Downtown San Francisco is a captivating blend of historic charm, modern allure, and vibrant culture. I have visited twice and found new things to do each time. I think Downtown San Francisco is not only worth visiting, but also worth staying in. If you have a few days, I suggest splitting your time between Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.

For solo travelers, the area offers unique experiences. You’ll find bustling shopping districts, serene parks, iconic landmarks, and culinary delights. This guide covers must-see sights, hidden gems, and practical tips for making the most of your solo journey through downtown San Francisco.

Read more: Exploring Downtown San Francisco: A Solo Traveler’s Guide in 2024 

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Morning in Downtown San Francisco: Union Square

Start your adventure in Union Square, the heart of downtown. As the morning light illuminates the square, you’ll feel the city waking up around you. Union Square is more than just a shopping mecca; it’s a cultural and social hub. Surrounded by luxury boutiques and department stores, it’s the perfect place to begin your day.

Grab a coffee from the local favorite, Blue Bottle Coffee, and find a spot to sit and do some people-watching. The square often hosts art installations and performances, offering a taste of San Francisco’s dynamic arts scene. Don’t miss the iconic Dewey Monument in the center of the square, a symbol of the city’s rich history.

From here, head towards the Cable Car Turnaround at Powell and Market Streets. Watching the cable cars being manually turned is a quintessential San Francisco experience. It’s the world’s last manually operated cable car system and costs $8 for a ride. You can also get a day pass on the MUNI app.

Discovering Chinatown: A Journey Through Culture

A short walk from Union Square brings you to Chinatown, the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in North America. Enter through the Dragon Gate and step into a world where tradition meets modernity. Chinatown is a bustling neighborhood filled with vibrant colors, enticing aromas, and a rich cultural tapestry.

Stroll along Grant Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and explore the myriad of shops selling everything from silk dresses to intricate jade carvings. A visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley is a must. Here, you can watch fortune cookies being made and even create your own custom messages.

For lunch, indulge in dim sum at Great Eastern Restaurant, where many presidents have dined. The owner is also really sweet and visited our table while we were there.

Nightlife in North Beach: Little Italy’s Charm

No visit to downtown San Francisco is complete without experiencing the nightlife in North Beach, also known as Little Italy. This neighborhood is a charming blend of Italian heritage and bohemian spirit, offering a lively scene that’s perfect for solo travelers.

Start your evening at Caffe Trieste, where the aroma of freshly brewed coffee mingles with the soft strains of live jazz. The west coast offers some pretty awesome independent bookstores and the iconic City Lights Bookstore is a must-visit for book lovers. Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this bookstore has been a cornerstone of San Francisco’s literary scene since the 1950s.

For a nightcap with a view, head to the Top of the Mark at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel. This rooftop bar offers panoramic views of the city.

Climb Coit Tower 

Sarah Fay looking at the San Francisco skyline from the top of the Coit Tower.

On my previous visit to San Francisco, I climbed to the top of Coit Tower. The iconic art deco tower stands tall on one of San Francisco’s many steep hills. Inside, the tower’s lobby showcases vibrant murals from the 1930s depicting life in California during the Great Depression. Take the elevator to the observation deck for breathtaking vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the city’s famous rolling hills.

AGE CATEGORYSF RESIDENTSNON-RESIDENTS
Adult$7$10
Senior (62+)$4$7
Youth (12-17)$4$7
Child (5-11)$2$3

Take A San Francisco Food Tour 

A 4-5 hour tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown and North Beach offers a unique glimpse into the city. The tour, guided by a local, provides lots of food and insights into the culture and history of downtown San Francisco. This tour also takes you to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where you can create your own fortunes for $2 USD.

I booked my tour through GetYourGuide and had a wonderful experience with our guide Brian.

Savoring the Sights and Flavors at the Ferry Building

After the cultural immersion in Chinatown, make your way to the waterfront and the Ferry Building. This iconic structure stands as a testament to San Francisco’s maritime heritage and is a food lover’s paradise. Inside, the Ferry Building Marketplace is brimming with gourmet food stalls, artisanal products, and unique gifts.

Spend some time exploring the market, where you can savor fresh oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co. or indulge in handmade chocolates at Recchiuti Confections. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the Ferry Plaza outdoor farmers market transforms the area into a vibrant scene where local farmers and artisans showcase their finest.

As you step outside, take in the breathtaking views of the Bay Bridge. The Embarcadero offers a scenic walkway along the waterfront, where the gentle rhythm of the waves and the distant calls of seagulls provide a serene backdrop to your journey.

