Last Updated on November 13, 2020 by Paroma
San Francisco continues to be one of the most popular destinations in USA, thanks to European charm meets laid-back California vibes ensconced within a perimeter of 49 square miles. Although it routinely features on the bucket list of travelers, a layover in San Francisco is also a great idea and is totally worth jumping those transit hassle hoops if planned properly.
As a San Francisco resident (going strong on my 10th year, yay!), I am here to help you plan that perfect San Francisco layover with this guide pertaining to all the things to do in San Francisco on a layover. Here you can find all the necessary information that you need to know for spending either a long (8-12 hours) or a short (5-7 hours) layover in San Francisco.
This post includes tips on selecting the right airport, information on public transportation/transit in San Francisco that you will need, things to do on a layover in San Francisco and where to eat during your layover time. So without further ado, let’s get started!
1) Planning a layover in San Francisco? Here is what you need to know
a) Which airport is the closest to San Francisco ?
The San Francisco Bay Area is served by three major airports, which are as follows:
i) San Francisco International Airport (SFO): This airport is the closest to the city of San Francisco, and is about 12-16 miles south of the city. Despite the cringeworthy references of San Francisco as SFO, the airport is not in the city, but in Millbrae, which is another city in the Peninsula (part of the Bay Area between San Francisco and South Bay).
For those of you planning to spend a layover in San Francisco, this is the best airport to arrive at for the shortest transit time into the city and back.
ii) Oakland International Airport (OAK): This airport is great for cheap flight deals and (mostly) does not have the nightmarish wait times associated with security at SFO. However, it is about 22 miles east of the city, across the Bay Bridge, in East Bay and one thing is for sure, you DO NOT WANT to cross that bridge during most of the day. That traffic is the worst!
The good news is that public transportation/BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)/our subway is available to directly bring you from the OAK airport to the city, but this will inevitably take some time. So unless you have an 8 hour layover in San Francisco or longer, don’t even think of venturing into the city. However, you can definitely plan a layover in Oakland instead, which holds its own against the popularity of San Francisco with its food scene, history and culture.
iii) San Jose International airport (SJC): This airport in San Jose primarily serves the South Bay and Silicon Valley and is 45-50 miles south of San Francisco. If for any reason, you have a connecting flight from this airport, forget about trekking into San Francisco for a layover.
The transit time to get to the city alone, either via public transportation or by availing a taxi/shared ride will be so painfully long that you will barely have anytime to enjoy San Francisco and its key attractions. So unless you have a death wish of experiencing a whirlwind SF layover or are incredibly enthusiastic, stay put at the airport. Better yet, explore the city of San Jose instead which has some amazing murals, restaurants and the Bay Area’s only other Japantown.
b) Getting to San Francisco from SFO airport
i) Transportation: Although the SFO airport is only 12-16 miles away from San Francisco, it kind of feels like its in a different galaxy, far, far away. And, the infamous Bay Area traffic is solely responsible for this situation, thanks to our skyrocketing population density.
The ill-famed freeway 101 connecting the city to SFO airport is a traffic nightmare during most of the day with rush hour congestion lasting approximately from 6-10 AM and 3-7 PM. Since being caught in traffic is definitely not your idea of maximizing your San Francisco layover experience, the best way to override this situation is by hopping onto our subway/BART that will directly transport you into the city, bypassing nasty traffic like magic.
The BART Airport station at the International terminal and can be accessed using the Airtrain from all the other three domestic terminals (1, 2 and 3). Take the Antioch bound train to deboard at any of the eight stations in San Francisco. You can purchase tickets at the ticket vending machines using cash or credit/debit card.
I highly recommend purchasing the return ticket at the airport to avoid waiting in line during your return from San Francisco. Additionally, several BART stations in San Francisco are now Clipper card only (that is our locals transit fare card) and no longer use paper tickets. Download the handy BART APP for all fare and schedule information to plan your trip like a pro.
The next best option to get into San Francisco for spending a long or short layover is by getting into a cab or using a rideshare service like Lyft or Uber, both of which have designated pick up areas in the departure level of the domestic terminals and International terminal. Unless you are planning to get to a specific attraction in the city, it will take you approximately the same time to reach San Francisco as on a BART and maybe longer if you are on a shared ride.
