San Francisco Itinerary – 3 Days in San Francisco for First Timers

Traveling to San Francisco for a long weekend? If you’ve got 3 days in San Francisco to plan, check out this suggested list of things to do for ideas.

This popular San Francisco itinerary is designed to showcase a wide variety of attractions and activities, and to appeal to visitors really looking for that authentic “San Francisco experience.”

This 3 day itinerary includes:

• Hop-on Hop-off Big Bus Sightseeing Tour
• California Academy of Sciences
• de Young Museum
• Legion of Honor
• Aquarium of the Bay
• Exploratorium
• Escape From the Rock
• Madame Tussauds San Francisco
• Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise
• Ripley’s Believe it or Not!

Looking for more things to do? – we’ve got a list of how to spend 5-7 days in San Francisco. Or, try our popular California road trip itinerary, which covers top San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco attractions.

Stop #1: Big Bus San Francisco Sightseeing Tour

This Hop-on Hop-off San Francisco Bus Tour is the perfect addition to your itinerary, and an easy way to get around the city while sightseeing.

Tour guides are entertaining and knowledgeable, and you’ll see some of the best sights of the city, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, and more

Your ticket is good for a full 48 hours, so you can use it to hop on and off at your leisure.

As a bonus, your ticket also includes a selection of free walking tours. Join up with one of these three tours at designated stops to see more of each neighborhood: Chinatown Walking Tour, North Beach Walking Tour, or Barbary Coast Walking Tour.

Stop #2: California Academy of Sciences

No San Francisco visitor should miss the chance to explore the dazzling and delightful California Academy of Sciences.

Comprised of four distinct areas – a natural history museum, an aquarium, an all-digital planetarium, and a four-story rainforest – there’s no end to the things to do at this attraction.

This attraction is not just entertaining or informative, it’s also on the cutting edge of research and conservation. Scientists based here are making discoveries and developments that have the potential to improve the environment and change the world!

They’ve even got a beautiful, 2 ½ acre “living roof,” just one of their many eco-friendly innovations.

There are a number of special programs and events that frequently run at the California Academy of Sciences, too, so be sure to check their calendar before you visit to see what’s on.

We recommend reserving between 1-2 hours for this attraction.

Stop #3: de Young Museum

Head back to Golden Gate Park to visit one of the other finest museums in the city — the de Young Museum. This gorgeous facility works to integrate art and nature and architecture all into one cohesive aesthetic experience, making it one of the most unique institutions on the west coast.

Their collections span millennia, featuring everything from ancient African art to contemporary painting. They also have a strong body of American painting from the seventeenth to twenty-first centuries.

Insider Tip: Be sure to head up the observation tower for an expansive aerial view of Golden Gate Park.

We recommend reserving between 1-2 hours for this museum — perhaps more if you have an art lover in your party. They also have a lovely cafe for a nice coffee break!

Stop #4: Legion of Honor
Located just north of Golden Gate Park, the beautiful Legion of Honor museum is another great artistic attraction.

Designed to look like an eighteenth-century French palace, this institution is beautiful inside and out. Exhibits span a wide variety of artistic genres and nearly 4,000 years of history, so there’s no telling what you mind find inside!

Highlights include Ancient Art and European painting, featuring works by El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet, and more. A favorite is Rodin’s iconic sculpture “The Thinker,” which is located outdoors in the Court of Honor.

We recommend reserving about 1-2 to explore the Legion of Honor.

Stop #1: SFMOMA
This must-see San Francisco attraction is an excellent way to start off another day of your vacation. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has recently undergone a multi-year renovation project that has totally transformed this amazing space.

It’s one of the best museums on the west coast dedicated to contemporary and modern art. They also have a unique focus on living artists from the Bay Area.

You’ll find all your favorite artists represented in their vast collections, from Klee to Calder to Stieglitz.

We recommend arriving when the museum first opens to avoid the bulk of the crowds. Set aside at a few hours for this engaging museum — more if you’ve got real art lovers in your group.

