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One Day Only in San Francisco

by Lynda

Our flight from Australia arrives San Francisco at 9.30am and we have decided to have an overnight stay before our next flight. We will most probably be quite tired and our body clock will be way out (it will be morning in San Francisco but night in Australia).

We are thinking of booking a hotel near the airport that has a free shuttle service and booking a private tour guide to pick us up about miday for about 3 - 4 hours and show us the main attractions i.e Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, beaches, etc. Is 3 - 4 hours enough time for pick up and return to hotel near airport and to see the main sites?

Next question relates to tipping. As we are coming from Australia and are not used to tipping we would like to know an approx amount to tip the private guide for this tour. The companies I have been thinking of using charge about $300 for this time. A search of internet has such a wide variety of recommendations.

What extra expenses should we budget for during the tour?

Thanks so much for your help.

Jill's Response

Hi Lynda and thank you for stopping by my site.

Three to four hours will give you plenty of time for a nice "highlight" tour of San Francisco. A private tour is perfect as you can see and do what you want.

While you will miss seeing inside some of the best sites (Alcatraz, California Academy of Sciences, etc.), you will have time to get great feel for SF and some great photo opportunities.

This is how I would structure the time you have.

Suggested Itinerary

From your airport hotel, it will take you about 30 minutes to get to the bridge.

1. Golden Gate Bridge: Start on the southern end (San Francisco side) of the Golden Gate Bridge. Spend about 30 minutes looking around the outdoor museum and walking a little on the bridge itself. Your driver can drop you off at the main gift shop and then pick you up again when you are ready to leave. This will save you a little time. Due to timing, I'd skip the drive over the bridge, as that may take up quite a bit of the time you have allotted.

Cost: Free
Estimate Time on Tour: 1 Hour

2. Palace of Fine Arts: After your visit to the bridge, have your driver take you to the Palace of Fine Arts. It's the only remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Expo. It's absolutely gorgeous and a quick stop. It's all outside and free. You will drive by it anyway, so I recommend a quick peek.

Cost: Free
Estimated Time on Tour: 1.15 Hours

3. Lombard Street: Next, head over to Lombard Street. Traffic in the afternoon can be a nightmare, so ask your drive to take you to the bottom of the hill. If you are in great shape, you can walk the stairs up to the top, which is where most people start. However, if you try to get your driver to take you that way, you may end up in traffic and not get the chance to see much else. Ask the driver to drop you off at Leavenworth and Lombard (the top is at Hyde and Lombard) to save yourself a little time. Spend 30 minutes here.

Cost: Free
Estimated Time on Tour: 2 Hours (with drive time)

4. City Hall: On your way to your next stop, ask your guide to take you past City Hall. You might also be able to sneak inside for a few minutes, but the outside is gorgeous. It's in between Lombard Street and Alamo Square, but directing them this way will help you get one more attraction into your day. Spend about 15 minutes here.

Cost: Free
Estimated Time on Tour: 2.5 Hours (with drive time)

5. Alamo Square: Your next stop is at the famous Painted Ladies of Alamo Square. Ask your driver to drop you off up the hill on Hayes and Pierce. Walk down the road just a bit or head into the park for one of the best views of the Painted Ladies. Your best view is in the afternoon when the sun shines on them. From this point, you will see downtown SF behind it. Spend about 20 to 25 minutes here.

Cost: Free
Estimated Time on Tour: 3 Hours (with drive time)

6. Mission Murals: On your way back to your hotel, ask your driver/guide to take you through the Mission for a quick peek at some of its colorful murals. You will find a large concentration on 24th Street starting at Mission Street. You will also find some of the best down Balmy Street (it's more of an alley). Have your driver stay close, so you can just pop out of the car for a few shots here and there. You could spend about 30 minutes looking at the murals here. This will be a treat!

Cost: Free
Estimated Time on Tour: 3.75 Hours (with drive time)

7. Back to Hotel: It will be a whirlwind tour, but I can guarantee you will love it. When I'm in a position like you and exhausted, it always helps to keep moving. You can delete any of these if it's too much, but this itinerary will give you a great feel of SF. It will take you about 30 minutes to get back to your hotel.

I estimate the entire trip will be about 4 to 4.5 hours. Cut a few items out if you want more time at some of these places and/or you want a shorter tour.


As far as tipping, the customary tipping here in the US for guides is between 15% and 20% of the total price. If you happen to have a guide and driver, make sure to tip them separately. I don't tip each of them that amount. Instead, I figure out the total tip, give a small portion to the driver and the rest to the guide. If you only tip the guide, the driver will sometimes not receive anything.

In reality, you probably don't need a guide as much as you just need a driver. You can read up on each attraction before you arrive to get a high level idea on what you will see. Your guide may direction you on a different route and/or be compensated to take you on a route that includes a stop where he gets commission. This is fine, but it will waste your time.

If you have a driver, arrive with this itinerary (or your changes to it). Tell them you are limited on time and want to see as much as you can. They will appreciate the guidance and should, hopefully, get you to as many of these places as possible.

Places to Stay Near the Airport

I also have a list of my favorite places to stay near SFO. Click here for my top ten recommendations. Each option has an estimate price as well as an idea on their amenities. It is a good place to help you get started.

Additional Costs

As you can see, the options I gave you are all free. If you stop at any paid option, it will take more time, so I focused on the best places that are easy to see quickly.

The only additional costs that might come up include stopping for a soda or a quick snack along the way.

Please let me know if you have any questions on this or anything else about SF before your visit.

Enjoy ~ Jill

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