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A Perfect 24 Hours in San Francisco


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Greetings Internet Stranger! So you’re looking for things to do for 24 hours in San Francisco? Well, the most important thing to know is that we’re going to spend most of the 24 hours in San Francisco in Golden Gate Park. Between the museums, the bison, and the hippies, there’s simply not enough time to pack everything there is to see in this glorious park in in less than one day.

The second most important thing to know is that even though the phrase Golden Gate is in the Park, you will not be exploring the Golden Gate Bridge during this itinerary. That is because, weirdly enough, Golden Gate Bridge is not in Golden Gate Park. Get used to disappointment, Internet Stranger! But I’ll try to make up for it with all the fun we’re going to have today!

24 hours in san francisco

By Bus or Train: You can use Flixbus to get to San Francisco from nearby cities like Las Vegas. It’s a pretty cheap ride–if you are car-free and coming from a fairly nearby destination, this might be the way for you. I have never gotten to San Francisco any way other than by car.

Amtrak also has a train that goes to San Francisco from Chicago, which sounds like it might be fun! Check it out if you’re up for a train adventure.

24 hours in san francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

Where to Stay?

Location is so important in San Francisco. That’s why I recommend spending your 24 hours in San Francisco at the Cartwright Hotel. It’s located right by Union Square so it’s in a convenient location right near Chinatown, it has free wifi, coffee makers, and an airport shuttle, and it might be haunted! What more could you want?

24 hours in san francisco

While the hotel doesn’t provide breakfast, it has a great place for breakfast just a short walk away. I’m talking about the Sutter Street Cafe. This tiny spot makes an amazing, gooey bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, which is high praise coming from me because I am from New York City, and we have the best bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches in the world.

If you’d like to join me at the Cartwright, just click here. If you want to find deals on hundreds of hotel rooms in San Francisco, just click here. This search engine will help you find the best hotel for your taste and budget.

24 hours in san francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

What to Pack?

  • An excellent small cell charger so you can keep taking pictures of your 24 hours in San Francisco
  • My favorite guidebook to San Francisco, including Golden Gate Park
  • My book Get Lost, that I wrote myself with all my best travel tips. This book will show you exactly how solo travel can take your life from BLAH to amazing!
  • Want to learn how I saved enough money to travel 16 weeks a year? Check out my top secret How to Afford Travel digital system.
  • I always travel with travel insurance from World Nomads. You never know when something might go wrong, especially in this day and age. But with travel insurance, you’re protected even if you’re attacked by a wayward rocket ship during your 24 hours in San Francisco.
A Perfect 24 Hours in San Francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

Morning: The De Young Museum

There are so many fabulous museums in San Francisco and Golden Gate Park, but the De Young is possibly my favorite. It has an outstanding collection of American art and a fabulous setting in one of the most beautiful parks in America. The museum offers regular free guided tours throughout the day, and free guided museum tours are possibly the best things on this earth after food and mystery novels.

24 hours in san francisco
24 Hour tip

The De Young has excellent temporary exhibitions, but I suggest skipping them if this is your first time at the museum. The regular collection is large enough that you should concentrate on those works. Also, this tip will save you money because you won’t have to pay the extra charge for the temporary exhibition.

APPROXIMATELY TOP 5: THE DE YOUNG MUSEUM

24 hours in san francisco
1) SEE SOME NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICAN LANDSCAPES

As I mentioned, the De Young offers many different kinds of docent tours, and I can’t guarantee which will be available when you’re there. However, my favorite tour was the docent tour of the American Art collection.

I loved this tour because we got to learn about the history of the depiction of California in painting, which is a perfect thing to do in San Francisco. California hasn’t always been a popular subject for art. Our docent started by explaining that in the early 19th century, most painters did landscapes of the East Coast, as in this example shown above: “The Village of Catskill” by Thomas Cole.

24 hours in san francisco
2) EXPLORE SOME WEST COAST ART

Then our guide explained to us that painting nature on the East Coast was so early-1800s. By the second half of the 20th century, artists were much more interested in depicting the Western United States as the “New Eden”. And which spot on the West Coast is more Edenic and perfect than San Francisco’s own Bay Area?