Warning: if your layover time coincides with rush hour, this is not the option to go for, unless your idea of sightseeing involves wasting precious time in a car stuck in traffic. Just take my word and go for BART instead.
c) Airport Logistics: security clearance, customs, immigration and luggage storage
It is common knowledge that your effective layover time will be the total time on paper minus the hassles of air travel that will vary on your type of flight and connection, which are security clearance, immigration and customs clearance. So these are the things you absolutely need to factor or be mindful of to determine whether or not hauling that thirsty traveler tush of yours to San Francisco is even worth the pain.
i) Domestic-Domestic flights: Domestic flights (i.e. flying within USA with SFO as a connecting airport) are definitely the winner here when it comes to saving time. If you have checked luggage, you will not have to retrieve it at your connecting airport since it will be checked all the way to your final destination.
You will be exiting the airport from one of the three domestic terminals to venture into San Francisco and will have to go through security check-in when you re-enter the airport, even if it is in the same terminal.
ii) Domestic-International flights: For those flying international from SFO via a domestic flight arriving from somewhere else in USA, the scenario will be pretty much the same as a full on domestic flight. Your luggage will be checked to its final destination at your first airport and all you have to do is exit SFO from the domestic terminal you fly into. You will re-enter the airport via the international terminal where you have to undergo the customary security clearance.
iii) International flights coming into USA with SFO as port of entry: If you’re flying in from outside the USA with SFO as your port of entry, this is where things get a little messy. US airports do not have a “clean transit” option and by that I mean exactly this: once you clear customs, you will have to retrieve your baggage from the carousel and re-check it in at the terminal from which your second flight departs (domestic or international).
You may have to go through additional security check at that terminal, so please have plenty of time on your hands to plan for these occurrences. This sounds extremely sucky, but then again welcome to America where seemingly simple things are somehow made unnecessarily complicated.
If you are one of those “lucky buggers” with SFO as your first point of entry in USA and you are raring to explore San Francisco with a long layover (i.e. a 8-12 hour layover in San Francisco) in hand, I’d advise you to re-check your luggage at your final departure terminal after you clear customs before you step out for your layover in San Francisco.
The other option is to store the luggage in a designated luggage storage locker prior to exiting the airport. Keep in mind that you will have to re-check it at your final departure terminal, so please allow yourself plenty of time to do that and factor it in your layover time.
d) Storing your luggage during a layover in San Francisco
If you are saddled with a heavy carry on, and by “heavy” I mean anything bulkier than what you can carry around like a breeze or if you want to temporarily store your checked in luggage (if SFO is your first port of entry in USA), then please by all means check out the luggage storage locker at the International Terminal Main Hall (level 3) that operates from 6 AM-11 PM everyday.
There is a fee for storing your luggage based on the type and duration of storage. Visit the Airport Travel Agency website to find the rates and I highly recommend calling or emailing them in advance to see if you can make a prior reservation.
e) Public Transportation in San Francisco
Since time is of the essence during any layover where you want to maximize those few hours of sightseeing, it is best to be acquainted with San Francisco’s public transportation system because you are clearly not going to have a car at your disposal during this short time. There are plenty of things to do in San Francisco on a layover, and getting confused over public transportation is not one of them.
As someone who’s been living in the city for over 10 years without driving, I can safely say that San Francisco’s public transportation is pretty efficient for the most part and gets the job done, but is not always the cleanest or quietest, depending on the route.
It has its fair of yucky moments that might gross you out-such as sights of spilled food, spontaneous skirmishes and drunk or loud riders. Plus there might be route changes or disruptions to timings depending on public events and construction, such as major glitches in those old, rickety overhead tram lines that give you all the San Francisco feels.
Despite the shortcomings of our public transportation, they are still the most trustworthy and cheapest means of getting around and are relied upon by thousands of San Franciscans (including me) for our daily commute. If you are first time visitor eager to explore San Francisco on a layover, here is a summary of San Francisco’s public transit options.
i) BART: Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART as we like to call it, is our beloved, stinky but super efficient subway system that has a net 8 stops in San Francisco connecting the city south-northeast and also serves the airport directly from the city.
