You can see the sights of San Francisco in just 12 hours

Full moon over the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.
Full moon over the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Christian Heeb

IT'S a long flight from Australia to New York, with 18 hours in the air.

So when I discovered my United flight stopped in San Francisco for a couple of hours enroute to the Big Apple, I asked the airline if I could stretch the layover to 12 hours and yes, I soon had half a day up my sleeve to stretch my legs and discover the city by the bay for the first time.

So, were 12 hours enough?

I needed to be back at the airport about 9pm for my overnight flight to New York so, I jumped on the handy BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train direct from the airport terminal to downtown San Fran in 30 minutes, arriving around 1.15pm ready for a busy afternoon.

I came armed with a checklist of things I wanted to see and do during my lightning visit - ride the city's famous cable cars, cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge, set eyes on the world's most infamous prison, Alcatraz, explore Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 by the harbour front and squeeze in a workout at a local gym, preferably with a pool, so I could stretch out, limber up and freshen up before my onward flight to New York.

San Francisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf precinct.
San Francisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf precinct. Contributed

I jumped aboard one of the quaint cable cars near the Powell St BART station like an excited child.

And what fun - slower than I had anticipated but a terrific way to take in the city's quirky charms and Victorian architecture.

Passing Lombard St - the world's most crooked street, with 10 sharp turns in one block - my cable car journey ended near the waterfront where I hired a bicycle from Bay City Bikes for my next adventure - an easy but exciting ride over one of the world's most famous bridges, the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge.

I was on a tight schedule so I began my 13km cycle, which takes roughly 90 mins, from downtown, along a harbourside bike track, over the bridge and on to the pretty harbourside village of Sausolito where a ferry transfers you and your bike back to town.

Cycling over the Golden Gate was a real thrill, with the pea soup fog eventually clearing a little so I could actually see the bridge in all her glory.

The ferry ride back to San Francisco takes you close to Alcatraz, which was a maximum security prison from 1934 to 1964, housing notorious criminals like mobster Al Capone.

Back in town, I cycled along the foreshore to Pier 39, where a lazy colony of sea lions poses for the tourists every day, competing with fairground attractions that crowd the pier.

Andrew Mevissen explores San Francisco by bike.
Andrew Mevissen explores San Francisco by bike. Contributed

After my ride, I enjoyed take-away fish and chips from the nearby Fisherman's Wharf before returning my bike and catching a charming old street car to the YMCA Embarcadero, a multi-storey warehouse converted into an amazing health club boasting breathtaking views over the harbour which are suitably distracting as you strive to catch your breath while using the YMCA's gym, aerobic and yoga classes, swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna and steamroom - and all for just $15.

There's nothing like exercising with the locals to make you feel like a local.

With the fish and chips worked off and feeling suitably revived, I headed to the nearby BART station early evening and was back at San Francisco Airport around 9pm when I grabbed a mid-evening bite to eat as I waited for the overnight flight to New York at 11.15pm.

So, yes, it is possible to see a city like San Francisco in a 12-hour stopover if you are reasonably fit and able and stick to the main drawcards and pre-plan your itinerary a little so you can hit the ground running, taking time every now and then to just stop to take it all in so it's not a blur.

You save on accommodation and you gain an enormous sense of achievement at having done so much in one day - so much that I slept like a baby the minute I took my seat on the plane that night!

A business class flat bed on United Airlines.
A business class flat bed on United Airlines. Contributed

For information on San Francisco, visit the city's official site at

For direct flights to San Francisco and on to New York, visit

If you want to fly 'flat out' to the States, United's Business Class cabin offers lie-flat seat beds, a 39cm video screen for video and audio entertainment and multi-course fine-dining.

For bike rentals, visit

* The writer visited San Francisco with the assistance of San Francisco Travel and United Airlines.


>> To read more travel stories

Topics:  holidays san francisco travel usa

'F*** off dogs': Crash survivor strikes paramedic

PARMEDIC HIT: Bonnie Brodie assaulted a paramedic called to a crash scene to help her.

Car crash survivor hits paramedic, kicks cop, gets jail - suspended.

Tourism boost with 'hundreds' flocking to Gladstone's CBD

Tannum Sands treasure Maree McLelvie, Gladstone president Hether Wieland and Gladstone vice president Pat Van Bergen with artwork donater by Sue Daw which is just one of the items on auction at next weeks QCWA conference.

More than 300 people will flock to Gladstone next week.

Local Partners

'Best markets yet': Big sales at CBD markets: Photos

THE smell of fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables waft through the Gladstone CBD for the second City Farmer's Markets today.

Your chance to win

Learn More

Former Split Enz front man Tim Finn finds new niche

Singer Tim Finn has written the music for theatre production Ladies in Black.

Musician finds his way to theatre

Barry Gibb is coming to Bluesfest 2017

FANS: Barry Gibb talks to a fan next to a cardboard cutout of his young self.

Aged 70, Gibb has re-launched his solo music career with a new album

Tim Finn headlining at Airlie Beach Music Festival

Music veteran Tim Finn from New Zealand will headline the Airlie Beach Music Festival.

Tim Finn: "It's the kind of festival that artists love"

Azealia Banks won't take legal action against Russell Crowe

Rapper Azealia Banks

Rapper drops legal action against Russell Crowe

Brad Pitt meets with his kids amid divorce proceedings

Actor Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt has met up with his oldest son Maddox

Pictures of Taylor Swift allegedly being groped are sealed

They could "complicate jury selection".

Bruce Springsteen finds therapy useful

Singer Bruce Springsteen

Singer encourages others to seek help

Kerry Washington wants one more child

Kerry Washington recently gave birth to her second child

Kerry has only just become a new mum again

TRAVEL: Musicals light up Sydney

David Campbell performs in Dream Lover.

We take a trip through one of Sydney's finer scenes

Hit songwriter's Noosa mansion on market

SPECIAL PLACE: The Cintamani estate is going to tender, marketed by Tom Offermann Real Estate.

Is this Queensland's best property?

Kiwi siblings snap up Dotcom mansion for $32.5m

The new toy company owners of the Coatesville mansion want replace any controversy with positivity and fun. Photo / Barfoot and Thompson

The trio paid $32.5 million for the property in June

Push to sell homes that flooded Gladstone's market

Suburban housing in Glenvale, Toowoomba, Friday, October 17, 2014. Photo Kevin Farmer / The Chronicle

URGENT push to cash-up first home buyers investing in Gladstone.

New $200 million development will create 580 jobs

Cassie And Josh with baby Alfie and daughter Andee. They have bought at new Lennox Head development Epiq.

Majority of new positions will be given to Northern Rivers locals

Cherrabah's mega resort plans axed

PLANS for a massive development at Cherrabah have been scrapped.

What our mayor thinks of the new draft SEQPlan

The plan to use the innovative technology as part of the new Maroochydore CBD was cemented on site today when Mayor Mark Jamieson and Envac Asia Region president Chun Yong Ha formally signed the contract for the $20 million underground waste collection system.

New plan accommodates Sunshine Coast Council's vision for growth.