Imagine that you have 48 hours to spend in the City by the Bay, also known as San Francisco. It’s your first time here, so you want to do the traditional touristy things. Where should you go, and what should you see? With two days and a BART card (for San Francisco’s metro), here are a few must-see activities that will still leave you with plenty of time to relax and enjoy that laid-back Bay Area vibe.
There’s something about a raw gritty backdrop like an abandoned prison to make people want to go visit it. But before it was a home for criminals between 1934 and 1963, Alcatraz Island was also where the first lighthouse on the West Coast was located. While the prison was active, the island was also the site of a major protest by Native Americans decrying the mistreatment of the nation’s indigenous people in 1970. Today, a quick 15-minute ferry ride from Pier 33 will get you directly onto Alcatraz Island, a National Park. And while Alcatraz Penitentiary is without a doubt the biggest draw, the island is also home to diverse wildlife, walking trails and excellent birding spots. Choose from a variety of tours, and if you’ve got nerves of steel, opt for a night tour and see if the haunted prison rumors are true.
If you’re not into visiting prisons, but still like historic sites, Coit Tower is the perfect alternative. Built in 1933, the tower is an iconic part of San Francisco’s skyline. It was funded by an endowment from Lillie Hitchcock Coit after her death in 1929. The wealthy heiress was a strong patroness of the San Francisco fire department and dictated that any money she left to the city had to be used to build the tower. Coit Tower is located on Telegraph Hill and offers gorgeous views of the Bay and the city below, thanks to the 360-degree views at the top.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco is, of course, known for the Golden Gate Bridge, but Golden Gate Park is a must-see. However, you might be surprised to find that Golden Gate Park is not right next to the bridge with a similar name. But if you love nature, gardens, and museums, then your time will be well spent here. The park is home to the California Academy of Sciences, which is a museum and event space, as well as the de Young Museum. Additionally, the Strybing Arboretum and the Conservatory of Flowers are located here. Since there’s so much to see and do in Golden Gate Park, this could be a half-day activity.
San Francisco is known for Chinatown, but a lesser-known ethnic community also offers rich cultural experiences and events. Japantown came to be after the 1906 earthquake when Japanese immigrants began relocating to this 30-block district. At the time, it was known as Nihonjin Machi or “Japanese People’s Town.” After World War II, when Japanese-American citizens were once again able to freely live in San Francisco, the district’s name was shortened to Japantown. Today Japantown is a vibrant district with numerous events that mirror occurrences in Japan like the Cherry Blossom (Sakura) Festival and Children’s Day.
Of course, Chinatown is the better-known ethnic community in San Francisco. While numerous cities across the world have Chinatowns, San Francisco’s is the largest outside of Asia and the oldest in North America. The district is located between Nob Hill and the Financial District and is the perfect way to experience an enjoyable sensory overload. You can also find great angles in this area where you can snap Instagram-worthy shots of the TransAmerica Building, another iconic San Francisco landmark.
Golden Gate Bridge
No trip to San Francisco is complete without seeing this iconic International Orange bridge. For the ultimate experience, walk across the span using the pedestrian walkway. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, and at that time, it was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. It was originally built to help connect Marin County with San Francisco, creating a faster alternative to the ferry. Walking across the bridge is a “must-do”, but plan to block out an hour and a half to two hours if you plan to walk a complete round-trip to Marin County and back.
Is this absolutely everything that you should see when you visit San Francisco? Of course not! A city this old, full of rich history and culture, can’t be seen in just two days. But if you want to be able to tell friends and family that you saw specific popular places, this list will get you started. If you have more time in San Francisco, expand this to-do list with more city walking and sightseeing or head into Oakland for a different vibe.