50 Perfect Hours: San Francisco

Each week, travel writer Katie Morell will detail how to spend 50 hours in a different San Francisco Bay Area city for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee’s #Perfect50 Hour Series.

It was December 1961 when little-known singer Tony Bennett got on stage inside San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and first sang, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” That performance rocketed him to stardom and gave words to the feeling that visitors had long been experiencing: a sincere love for the City by the Bay.

San Francisco is a city that feels like a town. At just 49 square miles and with a population of a little more than 800,000, it is a manageable place to visit. Transit is simple for tourists with charming cable cars ringing bells down wide boulevards. The views are spectacular from nearly every angle. A visitor can feast his or her eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge from various points in the city as well as the lights of Berkeley and Oakland to the east, mountains of Marin to the north and marvel at the existence of Alcatraz right in the middle of the Bay.

There are thousands of things to do when visiting San Francisco; here, we break down a perfect way to spend a 50-hour getaway in the magical city that will be sure to steal your heart.

Day 1

8:30 a.m. – Wake up at Hotel Vitale, a luxury boutique hotel right off the Embarcadero. Put on some cozy clothes and make sure to layer (recommended: a t-shirt, cover-up sweater and scarf—you will use all three at some point during the day). Slather on some sunscreen, lace up the most comfortable shoes you have (style is not the goal here) and head out to the Ferry Building Marketplace.

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The Ferry Building Marketplace is housed within the historic Ferry Building, which was built in 1898. The building went through a series of iterations (sometimes an office building, always ferry terminal) and was fully renovated in 2003. Today, it stands as one of the hottest places to visit in the city with dozens of food and gift kiosks. Stop for coffee at the Blue Bottle stand and grab a muffin at Biscuit Bender (tip: the bacon maple buttermilk biscuits are to die for). Spend the next hour or two looking around and trying samples.

Bonus: If you go on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, walk out back of the building and into a vast farmer’s market—known as one of the biggest in the country.

10:30 a.m. – Walk north along the Embarcadero until you hit the Exploratorium, a science museum that is fascinating for people of all ages. Check out the website before you go; there are often speakers to listen to and events to participate in. Give yourself a few hours here as the exhibits are mind-blowing and nearly all of them are interactive—covering topics ranging from space and plants to animals and sports.

12:30 p.m. – Head to Embarcadero Muni Station, board the N-Judah streetcar for $2.50 (adults) and ride to the end of the line at Ocean Beach. After taking a few pictures of the waves, walk into The Beach Chalet to eat lunch. Views of the ocean from this eatery are breathtaking and the food is good, too. (Note: the Chalet burger is especially tasty, as is the pan-roasted salmon.)

2:00 p.m. – After lunch, walk over to Golden Gate Park (The Beach Chalet is located on the far west side of the park). Stroll along John F. Kennedy Drive until you see a soaring tower on your left. That is the world-famous de Young Museum

The de Young Museum is worth a visit, especially for art lovers. Don’t have time to look at multiple exhibits? No problem—just take the elevator to the observatory at the top. The views are spectacular and worth the wait in line.

After exiting the de Young, walk among along the Music Concourse, which is right in front of the museum, and enjoy outdoor pop-up art exhibitions. You could also peak into the California Academy of Sciences, just across the concourse. Step inside a living 4-story rainforest, where dripping water sets the beat for a symphony of croaking frogs and chirping birds; descend in a glass elevator into the Amazonian flooded forest, where an acrylic tunnel allows you to walk beneath the catfish and arapaima that swim overhead. Don’t leave without saying hello to Claude, a rare albino American alligator. 

4:00 p.m. – Walk back over towards the de Young and a little west and you will see The Japanese Tea Garden, one of San Francisco’s treasures. Spend time strolling down the paths and enjoying the native Japanese flora and fauna (don’t forget your camera). End your experience at the garden with a cup of traditional Japanese tea (call ahead to see if you can participate in a formal tea ceremony).

