San Francisco Travel Guide

One of my favourite family holidays which we have been fortunate enough to experience to date is a road trip we took in 2022. This holiday had been over 2 years in the making as Covid-19 put a spanner in everyone’s travel and life plans.  But, it was certainly worth the wait!  We decided to start our trip in San Francisco, a place which had long been on our travel bucket list.  In this blog post we set out our sample 4 day itinerary and our recommendations for exploring this beautiful city.

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San Francisco Weather

Given our research for this trip was over 2 years in the making we honestly thought we were thoroughly prepared.  We were wrong!

A quote often attributed to San Francisco is “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco!.” I must say that never a truer word has been spoken!  Arriving in San Francisco at approximately 2.00pm after an 11 hour flight from London Heathrow we were delighted to find a gloriously sunny day.  However, that sun was totally misleading! After making our way out of the airport and waiting in line for a taxi to the city centre we quickly realised that we had totally misjudged our wardrobe for San Francisco.   Boy was it cold! 

The average summer temperature in San Francisco ranges from 60-70℉ (16-21℃ ).  This is the average spring temperature in Gibraltar.  As such, we packed T. Shirts, a couple of long sleeved tops and a thin jacket.  Let me tell you that this is not enough.  The wind chill factor in San Francisco is BAD! So when you read that it is advisable to pack plenty of layers DO SO!

Check out the table below for additional weather information:

Spring (March-May)Summer (June-August)Fall/Autumn (September-November)Winter (December -February)
Mild temperatures averaging 55-60℉ (13-18℃ ) with occasional light rainWarmer weather 60-70℉ (16-21℃ ) with occasional peaks to 80℉ (27℃) Similar to spring, with temperatures averaging 55-70℉ (13-21℃ ) with occasional light rainCool and wet with temperatures ranging from 45-60℉ (7-16℃ )
Pack layers and a light jacketFog is common so dress in layers (one of which should definitely be a sweatshirt/hoodie.
I would also recommend a lightweight scarf
Pack layers and a light jacketPack a waterproof jacket and layers
San Francisco Weather Information

Our Schedule for a 4 Day Visit

What you should arrange to do during your first day in San Francisco will largely depend on the amount of travelling that you have done to get there.  This is what we managed to do during our visit in late July 2022.

Day 1

On our first day, after checking in at our hotel (the Hilton San Francisco Financial District) at around 4.30pm, we explored the surrounding area by foot.  Our first stop was Chinatown.

Chinatown

Established in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the whole of the United States. Begin your Chinatown adventure at the iconic Dragon Gate on Grant Avenue.  This is one of the entrances to Chinatown and kids will love the intricate sculptures.  Dragon Gate also makes for a perfect spot for a family photo.

Waverly Place

From here, walk towards Waverly Place to explore its vibrant and stunning murals and bustling atmosphere.

Bank of Canton

This stunning building was formerly the Chinese Telephone Exchange with the first public telephone pay station being installed herein 1891.  Working as a telephone operator at this telephone exchange must have been a challenging experience.  With the Chinese community in Chinatown feeling that it was rude to refer to people by telephone numbers, telephone operators needed to learn the names, addresses and occupations of their subscribers and they also needed to speak five Chinese dialects as well as English!

The offices of the exchange were destroyed by the 1906 earthquake but were later rebuilt and the telephone exchange remained in operation until 1949.  In 1960, the Bank of Canton bought and restored the building.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Take a short detour to Ross Alley to visit the cookie factory.  Enjoy learning about how fortune cookies are made and let the kids try their hand at folding them.   Our kids enjoyed learning what their fortunes would be although they did not enjoy eating the cookies themselves.

Grant Avenue Shopping

Stroll along Grant Avenue browsing through quirky souvenir shops, toy stores and herbal and medicine shops

Eat at a Dim Sum Restaurant

Chinatown boasts numerous family friendly dim sum restaurants.  It was too late for lunch for us and our body clock was a little out of whack but we enjoyed sampling some traditional Chinese food on the go.

Little Italy

After exploring Chinatown, head down Jack Kerouac Alley (formery Adler Alley or Adler Place) to head to Little Italy.  Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for more murals including the Tupac mural.

Other Little Italy highlights include the Language of the Birds art display of suspended books and words along the floor.

