This is an idiosyncratic guide to San Francisco by a local, organized into 7 days of activities, followed by additional recommended activities, nightlife, and restaurants (as well as a list of SF destinations inspired by Harry Potter written up by my spouse).
The itineraries start with a lunch recommendation, so they contemplate a relaxed
morning with a late morning start to touring. The itineraries start from and return to the Castro neighborhood, but it is easy to start from and return to any other central SF location.
For customized public transportation directions, use the trip planner at 511.org.
(Photo credit: Banner photo by Trey Ratcliff.)
Day 1: Ferry Building and Stairway Walk to Coit Tower
• Take streetcar (F line) from Castro and Market all the way to Ferry Building (there are markets Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays)
• Have lunch at Ferry Building. Here is a list of merchants. Some good ones include El Porteno empanadas, Acme bread, Daily Driver bagels, Miette bakery, and Humphrey Slocombe ice cream.
• Optional: If you have children, visit the hands-on science museum The Exploratorium, along the Embarcadero.
• Walk up the Embarcadero to Filbert Street and walk up the Filbert Steps to Coit Tower. It starts as a metal staircase a couple blocks west of the Embarcadero, but soon
becomes a lovely wooden stairway passing close to old houses with flowers all about.
• Visit Coit Tower, with its fascinating depression-era murals inside (free of charge
unless you go up the tower in the elevator).
• Walk down into and explore North Beach (stop for coffee at Mario’s Bohemian) and then, if interested, Chinatown. In Chinatown, one good place to eat is Hang Ah, which claims to be the oldest dim sum place in the U.S. It is also very fun to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, and make sure to explore the back streets.
• If you’re really interested in Gold Rush history, check out the free Wells Fargo Museum on Montgomery Street in the financial district.
• Finally, visit beatnik landmark City Lights bookstore and nearby Vesuvio Cafe.
• Walk down to Market Street to catch subway to return to Castro.
Day 2: Golden Gate Park
• Cross Market Street and Walk up Clayton Street and through Cole Valley.
• Walk to Haight Street. Walk along there as much as interested and have lunch at
Parada 22 (a couple blocks from Golden Gate Park) for authentic Puerto Rican food. Music aficionados should visit the vast Amoeba Records after lunch and before entering the park.
• Enter GG Park, either by crossing Stanyan at Haight and going under a tunnel and past Hippie Hill (where there may be a drum circle) and then past the tennis courts to reach JFK drive, or head diagonally North to enter the park at JFK Drive, which is now permanently closed to car traffic. Walk along lively JFK drive and enjoy the public art and bikers/skaters/walkers. Visit, or at least admire, the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers.
• As per your preference visit the California Academy of Sciences or the DeYoung Museum, which face each other across a plaza in new striking buildings, accessible a bit further down JFK.
• In the same area, visit the spectacular jewel-like Japanese Tea Garden. You can have tea there.
• With the museums behind you, take a left on the road past the tea garden and walk to the inner sunset neighborhood (centered at 9th and Irving). (Optional: Continue exploring the park by visiting the Botanical Garden (aka Arboretum); Stow Lake (where you can rent paddle or row boats); or much further West the bison, the Dutch Windmill, or Ocean Beach (a flat and very long expanse of sand beyond dunes).
• (Optional: get a snack at worker-owner Arizmendi Bakery, on 9th past Irving Street.)
• Take the N-Judah (modern) streetcar towards downtown. (Optional: get off in Cole Valley and have some of SF’s best ice cream or an unusual fountain drink at The Ice Cream Bar, on Cole at Carl, in the direction of Haight Street.)
• Either walk home from Cole Valley or take the N-Judah to Duboce Park and walk back to Castro from there, which is a bit longer but takes in part of the Market Street portion of the Castro neighborhood.
Day 3: The Mission and the Castro
• Walk down 24th Street, taking in the Noe Valley neighborhood and stopping at
Chocolate Covered, with its extraordinary selection of chocolates, a bit past Castro and the Noe Valley Bakery.
• Continue on 24th all the way through Noe Valley and down into the Mission. Have tacos or burritos for lunch at Papalote (on 24th shortly before Valencia) or (for something less upscale and more authentic but probably more crowded) tacos at La Taqueria (at 25th and Mission).
