. It helps you better understand the purpose of the selected buildings.

For us, it was fun to visit the ruins of the old Warden House, the gardens of Alcatraz, the recreation yard, and the seabird colonies (activity depends on the season). This prison is one in the world, and it is one of the musts.

Pro Tip: Take the Alcatraz tour at night! It doubles your emotions!

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View from Twin Peaks to Market Street

Twin Peaks

After the day that you spent in the historic waterfront district, it's time to go uphill. Plan your trip to be on the Twin Peaks around 1 hour before sunset. It might be a crowded place at this time of the day. If you want to take cute pictures of the city, it's a good idea to take a tripod with you.

The Twin Peaks are two hills with an elevation of 282m and are located near the city's geographic center. The only higher point is Mount Davidson (283m). Native people of California used the peaks as a lookout for hunting grounds.

When Spanish settlers arrived, they called the place the "Breasts of the Indian Maiden" and devoted the vicinity of the mountains to ranching. Americans changed the name to the current one in the 19th century.

We came here for the view - a unique spot in the city, and we recommend you do this as well. You can consider not only the sunset but also a sunrise or night visit.

The only problem might be safety - don't come here alone. San Francisco got more hazardous in recent years. If you are afraid to go alone, you can try one of the organized tours.

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Golden Gate, Sausalito, Ghirardelli and a Cable Car Ride

The Golden Gate Bridge - the jewel of the city, is a must-see attraction. And after spending many days in San Francisco, we are sure that the best time to go here is for the sunrise. For the best sunrise spot of the bridge, it's close to the town of Sausalito, where you can have a fantastic breakfast with a view.

When you are not hungry anymore, head back to the city and visit Ghirardelli Square, then go for a walk to Lombard Street and catch the cable car at the top. Finally, you can hop off at Chinatown and wander around there for a little bit.

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View of San Francisco and the Golden Gate at sunrise from Battery Hill

Sunrise at Golden Gate

This bridge is an icon of the city and a famous landmark in North America. It was opened to the public in 1937 and connected San Francisco to its northern neighbors. It's a must-see attraction - the symbol of the city.

And after 20 years of traveling to San Francisco at different times of the year, we decided that the bridge looks best at sunrise from Battery Hill.

Just drive from the city through the bridge to the north, and after the bridge, turn right on the 442. You will cross the 101 underway and get to the spot for the sunrise.

Be there 30 minutes before sunrise to enjoy the view. Sometimes the gate is closed, but it opens just on time, so be patient and wait for the ranger to open it.

This point is excellent for photography. You can take it with your phone or camera. If you plan to use your camera, we recommend taking a tripod with you. And it's a good idea to grab some coffee at the gas station on the way here.

Another good point to spend the morning and enjoy the bridge is the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point - at the opposite side of the bridge.

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The picturesque Sausalito Waterfront

Sausalito

From the Golden Gate viewpoint, you are close to the charming town of Sausalito, and the timing should be right to have a fantastic breakfast in the cafes here.

Sausalito is a city in Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. And from this city, you will see the San Francisco skyline from a distance. The view is excellent.

We recommend sitting in one of the waterfront restaurants like the Lighthouse Café.

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Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop is one of the oldest in the US

Ghirardelli Square

If you like the smell of chocolate, you should visit Ghirardelli. The company was founded in 1852 by the Italian chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli. He worked in South America, then moved to California to build what is now the third-oldest chocolate company in the United States.

Unfortunately, the popular factory tours are not available anymore. Still, we recommend visiting Ghirardelli square, seeing the factory building, and tasting one of the best chocolates in the world at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop.

Pro Tip: Don't forget to buy some chocolate to go - it's a great gift idea for your family and friends!

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The "crooked" Lombard Street in San Francisco

Lombard Street

Lombard Street, aka the "Crookedest Street in the World," is surrounded by Russian Hill villas and is another one of the iconic places in San Francisco.

There is an exciting fact that switchbacks were built to increase the safety of the street. The grade was too steep, and in 1920, the owner decided to rebuild the road. Since then, it turned out to be more scenic but also safer for pedestrians.

Each day, hundreds of tourists visit the street to take a picture or ride from the top to see how it feels to go through the switchbacks. It's so popular because it is surrounded by many other famous attractions and is always on the way.

So when in San Francisco, don't miss this place, go for a ride, or at least take a picture!

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Do make sure to ride a cable car in San Francisco

Cable Car Ride

If you visited Lombard Street without a car, you could try to catch a cable car at the top of the hill (Powell-Hyde Line - it carries yellow destination signs). With this line, we suggest riding it to the next stop - Chinatown. Just get off at Clay Street.

The San Francisco cable car system is the world's last manually operated cable car system. Between 1873 and 1890, it had 23 cable car lines, and nowadays, there are only three left. This way of transportation is used not only by tourists but also by commuters. However, the majority are tourists.

It would probably be easier to get into the cable car at one of the turnarounds, but you can get on the car at any stop along the route. In such a case, be prepared to pay the attendant for the ticket (make sure to have the correct amount of money ready).

Or, you can buy a ticket in advance. Single ride cable car tickets are available at ticket booths at Powell and Market or Hyde and Beach. They are also available at the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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Chinatown

Chinatown in San Francisco is the biggest outside of Asia. It all started around 1848 when there was significant demand for laborers because of the railroad construction and the gold rush. Chinese people were allowed to come and work in the US.

After railroad construction was finished in 1849, they looked for new jobs and competed with white Americans. It led to limiting their rights and where they could live within San Francisco's borders. All of this caused the creation of the Chinatown that currently occupies 24 blocks.

Nowadays, it is one of the most popular attractions in the city. You can spend half a day or even more here exploring the local shops with original Chinese items and restaurants with authentic cuisine. Actually, statistics are saying that more tourists are visiting this neighborhood than the Golden Gate Bridge!

We found the scent of Asia in Chinatown. It is so authentic that you can forget that you are in the US. People around you live like in their own country - it's completely different than the rest of the city.

If you are here, don't forget to take a picture in the Dragon's Gate, buy some cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, and visit the Tin How Temple.

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In Summary

We hope you found this San Francisco 2 day itinerary useful for your upcoming trip to this great city. Have a great time!

For more interesting articles about United States, read:

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Written by The Van Escape

TheVanEscape BLOGGER We are Aga & Chris, passionate travelers, and photographers. We love to focus on great pictures and share the best stories. Our goal is to convince you to visit places you would never think are so fantastic. We want to help your dreams come true!