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If you have a weekend to see the best of San Francisco in two days, start out with its most iconic structure: the Golden Gate Bridge. Take a refreshingly crisp stroll along the massive reddish-orange bridge for a spectacular view of the city, the ocean and the rolling green hills of Marin County on the other side of the bay. Keep walking and head over to the Palace of Fine Arts for a breather under the Roman-style rotunda and to snap a photo or two of the gorgeous grounds.
When you start getting restless, let out your inner child inside the Exploratorium science museum next door. There you can check out hundreds of science, art and human-perception exhibits. One of our favorites is See Yourself Sweat, which magnifies a patch of your skin as you think about ideas or images.
If you’re looking for the true tourist experience, hit the shops and sights of Fisherman’s Wharf, which stretches from Ghirardelli Square to jam-packed Pier 39. Fisherman’s Wharf is touristy, but you’ll join the crowds at Pier 39 and melt when you see the barking sea lions (more than 900 in the winter) hanging around the floating docks.
Make a reservation for the scenic ferry ride out to Alcatraz, where you’ll get a fascinating look inside the notorious escape-proof island penitentiary, whose cells housed big-time criminals like Al Capone. End your day at the nationally acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant The Slanted Door. You’ll devour the deliciously tender “shaking” beef and greaseless fried imperial rolls stuffed with Gulf shrimp, pork shoulder and roasted peanuts. But even better than the fresh eats is the waterfront restaurant’s amazing view of the bay.
For your second day, fortify yourself with some fresh organic eats at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays). Make like a local and pick up some artisanal bread and cheese and then grab a bench along the waterfront for a lovely view while you eat your breakfast.
Afterward, get a second dose of culture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA offers a great collection of modern work from artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
When you’ve gotten your fill of museums, it’s time to shop. Forge ahead into downtown’s crowded shopping mecca, Union Square. You’ll need your credit cards to hit high-end boutiques like Gucci, Chanel, Prada and one of the country’s only Goyard stores.
After your shopping spree, hop on a cable car and ride up toward North Beach for an authentic Italian dinner. Finish absorbing the day over a cocktail at the venerable Tosca Cafe or at the Clift Hotel’s glamorous Redwood Room.