Squeezing in San Fran: Exploring the city in 48 hours

San Fransisco, one of the most famous cities in the world, has many prominent attractions as well as innumerable hidden gems. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
San Francisco, one of the most famous cities in the world, has many well-known attractions as well as a large number of local-favorite, hidden gems. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

By Sofie DeWulf

San Francisco is a loved city.

You can find a whole collection of quotes online from a slew of celebrities about the greatness of the place.

Steinbeck called it “a golden handcuff with the key thrown away.” Paul Kanter referred to it as “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Nikita Khrushchev said it was the most beautiful city out of all he had seen in the United States.

One quote in particular, though, by the late Herb Caen, captures the love of the place the best: “I hope I go to Heaven, and when I do, I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does when he gets there. He looks around and says, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.'”

San Francisco natives like Caen get the pleasure of experiencing the wonder of the city every day, but then there’s the rest of us: the visitors and poor souls who probably don’t make enough money to survive living in the pricey city, now officially the ninth most expensive in the world, according to an International Housing Affordability Survey done in 2016.

We tried to capture the magic of the place in the short vacation time we had, but it’s nearly impossible.

Look up “Top Things to do in San Francisco” or “Best Restaurants in SF” and you’ll end up with way too many four- or five-star rated results to visit in one trip.

Locals have the chance to see and try it all, but when you’re only a visitor, how in the world can you fit it all in?

The better question is, how in the world can you fit it all in roughly 48 hours? This was my problem a few weeks ago.

My mom and I had booked a trip to visit my older brother, Joe, in San Francisco over spring break, but we would only be there from Thursday afternoon, April 16, to Saturday afternoon, April 18.

I hadn’t been to the city since I was seven, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to properly reacquaint myself in such a short amount of time. Somehow, though, we made it work and got the most out of our two-day trip, using recommendations from locals like my brother and my mom’s previous visits to the city as reference. Here’s how we did it:

Thursday, April 16


Transportation: Uber, Walking

Attractions: Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach

Dinner: Elephant Sushi

Bars: The Big 4, Union Larder

My mom and I arrived at the San Francisco airport around 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. We didn’t rent a car for our stay, because parking can get expensive in the city with prices reaching $75 a day in some garages.

We took an Uber to where we were staying, the Stanford Court Hotel located on California Street in Nob Hill. Our choice was based mainly on location—it was within walking distance of Joe’s apartment.

There are a number of great hotels in that area, including The Fairmont, the InterContinental Mark Hopkins and The Scarlet Huntington, all located near the beautiful Grace Cathedral.

We paid $490 for two nights at the Stanford Court, and I’d say we got our money’s worth. The room was spacious and comfortable, there’s a 24-hour fitness center and the front desk was very accommodating.

Downsides? Breakfast isn’t included and there’s a $20 daily fee for Wi-Fi. However, with that $20 fee, you have access to the hotel’s complimentary bikes, which were useful for us on Friday.

After checking in, my mom and I walked to the nearby Union Square, a famous public plaza known for the surrounding shopping.

The landmark park in the center of the neighborhood is arguably the best part of the location; there’s often art on display and you can find ‘Hearts of San Francisco’ sculptures at every corner.

From there we headed to Chinatown, which is about a 10-minute walk from Union Square.

Walking through the Dragon’s Gate—Chinatown’s landmark entrance on Bush Street—and along Grant Avenue will give you a taste of the largest Chinese community outside Asia.

Strings of red lanterns hang overhead and the sidewalks are decorated with ornate turquoise streetlights; every shop features genuine Chinese trinkets or food.

Chinatown in San Fransisco is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

We got to the edge of North Beach before turning to walk back to the hotel.

After freshening up a bit, we headed down California Street to have drinks at The Big 4 at the Scarlet Huntington before meeting up with Joe for dinner.

The cocktails were expensive—my Hemingway Daiquiri was $14—but it was worth it to get a feel for the place. The green leather chairs, dark wood accents, dim lighting and live piano make you feel like you’ve been transported to the ‘50s.

We met up with Joe at his apartment in Nob Hill, a surprisingly clean and nice place for a 24 year old. My brother has a job in sales at a tech company, so he can afford it, but barely.

Joe was excited about dinner. We were going to a family-owned restaurant called Elephant Sushi on Hyde Street in Russian Hill.

It’s some of the best sushi he’s ever had, he told us, but there is almost always a wait because the place is so small. Thankfully, we lucked out and got a table right away.

We ordered Sake nigiri ($5 for two pieces), a White Out roll ($15), a Basil Salmon roll ($7) and a Spicy Hamachi roll ($9). Everything was delicious and entirely different than anything I’d had before, and I’ve eaten my fair share of sushi.

After dinner, we headed across the street to end the night with a drink at Union Larder, a particularly hip wine and cheese bar with a comfortable atmosphere and a strong dose of mood lighting.

