As an airline pilot, I spend a lot of time laying over in cities around the world. Too much time, in fact. But I always look forward to a layover in San Francisco. I’d even dare call it my favorite city in the United States.
After a couple layovers in San Francisco, I’ve developed the ultimate layover setup for when I bring my friends and family along for my work trips. So far, I haven’t disappointed anyone (or at least they haven’t told me!)
On my own, I’ve come up with a couple equally awesome alternatives. San Francisco is the city I could have a layover in any day, even on its worst day.
In This Article:
1) The Must-Do Golden Gate Bike Tour
2) Check Out the Redwood Forests by Bike
3) San Francisco: The Most Walkable City in the US
4) Presidio: History and Beauty
5) Downtown in a hurry: The San Fran Express Hike
San Francisco Ferries During COVID-19
Napa Valley: Wine Not?
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Have a shorter layover? Make sure to read SFO International Airport: The Ultimate 3-6 Hour Layover Guide
Explore the San Francisco Bay by Bike!
This is the classic way to see San Francisco, the Embarcadero, Golden Gate Bridge, and more! I recommend renting a bike at Blazing Saddles but you have tons of choice.
Electric bikes are available (for an extra fee) for those who wish to make the journey as easy as possible.
#1) The Classic Golden Gate Bike Tour: a MUST-DO in San Francisco
The classic ride is the Golden Gate Bike Tour, which you can do by yourself or with a guide. There are bike rentals everywhere, so I usually start at the Ferry Building/Pier 1 to see all of the waterfront Embarcadero and San Francisco’s famous Pier 39. Or, you can make your ride a bit shorter by commencing your bike ride around Fisherman’s Wharf.
Head westbound hugging the coastline, staying on the bike path until you reach the incredibly beautiful San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. It’s a great place to take a quick break. If you’ve started early, the Presidio offers stunning views, incredible architecture, and fascinating history just around the corner.
As you bike along the water, you’ll make it to the Golden Gate Bridge where you’ll cross over to the other side. Keep in mind that it can get really windy! But hey, just saved yourself from a $16 toll driving. On the other side, you can stop at the Golden Gate View Vista Point for iconic pictures of the bridge and downtown San Fran.
Afterwards, you will continue down Alexander Ave (a huge downhill so you can rest!) down to Sausalito, and reward yourself with amazing food (and local beer) at the Joinery. Renting with Blazing Saddles entitles you to a free drink there.
From Sausalito, you can catch the ferry back to downtown San Fran (Fisherman’s Wharf or Embarcadero). Or, if you haven’t had enough exercise, continue on to Tiburon, about 45 minutes down the road. It’s not as beautiful or exciting of a ride, but Tiburon is a cute seaside town that’s nice to visit. There is a ferry from Tiburon back to downtown, but it currently only runs twice a day; check the schedule ahead of time!
#2) There’s More to San Francisco than the City…
If you wish to keep exploring the wonderful San Francisco Bay area, keep biking north towards Muir Woods, part of the National Redwood Forest. If you want to feel small, don’t worry… You’ll have access to over 240 acres of massive oldgrowth redwood trees.
On the way, make sure to stop at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. You can head down to the beach, or just marvel at the spectacular views on the coastline, the Golden Gate, and downtown San Francisco.
Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk
San Francisco is a great walking city….. as long as you don’t mind hills! It can get steep. Luckily, you have cable cars to help along the way. Still, pack some good walking shoes.
There are many guided walking tours, or if you’re like me, you can be your own guide!
#3) From Downtown to the Best Sunset Views… with some gorgeous gardens in between
The San Francisco Botanical Garden and the adjoining Golden Gate Park make a great day hike on their own. You can walk all the way from the center of San Francisco to the Botanical Garden and Park by walking on Page Street and through the Panhandle area, avoiding nearly all road traffic on the way. Page Street is one of the many “slow streets” in San Francisco – numerous corridors in the city open primarily to pedestrians and cyclists.
Right next to the Botanical Garden is the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco – just in case you’re looking to spend some time indoors.
You can easily make it from the Golden Gate Park to Point Lobos beach/cliffs area for the BEST sunset instaworthy pictures in San Francisco. Standing hundreds of feet above the water surrounded by pine trees, with views on the Golden Gate bridge, the Bay, Redwood forest mountains and coastline, and miles of Pacific Ocean, you won’t regret the extra walking.
#4) Take the Historic Walk through Presidio
Of course, you can’t miss the Presidio with its impressive views over the Golden Gate, rich naval history, and astounding architecture. Walk up the historic Lyon steps, or if you’re with your partner, perhaps Lovers’ Lane? There’s also Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line right next door, a manmade Eucalyptus grove path.
Right next-door is the Palace of Fine Arts, with enough to see for an entire afternoon. Originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, it honestly feels more fit for somewhere in Spain.
#5) The Express Downtown San Francisco – Get Your Hiking Shoes Ready!
Taking the Cable Car up Powell Street from Union Square (Powell-Hyde) down to Sacramento Street and walk through Chinatown across to the Ferry Building at the waterfront Embarcadero.
Walk along the waterfront and take a left around Pier 19 towards Filbert street, where you’ll take the steep (and lovely) Filbert steps up towards Coit Tower. From here, you’ll have some of the best views on the city – 360 degrees. Plus, you might see some parrots on the way!
Walk all the way up Lombard street until you make it to the famous hairpins. You know the ones I’m talking about. From there, you can walk down through the historic Russian Hill area all the way to the original Ghirardelli’s. Time for some ice cream! After all those hills and steps, you deserve it.
End the day by walking back down to the water, shopping around Pier 39 or just enjoying the (sight and stench of) sea lions lined up around each of the piers. If San Francisco gets one thing right, it’s cuisine. You have plenty of choice – fine dining along the water, authentic Chinese food, excellent Greek and Italian.
San Francisco Layovers During COVID-19
Before we get started, San Francisco has, just like everywhere else in the world, been upended by the pandemic. But luckily, the stay-at-home order has just been lifted as of February 12th! This is great news for the tourism industry – and you!
As of February 14, San Mateo and San Francisco counties are in a “purple” COVID-19 status – the most restrictive.
Ferry service to Sausalito has resumed. This means that you’ll be able to complete the awesome San Francisco bike tour!
Many ticket offices in San Francisco are closed due to COVID-19. Instead:
- Buy your ferry tickets here.
- Departures are limited due to COVID-19. Currently, there are only 3 ferries per day to Sausalito.
- Angel Island and Alcatraz remain closed (until at least February 26th, 2021).
- There are only 2 trips to/from Tiburon daily, so plan ahead if you want to make it all the way there by bike without getting stranded.
You can check how full the ferries are here.
Wine & Dine
Indoor dining is banned, so dress warmly and embrace eating around a firepit outside. It’s not as bad as you think, especially with San Francisco’s moderate climate.
If you plan a trip up to Napa Valley, make sure to book a private wine tasting ahead of time. Capacity is limited to only 20%, and wine tastings are allowed as long as they’re done outdoors.
Indoor retail stores have re-opened, bringing vital life back to the San Francisco embarcadero and famous pier 39.
Currently, there is a 10PM-5AM curfew.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
My personal preference is to stay in the Union Square area – a truly central area with lots of food options, shopping, and biking rentals. You can hop on a cable car to China Town, bike to the Embarcadero and start your bike cruise!
There’s a great Westin right on the square, and a fantastic Grand Hyatt. Hotels in San Francisco do tend to price on the high side, but you can always check here for the best San Francisco hotel deals.