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. Speaking of road trips, here’s a road trip packing list and a road trip itinerary for LA to San Francisco.
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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.
- High SPF Sunscreen: I admit, I am not the best at this, but with kids and lots of allergies, we found that Badger Brand sunscreen is the only sunscreen the entire family can use and we love it.
- Adorable sun hats for the kids: We love these cute hats for kids by Bienvenu
- Mom needs a new hat too: I do love to get a new hat for the beach and bike riding.
- Sunglasses: Being married to an eye doctor, I can’t forget this one. Contact us and mention this article for a discount on a new pair of suns for your trip.
- Your favorite camera– Here’s the one we love for our travels.
- Vests are great for layering and keeping things in our pockets. This cuts down on the need to carry a purse.
- Comfortable shoes for all the walking you will be doing. Visiting San Francisco on foot is the best way!
*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.
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.
Family Friendly Moderately Priced Accomodations
Here are few other family friendly options to consider.
- Marriott San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites Fisherman’s Wharf
- Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel
WOW! Luxury Accommodations
Here are the top rated hotels located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
- Loews Regency San Francisco
- The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco
- Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square
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.
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!!!
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.
There are numerous photo ops and interesting sights to be seen.
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).
Click Hear To Experience the Sea Lions on Pier 39
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.
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.
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.
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.
Experience Lombard Street With A Three Year Old
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! If you enjoy beautiful art, make a stop near Golden Gate Park to see the Mosaic Steps of San Francisco.
Drive Across The Golden Gate Bridge With Us
A word of advice regarding the Golden Gate Bridge toll. Be sure to go online and pay it from a lap top or device other than your phone. We lost an hour nearly on two separate occasions trying to utilize the so-called “FastTrak” to pay our toll. The customer service hours are very limited and the automated system would not accept our entries despite numerous attempts.
Want More Content Like This?
For more information on visiting San Francisco with kids, check out San Francisco with Kids Travel guide by October Acres.
Here is some inspiration for other North American road trips.
If you are headed to San Diego, check out these tips for a day in San Diego with kids.
If you so happen to plan your trip in October, check out Kids Free San Diego for lots of free things to do with kids.