Although I highly recommend taking the BART into San Francisco from SFO airport, be aware that some of San Francisco’s major attractions (Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts etc) are not within walking distance of the BART. So you will have to either take a cab/rideshare or a bus to get to these attractions.
BART is now moving to a single “CLIPPER CARD” (our commuter card) system and has abolished the handy paper tickets dispensed at many stations, including some in the city. So you have to either buy a clipper card (with a $3 one time fee) and load it with money or skip the BART altogether and opt for our buses/trams/trains.
For those boarding the BART at the airport (people, this is THE SMARTEST way to get into the city), just make sure you buy your return ticket at the airport which still holds good at any BART station in the city.
ii) MUNI: Our absolute public transit lifeline MUNI is the network that overlooks our buses, trams and trains. Most BART stations double up as train stations as well for the MUNI trains (they are on different levels) and the buses and trams (including the famous F line that goes to Fisherman’s Wharf) will take you almost anywhere in the city. Our famous cable cars too fall under the purview of MUNI!
The best way to get around using Muni is to download the Munimobile app for advanced e-ticket purchases and to get route information for trip planning (I swear by it!!).
For all the juicy details on how to get around San Francisco using public transit, here is everything you need to know via the SFMTA website
iii) Cabs/Rideshares: If you are not in the mood to figuring out the mysteries of SF public transit during your San Francisco layover and have lotsa $$$ to burn, then you always have the option of hailing cabs or summoning rideshares. Although cabs are still very much alive in San Francisco, flagging one down can still be a Herculean task.
Thankfully this city is birthplace of the two most popular rideshare companies Lyft and Uber which means you do have options. if using rideshare, remember to download their apps on your phone in advance, create an account and make sure that you have an accepted credit card on file.
Depending on the time of day you get into San Francisco, these will be the most effective in zipping you around town, but will cost a pretty penny. Even with shared or saver shared ride options, you will have to cough up $5 and upward per ride depending on the distance and demand.
Finally, if you are traveling alone and are worried about your safety, you can either opt in for shared rides or skip cabs/rideshare altogether and hop on a bus instead!
2) Things to do in San Francisco on a layover : Tips for visitors
While planning to maximize your long or short layover experience in San Francisco, here are a few things to keep in mind:
a) How much time will you really have for your layover?
As I mentioned before, your net time to explore San Francisco equals your total layover time minus the travel pains of security checks, luggage retrieval and checking, customs along with the transit time to and from the city.
In addition, you have to factor in the time of the day for your layover since traffic conditions in the city will drastically change your travel time. You can get real time traffic updates from 511.org or this website to figure out how prudent it would be to leave the airport given when you land.
In my experience, it is best to reserve a solid 2-2.5 hours to all of these activities (airport to city and back as well as airport security clearance and any baggage related activities) to ensure peace of mind while planning your layover activities in San Francisco. What it means that if you have a total of 8 hours layover time, then you’ll roughly have 5-6 hours to enjoy sightseeing in San Francisco.
b) How much time do you need to explore San Francisco during a layover?
It all comes down to what kind of tourist you are, your preferences and the San Francisco attractions that you’re interested in. First time visitors will generally gravitate towards popular tourist spots that are mostly crammed in the north-eastern quadrant of the city.
I am talking about everything north-east of Downtown San Francisco and Union Square-i.e. Chinatown, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street etc. If you are interested in seeing all of most popular San Francisco attractions, please plan for at least 5 hours of sightseeing (i.e. 8+ hours of layover time) to account for getting to and from the airport, city traffic and of course using the public transit in San Francisco.
Repeat visitors or those looking for specific or off-the beaten track attractions will have a better sense of the city or itinerary and will need lesser time because of their targeted approach. I am talking about those wanting to visit a particular museum or offbeat landmark that takes some time to explore.
The good thing about San Francisco is that several popular attractions are still doable with shorter layover times of 3-4 hours, thanks to their close proximity which you can navigate with some savvy advanced planning! You can find itinerary suggestions on how to spend either a long or a short layover in San Francisco as you scroll down below.
