In search of the perfect long weekend destination in the US? Look no further than the City by the Bay. San Francisco may be tiny, measuring a mere seven miles by seven miles, but it packs a mean punch when it comes to cultural sights, historic landmarks, iconic viewpoints, photo locations, fabulous bars & restaurants and charming neighborhoods. It's the perfect long weekend escape, and I've created a complete guide to the city including places to visit, viewpoints, restaurants, hotels and more. This post may contain affiliate links.
Conservatory of Flowers.
The conservatory is a stunning 19th century greenhouse located in Golden Gate Park.
WHEN TO VISIT SAN FRANCISCO?
June to September. It's hard pinpoint the best time to visit San Francisco. The city is notorious for its microclimates, Karl the Fog and overcast days year round. That said, the summer months have the lowest chance of rain. And many consider September to be the warmest month to visit.
Palace of Fine Arts.
Visit on a weekday morning to avoid the crowds.
The iconic landmark was built for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915.
Hints of a whimsical Europe in San Francisco.
HOW MANY DAYS IN SAN FRANCISCO?
Four days. For strictly San Francisco itineraries without side trips to Napa Valley, Monterey, Muir Woods, etc., a long weekend is a good amount of time to cover all the best spots in the city. With four days, it's possible to to visit the best neighborhoods, parks, viewpoints, beaches and sights, as well as eat at the best bakeries, brunch spots and restaurants.
Sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline from Bernal Heights Park.
A cable car ride is quintessential San Francisco.
PLACES TO VISIT IN SAN FRANCISCO
ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
This natural history museum in Golden Gate Park is popular with families, but equally enjoyable for adults. It houses a four-story rainforest that visitors are invited to explore, brimming with life including free-flying birds and butterflies, as well as exotic reptiles and more than 1,600 live animals. Another highlight is the academy's Steinhart Aquarium, home to more than 40,000 marine creatures.
The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square might be the most iconic sight in San Francisco. Made famous in the opening credits of the 90s sitcom Full House, these seven colorful Victorian Houses stand side by side along the popular park.
It wouldn't be a trip to San Francisco without hopping onto one of the city's signature cable cars. There are three routes to choose from - Powell/Hyde, Powell/Mason and California/Van Ness. Most tourists board one of the Powell lines from Union Square, but be weary of a long line (especially on the weekends). I prefer the California/Van Ness line that travels up into Nob Hill for iconic San Francisco views.
On the rare occasion San Francisco temperatures are high enough to bust out a swimsuit, Baker Beach is the perfect spot for sunbathing. The beach is located in the Presidio facing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and neighboring Marin County. Note that this is a nude beach. Most visitors wear clothes and swimsuits, but at the far east end there will be the occasional nudist.
BERNAL HEIGHTS PARK
Head to Bernal Heights Park for sweeping views of the city skyline. If you're lucky, the iconic swing will be hanging from the tree at the top of the hill (it's notorious for being chopped down).
CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS
Tucked away in Golden Gate Park is one of the prettiest botanical gardens in the state of California. The beautiful Conservatory of Flowers sits in a Victorian glass greenhouse that dates back to 1879, and serves as the tropical home to thousands of plants, flora and fauna from around the globe. Visitors are invited to step into a living, breathing Ferngully that is filled floor to ceiling with lush palms, orchids and exotic ferns. Arrive early to explore the many corners of the conservatory before it fills up with tourists. Free admission on the first Tuesday of the month.
It doesn't get more touristy than Fisherman's Wharf. Nonetheless, the historic stretch of waterfront remains popular with visitors for its seafood restaurants, shops and attractions. Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39 are both within walking distance.
GOLDEN GATE OVERLOOK
There are several Golden Gate Bridge viewpoints scattered throughout the city, but one of the prettiest is the Golden Gate Overlook. Unlike most views, this location faces the bridge straight-on for a unique perspective of the iconic landmark. The small parking lot fills up quickly on the weekend, so arrive early in the morning, or visit on a weekday.
INA COOLBRITH PARK
An absolute gem in Russian Hill. Ina Coolbrith Park isn't more than an acre, but the lush, steep hills offer a truly stunning panorama of the downtown skyline. There are benches scattered throughout the park to soak in the views.
JAPANESE TEA GARDEN
Beautiful garden located in Golden Gate Park that transports visitors to Japan. The serene setting is home to the famous drum bridge, stone lanterns, red pagodas, koi ponds and perfectly manicured gardens. The garden is free to all San Francisco residents. For non-residents, arrive between 9 AM and 10 AM on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday and admission is free.
