I love a fun, cheap, long layover. It’s like a little mini vacation within your vacation. Actually, to be completely honest I love the efficiency of a direct flight. But if there isn’t a direct flight or I save a significant amount of money by having a long layover, I can easily embrace the thought of spending a day in a random city.

With it’s reputation of nightmarish traffic and sky-high prices, you wouldn’t think that a long layover in San Francisco would be a good idea. However, San Francisco is a fairly compact city which means it’s easy to see a fair bit of the city in a short amount of time. For the cost of a few over priced airport magazines and a salty plate of food court fries you can check out museums, eat fresh, flavorful food and be charmed by the colorful neighborhoods of San Francisco.

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A narrow alleyway in Chinatown in San Francisco, CA.
Ross Alley in Chinatown

A 30-40 minute BART ride from San Francisco International Airport takes you right into the heart of the city and a new company, Nannybag is singlehandedly solving the “what to do with my luggage?” question that in the past has put a damper on long layover adventures.

In a nutshell Nannybag is a luggage storage service. Using their website, you can reserve a spot for your bags at one of their locations, typically partner stores, hotels, and other businesses. When you log into the Nannybag website you enter your desired city/date/time that you need luggage storage and the website will show you available locations. The best part? It’s only $6 for 24 hours, which is way cheaper than the massage you would need if you lugged your suitcase around all day with you.

Two boys looking out the window of a cable car in San Francisco, CA.
Ditch the tourist buses and see the city by cable car on your long layover in San Francisco

A Day in San Francisco

1.Arrive at the Powell Street Bart Station. Drop your luggage at a Nannybag location

2. Take the Powell Street Cable Car. The line for the cable car is just a few steps away from where you will exit the BART station. Buy a ticket on the cable car or at the nearby kiosk. If the line for the cable car is long consider walking up Powell Street for a few blocks. Usually they leave space on the cable cars to pick up passengers at other stops and the lines at the other stops are typically much shorter.

3.Get off the cable car at Powell Street and Jackson Street

3.Make your way to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. This is a short stop but it’s on a pretty little alleyway in the heart of Chinatown. Entrance is free and you’ll get to see how fortune cookies are made. The shop also sells different flavors of cookies as well as ones with raunchy fortunes inside. Cost: Free. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. 56 Ross Alley, San Francisco.

4.Cable Car Museum: It’s a few blocks from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Find out how the cable car system works and learn a little bit about the history of San Francisco. Cost: Free. Cable Car Museum. 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco.

5.Wander Fillmore Street: cute boutiques and eateries a plenty on Fillmore Street. The section of Fillmore Street between Jackson Street and Geary Blvd is the most quaint.

5.Alamo Square: Get that classic SF pic of the “painted ladies” at Alamo Square. Wondering who the painted ladies are? They are the row of pastel victorian houses that were made famous by the early 90’s sitcom “Full House.” Alamo Square is the perfect place to have a picnic or a cup of coffee. Grab some food to-go from the nearby restaurants in the lower Haight Street neighborhood (get off the #22 Muni at Fillmore and Haight streets). We picked up poke bowls from Walking Fish and walked the few blocks up Fillmore to Alamo Square and stretched out on the grass with our grub. Walking Fish. 254 Fillmore Street, San Francisco.

6.Make your way back to the Union Square area to pick up your bags. (there are a lot of ways to get back to downtown including the Muni bus #22 to the Muni bus #38.

7.Or if you still have more time and want to keep wandering the city, consider exploring Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is an urban oasis of walking paths, grassy lawns, playgrounds, museums, gardens and more. You can easily spend an entire day in the park but it’s also a nice place to get a break from the hustle of the city. If you’re traveling with kids, definitely plan on spending some time at Koret Playground. The cement slides and the $2 carousel will give young urban adventurers a welcomed opportunity to be kids.

To get to Golden Gate Park from Alamo Square it’s a 10 minute bus ride on the #21 (the bus stop is right next to the park at the corner of Steiner and Hayes).

