San Francisco offers travelers a vibrant art and food scene, great exercise from its hilly terrain and incredible views of the bay; not to mention the Golden Gate Bridge as a gateway to Muir Woods National Monument. Being one of the largest cities along the west coast, it’s also a frequent transit hub for travelers. If you find yourself in the bay area on a 24 hour layover, you won’t be able to experience everything this city has to offer, but you’ll certainly get a great introduction. Based on my own visit, along with input from locals, here’s my best 24 hour itinerary for San Francisco. It keeps with the style of travel that Departful is known for. Meaning, it skips the overly touristy haunts and opens your eyes to the real San Fran.

Where To Stay In San Francisco

If you’re in San Francisco for a full 24 hours (or longer), escape the airport hotels and opt for accommodation downtown. Hotels around Union Square offer close access to shopping, galleries, chinatown and are within walking distance to the cool bars and eats of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. It’s important to realize that accommodation in the city is pricey, with even 2 star hotels or private hostel rooms running upwards of $120 USD/night.

My top pick is without a doubt the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Located centrally within Union Square, the historic building offers complementary 5-6pm happy hour and use of bicycles. They even provide free tours of their secret prohibition era booze room. Rooms start at $260 USD/night plus $22 resort fee. Fear not, as frequent deals can be had for around $179 USD/night. The Kimpton chain is known for unique decor, in-room yoga mats, incredible on-site dining and being dog friendly. In addition to the Sir Francis Drake, they have another nearby property, Kimpton Buchanan Hotel in Japan Town.

Other notable boutique options include The Marker San Francisco or W San Francisco. Both cater to travelers who are willing to spend a bit more for contemporary, art forward accommodation. Guests can access in house spas and lounge/bar scenes that are sure to impress.

7:00am Breakfast of Champions (& Award Winning Chefs)

The San Francisco food scene rivals that of New York and LA. Start the day with something from Tartine Bakery & Cafe. Yes there will likely be line-ups to contend with, but I assure you, it’s worth it. Husband and wife duo Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson are James Beard Award winners, published authors, and the masterminds behind some of the most revered bread in the country. Carb lovers rejoice!

Need more fuel? Coffee at Tartine, nearby Four Barrel Coffee (at 375 Valencia St) or any one of the eight Blue Bottle Coffee locations in the city are solid bets. Blue Bottle has grown to several US cities in part thanks to its fanatical approach to freshness. They only sell coffee within 48 hours of it being roasted.

If for some reason you still haven’t had your fill, a visit to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse is in order. The location at 1042 Larkin St, is conveniently on route to Lombard St. (see next activity below). This cafe is the mecca for unapologetic donut lovers. Fan favourites include bread pudding with charred lemon and cocoa nib as well as the mulled wine danish.

8:00am Daring to Cycle Lombard St.

A 30 minute, 3 mile cycle north brings you to the next stop on your San Francisco itinerary. Lombard Street is one of the most well known attractions within the city, famous for its crooked hair pin turns atop a steep hill. Start at the top of the hill, where Lombard intersects with Hyde St., and zig zag your way down along with the one way traffic to Leavenworth Street. Picturesque flowers and unique homes line the street. However, if you’re trying to cycle down you’ll be focusing more on the challenging road than the view.

9:00am Cruising Parks & Piers

San Francisco is home to an incredible waterfront. There are countless piers, parks and beaches that attract locals and tourists alike. From Lombard St. continue downhill 500 meters north towards Hyde St. Pier. From here you’ll have to choose between heading west toward the ocean for views of the Golden Gate Bridge or east towards the bay for several piers, restaurants, and market action. Thankfully, either way will involve relatively flat cycling routes along the shoreline that’s easy for all fitness levels.

To the west, you’ll pass great beaches and parks. If you head to the end of Aquatic Park Pier you’re rewarded with views back towards Ghirardelli Square and the city beyond it. If weather isn’t cooperating, consider a break to tour nearby Maritime Museum in the historic Aquatic Park Boathouse Building. Open daily 10am-4pm, admission is free.

The network of cycling and walking paths continue to Presidio. The 1,500 acre former military post now serves as a massive recreational hub for the city. One of the most interesting destinations along the edge of the park is undoubtedly The Wave Organ. Built in 1986, this wave-activated acoustic sculpture is made of material sourced from a demolished cemetery, city curbstones, PVC, granite and marble. Though not the most glamourous visually, the site’s 25 organ pipes create a unique subtle auditory experience. The experience is best at high tide. Part audio, part experiential, and open to all to enjoy, The Wave Organ is one of a kind.

