If you've got only 1 day to explore the city and haven't been here before, follow this whirlwind jaunt of the classic highlights. It starts with a scenic cable car ride, includes a tour of Alcatraz Island (get tickets in advance—it regularly sells out!), and meanders through two of the city's most colorful neighborhoods—Chinatown and North Beach—for lunch, shopping, browsing, cocktails, dinner, cappucino, and a show. Get an early start and wear comfy walking shoes because you're about to embark on a long, wonderful day in the City by the Bay.
Start: F-Line Streetcar to Union Square.
1. Union Square
Named for a series of pro-union mass demonstrations staged here on the eve of the Civil War, Union Square is literally that—a square. The epicenter of the city’s shopping district, the open space dotted with lingering tourists and pigeons is surrounded by Macy’s, Saks, and Tiffany & Co., an Apple store and blocks of other high-end boutiques. Major sales aside, there are few bargains or independent retailers to be found, but if shopping is your thing, you won’t find more places to spend your money than in this bustling area.
Just 3 blocks down, at Powell and Market streets, is the cable car turnaround where you’ll embark on a ride on the nation’s only moving National Historic Landmark.
2. Cable Cars & Lombard Street
Yes, the line of people at the cable car turnaround at Market and Powell streets is long. But the ride is worth the wait. The $5 thrill starts with a steep climb up Nob Hill, and then passes through Chinatown and Russian Hill before clanging its way down Hyde Street to Fisherman’s Wharf—all with a picturesque bay backdrop. (Note: If you want to check out the famous winding stretch of Lombard Street, hop off the cable car at the intersection of Hyde and Lombard streets and, when you’ve seen enough, either walk the rest of the way down to Fisherman’s Wharf or take the next cable car that comes along.) For maximum thrill, stand on the running boards during the ride and hold on Doris Day–style.
3. Buena Vista Cafe
After you’ve completed your first Powell–Hyde cable car ride, it’s a San Francisco tradition to celebrate with an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe, located across from the cable car turnaround. It’s crowded and touristy for sure, but it’s a good time and you can tell your friends you threw one back in the bar that served the first Irish coffees in America in 1952.
To get to Fisherman’s Wharf from here, cross the street and head toward the water for 1 block, to Jefferson Street. Take a right onto Jefferson and follow it to Pier 33 to catch the ferry to Alcatraz. (Be sure to buy tickets in advance!)
4. Alcatraz Tour
To tour “the Rock,” the Bay Area’s famous abandoned prison on its own island, you must first get there—and that’s half the fun. The brief but beautiful ferry ride offers captivating views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and the city. Once inside, an excellent audio tour guides you through cellblocks and offers a colorful look at the prison’s historic past as well as its most infamous inmates. Book well in advance because these tours consistently sell out in the summer. Bring snacks and beverages for the ride (ferry’s pickings are slim and expensive, and nothing is available on the island).
If you’ve got time, when you get off the ferry follow the sidewalk fronting the bay toward the Bay Bridge (the opposite direction from the Golden Gate Bridge) and take round-trip stroll on the Embarcadero toward the Bay Bridge. On a nice day, the views are breathtaking, and more and more attractions are popping up along the thoroughfare’s piers, including the Exploratorium. Then hop back on a cable car to Chinatown. There are two locations for cable cars near Fisherman's Wharf. The Powell–Hyde line (PH) and the Powell–Mason line (PM). The PH line is located at Beach and Hyde streets; the PM line is at Bay and Taylor streets. Both lines intersect each other. Best place to get off is Washington and Mason streets or Powell and California streets. Walk down a few blocks and you will be in:
Despite the number of international visitors pounding this small neighborhood’s pavement, Chinatown remains its own authentic world. San Francisco has one of the largest communities of Chinese people in the United States, and more than 80,000 of them are condensed into the blocks surrounding Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Join the locals and peruse the vegetable and herb markets, restaurants, and shops and check out the markets along Stockton Street hawking live frogs, armadillos, turtles, and odd sea creatures—all destined for tonight’s dinner table. Tip: The dozens of knickknack shops are a great source of cheap souvenirs.
6. Great Eastern Restaurant
You can’t visit Chinatown and not try food so terrific that President Obama himself popped in back in 2012. Walk to the Great Eastern Restaurant and order salt-and-pepper fresh crab and sizzling chicken in a clay pot.
7. North Beach
San Francisco’s “Little Italy” celebrates cafe (and bar) culture like no other part of town. Here dozens of Italian restaurants and coffeehouses brim with activity in what is still the center of the city’s Italian community. A stroll along Columbus Avenue will take you past the eclectic cafes, delis, bookstores, bakeries, and coffee shops that give North Beach its Italian-bohemian character.
8. Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store
The menu’s limited to coffee drinks and a few sandwiches (the meatball is our favorite), but the convivial atmosphere and large windows are perfect for people-watching. It’s at 566 Columbus Ave. (tel. 415/362-0536).
9. Dinner at Original Joe’s
The best thing about North Beach is its concentration of old-school restaurants—many of them owned by the same family for generations. Original Joe’s is a classic, where patrons sit in red leather booths and dine on Italian-American comfort food.
10. Beach Blanket Babylon at Club Fugazi
This whimsical live show is so quintessentially San Francisco, there may be no better way to end the day. Buy tickets in advance and prepare for the outrageous costumes and giant hats of the longest-running musical revue in the country.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.