One Day in San Francisco: Top Things To See on Foot

Going to San Francisco for the first time, or just have a long layover, and wish to see as much as you can in a day?  No worries!  I used to live in the Bay Area and have prepared a one-day, self-guided, San Francisco itinerary for you.  Check out my great way to spend one day in San Francisco, or less, seeing iconic sights without renting a car.

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CORR Tips for Your Walking Tour

To ensure you have the best experience while spending time outside in the famous City by the Bay, here are some tips I highly recommend:

  • Allow at least 4 hours to walk at a casual pace from start to finish. If you have more time, you can stop for lunch or dinner, or both – it just depends on when you start the tour.
  • Dress in layers. This is true for San Francisco no matter when you go.
  • Bring a good day bag big enough to fit your essentials, any emergency items and camera, but not too big or overloaded, like the Victorinox Altmont. I love this bag!
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Travel Gear for Your Day in San Francisco

If you need some other good resource suggestions, check out Travel Resources.

  • The best time to visit San Francisco is September and October. Summers are cold in San Francisco but come Autumn, the skies are mostly blue and weather is still warm.  It’s a great time for views and taking pics!
  • If you encounter fog, it will more than likely burn off by late morning. This could vary, though, depending on time of year. Always check the weather before you venture out in San Francisco. If even a there may be a slight chance of rain, err on the side of caution and bring an umbrella.
  • Of course, make sure to wear good walking shoes. You’re going to cover a lot of ground on this self-guided tour, and don’t forget San Francisco is full of hills!
  • Do not over exert yourself. Stop as often as you need and don’t be afraid to take public transportation, a cable car, taxi or Uber/Lyft.  The point is to enjoy your day in San Francisco, not hurt yourself.
Overlooking San Francisco Bay
Clear San Francisco skies in October

Airport Layover Tips

San Francisco International Airport

If you are flying into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and have time to explore San Francisco during a long layover, you can immediately store your carry-on baggage at Airport Travel Agency, located on the Departures/Ticketing Level of the International Terminal, near the entrance to Gates G91-G102.

It is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. No reservations are required for baggage storage.  Prices start at $20 per bag, depending on bag size. If this is too costly, check out the Vertoe option below.

Right down the hall you can catch BART yellow line to the city.  It takes approximately 25 minutes each way from SFO to the city, and costs around $19 round trip. Prices and times could change depending on time of day so it’s best to check the BART schedules and prices in advance.

Oakland International Airport

To my knowledge, Oakland International Airport (OAK) does not have any lockers or baggage storage facilities. However, Vertoe does have a daily baggage storage on Eddy, 2 blocks from Union Square (among other locations) so you could take BART into the city and drop off your luggage at this location at the start of this walking tour.  They are open daily 9am to 11pm and prices start at $5.95 per item per day.

Clipper Card

Do not even bother renting a car for the day.  First, San Francisco is famous for street parking being next to impossible, and parking lots can be very pricey.  Second, San Francisco is full of one-way streets, so if you’re unfamiliar to the city, you can waste a lot of time driving in circles.  Do yourself a favor and take public transportation into the city.

The Clipper Card is your gateway to public transportation in the Bay Area.  The Clipper Card covers all forms of transportation, including BART, MUNI and ferries.  It does not cover cable cars, however. You pay separately for those.

You can purchase a Clipper Card at either airport, or at any BART station in the city. In addition to your round-trip city/airport ride, I suggest putting on a few extra bucks should you get tired of walking and want to catch a MUNI in the city.  

Hang on to your Clipper Card! You never know when you’ll be back in the Bay Area so if you bring it back with you, you won’t have to do the initial purchase price again.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Where Should a First-time Tourist Stay in San Francisco?

For optimum ease of walking and seeing the sights on a 1 (or more) day visit, I recommend staying in the downtown area from Union Square north to Fisherman’s Wharf.  It’s centralized for top sights and easily accessible by foot or public transportation.  Check to see how far your hotel is away from a BART, MUNI or cable car stop for better accessibility.

