San Francisco is one of America’s most exciting cities. Being the birthplace of the United Nations in 1945, it retains the colorful, open-minded history with vibrancy, and has something to offer every type of visitor. It’s a great place for Canadian travellers to get away for a weekend of fun, with its unique history, welcoming locals and hopefully warm(er) weather.
A long weekend truly isn’t long enough to ‘see’ the city, but it’s enough to get a taste that will leave you longing to come back. There are also many incredible areas just beyond the city, like Yosemite National Park, the Redwoods and wine country, offering even more opportunities to explore. Don’t think this is your last trip to San Francisco, in a weekend you’ll only have scratched the surface of what the Bay Area offers.
Here is how I recommend you spend a long weekend in San Francisco
Take a Day Tour:
Sometimes I like starting with a city tour when exploring somewhere new. It’s a great way to get a feel for the different areas, so you can get a few postcards, take pictures, and then decide where you really want to come back to explore in more detail. I prefer small mini bus or van tours, as they allow you to get into smaller, more interesting areas that larger tour buses can’t access. Plus, there is no following a guy with an umbrella through the crowded streets.
Since it was my first visit to San Francisco, and I was short on time, I opted for a day-tour and found a van tour that was run by locals. It was a great way to get a taste of San Fransisco’s key areas, which are quite spread out, and being shown around by a local gives an energy to each place. I am very happy to recommend Dylan’s Tours, they were well organized and had fantastic guides.
Visit Fisherman’s Warf:
A San Francisco must! Make your way to Pier 39 and walk along the waterfront into the famous Fisherman’s Warf.
There are so many restaurants, museums, bars, cafes, souvenir shops and energy. If you want to rub shoulders with a famous celebrity, there is the Madame Tussauds Wax museum. Or for a more traditional museum visit, take in the Maritime Museum with its tours, historic ships and history.
There is a colorful handcrafted Italian carousel, depicting San Francisco’s iconic landmarks and animals at the end of the Pier 39. Nearby is also the Aquarium of the Bay, and a popular spot to see the sealions too.
Right from the approach on the ferry, you can tell Alcatraz is a special place, it is steeped in history and has an eeriness that tantalizes you. This disbanded federal prison has a lot of stories in it’s walls.
The small island was developed as a lighthouse, military fortifications, and military prison from 1934 to 1963. The lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, built next to the prison entrance it is an imposing sight through the ocean mist.
I love exploring dark and macabre destinations, and Alcatraz absolutely lived up to my expectations as a must-see spot. Make sure you get the audio tour and get there are early as possible. It can also be quite chilly on the island, so dress appropriately and wear comfortable shoes. Now owned by the National Park Services there is only tour boat that docks at the island for touring, the other tours just sail around the island for viewing.
Take a Walk in the Muir Woods:
If you don’t have time to get out to the Redwoods, you can get a taste of gigantic ancient costal forest in the Muir Woods, just across the bay from San Francisco. This 1000 year old forest is well worth the few hour round-trip to wander the path network and enjoy the natural environment. Bring a camera, the forest is regularly shrouded in marine layer fog, and the atmosphere is indescribably beautiful.
Have lunch in Sausalito
Just across the bay from San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, is the lovely sea side city of Sausalito.
It’s a great place to wander, have lunch and get a different perspective on San Francisco from across the waterway. The city has lots restaurants and cafes, or you can opt to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy along the seawall. There are also lost of boutiques and shops to explore to pick up some souvenirs. It retains one of the few ungated marinas in the Bay area, and extensive parks and protected natural areas to explore.
Tour Wine Country:
California has some of North America’s most prestigious wineries and the two most popular valleys are just outside San Francisco. Napa and Sonoma have completely different vibes, so it’s worth visiting both, digging into the history of viticulture and the impact of prohibition on the country. Californian reds pack a lot of punch and the luxurious winery tasting rooms will leave you gobsmacked.
There are so many wineries and tour between the hundreds of vineyards spread all over the region, so where to visit will really depend on your taste and time. One popular way to explore is via the Wine Train Tour, which travels through Napa Valley on 100-year-old luxury railcars. You can also book tastings at individual wineries and visit on your own or hire a tour from the city. However, you manage to get there, enjoy the incredible vistas, delicious food, and bring back some world-class wine.
Getting Here and Getting Around:
San Francisco airport is a major international airport and often less expensive to fly into than other airports in the area. From the airport, there is a rail system called the Bay Area Rapid Transit, BART, that travels all over the city and provides easy access to the downtown core.
I found the best way to get around was with public transit, there are lots of buses and tram cars that travel the major routes in the city. There are also many other options to get around like car share such as Uber and Lyft, taxis, car rentals and more. Driving in the city can be expensive with parking fees and heavy traffic, plus its easy to get lost without a GPS.
From luxurious hotels to simple hostels, unique bed-and-breakfasts to short term rentals, San Fransisco has something for everyone, but accommodation is expensive compared to other major cities. Very funky and stylish gems like the Ocean Park Motel, and some budget-friendly like the Green Tortoise Hostel are good picks. I chose to stay in the downtown core, but here is a handy travel guide to look through for choosing the area to stay in.