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How to Spend 24 Hours in San Francisco

Feb 8, 2020 | Destinations, USA | 0 comments

The Golden Gate Bridge. Cable cars. Steep, steep hills. Rent that will give you a heart attack. I saw it all in 24 hours in San Francisco.

Chances are, you’ve seen a movie filmed there, watched news segments about staggering costs of living, and even dreamed of going there someday.

Now’s your chance! 

I visited San Francisco for the first time on a long layover with a final destination of Bangkok.

It was time to leave the airport and get to exploring!

Here is a complete guide to enjoy San Francisco on limited time, with recommendations for what to see and do, where to stay to make the most of your time and budget, and where to get delicious vegan food!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase any of the products or services from the links below, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products and services I love!

How to Get to Central San Francisco from SFO International Airport

By public transportation: 

Public transit is the method I recommend for getting to San Francisco’s center from the airport. There is a BART station inside the airport. It doesn’t get much simpler than that!

The BART line servicing the airport is the yellow line. It takes roughly 30 minutes to reach the city center from SFO airport station on this train. BART operates starting at 5am and the last departure is at 11:54pm.

Once you deplane and collect any checked luggage, follow the signs to the AirTrain and BART. The AirTrain’s blue line will take you to a stop for the garage and the BART station. It’s only one stop from the international terminal, and two or three stops from domestic terminals, depending on which domestic terminal your arrival gate is in.

Once you’re off the AirTrain, go to the ticket machines and purchase a ticket with enough value to reach the stop closest to your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb. There will be an information sheet on the ticket machine that tells you how much it costs to get to each station. To reach Civic Center costs $10.15. 

Insert your payment method to start the process, and note the automatic amount the machine puts on your card. Then, use the buttons to deduct or add money from that amount before you print your card.

For example, the default amount on our transactions was $20. We didn’t need $20 on our tickets. So, we used the “Subtract $1” buttons until it reached $11. From there, you can use the “Subtract 5 cents” button to get your ticket down to $10.15. 

By Lyft or Uber: 

If you’re not a fan of public transportation or if you arrive outside the working hours of BART, a rideshare is another great option.

There are rideshare signs within SFO airport to direct you to where rideshares are authorized to pick up passengers coming from airport arrivals.

The ride should take 25 minutes without traffic. If you want an estimate before you commit and request a ride, look up the directions to your accommodations in Google Maps and select the taxi/rideshare option. Uber and Lyft will show estimates for your route, which you can confirm in the app before requesting a ride.

{Pro tip: Lyft currently has points and frequent flyer mile multipliers with Chase Sapphire, Delta Airlines, and Hilton Honors. Using Lyft for a couple of rides in San Francisco earned me 5x the points for using my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. On top of that, I earned SkyMiles with Delta and Hilton Honors points for those rides. Jackpot!}

Our Lyft driver also gave us a snapshot of rent in the area. The cheapest apartments go for $2,200 per month in San Francisco!

Where to Stay in San Francisco: Hotel Whitcomb

Finding an affordable place to stay with easy access to public transportation and great sightseeing was a struggle when planning our night in San Francisco.

However, after hours of searching Airbnb, Hostelworld,, and, I found Hotel Whitcomb on Airbnb. We ultimately chose to book a room on the hotel’s website, because we earned a 20% off discount, waived Urban fee of $31, and extra rewards (including free Boingo airport Wi-Fi and a free Kindle book) for doing so.

Check their current offers to see what discounts are available for your dates!

Even though I searched for hours to find the right place, it was 100% worth it. Hotel Whitcomb exceeded my expectations, and I will gladly stay there again. 

Full Review of Hotel Whitcomb: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Located on Market Street, it is central and the perfect area to stay in for easy access to the BART, Orpheum Theatre, UN Square, and tons of shops. 

Aside from the perfect location, Hotel Whitcomb is a local historic boutique hotel. The lobby boasts gorgeous chandeliers, an espresso bar, seating areas to get some work done or chat with friends, and a front desk with staff that will greet you with a smile.

The chic décor that permeates this hotel stays true to its early 20th century roots, while bringing in touches of modernity. Our room was located on the fifth floor, towards the back of the hotel. This helped significantly with the noise of the city by placing us farther from the entrance on Market Street. I do recommend bringing earplugs if you’re a light sleeper, though.

Rooms include a huge TV that’s compatible with Netflix, comfortable beds, a few outlets, a closet, and a safe. There is no in-room coffee or coffee maker, though. For your morning coffee, head to the espresso bar downstairs or Starbucks is a short walk away!

The bathroom had a shower head with amazing water pressure. It felt so good to use a high-quality shower head after a long travel day from Nashville and sightseeing in San Francisco. I will say that the bathtub could use some updating, but there’s no need for a bubble bath with a shower that nice!

Ideal location, charming décor, and comfort for your body after a long day. Hotel Whitcomb’s got it all!

lobby of Hotel Whitcomb in San Francisco

What to See in San Francisco: Golden Gate Bridge (Best Viewpoints and How to Get There!)

You cannot leave San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge.

You just can’t.

Here are the best viewpoints for the Golden Gate Bridge:

At the bottom —

  • Fort Pointe National Historic Site
  • Chrissy Field
  • Baker Beach
  • Lands End

At the top — 

  • Golden Gate Overlook
  • Battery East Vista
  • Fort Baker

How to reach the bridge:

Public transit: You can take the 30, 70, and 101 buses to the Golden Gate Bridge/Toll Plaza stop. If you don’t have a Clipper card, you’ll need to pay cash in exact change. It costs $4.50 per person to get from central San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge area on the bus, and the ride takes roughly 35 minutes.