For travelers who love photography, this stretch of park also offers great views from Crissy Field, Fort Point National Historic Site, or The Golden Gate Overlook. If you’re a photography diehard and are willing to push your pedals to get there in time, check out Baker Beach, or lesser known Marshall’s Beach. Both are along Presidio’s western shore. Marshall’s Beach is about 1 mile from the bridge, while Baker is a 1/4 mile further. Views are from the opposite side of the Golden Gate Bridge than most of the photos you’re likely to see in magazines or from other tourists. Note, the northern (closest to the bridge) section of Baker Beach is clothing optional.

If you opt to travel east from Hyde St. Pier instead of west, you’ll find a series of numbered piers. Within a few minutes you’ll discover the many shops and seafood stalls of Pier 39. Admittedly these are more touristy in nature. A visit before 10am will allow you to enjoy the calm without crowds, but not all shops may be open.

As you continue along, you’ll see Coit Tower sitting atop Telegraph Hill on your right. The tower provides terrific 360 degree views over the city and bay area as well as a mini history lesson on the region. If we had two days in the city, we would have considered a tour here, though again, it’s a ‘tourist destination’. Entry is $8 for adults, and tours are another $8 per person. Open 10am-5pm daily, with extended hours to 6pm May through October.

After passing The Ferry Building Marketplace (epic farmers market and foodie destination) it’s time to head back inland to the core of the city.

11:00 am Embracing Art & Design at SF MOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (known as SFMOMA) stands as just one of several notable art and cultural experiences on offer within the Yerba Buena arts district. General admission is $25 which includes free self guided audio tours as well as several specific thematic tours running throughout the day.  Opening hours are from 10:00am – 5:00pm daily, extended to 9:00pm Thursdays. Take note, the museum is closed Wednesdays.

SFMOMA stands an impressive seven stories tall. Each floor houses different exhibits from modern interactive audio experiences to classic European masters, not to mention notable local artists and multiple outdoor culture gardens along the way. Start on floor 7 where you will literally feel art through sound waves in the temporary Soundtracks exhibit. On your way through the fifth floor, you’ll enjoy an eye popping array of Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein works. Finally take your time with the abundance of classic Matisse and Picasso pieces occupying the second floor. If you’re as lucky as I was, an enthusiastic security guard close to the Jay DeFeo piece on the fourth floor may happily share his insights into the local Californian artist with you. The artist’s story and literally weighty  pieces within both SFMOMA and LACMA were the highlight of all the gallery experiences of my trip.

Beyond SFMOMA you’ll also find an abundance of other notable cultural and art venues worth exploring. All are within the Yerba Buena arts district and quite literally across the street from one another. Choose from the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD), the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), or Yerba Buena Center For The Arts (YBCA).

Nearby dining options include Lemonade, which offers upscale cafeteria style dining, delicious poke bowls and no less than 6 different lemonade choices. Food is fast, fresh and incredibly tasty, with many dishes being gluten free and/or vegan. Expect to pay only $10-13 per person.

2:00pm Chow Time at the SoMa StrEAT Food Park

The reward for a late lunch is one you’ll remember for years to come. The SoMa StrEAT Food Park is located at 428 11th St., a 15 minute taxi ride from Union Square. The market is home to a rotating line up of no less than 12 different street food vendors. Complete with massive TV screens, carnival games, an outdoor beer garden, as well as indoor seating in retrofitted buses, it’s easy to see why this place has become a foodie heaven. The market also plays host to several community and cultural events, so be sure to check out their calendar to see what might be in store during your visit. And yes, dogs are welcome.

3:00pm Shopping In San Francisco

Union Square is home to a plethora of shopping options from high end designers to your every day H&M. Unfortunately, nothing about these shops is very local. Instead we opted to explore stores in a few other neighborhoods that were founded in San Francisco or carry more interesting wares. Though some of these are beyond easy walking distance, they just might be worth the taxi fare for some travelers. Most are located within the trendy Hayes Valley:

  • Upper Playground – A wide selection of men’s and women’s and even baby’s locally designed graphic tees, New Era snapback hats, leather goods and design focused coffee table books. If you’re looking for a genuinely cool take on San Francisco or California souvenir t-shirts, look no further. 220 Fillmore St.
  • Gather – Literally a gathering place to find local and hand-crafted clothing, home goods, and gifts. A growing number of indie artisans are represented through monthly trunk shows and seasonal events.  No joke, I’m actually sad about missing their upcoming ‘knit a chunky scarf’ workshop. 541 Octavia St.
  • The General Store – Women’s clothing, jewelry, home decor, and apothecary goods curated from higher end designers. Everything in store seems to be united by muted colors and rich natural textures. Some great finds, but more often than not the price tag may be too much for budget conscious travelers. Levis 501s can cost upwards of $225, while many tops range from $90-285, and dresses $300-400. 4035 Judah St.
  • Union Made – Carries the “best made, hard to find, wardrobe elevating menswear”. The store has an impressive range for different budgets from Converse to Red Wing shoes. Though most items are less than the $5,900 Kapital patchwork ring coat on display, the store does tend to skew very high end. 493 Sanchez St., during renovations temporarily located at 4035 18th St.
  • Welcome Stranger – This ‘made in San Francisco’ brand has been producing classic wardrobe staples for men since 2010. You won’t find crazy trendy prints here, but you will find well built t-shirts, along with modern kettles, cookbooks and after shave balms. 460 Gough St.
  • Olive This Olive That – Speciality food boutique and tasting room specializing in all things related to olive oil and balsamic vinegars. Plenty of traveler friendly bottle sizes are on offer. 304 Vicksburg St.