LEGION OF HONOR
Museum in Lincoln Park that houses paintings, sculptures, woodwork, jewelry, reliefs and more from across Europe, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The exterior courtyard to the Legion of Honor looks a bit like France - the triangle from The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and long colonnades.
They say Lombard is the Most Crooked Street in the World. A drive down the windy street is a must for tourists visiting San Francisco, but just as fun is a climb up the neighborhood steps. Spend an hour exploring this charming part of the city filled with blooming flowers, and my dream house located at 1040 Lombard St. You can't miss it - it's the blue 1911 structure covered in pink bougainvilleas.
Park at the Golden Gate Overlook and follow the trail down the cliffs to Marshall Beach for epic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The hike is pretty tame, and takes approximately 30-minutes roundtrip.
MISSION DOLORES PARK
Lovingly known as Dolores Park, this vibrant melting pot sits in the heart of the Mission surrounded by a cathedral, restaurants, cafes and neighborhood homes. Dolores Park is an absolute vibe, especially in warm weather on the weekends.
A 163-step mosaic staircase sits at the intersection of 16th Avenue and Moraga Street in San Francisco's Inner Sunset. The steps create a dreamy mosaic mural of stars, swirls, fish, the moon and sunshine, offering a variety of backdrops for photos. On a sunny day, Ocean Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge are visible from the top of the steps. This is a popular destination for local joggers who use the staircase for training.
Also known as Little Italy, San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood is a vibrant district that surrounds Washington Square Park, home to Saint Peter and Paul Church, trattorias, pizzerias, Italian flags, focaccia shops, cafes, bookshops and boutiques.
Pacific Heights is one of the most charming neighborhoods in the city that occupies a stretch of Fillmore Street lined with cute cafes, upscale boutiques, funky gift shops and delicious restaurant options.
PALACE OF FINE ARTS
It was built for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915, but now the Palace of Fine Arts serves as a park and exhibition space in San Francisco's Marina District. The whimsical creation looks like something out of an ancient Greek Roman fairytale, an ornate golden palace of soaring archways and colonnades that surround a spectacular rotunda. The Palace of Fine Arts is a popular spots for tourists, locals and wedding photographers, so best to arrive early if you plan to take photos.
A beautiful pedestrian-friendly pier located right off the Embarcadero with gnarly views of the Bay Bridge and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid.
QUEEN WIHELMINA TULIP GARDEN
One of the best kept secrets in Golden Gate Park is the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden. In a most unusual location next to dreary Ocean Beach, this oasis of flowers that surround a Dutch windmill looks like it belongs in The Netherlands. There are flowers year round, but visitors in early spring are treated to hundreds of bright tulips. It's a popular spot with locals on the weekend, especially if the weather is nice, so arrive early for picnics and photos.
The most popular shopping destination in the city is Union Square and its surrounds, home to every brand you can imagine including Neiman Marcus, Apple, Nike, Zara, H&M, Macy's and Westfield San Francisco Centre.
Golden Gate Overlook.
Italian feels in North Beach.
Italian colors all over the North Beach neighbood.
The famous Margherita pizza at Tony's Napoletana (supposedly they only make 73 of these a day!).
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN FRANCISCO
1 Hotel is the hottest new hotel in San Francisco, located off The Embarcadero, walking distance from the Ferry Building. The stunning property immerses its guests in simple opulence - salvaged wood, comforting whites, ceramics and greenery. The rooms and suites are completely inviting boasting plush linens, cozy blankets and simple chic designs - very upscale. For guests looking to splurge, the Ferry House Suite is a sprawling space that opens up to a private eighth-floor deck that overlooks the Ferry Building.
Yes, the Fairmont is old, but it's an absolute classic. It sits perched at the top of Nob Hill across from Grace's Cathedral, and watches dozens of cable cars pass by daily. It's a straight shot in either direction to reach Union Square, Fisherman's Wharf or the Ferry Building.
Four Seasons is always a solid option, and the San Francisco property does not disappoint. It's located in the middle of downtown, but sits on floors five through 17 of a 40+ story building, high above the chaos of the city. The hotel design is unusually modern for the Four Seasons brand - lots of grey tones that blend well with the views of the surrounding tall buildings. Access to Equinox is included for guests, one of the most popular, high-end gyms in the Bay Area.
