Timeless yet ever-changing, San Francisco captivates the senses and invites repeated exploration. Home to the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, world-class museums and one of the best food scenes in the country, the City by the Bay offers endless possibilities for travelers.
Here is our version of how to spend two days in Northern California’s most famous coastal metropolis.
Thanks to its relatively small footprint — the city is roughly seven by seven square miles — San Francisco is fairly easy to get around. Still, with just two days on the ground, you’ll want to stay somewhere that’s accessible and close to everything. Enter Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. Right along the California Street cable car route, the Nob Hill retreat makes for a lovely home base just a few blocks away from top-notch shopping in Union Square, bustling Chinatown and waterfront attractions at the Embarcadero.
Book a Club Level room, preferably one facing the bay and Coit Tower. If you can’t snag that unit with a view, no worries. Each accommodation is thoughtfully furnished with the comforts required from a pied-à-terre: fluffy white robes, an ultra-comfortable bed kitted out in Frette linens, a marble bathroom, a chaise lounge by the window, all the USB plugs you’ll need and luxury toiletries by British brand Asprey.
Once you’ve settled in, pop into the Club Lounge to scope out the gratis snacks and drinks. Allow yourself a few moments to unwind, perhaps indulging in a glass of bubbly from JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset Collection before heading out. If it’s a Saturday, the concierge will remind you to come back between 6 and 7 p.m. for the lounge’s weekend caviar tasting, a nice perk available only to Club Level guests.
Though The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco offers a complimentary car service that will take you anywhere within a mile of the property, there’s no better way to get the lay of the land than on foot. Exercise those quads by trekking three blocks uphill on California Street to Grace Cathedral or, if the timing is right, get into the San Francisco spirit by hopping onto a cable car at the convenient stop just across the street from your hotel.
Originally built in the mid-19th century, Grace Cathedral was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, then took years to rebuild before completion and consecration in 1964. Inside, there are beautiful murals and stained-glass windows, but you’re really here to see two things: the set of gilded bronze doors called Gates of Paradise, which are a replica of a 15th-century installation at the Florence Baptistry by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti, and the cathedral’s two labyrinths, modeled after the Chartres Cathedral in France. Spend some time admiring the religious scenes depicted on the doors, then allow yourself a few moments of meditation as you walk through the elaborate pattern.
Spiritually revived, hop back on the cable car for a downhill ride to the Drumm Street stop at the Embarcadero. Disembark in front of the Ferry Building, home to one of the country’s most famous food halls, and the site of a popular regional farmers market Saturday mornings. Take a leisurely walk through the halls, grazing on samples along the way. Build a picnic lunch with a loaf from Acme Bread Company and cheese from Cowgirl Creamery to be enjoyed on a bench outside in full view of the Bay Bridge. End on a sweet note with artisanal ice cream from Humphry Slocombe.
Next, head to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a dose of culture. In addition to the permanent galleries on the second floor — where you’ll find paintings such as Henri Matisse’s Femme au chapeau or Frida Kahlo’s Frieda and Diego Rivera — the museum is fodder for some great Instagram moments. Check out the verdant living wall on the third-floor terrace, the symmetry of the oculus bridge on the fifth floor and colorful works of pop art from the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Before leaving, grab a seat at the counter at onsite restaurant In Situ. The menu re-creates signature dishes from renowned chefs around the world. Be sure to order the Jasper Hill Farm cheesecake from Albert Adrià of Barcelona’s beloved Tickets — it’s a revelation.
With the afternoon munchies out of the way, retail therapy is in order. As luck would have it, Union Square is just a 10-minute walk away from the museum. Pick your poison, be it a department store such as Saks Fifth Avenue or a designer boutique like Louis Vuitton, before heading back to the hotel to drop off your purchases and prep for the evening.
After a full day out and about, you’ve probably worked up an appetite. San Francisco’s most coveted tables — Atelier Crenn, Benu and Four-Star Quince, for instance — generally will require a reservation ahead of time. Ask the concierge to pull some strings, if that’s what you’re after.
For a meal that’s hearty and soulful, SPQR — acclaimed chef Matt Accarrino’s temple to Italian food — is all kinds of wonderful. Start with antipasti like octopus with kale sprouts and preserved lemon or heirloom tomatoes with whipped mozzarella. Any of the seasonal pastas are fabulous, and all go down smoothly with a glass of chianti.
With the night still young, you might want to unwind at a swanky jazz lounge like Black Cat while sipping a martini or sidecar. Or embrace your love of tiki with a trip to the legendary Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar on the basement floor of Fairmont San Francisco. Imbibe on tropical creations like the rum-based 1934 Zombie as Hawaiian-shirt-clad musicians serenade you from a floating dais.
A DJ will close out the night, after which you can easily make your way back to your hotel, just two blocks away.
Take advantage of San Francisco’s typically foggy mornings and sleep in a little. Order coffee service and a newspaper with your wakeup call, then sit down to a full breakfast in the Club Lounge after the caffeine kicks in.
Next, get yourself to bike rental shop Blazing Saddles in Fisherman’s Wharf, because you’re going to ride the Golden Gate Bridge. Splurge on the electric variety, which will not only help you climb steep hills, but will have you speeding past the leisure bikers like a pro.
The great thing about seeing San Francisco on two wheels is that you can cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time. To wit: on your way to the bridge, you’ll pass by Ghirardelli Square, Presidio park, the Marina District and more.
Pause at Warming Hut Park Store & Cafe (at the base of Fort Mason, just on the edge of Crissy Field) for a photo op beneath the structure’s iconic red cables. The midpoint of the bridge, from which you can see the entire San Francisco skyline across the bay, should also be a compulsory stop.
Once you’ve made it across, rather than descend into Sausalito to take the return ferry, head back along the same route that you came. The entire trip takes about 1.5 to two hours, and it’s exhilarating.
After returning the bike, pull up to the bar at The Buena Vista café for its famous Irish coffee. An institution since 1916, the historic spot is staffed by bartenders sporting white jackets and bow ties who put on a mini-show as they make the whipped-cream-topped boozy beverage.
Return to your room to freshen up before spending the afternoon discovering the sights and sounds of San Francisco’s Chinatown — its iconic Dragon’s Gate entrance is an easy, two-block stroll from the hotel. From there, explore the area on foot, making sure to walk through Portsmouth Square to watch locals play mah-jongg in the park on your way to City View Restaurant for some of the best push-cart dim sum in the city. Shu mai (pork and mushroom) and har gow (shrimp) steamed dumplings, glazed barbecue pork bao and walnut shrimp are just some of the highlights.
Cap off your trip with a visit to Pier 39, where you can ride its famous vintage carousel and glimpse at some sea lions before boarding a luxury catamaran cruise across the bay. The yacht is much smaller and faster than a ferry, and before you know it, the wind will be whipping through your hair as your vessel speeds its way toward the Golden Gate Bridge, looping around Alcatraz on the return.
Back at your hotel, you’ll have time to change before your last outing, which is conveniently within The Ritz-Carlton itself. First, go into opulent The JCB Tasting Lounge for an aperitif. Then, treat yourself to a tasting menu prepared by chef Michael Rotondo and his team at Parallel 37. The Four-Star restaurant’s hyper-local approach to cuisine will reveal itself in imaginative preparations that combine in-season produce with fresh seafood and pasture-raised meats — the very definition of farm-to-table Northern Californian cuisine.