There are some highly recommended restaurants in Little Italy but be sure to make reservations. It can be almost impossible to find somewhere decent to eat as a wallk-in.  One restaurant that was on a list of places to visit was Tony’s Pizza Napoletana but, not having made a reservation the wait was always around two hours!

Another thing to note is that restaurants tend to close early.  That said, Dani had a walk about one evening and discovered a place called Taqueria El Farolito.  This is a no frills Mexican taqueria. It opens late into the night and serves delicious and authentic Mexican food.

For some utterly scrumptious fudge and sweet treats head on down to Z Cioccolato.  We guarantee that you will visit more than once!

Sentinel Building   

As we headed back to our hotel, we stopped for some photos by the  Sentinel Building San Francisco’s version of the Flatiron building.  

Day 2

We had a really early start to our day due to jet lag. This worked in our favour as we were able to cram in a couple of sites which we had been too tired to explore the night before.

As Hilton elite members we benefit from certain perks.  At the Hilton San Francisco Financial District we chose breakfast food vouchers.  These were disappointing to say the least.  They were also hugely expensive.  That said, we grabbed our breakfast to go and headed over to The Transamerica Pyramid, “enjoying” breakfast in a nearby park with some beautiful redwood trees,  before carrying on with our planned itinerary for the day

The plan for day two was to visit Alcatraz and then explore Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square and Lombard Street.  We also planned to take one of the cable cars – this is an absolute must do when in San Francisco. However, it soon became obvious that our plans were overly ambitious especially with two young and tired boys.  We found that the key was just to go with the flow and adapt if not everyone gets rather cranky!

Alcatraz

Our first “planned” activity for day two was a visit to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz History

Alcatraz Island has a rich and varied history.  Serving as a Civil War fortress, a military prison, and a federal prison.  It is also a bird sanctuary and the first lighthouse on the West Coast.

In addition, Alcatraz is the birthplace of the American Indian red Power movement with American Indian activists occupying the Island in  1964 and again from 1969-1971.  These activists sought to reclaim Alcatraz Island and to establish a cultural and educational centre following the closure of the federal prison in 1963.  Their aim was to promote Native American heritage and to address issues faced by Native communities.  While the occupation did not achieve all its goals, it did draw attention to Native American issues and contributed to the broader Native rights movement

Booking Tickets

Please be aware that access to Alacatraz is via prior reservation.  Tickets sell out fast so be sure to pre-book to avoid disappointment. Book your tickets through Alcatraz City Cruises – the official source for ferry tickets to Alcatraz Island.

Getting There

Alcatraz Cruises depart from Pier 33.  The ferry ride to Alcatraz takes around 12-15 minutes and there are numerous departure times daily.  Check out 2024 Ferry and Tour Times for details on ferry and tour timings for 2024.

We decided to walk from our hotel in the financial district. Along the walk we came across some interesting outdoor activities which the kids really enjoyed.  You can enjoy these free activities at any time. Do take note however that they form part of the Exploratorium Museum which has additional fee for entry.

Be sure to arrive at Pier 33 early to allow plenty of time for security checks. We did and as we were waiting for our allocated slot on the ferry we saw a former Alcatraz inmate selling his book.  I now regret not having spoken to him or bought his book to learn first hand what life was like in the infamous prison.

Tour Options

You have the option of taking day or night tours to the island.  We took a day tour as the idea of a night tour was just a little bit too scary (and that was for the adults!)

There are audio guides available which provide in-depth information about the island’s history. The cell house audio tour is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Mandarin. It is also available in Braille in English.

Arrival at Alcatraz Island

Upon arrival at Alcatraz you will be met with an extremely strong smell. This is a mix of bird excrement and fish.  Not nice I know but the Alcatraz experience more than makes up for this!

Welcome Briefing

A far more pleasant welcome awaits you from the National Park Service representative at the grounds who will give you a brief orientation.  This briefing will include information on any special activities available that day.  We were lucky enough to experience some events which only take place once a year, including a history day

Tour Highlights

As part of your visit to Alcatraz Island you can explore the cellhouse visiting the infamous prison cells, dining hall, and other areas.  You will also learn about Alcatraz’s history as a military fortress and Native American occupation and enjoy stunning views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Visit Duration

Set aside at least 2-3 hours to fully explore the island.

Clothing and Comfort

Wear comfortable shoes and layer your clothing.  It can be windy and chilly on the island.

