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How To Experience A City In Less Than 12 Hours (Or At Least How We Tried In San Francisco)

by Tony · 12 comments

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco

It’s always nice to have as much time as you want to experience what a city has to offer. But sometimes circumstances just don’t cooperate. So what is the best way to see a city when you only have a few hours?

The first impulse is to see and do as much as you can. Check out the big tourist attractions, eat at the top restaurants, and run around the city as fast as possible.

The better impulse, as we’ve come to see it, is to forget about seeing everything and just try to see what helps you get a feel for the city. That way, you will at least have a good idea of what to do and see when you have more time on your next visit. Since we were hosting some friends in the city, what better way to put our theory to the test than by using it on them…

How To Get A “Feel” For A City

1) Find A Place To Stay Near A Few Highlights Of The City

Alcatraz from Fort Mason San Francisco

We stayed in the north part of San Francisco during our stay, which was a fairly short walk to North Beach, the extra touristy Pier 39, and the amazingly beautiful Fort Mason.

While Pier 39 really is super touristy, it can be worth a visit if you are in San Francisco for awhile. But for less than 12 hours? Skip it! We took a morning run from the inn we booked through Hostelbookers and immediately ran into Fort Mason. This is a must for anyone staying in the north part of the city!

Full of great running paths and spectacular views, Fort Mason captures the magical scenery that makes San Francisco so unique. Built right on the water with insane views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, you can even run directly from Fort Mason to Pier 39 if you wanted to see why so many tourists flock to it.

2) Walk Around An Iconic Neighborhood

Every city has at least one great neighborhood. San Francisco has at least 4, which makes the hard part picking one to explore. We chose North Beach since it was only 1 mile from the place we were staying.

Between a peak at City Lights (the bookstore that served as a home to the Beatnik movement of the 60’s), a drink or two at Vesuvio (the bar of the beatniks), dinner at The House (an amazing Asian Fusion restaurant), and some post-dinner gelato, we got a great feel for the area.

san francisco city lights

Picking one piece of a city to explore deeply often gives you a much better feel for what a city has to offer than trying to see a few things all over. This is definitely true if you only have a few hours!

3) Ask Friends On Social Media

Farmer's Market Ferry Building San FranciscoThe fastest way to get a quick consensus these days is a question on Facebook or Twitter. We asked everyone we knew what would be a great place to take visitors in San Francisco and one of the most frequently mentioned places was the Ferry Building. We already loved this place from our many visits to the city, but it really is a great place for people to fall in love with San Francisco.

Great food at a lot of different small stores within the building and great seating outside at some delicious restaurants. Sitting outside to eat, you are right by the water with a pretty unique view of the Bay Bridge. The best time to go is on Saturday’s when the farmer’s market is packed with people sampling and shopping, but any day will provide a good meal and view.

Your Turn: What is your best tip for how to see a city in such a short period of time?

Our night stay in San Francisco was sponsored by Hostelbookers.

About Tony
Quit his job to try actually following his dreams for once... and is currently loving it. He is working hard to to make this life-style permanent by writing about his adventures and brainstorming money making opportunities with his partner-in-crime, Meg.

eemusings November 4, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Ya know, we actually tried to basically do the same thing last weekend! Saturday we hung out with our friends in South San Francisco and went to Fort Funston and spent Sunday in SF itself. Walked from Chinatown through North Beach to the Marina area, took a cable car, drove to Fort Mason, up to Coit Tower and down the crazy winding road (the name escapes me now).

Tony November 5, 2013 at 12:42 pm

No way! We must have crossed paths since we were there last weekend :)

Crookedest street in the world = Lombard street :) The place we stayed was only 1/2 a mile down the road from there!

So what did you think? First time in SF? Love it/hate it?

JR November 5, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Tony, great recap. You took Anthony Bourdain’s 36 hour weekend to a new level. I think you did it right. Focus Focus Focus. The House is one of my favorite restaurants and then the Farmers Market is a perfect gift for anyone who loves water, people watching and sampling all kinds of food. Your friends must love you.

Tony November 6, 2013 at 12:20 am

I think you originally introduced me to The House! I remember last minute reservations being booked after a frantic yelp search :)

Now if only we could get a show like Anthony Bourdain’s produced with us as the stars…

Mike November 6, 2013 at 11:54 pm

One of our fave cities. Tough to see the highlights in that amount of time…You guys did great.

Tony November 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Super tough. It’s one of our faves too, but we hope we showed our friends enough that they want to come back!

Thanks, Mike!


Steve C November 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I live just an hour or so north of the GG (wine country) and go exploring in SF every now and then. I’ve been RTW and to many of the world’s large cities but I still think San Francisco is one of the best, even though it’s right in my backyard. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s always another neighborhood you never knew existed. And, that’s just The City, to say nothing for the greater Bay Area.

Tony November 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm

So true, Steve!

SF has so many great neighborhoods that more than a few could qualify by themselves as one of my top cities in the US. The only problem is that everyone seems to agree at how great it is which means it’s so expensive!

Still probably worth it though…

Catherine January 31, 2014 at 10:49 am

If I don’t have long in a place my favourite things to do is just go for a wander and get lost. It can be tempting to try and squeeze in too much, but just wandering around aimlessly always helps you to get a feel for the place.

Tony January 31, 2014 at 11:18 am

So true, Catherine! Wandering and getting lost is such a good strategy. I have a tendency to be on the slightly paranoid side… so I might research where the safer neighborhoods are first, but I totally agree.

Some of our best discoveries have come from just walking out the front door with no plans!

Happy travels :)


kim March 11, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Picking a place to stay near the city centre and the best highlights is a great tip! I also chose Fort Mason Hostel to stay when visiting San Francisco.

One of my tips: Use public transport or rent a bike. It’s a lot faster than walking!

Tony March 11, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Using public transit is a great tip, Kim! I also like it because I feel it gets me into a new cities culture faster… especially if a foreign language is involved!


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