5:00pm The Happiest of Happy Hours

Whether you’re taking advantage of the complementary California wine and cocktails at your hotel (we love the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake for this), or enjoying a patio, 5pm is a great time to be in the city.

The Hayes Valley neighborhood is home to a gaggle of drink options. Take your pick amongst Mikkeller Bar, (world famous craft beer), Biergarten (small Bavarian beer garden), Absinthe (stiff cocktails and tasty oysters), or The Riddler (airy champagne bar). It’s also worth coming back to the area after dark, paying a visit to Smuggler’s Cove. According to Drinks International, Smuggler’s Cove is one of the top 50 Bars in the world. It’s kitschy, colorful charm has such a large following that owners Martin and Rebecca Cate have even released a James Beard Foundation award winning book titled ‘Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki’.

8:00pm Dinner With Friends

I’ll admit, when I’m only in a city for one night, my approach to dinner focuses more on great dining than the budget. Luckily, none of these tasty recos will set you back more than $100 per person, assuming shared apps, a main, dessert, two alcoholic drinks, tax and tip.

When it comes to locally inspired, farm to table dining State Bird Provisions, and sister restaurant The Progress (respectively at 1529 and 1525 Fillmore St.) are amongst the best in their class. The tapas style menu is best shared with friends.

Since San Francisco is on the water, it would be a miss to overlook seafood options. Ichidos is a unique omakase experience. Head chef Geoffrey Reed describes it as “foraged Japanese seafood with California roots”. For $85/pp you’ll participate in the chef’s tasting menu, served at a communal table. As if the seating configuration wasn’t enough, you can also amp up the sociability of dinner with sake flights for $30/pp. 687 Minna St.

Barcino is the all around winner when it comes to great decor, social vibe, and an out of this world Barcelona inspired tapas menu. Plus they have a pretty stunning raw bar. Even on a Sunday night, the restaurant was full. It has been every night since opening in July 2017. Top picks include oliva, adobo marinated olives, and the bomba chorizo ball smothered in tomato sauce and roasted garlic aioli. Don’t overlook the patata, crispy potato cup. Despite the description, it’s the furthest thing from bland you’ll eat all night. Lighter options like pera, a cava poached pear and roasted squash salad are also on offer. Last but not least save room for one of the chocolate based desserts. Everyone at the table will love you. In fact, your fellow travelers may very well offer to pick up the tab. 399 Grove St.

11:00pm A Secret Nightcap

A delicious dinner and a long day of touring San Francisco may tempt you to climb into bed early. That would be a mistake. Trust me. Muster up all the energy you have, and walk a few blocks over from Barcino to White Chapel.

Part history, part fantasy, the bar is named and modeled after a real turn of the century subway station in East London. It’s pedigreed management team includes the aforementioned Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove. The result is what feels to be a secret gin focused club house of sorts. The speakeasy vibe and attention to detail in the finishings will impress even the most jaded of travelers. And if the decor doesn’t, a selection of over 370 gins and 100 specialty cocktails will do the trick. White Chapel is home to the largest gin selection of any bar in North America. On top of that, the bar accepts reservations through Yelp and offers daily happy hour specials. Located at the Embassy Hotel, 600 Polk St.

Getting Around The City

The first question a layover traveler often has about exploring a new city relates to transportation. San Francisco is home to a seemingly infinite amount of both UBER and LYFT drivers, as well as regular taxis and a well developed public transit system. While riding the trolley along Hyde or California St. is popular for travelers new to the city, we didn’t find the route or lengthy queues of fatigued tourists worth it. Snap a pic of the trolley and be on your way using other modes of transport.

For ease of travel and cost, LYFT came out as the winner during our visit. A trip from the airport to Union Square downtown averages about $35 and takes only 35 minutes. If you’re new to either of these ride sharing apps, or even if you’re simply new to using them in San Francisco, there seems to be several discount codes available with a quick Google search. You’ll likely receive $10 off your first ride, then several other discounts for referring any travel companions.