Today I am sharing my favorite San Francisco Tour, I call it the 3 Hour Tour. This is where I take all my family and friends when they visit me. The idea is to do all the touristy stuff really quickly (in about 3 hours) and then you have the rest of the trip to spend exploring museums, The Ferry Building, or picnicking in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m a big believer in this quick site-seeing technique for a few reasons…
Illustration by Jordan Sondler for Oh Happy Day
One, spending a lot of time in a touristy area like (for example) Fisherman’s Wharf can be soul sucking. You feel like you need to see everything and you end up stuck in a tourist trap. Limiting time in these spots lets you see what you want but moves you on to the next thing quickly. The second reason this works out well is you can go back and explore things you want to see more of. It gives you a little taste of everything so you have an overview of the city.
The key to doing a three hour tour is having a driver who never leaves the car. This works better if someone has already been to San Francisco but you could totally make it work for two people by trading turns in the driver’s seat. Finding parking in certain areas of town can be time consuming. When I take friends I just pull up to what they need to see, everyone jumps out of the car and then I get the car out of the way for 5 minutes or so and wait until everyone jumps back in. This way we are able to cover lots of ground. Just a warning, if you don’t time it right or get stuck in traffic it can turn into a four or five hour tour. It is best done on a weekday that isn’t too foggy. This will save you from some of the lines and because really views of the blanket of fog just aren’t that impressive.
Three Hour Tour (here is a Google Map with driving instructions)
1. Treasure Island Lookout (5 minutes)
I like starting the tour here because you can see sweeping views of the whole city. It lets you see San Francisco, Alcatraz, and even the Golden Gate Bridge. There is always parking here so the driver can get out.
Drive back to San Francisco, drive down the Embarcadero past the Ferry Building,
2. Ferry Building (drive by)
The Ferry Building is one of my favorite places on earth. After the ’89 Earthquake the whole waterfront went through a renewal and they turned this building into a food Mecca. Definitely worth coming back to spend a few hours to eat your way through.
Continue driving down Embarcadero then take a left on Broadway and a left on Battery Street then a right on California Street.
3. Chinatown (drive by)
I love Chinatown. You really can get lost in all the alleyways. It’s super fun to come back to spend a few hours here eating and shopping.
4. Chinese Fortune Cookie Factory (10 minutes)
Chinese Fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco. (Have you seen this funny video?) This place is like an institution. It is super old and is really charming. Your driver will have to circle or park somewhere out of the way and wait in the car as parking in this area is difficult. Usually the place is pretty empty but if you happen to arrive the same time as a tour group it can get crowded. Go in watch the cookies get made and ask the owner if you can write your own fortunes. They have a place for you to write your own slips and they fill the fortune cookies on the spot to take back to people at home. I always do “Give Jordan $20 and all your dreams will come true” or something silly. It costs a few dollars but it’s totally worth it. They always try to sell you sample bags of cookies. I usually just give a donation and skip them because if we’re being honest they aren’t THAT good.
Jump in the car and head back over to California street. Drive up the famous steep hills of San Francisco. At the top you’ll get to Nob Hill and the old fancy hotels The Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins. You’ll also drive by Grace Cathedral as you continue down California Street. Take a right on Hyde street. Now you’re heading into the Russian Hill neighborhood. When you get to Lombard street take a right!
5. Lombard Street (5 minutes)
Our city’s got the crookedest street in the world and you can drive down it. Roll down the windows for full effect. When you get to the bottom pull over to the right and let everyone get out and take photos. The driver will need to pull out of the way and turn around.
Continue down Lombard street all the way across the city. You’ll be driving through North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood. Drive right up the hill to Coit Tower.
6. Coit Tower (5 minutes)
Most days you can drive right up and there is parking available. If it is on a Saturday or busier day you’ll need to have everyone jump out while the driver waits in the car. This place has more sweeping views. They sell tickets to go to the top of the tower but we usually skip that part and get on our way.
Head down the hill and drive over to Musee Mechanique in Fisherman’s Wharf
7. Fisherman’s Wharf (20 minutes)
Parking in this area is tricky but I’ve found as long as you stay in your car there is a lot of space in front of Musee Mecanique where as long as you stay out of everyone’s way no one bothers you. I usually send everyone in the car out to buy some crab at the sidewalk vendors and then go get their picture at the vintage photobooth at Musee Mecanique. It’s also fun to see the Sea Lions but I usually skip that because it takes too long (adds 20 minutes.)
At this point if you’re hungry then I ask people if they want hamburgers or tacos. Head to either:
Super Duper Burger (2200 Chestnut Street at Pierce)
Tacolicious (2031 Chestnut Street at Fillmore)
They are both pretty fast and you can do takeout if you want. They both use really great fresh ingredients and are San Francisco born-brands. If you are doing this on a weekend then there might be lines. If it’s a nice day you can get takeout and have a picnic over at Crissy Field.
8. Crissy Field (20 Minutes)
There is a giant green field in front of the Golden Gate Bridge that is actually part of our national park system. Parking is usually plentiful and it’s nice to get out and walk along the pier and get gorgeous pictures right in front of the Bridge. There are lots of great picnic spots on the field and if it’s grey and chilly you can get some hot chocolate at the Warming Hut by the pier.
9. Golden Gate Bridge (driveby)
After Crissy Field we head across the bridge over to Battery Spencer on Conzelman road. There is a pull off there where parking is really difficult. The driver will have to drop you off and wait for parking.
10. Battery Spencer Lookout (20 Minutes)
This look out takes 5 minutes to walk to but is definitely worth the effort. It puts you on top of the bridge with pretty spectacular views.
11. Painted Ladies ie: Full House houses (10 minutes)
Parking is usually tricky around here but it doesn’t take long to walk on the grass at the park and get a good photo while your driver circles. Sing the Full House song as you pull up “Whatever happened to predictability…”
And that is the end of the trip! Remember if you add in lunch and other things it can stretch into a longer day. Afterwards we usually reward ourselves and get some ice cream and go sit at a park. Because being a tourist is hard work.
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Photo from my Instagram