48-hours in San Francisco
You’ve arrived in San Francisco, possibly with flowers in your hair, so what should you do with yourself for the next two days? Here’s our expert guide to spending 48-hours in San Francisco…
5pm: Just landed
These days, it’s not as expensive as it used to be to get to San Francisco – thanks to Norwegian Air’s amazingly cheap long-haul flights, flying out of Gatwick and into Oakland International five times a week. Starting from just £160 one-way, Norwegian’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft are comfier than most. As well as offering larger than average windows with a ‘sunglasses mode’ that means you can gradually dim them (rather than having to close the shutters), the cabins also boast mood lighting and a fresh air system designed to stave off the dreaded jetlag.
Even in economy (Premium Economy seats start at £500) the food is surprisingly good, and each seat has a snazzy entertainment system that allows you to swipe your card and pay for drinks to be delivered direct to your seat, alongside the usual films, TV shows and games. The flight is a tiring 11-hours long, but the extras offered by Norwegian really help the time fly (ahem). Once at Oakland, it’s an easy 35-minute train journey to San Francisco.
6.30pm: Check in before checking (the city) out
Deciding where to stay in San Francisco is tricky. Although it’s relatively small (under 50 square miles), the city’s districts each have very distinct characters. Should you rent an Airbnb in the hippy heaven that is Haight-Ashbury? Find yourself a room in a classic Victorian ‘Painted Lady’ B&B to bed down in? Or head downtown to the buzzing centre of the city for a stay in an ultra-modern hotel catering for the tech crowd?
We chose to check in at the super-central (as in, right opposite Bloomingdales. I like to call it ‘Bloomies’) Axiom hotel. With free retro games machines in the corridors and AirPlay mirroring on the TVs (there were two 48-inchers in our E-King room), it had everything we needed for a smartly luxurious, tech-friendly stay. The hotel also offers green initiatives, such as in-room recycling bins and the option to skip having your room cleaned every day – although the Axiom building is 100 years old, it’s a thoroughly modern place to stay. With no prior knowledge of the city at all, we used the Axiom as our base here because Downtown is well-connected via public transport (BART, Muni or historic cable car) from pretty much anywhere in the city – which means all of these recommendations should be easy to get to, wherever you’re staying.
7pm: Hit the town
Downtown San Francisco is a hub of noise, lights and people – and although there won’t be any lack of locals wanting to strike up a conversation, be wary of who you get chatting to. Tourists are advised not to look lost, so it’s best to plan your route before you leave your hotel rather than digging your nose into a map as soon as you hit Market Street, one of the main thoroughfares in San Francisco.
Grab an Uber (the way most people apparently travel around SF) or, if you’re feeling intrepid, hit the BART – the city’s limited metro system – just outside the hotel at Powell St. Travelling a couple of stops to 16th St Mission will see you arriving at the Mission area – boasting San Francisco’s oldest standing buildings. There are plenty of bars around, but for starters try Trick Dog, which can get VERY busy, but is worth it for the inventive cocktails.
9pm: Grab some food
When you start feeling peckish, head to Lung Shan, AKA Mission Chinese Food. So achingly hip it’s spawned an NY offshoot that has its own merchandise, the original SF branch is a bit more down-to-earth.
Jot your name on a pad swinging from the wall outside, and when your name’s called, you’re in. Feel free to head off for another quick drink if the list is long – you won’t lose your place. Inside it’s dingy, noisy and full of great food – huge, glistening piles of it that ensure you won’t leave hungry. If you’re more of a grab-and-go kind of eater, La Taqueria is also close by, and serves what are rumoured to be the best burritos in San Francisco.
Stomach bulging, head back down past the BART towards Castro, the city’s gay district. It’s packed with great bars, but we recommend you try the Twin Peaks Tavern – a local landmark that serves great cocktails until 2am and is perfect for people-watching. If you’re still awake by then, congratulations: you’ve conquered jetlag.
