What can you do on a layover in San Francisco? There are surprising things to do at the airport, and, for longer layovers, you can trek into San Francisco to see a sight or two. We have suggestions.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is one of the busiest in America with over 42 million passengers a year. Many arriving passengers are in SFO to catch another flight, and SFO was one of the first airports in the world to add features and enhancements to make airport layovers more interesting and enjoyable.
If you are connecting to another flight in SFO and have extra time there are interesting things to do and see in the airport. If your layover is long enough, you can even trek into San Francisco and see a sight or two. We have suggestions and details for both options.
There’s an abundance of art around the airport and some interesting places to visit. There are also lots of places shop and nearly 80 places to eat and drink. In April 2023, Food and Wine Magazine named SFO the “Best Airport for Food in America.”
In this article:
- Things to do in San Francisco International Airport (SFO): Art Exhibits, Aviation Museum, Sky Terrace, and Wag Brigade
- Places you could go in San Francisco on a long layover
- Services at SFO (wifi, bag storage, travel agency, freshen up)
- Getting to San Francisco on a BART train
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Things to do in San Francisco Airport
Each of SFO’s four terminals have places to eat, drink, and shop, but SFO also has:
- an accredited museum with artwork in several locations
- an Aviation Museum and Library
- a 4th floor observation deck called Sky Terrace
- one or more Kids Spots in terminals 1, 2, and 3
- a Wag Brigade
SFO is more than an airport; it’s also an accredited museum. The SFO Airport Commission includes a division called SFO Museum, which collaborates with San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums and has about 25 sites scattered around the airport.
Some of the art sites are outside the security perimeter and are open to anyone visiting the airport. Others are inside the secure areas. Some of the exhibits are permanent and some periodically rotate. Check out the museum’s list of current exhibitions and download their terminal map, which shows each exhibit’s location.
Aviation Museum and Library
The Aviation Museum has several model airplanes, a couple of old engines, propellers, items for meal and beverage service, uniforms, posters, and memorabilia. The second floor has a huge library dedicated to aviation and is available by appointment. The museum is free and open to anyone.
There are two large model airplanes suspended from the ceiling. The Southern Cross is a model of the plane Sir Charles Kingsford Smith flew in 1928 on what became the Southern Cross Route. It’s the route taken by passenger flights between Australasia and Europe via the western hemisphere. (Source)
The Aviation Museum and Library is located on the departure level (level 3) in the International Terminal main hall. It’s behind an escalator on the left side of the security checkpoint entrance for Boarding Area A. The museum is free and it’s open daily (except holidays) from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM.
Sky Terrace is an observation deck with nice seating and a 180° view of the airfield. It’s free and open to anyone, and it’s outside the security perimeter, so you don’t go through security or need a boarding pass. The attendant will look into any bags you bring in and may ask for an ID.
The entry area has an interesting exhibit with lots of photos and descriptive signage telling the history and evolution of San Francisco Airport.
The Terrace is located on the 4th floor in Terminal 2 (Near the D Gates). In Terminal 2, just follow the arrows on the overhead signs. The arrows for Sky Terrace direct you to an elevator; take it to Level 4. The Terrace is open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Terminals 1, 2, 3 each have one or more Kids Spots featuring artworks and interactive displays for children. All of the Kids Spots are post-security. Check the SFO Kids Spot page for locations and brief descriptions.
The Wag Brigade
Anyone reading this article has likely traveled enough to know it can be stressful. There are lots of places where problems can crop up: check-in, baggage, security, on-time planes, and making connections. SFO has a very creative way to help relieve some of the stress; it has a Wag Brigade.
The Wag Brigade is a collaboration between the airport and San Francisco SPCA. Handlers take specially trained animals around the airport terminals. People are delighted to see them and it certainly lightens the mood. There are several dogs, a rabbit named Alex, a pig named Lilou, and a cat named Duke. (Source)
Things of do in San Francisco on a Long Layover at SFO
If you have a long enough layover at SFO, consider venturing into San Francisco. How long is long enough? Personally, I would want at least 5-hours because my quest for adventure does not include missing my flight.
Here’s a list of things that you might like to see/do that are located near six of San Francisco’s BART Stations, which makes them fairly easy to get to and from:
Embarcadero BART Station
The Embarcadero Station is on Market Street just a couple of blocks from the Ferry Building and San Francisco Bay waterfront. The historic Ferry Building is a marketplace with restaurants, lots of artisan food shops, and a variety of local shops. I love walking through the Ferry Building: it smells like coffee, chocolate, and fresh baked pastries. Get something to eat and drink and/or take a stroll along the waterfront. Of course, while you are there, taking a San Francisco ferry ride is always a good idea.