However, if it’s too pricey in the city, don’t be afraid to stay south of the city or in the East Bay.  If you have access to BART, you have access to San Francisco! Additionally, Marin County does offer ferry access to the city from San Anselmo and Sausalito.

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Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco

Ready to see San Francisco? For this tour, you’ll start in the heart of the city on the North corner of Market at Powell.  If you are taking BART, you’ll stop will be the Powell Street station.

Street signs san francisco
Walking tour starting point

Note:  This starting point is on the border of the Tenderloin District, which can be a little sketchy, especially at night.  Just be street-wise and watch your belongings. 

You’ll see the start of the Powell Street cable car, where you could catch it straight up to Lombard Street and bypass the first part of this walking tour, if you wish.  Feel free to ask at the booth for a hard-copy sight-seeing map.

Powell Street Cable Car San Franscisco
Powell St Cable Car

If you want to walk, walk North up Powell Street 3 blocks to Union Square, the first San Francisco sight on your walking tour.

Union Square

Once you hit Geary, you’ll find Union Square catty-corner from you. 

Union Square is a central shopping, hotel, and theater district. Many stores surround Union Square so you can shop and people watch as long as you want.  There are also some good clubs for a nightlife scene.

Union Square San Francisco
Union Square

Exit out the Northeast corner of Union Square.  Five blocks North you’ll see Dragon’s Gate, the entrance to China Town on Grant Street. 

China Town

Dragon's Gate, China Town San Franscisco
Dragon's Gate, China Town

San Francisco’s China Town is the largest outside of Asia. Take a stroll down Grant street do some shopping. Don’t forget to try a chocolate or green tea fortune cookie at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley.

Dining tip: If it fits your schedule, enjoy a dim sum lunch

China Town mural san francisco
China Town mural

When Grant hits Broadway, you’ll see a large, diagonal crossing area.  Turn behind you to see the Trans America building.  You can’t miss it!

Trans America Building San Francisco
Trans America Building

Russian Hill

Note: if you have a lot more than 4 hours to spend, you could turn West on Pacific from Grant to catch the Powell Cable Car that will take you to Lombard Street – you know, the most crooked street in the world? From there you could walk down hill to Columbus Street to explore the North Beach District.

If you’re not into a cable car ride, walk North up Columbus and you’re immediately in the North Beach District.

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North Beach

Vesuvio sign, North Beach San Francisco
Vesuvio, North Beach

North Beach is one of my favorite dining areas in the city. Not only are there great murals and iconic architecture, but there are also many great Italian restaurants and cafes – some with outside seating – to choose from.

Dining tip:      Like garlic?  The Stinking Rose is an institution in San Francisco.  Note, it only opens for dinner at 5pm.

The Stinking Rose window, North Beach San Francisco
The Stinking Rose, North Beach

Dining tip:     Like deli?  Try Molinari Delicatessen on Columbus.

At this point you may want to rest your feet because the Coit Tower is next!

Meander the North Beach area to find a deli, restaurant or bar that strikes your fancy.  Or just grab a gelato at Gelato Classico Italian on Union Street and cop a squat in Washington Square Park while you people watch.

North Beach dining tables San Francisco
North Beach dining

Telegraph Hill

Got your energy up?  Ok, so let’s start the hike to Coit Tower. Two blocks past Washington Square is Greenwich.  Hang a right, gulp as you see the hill, and just start climbing.  Once the street ends, head up the stairs and keep going up!  You’ll eventually get to Coit Tower.  Trust me.

Coit Tower San Francisco
Coit Tower

Once you get there you’ll be glad you made the climb because the views of the city and the bay are fantastic! Get out your camera. You’re going to want take several pics!

