We may have packed up all of our belongings and left to go traveling, but we left our hearts in San Francisco… so we came back after our year-long honeymoon! Over the 12 years we lived in the Bay Area, 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 coming 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 – and now we’ve made one for you, too!
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.
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.
That said: if you’re looking for a guided tour or just prefer something with less walking and climbing steep hills, this quirky ’70s themed VW bus tour of San Francisco is a super fun way to see the city!
Table of Contents
Psst: Visiting San Francisco & the Bay Area? We have several posts about our home that will be helpful for your trip!
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Visiting San Francisco
- Where to Stay in San Francisco (& Where NOT to)
- What to Pack for San Francisco
- 26 Awesome Things to Do in Oakland, California (Just 5 minutes away across the Bay Bridge!)
- The Best Wineries in Napa (by a Sommelier)
We also have a Podcast episode about San Francisco! Find out what to eat, where to drink, & the best things to do, plus answers to questions you never knew you had… like whether there is weed everywhere (yes) and if you’ll accidentally see nudity (double yes). We’re also spilling the fair-trade, organic, ethically sourced tea on our lesser-known life of crime.
And finally, be sure to get your FREE San Francisco Walking Tour Printable Map by entering your email below. We’ll also send you our favorite tips for visiting San Francisco & California!
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. We actually have an entire post full of mildly helpful tips like these: check it out here.
- 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 Karla the Fog is lurking. Yes, we named our fog. She’s adorable. For more tips, we have a complete guide to what to pack for San Francisco.
- 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 be nervous. They are in far more danger than you are, and they will not hurt you. Treat them with compassion and kindness – it costs nothing to smile and wish someone well!
- 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. Once, I was standing in a long line for Hot Cookie in the Castro at 11pm and somebody came up and asked me incredulously, “Is it … is it just cookies?!” “Yes,” I said, “But some of them are shaped like dicks.” It was at that moment that I knew I was a true San Franciscan.
- Be wary of opportunity theft, particularly when it comes to your phone. Do not use your phone on the street or on public transit. Everyone I know has gotten a phone stolen in San Francisco. For this reason, we’ve created a printable version of our walking tour so that you don’t need to use your phone! Sign up below. Psst: Brush up on all of our travel safety tips.
- San Francisco has a LOT of homeless residents. This can definitely be a bit of a culture shock. Please keep in mind that the folks experiencing homelessness are our neighbors, and not a blight or an eyesore. Many of the folks that you will see are also struggling with mental illnesses, and you may see people who appear to be talking to themselves or to thin air. Although this can be startling, remember that these people are in far more danger than you are, and are unlikely to harm you in any way. Homelessness is traumatic, particularly for the mentally ill, whose conditions can be exacerbated by the stress of homelessness. Also, because there are too few public restrooms in San Francisco, you will smell some unpleasant things during your stay. Hold your breath and remember: you get to go home and use a bathroom or take a shower whenever you want. They don’t. Have compassion. There’s a fantastic resource for how to respond to the homeless in San Francisco on SF Gate.
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 (here’s a list of a bunch of other weird San Francisco quirks).
We designed our self-guided walking tour of San Francisco to include several 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: This is where we all work. You’ll see lots of people doing Important Business Things here during the day, but it’s a ghost town after 6pm.
- The Embarcadero: San Francisco’s beautiful waterfront is home to famous attractions like Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghiradelli Square. That also means that it’s mostly populated by tourists, but that’s ok – the waterfront is big enough to thin out the crowds. Plus, it’s gorgeous!
- Russian Hill: Named for a Russian cemetery discovered on top of this hill way back during the Gold Rush, today Russian Hill is primarily notable for being home to one of the windiest streets in the world: Lombard Street, one of the most famous streets in San Francisco. It’s height and steepness also provide some of the most gorgeous views of the city! Here’s a guide to visiting this famous zigzag road in San Francisco – Lombard Street!
- Telegraph Hill: My personal favorite neighborhood in San Francisco! This gorgeous oasis is home to Coit Tower, an urban jungle, and – inexplicably – a flock of wild parrots. San Francisco is weird, you guys.
- North Beach: You’ll hear North Beach described in 2 ways: as Little Italy, and also as the only part of San Francisco with like, a lot of strip clubs (nobody’s quite sure why). But we like it for another reason: it was the home of the 1950’s Beat Movement and home to literary giants like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
- Chinatown: San Francisco’s Chinatown is famous for being the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. It is immersive. Walk into Chinatown and you’ll think you’ve gone through a portal straight to China. Turn around and you’ll be like, “wtf? I was JUST in Italy.” San Francisco, y’all!
- Union Square: Located next to the FiDi (Financial District), Union Square is home to both lots of offices and also lots of shopping – plus the only pick-up for the trolley that isn’t on an enormous hill. You’ll see plenty of tourists mixed in with irritated locals who just need to get a freaking bowl of clam chowder in a breadbowl and take it back to their desks. (I used to work in this area, so I speak from a lot of experience).
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!
Ok, now that you know the basics, let’s begin our self-guided walking tour of San Francisco!
