48 Hours in San Francisco: The Best Things to Do in San Francisco on a Two-Day Layover

As one of the world's most beautiful port cities, there's no shortage of things to do in San Francisco—so we've done the legwork and narrowed it down for you. Grab a comfortable pair of walking shoes and prepare yourself—and your thighs— for a city like no other.

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Golden Gate Bridge
Photo: Shutterstock

Bike the World’s Most Famous Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is the symbol of San Francisco for a reason: it’s simply magical, whether shrouded in mist or showing off its distinctive orange hue under the sun. Even when you’re several hundred feet away, it somehow seems like an illusion, but once you’ve admired it and taken the requisite photos—get right on it! You can bike, drive or even walk across the structure. On the northern end of the Golden Gate lies Sausalito, a city with a population of just over 7,000 people—grab some seafood for lunch, enjoy the views, and take the ferry back to San Francisco!

Travel tips: Wear a hoodie or a hat, as the winds are incredibly strong! If you’re biking across the bridge, remember that you’ll be sharing the sidewalk with pedestrians and cyclists going both ways, so be safe and take it slow.

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Things to do in San Francisco: Chinatown
Photo: David Shao/Shutterstock

Feast in Chinatown

The first three Chinese immigrants arrived here by boat in 1848—and the rest is history! The largest and oldest Chinatown outside of Asia (covering 24 square blocks), you could imagine you’ve left North America when you pass through one of the Green Dragon gates. But don’t just use your eyes: let yourself get lost for an hour (or two) in the alleys and side streets marked with calligraphy. Peruse an herbal shop, sip tea in a tearoom, or pop in and visit a fortune cookie factory. It’s not hard to time your visit with a Chinese festival or parade, either.

Travel tip: Be sure to visit at night! The crowds decrease significantly past 7 p.m., and Chinatown’s famous red lanterns are lit up.

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San Francisco cable car
Photo: Sean Xu/Shutterstock

Get Nostalgic on a Cable Car

The first cable cars rolled down the tracks in 1873, and it’s a testament to San Francisco that they’ve still kept running. Everyone loves a photo op on the Powell Street line with its breathtaking views, but it’s usually crammed with tourists and the wait to get on one can be lengthy. Try the California line, which runs east/west and offers equally stunning views of the city, but be sure to hop on a heritage streetcar as well. The light rail takes you on a lovely ride along from the shops along Market Street to the Bay. Each one is painted differently than the last and come from cities all over the world. Even if you’re in San Francisco for just two days, buy a transit pass; one-way on a cable car is $7 USD.

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Alcatraz Island
Photo: Shutterstock

Visit a Legendary Penitentiary

If a trip to the notorious prison isn’t enough to tempt you over to Alcatraz Island, the ferry ride alone makes the visit worthwhile. Once there, head straight to the prison—if you’re lucky, you can tag along on one of the free extra tours into areas that are normally off limits. When planning your visit to The Rock, think about a morning departure, packing a picnic lunch (and a jacket: it’s chilly!) and extending your stay into the afternoon as you can take any ferry you like back. If you’re feeling brave, there are night cruises as well!

Travel tip: Be sure to book your ticket on Alcatraz Cruises as soon as you arrive in San Francisco (if not before), as time slots fill up quickly, especially in summer.

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Things to do in San Francisco: Twin Peaks
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Take in the Views from Twin Peaks

San Francisco is home to 43 named hills, and Twin Peaks is arguably the most famous. At 922-feet above sea level, it’s the second-highest summit in the city—Mount Davidson, winner of the top spot, is a mere six feet taller. It’s part of the 31-acre Twin Peaks Natural Area, is free to visit year-round, and boasts a 180-degree view of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and the city’s downtown core.

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Ferry Building Marketplace
Photo: Ronnie Chua/Shutterstock

Sample the Best Seafood in the Bay Area

This historical marketplace lies in the shadow of the Bay Bridge—another architectural beauty. Completed in 1898, the Beaux Arts-style building, with its 245-foot clock tower, is visible for kilometres. Originally designed as a terminal for ferries travelling across the San Francisco Bay, the neoclassical building was completely renovated in 2002 and now houses an extensive marketplace on the ground floor. With dozens of kiosks, cafés, and eateries offering everything from fresh oysters to vegan doughnuts, the Ferry Building Marketplace is a must on any foodie’s bucket list.

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Alamo Square Park in San Francisco
Photo: Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock

Behold the “Painted Ladies”

The Painted Ladies lie along the eastern edge of Alamo Square Park and are a fantastic example of the gorgeous Victorian architecture found throughout San Francisco. Framed by a spectacular view of the downtown skyline, those who are old enough may hear the Full House theme song running through their heads…

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Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood
Photo: EQRoy/Shutterstock

Stroll Along Haight-Ashbury

From Alamo Square Park, it’s barely a 10-minute walk over to the iconic neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury. It’s not the glorious hippie enclave that it once was, but it’s definitely worth a visit. Head along colourful Haight Street and discover bookstores, vintage boutiques, cafés, trendy restaurants and plenty of relaxed charm.

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Lombard Street in San Francisco
Photo: Jerome Labouyrie/Shutterstock

Ponder the World’s Most Crooked Street

Lombard Street is a twisting thoroughfare that truly needs to be seen to be believed. With a grade of 27 degrees, the eight switchback curves bring it down to a “comfortable” 16 for drivers. Though most visitors want to drive down the winding road (and sometimes line up for an hour for the privilege of doing so), we suggest you walk it instead, starting at the bottom. This way you’ll be able to truly appreciate the beautiful landscaping. When you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with great views of Treasure Island—an artificial island built for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition—and Coit Tower.

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Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry
Photo: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

Watch a World-Class Basketball Game

Led by two-time league MVP Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors occupy the NBA throne—a record-breaking 73-win season in 2016, multiple All-Stars, and three championships in the last four years tend to do that. The team has played its home games in Oakland since 1971, but starting in October 2019, the team is journeying across the Bay Bridge back to San Francisco—where it played during the 1960s—and claiming sole tenancy in the newly-built Chase Center in the city’s Mission Bay suburb. A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete without watching one of the world’s most famous sports teams.

Next, check out the best places to eat in San Francisco.

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