San Francisco Walking Tour in 1 Day: 3 Itineraries
San Francisco is one of the great walking cities of the world.
You don't need to hop a bus, train or Uber to see the major, most popular sites. They are all just a short walk from the Columbus Inn, my favorite base of operations when I visit.
From the steps of the Inn, you can stroll to Fisherman's Wharf, crooked Lombard Street, North Beach's "Little Italy" and the iconic Coit Tower, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Embarcadero and Ferry Building and Union Square, all less than a half-hour away by foot. You can walk a few blocks and catch the cable cars at the start of their route. Even the stately Golden Gate Bridge is reachable on foot, at just over an hour and a half.
If you prefer getting around on two wheels, bike rental shops are all over Fisherman's Wharf. But where are you going to park the cycle?
And yes, you could drive around in a car, but parking is hard to come by in San Francisco and expensive, and the city has experienced issues with smash and grabs, which have targeted rental cars in tourist locations. (If you do have a rental car, please don't leave any holdings in the vehicle.)
So walking San Francisco is really your best and certainly most economical bet.
If you're ambitious, you could achieve all of this on a long day, starting in the morning, with breakfast, lunch, cafe and dinner stops. Or, if you're less ambitious, try the walk in several parts.
The Walking Tour:
The "crookedest street" in the world is just four blocks away from the Inn. Just turn left on Columbus, towards Broadway, and turn right at the 901 Columbus Cafe. Lombard at first seems like a perfectly average city street with homes. Then walk two blocks up the street and you'll see the crowds start to gather at the sight of tons of cars slowly making their way down that super windy street. Have fun by walking to the top, where you get one of the great views of the city. (WARNING: It's a steep climb.)
Now that you're at the top of the hill at Lombard and Hyde, you can turn left and enjoy strolling the ritziest section of the city. Head right and walk down Hyde Street, detouring to Mason and Taylor Streets for about 15 blocks.
From Lombard and Hyde, you're in a great spot to view those terrific San Francisco vistas. As you head down Hyde, look back a few times. Go up, and you've got Alcatraz right below you, look down, and see the cable car tracks.
On this route you'll see great old San Francisco homes and mansions, more great views of the city, and the swankiest hotel in town, the Fairmont, where singer Tony Bennett first sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" back in 1961. (A statue of him is prominently displayed outside the hotel.) If you ever watched Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Vertigo, which was partially shot in San Francisco, directly across the street from the Fairmont is the Brocklebank Apartments, where Kim Novak's character Madeline lived in the first half of the movie.
The corner of Mason and California street, just down one block, is where photographers like to go to get the iconic shot of the cable car coming up the street, with the Bay Bridge in the background.
From California Street, turn right on Powell Street, and walk three blocks. You'll start seeing the popular shopping names like Sak's Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's and Macy's, a signal that you are approaching Union Square. This big public square is fun to shop and visit, and this is where you'll most likely go for local theater.
Continue down Geary Blvd. for a block, turn left on Grant and walk three blocks to get to the "Dragon Gate" that will welcome you to Chinatown. It's the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in North America as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. The highlights are gawking at the markets and shops selling fare from outside the region, and of course eating. Dim Sum is very popular, and don't forget to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies factory, where you can watch the iconic cookies getting made at 56 Ross Alley.
Continue walking 8 blocks up Grant Avenue, all the way through, and when you cross Broadway, you will leave the Chinese district for the Italian one, just like that. North Beach is home to great Italian restaurants, bakeries, gelato, espresso, imports and fabulous times. If you didn't eat in Chinatown, you'll want to indulge here. The food is amazing.
(There is no actual beach here, but there once was, in the 1800s, hence the name.)
In the 1950s, North Beach was also home to the Beat Generation, with authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When you leave Chinatown, you'll see the City Lights Bookstore, an outgrowth of the Beats area, immediately to the right of Broadway, on Columbus Avenue, the heartbeat of North Beach.
If you're looking for the biggest, most authentic Italian sandwich you've ever had, try Molinari's deli, a 100-year-+ market/restaurant at 373 Columbus Avenue. North Beach is home to over 10 great Italian restaurants within an eight block radius.
Who's ready for a fun, steep climb? (If you want the views, you have to work for it!)
Coit Tower is the symbol of North Beach, and also a great marker when you're out walking. If you know where Coit is, you can figure your way around. The tower is 210-foot, offering panoramic views over the city and the bay. Built between 1932 and 1933, the art deco tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, features fresco murals in the American fresco mural painting style, painted by 25 different onsite artists and their numerous assistants, all from the 1930s. Entrance to see the art is free, but to go to the top of the tower and see those amazing views, you'll have to pay. It's worth it.
