Except for New York City, San Francisco might be the easiest U.S. city to get around as a visitor. That, of course, is in a public transportation way not necessarily in a walking around way (hello hills!). So below is a quick itinerary for a first time traveler in San Fran using public transportation only. This is for a medium income trip but if you’d like tips on luxury or backpacker priced trips send an email ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), we have info on that as well.
There are two major options for airports in the Bay Area, Oakland (OAK) or San Francisco (SFO). Both are nice, big airports with plenty of flights in and out at any time of day. Oakland is further away from central SF but it does have the advantage of rare fog closures and delays. You can catch the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from the Oakland airport but you do have to take a shuttle to the station, there are lots of signs to point you in the right direction. If you choose to fly in to SFO instead the BART is in the airport itself, again with lots of signs pointing the way.
Since you’re using public transportation you want to stay in the heart of the city with easy access to said transport. No one likes dragging luggage around on multiple transfers from bus to cab to subway, so best to stay somewhere with easy access to a BART station. Market Street, while not the most exciting part of town is central to everything and the Whitcomb Hotel is a perfect choice for easy access.
After dropping your bags take a left out your hotel and head towards the notorious Tenderloin district to Pisco for dinner and drinks. It’s about an eight block walk to the restaurant and is in the middle of several other popular bars and dinner spots. After Pisco head to Zeitgeist, the communal beer hall owned by (rumor has it) one of the members of Green Day, throw back a couple of pints on the back patio before heading back for a good night sleep.
No matter who you are, your first day in a new place as a visitor, you are a tourist. There’s just no avoiding it, you go to a city you have to see the big deal. The city wants you to see it, they put it there for you to see and buy souvenirs. So don’t let qualms about appearing like too much of a tourist hold you back from these popular spots.
Alcatraz. This is a big tourist attraction for San Francisco but don’t get wrapped up in the hype. The fact is unless you are very interested in prisons and/or prison history, you can skip this one. It seems wrong to say and don’t not go if you are interested. It’s a fun ferry ride and the staff have great knowledge and history (definitely take a guided or audio tour), but if this sort of thing is not your priority then don’t feel bad about saving it for some other time.
Grab a cup of coffee from Starbucks (it’s in your hotel) to tide you over until breakfast. From your hotel take a right on Market St and a left at the Cable Car station towards Union Square. This is the heart of San Francisco’s shopping. All the big names are here! Be sure to stop for a photo-op at the Heart Sculptures. By this time you’ve burned off that first cup of coffee, so stop for an amazing brunch at Cafe de la Presse.
Take plenty of time to wander through Chinatown. This San Francisco neighborhood is the largest Chinatown in the nation (expect for NYC). It’s a great place to buy unique gifts or souvenirs.
Now it’s time to head for the waterfront. Swing by Lombard St to see the windiest road in America then wander to the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf. Stop at Ghiradelli’s for an ice cream but grab steamed clams at Pier 23 Cafe (between Sansome and Union), its got a great view from the back patio and they have live music in the front bar in the evenings. But seriously, get the clams.
From the Embarcadero you can take the F Line back to your hotel to freshen up for your night out on the town. Depending on how adventurous your nature you can take the BART or bus to North Beach. It may suit you to keep it simple at this point and get a cab to and from the hotel. Saturday nights in SF can get a little rough, especially in the downtown areas near City Hall. Always put safety first and cab it in unfamiliar places, when having a few drinks, or if you feel uncertain about the area.
North Beach has a thriving nightlife! This is the Italian neighborhood with some of the best food in the city. Dine at perennial favorites Rose Pistola or the Stinking Rose, both Zagat rated and recommended by all. Have a drink at Comstock Saloon after for first class cocktails and live music early in the night.
Always schedule an evening flight out on your last day! This gives you time to sleep in or, of course, to see more of the city. This morning head out to infamous Haight/Ashbury. Center of the 60’s hippie movement The Haight still maintains a great feeling of artistic independence. Have something to eat at View Askew Grill and just take in all the vibrant art and architecture. From here you can visit Golden Gate Park and get a view of the bridge too.