If you want a great dining option in the Embarcado I recommend La Mar Cocina for Ceviche and Peruvian food. While I did not dine here this trip, I am sure it will be as good of an experience as I remember. The ambiance here is truly a one of a kind experience in San Francisco.  

Immersing in Art and Culture in SoMa

Head towards the South of Market or SoMa district, a cultural and technological hub in downtown San Francisco. Here, you’ll find the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), an architectural marvel housing an extensive collection of modern and contemporary art.

Lose yourself in the vibrant colors and abstract forms of works by artists like Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock. The museum’s Living Wall, with its 19,000 plants, offers a refreshing contrast to the sleek, modern interior.

Finding Peace in the Urban Jungle: Yerba Buena Gardens

After immersing yourself in art and culture, take a short walk to Yerba Buena Gardens. This urban oasis in the heart of downtown San Francisco offers a peaceful retreat from the city’s hustle and bustle. The gardens are beautifully landscaped, with lush greenery, vibrant flowers, and tranquil water features.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with its cascading waterfall, provides a moment of reflection and calm. Nearby, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts often hosts eclectic exhibitions and performances.

Adventures at the Embarcadero and Pier 39

As the day winds down, head back to the Embarcadero and stroll towards Pier 39. This popular waterfront attraction comes alive in the evening with twinkling lights and a lively atmosphere. 

When I stayed at Hotel Zoe in Fisherman’s Wharf I found it great to walk down to Pier 39 in the morning. It is a delightful mix of entertainment, dining, and shopping, all set against the backdrop of stunning bay views. Many think it is touristy, but I love the Pier 39 as well as seeing all the sea lions in the morning or afternoon. There is also the Aquarium which is also covered by the CityPass San Francisco.

While some may call Pier 39 a tourist trap there are certain San Francisco bucket list things you must do and for me that was trying the famous Boudin Bakery where you can taste some of the best sourdough bread and check two boxes at once by getting a bread bowl of the classic San Francisco clam. 

Things to do in Downtown San Francisco and Beyond 

Take A Bike Tour To Sausalito Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

While I was staying in Fisherman’s Wharf, I decided to take a bike tour that went to some of the highlights of San Francisco including the Marina, the Presidio, and biking across the Golden Gate Bridge just in time for lunch with a view of the San Francisco skyline. The bike tour also gave us a rundown of  the history of the area and to beautiful places such as the Palace of Fine Arts. The Palace of Fine Arts is a must visit even if you don’t do the tour because it is beautiful. It was created for the  1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts is a stately structure featuring a classical Roman rotunda with curved colonnades in an idyllic park setting. 

Another unique activity you can do is a Segway tour, I did this a few years back. It doesn’t go over the Golden Gate Bridge, but you get to also see some highlights of San Francisco. 

JapanTown San Francisco 

Japantown, also known as Nihonmachi, offers a vibrant slice of Japanese culture and history. Established in the early 1900s, Japantown has been a hub for the Japanese-American community for over a century. Today, it is a bustling destination with shops, cultural events, and art galleries. I enjoyed visiting a cute creperie, Belly Good Cafe & Crepes, where the crepes look like animals. My favorite store was Daiso, their version of the dollar store.

Japantown in San Francisco, California

Visit The Rock aka Alcatraz 

I have been to Alcatraz twice and I can tell you it is worth it. While some may call something touristy, this is by far one of the most interesting jails in the world you can visit. Visiting Alcatraz offers a unique glimpse into a historic federal prison that housed notorious criminals like Al Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud. The island, located in San Francisco Bay, provides a fascinating audio tour featuring first-hand accounts from former inmates and guards.

Besides its storied past, Alcatraz also offers stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline. To visit, book a ferry ride from Pier 33, and plan ahead as tickets often sell out quickly. There are also tours at night you can do, that offer a bit of a spookier angle to them.

Lombardi Street

Lombardi Street is known as the world’s most crooked street. I have walked the 8 hair pin turns, driven down it, and even taken a Segway tour down this street. I definitely think it is great for a photo op. This time I got to see it early in the morning as the sun rose. No one was there, which is not usually the case.

The Presidio

Nestled within San Francisco’s urban landscape, The Presidio offers a serene escape into nature and history. Once a military base, this expansive park now boasts scenic hiking trails, stunning vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a rich tapestry of historical landmarks. Whether you’re picnicking on the lush lawns or exploring art exhibits at the Walt Disney Family Museum, The Presidio promises a day filled with discovery and tranquility.

