The Perfect Weekend in San Francisco

It’s easy to spend weeks in San Francisco without running out of things to do, so if you only have three days in the city you’ll want to make the most of your stay. If you plan right, however, you’ll have time to squeeze the most essential San Francisco experiences into three action-packed days. From the Golden Gate to Alcatraz, museums to must-eats, here is how to best spend three days in the City by the Bay.

1529 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115, United States
Nicole Krasinski describes the novel concept of her restaurant State Bird Provisions as “dim sum and a great hors d’oeuvre party morphed into one experience.” She and her husband, chef Stuart Brioza, prepare beautifully executed California cuisine such as pork-fried farro and boquerones on sesame pancakes. They then serve it on trolley carts, dim sum style. Each night, diners can choose from 12 to 15 seasonally inspired dishes in addition to the menu of six larger items, such as the State Bird—fried quail topped with Parmesan cheese. “It’s fun for the diners, but also it lets me be more spontaneous and creative in the kitchen,” Brioza says. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
4001 Judah St, San Francisco, CA 94122, United States
Outerlands is an Outer Sunset institution. The small restaurant near Ocean Beach serves local, organic cuisine in a rustic-chic setting. Covered floor-to-ceiling in warm, rough-hewn wood, the interior invites lingering over an artisan cocktail or a ginger-lemon apple cider. Lunch and dinner feature such refined but hearty options as cast-iron grilled cheese brushed with garlic oil and slow-cooked lamb shank with nasturtium leaf pesto. The weekend brunch draws a crowd and is worth the often lengthy wait. Standouts include the Dutch pancakes and the house-roasted turkey. You can always make the most of waiting for a table and head to the beach for a quick jaunt before you indulge.
100 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
The Victorian-era glass and wood structure, which looks like a sugar-coated castle atop a grassy slope, is Golden Gate Park’s oldest building. It’s also one of San Francisco’s most splendid historic sites. Wander through five different galleries housing 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants along with the world’s largest public collection of high-altitude orchids. The potted plant gallery features rare flowering plants and an assortment of decorative urns and containers from all over the world, including a leftover from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Keep your eyes open for special exhibits, including the annual Butterflies and Blooms, which transforms the conservatory into a magical garden aflutter with hundreds of butterflies.
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
The de Young Museum, with its perforated copper facade and spiraling tower in the center of Golden Gate Park, is as dramatic outside as it is inside. Follow the widening crack in the sidewalk into the atrium. It’s an Andy Goldsworthy–created nod to the tectonic plates that carved out California, and emblematic of the museum, too: The previous building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and rebuilt by Herzog & de Meuron, opening in 2005. Inside, Gerhard Richter’s wall-size mural, made from digitally manipulated photographs, greets visitors. The museum specializes in American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania, and Africa. Visiting exhibitions often focus on modern works and draw massive crowds. Recent blockbusters include Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Hockney. Make sure to visit the observation deck at the top of the tower. (It closes one hour before the museum.) It’s a unique view over the low-lying western end of the city.
55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
The California Academy of Sciences is an unfortunately stuffy name for an institution that is anything but staid. The country’s largest natural-history museum includes an aquarium, a planetarium, an enormous rain-forest exhibit under a 27-meter-tall (90-foot-tall) dome, and a living roof that looks like a science-fiction fantasy. A visit here can feel like a trip to an amusement park, with a series of attractions to check out, but all of them are educational. The building itself is part of the appeal of the Academy. (Like the nearby de Young, the old home of the California Academy of Sciences was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and starchitect Renzo Piano designed its very environmentally friendly replacement.) It would be easy to spend an entire day or more seeing all of the Academy’s exhibits, so be prepared to pick and choose among them.

75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
While Japanese gardens have come to be an expected feature of many botanical parks around the world, the Japanese Tea Garden, which opened in 1894, was the first public tea garden in the United States. The original plot consisted of less than half a hectare (one acre), though it gradually grew to its current size of two hectares (five acres). Unusually for its time, a Japanese landscape architect, Makoto Hagiwara, oversaw it for decades until he was interned during World War II and not allowed to return to his position after the war. His legacy lives on, however, in this meticulous garden dotted with pagodas and crossed by stone paths.