The 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. Although it may seem like this is just a dull business district, there are some surprising hidden gems in the FiDi. Discover them on a Financial District Walking Tour.
Before you start walking, we suggest you fuel up with some delicious third wave coffee! Stop by Paramo Coffee’s Embarcadero location or Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building. Or hit up any of our other favorite coffee shops in San Francisco.
- How to Get There: 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.
- But First, Breakfast: The Ferry Building Marketplace is home to some of the the best of San Francisco’s many famous food offerings. Our favorites: Cowgirl Creamery, , and Humphrey Slocombe. Get to know San Francisco’s foodie scene on a Ferry Building food tour or explore the sweeter side of the Ferry Building as part of the San Francisco Chocolate Tour!
- On Saturdays, there is a huge, excellent farmer’s market at the Ferry Building, so this is a great day to do your self-guided walking tour.
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. Don’t forget to stop and take a picture of the city from Pier 14, too!
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 I don’t mean that in a good way … this is the worst pier if you’re a local).
- Despite the crowds of tourists, Pier 39 is the best place to view some adorable California sea lions and 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 sea lions – or just listen for their barking!
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!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.
This is my favorite part of San Francisco: it’s beautiful, lush, and green, and you’ll be treated to some of the best views of the city. Dive into the urban jungle and go hunting for wild parrots on Telegraph Hill!
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.
North Beach is a fascinating neighborhood that’s home to both Little Italy and the Beat Movement. If your visit allows for it, we recommend taking a North Beach & Little Italy Walking Tour! Or, just eat your way through Italy on a culinary tour of North Beach.
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.
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in the mid 1800s, and they faced segregation and discrimination for decades to come. In fact, Congress actually passed a law called the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which banned all Chinese laborers from entering the country and solidified the status of Chinese immigrants already in the United States as “aliens” that could not become citizens.
Children of Chinese parents were not considered citizens either. The Chinese Exclusion Act essentially legalized racism against Chinese people, and stayed on the books until 1943. The law justified San Francisco denying Chinese people jobs, apartment rentals, schooling and much more.
It’s a pretty ugly chapter in California’s history, but Chinatown is a testament to the resilience of the city’s Chinese community.
- 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 some of the best views of this area, head into Macy’s overlooking Union Square! The higher you climb, the better the views will be.
- Even if you’re not staying there, the Westin St. Francis is worth a visit just for the beautiful lobby and the 2 amazing glass elevators, which you can usually sneak into if you walk purposefully behind someone who has a room key. Exit on one of the highest floors and find a fire escape for some of the best secret views of the city!
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 6-mile self-guided walking tour of San Francisco!
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. We’ll also send you our favorite tips for visiting San Francisco & California!
Get the San Francisco Walking Tour PDF!
Subscribe below and we'll send you the FREE San Francisco Walking Tour printable map. We'll also send you our favorite tips for visiting San Francisco!
Where to Stay in San Francisco
The hardest part of deciding where to stay in San Francisco is choosing which neighborhood to base yourself in! Here are my picks for spots that will place you close to the walking tour.
- North Beach: The North Beach neighborhood is nestled between Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Embarcadero. You’ll pass right through it on this walking tour, and it’s one of the best places to base yourself during your trip. The Washington Square Inn is a lovely, cozy little Victorian-style inn located on the absolutely beautiful Washington Square park in North Beach.
- Union Square: You’ll be ending your walking tour in Union Square, which makes it a great place to base yourself during your trip. Most of the hotels in this neighborhood are on the higher end, like the Westin St. Francis, which borders one end of Union Square – pop in for a stunning lobby display during the Christmas Season and if you can, ride the glass elevators to the top of the towers for one of the best views in the city. If you’d prefer a more budget-friendly room, try the Villa Florence instead.
- SoMa (South of Market): Although the walking tour will stay above market street, Soma is just across the street and a good place to base yourself during your trip to San Francisco. The Hotel Griffon offers Bay Bridge views, walkable Financial District access, easy transportation to CalTrain if you’re heading into Silicon Valley, and close access to Oracle Park; this is a perfect option for business travelers.
Want more options? We’ve got an entire guide to where to stay in San Francisco (and where NOT to). Check it out!
Insider Tip: Checked out early or taking advantage of a long layover and not sure where to store your bags? Check out LuggageHero, a service that helps you find a safe place to keep your luggage while you’re running around! Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
Psst: Visiting San Francisco and the Bay Area? We have several posts about our home that will be helpful for your trip!
- Where to Stay in San Francisco (& Where NOT to): A Local’s Guide
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Visiting San Francisco:
- The 10 Best Coffee Shops in San Francisco: A Local Barista’s Guide
- Where to Eat in Oakland, California: A Local’s Guide
- 26 Awesome Things to Do in Oakland, California
- The 24 Best Hikes Near San Francisco
- 12 Off-Beat, Ridiculous, & Awesome Places to Stay Near San Francisco
- Chocolate & Booze: The Ultra San Francisco Chocolate Tour
Are you getting excited for your trip to San Francisco?! Tell us what you’re most stoked about in the comments below!
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