What to See and Photograph in San Francisco If You Only Have 2 Hours

I am seriously in love with San Francisco. It is by far the most beautiful city I have ever visited and had the privilege to photograph. Some people even say it is the most beautiful city in the world, and I am not going to argue with that.

It has so much to offer, especially if you are interested in travel photography. I have visited San Francisco on multiple occasions, but I know I have still only scratched the surface and I hope to have more opportunities in the future to explore and photograph this fabulous city.

But what would you do if you had only two hours to spend in San Francisco?
Where would you go?
Which locations would you choose to photograph?

That was the real dilemma in front of me a few years back as I was packing for my unexpected trip to San Francisco.

It was a last minute trip to the Bay area; very short (only two nights and three days), and very busy. My schedule was completely filled with events and engagements around the Palo Alto area. I knew in advance that if I was lucky I would only have two hours at most to enjoy by myself before flying back to Canada.

I had limited options; I could go to the city, but with the traffic and the time wasted searching for parking I probably would only have time to visit one or two places. Another option was to stay outside of the heavy traffic areas and try to hit as many places as possible. I chose the latter.

Here is an outline of my wild two hour run, with the places I managed to visit and photograph. Please note: not all of the photos I chose for this post were taken on that day, but they do accurately illustrate the places I visited.

I took Interstate 280 from Palo Alto and I entered San Francisco from Highway One. My first stop was Baker Beach.

1. Baker Beach

Baker Beach is a beautiful place with the most amazing views in every direction; the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sea Cliff slopes, and the Marin Headlands across the Bay. With a big, free parking area close to the water there was no time wasted.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco
California.San Francisco. Baker Beach
Loc: 37.7936, -122.4838

2. Battery Godfrey

Just a short drive (2 km) from Baker Beach is Battery Godfrey, an historic site with wide-open scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. It was extremely windy, but because of the views it was totally worth it.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Battery Godfrey
California.San Francisco. Golden Gate Bridge. Battery Godfrey
Loc: 37.80380, -122.47782
California.San Francisco. Golden Gate Bridge. Battery Godfrey
Loc: 37.80380, -122.47782

I crossed over the Golden Gate Bridge and was planning to take Conzelman Road so I could enjoy the spectacular views of the Bay from the twisted road, but I totally missed my turn and had to take the one-lane Baker-Barry Tunnel instead.

3. Hawk Hill

This is probably the most popular and busiest spot around San Francisco. Every single visitor wants to take a few photos here, plus many local photographers visit this spot in the hunt for interesting shots.

The reason I like this place, besides the view, is that every time I come here it looks completely different. Because of the frequently changing weather, what kind of photo you are going to get is pretty much unpredictable.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Hawk Hill
California.San Francisco. Hawk Hill
Loc: 37.82775, -122.49977

This spot is famous for it amazing views of the San Francisco Bay and the city, but I also love the view from the opposite side overlooking Point Bonita and the Pacific Ocean.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Hawk Hill
California.San Francisco. Hawk Hill
Loc: 37.82775, -122.49977
Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Point Bonita
California.San Francisco. Hawk Hill. Point Bonita
Loc: 37.82775, -122.49977

4. Battery Rathbone

I made a very short stop here to take a few shots of the Bay with the Marin Headlands slopes in the foreground.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Battery Rathbone
California.San Francisco. Battery Rathbone
Loc: 37.82655, -122.51901

5. Point Bonita Lighthouse

At Point Bonita, I had a good news / bad news experience. The good news was that the lighthouse was open on the day of my run (I just got lucky.) and I could walk through the tunnel that leads to the point. The bad news was that the bridge to the lighthouse was under renovation and I could not cross it, but this did not prevent me from getting some interesting shots of the area.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco
California.San Francisco. Point Bonita Lighthouse
Loc: 37.81566, -122.52937

6. Rodeo Beach

Rodeo Beach is only a short drive from Point Bonita. I could hardly find parking since the place was full of surfers. I spent a little while watching them do their magic, and then I walked along the beach to take a couple of shots of two beautiful rocks.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco
California.San Francisco. Rodeo Beach
Loc: 37.82790, -122.53488

Now it was time for me to start moving towards the airport as I was starting to run out of time.

7. Battery Spencer

I had to stop here, if only for just a few minutes, before driving back to the city across the bridge.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Battery Spencer
California.San Francisco. Battery Spencer
Loc: 37.82786, -122.48191

8. Bay Bridge

At this point I was getting dangerously late. I drove along the Embarcadero without any plans for stopping, but while passing under the Bay Bridge I saw a vacant parking spot and could not resist the urge to stop and take a couple of shots around the bridge.

Travel Photography Blog: California. San Francisco. Bay Bridge
California.San Francisco. Bay Bridge
Loc: 37.79019, -122.38848

And that was it. The most eventful two hours of my photography life was over. I barely made it to my flight and spent the entire flight home sorting and tagging the new images in Lightroom.
My mission was accomplished.

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  • Vasilis Meschinis says:

    I have to say that these are some of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen from the SF area, hands down! Thank you for sharing.

  • Terrific post. I go to San Francisco once or twice a year. You got more done in two hours than I usually do in a week. Bravo.

  • Karen Gough says:

    Great post! You have given me lots of ideas for more budget day trips. Thank you!

    • I am glad I could help. Check my other Photo Location Guide posts, you might find something useful there as well.

  • Mike Vincent says:

    Hi Viktor, I have to agree with San Francisco is simply stunning. I was there only in July and loved my time there. I was over the moon with my images. It is one city I intend to see again. You have given me some further options in terms of things to see next time. Thanks

  • Satyendra says:

    I live in San Jose, CA. I must thank you for the awesome spots you have mentioned here. I always use to wonder the spots looking at the photos of other photographers. Now I know it. I will go there to shoot some awesome photos.

  • Satyendra says:

    I live in San Jose, CA. I must thank you for the awesome spots you have mentioned here. I always use to wonder the spots looking at the photos of other photographers. Now I know it. I will go there to shoot some awesome photos. Thank you!!!!!!!!!!

  • Brian Dobyns says:

    I had a similar dilemma–I took a group of students on a college tour, and we stayed at fisherman’s wharf. Checked in at 7:00 pm and we were on the bus at 7:00 am. Walked to the Bay Bridge and back in about 2 hours and then woke up at 4:00 am to shot some pics till 6:00. All on foot. Thanks for the ideas.

  • I have to agree with San Francisco is simply stunning.Great post! You have given me lots of ideas for more budget day trips. I have to say that these are some of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen from the SF area, hands down! Thank you for sharing.

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