San Francisco In A Day

A First Time Tourist's Guide To 24 Hours In San Francisco

So your family is on a whirlwind California road trip with so much to see and so little time.  The iconic San Francisco is definitely on your list, but you just don’t know what to see and how much time to spend. 

This was definitely our dilemma on our three week road trip through California.  We had 24 hours in San Francisco, and we made the most of them.  Here are the don’t miss things to do in San Francisco in a day that we chose.

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San Francisco In A Day Things To Do

What To Pack For A Day In San Francisco

Sunny California! Flip-flops and shorts, here we come!

Hold up! Stop the presses! Not for San Francisco.  Albeit, we did visit in May, but I’m pretty sure from the advice I see in other places, that shorts and flip-flops aren’t exactly on the wardrobe agenda for San Francisco that often.

Layers baby! It can be cold!  We were surprised just how cold it was when we arrived. So much so, we had to go back to our hotel and change within the first hour! So here are a few suggestions for you.

Since most of our hiking trips require layering, we recommend the same items in our minimalist packing list for your trip to San Francisco. 

Here’s a quick list of a few items you might want to add to your list. 

*We have a great review of Wide toe box shoes perfect for long days of walking.

Where To Stay To Maximize The Touristy Experience

I know, I know, it’s not “hip” anymore to be a tourist.  Well, I am sorry, but as a family with young kids, we still like to geek out and do the “touristy” stuff.  So that’s what we did! 

We chose to stay right in the thick of it in the Embarcadero section of San Francisco on the North Point. This is the waterfront neighborhood you will equate with San Francisco and the famous views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.  It is the most convenient location for getting around on foot.  It is within walking distance of Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and the Cable Cars. 

Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf
Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

We chose the Courtyard located directly behind Fisherman’s Wharf.  We are loyal Marriott Rewards members and always try to choose their hotels. This is one way we are able to travel more.

As is usually the case with Marriott Courtyard hotels, the staff was impeccable and the rooms were perfect.  The pull out sofa, however, was the smallest I have ever seen and we did need an additional rollaway to accommodate our oldest son, but beyond that we would stay there again and can recommend them without hesitation.

Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

Located in North Beach, this hotel is within a 10-minute walk of Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square. Pier 39 and Lombard Street are also within 15 minutes. High-speed Internet

Family Friendly Moderately Priced Accomodations

Marriott San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

Marriott San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf

Clattering cable cars, fun-filled Fisherman's Wharf, and the tasty temptations of Ghirardelli Square are within 2 blocks of this hotel; the Financial District and Union Square are less than 2 miles away. High-speed Internet

WOW! Luxury Accommodations

Here are the top rated hotels located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

This Nob Hill hotel is adjacent to the California Street Cable Car line, and just steps away from the Financial District and the heart of Union Square. High-speed Internet

Where To Eat In San Francisco

We know this is really the most important section of our guide to you! What are we going to EAT??? 

The choices are endless.  The restaurant options at the Wharf alone could take a week to enjoy. Remember, however, I am sharing what a tourist can accomplish in 24 hours. Here were the top three restaurants we enjoyed while in San Francisco. 


Lori’s Diner  in Ghirardelli Square.  What  a gem!  We had the restaurant entirely to ourselves and after ensuring that our children could eat here, we were seated with a great view of the aquatic park in front of the Maritime Museum. 

We were astonished to see swimmers in the water on this cold morning. Our southern bones couldn’t stand the thought of how cold that water must’ve been.  

The decor is so cute in this 50’s style diner.  The breakfast was excellent and the service was perfect. We definitely would visit Lori’s again.

Lunch & Dinner

Lunch and dinner can both be enjoyed right on the Wharf.

You haven’t really been to San Francisco if you don’t have the Sourdough bread bowls in San Francisco at Boudin Bakery.

san francisco sourdough bread company

Because my oldest son has an allergy to peanuts, tree nuts, and coconut, and my daughter is also allergic to peanuts, there is always an added element of strain when seeking somewhere new to eat. In fact, the one thing that will have me either raving or warning about a restaurant is how they treat food allergic customers.