DAT TWO: 48-hours-in-San Francisco
The Axiom has a free tea and coffee station for guests, so grab a cuppa and indulge in a quick game of Pacman before heading outside. Head a few blocks down Market Street to The Grove, a bright but atmospheric joint that serves breakfast classics like pancakes and eggs benedict or generously filled sandwiches that are ideal for brunch, especially with a cup of their delicious chicken tortilla soup on the side. Grab an upstairs table and enjoy the view.
11am: Catch a bus to the Wharf
Sure, you could take an Uber, but you’re doing this trip for real, right? (Although I really hope you didn’t get the bus home last night). $2.75 will get you a single to Fisherman’s Wharf on the waterfront. The Wharf is packed with food and souvenir shops and is great for mooching and checking out the famous San Francisco fog.
Start at Pier 39 and make your way down towards Pier 1, or vice versa. At Pier 39, stop off at the Musee Mechanique for a look at its huge array of antique (and often creepy) arcade machines. Most only cost 25c to play, so it’s the cheapest way to entertain yourself for half an hour or so in the city. At this end of the Wharf you can also catch tourist-baiting classics like the aquarium (otters! Aww), the San Francisco Dungeon, Ripley’s Believe it or not! and Madame Tussauds.
We know you’re still full, but this is San Francisco and you need plenty of energy to make it up those hills. Down at Pier 1, the Ferry Building has a great food market, some stalls offering hot food. The queues at the Roli Roti porchetta sandwich truck tells you all you need to know about its meaty, tasty treats, but if it’s not in residence, you could do a lot worse than heading to One Market restaurant, just across the street.
The building is plush and full of workers on lunch – and no wonder: in an expensive city, the restaurant’s $25 lunch deal is a total steal. They’ll even add on a couple of lunch-special cocktails for $5 each (maximum two per person). San Francisco is known for its fresh food and great ingredients, and here they really shine – chef Mark Dommen’s beef bolognese is the best I’ve ever eaten, in or outside Italy, and the soups are fantastically fresh-tasting. Locally sourced ingredients and a great atmosphere make this a lunch to remember – and in between those cocktails, try a signature lemonade that will make you consider going teetotal, even if only for the briefest of seconds (just me?).
3pm: Escape from Alcatraz
Because you read this article first, you’ve booked tickets for the ever-popular Alcatraz Cruise in advance, right? Leaving from Pier 33, at $37 for an adult ticket the cruise isn’t cheap, but it’s one of the absolute must-sees on any tour of San Francisco. If you’re in the city for longer than a weekend, tickets that include the popular hop-on-hop-off bus tour are also available and work out good value.
A 15-minute cruise takes you to the island where the prison that once held Al Capone – plus plenty of wildlife – resides. You’ll quickly find out that although to outsiders the prison was notoriously grim, it wasn’t actually too bad (meals included chilli dogs and banana pudding, and former inmates share stories of friendly guards via the museum displays). But that doesn’t stop the audio guide tour of the prison being fascinating – you can even go right into some of the tiny cells and be guided step-by-step through an infamous escape attempt that left three dead. Spooky.
5.30pm: North Beach and Chinatown
Back on the mainland, head straight inland from Pier 33 and you’ll reach North Beach, the city’s Little Italy. Packed with great restaurants, if you’re somehow hungry again this is your chance to grab a slice at Golden Boy. A small but characterful pizza joint, it’s been serving hot, delicious focaccia pizza since 1978 and boasts dough that makes a purposeful detour worthwhile. If you can’t decide which slice to go for, watching the hot, gooey slabs coming fresh out of the oven will help you choose. Mmmm.
Next, head round the corner to City Lights bookstore on Columbus Avenue, where you can have a browse and pretend to be a Beat-era poet – it’s where Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac used to hang out. When you’re done, pop next door to Vesuvio Cafe, a fantastic, friendly bar serving cocktails for a bargain $9 apiece, including the deliciously strong, pink-hued Jack Kerouac (apparently he used to come here after some hardcore book-browsing and who can blame him?).
