San Francisco – A Fabulous Weekend Itinerary!
I want to share with you a truly fantastic two-day trip to San Francisco California and to detail our fabulous mini-itinerary so that if like us, you can only manage a weekend or a two-day break in San Francisco, you’ll waste no time at all in having fun and amazing experiences.
Over two fabulous days, we explored the streets of San Francisco on foot and also using the famous San Francisco cable cars, we ate amazing food in San Francisco restaurants, we hired bicycles and cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course, we toured and explored the decommissioned prison on Alcatraz Island.
And each of these adventures and iconic experiences were on our travel wish list or bucket list – and we were so excited to be in The Golden City – a popular nickname for San Francisco derived from the gold rush days!
We’d almost made it to San Francisco a couple of times while we’d been in the USA previously – but somehow it just hadn’t happened – this time, we were on our way over from Asia transiting through the USA.
We flew in from Seoul, South Korea, via Beijing China to San Francisco, and we planned to take a two-day pit stop in San Francisco before making our way down to the Caribbean to spend the summer.
Interestingly, during that flight over the Pacific Ocean, we experienced time travel as we crossed the International Date Line and arrived in San Francisco half an hour before we actually left Seoul in South Korea.
How crazy is that?
Of course, in real-time, we had been travelling so long that we were exhausted and jet-lagged. But we didn’t let that stop us. In those days, this was pre-Covid of course, and so we just pushed through with jet lag and didn’t stress about it.
So, wondering what to do in San Francisco in just two days?
San Francisco – A Fabulous Weekend Itinerary
How to spend two fun action-packed days in San Francisco!
Day 1: AM
First up… where to stay. We’d booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express in the Fisherman’s Wharf area in downtown San Francisco and, on this occasion, we stayed completely FREE using our points collected on our IHG Loyalty Card.
TOP Travel Tip: Collect those hotel and flight loyalty points for upgrades and free stays/flights as soon as you can. We did so from the outset and we now regularly stay in upgraded rooms and suites with all the perks on just booking a regular room through the IHG Hotels and Resorts App.
We explored the Fisherman’s Wharf area and took a leisurely walk around Pier 39. We watched stormy looking clouds roll in across the bay and we stopped to watch the sea lions that have made the place their home and were sleeping on the wooden dock.
We had a browse in the souvenir stores selling t-shirts and touristy trinkets. We admired the view of Alcatraz Island and enjoyed what was a beautiful but breezy day. I’ve heard that the San Francisco weather can be notoriously foggy and chilly with strong winds at certain times of the year.
We were there mid-April and it was an absolutely perfect time to visit.
There are so many songs about San Francisco and while you are there it’s hard not to bring them to mind and to quietly hum the tune to ‘San Francisco – Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair’ or ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ or ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ – or maybe that’s just me!
While we were at Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf – with wonderful views of the bay – we had classic and delicious clam chowder from a sourdough bread bowl at a restaurant called ‘Chowders‘ for lunch!
For those of you who aren’t sure what a clam chowder is: It’s a thick and creamy chicken and potato broth soup with clams – that’s a kind of shellfish – for which San Francisco is famous and there are many restaurants claiming the best clam chowder!
Day 1: PM
After lunch and after exploring the pier, we were keen to explore the streets of San Francisco – especially the steep streets – and to travel up and down them on a cable car.
There are three cable car routes to choose from and we chose to take the cable car from Fisherman’s Wharf turnpike all the way to Union Square where it turns around at the junction of Market and Powell Street and then heads back up the street again.
You can ride on the cars by sitting on seats inside or outside. You are also allowed to stand. Lots of people stand whether there are seats available or not – often on the running boards while hanging onto a pole – as this is how you get the best views of the steep streets and the harbour.
The cable car system is fascinating and unique.
Built in 1873, the cable car system is synonymous with the streets of San Francisco and it’s the last working system of its kind in the world. The cable cars are powered by an engine located in a central powerhouse and they move by gripping an underground cable that is in constant motion. The man operating the cable car is called the gripman as he is responsible for operating the grip and also ringing the bell.
We bought our cable car tickets from the ticket booth at the Fisherman’s Wharf turnpike and our tickets cost $8 each way.
As well as riding on the cable cars you can also visit The Cable Car Museum on the corner of Mason Street and Washington Street. It’s free to enter and you can see historic cable cars and displays of interesting old photographs.
And, as this is actually the powerhouse of the cable car system, you can watch the huge engines at work as they pull those colossal cables that run the cars in use on the streets.
Day 2: AM
We were up and about early as we were very keen and excited to rent bikes and cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning and then our plan was to take the afternoon ferry over to visit Alcatraz Island.
Cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge was always a bucket list thing for me to do once we got to San Francisco and, although that might sound like a super energetic and exhausting and even difficult thing to do – it’s actually not – even if you haven’t been on a bicycle for years.
This is because the cycle ride from Fisherman’s Wharf will take you on a leisurely route through the Aquatic Park, Fort Mason, the Marina, and The Presidio National Park on a mostly flat car-free paved bike path all the way to the base of the bridge.
And, cycling across the bridge itself, is also done on a car-free sidewalk with a barrier there to protect you from traffic and not the road itself.
You can take your time and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge at your own pace to Sausalito, where you can have lunch, before hopping on the ferry with your bike right back to San Francisco.
The approximate duration and distance from Fisherman’s Wharf are 1.5 hours or 8 miles to Sausalito.
We actually didn’t do this route because we had only allocated the morning to experience cycling the bridge, as we’d planned to go over to Alcatraz Island in the early afternoon.
So we biked along the bike path past the beautiful marina and waterfront area, taking in the views of the bay and the bridge and of Alcatraz Island. Then once we reached the bridge, we cycled over it, and then we turned right around and did it again in reverse.
