Speed-dating San Francisco: When you only have a day to get to know the city
The majestic Golden Gate Bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay. The haunting image of an island prison tucked behind a veil of fog. A mighty dragon snaking its way through the streets of Chinatown. There's so much to see and do in San Francisco, how can you plan to spend only one day in the city? It is possible to enjoy a memorable and rewarding 24-hour trip, however, by eliminating San Francisco's worst tourist traps and focusing exclusively on attractions that are unique to the city.
Hidden surprises in Golden Gate Park
Covering 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is one of the nation’s great urban parks, home to numerous museums, gardens, lakes and recreational trails. Sundays are ideal for exploring on foot or two wheels as cars are restricted from certain roads and bikes are always available for rent.
Explore some of the little-known offerings around the park. For instance, the de Young Museum, a renowned art museum, has an observation deck on the ninth floor with panoramic views of the city and Pacific Ocean. The California Academy of Sciences is comprised of an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. On Thursday nights, however, the traditional museums transform into a 21-and-over party with DJs and flowing cocktails. All exhibits remain open for viewing, as well. Tickets for the special event may be purchased ahead of time online.
See the real Chinatown
Begin your introduction to Chinatown by viewing local artwork at the Chinese Culture Center, inconspicuously tucked away on the third floor of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District. Enter Chinatown under the iconic Dragon’s Gates at Grant Avenue and Bush Street and explore the shops, restaurants and temples dotted along its 24 blocks. Chinatown must be explored on foot in order to make your way down unassuming alleyways, where trendy dive bars and eateries are often tucked away. To get a sense of the real community, visit on Saturday mornings when locals do their shopping at outdoor produce markets. Visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, in operation since 1962, and watch as workers fold the cookies by hand. Admission is free but if you want to take pictures of the cookie action in progress, it will cost you 50 cents.
Alcatraz, the former prison that once incarcerated Al Capone, is perched on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Cruises depart daily from Pier 33 and tickets should be purchased in advance online, particularly during the summer. The least crowded ferry ride is the first trip of the day, the Early Bird, and tourists don’t usually arrive on the island until later in the day. The Alcatraz Night Tour provides a usual perspective, as it includes a narrated boat ride around the island, guided tours throughout every portion of the Alcatraz experience and spectacular sunset views. Always make sure to dress in layers as the weather is unpredictable, and wear comfy shoes as the roads on the island are steep and much walking is required.
Fine dining at the Ferry Building
Although Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 attract tourists in droves, the bustling waterfront regions primarily feature rundown carnival rides, kitschy souvenir shops and mediocre fast food. Instead, visit the Ferry Building, a gourmet food hall located along the Embarcadero and outfitted with more than 50 shops, eateries and restaurants. The building is particularly busy during the farmer’s markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Free walking tours are available on Saturdays and Tuesdays as well. While the building opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m., the shops keep their own hours. If dining on site, grab some outdoor seating at the back of the building for a sweeping view of the Bay Bridge.
Let’s cross that bridge
Tourists flock to Lombard Street, the famous and ridiculously crooked street with eight hairpin turns. But the experience is slow, stressful and somewhat unrewarding once completed.
Instead, try another transportation-based adventure, like walking or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning 1.7 miles, the bridge features an eastern sidewalk reserved for pedestrians and a western sidewalk for bikes. Hours vary based on the time of year, but the bridge is pretty much closed to pedestrians between sunset and sunrise. Cyclists have access to sidewalks 24-hours a day, but they must pass through a security gate after hours. Limited parking is available at the Presidio on the bridge’s south end, but there are more spaces at the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point on the north side. A roundtrip walk across the bridge and back usually takes about an hour.