Rideshare: This is what we did, and I’m glad it happened that way. A Lyft or Uber will cost about $15-$20 depending on demand, and takes 20 minutes from the city center if you go outside of rush hour.

We took a Lyft, and our driver, Yvette, acted as our 20-minute tour guide. She told us how much rent costs in each area, the history of the neighborhoods we drove through, and even stopped at the Palace of Fine Arts (which we didn’t even know existed) to take photos of us. She is amazing. Thanks, Yvette!

Golden Gate Bridge at dusk, San Francisco

Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is a Romanesque building with gardens and a domed roof that transports you to another time. It is timeless, its architecture stunning, and is worthy of a stop during your trip to San Francisco.

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco


San Francisco Chinatown is full of restaurants, shops, grocery stores, gorgeous architecture, and breathtaking murals. Take a stroll through the streets of Chinatown and stop there for a meal!

Street of Chinatown, San Francisco

UN Plaza

There’s a morning market here with local produce and food stands. It’s also where we got breakfast our last morning in the city!

Historic Cable Cars on Market Street

There are historic cable cars throughout Market Street. You can hop on and ride one, or you can admire their charm from afar.

Cable Cars on Market St in San Francisco

If You Have More Time in San Francisco: The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop

Who knew the original Ghirardelli was in San Francisco? Not me! If you have extra time in the city, check out The Original Ghirardelli Shop and get a tour of the famous chocolate factory!

Fortune Cookie Factory

In none other than San Francisco’s world-famous Chinatown, there is a Fortune Cookie Factory. Head on over for a look at how they’re made, and take some good fortune home with you!

Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center

If you choose to visit the upper areas of the Golden Gate Bridge viewpoints, the Visitor Center is a great starting point for your visit. No trip is complete without a great souvenir, and the welcome center has plenty to go around!


The infamous Alcatraz sits on an island with a direct view of the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a number of options to see and tour it, if you’re interested and are on less of a time crunch.

There are tons of great tours on GetYourGuide that include tickets to tour Alcatraz, which I used exclusively to book tours when I studied abroad in Europe. Check some of these out!

Fisherman’s Wharf

For a stunning view of the bay and Alcatraz, sightseeing in Fisherman’s Wharf should be on your San Francisco itinerary. Our Lyft driver highly recommended it, and we would have gone if we had enough time to truly enjoy it!

Where to Eat: Vegan Restaurants in San Francisco

Ananda Fuara, $$$

Located on Market Street, Ananda Fuara provides a delightful culinary experience of primarily Indian cuisine, with East Asian options as well. While it is vegetarian, there are clearly marked vegan items on their menu. Their samosas are the best I’ve ever eaten, and the skewers with Thai peanut sauce have soy chicken that bursts with lemon flavor. I highly recommend these two appetizers and the vegan chocolate chip cookies!

Enjoy Vegetarian, $$

Enjoy Vegetarian has two locations, one of which is in Chinatown. The menu boasts veganized options of traditional Chinese dishes. I absolutely loved it. I ordered the WonTon Soup with vegan ham. It cost $11.99 and was huge. Our meal also included free tea, which was lovely after catching a chill outside. This place is wonderful!

Won ton soup with vegan ham from Enjoy Vegetarian

Crêpe Hearts, $$

For delicious breakfast in San Francisco, try a savory or sweet crêpe from Crêpe Hearts. Their food truck is parked at UN Plaza on Wednesdays and Sundays. Be sure to check out their Facebook and stay updated on where they are!

 I got The Breakfast Club, which comes with cauliflower “eggs,” coconut facon, cashew cheese, spinach, and potatoes in a gluten-free, vegan, homemade crêpe. Yum! Not only did I get a healthy, balanced breakfast for my long travel day, but it tasted superb. 

Vegan savory breakfast crêpe with Crêpe Hearts food truck in the background

A Note on Safety and Homelessness in San Francisco

I can not tell you how many people told me San Francisco felt unsafe and full of homeless people. 

That was not my experience. Granted, I was only in the city for one night. But, in my experience, San Francisco felt very safe. I had my camera out in broad daylight and no one bothered me, or even looked twice.

Yes, there is a high level of homelessness in San Francisco. However, in my experience, homeless people mostly kept to themselves, going about their days as I went about mine.

It is heartbreaking to see people struggle to secure affordable housing. Instead of focusing on how the homeless “inconvenience” us by sleeping in the streets, why don’t we think about how they got there, and what’s keeping them out of a home?

How you feel about this is your business, but I felt it important to share my experience in San Francisco considering how safe I felt there personally. If you want to see this beautiful city, don’t let stereotypes hold you back from visiting and contributing to the local economy and small businesses.

. . .

Moral of the story: if you weren’t already planning on visiting San Francisco, you should be.

The city has maintained the charm of decades past while embracing modernity. The architecture is intriguing, the local restaurants delicious, and the experience to travelers is incredible. 

See you soon, San Fran!

Have you ever been to San Francisco? 

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Hi, I'm Sarah

Girl on boat with turquoise water in background

Welcome to my oasis! I am a writer and budding entrepreneur with a love for caffeine, capital gains, and seeing the world. If I'm not writing, you can find me reading a good book, trying out a new vegan recipe, or adding to my coffee mug collection. My goal in life? To see every country in the world. Come along for the ride!

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