Golden Gate Bridge from Coit Tower San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge from Coit Tower
Alcatraz and Marin County from Coit Tower
Alcatraz and Marin County from Coit Tower

Go inside to check out the amazing murals documenting life in San Francisco. If you want, pay $9 to go up to the top of the tower for even better views!

Coit Tower mural
Coit Tower mural

Done with all of your picture taking?  Now’s the easy part – walking downhill from the Coit Tower to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman's Wharf

It may take 20-30 minutes to walk to Fisherman’s Wharf. Head back down Greenwich to Columbus. Take a left on Bay and a right on Van Ness to the waterfront.

At this point you’ll be in the Fort Mason and San Francisco Maritime Park area, which marks the west side of the Fisherman’s Wharf District. Feel free to wander to your hearts content. On a clear day you’ll have great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Marin County in the background.

Fisherman's Wharf sign San Franscisco
Fisherman's Wharf

Like chocolate?  Don’t miss the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square.

Fisherman’s Wharf can be a little touristy, but there are some amazing seafood restaurants if you’re feeling up to dinner at this point.

Depending on your time limit, you may wish to stroll East along the water or just head down Bay Street until you get to the Embarcadero.

The Embarcadero

Here is the last section of your fantabulous walking day in San Fran. You’re in the final stretch!  Start at Pier 39 and work your way down until you get to the Ferry Building.

Ferry Building, The Embarcadero San Francisco
Ferry Building, The Embarcadero

The Embarcadero can take you all the way to Oracle Park where you can catch a Giant’s game.  I love my Giants so I highly recommend a game if you have time (and there’s a home game scheduled, of course).

If you wish, pop into The Exploratorium (Pier 15) along the way, or save it for another day.  And if you haven’t eaten dinner by now, then pop into the restaurants along the Embarcadero to view menus. 

Are your feet a little tired? No worries!  Hop on a Muni and it will take you right to the Ferry Building. Use those extra funds on your Clipper Card!

MUNI on The Embarcadero san francisco
MUNI on The Embarcadero

If you haven’t found a restaurant along the Embarcadero, then try one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants:  The Slanted Door. 

Dining tip:     

The Slanted Door is in the Ferry building with views of the bay and Bay Bridge.  Since you spent the day seeing sights for free, then here is where you can splurge on a great meal. The Vietnamese fusion cuisine is amazing! 

Note:  I would make reservations in advance.  However, if you get there early, you could put your name down and see if you get a table if you have a flexible timeframe.  The wait will be worth it!

The Slanted Door restaurant glass door
The Slanted Door

Now you’ve ended your beautiful San Francisco day with a delicious dining experience!  How do you feel?  Wonderful I hope.  All that’s left to do now is head out for a night cap or back to your hotel or the airport. 

If you’re needing to head back to the airport, walk 2 blocks up Market Street to the Embarcadero BART station.  Easy peasy!

More Top Things to See and Do in San Francisco

Of course, you can’t see all of San Francisco in a day. If you’re fortunate enough to have another day or more in San Francisco, check out the following top sights and attractions.  Note, these will not really be accessible by foot, so plan on renting a bike or taking public transportation, a taxi or Uber/Lyft between attractions.

  • Lombard Street
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Chrissy Field
  • The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • The Exploratorium
  • Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
  • Golden Gate Park
    • California Academy of Sciences
    • de Young Museum
    • Conservatory of Flowers
    • San Francisco Botanical Gardens
    • Japanese Tea Garden
  • Ocean Beach / Beach Chalet & Brewery
  • Haight Ashbury
  • The Castro
  • Palace of Fine Arts
  • SF MOMA
  • The Mission District
  • Oracle Park – Go Giants!

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Gwen

Gwen

Gwen is the Founder of CORR Travel and a global traveler and photographer with over 25 years of solo travel experience. She is also the Founder of the www.CORRConcepts.com sustainability blog. Travel is her passion and environmental sustainability and biodiversity protection is her "religion".

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