• Walk down 24th Street, the heart of the Mexican neighborhood. Take a detour down
Balmy Alley to check out the fantastic murals. (Optional: get a cup of coffee at the original Philz Coffee, along this stretch of 24th at Folsom Street.)
• You can continue along 24th past Balmy Alley, spotting the hipster foodie spots (Dynamo Donuts, Wise Sons Deli, and Humphry Slocombe ice cream) hidden among the traditional Mexican/Mexican-American businesses, or return to Valencia Street.
• Walk down Valencia Street, stopping at Paxton Gate (a taxidermy and other curiosities
shop) and the literary pirate store right next door, 826 Valencia.
• Turn around at 16th Street and walk back to 18th Street. Take a right in the direction of Dolores Street. Notice the spectacular mural covered Women’s Building. Cross Guerrero Street. This block of 18th between Guerrero and Dolores is a Mission foodie paradise: Tartine Bakery at the corner of 18th and Guerrero; Pizzeria Delfina; upscale Bi Rite grocery; and Bi Rite Creamery almost at the corner of Dolores. I especially recommend the ice cream at Bi Rite. If the line is too long, get the delicious soft serve ice cream at the second window. Even better, wait and get ice cream in the Castro.
• People watch in Dolores Park and, if you have kids, let them play in the playground. This would also be the opportunity to visit nearby Mission Dolores.
• Continue along 18th Street to return to the Castro. Stroll the neighborhood on Castro between Market Street and 19th Street. Take note of the historic Castro Theater close to Market Street (and see if there is anything you can see there during your visit). Visit the beloved Cliff’s Variety general store. Notice the location of gay rights legend Harvey Milk’s old store Castro Camera and apartment, at 575 Castro closer to 19th Street. Finally, get some of the City’s best ice cream at The Castro Fountain, an outpost of Cole Valley’s Ice Cream Bar.
Day 4: SFMOMA
• If it is Wednesday, or if you are curious to see the impact of the fentanyl crisis on San Francisco, take the subway (or the Market Street F-line streetcar) to Civic Center. On Wednesday there is a farmer’s market at UN Plaza, with an impressive variety of fruits and vegetables, more affordable than at the Ferry Building market. If you walk the Civic Center area, you will see drug addicts and dealers. I’ve never seen them bother any workers or tourists, but it is disturbing to see.
• If you are in the Civic Center, considering visiting the grand dome of City Hall (taller than the Capitol) or the Asian Art Museum, although it is probably too much to visit SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum on the same day.
• If you don’t mind the street life, walk ten minutes down Market street to Powell Street. This crosses the mid-Market neighborhood, which recently has seen significant gentrification following Twitter’s takeover of the the old San Francisco Furniture Mart. There is an upscale Market and food court in part of the ground floor (although it would require a detour West down Market Street to visit). It remains to be seen what will become of the building if Elon Musk drives Twitter into bankruptcy… Otherwise, take the streetcar or the subway one stop to Powell St.
• Optional: walk up Powell Street to visit Union Square, the heart of the shopping district with all the big department stores, or find the beautiful dome at the top of the Emporium Building on Market
Street, preserved at the top of the Westfield mall.
• Turn right (south) on Powell St and cross the Yerba Buena Gardens to reach the fantastic modern art museum, SFMOMA. One the way, stop at the MLK Memorial (look for the waterfall). The museum re-opened in 2016 after a renovation that literally doubled its space. It now has an extensive high quality permanent collection, as well as spectacular temporary shows. Thoroughly visiting the museum requires most of the day. There is a nice (but pricey) cafe upstairs next to an outdoor sculpture garden.
• Optional: Across the street from the Yerba Buena Gardens (in the direction of Market St), check out the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which has an interesting cube built into its design and sometimes has very interesting shows. Consider having lunch or a snack at Wise Sons’ Deli inside the museum. If you have children, cross a bridge in the southern part of the gardens and access another area, with an an old carousel and a playground with a tall slide.
Day 5: The Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and walk to Palace of the Legion Honor
• On a weekday, take buses to Clement Street in the Richmond neighborhood, north of
Golden Gate Park.
• Have lunch at Burma Superstar, serving delicious Burmese food. Hopefully it won’t be
too crowded at lunchtime on a weekday. After lunch, if you like, you may explore
Clement Street, which is an area with Chinese and Russian immigrants, among
others. Check out the vast Green Apple Books, with new, used, and remainders spread across two neighboring storefronts on Clement and 6th Avenue.