It was a glorious day with blue skies. Certainly an improvement on the previous day’s grey skies.
And, we were lucky because the bridge wasn’t at all busy. Nor was it at all misty or too windy, as I’ve heard it can get pretty foggy and gusty up there on occasions.
We hired our bikes from a company called Blazing Saddles. They have various outlets around the Bay Area and we found them to have friendly, knowledgeable staff and the perfect bikes for us.
They adjusted the seat, gave us some good information, and fitted us with bike helmets too. We’d mentioned that we’d booked online and we got a 20% discount. I have no hesitation in recommending them.
If you are doing the ferry boat return from Sausalito then Blazing Saddles will also sell you the return ferry ticket as part of your package.
Biking over such an iconic and probably the most famous bridge in America was a fabulous pinch-me kind of bucket-list experience for me and I loved every minute of it!
Day 2: PM
Taking a ferry over to Alcatraz Island and exploring the famous decommissioned prison is on most people’s travel agenda when they visit San Francisco. I’m no exception. I was really excited about it and, as soon as we’d booked our flight from South Korea to San Francisco, I went online to book our tickets for Alcatraz.
I was really glad I did. I later found out that had I waited until we were actually in San Francisco to buy our tickets we would have been disappointed (gutted, actually) as tickets had all sold out for our dates.
So if you are planning to visit Alcatraz as part of a trip to San Francisco do plan ahead. Tickets are available to purchase up to 90 days ahead online so buy before you go.
This is the link to the official Alcatraz Cruises ticket site.
The Alcatraz Island Tour starts off from Pier 33 – also known as Alcatraz Landing.
It’s just a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. We arrived half an hour before our ferry time (as it says on the ticket) and we joined the queue. It was a pleasant 15-minute ferry ride over to the island and it was exciting to see the imposing prison getting closer and closer as we stood on the deck snapping photos.
You can take your time and stay on Alcatraz Island as long as you like and then take whatever ferry suits you back to the mainland. We listened to the visitor’s welcome talk and then walked up the hill to the prison, stopping to look at the oldest lighthouse on the Californian coastline and also to take in the poignancy of the ‘Indians Welcome’ graffiti left by the Native Americans who occupied the island in 1969 to 1971.
It was a warm, sunny, and calm day when we entered the walls of the prison that had held the most dangerous criminals in America – like Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker and probably the most famous of all Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud.
Burt Lancaster starred in the 1962 movie ‘The Bird Man of Alcatraz‘ about Stroud’s life in solitary confinement on D Block. Stroud was reportedly never allowed to see it.
While walking around the cell blocks, as a writer with a vivid imagination, I could easily imagine what it must have been like to have been imprisoned there in the wintertime, on cold and dark and stormy nights. It must have been horrible.
Inside the prison, the atmosphere was hauntingly oppressive.
We were told that when the wind blew towards the island, prisoners could often hear music and parties and people having fun in the city that was so close and yet so far away. That was said to be the worst torture of all for the prisoners. From my perspective, looking down from the prison wall to the water of the bay it looked as though it might be easy to escape simply by swimming away. But the currents in the bay area are said to be treacherous.
There have of course in the past been many escape attempts. The most fascinating escape attempt, in my opinion, and certainly the most mysterious, was on the night of 11 June 1962. When brothers John and Clarence Anglin and fellow inmate Frank Morris pulled off a prison break so daring it went on to inspire Hollywood thriller Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood.
The men used blades, spoons and a drill over the course of six months to gradually dig an exit opening through ventilation ducts in their cells.
They fashioned papier-mâché models of their own heads using plaster and their own hair to make them look lifelike. Then, on the night of their daring escape, they used towels and clothing to pad out their beds and conceal their absence. To date, the escape holes they forged and the model heads are still on display at Alcatraz inside the men’s prison cells.
I found this escape story utterly fascinating. Until fairly recently, it was believed the three men had drowned in the bay on that night in 1962 because they were never seen again. But a letter has since appeared, apparently written by John Anglin, (who would now be 83 years old) that may solve the mystery over what became of the three men.
The letter – obtained by CBS San Francisco – was allegedly sent to the city’s Richmond police station in 2013 and claims that Clarence Anglin died in 2011 and Morris in 2008.
You can read more about this letter and about John Anglin and the prisoners who escaped with him from Alcatraz in this fascinating 2018 news report in The Independent newspaper.
It was also interesting that while we were on the island, a former inmate, William ‘Bad Boy’ Baker, aged 80, who had written a book about his time in Alcatraz Prison in the 1950s entitled ‘Alcatraz – 1258’ was in the gift shop/bookshop that day to personally sign copies of his book. His prisoner number had been 1259.
Baker, who claims he learned how to counterfeit cheques in Alcatraz and ‘learned from the best’ is usually on the island every Wednesday through Friday to sign copies of his book.
I’m sure it will be an interesting read.
It was great to meet him. He’s a real rockstar of The Rock!
After taking the headset tour and listening to all the interesting information and stories of Alcatraz – and of course, having my picture taken through the bars from inside one of the tiny cells, we went outside to take a breath of fresh air and admire the city skyline of San Francisco and The Golden Gate Bridge.
Visiting Alcatraz had been all and more than I expected.
It was an amazing experience!
What do you think of my San Francisco – Fabulous Weekend Itinerary?
Have you ever been to San Francisco?
Get in touch and let me know!
Did you ride the cable cars? Did you try the clam chowder?
What’s your favourite song about San Francisco?
Have you ever been to Alcatraz Island or are you planning a visit?
Have you biked the Golden Gate Bridge or do you plan to do it?
What other bridge do you want to cross over in your lifetime?
I’d love to hear from you!
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