When you’ve had your fill of cocktails, head back to Market Street via Grant Avenue and the bright lights of Chinatown. Pick up some souvenirs, grab some dim sum (Dol Ho on Powell St is good for cheap eats), or just take in the sights and sounds before stopping for a photo op at the famous Chinatown Gate. Back at the hotel, you’ve got time to fit in a quick costume change and a game of Joust on the arcade machines before heading out again.
If you avoided the foodie delights of North Beach and Chinatown, chances are you’re pretty hungry by now, after all that Alcatraz-escaping. For a slower, sit-down meal and a taste of something a bit more sophisticated, head to Sutter Street, a short walk from the Axiom Hotel, to Gaspar Brasserie.
Here you’ll find exceptionally friendly service in relaxed-but-smart surroundings, and delicious, classic French food. The steak frites is a house favourite, but everything, from the confit duck to the steak tartare, is pretty great (and huge – I could barely see across the table over a stack of perfectly crispy fries). Just beware the deliciously deadly, absinthe-based Louvre & Haight cocktail…
After pudding, you might not feel like walking / waddling very far, so if you want to stay close to home, Local Edition is a characterful bar located in a former newspaper printing room just five minutes away. Or, if you fancy going further afield, grab an Uber to the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, a short drive off Market Street. This kitsch tiki bar is a fantastic stop-off for exotic (pricey, but strong) cocktails, and it even has a pool inside which hosts floating bands that play live music. Not to be missed.
After such a busy day, you deserve a lie in. Stow your bags at the hotel, then head to The Cheesecake Factory for brunch, located on Macy’s roof on Union Square (it even has its own lift, like Willy Wonka). It opens at 11am, and you won’t get in without waiting at least an hour at pretty much any other time of day. Plus cheesecake for breakfast? Yes please.
When you’re full, catch the historic cable car on the Powell-Mason line and hop off at Columbus and Chestnut. From there, follow Lombard Street up to where it meets Leavenworth Street – you’ll easily spot it, as it’ll be swarming with tourists. This is where Lombard turns into the so-called ‘crookedest street in the world’, to help cars deal with the enormous steepness of the hill – although you’ll struggle to see the difference between this hill and all the others. Sadly, you have to walk up it on foot (catching an Uber at this point would be cheating).
From here, follow the street down six or so blocks to Bike & View, where you can hire a bike, complete with helmet, lock and map from $32 a day (or bag a discount by booking ahead online). From here, it’s a short cycle down to the seafront for a bracing ride along the wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge.
12.30pm: Cycle the bridge
This popular activity offers amazing views of the city, is relatively safe (the cycle path is shared with pedestrians rather than traffic), and is pretty easy, apart from a couple of painful hills – but you can always hop off and walk your bike up. On the other side of the bridge, it’s a gleeful, swooping glide down to Sausalito, a peaceful, picturesque little town where you can stash your bike in a designated park for a few dollars and head off to explore. If you’re peckish, Venice Gourmet on the water does great sandwiches, or just grab a giant ice cream cone from Lappert’s.
The ferry back to the mainland is $12, and you might have to book if it’s busy (plus bear in mind the time you need to return your bike by). Warning: only those boasting Iron Man levels of fitness should attempt to cycle back up the hill to the bridge.
3.30pm: Finish up at Haight-Ashbury
Drop your bike back off at Bike & View and grab an Uber to Haight-Ashbury (hey, it’s quicker than the bus). Known as the hippy district of San Francisco, it’s ideal for vintage shopping, Mexican food and enjoying a couple of drinks before heading home.
Street Taco has some delicious burritos and tacos in a hip setting (although sadly, it doesn’t sell beer to wash them down with), and a few doors down is Hobson’s Choice, a rum bar selling fruity punches and every variety of the sailor’s favourite tipple under the sun. Here, you can toast the 48 hours of fun and fog you’ve enjoyed in one of the most exciting cities in the world.
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