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Explore the Best of San Francisco in a Day

No travel to California would be complete without a stop in San Francisco. Despite what the title suggests, there’s so much to explore in this culture-steeped city that it’s impossible to see it all in one day. If you’ve only a half-weekend to spare, however, this hand-picked list will help you maximize your fun in Fog City.

Hike, Surf, and Sandwich in the Sunset District

Start your day by stashing your bags with a San Francisco luggage storage service and taking in the city’s wicked weather. Watch the sun rise and the fog roll away from its famous bridge and surrounding shoreline.

Hit the Waves at Ocean Beach

Rise around five and hang 10 in the Sunset District, where there are beaches and waves to suit any water baby. Whether you borrow a board and hit the surf, or simply walk along the shore with a thermos of coffee, take the opportunity to breathe in the tangy salt air before the big day ahead...and hum your favorite surf rock tune.

Hike the Headlands

Alternatively, you can start early at the Golden Gate Bridge and hike the California Coastal Trail to Lands End Lookout. This is a moderately difficult, 7.1km (4.4 miles) trail lined with wildflowers, winding up close to Ocean Beach. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, you can hike and have a dip before your first meal of the day.

Devil’s Teeth Baking Company

Now you’re properly awake and more aligned with your inner dude/dudette, it’s time for breakfast.

Just up from Ocean Beach on Noriega Street is Devil’s Teeth Baking Company, where you can order a breakfast sandwich that will knock your wetsuit off. Many claim this combination of molten cheese, fluffy scrambled eggs, and smoky bacon on a buttermilk biscuit (like a flaky English muffin, for non-American readers) is the best sandwich of its kind in town.

Chase that with a warm, pillowy cinnamon roll and fight the urge to drift back into contented sleep. You can either drink some of Devil’s own Bicycle coffee in the parklet out front, or get your carbs to go. There’s a place a couple of blocks away that will put some more pep in your step.

Andytown Coffee Roasters

Wander a little down Noriega Street and hang a left at 43rd Avenue. Here you’ll find Andytown Coffee Roasters, where you might just want to stop in and try a snowy plover: a brown sugar syrup and espresso soda.

It’s more than Andytown’s signature drink; named after the endangered western shorebird that inhabits nearby Ocean Beach, the soda has raised awareness and funds for avian conservation, and pushed support for the National Park Service.

So make sure to get your morning hit of caffeine for a cause. Bottoms-up for the birds. You’re going to need all that energy for what comes next.

Inner San Francisco for Culture Vultures

‘Hope you packed your walking shoes. If it’s a beautiful day (and it often is in San Francisco), spend a few hours sightseeing on foot. If you’re short on time (or too sleepy from your sandwich) then you can hail a taxi, Lyft, or Uber.

Golden Gate Park

Who doesn’t love park hopping while on holiday? Make your way north on Sunset Boulevard to Golden Gate Park, home to many of the city’s attractions and a picturesque Japanese garden. Choices spread across 1,017 acres of immaculate fields and flowers; geek out at the Planetarium or Academy of Sciences, or sip tea and soak in the beauty of the pagodas.

Vintage Shopping at Haight-Ashbury

Not far from Golden Gate Park is the city’s famous Haight-Ashbury District. This area has a colorful history, serving as the birthplace of hippie counterculture during the ‘60s. While its streets have weathered many phases, they’re still known for playful splashes of color across the homes (known as the “Painted Lady” Victorians), and a selection of groovy vintage shops, book and record stores.

The trajectory of your afternoon will depend on how lost in hippie love you become. The Haight has walking tours, food tours, homes and parks imbibed with the spirits of rock legends past. If you’re a Deadhead, Joplin junkie, or modern flower child, then find some grub along Haight Street and settle in for the afternoon.

Otherwise, jump on a bus, cable car, or hail a ride to your next stop.

All the Tea in Chinatown

For avid foodies, people watchers, and curio hunters, Chinatown won’t disappoint.

Start in Portsmouth Square and join locals in steaming dumplings from Good Mong Kok Bakery. Sample rare tea at Red Blossom Tea Company or drink dessert from a reusable glass jar at Plentea. Watch the workers at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and have a poke around the Wok Shop.

Conclude your East-meets-West walking tour in Grant Avenue, where many of the tourist-oriented shops and bazaars reside, or Stockton Street, where locals do their produce shopping. Marvel at a selection of wet and dry goods unlike anything you’ve seen before. Hopefully, you haven’t had your fill of delicious food and drink by now, because it’s time to usher in the night in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Muchas Opciones in the Mission District

This part of town has quite the established punk pedigree. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the district became home to some of the biggest punk bands of the age, as well as prominent gay/lesbian and immigrant populations. The resulting array of food, culture, and nightlife is diverse and spectacular.

El Techo de Lolinda

Start at El Techo bar above Lolinda restaurant for killer city views, street food, and cocktails. Sample discounted beers, margaritas, sangria pitchers and small plates during their daily happy hours. People line up early to secure seats here, so try and get there before 5pm.

Chimichangas and Chocolate

Continuing with the evening’s Latin American theme, saunter farther up Mission Street to Gracias Madre. This totally organic, plant-based Mexican restaurant is all about deep love and reverence for food, health, and sustainability of the earth. GM’s creator, Terces Engelhart, serves up traditional dishes with a twist -- like chimichangas with tempeh chorizo and plantain French toast -- using her own corn grinder and tortilla press.

Then, turn down 18th Street and Valencia towards Dandelion Chocolate, where you can watch workers roast, grind, and temper cacao beans to create small-batch dark chocolate. Nibble your way through the factory, sign up for a multicourse chocolate tasting, or indulge in a hot chocolate and pastries from the cafe.

Markets and Music

Just off Mission Street down 18th Street is Bi-Rite Market, an 80-year-old farmer’s market that sources produce, gourmet meats and cheeses from over 50 farms throughout California. That produce is then incorporated into all manner of fresh salads, sandwiches, soups, and dips. The market is also a cafe, caterer, and ice creamery with flavors ranging from peach cobbler to honey lavender.

If you’re ready to mosh away some calories, walk two blocks to The Chapel, a former mortuary-turned-live music venue. The 1914 building was renovated in 2012, but retains its original carved doors, dark wood beams, brilliant acoustics, and vast A-frame ceiling. Rock away the last of your epic day with a range of jazz, indie, and country jams by local bands.

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