So here is my WOW referral for Boudin’s!  I was absolutely THRILLED to discover that they were not only able to accommodate us, but they had none of our allergens in house.  My kids could eat anything from the menu; even the COOKIES! We were definitely WOWED by Boudin’s! They were very  friendly AND TOTALLY NUT FREE! HUGE YAY!!!

Boudin Bakery San Francisco Bread Selection
San Francisco Sourdough Bread Bowls
We enjoyed a meal of Dungeness Crab at the Franciscan Crab Restaurant before getting our car and heading down the road.

San Francisco On Foot

If you are visiting San Francisco for a short period, as we were, the best way to really see things is either on foot or by the cable cars which we will share more about later.

You can also explore by car, but because our time was limited, we decided to do our car touring after we checked out of our hotel and headed to our next destination.  

For now, let me tell all the fun things to do in San Francisco on foot. 

San Francisco is a fascinating city to visit.

 Fisherman’s Wharf is no exception to the fascination factor.  Take time to explore the cute shops (as a Left Hander, I particularly loved the Lefty’s store) and try some amazing fruit. 

Lefy's San Francisco

There are numerous photo ops and interesting sights to be seen. 

Pier 39 Sea Lions Statue

As you stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf, you will not want to miss a stop to see and hear the Pier 39 Sea Lions (and smell them too, but that’s okay).

Sea Lions Pier 39 San Francisco

They are very fun to watch. The story goes like this, 

“A few California sea lions began “hauling out” on PIER 39’s K-Dock shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in October 1989. By January 1990, the boisterous barking pinnipeds started to arrive in droves and completely took over K-Dock, much to the exasperation of PIER 39’s Marina tenants. The Marina Staff turned to The Marine Mammal Center, an organization devoted to the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, for advice about their new slippery tenants. After much debate and research, the experts from The Marine Mammal Center recommended that the sea lions stay in their newfound home.” 

Source: Sea Lions and Sea Lion Story

If you love chocolate, then you are going to love  Ghirardelli Square

This is where we found Lori’s diner for breakfast, but there are several other cute shops located in this little section.  Most importantly, there is a Ghirardelli Chocolate shop where, oh yes, you can get a free sample! 

My poor kids are allergic, but mommy isnt!! 

You will want to make time to enjoy a leisurely stroll along the waterfront in San Francisco.  If time allows, you may want to visit the Maritime Museum, but we just enjoyed a stroll along the waterway to take pictures.

San Francisco Waterfront Boats

You Gotta Ride The CABLE CARS!

After all the walking and exploring San Francisco on foot, you are sure to be ready to sit down and take a break. It’s time to head toward the cable cars to get tickets.   In my research, I had determined that we didn’t have enough time to purchase a CityPass for any of the cities we were visiting.  Instead I opted for the 1 day Visitor Passport  at the rate of $22 per person. 

If you are planning a trip that includes multiple days in any of the major California cities such as San Francisco, San Diego, or the Southern California area, it may be worth your time and money to research and consider purchasing a City Pass for the numerous attractions available.

We knew if we did nothing else, we had to ride the Cable Cars! This was a decision we did not regret.  We had a great deal of fun hopping on and off to explore San Francisco.  

San Francisco Cable Cars with family

We utilized the Cable Cars to visit our next two stops: China Town and Union Square.

And, of course, we rode them up and down the famous Nob Hill.

We took a brief walk through China Town, known as the oldest and largest China Town in the US. 

It was certainly a cultural experience that my kids had never experienced before.  To be honest, we were quite intimidated and didn’t attempt to purchase anything, but we definitely enjoyed the scenery. 

Chinatown In San Francisco

From Chinatown you can walk a few blocks to  Union Square for some shopping.

San Francisco By Car

As the day winds down, be sure to catch these must do stops on your way out of town. 

This famous street draws thousands of motorists per day. With this view, it’s no wonder. (Sorry to the poor residents of Lombard Street).  

Known as the “crookedest” road in America, the experience is certainly unique. 

Lombard Street San Francisco

Finally, we saved the best for last.  Just like you can’t miss the Cable Cars, you can NOT visit San Francisco for a day and not drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.  It is well worth the hassle of the toll. (More on that below). 

Be sure to get out and take your iconic “windy” family pics to store in the memory bank of the best family vacations you ever took!