Finally, it is good to remember that a layover is exactly what it sounds like-a short break before you hop onto your next flight. It is best to stick to a doable San Francisco itinerary, enjoy the new sights in a relaxed way, leaving ample time to return to the airport and not worry or fret over the other attractions you’ve missed. There will always be a second time.
c) Helpful tips for first time visitors spending a layover in San Francisco
If stopping by San Francisco on a layover is your very first time in the city, here are a few things to remember:
1) Please be aware that Downtown San Francisco and Union Square itself are nothing special-this area is extremely crowded and is like one giant shopping center with branded designer stores all around. The only reason to get here is to catch the Cable Car from the Powell Street turnaround that will take you all the way up to Fisherman’s Wharf. But the line at the turnaround is super long and it’s better to catch the car from elsewhere to save time (see the next section).
2) Next most important thing to know about spending your layover in San Francisco is that the Golden Gate Bridge, our most famous landmark is at the northernmost end of the city and not close to any BART stop. Fortunately, the San Francisco Public Transit helps you get there from Union Square itself (and from other parts of the city) via the Golden Gate Transit (GGT) buses.
GGT buses will transport you to the south end of the bridge and you can find all details here on the Golden Gate Bridge website. But for way better and unobstructed views, visit one of these places to see the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge or simply read one of the three itineraries below.
3) Some of the best murals, cafes and other attractions of San Francisco are in its diverse neighborhoods and not downtown. With some planning of bus routes/rideshare and BART, you can get to see them in a few hours. San Francisco is a tiny city of only 49 square miles and extremely navigable because of its grid-like street planning. So don’t just stick around downtown, which is super touristy!
4) San Francisco has steep hills and crazy weather. Wear sturdy comfortable footwear and dress smart/like a local to avoid getting chilly! Here’s a helpful San Francisco packing list to make your life easier!
d) What to do in San Francisco on a LONG layover: 8-12 hours layover in San Francisco
Here are some suggested things to do in San Francisco on a long layover where you get >6 hours to explore the city. Keep in mind that these are mere recommendations based on proximity and ease of travel. Please pick and choose activities based on your preference and time.
Itinerary for layover in San Francisco #1 : Cable car ride, Fishermans Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Bridge
Take the BART from the SFO airport and deboard at the Embarcadero station. Board the California route at California and Drumm, get down at Powell & California to transfer to the Powell & Hyde line taking you all the way to Ghirardelli square and Fisherman’s Wharf, which are super tourist spots. Read SF cable car route information here and fare information here.
Getting onto the cable car is a unique San Francisco experience like no other and you will see some famous landmarks as the car chugs uphill. You can totally get down at any stop along the route to further explore attractions like Lombard street (the world’s crookedest street) on the Powell-Hyde line or visit San Francisco’s Chinatown (largest in North America) by getting down at the intersection of Bush & Grant on the California-Drumm line.
California-Drumm line also takes you through the beautiful neighborhood of Nob Hill which provides fantastic views of the city from the 19th floor of the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, aptly named “Top of the Mark”.
Once at Fisherman’s Wharf, catch the sunbathing sea lions at Pier 39 and chow on SF’s famous clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin’s Bakery. Don’t forget to visit the “Greetings from San Francisco” mural on 757 Beach street and stop by the nearby Cartoon Art Museum, which is a very small museum dedicated to cartoons and pop art.
Ghirardelli square and the adjacent museum are good for stocking up on their famous chocolates or getting a decadent milkshake. Again, this is a giant, crowded tourist trap and you’re better off snagging those chocolates from any local Walgreens.
Board Golden Gate Transit #4 to the Palace of Fine Arts, which was built during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to showcase the economic revival of San Francisco post the devastating earthquake of 1908. Explore the grand rotunda, the Palace grounds, the tranquil lake and finally, the indoor pavilion museum giving you a sneak peak into the history of the Palace.
Cliché but true, no first time visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the grandest of American landmarks, aka our beloved Golden Gate Bridge. Although you can catch a glimpse of the bridge from afar at one of the piers, I highly recommend hopping into a taxi from the Palace and going up to the Battery East vista from where you can get unobstructed view of the bridge, much like in these other Golden Gate Bridge viewing spots in and around the city.