Stop #2: Aquarium of the Bay
Now it’s time to head up to the Fisherman’s Wharf waterfront neighborhood for some prime explorations of the most popular locales in the city.

Pop into the fascinating Aquarium of the Bay, which is consistently a family-favorite attraction. It exclusively features specimens from the San Francisco Bay, from jellyfish to giant octopi!

You won’t want to miss their clear crystal tunnel system, with more than 300 feet of amazing views of over 20,000 marine creatures and plants. It’s a surreal experience to feel like you’re walking underwater!

Another popular exhibit with kids is “Touch the Bay,” where you can actually reach into water and feel sharks, rays, and sea stars.

We recommend reserving at least an hour for this attraction.

Stop # 3: Exploratorium
Also located near the waterfront is the kid-centric Exploratorium. It’s a highly interactive museum, with tons of opportunities for your kids to touch and play with hundreds of different exhibits.

You’ll find everything from fun, climbable outdoors exhibits to science-focused exhibits like viewing sea creatures through a microscope.

Adults can have fun, too! Just check out the more inventive exhibits and learn about San Francisco’s truly creative culture.

It’s also really worth your time to consult their website before you visit. They have activities organized by theme online, and it’s a good way to plan out what you want to tackle first.

Stop #4: Escape From the Rock Cruise
End the day with a truly enjoyable cruise that heads out towards the infamous Alcatraz Island. Sail under the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, out to the Bay, and past this sinister prison while listening to informative narration from your crew.

And it’s not just about what you see in front of you, either — you’ll also be regaled with stories about famous crooks and criminals who served some time in Alcatraz, including tales about famous escape efforts that have inspired so many films.

The cruise itself last for one and a half hours; please arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your desired departure time. No reservations required.

Please not that this cruise does not include a landing at Alcatraz Island itself; if you’re interested in visiting the prison, purchase your Go San Francisco Card directly from Alcatraz Cruises.

Stop #1: Madame Tussauds San Francisco
Begin your last day with a return to the popular Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.

Stop by Madame Tussauds San Francisco for a truly special experience that only Madame Ts can produce. Meet celebrities from music to Hollywood to politics and snap your photo with your favorite.

It’s a fun way to keep the kids entertained, and it’s also an informative romp through pop culture’s most important figures and moments in time, from Elton John to Rosa Parks.

We recommend reserving about an hour to explore this attraction. You may experience lines, but probably not first thing in the morning.

Stop #2: Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise
Next on your itinerary, you’ll want to continue to explore San Francisco by water! The Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise is actually the only cruise in the area that sails under both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge (hence its name), and is a totally relaxing activity.

You’ll also see a number of iconic sights from San Francisco’s shoreline and maritime history, including the infamous Alcatraz and Treasure Island. So there’s an educational component, too, for those of you traveling with curious explorers of all ages.

If you’re wondering, the big difference between this cruise and the Escape from the Rock cruise is that this option features a more wide-ranging survey of San Francisco maritime culture and history, and less information about Alcatraz itself. Pick one, or enjoy them both!

Remember to pick up your ticket in advance at the booth prior to boarding the vessel. We recommend arriving at least 15 in advance of your desired sail time. Reservations are required for this cruise.

Stop #3: Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
This is another destination the kids will love. The endlessly fascinating Ripley’s Believe it or Not! makes for an astonishing and fully entertaining last stop of the trip.

Filled with the bizarre, the strange, and the wonderful, Ripley’s has been delighting and puzzling visitors for generations.

With hundreds of crazy exhibits — many of them new each year — there’s something for adults to like, too. An area that absolutely everyone loves is the Toy / Candy Factory, which offers hundreds of different classic and contemporary sweet treats. Be prepared for the nostalgia when you see your favorite childhood candy for sale!

A visit here typically takes about two hours, so plan accordingly based on your dinner ideas.

Let’s Recap
This 3 days in San Francisco itinerary really shows you the best and the brightest of the City by the Bay.

The wide variety of things to do and places to go on your three days in San Francisco will leave you feeling like you’ve gotten a true feel for the city.