Whether your stopover in San Francisco is planned or due to a delay, consider it an exciting opportunity to explore this famed Californian city. Look forward to checking out a few iconic landmarks, or simply browsing the city’s eclectic selection of shops and eateries. Bay Area Rapid Transit makes it easy to travel to the center of the city and back to the airport after your mini-adventure. Trains depart from the SFO International Terminal; the ride into San Francisco takes around 30 minutes. If your layover goes overnight, vacation rentals in San Francisco offer a good night’s sleep while also keeping you close to the most beloved attractions.
1. Browse the Shops in Union Square
From Saks Fifth Avenue to H&M, Union Square offers an extensive line of department stores and clothing boutiques sure to satisfy your need to shop. If you are looking for something out of the ordinary, head to Ethos for eco-friendly clothing, accessories, and home wares or Jeffrey’s Toys for the perfect souvenir for your little one back home. In the winter, take a turn on the square’s ice rink for a little mid-trip exercise, or take the short jaunt to Lombard Street, one of the steepest, twistiest, and prettiest streets in San Francisco, and wander its undulating curves.
2. Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
With great food, multiple entertainment options, and a beautiful view, Fisherman’s wharf is a great place to spend a free afternoon or morning. You could take a train directly from the airport to the wharf, but it’s more fun to get off at Union Square and board one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars to finish the trip. Board a car heading down Powell Street for a true San Francisco experience on your way to the waterfront district. If you love everything marine, head to Hyde Street Pier to tour some of the historic boats in the Maritime National Historical Park. Grab a classic In-N-Out burger for lunch, or stop at one of the eclectic food trucks parked in the area. Art lovers are sure to enjoy the outdoor sculptures at Pier 35, and a rocket boat ride is a great way to get out on the water and see some of the sights.
3. Stroll Through Chinatown
Chinatown gives visitors a chance to experience a different culture without leaving the United States. Walk along Grant Avenue admiring the Chinese-style architecture in this protected historic district, stepping into Golden Gate Bakery for a hot egg custard tart. Then head down any of the winding alleys that lead through the district browsing the many unique, interesting shops located there. For a real treat, stop at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Ross Alley, and don’t miss Tin How Temple, the oldest Taoist temple in the United States.
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4. Explore the Financial District
The Financial District is great for exploring if you only have a few hours available or have already seen the all the standard tourist attractions. Stop for a photo of the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest building in San Francisco, and then head to the Tadich Grill for a lunch of fresh clam chowder and a local brew. Crocker Galleria houses more eateries and a variety of specialty shops for finding that perfect souvenir of your adventure.
5. Savor the View From Coit Tower
For the best views of San Francisco and the surrounding waters, head to the top of Telegraph Hill in the North Beach neighborhood where Coit Tower presides over the city. Tickets to the tower’s observation deck are available in the gift shop, and an elevator makes it easy for everyone to ascend the tower. After enjoying the expansive 360-degree view of the city, bay, and bridges, continue on to nearby Washington Square Park in the heart of Little Italy and get lunch at Mama’s or Cafe Divino.
6. Tour Alcatraz
The remains of Alcatraz Prison are a definite tourist favorite and well worth the visit if you have the time. Book a vacation rental near Fisherman’s Wharf to be close to Pier 33 where ferries depart for Alcatraz, and allow at least 6 hours total for travel time and touring the facility. For a little extra atmosphere, consider an Alcatraz night tour for a look at the prison after sunset.
7. Take a Self-Guided Tour of the Mission Art Murals
The Mission is another great San Francisco neighborhood to visit if your layover time is short and you want to soak in the local culture. Stroll along Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley to enjoy the vibrant street art and murals covering the walls and fences, and then grab an authentic Mission burrito at El Farolito or Taqueria Cancun.
8. Check Out the Ferry Building Marketplace
If you have an interest in artisan food, add the Ferry Building Marketplace to your San Francisco itinerary. This huge regional market is dedicated to fostering the best in Northern California food and wine production, and it is the perfect place to pick up some fresh local produce and a bottle of wine to take back to your vacation rental.
9. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
If you have a full day in San Francisco, consider spending it walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. This iconic structure, one of the most recognized bridges in the world, is easily accessible by bus, and the nearly 2-mile walk provides breathtaking views of the bay. After you finish crossing, take some time to explore the quaint shops in Sausalito. Enjoy a cup of coffee alfresco at one of Sausalito’s many cafes plus the spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Alternatively grab lunch or dinner at Scoma’s Sausalito or The Spinnaker for fresh seafood at its finest. Then take a ferry back to San Francisco for more beautiful views. Expect the entire experience to take from four to six hours depending on how often you stop to take photos and where you choose to eat in Sausalito.
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