The boutique hotel brand with properties in Los Angeles, Washington DC and Austin just opened a location in San Francisco. It's the newest hotel in the city, located in the Tenderloin, a few blocks from Union Square. The hip hotel is pet-friendly and offers free bike rentals to all its guest. The Line options include rooms, studios and suites, all boasting large windows and lots of light.
A hint of France in San Francisco! Palace Hotel is located in the city's Financial District, a great location for business travelers. Afternoon tea in the hotel's Garden Court is particularly impressive where guests are surrounded by gold details, marble pillars and Beaux Arts architecture. All the feels of Paris! The hotel houses more than 600 rooms, as well as a heated indoor pool enclosed by a glass roof.
For visitors that want to be close to Union Square, but don't want to stay in the gritty neighborhood, the Ritz-Carlton is fine alternative. The hotel sits in a historic column-clad building in Nob Hill, a mere neighborhood away from Union Square, but feels like an escape from downtown. Rooms are plush and modern, lots of opulence with grey and blue tones, thanks to a recent remodel in 2015.
The beautiful mosaic steps on 16th Ave in the Inner Sunset. OUTFIT DETAILS: Free People dress linked here.
The serene garden is filled with pagodas, stone lanterns, wooden bridges, bonsai and koi ponds.
The garden is free for San Francisco residents. If you aren't a resident, visit on Monday, Wednesday or Friday before 10 AM for free admission. OUTFIT DETAILS: Daughters of India dress linked here and Tkess flats linked here.
PLACES TO EAT IN SAN FRANCISCO
ANCHOR OYSTER BAR
It's worth the wait for a table at this tiny seafood spot located in The Castro. Anchor Oyster Bar serves up a handful of fresh seafood dishes, but they are most famous for their signature cioppino.
Baked treats from Arsicault are a must while in San Francisco. Once named Bakery of the Year by Bon Appetit Magazine, the tiny bakery serves an array of pastries, but it's their signature croissants that have made them famous - butter croissants, chocolate croissants and chocolate almond croissants (my favorite is the chocolate). Arsicault does sell out, so arriving early on the weekend is a must.
Bi-rite is one of the city's most famous ice cream spots, serving both staple and seasonal flavors like rosemary crumble, pumpkin cheesecake, brown sugar ginger caramel, caramel chocolate crunch, brown butter pecan, salted caramel, black sesame, honey lavender, roasted banana and creme brulee.
Lovely, delicious Italian restaurant located in The Mission. Note that Delfina Restaurant and Pizzeria Delfina are two different places, and it's the restaurant that I recommend. The seasonal menu always features an array of fresh pastas and entrees including rigatoni cacio e pepe, agnolotti with black summer truffles, tagliatelle ragu, whole grilled fish and a few pizzas. And the signature spaghetti pomodoro is always on the menu (my favorite!).
Lovely little neighborhood restaurant in Noe Valley that serves contemporary American dishes that change seasonally including roasted brussels sprouts with parmesean and truffle oil, griddled daikon radish cakes, little gem salad, Tuscan white bean and collard green soup, fried chicken w/mashed potatoes and gravy, ocean trout filet with potato fennel chowder and baked mac'n cheese.
For one of the best restaurant ambiances in the city, dinner at Foreign Cinema is a must. It's essential to book a table on the outdoor patio where old movies are projected on the walls and fairy lights hang amongst the heat lamps. Restaurant is bustling, great energy and vibes. Menu is Mediterranean influenced.
If you're looking for a fine dining experience, but not the outrageous creations that most fine dining restaurants serve, then Gary Danko is a great option. Guests choose from a fixed 3 course, 4 course or 5 course menu, and it's a delicious variety of dishes including risotto with lobster, seafood bisque, glazed pacific oysters, horseradish crusted salmon, branzini with fennel puree, pan roasted scallops, chicken roulade with mushrooms and quail stuffed mushrooms, to name a few.
Classic pizza by the slice joint in North Beach. Golden Boy serves square slices of focaccia pizza - cheese, pepperoni, clam & garlic, pesto veggie, combo and sausage.
HOUSE OF PRIME RIB
House of Prime Rib is truly an institution in the city - the restaurant feels like stepping back into Old World San Francisco with its low lighting, white table cloths, red and gold decor and staff tuxedos. The restaurant menu is fairly straightforward - different cuts of prime rib + fixin's (delicious salad, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, cream spinach and Yorkshire pudding). House of Prime Rib reservations must be made months in advance.