San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Alcatraz—the very name conjures dark images of impregnable prisons, infamous criminals, and daring escape attempts. But the island is not all murder and mayhem. “The Rock,” set a few kilometers offshore in the San Francisco Bay, is designated a National Historic Landmark and managed by the National Park Service. It’s an important area for nesting seabirds and the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse, and has hosted a military garrison and been occupied by American Indian activists. The main draw for visitors, of course, is the abandoned maximum-security state penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963 this almost-mythical prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous and troublesome criminals, including Al Capone. The audio tour is fascinating. Narrated by former inmates and guards, the tour ushers you down dank corridors, into cramped cells, and through common areas and staff quarters. You hear stories about the prisoners’ daily routines, escape attempts, and riots, all set to an atmospheric prison life soundtrack of echoing footfalls, clanging doors, and jangling keys. The only way to reach the island is via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance booking is recommended; during peak times tickets can sell out weeks in advance. By day you can explore the island, or combine it with a trip to Angel Island; by night you get more broody views of the Rock.
151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
It had been a long wait for modern art lovers, but after a three-year closure and a $305 million renovation and expansion, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in May 2016, and was it ever worth the wait. A new 10-story addition from the renowned Norwegian design firm Snøhetta integrates seamlessly with the existing black-and-white-striped atrium tower, giving San Francisco‘s SoMa neighborhood some serious eye-candy. It’s also now the largest modern and contemporary art museum in America, with nearly triple its previous gallery space. New to the already impressive collection are selected works from the esteemed Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, featuring significant American and European artists of the 20th and 21st centuries such as Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Georg Baselitz, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, among many others. Gifts of painting, sculpture, drawings, media arts, and architecture made to the museum since 2009 also rotate through various galleries, while the entire third floor is dedicated to the Pritzker Center for Photography. Visitors take a breather in the tranquil sculpture garden with enormous living wall, or in the fifth floor Cafe 5. Along with offering free entry to visitors 18 years old and under, SFMOMA invites you to try In Situ, the museum’s signature 150-seat lounge and restaurant, helmed by Michelin-star chef Corey Lee, with a menu of dishes culled from the recipes of some 80 chefs from around the world.
Pier 15 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
Ask anyone you know who grew up in the Bay Area about the Exploratorium, and they’ll likely be able to share stories of class trips and seeing their hair stand on end at an installation about electricity or fun-house mirrors that taught about optics and visual perception. This is not, however, a museum simply for kids—though curious kids will definitely be entertained while learning. Instead, its exhibits aim to raise the scientific literacy of visitors of all ages, by providing engaging, amusing, and hands-on experiences. Long housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium opened in its current, and much larger, space on Piers 15 and 17 in 2013. One advantage of the new waterfront location is the North Gallery and its outdoor spaces, focused on environmental phenomena like the wind, rain, and tides. The completely dark Tactile Dome and the disorienting Monochromatic Room may prove not just the highlights of your visit to the Exploratorium but the most memorable, or at least strangest, moments of your time in San Francisco. Photo by Xavier Sandel/Flickr.
Twin Peaks, San Francisco, CA, USA
The best views of San Francisco are from the top of Twin Peaks, the two hills that are located in the geographic center of the city. Only from Twin Peaks can you get a 360-degree view of the entire city. If you are lucky, on a clear day you can see all four Bay Area bridges—from the Golden Gate to the Richmond-San Rafael and the Bay Bridge all the way south to the San Mateo. Standing on North Peak, you can look down the tree line of Market all the way to the Ferry Building. All the city neighborhoods, scattered over up and down the hills, from Mission to Bernal Heights to Russian Hill to the Presidio are in your vista. If it’s clear, you’ll be able to see the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, Sausalito, and even Mt. Tam. From the North Peak, you can walk over to the South Peak and take in the city views from the Sunset District down to San Francisco International Airport. Tips: 1. Bring a jacket with you. Even on a warm summer’s day, it can be chilly at Twin Peaks. 2. Wear sturdy shoes, especially if you want to walk up to the Peaks and or around them. 3. Bring binoculars, if you have them. There are telescopes that you can pay to use if you don’t have binoculars.
1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
0-11, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA
The ‘60s and ‘70s in San Francisco were synonymous with psychedelic “hobbies,” but tripping in the new millennium on Pier 39 is something you can now enjoy, legally, with the entire family. This labyrinth of 77 mirrors and black lights is reminiscent of a carnival fun house, and finding your way out of the 2,000-square-foot kaleidoscope of glowing twists and turns and befuddling dead-ends puts the fun in funky. While ‘80s music thumps, kids race through and into the walls, while adults feel their way down endless neon hallways. Created by Charles Magowan (who, no surprise, studied psychology at Yale), the Mirror Maze is a trip for all ages, and at just $5 it might be the cheapest one you’ll find in San Francisco.
3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123, USA
Standing out in San Francisco‘s Marina District, this historic landmark is a leftover from the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Expo and was designed by Bernard R. Maybeck, a student of the École des Beaux-Arts. His vision was to give the impression of ancient Roman ruins. When the fair concluded, the Palace of Fine Arts proved too beautiful to raze. Maybeck had intended the Palace to fall into ruins (in keeping with his original vision), and it did for years. It was used as a storage depot after World War II and as a warehouse for the Parks Department. In the late 1950s, a local city official led an effort to face-lift the building. The Palace of Fine Arts was rebuilt and is now enjoyed by visitors who walk beneath the towering colonnade and the grand rotunda.
600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, CA 94110, United States
With no sign above its unassuming storefront, Tartine is most easily recognized by the line that snakes out its door and down Guerrero Street. People patiently wait for flaky pains au chocolat (the best outside Paris, in my opinion), decadent banana cream tarts, and hot-pressed sandwiches stuffed with fillings like smoked sheep cheese and quince jam. The bakery’s James Beard Award–winning pastry chefs also turn out loaves of stone hearth–baked bread, available every day after 4:30 p.m. Nurse a coffee and nibble on a croissant at the communal table, or take picnic provisions to nearby Dolores Park.
3692 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA
Ferry Building, #3, San Francisco, CA 94111, United States
Chef Charles Phan’s restaurant Slanted Door helped elevate Vietnamese cuisine in the United States, introducing it in all of its nuance and complexity to diners who may have tried pho soup only once, if that. When the original location closed in 2002, it came as a blow to the city’s dining scene, but fortunately Phan reopened at a new space in the Ferry Building. What also distinguishes Phan’s cooking is the use of products from local purveyors (lamb from Anderson Ranch, beef from Prather Ranch) and the occasionally surprising ingredients that would shock the purist (candied pecans in a grapefruit-and-jicama salad, roasted clams in a soy-milk broth).