Presidio Tunnels Park

The newest park in the Presidio of San Francisco is the Presidio Tunnel Tops, which opened in July 2022. This innovative park spans 14 acres and is built over the Presidio Parkway tunnels. This park was designed by the same team that redesigned the urban planning of the New York City Highline. There is also a cafe here, outdoor lounging spaces, bathrooms, and it offers a beautiful view and garden overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is a verdant paradise in the heart of San Francisco, spanning over 1,000 acres of gardens, meadows, and cultural treasures. From the tranquil beauty of the Japanese Tea Garden to the vibrant exhibits at the de Young Museum, every corner of the park tells a unique story. Perfect for a leisurely stroll, bike ride, or even a paddleboat adventure, this park is a quintessential San Francisco experience. This park is massive and you could spend a few days exploring here alone.

@travelsofsarahfay1

Discover the beauty and culture of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park! Spend the day exploring the de Young Museum’s stunning art collections, marveling at the California Academy of Sciences’ interactive exhibits, and finding serenity in the tranquil Japanese Tea Garden. A perfect day in the park awaits! #GoldenGatePark #DeYoungMuseum #CalAcademy #JapaneseTeaGarden #placestovisitinsanfrancisco #thingstodoinsanfrancisco

♬ San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) – Scott McKenzie

What to See and Do In Golden Gate Park:

  • Japanese Tea Garden: Experience tranquility in this beautifully landscaped garden, complete with koi ponds, pagodas, and a tea houses perfect to grab small bites and tea. 
  • de Young Museum: Explore an impressive collection of American art, textiles, and international contemporary works. I really loved the exhibits in here. I participated in the 
  • California Academy of Sciences: Visit this state-of-the-art museum featuring an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history exhibits.
  • Stow Lake: Rent a paddleboat or rowboat and enjoy a peaceful ride on the park’s largest lake, surrounded by lush greenery.
  • Conservatory of Flowers: Marvel at the vast array of exotic plants in one of the oldest public wood-and-glass conservatories in North America.

The free shuttle in Golden Gate Park, known as the “Park Shuttle,” is a convenient service provided to help visitors navigate the park’s expansive grounds. Here are some key details about the shuttle:

  1. Service Hours and Frequency: The shuttle typically operates daily from around 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, though hours may vary seasonally. It runs approximately every 15-20 minutes.
  2. Route: The shuttle follows a loop route that connects major attractions within Golden Gate Park, such as the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, Stow Lake, and more.
  3. Accessibility: The shuttle is accessible to all visitors, including those with disabilities. It’s a convenient way to explore different areas of the park without needing to walk long distances.
  4. Cost: As of the last update, the shuttle service is free of charge, making it a budget-friendly option for park exploration.

Haight Ashbury

Haight Ashbury, the epicenter of 1960s counterculture, pulses with a bohemian vibe that’s as strong today as it was during the Summer of Love. Stroll through streets adorned with colorful murals, vintage shops, and eclectic cafes that capture the spirit of this iconic neighborhood. Whether you’re a history buff or a free spirit, Haight Ashbury invites you to embrace its storied past and vibrant present.

I grabbed a coffee with my friend at Flywheel Coffee Roasters and took a walk down the main street to find some amazing thrift and vintage stores. My favorite ones including a high end one is Wasteland where you can find second hand Burberry and other designers or places like Buffalo Exchange where you can find more everyday clothes. 

Haight Aschbury is also where you can see the former house of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and was/is the center of counterculture in San Francisco. 

Visit Full House House

For fans of ’90s sitcoms, a visit to the “Full House” house is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Located at 1709 Broderick Street, this picturesque Victorian home is a must-see for those wanting a snapshot of TV history. Although the interiors were filmed elsewhere, standing on the familiar steps instantly transports you to the Tanner family’s beloved home.

The Mission

The Mission District, San Francisco’s cultural melting pot, is a vibrant enclave brimming with art, food, and history. Wander through streets lined with stunning murals that narrate the neighborhood’s diverse stories and stop by its taquerias to savor the city’s best burritos. With its lively atmosphere and rich cultural tapestry, the Mission offers an authentic slice of San Francisco’s dynamic spirit.

Where to stay in Downtown San Francisco?

The Marker Downtown San Francisco

Staying at The Marker in downtown San Francisco feels like diving into a vibrant mosaic of luxury and local charm. Nestled in the theater district, this boutique hotel is a perfect blend of historic elegance and modern chic.

