What do you do when you have 10 hours to kill on a layover in San Francisco? Well, you definitely don’t sit at the airport!
First, let me say that we actually ended up with about 7 hours to explore San Francisco. Neither Russ nor I had spent any time there before, just driving through on a cold, foggy, rainy day during a road trip about 5 years ago.
Getting out of SFO via public transport is actually quite easy. You can even store your carry on bags at the Airport Travel Agency, located in International Terminal G. It is just beyond the security checkpoint for gates G91 – G102. It is a bit expensive, but worth every penny to not have to drag luggage around the city. We spent $50.00 to stow two carry on bags.
We took the BART from SFO to the Powell St. Station in Union Square. Plan on about 45 minutes from the time you buy your tickets at the airport to arriving in downtown. Right outside the station is an Information office where you can pick up maps, or even book tours, if you’re so inclined. We walked the 6 – 8 blocks to Chinatown for our first exploration.
You definitely have to wander into Chinatown a number of blocks to get past the ultra touristy section. Once we made it a healthy distance, we lucked across a beautiful historic landmark, Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, located on the corner of Grant Ave. and California St. St. Mary’s was the first cathedral built in California. It survived the 1906 earthquake, but was gutted by the subsequent fires. Currently, the cathedral is in process of further renovations.
From Old St. Mary’s, we continued walking through the the Financial District on our way to the wharf area. All that exploring definitely builds up an appetite! We discovered a fantastic local place, Lightning Foods on the corner of Battery St. and Pine St., that serves up a quick bite for breakfast and lunch. Fantastic salads and wraps if you are ever in the neighborhood.
Fortified with fuel, we journeyed on to the Ferry Building on the waterfront. If you enjoy reading about local history, take the time to wander in here. In its early days, the Ferry Building was the busiest transit terminal in the United States. Today, it still serves bay commuters, but it also houses a marketplace of eateries, shops, and business offices.
After strolling through the Ferry Building and relaxing by the water for a short time to watch the ferries, we decided to take the trolley along the Embarcadero to Pier 39 and the Fisherman’s Wharf area. The trolleys run every 15 minutes and are only $2.25 to jump on–just have exact change.
Pier 39 is interesting for a brief walk through to people watch, but it really is mostly tourist trinket shops and chain restaurants. We did, however, really enjoy the sea lions and view of Alcatraz. If you plan ahead, a short trip to Alcatraz could definitely work into a long layover in San Francisco.
It was close to 6:30 when we finished at the pier, so we decided to head back toward Powell St. Station as we wanted to catch the 7:15 BART to ensure we were back at SFO in plenty of time for our 9:45 flight. And, one person in our party was hoping to catch a few minutes of shut eye before boarding the plane.
So, yes, it is possible to catch some of San Francisco’s highlights on a long layover, but that’s exactly what they are–highlights. “Fog City” really deserves a much longer timeline to really get off the beaten path, escape the tourist traps, and view the city more like a local.