6:00 p.m. – Gather up your things at Hotel Vitale and settle into your new digs for the evening: Hotel Drisco, a well-appointed property in the middle of the Pacific Heights neighborhood. Put on your Sunday best and take a short Uber ride to Spruce, a refined restaurant in the neighboring Laurel Heights district where everything on the menu is delicious. (Note: Make a reservation well in advance. President Barack Obama was last seen dining at this place in early 2015, so the spot is very hot right now.)

8:00 p.m. – Roll out of your dinner chair and ask your cab driver to take you to the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Once there, take the elevator up to Top of the Mark, the hotel’s iconic restaurant and bar. Be ready to listen to live jazz and enjoy 360-degree views of the city below before heading back to Hotel Drisco for the night.

Day 2

8:30 a.m. – Wake up in your comfy bed at Hotel Drisco and head downstairs for the hotel’s free breakfast consisting of a lavish array of hot and cold foods. From there, drive your car straight north along Divisadero Street until you hit Marina Boulevard. Make a left on Marina and a right just after you cross Baker Street. You will find yourself in the parking lot for Crissy Field, a nature area (and former military air field) that is part of the Presidio. Spend the next hour or so walking along the beach; enjoy views of the Golden Gate Bridge, kites in the air and dogs happily jumping waves.

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10:30 a.m. – Walk counter-clockwise around Crissy Field until you are standing in front of House of Air, an indoor trampoline park (and former military airplane hangar). This place is a blast for people of all ages and its front wall lifts up to the open air (and views) on nice days.

After about an hour of jumping, you will be ready to walk again, so gander over to the Palace of Fine Arts, a Romanesque structure surrounded by a pond (complete with swans), built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. This year marks its 100th anniversary and there tons of activities to participate in. Check the website before you go.

12:30 p.m. – Get back in your car and drive about four miles south to the corner of Mission Street and 18thStreet. This is San Francisco’s thriving and diverse Mission District and home to a variety of exciting art galleries and restaurants. Walk into an eatery at 2234 Mission Street and belly up to the counter. This is Mission Chinese Food, one of the most popular (and famous) Chinese restaurants in the city. The décor isn’t much, but the food is phenomenal. Don’t leave without trying the sour chili chicken and salt cod fried rice. Don’t like Chinese? Head to La Taqueria in the Mission for a burrito. This local favorite opened in 1873 and has been dubbed the best tacos and burritos in the whole world.

1:30 p.m. – Spend the next few hours exploring the Mission District. Walk the length of Mission Street and over to Valencia Street. Although just a block apart, the two streets vary greatly in demographics and shops. From there, walk over to Mission Dolores Park and enjoy views of the city from its southern edge.

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3:30 p.m. – Head back to Hotel Drisco to shower and change into some fancier clothes. Relax in the hotel’s lobby and enjoy complementary wine tastings while chatting with other visitors.

4:30 p.m. – Hop in a cab and ask your driver to take you to B Restaurant & Bar, located at 720 Howard Street. This is a cute spot in the middle of the Yerba Buena Gardens that has outdoor seating and tasty cocktails.

6:00 p.m. – Get into a cab and head back into the Mission District to Foreign Cinema, an iconic restaurant in San Francisco that offers creative flavors and an incredible ambiance (call weeks in advance for reservations). Ask for a table in the courtyard, which has twinkling lights strung overhead and black and white films projected on the back wall. Spend a few hours here before heading back to Hotel Drisco.

Day 3

8:30 a.m. – Wake up, enjoy your complementary breakfast buffet, grab your camera and drive over to Twin Peaks, a park with unparalleled views of the city—the perfect way to end your vacation to San Francisco.

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Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco who writes about travel, business and social justice issues. Her work has appeared in Hemispheres, Fast Company, USA Today, Diversity Woman, BBC Travel and others. Read more of her work at www.katiemorell.com