The rooms are a delightful surprise, each uniquely designed with bold patterns and vibrant hues that reflect San Francisco’s creative spirit. The plush bedding was perfect to unwind after walking 20,000 steps exploring. My room was a suite, which had a separate bedroom and spa like bathroom. It was definitely a memorable stay.

@travelsofsarahfay1

Who ever tells you not to go to San Francisco hasn’t truly explored the city because it is filled with such rich diversity in where to stay, what to do, and this past trip I explored staying in two neighborhoods. The first being in Union Square to explore some of the Downtown neighborhoods like Japantown and going to Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park basing myself at the classy @themarkersf #themarkersf #hosted . This was located in a great place to explore Downtown. Steal this guide to explore the best of San Francisco from Union Square. . 1. Use @citypass to explore some museums both walkable and accessible by public transit. Within walking distance to my hotel I was able to go to Union Square, @sfmoma , and then took a bus to check out San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park which has the @calacademy where you can check out an aquarium, indoor rainforest, and more scientific wonders which is also included on the #citypass . 2. Enjoy the food and shopping in Japantown one of three in the USA. I visited @happy_face_crepe for a cute crepe creation. There were also a lot of unique shops to explore and architectural accents reminiscent of Japan. This was a short bus ride from The Marker and Union Square. . 3. Take a foodie tour with SF San Francisco food tours to Chinatown and North Beach for a 4 hour foodie adventure of two must visit neighborhoods in San Fran! 4.Take the Powell Hyde Car line from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. The next neighborhood we will explore in San Francisco. 5. Enjoy the @davidsdeli for lunch across the street from the Marker and @trattosf for food located in The Marker for Italian modern fare. . What else would you add for exploring the Downtown San Francisco area? #onlyinsf #sanfranciscocityguide #sffoodies #japantownsf #sftravel #sanfranciscoworld #boutiquehotels

♬ Summer Vibes – GRLN

DIning a The Marker SF- Tratto SF 

Mornings at The Marker start with a rich aroma wafting from Tratto, the hotel’s Italian restaurant. Their fresh, locally-sourced breakfast options are a treat, but it’s their hand-crafted pasta and artisanal pizzas that steal the show come dinner. While I stayed at The Marker, I tried the Tratto breakfast sandwich, and I got the pan seared fish for dinner with risotto. Everything I ate here was chef’s kiss. 

When you’re ready to explore, you’re just steps away from Union Square’s buzzing energy and a short cable car ride to the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf. The concierge team is like having a local friend with insider tips, always ready to guide you to hidden gems and must-see landmarks.

Staying at The Marker is more than just a place to sleep – it’s an invitation to immerse yourself in the eclectic soul of San Francisco. 

Where to stay in Fisherman’s Wharf?

Hotel Zoe

Staying at Hotel Zoe in Fisherman’s Wharf is like finding a cozy haven amidst the vibrant pulse of San Francisco’s waterfront. From the moment you walk through its doors, Hotel Zoe wraps you in a warm embrace of modern luxury and seaside charm. The lobby exudes a sophisticated yet relaxed ambiance with its nautical-themed decor and plush seating areas, creating a welcoming retreat after a day of exploring the city. The rooms are elegantly designed with contemporary touches and calming blue tones that echo the nearby bay, offering a tranquil respite with plush bedding and upscale amenities that cater to both relaxation and convenience.

Hotel Zoe’s prime location in Fisherman’s Wharf makes it a gateway to some of San Francisco’s most beloved attractions. A short stroll brings you to the bustling waterfront where the aroma of fresh seafood from local eateries fills the air, and the playful sea lions at Pier 39 delight visitors of all ages. The hotel’s own Italian restaurant, Pescatore, serves up fresh, local seafood and hand-crafted pizzas, adding to the culinary adventure. After a day of sightseeing, guests can unwind by the outdoor fire pit with a glass of California wine, soaking in the vibrant atmosphere of the Wharf while planning the next day’s adventures. Whether it’s a romantic getaway or a family vacation, Hotel Zoe offers an intimate yet lively experience, perfectly blending the charm of Fisherman’s Wharf with the elegance of a boutique stay.