San Francisco layover Itinerary #2 : Hopping along the BART stops
The BART/our subway is a convenient way to see the city and connects 8 stops diagonally along San Francisco. You can cover a lot of sightseeing in the city if you simply hop from one BART stop to the other and supplement your travel with MUNI or rideshare to see more distant attractions.
Once you take the BART from the airport, you can get down at the Mission neighborhood (16th street and 24th Street are the stops) and explore this vibrant part of San Francisco, filled with fantastic murals, lip smacking Latino food and lots of local shopping stores along Valencia street.
The next stops on your BART will be Civic Center (you can get down here to see the beautiful rotunda of our City Hall which is free to enter) and Powell Street/downtown/Union Square. Downtown is one giant shopping arena modeled after that in NYC and there is nothing vintage San Francisco about it.
You can either wait in line at the Powell turnaround to take the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf or venture out to Union Square to see the giant Christmas tree if visiting San Francisco during Christmas.
Next, head straight to the Embarcadero (last San Francisco stop on the BART going North East) and visit the Ferry Building, especially during Saturday, to see the largest open air Farmers market in North America. From there, take the F line to Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli square etc (see itinerary 1) or simply take a cab to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Itinerary #3: Slightly offbeat things to do on a San Francisco layover
No first time trip to San Francisco is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, which is why I keep on inserting it in every long San Francisco layover itinerary. However, this orange bridge of ours is all the way in the north and there is no easy way to get to it directly from the airport.
The best times to see the bridge are very early in the morning to catch a beautiful sunrise. Evenings and thus sunsets are almost always foggy in San Francisco. In addition, the landing areas and viewing points of the bridge are very crowded during the day, so I’d avoid going there during a layover where you need to maximize your returns for the time you have.
So here is what I suggest for those wondering what to do in San Francisco on a layover while avoiding crowds like a plague. As usual, get on the BART and deboard at Powell Street Station. From there take the Muni Route 5 to get down at Mcallister and Fillmore to reach the Alamo Square Park and see the famous row of Victorian houses/Painted Ladies, one of the many famous landmarks of the city.
The 5 will also take you westward to Golden Gate Park, where there are many things to do such as Visit the Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden or the Conservatory of Flowers or Botanical Garden or de Young Museum or even see Buffaloes or windmills and Tulips! Visiting the park can take an entire day, so I’d settle in for one particular landmark.
Next, from Alamo Square, you can either take a quick detour to Haight-Ashbury (5 min via cab) to see the iconic flower-power neighborhood and its many murals (also the Queen Anne home of the Grateful Dead at 710 Ashbury St.) or walk up to Japantown.
Japantown, one of the three remaining in California, starts from Post and Fillmore street. Here you can visit the Peace Plaza and taste some amazing food inside the Japantown mall, my favorite being the coffee shop Cafe Hana, Marufuku Ramen (you have to arrive before this restaurant opens to eat their otherworldly famous Ramen) and Mochill Mochi donuts.
From Japantown, walk up to Sacramento and Buchanan streets to take the 1 going east and get down at Chinatown to walk along the streets with the red lanterns swaying above. Venture into Little Italy/North Beach next door and either get some Pizza by the slice at Tony’s or a scoop of gelato at Lush Gelato.
If you are feeling adventurous, climb the Filbert street steps to get to Coit Tower. The fantastic Diego Rivera inspired murals at the base of the tower are one of the many free things to enjoy in San Francisco, but you need to pay if you want to catch the breathtaking view of the city atop the tower.
Next stop is the prettiest neighborhood of San Francisco-aka Russian Hill. You can take the 45 or the Cable car to Lombard street, visit the Art institute nearby to see a secret Diego Rivera mural and see a fantastic view of the city from Ina Coolbrith Park.
Finally, take either a cab/Lyft or a Muni (routes 45 or 30) to go the Marina Boulevard from Russian Hill (Ina Coolbrith park) to see the Golden Gate Bridge and walk to the Palace of Fine Arts.