While we sipped on our wine—I had a glass of El Libertador ($12)—Joe told us of another cool bar in San Francisco: a speakeasy disguised as a detective agency by the name of Wilson & Wilson.

You have to call to get a reservation and password, which you need in order to enter the speakeasy through a secret door at the back of the bar Bourbon and Branch.

Joe and his girlfriend chose to pay $35 for a three-drink special. “They put so much thought into every drink,” he said.

I was bummed we couldn’t go, but I put it on my list of places to try for next time.

Friday, April 17


Transportation: Biking, walking, Uber

Attractions: Coit Tower, Lombard Street, Union Street, Golden Gate Bridge

Lunch: Blue Barn

Dinner: Off The Grid food trucks

Bar: Tipsy Pig 

Friday was our only full day in San Francisco and my mom and I made the most of it.

How? Bikes.

I’d guess we biked a total of 20 miles that day. Biking is arguably the best way to see San Francisco, especially on a nice day, although I have to warn you about the hills.

You sometimes might be forced to walk your bike when you come across San Francisco’s famously steep streets, and speaking from personal experience, it’s definitely a workout.

We checked out the bikes from our hotel around 10 a.m. and headed to Coit Tower, a white concrete beacon located on the top of Telegraph Hill.

Pay $6 and you can take the elevator up to the observation deck, which gives awesome 360-degree views of the entire city and bay. Also, feel free to stop by Fisherman’s Wharf while you’re in the area.

From Coit Tower, we headed to Lombard Street. It’s famous for its eight hairpin turns, which are admittedly hard to capture on camera but cool to see in person, especially when cars make the trip down the sharply curved road.

Lombard Street takes San Fransisco's classic steep streets and raises the bar by including eight hairpin turns. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
Lombard Street takes the classic, steep streets of San Francisco and raises the bar by including eight hairpin turns. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

We stayed for a short time before hopping back on our bikes to find a spot for lunch.

A local had recommended we try Bar Bocce, a waterfront hangout across the bridge in Sausalito that has “awesome thin crust pizzas.”

We were too far from Sausalito to make the trip, so we found a place called Blue Barn on Polk Street instead. We split a spring salad and a sandwich called the Rooster ($13). Characteristic of San Francisco, both were expensive but worth it.

After lunch, we biked to Union Street, a charming shopping district lined with art galleries, restaurants and boutiques.

Two shops in particular—Itoya Topdrawer and Eurasian Interiors—are standouts, especially if you’re looking for unique gifts.

Topdrawer is an offshoot of a popular stationary company based in Japan and is the first of its kind in the U.S. The shop has all sorts of cool Japanese products, from bento boxes to erasable pens.

After recovering from an embarrassing tumble on my bike while trying to take a picture on our way out, we started our 3.5-mile journey to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

We got on the path near the water once we neared the national park Presidio, stopping a few times to take photos along the way. While the view was great, it was even better biking across the bridge. If you do one thing in San Francisco, make it this.

The Golden Gate Bridge is the number one must-see attraction in San Francisco. (Photo by Sofie DeWulf)
The Golden Gate Bridge is the number one must-see attraction in San Francisco. (Photo by Sofie DeWulf)

We returned to the waterfront that night for dinner, joining scores of San Franciscans at Off The Grid at Fort Mason Center.

The gathering of 31 food trucks and live music happens every Friday night from March 3 to Oct. 20 from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Joe was even more excited about this dinner than the last because, to him, Off The Grid is authentically San Francisco.

Off the Grid is a unique, local-favorite festival that offers live music and food trucks. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
Off the Grid is a unique, local-favorite festival that offers live music and a large number of food trucks. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

The energy was great and you had your choice of every type of food you could imagine. I got Korean barbeque, while Joe got a cheese steak. Plus, it’s about the cheapest meal you can eat in the city.

We ended the night at The Tipsy Pig, a gastropub in the Marina District on Chestnut Street that attracts a young crowd and serves beautiful drinks with names like Strawberry Fields ($11).

Saturday, April 18


Transportation: Walking, Uber

Brunch: Mymy


We only had time for one more meal on Saturday with Joe before we left San Francisco.

My mom picked Mymy, a small brunch place on California Street. She had eaten there on her last visit and insisted we go again.

It’s a popular place and they don’t take names, so I recommend you get there early. But if you have to wait, I promise you won’t mind once you try the Frisco Scramble ($13) or Zucchini Pancakes ($12), which sound questionable but taste great.

Brunch at Mymy is well-worth the possibility of having to wait. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

After saying goodbye to Joe, my mom and I started walking back to our hotel to check out.

Although the trip felt short, I was happy. We hadn’t seen everything, but we had gotten a great taste of the city in only 48 hours.

By the end of the trip, I had become one of the many lovers of San Francisco and wasn’t looking forward to heading back to reality.

To quote Rudyard Kipling, “San Francisco has only one drawback—’tis hard to leave.”

Edited by Molly Weybright