• Walk one long block to Geary St and catch the 38 bus going West. Take the bus all
the way to the end, asking the driver where to get off for the Cliff House, at the edge of
the Pacific Ocean. The Cliff House itself may or may not be open, and it may not be worth more than a peek, but walk to a lower level behind the Cliff House and you will see a giant camera which, in fact is a giant Camera Obscura. Sadly, it appears that it may be close, but if you are in the area check just in case. If you do get inside, it is difficult to explain, but you’ll find a most unusual moment of sublime beauty and peacefulness.
• Explore the ruins of the Sutro Baths down below the Cliff House, to the North. Former
Mayor Sutro built a large public bathhouse on this spot, and the foundations remain.
(Optional: before proceeding down to the ruins, consider visiting the little-visited Sutro
Gardens, across the street and above the Cliff House. The gardens are the site of
Mayor Sutro’s old mansion, of which nothing remains. The gardens themselves are
pleasant and offer a great view south along Ocean Beach and the West end of Golden
• From above the Sutro Baths, take the Lands End Trail that leads around to the
Palace of the Legion of Honor (2 miles, 30 minutes), offering great views of Golden Gate Bridge along the way.
• Optional: visit the classical collections of the Palace (or a special exhibit), or continue the walk through the upscale Seacliff neighborhood.
• Return to the Castro by bus.
Day 6: Golden Gate Bridge and the Marina
• Although locals don’t often do it, most visitors to SF want to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. The view as you walk across is spectacular, although it can be cold and foggy is the weather isn’t right. There is a busy parking lot at the SF end of the bridge, but it can be accessed with some effort by bus. The bus is line 28, which runs up 19th Avenue in the Sunset. The itinerary below take you to the bridge by bus.
• On a sunny day, start with an informal lunch in the Castro, perhaps novel kati rolls at Kasa Indian on 19th a few blocks east of Castro St, or quality fast foodish hamburgers at Super Duper on Market Street, in the first block east of Castro St. Alternately, walk or take the streetcar to Church St and walk one block North to catch the N-Judah streetcar West. You can get off in the inner sunset to have very good sushi at Ebisu, on 9th Avenue, just North of Irving Street.
• Get back in the N-Judah and take it to 19th Avenue to catch the bus to the Golden Gate Bridge.
• Afterwards, head to the base of the GG Bridge to explore old Fort Point. Then stroll the restored shorescape of Crissy Field with Golden Gate Bridge looming in the distance. At the end of Crissy Field, stroll around the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts, built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. If you are into escape rooms, there are some SF themed escape rooms inside at Palace Games.
• Take a bus or a long walk to Fort Mason, at the East end of the Marina neighborhood, in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf. Head uphill and Take a path along the Northern edge, above the water, in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf. (Optional, if you still have time, you can visit the Hyde Street Pier or even the Musee Mecanique if you have a lot of extra time, as described below in the day 7 itinerary.)
• Return to the Castro by bus along Van Ness, catching MUNI to Castro at Van Ness and Market.
Day 7: Alcatraz & The Musee Mecanique
• A trip to Alcatraz is well worthwhile. I don’t know the current process, but buy your tickets well in advance. The boats probably leave from the Embarcadero or Fisherman’s Wharf, and the trip will take some time.
• Afterwards, make your way back to Fisherman’s Wharf (if you haven’t been deposited there after the Alcatraz tour). While very touristy, the wharf houses a real gem — a collection of pre-digital boardwalk mechanical amusements (plus some 80s era video games) called The Musee Mecanique. It is genuinely novel and a delight to old and young alike. All machines operate on quarters. If it doesn’t work to visit the Musee on the same day as Alcatraz, make sure you work it in on another day.
• (Optional: if you’re interested, one may visit a WWII-era submarine and warship behind the Musee)
• Heading West, you will approach Ghiradelli Square. You may skip the Square entirely (certainly not the best chocolate in San Francisco), but towards the water just before you reach Ghiradelli Square, look for the Hyde Street Pier, which has a collection of old ships that can be explored.