Possibly the best Greek restaurant in San Francisco. Kokkari is located on the Embarcadero, overlooking the water. Lots of items on the menu, something for everyone. Great for family style dining.
It's the most popular taqueria in the city. La Taqueria is famous for its burritos, make sure to order it El Dorado-style (they press the burrito on the grill until it's slightly crispy). Yes, there's always a line, but it moves quickly.
This charming French bakery has opened two locations in San Francisco - the Sanchez location is my favorite. If you nab one of the tables out front, it could pass as a little Parisian cafe. Les Merais, named after my favorite neighborhood in Paris, serves fresh baked pastries, croques, benedicts, salads, rotisserie meats and tartines.
Family owned bakery located on Washington Square Park in North Beach that serves fresh, tasty focaccia bread. Hours are limited, arrive early to grab bread before they sell out.
MAMA'S ON WASHINGTON SQUARE
There's always a line at Mama's, one of San Francisco's most popular brunch spots. It sits in the heart of North Beach, on a corner across from Washington Square Park. Menu includes buttermilk pancakes, omelettes, benedicts, fresh baked goods and their famous selection of french toasts.
PIER MARKET SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
It's located on ultra touristy Pier 39, but Pier Market Seafood is home to my favorite clam chowder in San Francisco. It's a sit down restaurant, but there's also a quick-order window where the piping hot chowder is available to go.
Upscale French restaurant in Hayes Valley, open for both lunch and dinner. Mains include stuffed flounder, roasted sea bass, duck leg confit, charcoal-grilled burger, braised short ribs and steak frites. This place is delicious, one of my favorite dinner spots in the city. Reservations are a must.
Popular bakery in The Mission that serves a delicious selection of fresh baked breads, pastries and deserts. The country loaf is my favorite.
TONY'S PIZZA NAPOLETANA
It's only fitting that San Francisco's other famous pizzeria is also located in North Beach. Tony's is a classic. The menu offers a variety of pizza options, but Tony's is most famous for its Napoletana-style Margherita (only 73 are made per day, so visit early to snag one of the famous pies).
A small Bay Area udon chain with three locations in San Francisco, Mountain View and San Jose. Udon Mugio's San Francisco location is in Japan Town. Be prepared to wait for a table if you visit on the weekend.
Zazie sits on a lovely little neighborhood street in Cole Valley. It's hands down my favorite brunch spot in San Francisco. Weekday mornings are a breeze, but it gets very very very crowded on the weekend. The trick is to show up 30-minutes before it opens on a Saturday or Sunday. Menu includes a mix of mimosas, benedicts, french toast, pancakes, scrambles, salads and sandwiches. The miracle pancakes (flavor changes weekly) and house potatoes are an absolute must.
Afternoon tea at Son and Garden in the Tenderloin.
The most colorful restaurant in San Francisco.
Zazie is my all-time favorite brunch spot.
The country loaf at Tartine Bakery is the tastiest bread in San Francisco.
Brunch feast at Mama's - banana bread french toast, buttermilk pancakes and pumpkin chocolate bread.
GETTING AROUND SAN FRANCISCO
A rental car is the easiest way to navigate the city, but driving and parking can be stressful for non-locals. In that case, the best way to move from one destination to another is Uber, and then walk within each neighborhood (San Francisco is very pedestrian friendly!).
The iconic Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.
On Pier 7 you'll find the best views of the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid.
GETTING TO SAN FRANCISCO
If you're arriving by plane, the closest airports are San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in South San Francisco and Oakland International Airport (OAK) in Oakland. The BART public transportation system connects both airports to downtown San Francisco, or book a taxi or ride share option.
The ornate Rotunda inside Neiman Marcus, on Union Square.
San Francisco currency is the USD. Almost everywhere in the city accepts credit cards.
There are a more than a dozen day trips available to you if you base yourself in San Francisco. Muir Woods is a 20-minute drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. Both the Napa and Sonoma wine countries are an hour north of the city. Berkeley is a BART ride away in the East Bay. And for a long weekend, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite are both within driving distance.
In recent years, crime and homelessness have been the headlines for San Francisco. And while they are both an issue for the city, most tourists visit without any incident whatsoever. Similar to anywhere you travel, always be aware of your surroundings. Avoid neighborhoods where drugs, crime and camps are an issue (i.e. The Tenderloin). And if you have a rental car, never leave anything inside the car to avoid a smashed window.
Wisteria bloom in Potrero Hill.