515 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110, United States
This popular Mexican-food mainstay in the heart of San Francisco‘s Mission District is one of two places in the city that claim to have invented the Mission-style burrito (the other is El Faro): a hefty, elephant-leg-size wrap distinguished from other burritos by its size and the inclusion of rice and other ingredients. The restaurant was first opened as a meat market in 1967 by Mexican immigrants Raul and Michaela Duran, who are said to have served their first burrito in 1969 after noticing that local workers needed a substantial yet portable meal. The Mission Burrito was born, containing most of the food groups: protein, vegetables, dairy, and grains. The Durans converted their meat market into a full-time restaurant in 1972. Taqueria la Cumbre offers a full menu of Mexican food, all made fresh. The burritos are made assembly-line style. (Fun fact: When the Durans first came to San Francisco, they hired a high school kid to make flour tortillas before school. The kid, Jorge Santana, would go on to be a popular musician, like his brother Carlos.)
1 Pagoda Pl, San Francisco, CA 94108, United States
Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea Room’s brick facade and missing letters may not be much to look at from the outside, and the interior’s low ceilings, fluorescent lights, and basic furnishings won’t win awards, either, but the inexpensive dim sum served inside makes it worth a visit. It’s too small for rolling carts, but you can order soup dumplings, barbecue pork buns, shrimp dumplings, pot stickers, and many other freshly made, shareable bites. The menu has rice, noodle, and vegetable dishes, too. Hang Ah Dim Sum, established in 1920, calls itself the oldest continually operating dim sum restaurant in the United States and has been owned that whole time by the same handful of families.
950 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94108, United States
This 70-year-old Polynesian-inspired bar at the Fairmont Hotel is part Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean and part theme party with potent drinks. The bartenders mix rum cocktails of their own creation and showcase guest-star concoctions from local bars such as the famous margarita from Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, and the Punchbowl from Smuggler’s Cove. What really sets the Tonga Room apart, however, is the divine tiki-kitsch decor with thatched roofs and an hourly rain shower (thunder and lightning included) that sprinkles the central blue “lagoon,” the Fairmont’s former indoor pool. On weekend nights, a live band decked out in flowery shirts provides entertainment.
2765 Hyde St, San Francisco, CA 94109, United States
A writer walks into a bar. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but when it happened at the Buena Vista on November 10, 1952, a new drink was born. Stanton Delaplane, a longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, walked in on that chilly November day and told the bar owner, Jack Koeppler, about a warm whiskey-and-coffee concoction he’d tasted in Shannon, Ireland. The oft-told story goes that the two men spent the evening measuring and mixing and testing in an effort to re-create the drink. Eventually, the recipe was mastered, and seven decades later, the Buena Vista’s Irish coffee is as legendary as San Francisco fog. Bartenders in crisp white jackets line up glass goblets on the bar and make up to 2,000 Irish coffees per day.
355 11th St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
Is Bar Agricole the best bar in the city? It’s certainly in the top five, based on the groundbreaking cocktail program developed by bartender and owner Thad Vogler; the award-winning architecture and interior design by local favorite Aidlin Darling; and a daring menu centered around produce from nearby organic and biodynamic farms. Vogler used to bartend in Tokyo, and his obsession with Japanese precision shows. You’ll see influences of that in the hand-cut ice cubes he uses, and in Agricole’s glassware and aprons (all from Japan). The bar stocks a limited selection of 20 or 30 spirits, almost all small batch, and with a special focus on rum. Come for drinks, come for dinner, or come for brunch: the midday menu highlights include ricotta doughnuts with quince marmalade and a chicory salad with fuyu persimmon and house-made vinegar. Pro tips: In winter, book the private dining room (nicknamed the Grotto) for a seated, though still laid-back, dinner for up to 32 people; for an outdoor event, Bar Agricole’s covered and heated patio is perfect for larger, more casual groups. For lessons in liquor, check out the private spirits tastings that Vogler offers through IfOnly.
2900 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA
While Heath Ceramics is over 60 years old, having been founded in 1948 in Sausalito, their colorful bud vases, dinnerware and tiles have enjoyed a boom in recent years. Straddling the line between a rough, hand-crafted aesthetic and an elegant, understated quality, their pieces are hard to miss in the pages of design magazines as well as at the homes of some of your most tasteful friends. The new retail location on 18th Street includes a workshop alongside a café serving Blue Bottle coffee. There is also a smaller location in the Ferry Building.

