We may have packed up all of our belongings and left to go travelling, but we left our hearts in San Francisco. Over the 7 years Jeremy lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and the 4 years I lived there, we amassed a wealth of knowledge about what to do when you visit San Francisco. Our self-guided walking tour of San Francisco made the top of the list for all of our friends and family came to visit San Francisco over the years. We even printed out instructions for our self-guided walking tour of San Francisco along with a San Francisco Walking Tour Map, and included it in a gift basket for out of town wedding guests! (You can get your own FREE self-guided Walking Tour of San Francisco Map to print out and carry with you!) So rest assured, all of our family and friends have field-tested this walking tour for us. Meaning if you don’t like it, it’s their fault. Right? The self-guided walking tour of San Francisco is not only a fantastic way to spend a day when you visit San Francisco, but it’s the perfect way to explore a ton of the city – totally for free! We think it’s one of the best budget-friendly things to do in San Francisco.
About Our Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco
One of the most unique things you’ll learn when you visit San Francisco is how totally distinct each of the neighborhoods are. There are tons of neighborhoods in San Francisco, all with their own culture and appearance and some with their own miniature weather system. You can stand on one side of the street and look across to the other side and see a COMPLETELY different place awaiting you! It’s a totally weird and unique San Francisco thing. We designed our self-guided walking tour of San Francisco to include a few examples of that quirky San Francisco charm.
Our self-guided San Francisco walking tour is 6 miles long and spans 8 unique San Francisco neighborhoods: the Financial District, the Embarcadero, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, North Beach, Chinatown, and Union Square.
Depending on your walking speed, the amount of transit shortcuts you take, and how many times you stop for a drink or some food (which, if you’re anything like us, is probably a lot) this tour should take the better part of 2-4 hours to complete!
Local’s Tips for Visiting San Francisco
Before you embark on your journey, here’s a couple of tips to follow when you visit San Francisco from us locals.
- Because you’re in notoriously chilly San Francisco, always bring a jacket, even if it’s sunny (at the moment). It gets cold at promptly 6pm or wherever Karl the Fog is lurking. Yes, we named our fog. He’s adorable.
- Never, ever, EVER call San Francisco “San Fran”, “Frisco,” or any other cutesy nickname. It makes our ears bleed and we get uncharacteristically pissy about it. If you must use a short name, SF or The City are both acceptable.
- You will see a lot of homeless folk. Don’t worry. They are in far more danger than you are, and they will not hurt you.
- There are a lot of sticky fingers in the city. The vast majority of offenders are opportunity thieves – so don’t give them the opportunity to steal your stuff. Do not use your phone on the street or on public transit. Everyone I know has gotten a phone stolen in San Francisco. For more safety tips click here.
- If you take BART, there are 2 unspoken rules, and everyone will get silently cranky if you don’t follow them.
- Rule 1: On all escalators, stand on the right, walk on the left.
- Rule 2: Line up on either side of the doors to wait for your train. Even if the next one is or isn’t your train. Just stand in line.
- About that line thing: anywhere you see people standing in line in San Francisco, it’s a best practice to just quietly follow suit. We love standing politely in lines (see evidence here). San Franciscans once stood in line for hours just to get some day-old bagels flown in from New York City (no, I’m serious). At first I thought that was ridiculous, but after years of living here, I totally get it: San Francisco has awful bagels.
Ok, now that you know the basics, let’s begin our self-guided walking tour of San Francisco!
The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco
1. Start your tour at the iconic Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s eastern coastline looking out over the Bay Bridge towards Oakland. The Ferry Building sits on the edge of San Francisco’s Financial District.
- You can easily get to the Ferry Building from the Embarcadero BART Station, which is accessible from all over the city on MUNI or from the east bay on BART. Or, you can take an actual ferry boat! View ferry schedules here.
- The Ferry Building Marketplace is home to some of the the best of San Francisco’s many famous food offerings. Our favorites: Cowgirl Creamery, Boccalone Salumeria, and Humphrey Slocombe.
- On Saturdays, there is a huge, excellent farmer’s market at the Ferry Building, so this is a great day to do your walking tour!
- For some delicious third wave coffee, either stop by Paramo Coffee’s Embarcadero location or Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building.
2. Turn right out of the Ferry Building and begin your trek north up the Embarcadero. If you want to speed this section up, you can hop on the famous historic F-Line streetcar! If you decide to walk the Embarcadero (which we recommend) you’ll be treated to some great people watching and the chance to explore the various piers, including The Exploratorium, which is well worth a few hours of your time!
3. When you reach an impenetrable wall of tourists, odds are you’ve reached the infamous Pier 39. With stereotypical tourist attractions like Bubba Gump, the aquarium, and Hard Rock Café, this is THE tourist stop in San Francisco (and the most hated pier if you’re a local). Despite the crowds of easily duped tourists, Pier 39 is the best place to view some adorable harbor seals un-majestically basking in the sun. Head into the crowd and make a beeline to the left (find any door through the wall lining the alley) to find the seals.
4. Keep walking north on the Embarcadero and you’ll reach Fisherman’s Wharf. Although this would seem like it’s just another tourist stop, it’s actually got a lot of cool things to see.
- On the water is a nondescript warehouse that houses Musée Méchanique: an interactive antique penny arcade. You can watch old nickelodeons and feel uncomfortable at the mistreatment of women and people of color.
- There is also the Boudin Bakery, where you can do a factory tour and watch the making of (and smell) some of the best sourdough in San Francisco.