But some painters weren’t able to portray such an idyllic view of the West, either because of the Native Americans who were being chased off their land or because of the environmental damage being done by increased movement out West. The fog in the painting of the Bay Area above is meant to symbolize some of that environmental damage.

I wonder if artists really used to mix it up with each other about whether or not it was better to paint the East Coast or the West Coast. Maybe it was like the 19th century equivalent of Biggie vs. Tupac. Pistols at dawn, old sport, and all that!

24 hours in san francisco
3) HAVE A LITTLE FUN WITH CONTEMPORARY ART

We finished our tour with this work “Three Machines” by contemporary California artist Wayne Thiebaud, who is famous for his somber colors and serious subject matter. Just kidding! As you can see from my photo above, Thiebaud is known for his brightly colored paintings of sweets.

There is something stereotypically Californian about the almost superficially cheerful nature of his work, but I like this painting anyway. What’s wrong with a work of art that puts a smile on your face? And even though I’m from New York City, it doesn’t bother me that Californians tend to be more laid-back and don’t wear black as often. It takes all different kinds to make a country.

24 hours in san francisco
4) Patriotic Silver

Yes, these silver tankards are lovely, but it’s really who made them that’s more important. Who is the most important American silversmith of all time? If you said Paul Revere, you hit it right on the horse’s snoot. Americans know Paul Revere because of his famous midnight ride warning that the British are coming.

But of course, that was not Revere’s full-time job! I don’t think anyone could make a full-time living off a one-time experience like that. Instead, Revere worked as a prominent Boston silversmith, hawking his wares like these tankards decorated with the image of Bacchus, Roman god of wine, to support his approximately one grillion kids. (The actual number was 16. 16! Well, we know the dude had good stamina.)

24 hours in san francisco
5) EAT LUNCH AT THE DE YOUNG CAFE

I recommend spending about three hours in the De Young, which gives you enough time to take two guided tours and explore a little of the museum on your own. At this point you will be hungry for some lunch. The De Young Museum has a solid and not too expensive cafe on the ground floor.

As a bonus, the walls are glass so you can look out on the Golden Gate Park while you eat. If the weather’s nice, you can even enjoy your food outside! Nosh on something like fresh soba noodles and tea, and then we will be ready to head out into nature!

24 hours in san francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

Afternoon: Explore Golden Gate Park

I’m confident you won’t want to spend 24 hours in San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate Park. This park has everything: palm trees, a Japanese tea garden, lakes, a Bison Paddock that is actually a paddock that contains real bison, something called a Hippie Hill which of course it does because this is San Francisco, and an Archery Range.

I recommend seeing this park on a fantastic Segway tour, which you can book right here. The Park will then be your oyster, even though oysters may be the only thing you cannot find in this park.

APPROXIMATELY TOP 5: GOLDEN GATE PARK

24 hours in san francisco
1) FIND AN EVENT

There is literally always an event in this park. No matter when you spend your 24 hours in San Francisco, you’ll be able to find something. I wasn’t even looking for something, and I came across an unidentifiable (at least by me) concert with a whole bunch of people in attendance dressed as fairies.

I’m not trying to be offensive; they were literally wearing glitter and little gauze wings on their backs. If you want to be better prepared than I was, just check this calendar for details. There are special events for kids, music lovers, flower fanatics…basically everyone. As long as it’s not raining too hard, you should be able to locate an event that will suit you.

24 hours in san francisco
2) EXPLORE NATURE

Don’t you always enjoy a random collection of creepy trees? They bring out the dinner vampire or werewolf in us all. Fortunately Golden Gate Park has an abundance of them. I can’t locate them on your map, but it’s more fun to wander around and locate them at random anyway. You never know when a creepy tree will sneak up behind you and tap you on the shoulder.