Snacks and Facilities

There are no food services on the island other than dry snacks and sweets (candy) from the bookstore so bring your own snacks.

Restrooms

Restrooms are available near the dock and in the cell house.

Rules

Follow all guidelines and rules provided by the National Park Service and ensure you stay on designated paths and respect the historical integrity of the site.

A Fun and Interesting Place To Visit

We all found the exhibits and information provided via the audio tour highly informative and interesting. 

Alcatraz turned out to be one of the boys’ favourite places in San Francisco.

Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf

Since we arrived at Alcatraz Island early in the morning we were able to make our way back to Pier 33 and head over to Pier 39 in time for some lunch.  Pier 39 was extremely busy and we found restaurants both here and in Fisherman’s Wharf to be very touristy.  That said, Evan and Jamie enjoyed one of the best hot dogs and fries they’ve ever had in the US at Aunt Fanny’s Hot Pretzels .  Dani and I opted to have lunch at the famous Boudin Bakery instead.  Dani had their french deluxe roast beef sandwich and I gave their famous clam chowder a go.  I have to say that it wasn’t my favourite food although it was an experience I wanted to try.

We spent a few hours exploring both Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.  The highlights for us were of course the sea lions, the musical stairs and the carousel at the end of Pier 39.  We also enjoyed looking for the heart art pieces and the various wall murals which we found make some really good family photos.

Another experience we really enjoyed was watching fudge being made by the singing fudge makers at The Fudgery .  Not only was this fun but it made us super hungry and the fudge was delicious!

Ghirardelli Square

From watching fudge being made at Pier 39 on to Ghirardelli Square.  This is an area of renovated factory buildings which have been converted into waterfront restaurants, boutique shops and galleries.  At Ghirardelli Square you can also explore the historic chocolate factory where you will find the world’s largest Pick & Mix boasting the widest selection of Ghirardelli Squares available.  These chocolates can be customised and personalised, making them a perfect souvenir of your time in San Francisco.

Day 3

Day 3 starts off with us walking down to Union Square to explore the department stores and boutiques.  This could be a shopaholic’s idea of heaven but we did not really factor in shopping time whilst in San Francisco.  There was far too much else to see and do to waste time in shops!

Our plan was to take a cable car to Lombard Street but took an Uber as the wait was far too long.     Lombard Street is San Francisco’s most famous winding street showcasing eight sharp switchbacks and stretching down a steep slope from the Presidio East to The Embarcadero.  In the area there are also some stunning buildings.

Oracle Park

Another thing which we enjoy doing as a family when we are in the US is attending a sporting event.  During this trip we chose to attend a baseball game at Oracle Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants.  Tickets for the game against the Chicago Cubs were extremely reasonable and we all enjoyed the experience.

When visiting Oracle Park it’s not just about baseball.  Oracle Park also boasts the following:

  • Art 
  • An eclectic collection of art, murals and photography both inside and outside of the park.  There are also a couple of LEGO statues of players such as Buster Posey and Madiso Bumgarner.   Both statues are currently located on the View Level Concourse near section 320.  Posey’s statue took a total of 210 hours to design and build and is made up of over 15,000 LEGO bricks. Bumgarner’s is made up of over 36,000 LEGO bricks and took a total of 300 hours to design and build.
  • The Fan Lot
  • This is an interactive play area for children and adults where children aged 14 and younger, and taller than 36″ inches, can enjoy a “slide into home plate” from one of the four slides. Guests of all ages can also stroll up to the world’s largest baseball glove, a vintage three-finger classic and get an autograph-rubbing from some of their favourite all-time Giants. The Fan Zone also features a state of the art fish tank which displays fish native to the San Francisco Bay.
  • Running The Bases
  • The stadium also offers another fun activity for kids aged 14 and under on Sunday game days – running the bases.  In order to run the bases, children and their parents must exit the ballpark after the game and re-enter at the right field viewing portal from the Portwalk.  This promotion is held at the discretion of management.
  • Concessions Stands
  • A ton of Concession Options.  Whilst we missed out on Tony’s Pizza at Little Italy we were able to buy some Tony’s pepperoni from one of the concession stands at the stadium.  Jamie absolutely loved his pizza and says he will definitely be going to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana next time we are in San Francisco!
  • Giant Dugout Stores 
  • The place to buy all types of Giants merchandise;
  • Free Viewing Area
  • An area where fans can watch the games for free!  At the right field fence, on a first-come, first-served basis there is a free viewing area.  Please be aware that fans may be cycled through after each three innings or earlier, depending on the size of the crowd. All guests are subject to security screening in the free viewing area and no alcoholic beverages (which includes non-alcoholic beer and wine), cans or bottles are allowed.