From Molinari's, walk down Columbus and revel in North Beach arts, culture, scene and snacks. Walk two blocks to Kearney and go four blocks, then turn right at Filbert. Continue one block until you merge with Telegraph Hill and take one block to Pioneer Park, which Google Maps describes as "Famous hilltop park with panorama views." Note that when you're up there you can see almost the entire Bay Area from one sitting, from the city (best skyline view) to the Golden Gate and Marin County, to the East Bay and Richmond/Oakland. Sorry folks, no Silicon Valley view, as it's not on the water.
Once you're done, you can either saunter down the hill, taking five blocks downhill on Lombard, where you can see that crooked street from across the way, before turning left on Columbus and heading back to your room, to collapse, or continue with one last, optional stop.
Continue from Coit Tower, by heading down Filbert Street and the Filbert Steps four blocks to the waterfront, called the Embarcadero, turning right and going six blocks to the Ferry Building. Or, if you're pooped and want to do it later, from from the Inn, just head down Bay Street to the Embarcadero, turn right, and walk the waterfront to the Ferry Building.
Over 100 years old, the Ferry Building goes back to a time where it acted as a shipping port, and as the transportation hub that got people back and forth to the East Bay and San Francisco. Today, you can still catch the ferries, and enjoy great food available in stalls at the building.
Just two blocks away from the Inn, on Bay and Taylor, is the Powell/Mason Cable Car Turnaround, the starting point for the ride that for $8 will take you through Chinatown, North Beach, the Civic Center, Russian Hill and south of Market, and drop you at Powell and Market. You'll pass the classic Rice-A-Roni shot, with the Bay Bridge in the background, at Powell Street and California.
PART II: FISHERMAN'S WHARF TO GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
Four blocks from the Inn and you're on Jefferson Street and the iconic Fisherman's Wharf sign, right by Alioto's restaurant and Cioppino's.
Walk left from the Inn, cross on Francisco Street to Taylor, go left and continue for four blocks and you're there.
At the Wharf, you can go honky tonk, and buy t-shirts, fleeces and hats with San Francisco emblazoned across them, fresh fish from the sea, candies and posters. You can walk around and look at the boats, see and listen to the sea lions at Pier 39, visit Madame Tussaud's wax rouge gallery and catch a cruise in the Bay to Alcatraz or elsewhere. Many people like to stop at Boudin's Bakery for the clam chowder bowls in fresh sour dough bread that is synonymous with San Francisco. Walk left from Boudin's and go three blocks for famed Ghirardelli Square, a shopping area in an old chocolate factory building that is on National Historic Register.
Don't forget that you can also just walk around and see the beauty from the wharf, like Alcatraz Island and Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
Walk to Golden Gate Bridge
Have an hour and half to spare? From the Inn, you can take a nice stroll to the bridge, passing through some of the greatest parks in the world, on mostly flat land, by basically turning left at Fisherman's Wharf and following the water.
From the Wharf, continue left, past the little beach, on the paved walkway. You'll go up hill a little bit through Fort Mason, an old military base that's now a park, continue through the Marina, where people dock boats, jog, cycle and the like, with a killer view of the water.
Side trip: You'll be walking down Mason Street. When you cross Lyon Street, you'll be entering the Presidio, the national park that leads to the Golden Gate Bridge. On the left side of the street is the Palace of Fine Arts, with its Greco-Roman rotunda and colonnades, lagoon and beautiful grounds, a great place for a picnic and photo shoot. You won't be able to go in--the building itself is only open for corporate events. But it's a great visit.
As you continue up Mason, (you'll see the Golden Gate Bridge, so you'll know which direction to go) you will enter Crissy Field, a giant park that happens to have the Golden Gate Bridge as its backdrop, and Fort Point, another former military base that's home to the best views of the Bridge in the city. From here, you'll be busy taking dozens of photos of the bridge from the best vantage point in the city.
Finally, if you want to continue, you can walk across the bridge 1.7 miles to just outside Sausalito in Marin. This will add another hour to your walk. (From the northern end of the bridge, it's another 2.5 miles to walk into Sausalito, so you'll probably want to skip that.)
If you're a little tired from here and want a ride home, you can always call for an Uber or Lyft to pick you up in Crissy Field and take you back to the Inn.