@travelsofsarahfay1

Here are the best things to do in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and where to stay! . Wake up every morning for a bike ride or walk along the waterfront to Pier 39 and see the sea lions. . Take a bike tour or head out on your own to cycle to Sausalito. . Take the ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf and use your @CityPASS to check out the aquarium, go on a cruise and tour of Alcatraz and see the Golden Gate Bridge from the water! . Finally stay at Hotel Zoe for the epic location close to the Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and also the famous historic manually operated street cars that you can find only in @San Francisco #onlyinsf #hotelzoefishermanswharf #fishermanswharfsf #thingstodoinsanfrancisco #wheretostayinsf #hosted

♬ sail away (instrumental) – lovelytheband

Things to do in the Fisherman’s Wharf and Marina Area

While staying in Fisherman’s Wharf area there are many things to do in the area such as going to the home of Ghirardelli. I recommend trying the famous Ghirardelli Hot Fudge Sundae. There is also a beautiful park that I took walks in the morning. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park offers a beautiful view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

There is also an area to swim here, and explore the Fort Mason area.There is a food truck event called Off The Grid that has food vendors on Frida from 5- 10 pm and DJ’s as well as live music. If you want something more slower paced head to the farmer’s market held every Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Book Your Stay In San Francisco

For Nightlife in Downtown San Francisco 

Smuggler’s Cove

Smuggler’s Cove in Hayes Valley is a tiki bar unlike any other, boasting an extensive collection of rum and a menu of exotic cocktails. Its intricate decor and themed drinks transport you to a tropical paradise, making it a must-visit for cocktail enthusiasts.

Temple Nightclub

Temple Nightclub in SoMa is a must-visit for those looking to dance the night away. Known for its state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, Temple features multiple rooms with different music genres, from EDM to hip-hop, making it a versatile choice for any night out.

The Beehive

A retro-inspired cocktail bar in SoMa, The Beehive transports you back to the 1960s with its playful decor and inventive drinks. It’s a great spot for a fun night out, with a lively atmosphere and a menu that includes classic cocktails with a twist.

Chamaine’s Rooftop Bar & Lounge

Located atop the Proper Hotel in Mid-Market, Charmaine’s offers a sophisticated yet laid-back atmosphere with stunning views of the city skyline. This rooftop bar is perfect for sipping craft cocktails by the fire pits while enjoying the twinkling lights of San Francisco.

Practical Tips for Solo Travelers in Downtown San Francisco

Exploring downtown San Francisco alone is rewarding, but it’s a big city. Be cautious. Pay attention to your purse and bag. Consider using Uber at night instead of walking alone. I like to play it safe. I felt comfortable walking and using public transit in Downtown San Francisco. Here are practical tips for a smooth and enjoyable journey:

Is San Francisco Safe?

San Francisco is generally safe for solo travelers. Stay alert, especially at night. Avoid the Tenderloin area after dark. Stick to well-lit, populated streets. I volunteered for an alternative spring break here and had no issues during the day.

What to wear in San Francisco?

Comfortable clothing is essential due to the city’s hills and fluctuating weather. San Francisco’s famous fog, “Karl,” can bring cool temperatures, even in summer. With all the hills and activities in Downtown San Francisco, wear great shoes and layers.

How to get around San Francisco

Public Transportation: Utilize the city’s efficient public transport systems, including BART, Muni buses, and the historic cable cars. They are not only convenient but also an integral part of the San Francisco experience.

Budget-Friendly Options: While downtown San Francisco can be pricey, there are plenty of budget-friendly options. Enjoy free attractions like the Cable Car Museum and the views from Coit Tower’s base. Street food and casual dining spots offer delicious and affordable meals.

Connectivity: Many public areas in downtown San Francisco offer free Wi-Fi. Coffee shops and cafes also provide connectivity, making it easy to stay connected and plan your next move. If you are visiting from abroad I do recommend an eSIM card like Airalo.

How to get to San Francisco?

I actually took the Amtrak Starlight Coastal train from Los Angeles, California. It was a beautiful train journey and I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. There is a section where you have the view of the Pacific Ocean as you take in a meal in the dining cart.

If you are tight on time, most people will just fly to San Francisco which is accessible by the Bart from Downtown.

It also is a beautiful, albeit long drive from Los Angeles.

Final Reflections on Downtown San Francisco

Exploring downtown San Francisco as a solo traveler is filled with adventure. From amazing neighborhoods to explore to food and experiences throughout the city. From the bustling energy of Union Square to the tranquil beauty of the Marina in the morning, the city invites immersion into its vibrant spirit. Every street, landmark, and hidden corner holds a story waiting to be uncovered.

This city, with its blend of history, culture, and modernity, embraces you. Whether wandering alone or sharing the experience with its vibrant community, it’s special. News of homelessness and crime might deter some, but tourist experiences remain unique. San Francisco exemplifies the rich history, culture, and amazing foodie culture of the USA.

Pack your curiosity and explore downtown San Francisco. Whether it’s your first visit or a return to rediscover its charm, the city promises a solo adventure like no other.

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