A boy getting ready to roll down a grassy hill in Alamo Square in San Francisco, CA.
Stretch out in Alamo Square

Cost Breakdown of a Long Layover in San Francisco

  1. Bart ride to downtown San Francisco from SFO $9.65
  2. Storing your luggage with Nannybag $6
  3. Cable Car ride $7
  4. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory $0
  5. Cable Car Museum $0
  6. Muni ticket to Alamo Square $3
  7. Lunch at Walking Fish $13
  8. Bart ride back to SFO $9.65

Total Cost for a day in SF: $38.65

A Quick Day in San Francisco

If you’re short on time and just have a few hours in San Francisco you’ll probably want to skip the jaunt over to Alamo Square and Golden Gate Park. Some other fun activity combos that require only a few hours of time are:

Cable Car+Chinatown +North Beach: Take the Powell Street Cable Car up the hill. Exit around Jackson Street. Wander through Chinatown into North Beach. North Beach is the “little Italy” of San Francisco and a great spot to grab a bite to eat, a cappuccino, or a scoop of gelato. Pop into City Lights Book Shop and pick up a book for your flight before either walking back to the Union Square area or taking a quick bus ride back.

San Francisco Ferry Building+ Waterfront: Foodies will love treating their tastebuds to an afternoon at the Ferry Building. Sample artisan chocolate and local cheeses, or oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co. After you’ve had your fill wander along the waterfront taking in views of the San Francisco Bay. The crisp, salty air and gourmet food combo to a welcome elixir to jet lag for weary travelers…

Using Public Transit

Public transit in San Francisco is a great option if you’re exploring San Francisco on a budget, or if you have a long layover in San Francisco and don’t want to hassle with renting a car for a day. The good news: you can get to most parts of the city with public transit. The bad news: you’ll need to be patient. Public transit can be painfully slow in San Francisco. The Muni buses are often crowded, and sometimes it can feel quicker to walk to your destination than to creep along on a packed bus during commute hours.

An adult Muni ticket costs $3, however it’s good for two hours so you can take as many rides as you’d like in the two hour window. If you have a fairly set itinerary for the day you might want to consider a “Cliiper Card.” The Clippper Card is a plastic card that resembles a credit card. It works on the various forms of public transit in San Francisco, including the cable car. You load it with money and then whenever you’re using public transit you swipe your card. This saves you the hassle of trying to count out your money while trying to board a crowded bus, but it also relies on you knowing how much you’re going to spend on transportation for the day in order to load the correct amount and not be left with unspent transit funds.

*Want to see more iconic San Francisco spots on your day in the city?Check out my article on exploring San Francisco using public transit for more inspiration.

Grace Cathedral is a few blocks up from Union Square and a world away from the noise of downtown. People hanging out in the park in from of the cathedral.
Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill
A cable car heading up a rolling hill in San Francisco, CA. Taking a cable car ride is a great way to see the city on a long layover in San Francisco
Riding a cable car is a classic San Francisco experience
Two boys opening fortune cookies from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Sample fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
A boys standing outside the cable car museum in San Francisco CA
Learn about the inner workings of San Francisco’s cable car system at the Cable Car Museum
A boy sliding down a slide made of cement at Koret Playground in Golden Gate Park
Don’t forget to use cardboard when you’re sliding down the cement slides at Koret Playground!

Things to Know Before You Go

  • Bring a jacket with you. The weather in San Francisco can be deceptively chilly.
  • The jacket is extra important in the summer. May and June can be especially foggy. Summer in San Francisco is very different from summer in Los Angeles.
  • Refer to San Francisco as “Frisco” and locals will immediately know that you’re a tourist.
  • Comfy shoes are a must. You can’t avoid hills in San Francisco and your feet will be much happier in good walking shoes.

A colorful poke bowl from walking fish in san francisco CA. Walking Fish is a healthy option for an affordable meal on a long layover in san francisco
Nourish your body with a poke bowl from Walking Fish

Bottom Line: Whether you’re short on time or short on funds, a long layover in San Francisco is fun, easy, and affordable!

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