24 Hours in San Francisco

If the creepy trees are bothering you too much, just escape to this lake for some peace and quiet. Commune with nature. Walk with the animals and walk with the animals. I had hoped those were beavers in the bottom of the picture because beavers are adorable and photogenic, but probably they are just rocks.

24 hours in san francisco
3) ADMIRE THE FLOWERS

I was lucky enough to spend 24 hours in San Francisco in the springtime, so the blossoms were especially lovely. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that exact shade of pink in a flower before!

24 hours in san francisco

And look at the yellow color of those daffodils! Daffodils make everything better. Nothing says spring like a daffodil. One of the nice things about San Francisco is that the weather doesn’t follow predictable patterns, so you can find fresh flowers in the city most of the time.

On the downside, that means you can’t be sure it will be warm in the summer. Mark Twain had a famous quote about the coldest winter he ever spent being a summer in San Francisco. Truer words were ne’er spoken!

24 hours in san francisco
4) ENJOY SOME CLASSIC SAN FRANCISCO MUSIC

Find this very San Francisco park bench and serenade Jean Scherr with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”.  Or you can just wander around and look for Tony Bennett and see if he has located the heart he left in San Francisco. 

OK, I didn’t actually run into Mr. Bennett himself, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

24 hours in san francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

Dinner: Altovino

San Francisco truly has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants. They have everything from fabulous fine dining to succulent Mission burritos the size of a small baby.

But don’t forget that San Francisco also has some extraordinary Italian food at pretty much every price point. That’s why we’re leaving Golden Gate Park and heading to the area near our Cartwright Hotel to feast on classy Italian eats at Altovino. This is the sort of restaurant that makes you feel like a local even when you are anything but.

24 hours in san francisco

I suggest getting a rich pasta dish for your main course, so to balance it out, start with something like a salad. I had the heirloom tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella, pickled ramps, and cherry tomatoes.

In many ways, it was a classic tomato and mozz salad, but the pickled ramps gave it a charming springtime feel, and the colors of the heirloom tomatoes are so surprising–like the colors of the gumball machine we saw at the DeYoung Museum.

24 hours in san francisco

One of their pasta specialties is this pappardelle with a ten hour Bolognese sauce. The sauce was really the star of this dish because it had so many different meats in it–veal, beef, pork, and prosciutto. With a sauce this complex, you don’t want too much else on top because it will interfere with all those carnivorous delights.

24 hours in San Francisco

After that rich meat sauce, you’d think we might not have room for dessert. Well, think again! You need to make room for this chocolate caramel budino. After all, San Francisco is the home of Ghirardelli, so when you’re here, you need to eat as much chocolate as possible. That’s just science.

Yes, the budino was quite rich, but the portion was small, so you’ll be able to enjoy every bite of silky, decadent goodness without feeling like your tummy will explode.

24 hours in San Francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

How to Get There?

By Car: This is an easy way to get to your 24 hours in San Francisco, if you are coming from somewhere else in California, especially in Northern California. California definitely has one of the best atmospheres for driving in the entire country. And of course, if you have a car and a designed driver, you can head on out to wine country in Napa as a day trip from San Francisco.

However, I don’t know how to drive, so this wasn’t an option for me. Fortunately Uber is widely available in San Francisco. If you need to rent a car, you can use the search engine Expedia to find the best price from the available car rental companies.

24 hours in san francisco

By Plane: Fortunately, there is an airport in San Francisco! It’s possible to get from the airport to the rest of SF by public transportation, but I found using Uber easier because the airport is fairly far from the main part of town.

Since I live in New York City and don’t know how to drive, I found that flying was one of the easiest ways to get to San Francisco. (Again, I recommend using a search engine like Expedia to search for the best prices on flights.)

24 hours in san francisco

That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in San Francisco!

What would you do with 24 hours in San Francisco? What was the deal with the fairy convention? And do you think that bench enjoyed the Peter, Paul, and Mary song? Please email me at [email protected] and let me know!

Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in San Francisco. If you’re interested in the Bay Area and Alcatraz, try this itinerary. And if you have another 24 hours in San Francisco and want to ride the cable cars, give this a shot.

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