P.S. This itinerary does not cover the most touristy parts of San Francisco, but trust me when I say this-there is nothing special about Fisherman’s Wharf (unless you want to see the sunbathing sea-lions on Pier 39 which is pretty cool) or Ghirardelli square.
e) What to do in San Francisco on a SHORT (er) layover: 5-8 hours of layover in San Francisco
A 5-8 hour long layover time effectively means 3-6-ish hours of actual time left to explore San Francisco. Although 5+ hours is not a bad time to cover a sizeable chunk of the city, 3-4 hours is on the shorter end of the spectrum. If you are wondering about what to do in San Francisco on a short layover, here are a few helpful tips:
1) Stick to 2-3 main attractions for a 3-5 hour window of exploring San Francisco. Customize San Francisco itinerary #1 (see above) or do the BART hopping (itinerary #2) to see attractions nearby. If you are really dying to see the Golden Gate Bridge, make that your priority and plan to see 1-2 attractions nearby.
2) The best way to spend a short layover in San Francisco is to get on to the Hop on Hop off bus. Several sightseeing companies operate these deluxe double decker buses in San Francisco which take you around the city and show off the main landmarks with a guided audio commentary by a tour guide.
You can hop on or off at designated spots and buy tickets at different tiers (with flexible cancellation) based on how much time you can devote to exploring San Francisco on a short layover. This flexibility offered by these tours is perfect for those looking to spend 3-5 hours layover in San Francisco without wandering around like a headless chicken. Big Bus tours and Skyline sightseeing both have several guided bus tours that you can check out.
3) Where to eat in San Francisco on a layover
Irrespective of the kind of layover in San Francisco, one thing is for sure. You are bound to get hungry during your stopover in the city. So here are some of my favorite places for a quick meal, i.e. mostly cafes or hole in the walls near the landmarks or in neighborhoods you will be visiting.
i) Downtown San Francisco (for Cable Car turnaround)- Mazarine Coffee (one of the best cafes in the city), The Bird (for killer chicken sandwiches), Mr. Holmes Bakehouse (arrive early for their cruffins,which are some of the best desserts in San Francisco)
ii) Mission district: Too many to count. My favorite ones are Udupi Palace (one of the several 100% vegetarian eateries in San Francisco), Tortas Los Picudos, Dandelion Chocolates (try their out of the world Mission drinking chocolate), Craftsmen and Wolves, Tartine Manufactory and Tartine Bakery, Flour and Water Pizza, La Taqueria (known worldwide for their Mission Style burrito), El Farolito, Stonemill Matcha, lots and lots of cafes.
iii) NOPA/Western Addition (near Alamo Square): The Mill, Zaytoon Mediterranean Cafe, Bean Bag Cafe, Oasis Cafe (one of the best places for budget eats in San Francisco). Fillmore street is lined with good restaurants and cafes as well and is a few blocks from Alamo Square.
iv) Haight: Parada 22, Street Taco, Cha Cha Cha, Uva Enoteca, 1428 HAIGHT Patio
v) Marina/Cow Hollow (for views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marina blvd): Le Marais Bakery, Tacolicious, Rose’s Cafe, Saiwalks (for delicious Vietnamese crepes), Toasty, Rose’s Cafe (popular spot for brunch), Vegan Picnic, Wildseed (100% vegan but gets crazy crowded)
vi) Embarcadero/Fisherman’s Wharf: Eateries inside Ferry Building (I highly recommend El Porteno empanadas) or any food stall in the Farmers’ market on Saturday, the touristy yet fun Boudin Bakery for San Francisco’s famous sourdough bowl clam chowder, Cafe de Casa, Fog Harbor Fish House, The Buena Vista.
vii) Chinatown/Little Italy/North Beach: Good Mong Kok Bakery, Dim Sum Bistro, Tony’s pizza by the slice (right next to the main restaurant Tony’s Pizza Napoletana), Baonecci, Golden Boy Pizza (for the greasiest slices in town), Il Casaro Pizzeria, Sotto Mare (for their world famous cioppino if you have time for a sit-down meal)
I hope you enjoyed reading this thorough, step by step guide on how to plan for a layover in San Francisco. No matter how short or long your San Francisco layover may be, proper planning (which includes reading this post) will help you maximize your layover experience and make it a memorable one. Do share this post if you found it helpful and thanks so much for stopping by!