4519, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
In an age when many independent bookstores have surrendered to the advance of chain stores and Amazon, City Lights is a true survivor. Since it was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1956, it has served as a gathering place for San Francisco’s literary communities. Everyone from beat poets to left-wing critics of America have found a welcome here. City Lights is also a publishing house, with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems being perhaps the single most famous book it has put out, though it counts scores of other works by some of America’s leading contemporary literary figures on its list. You can drop in anytime to find an unexpected tome, and the store also has a crowded calendar of readings.

1855 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA
Amoeba records is a destination in itself, and every music lover will want to head there. But, turning your attention from the music to the people is also a worthwhile pursuit. Very, very fascinating! Young Cyndi Laupers and John Lennon wannabes, drift past punk rockers and cowboy booted country lovers. All united in their love for music.
540 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
Fly fishing may not be top of mind while walking through San Francisco’s Financial District, but fantasies of casting in crystal clear rivers and commencing the day around a campfire are sure to materialize once you step inside Lost Coast Outfitters. The upscale sporting goods store specializes in top-of-the-line fly fishing gear, but shop owner George Revel has an eye for provisions that tug at the inner outdoorsman in all of us, such as indestructible Yeti coolers, leather-trimmed duffle bags from Filson, and classic Simms flannels in timeless red-and-black check. The grand historic Beaux Arts building only adds to the appeal, as does the 300-plus-bottle whiskey collection hidden behind a wall of waders and waterproof booties. Pro tip: Inquire about joining the exclusive Tin Cup Society to gain access to speakers, casting clinics, expeditions, and curated gear packages.
Hotels
1100 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA
The San Francisco Proper Hotel is the hottest new hotel in town. The reason why? International grande dame of maximalism, designer Kelly Wearstler, revamped a down-and-out tourist hotel deep in the heart of the city, and established the Proper as a magnet for trendsetting visitors and locals. When guests arrive at the 131-room hotel and step inside the flatiron building, they’re treated to Wearstler’s signature pattern-on-pattern aesthetic. In the ground floor lobby, Wearstler sets the mood with salon-style seating areas using richly reupholstered vintage furnishings and Cubism-inspired paintings. Michael Adams, formerly of Central Kitchen, oversees the hotel’s main restaurant, Villon. And while the Proper isn’t the place for those looking for a Zen retreat, it is the place to order a Fifi the Flea cocktail (Tequila Ocho Plata, Ancho Reyes, Ancho Reyes Verde, grapefruit, honey, vanilla, lime, smoked salt) at Charmaine’s, the stylish rooftop bar. Between the fire pits and the bird’s-eye view of Market Street all the way to the bay, it’s no wonder the Proper has become the destination to see and be seen.
Hotels
12 4th St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
Hotel Zelos brims with understated luxury. Rooms are kitted out with on-demand movies and music, in-room spa services upon request, and a complimentary honor bar stocked with organic treats. The hotel’s 4th and Market Street location puts it within walking distance of Union Square, AT&T Park and the Moscone Center. For further distances, guests can borrow free bikes. The hotel’s crowning jewel, though, is Dirty Habit, it’s rooftop restaurant and bar. A favorite among locals as well as tourists, Dirty Habit’s film-noir-inspired dining room offers guests a chance to play the part of old Hollywood glamour while nibbling on seasonally inspired dishes like seared king salmon and sipping inventive craft cocktails (try the Bonzai, a mix of whiskey, orgeat, grapefruit, lemon, and matcha green tea).
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