• Return on the F-line streetcar to the Ferry Building and then walk across to the Embarcadero subway stop to return to Castro. Or return from Fisherman’s Wharf by bus along Van Ness, catching MUNI to Castro at Van Ness and Market. Or catch the cable car at the Wharf at Hyde Street (I believe that is easier than catching it at Powell and Market) and then take MUNI to Castro from the Powell station.
SF Destinations Inspired by Harry Potter
My spouse asked me if I would post this entry to my San Francisco Itineraries, and so here it is:
In 2018, my family visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. We had wondered how authentic an experience a park could construct. We loved the train and the rides and the magical creation of places, but not the shops filled with park souvenirs or the mediocre food. My spouse commented that, “The hot butterscotch at the Castro Fountain is closer to what I’d imagine butterbeer tastes like than what they serve here.” And so the idea for this post was born: a list of the places in San Francisco that have something of Harry Potter in them. These are local labors of love—places that were made in and for San Francisco and were never created with Harry Potter in mind.
• First, of course, is the Castro Fountain, where the homemade tinctures in the drinks are fabulously witchy and wizardly (although all the drinks may not have come back since the pandemic). And the hot butterscotch topped with toasted marshmallow fluff is worth a detour for anyone on the hunt for a butterbeer experience.
• The neighborhood also has two sweet shops that we’d imagine in Hogsmeade. Giddy, with jars and bins of fabulously-flavored gummies, sours, other delights, and our favorite chocolate shop in the world, the tiny but bounteous Chocolate Covered, packed chock-a-block full with a vast and expertly curated collection of chocolates from the Bay Area and around the world.
• On the Gringotts ride, when the figure of Bellatrix Lestrange leapt out at us, it occurred to me that Dark Garden was the perfect place to find corsets, belts, and made-to-order dresses to rival hers.
• I never get tired of returning to Paxton Gate, where the taxidermy, bones, stones, and curiosities would be at home in the classrooms of Hogwarts. Paxton Gate also has some unusual plants, but if you’re in the right mindset you can easily feel surrounded by plants with magical powers in the Conservatory of Flowers, which boasts, besides carnivorous plants and other delights, a corpse flower.
That’s all for now. I’ll add ideas as they come to me. In the meantime, enjoy!
Other San Francisco destinations:
• The grand Pan-American Unity fresco by Diego Rivera is currently on display at SFMOMA, but it may return to its owner City College to be installed in a new building
• Fort Funston
• California Street streetcar line up over nob hill
• Japantown, Fillmore St, and Pacific Heights neighborhood
• Movies at the Castro Theater (a grand dame), The Roxie, or Alamo Drafthouse (which has a fab collection of Bruce Lee movie posters)
• Rock shows at The Chapel, the Independent, Rickshaw Stop, Bottom of the Hill, or The Fillmore. A very good reason to go to The Fillmore is to see the amazing collection on display of posters from past shows spanning decades. If you go to a sold out show you will be given a unique poster for the show upon exiting. More rarely, there are shows at the Swedish American Hall/Cafe du Nord (two parts of one building) on Market Street in the Castro.
• Jazz at Club Deluxe on Haight St and cocktails at Alembic
• Cocktails at Cafe du Nord (if it is open), Blackbird, and the Orbit Room on Market St
• With reservation, cocktails at Bourbon & Branch or Wilson & Wilson
• Amazing tiki drinks at Smuggler’s Cove in Hayes Valley or, for hardcore gin fans, a visit to steampunk-inspired Whitechapel (Civic Center)
• Craft beer and video games at The Detour (Castro) or the Emporium Arcade Bar (Divisadero)
• Theater at The Marsh in the Mission
“Nice” SF Restaurants:
• Frances (Castro)
• Firefly (Noe Valley)
• Doppio Zero (Hayes Valley)
• A Mano (Hayes Valley)
• Zuni (Mid-Market)
• NOPA (Divisadero)
Casual SF Restaurants (some more expensive then others):
• Pizzeria Delfina (Mission)
• Nopalito (Divisadero and Inner Sunset)
• Parada 22 (Haight)
• Kasa (Castro and Polk Street)
• Papalote (Mission)
• La Taqueria (Mission)
• RT Rotisserie (Hayes Valley)
• Marufuku Ramen (Japantown)
• Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (North Beach)
• Capo’s Chicago Pizza (North Beach)
Fantastic Itinerary! I will be sure to share it with my friends when next they come to visit the bay area! Thanks!