First off, if this is the first time you've been to the city of a thousand views, I'm sad. I hope you'll come back for more then just a layover — then again I have a bit of swayed opinion on the city I call home.
Typically the waiting destination of many international flights, or perhaps you're headed for a red-eye, SFO is a frequented airport for passengers. So many people come through the city for a couple of hours, get swept into the tourist traps of the Wharf and Union Square and miss out on some cool neighborhoods.
So how to spend a layover in San Francisco like a local?
Some of the logistics to get to and from SFO (your best options):
1. Uber or Lift for about $35-50 (most time efficient during non-rush hours)
2. Take the BART for less than $10 one way
Depending on what your interests are, you can play your layover in a few ways. I personally would start with where can you get to from SFO in the least amount of time. The Mission District, Hayes Valley, and the Embarcadero are your closest neighborhoods with an array of choices in food and shopping. In an 8 hour layover, you could easily come spend 4 hours in the city and feel like you saw the city.
I'll break it down by these three neighborhoods and what I'd personally see & do.
The Mission — the destination for those in love with craft & food.
Food: Many options for food as this is the mecca of craft fare and well done coffee shops. For coffee lovers try Four Barrel, Ritual Coffee, or Sightglass 20th street. For lunch, dive into Tacolicious, Pizzeria Delfina, or Papalote. For a light snack: Tartine Bakery, Craftsmen & Wolves, or delicious ice cream at Bi-Rite. Dinner should be booked in advance, if you can get a table, Central Kitchen has a great menu, as does Range, or Delfina.
Shop: Stop into the bizarre yet incredible store of Paxton Gate, pick up trendy clothes at The Voyager, and peruse curated goods at Little Paper Planes.
See: Play a round of mini golf at Urban Putt, hang with the locals at Dolores Park, or catch some music at Public Works.
Hayes Valley — the destination for those in love with a refined experience.
Food: Of course there's no shortage here either. For coffee, check out Rituals' warehouse, the Blue Bottle pop up stand, or the newly opened Artis. Lunch spots would definitely have Souvla Greek at the top of the spot with Chez Maman, and the quirky Straw not far behind. Snacks can be easily found in Miette for those with a sweet tooth or at 20th Century Cafe for yummy Eastern-Europe inspired bites. Dinner is of course another reservation situation, I'd go for Zuni at the top of the list, Monsieur Benjamin, or Absinthe.
Shop: Rand + Statler will have all of your designer clothing in a space to love, you can't miss the stacked shipping containment store that is Aether, and be sure to stroll the multiple shops on Hayes between Laguna and Octavia.
See: You could take a walk to see the incredible Civic Center, or hang out in the central park of Hayes Valley, or take a quick drive over to Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill.
Embarcadero: the destination with unwavering views, the iconic sites, and more.
Food: Really look no further than the Ferry Building. For coffee, blue bottle will be your spot inside, just be mindful lines could be a bit long. Lunch can be enjoyed at the classics like Hog Island Oysters, Gott's Roadside, or a local favorite of the Plant. Snacks, you will have plenty of choices, just have a walk through the building. Dinner is a reservation situation, my first choice would be Slanted Door, followed by Coqueta, and Boulevard.
Shop: The Ferry Building is your spot again, though if you are looking for shops, a quick metro ride to Union Square will get you to the center of all of the shopping in San Francisco.
See: The great thing about the Embarcadero is that you are close to some of the popular sites. The Giants Stadium is a short walk, the walk on the water itself is stunning, and the popular visited Coit Tower is right there (taxi may be best). You can do a lot from the water and serves as a great starting point to the other places you may want to go and visit.
Be sure to plan ahead before leaving, taking the reservations for restaurants you're interested in and be mindful of rush hour in case you have a time crunch.
Travel well, travel often. Xx