You haven't really seen California until you've driven her spectacular Highway One. Whether you're coming from north or south into San Francisco, taking this road into the city is an absolute delight. From the south, a brand new tunnel that bypasses Devil's Slide makes the drive quicker and safer. From the north, there's nothing like coming around that last bend and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge towering in the distance.
But most people ditch Highway One once they enter San Francisco, leaving the coast and making a beeline for the sights and sounds of downtown. If you only have a day to zoom through San Francisco, stick to the Pacific Ocean and follow our itinerary below. (This south-north itinerary can be flipped if you're headed the opposite way.)
Golden Gate Bridge, at evening — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
We're starting off on a delightful tributary of Highway One, namely, the Great Highway, which spans Ocean Beach. If you start off at Sloat and Great Highway, you can enjoy your breakfast with some old-time locals and surfers at John's Ocean Beach Cafe or Java Beach at the Zoo. Whether it's foggy or sunny (Plan on fog.), there's nothing like starting off your San Francisco day with the invigorating smell of the ocean.
Local clamming on Ocean Beach — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
If you're with kids, leave time for the San Francisco Zoo. If you feel like stretching your legs after a big breakfast and before you get in the car, all of Ocean Beach is at your feet. If you start early enough and really want to hike, include a walk along Land's End Recreation Area, which includes phenomenal views of Golden Gate Bridge and Marin.
Land's End Visitor's Center — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Continue east up Sloat Avenue to 19th Avenue, which is what Highway One becomes in San Francisco. Head north on 19th Ave., which doesn't really become interesting until you cross into Golden Gate Park. You could easily spend a full day in Golden Gate Park (Here's our full-day itinerary.), but we recommend you head east on Martin Luther King Drive (unless it's a Sunday - no cars allowed in the park on Sundays), winding your way past Stow Lake.
Parking hours are extended, so find a spot near the sign for Shakespeare Garden, which is close to the activity hub of the park: Japanese Tea Garden, California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum.
You'll also be close to the 9th and Irving neighborhood, which offers fantastic lunch options, including Social Kitchen Brewery and the always popular Park Chow.
If you're not that hungry and just want to enjoy the drive, stay on MLK Drive, take a left onto Kezar Drive and then another left onto John F. Kennedy Drive for a driving loop of Golden Gate Park, one of the biggest urban parks in the country.
De Young Museum of Golden Gate Park — Photo courtesy of Public domain
Continue north on Highway One, which is called Crossover Drive or Shoreline Drive in Golden Gate Park. If you skipped lunch and need some snacks, hang a right onto Clement Street, another San Francisco neighborhood chockfull of dining options, including Chapeau and Burma Superstar. These restaurants are also excellent choices for dinner.
If you need another spot to stretch your legs, stop off at Mountain Lake in the Presidio. The city has recently dredged and replenished the lake with native plants and species.
Your drive ends with the best exclamation mark San Francisco can offer: Golden Gate Bridge. Stop at the bridge's gift shop for shopping and an excellent history of the bridge, and then enjoy an evening walk on the bridge as the sun disappears into the Pacific.