Montgomery BART Station
The Montgomery Station is on Market Street near Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the Museum of the African Diaspora. They are all in the vicinity of Third and Mission Streets on the east side of Montgomery Station.
Montgomery Station is a short walk to the SalesForce Transit Center, which has an amazing 5.4-acre park on its roof. Montgomery Station is also next to the historic Palace Hotel where breakfast and lunch are served in the gorgeous 110-year-old glass domed Garden Court.
Powell Street BART Station
The Powell Station is on Market Street at the Powell Street cable car turnaround. Union Square, shopping, and my favorite Irish Pub, Johnny Foley’s Irish House are a couple of blocks west of Powell Station.
Civic Center BART Station
The Civic Center Station is on Market Street near to the Asian Art Museum and San Francisco’s impressive City Hall.
16th Street BART Station:
The 16th Street Station is located in the Mission District, this station is a short walk from Mission San Francisco de Asís (also called Mission Delores). The Mission was built in 1776 and is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.
24th Street BART Station
The 24th Street Station is also located in the Mission District, this area has restaurants (especially Mexican) and a huge variety of street art. My favorite murals are on the Women’s Building on 18th Street and in Balmy Alley. My favorite Mexican food in the area is at San Jalisco Restaurant on 20th Street.
Getting from San Francisco Airport to Downtown
It’s only 13-miles (21 km), so a car could get you there in 15-20 minutes — unless the freeway turns into a parking lot. By train it’s 30-minutes plus time to get to the station and wait for a train. Once you return to the airport, there’s the little detail about getting to your terminal and through security and to the gate, so make sure you have time.
If you have time, you can take a taxi or service like Lyft or Uber or you can take the BART Train. BART is my favorite way for three reasons:
- Convenient: The SFO BART Station is connected to the International Terminal. It’s a very short walk between the station and International Terminal G, and it’s a quick and easy AirTrain ride to/from all of the other terminals.
- Fast: BART runs on a dedicated track and doesn’t have to deal with heavy freeway traffic. The trains take 30-minutes from SFO to downtown San Francisco and they run frequently (about every 15 minutes).
- Cheap: The fare (round trip) is $20. Okay, it’s cheap for one person, but maybe not for a family. Kids 4 and under ride free.
How to Take BART to San Francisco
Getting to the SFO BART Station: the station entrance is in International Terminal G. If you’re in the International Terminal, it’s an easy walk. If you’re in terminals 1, 2, or 3, walk or take the AirTrain to Terminal G. Look for the signs to AirTrain and/or BART.
How to pay the fare: get either the Clipper App or a Clipper Card:
- Clipper App: Download the app to your smartphone and follow the instructions. You’ll need to connect the app to Apple Pay or Google Pay
- Clipper Card: Purchase the Clipper card from a machine in the BART Station. The plastic card is $3; add money to the card either with a credit/debit card or insert cash.
Tip: When taking BART from the city back to SFO, the Yellow Line is best. It goes directly to SFO. The Red Line also goes to SFO but it loops through Millbrae, which adds 5-10 minutes to the trip.
For more information about using public transit in San Francisco (like fares, ways to pay, and transit apps), visit our related post: Sightseeing San Francisco using public transit.
Services at SFO
- Free no-limit WiFi
- Places to plugin and charge your devices
- Baggage storage, business services, and freshen up facilities are available at the Airport Travel Agency (located in International Terminal G near boarding Area A)
If you have a relatively short layover at San Francisco International Airport, say less than 5 hours, there’s enough to do to keep you occupied. There’s an abundance of places to eat, drink, and shop, and you can spend time in the Aviation Museum and the Sky Terrace. You can also checkout some of the art exhibits, and while wandering around the airport, you might even encounter the Wag Brigade.
If you have a relatively long layover, say 5 hours or more, you could take a quick trip into San Francisco and visit one of the museums or parks, or shop or have a special meal. Just be sure you head back to the airport a couple of hours before your flight. If you have a really long layover, here are more things to see and do in San Francisco:
- Popular Must-see Attractions in San Francisco
- 15 Best Museums in San Francisco
- Best Parks and Gardens in San Francisco
- Unique San Francisco Neighborhoods to Visit
About the Author
Ginny Vail is a travel writer who loves travel planning, sightseeing, photography, and videography. She’s visited all 50 states and traveled around the world. Her articles focus on discovering places to go, sights to see, and details about when and how visit them.