Before attending a match at Oracle Park, be sure to check out the Game Day Info for important information including what you can and cannot bring into the stadium. 

Day 4

A busy and jam packed day!

In the morning we took a cable car ride from Washington St + Powell station down to Fisherman’s Wharf.  There was a bit of a wait for the cable car and it was drizzling but all in all the wait was not as bad as we had seen on other days. 

From Fisherman’s Wharf we hired some scooters – this was definitely one of the boys’ favourite activities in San Francisco.  It was also one of my favourite activities as I had never driven an electric scooter before!

The scooters meant we could cover quite a lot of distance easily .  As a result we were able to cram in quite a lot during a few hours.  We ending up visiting:

  • Bob’s Lookout for some stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge;
  • The Palace of Fine Arts  in the Marina District.  This is a stunning architectural landmark which was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition featuring a Greco-Roman rotunda, a lagoon, and classical columns.  This is a perfect area for a leisurely walk and some stunning photograph opportunities.
  • Presidio Tunnel Tops -Next stop was the then newly opened Presidio Tunnel Tops.  A beautiful green area with the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge we had managed to see.  There are wooden benches throughout the park, food trucks selling a varied range of delicious food as well as BBQ areas and picnic tables which can be reserved. There is also an outlook post where children aged 2 to 12 can enjoy a natural play area.  Here they can explore the inside of a giant fallen tree, scale the Woodland Wall, and play with water features.  This is a free activity and is open between 9:30 a.m. and 6pm between April and October and between 9:30 a.m and 5 p.m. from November to March. Next to the Outlook Post you will find The Field Station.  This is another free activity which is packed with nature specimens, historical artefacts, tools, and maps enabling visitors of all ages to learn about the Presidio’s nature and history.  The field station is open from Wednesday to Friday between 11am and 4pm and between 10am and 5pm on weekends.

Whilst there is plenty more to enjoy in this park, including the The Walt Disney Museum, we still needed to cram a lot more into our last day so we needed to leave so we could explore Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park

From the Presidio we took an Uber stopping at Ocean Beach and then walked on to Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park is a vast canvas of nature, culture, and recreation. Whether you’re an art lover, a nature enthusiast, or simply seeking a peaceful retreat, this park offers a tapestry of experiences that will linger in your memory long after you leave. This park offers visitors a myriad of attractions and activities including:

  • The Japanese Tea Garden where you can marvel at the meticulous landscapes, authentic pagodas, and serene koi ponds. 
  • The Conservatory of Flowers a Victorian-era greenhouse where you can explore various climates featuring exotic plants and vibrant blooms.
  • The De Young Museum which is home to a vast collection of American art, international contemporary pieces, and rotating exhibitions.
  • The California Academy of Sciences where houses a planetarium, an aquarium, and a rain forest all under one roof.
  • Paddle Boat Rentals At Stow Lake
  • Windmills and Tulip Garden at the Queen Wilhelmina Gardens – head to the western edge of the park to visit the historic windmills. In spring, the nearby tulip garden bursts into a kaleidoscope of colours.
  • The Music Concourse and Bandshell where you can experience open-air concerts and cultural events. Additionally, the Spreckels Temple of Music bandshell often hosts free performances.
  • The Bison Paddock – In the western end of the park you can observe a small herd of American bison which have been a beloved part of the park since 1892.

Haight-Ashbury

You could easily spend a few days just in Golden Gate Park alone but after a couple of hours we took a bus to the edge of Haight-Ashbury.  

Haight-Ashbury was made famous by the hippie movement in the 1960s.   This iconic neighbourhood has an eclectic feel. Walk around the neighbourhood exploring its vintage shops and boutiques, street art and murals, colourful Victorian houses and cosy coffee shops.  We definitely enjoyed our cakes when we finally managed to sit down after a full day exploring.

Will We Be Back??

San Francisco is an amazing city and there is so much to explore within the city itself.  Next time we visit (and we feel that there needs to be a next time) a day trip to Muir Woods and Sausalito will definitely be on our to-do list.

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