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., and a sleek, new Apple store, along with blocks of other high-end boutiques. Major sales aside, there are few bargains to be found, and even fewer independent retailers. Still, if shopping is your thing, you won’t find more places to spend your money than in this bustling area. If it’s not, you can at least start here for a postcard-perfect take-off on one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.
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 mobile 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 $7 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 tourist tradition to celebrate with an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe, located across from the cable car turnaround. It’s crowded 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, 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 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 you're on the island, 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. Bring snacks and beverages for the ride (the ferry’s food options are limited and expensive, and nothing is available on the island).
From Fisherman’s Wharf, hop back onto a cable car to Chinatown, taking either the Powell–Hyde line (PH) or the Powell–Mason line (PM). The PH line is located at Beach and Hyde streets; the PM line 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 15,000 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. China Live
You can’t visit Chinatown and not try some of the food. Pop by China Live and order some potstickers and perhaps some dry-braised green beans. You can also grab a memento or two here, because who doesn’t need a T-shirt that says, “I’m all that and dim sum”?
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 in the Neighborhood
You’ve got a lot of restaurants nearby, so take your pick between dining in Chinatown or North Beach. 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. Chinatown has its culinary staples, too. Try out the famed crab at R&G Lounge, or taste the next generation with dinner at Mr. Jiu’s, ranked one of the best new restaurants in 2016 by Bon Appétit magazine.
10. Caffè Greco
By now you should be stuffed and exhausted—which is the exact right time for a cappuccino at Caffè Greco (423 Columbus Ave.; [tel] 415/397-6261). Sit at one of the sidewalk tables and watch the area’s colorful citizens come and go.
11. 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.