- Speaking of sourdough, there are myriad places to get a great bowl of clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl in this part of the Wharf! If you didn’t know, clam chowder in a sourdough breadbowl is one of the classic must-eat foods of San Francisco!
- There is also an In-N-Out if you have yet to experience one. It means a lot (SO MUCH) to Californians (we are all unanimously obsessed with In-N-Out), but in Lia’s opinion, (formed by spending most of her life in the Midwest), 5 Guys is better, sorry everyone. Local’s Tip: Whatever you get, order it animal style.
5. Continue along the waterfront and you’ll come to Ghiradelli Square. Check out some of the shops here and eat way too much chocolate. They typically give out free samples!
- Just off Ghiradelli Square is Buena Vista Cafe, the original home of Irish Coffee in the United States. Head to the hidden back room to sit by a huge window overlooking the bay and order an original Irish Coffee or Bailey’s Irish Coffee. Yum!
6. Walk east on North Point and turn right on Hyde. I hope you were looking forward to some iconic San Francisco hills! Continue up Hyde until you get to Lombard St. You can also hop on our famous cable car and cheat for $5.
7. Once you reach Lombard, take in the view of the famous, needlessly curvy Lombard Street and then walk down it, laughing at the helpless cars trying to navigate the road on your way down.
8. If you look to the East (hint: towards the Bay) you will see iconic Coit Tower sitting atop Telegraph Hill: that’s your next destination. We’re going to take the long way!
- Go north on Leavenworth, then turn right on Bay Street.
- Continue on Bay Street until you hit the Embarcadero again. Turn right.
- After a couple of blocks, turn right again onto Sansome.
9. When you reach Greenwich, take one more right. Ascend the stairs, but take your time. There are plenty of cool things to see, including public gardens and the best views of the bay in the city.
- When you come back out on a street, continue towards the right.
- You’ll see an abandoned restaurant (you can’t sneak in; we’ve tried) and a brick staircase. Continue up the steps to ascend the last bit of Telegraph Hill.
- Be on the lookout for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill – this urban jungle is filled with them! To learn more about the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, check out the documentary of the same name.
10. You’ve reached Coit Tower. You can pay the fee and climb the tower if you’d like. Take a break and enjoy the view; you’ve earned it.
11. Walk down the driveway of Coit Tower until you reach the stairs on the left.
- Follow that staircase west until it hits Filbert St, and take Filbert.
- Turn left on Stockton. This is Washington Square Park. It’s also the Little Italy of San Francisco. If you feel like some pasta or tiramisu, this is the spot.
12. Walk south on Stockton until you reach Columbus Ave, and go left on Columbus. You’re in the heart of North Beach now, which is San Francisco’s Little Italy. There are great restaurants, bars, and gelato on this street. Be sure to stop if you feel like having some pasta or tiramisu!
13. When you reach Broadway and Columbus, you’ve traveled back in time to the center of The Beat Movement.
- City Lights Bookstore is where many beat authors were first published, such as Alan Ginsburg’s “Howl.”
- Grab a drink at Vesuvio, in famous Kerouac Alley, like you were Kerouac himself. Sit upstairs by the window and brood.
14. Once you’re done being Kerouac, head back to the street. Look down Columbus and you can see the famous Transamerica Pyramid! In the foreground though, you’ll see Jeremy’s favorite building in San Francisco: The Sentinel Building, that awesome pie-slice-shaped green building.
15. Walk through Kerouac Alley away from Colombus and you’ll suddenly be in Chinatown! Aren’t San Francisco neighborhoods crazy? Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, and the oldest Chinatown in the United States. It has a rich and colorful history and is a fantastic place to visit.
- Walk down Grant, have some Chinese food – pick a bakery, any bakery – and check out the trinket shops.
- We recommend stopping in Ross Alley to visit the Fortune Cookie Factory to watch how Fortune Cookies are folded by hand, and to pick up some hella cheap fortune cookie rejects (and that incredible waffle smell).
- When you reach Grant and Bush, you can see the famous Dragon’s Gate. This is how most people enter Chinatown, but it’s how you’ll re-enter the Financial District!
16. Pass through the gate, and you’ll be in the Union Square neighborhood, part of the Financial District.
- Continue to Post and turn right. In a couple blocks, you’ll be in the Union Square plaza, where you can take a photo with an iconic giant San Francisco heart statue!
- If you’re looking to shop, this is the neighborhood to do it. Every famous clothing designer in the world has a store here.
- For the best views of this area, head into Macy’s overlooking Union Square! The higher you climb, the better the views will be.
17. Walk across the plaza, you’ll reach Powell Street. Walk downhill (follow the cable car tracks) and you’ll reach the Powell Street BART station, where you can take a BART or MUNI to anywhere you like.
- Or, if you’re super eager to keep walking, just head 20 minutes east on Market, and you’ll end up back at the Ferry Building where you started!
Congratulations, you’ve just completed an intense self-guided walking tour of San Francisco!
Get a Printable Map of the Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco!
Finding a detailed self-guided walking tour of San Francisco online is great and all, but pulling out your phone to check every step isn’t a good idea (in fact, we advise against it – that’s how everyone we know has had their phone stolen, including us. Basic travel safety 101!). Instead, we’ve made a printable map of the self-guided Walking Tour of San Francisco! It’s formatted and shortened to fit onto one easy to print page: directions on the front, map on the back. Super handy! Get your FREE San Francisco Walking Tour Printable Map by entering your email below, and we’ll send you the link!
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We hope you enjoy your visit to San Francisco! Drop us a note for more recommendations of what to do in San Francisco.