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The Best things to do in San Francisco in 48 hours or less


San Francisco is a wonderful city with a lot to offer. It has great food, beer, shopping, culture, scenery, attractions, and so much more. However, San Francisco can be a very expensive city to stay in. I have been to the city by the bay several times, and each time, was for less than 48 hours. In fact, on one visit I was there for only 8 hours. I hear you saying: “What can you possibly do in San Francisco in 8 hours?”. Well, quite a lot, actually. If you have a couple of key places in mind that you want to see. And if you can stick to a fairly tight schedule.

If you have limited time (and money) to spend in San Francisco, here are a few highlights I would recommend that you put on your “48-hour or less” itinerary so that you can make the most of your short trip to San Fran:

Fisherman’s Wharf

The good news is that in the Fisherman’s Wharf area there is quite a lot to do. If you focus your time here, you will have a very busy day of activities and great memories of your short trip. In fact, a lot of my recommendations are in, or around the Fisherman’s Wharf. You can enjoy some good shopping, great food – including chowder in a bread bowl, the amazing scenery, and so much more.


Chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is a San Francisco staple. At Fisherman’s Wharf, you will find many great seafood chowder huts and the Boudin Bakery – where they hand-craft the sourdough bread bowls that have made this city famous. I recommend visiting Boudin for the short and inexpensive tour but have your chowder in a bread bowl right on the wharf. The chowder huts all have great-tasting chowder at a very similar price, so find one that looks most appealing to you, and chow-down. Traveller tip: Watch out for the gulls – they will aggressively attack your food.

Musee Mecanique

The Musee Mecanique is an old-fashioned penny arcade, located on the Wharf. This unusual museum is one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections of coin-operated mechanical amusements, musical instruments, and antique arcade machines still in working order. Located right on pier 45, this old-time arcade is an absolute must-see. It is free to enter, but you will want to spend money to play many games. The cost to play games can range from 1cent (yes, it is true) to $1, and they have change machines on site.
They have a ‘Laughing Sal’ doll that brought back many memories of my own childhood, having lived near an amusement park that had one of her cousins on display for decades. She is a bit creepy and off-putting, but I still have a fondness for the old gal Sal.

Sea Lions of Pier 39

These playful pinnipeds of Pier 39 have become a major tourist attraction in San Francisco over the last 30 years. The Marine Mammal Centre, an organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, and the Marina have embraced the sea lions making the docks at Pier 39 their home. Many sea lions have found a comfortable little resting spot here. Making it one of the most popular destinations for visitors to San Francisco. Here, the sea lions have plenty of food to eat, they are fairly well-protected from predators, and they are happy to bask in the sun.             Traveller Tip: Their antics can be quite entertaining, and you could find yourself spending a lot more time here than you anticipated.

The Aquarium of the Bay

This world-class aquarium is located right in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. The Aquarium of the Bay, at Fisherman’s Wharf, houses 10’s of thousands of marine animals in beautiful enclosures, including a walk-through tunnel of sharks and rays, which is quite impressive. It is not a huge aquarium, making it rather easy to fit this into your short stay without worry.

Escape to Alcatraz

If you can make the time, I highly recommend you pop over to Alcatraz Island for a tour. The legendary prison that was home to many infamous criminals like Al Capone, and The Birdman of Alcatraz, as well as the subject of many classic movies. With tour schedules, and time on the island, doing a tour to Alcatraz Island will definitely dig into your itinerary, but it is definitely worth it if you can make the time. Departures are from Pier 33, on Fisherman’s Wharf, making it very easy to get to and to plan.

Ghirardelli Square

You know (and love) their chocolates. They can be found worldwide in many chocolate shops, candy stores, and gourmet food shops. Ghirardelli Square is the home of this famous San Francisco chocolate company. It is located only a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. Making it an easy destination to add to your 48-hour (or less) itinerary. If you or someone you know loves chocolate, you will not want to skip a visit to Ghirardelli Square. Where gourmet chocolates, candy, ice cream, and other delicious sweets await you.


Cable Car Ride

This is a must-do for everyone visiting San Francisco, especially for the first time. For a real San Francisco experience, hop on and ride the rails up and down the hilly streets of San Fran. It doesn’t take long to do a return trip from the Powell-Hyde Cable Car Turntable near Ghirardelli Square. Taking the cable car will get you to all of the highlights throughout the city that are a bit too far to walk to. It does it quite quickly and conveniently to help you maximize your site-seeing time in San Francisco.

Get Bent on Lombard Street

Walking or driving, this is something you must see as a first-time visitor. Often called the ‘crookedest street in the world’, a distinction that is not totally accurate, it is a very unique, pretty, and fun road to drive down. It is only a few blocks up the hill from Ghirardelli Square, so it is close to everything. Walking up the hills can be a bit of a challenge for many people.


Grant Avenue, San Francisco. This is one of the oldest and most famous Chinese neighbourhoods in all of the USA. The Broadway Musical “The Flower Drum Song” made it famous in popular culture. It is a great place for authentic Chinese cuisine, shopping, and culture, and definitely a must-do for the 48-hour itinerary.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge opened in May 1937 and instantly became an iconic fixture on the San Francisco skyline. It is one of the most photographed bridges in the world, and it is a must for every visitor to San Francisco. There are many vantage points in the city from which you can get great views of the bridge, and from the visitor information centre, you get amazing views of San Francisco.

There is so much more to this amazing city that I have not mentioned. If you have more time (and money) to spend, I definitely recommend you take your time to further explore the rich cultural and historic beauty of this city by the bay. If you are tight on time and only have a couple of days to spend in San Francisco, I know you will be satisfied with this abbreviated itinerary.


Adventurer, gastro-tourist, avid road tripper, and butter tart aficionado. Exploring the road less travelled and the adventures that exist for all to see if you open yourself up to new possibilities. Greg and his husband Nick are residents of Guelph, and their greatest joys in life are exploring the world around them. Road trips with no real destination are a favourite past time. Get off the beaten path and discover somewhere they have never been before. Sometimes the best vacations are the ones you don't really plan. Life is about the journey together and not the destination.

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