WHAT TO DO
San Francisco has got to be the most beautiful city in America. With its natural landscapes and iconic structures, the City by the Bay must be on every travelers list. It has so much to offer, from world class museums to some of the best restaurants anywhere - this town has its own unique culture and inhabitants. There are several great neighborhoods to explore, all with different personalities, so hop on a cable car (or hire an Uber ride) and begin your journey.
Union Square is a good starting point for your adventure. This lively urban plaza was named for a series of pro Union rallies staged here on the eve of the Civil War. At its center is the 90 foot Victory tower, dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 after the Spanish American War. Today, the square is the ceremonial heart of the city, serving as the site of many public events, art shows, protests and more. Union Square has also come to describe not just the plaza itself, but the general shopping, dining, and theater districts within the surrounding blocks. Head to the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets and climb aboard the Powell-Hyde line (single ride costs $7). The first of these open air vehicles started running in 1873. Note: the cable cars are not to be confused with San Francisco's heritage streetcars, which operate on Market Street and the Embarcadero.
The cable car drops you by one of the city's most visited attractions, Fisherman's Wharf. Loaded with history and lots to do, highlights include the Musee Mecanique (penny arcade), Boudin Bakery (sourdough delights), Ghirardelli Square (chocolate paradise), Alioto's (dungeness crab) and of course Pier 39 (sea lions). The sea lions took over this coveted waterfront real estate in 1989 and these barking squatters have been making a public display ever since. It's a fun spot to take a break and enjoy watching San Francisco's favorite mascots playfully shoving one another off the docks. Next, stroll along the Embarcadero until you reach the fantastic Ferry Building. This historic, renovated ferry terminal at the foot of Market Street is now a world class food market with more than 40 shops and restaurants featuring some of the area's most prized artisanal treats. Be sure to visit Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop, Blue Bottle Coffee, Dandelion Chocolate, Miette Patisserie, Recchiuti Confections and El Porteno Empanadas. The Ferry Building has several great restaurants that I will discuss later. The Ferry Plaza hosts one of the nation's best and biggest farmers markets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings - featuring colorful displays of local produce, meat, cheese, flowers, food trucks and more.
A trip to San Francisco would not be complete without a visit to 2 of its most famous landmarks, Alcatraz and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Over the decades, Alcatraz Island has been a military prison, a disputed territory between Native American activists and the Federal Government and most notably, as a forbidding maximum security penitentiary. In 1775, Spanish lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed past the 22 acre island he called Isla de Alcatraces or Island of the Pelicans. Today, Alcatraz Cruises is the official concessioner to the National Park Service, offering tickets and transportation (departs from pier 33) to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Note: buy your tickets online well in advance. The boat ride to the island is about 15 minutes and provides beautiful views of the city, nearby Marin County and the East Bay. "The Rock" housed some of the nation's most notorious criminals from 1934-1963, including: Al "Scarface" Capone, Robert "The Birdman" Stroud and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. The 45 minute self guided cellhouse audio tour features the voices of former prison guards and inmates who recount escape attempts, prison riots and solitary confinement. The recommended night tours include a narrated boat ride around the island. Allow yourself at least 3 hours for the visit and boat rides combined. The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco's signature landmark. Completed in 1937 after four years of construction, the 1.7 mile span and its 750 foot towers connect San Francisco with Marin County. The suspension bridge has long wowed sightseers and photographers with its simple but powerful art deco design and trademark international orange color. Enjoy some of the best views from below the bridge at Fort Point and the north end lookout at Marin's Vista Point. A great way to experience both sides of the bridge and take in the city skyline vista (with or without fog) is to walk or bike across on the pedestrian walkway.
From the bridge, you can head north into Marin County and visit the charming village of Sausalito or the impressive redwood trees at Muir Woods. Back in San Francisco, chill out at Golden Gate Park. Bigger than New York's Central Park with over 1000 acres and encompassing over 75000 trees, this urban oasis is home to countless attractions. Everything locals hold dear is here: free spirits, free music, frisbee, yogis, fine art, protests and bonsai - as well as the space to just relax and be surrounded by nature. The park includes the de Young Museum, (more on this later) California Academy of Sciences, Botanical Garden and Japanese Tea Garden. After the park, head to the grooviest neighborhood in town man, The Haight. This is where the city's soul resides and residents wear their personalities large and proud. Stroll along Haight Street to where it meets Ashbury Street and feel the cool vibes of the hippie counterculture. Check out the quirky shops and walk past some of the finest Victorian lined streets in the city. One house in particular is worth a visit to at 710 Ashbury Street. The Grateful Dead house served as the communal home of the legendary San Francisco band during the late 1960s.
Located on Telegraph Hill is the 210 foot Coit Tower. Completed in 1933, the fluted column provides commanding views of the city from an observation deck near the top. Inside the tower, murals dating from 1934 depict California's economic and political life. At the time the murals were painted, clashes between management and labor in San Francisco were widespread. Lombard Street is known for the one way block on Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, where eight sharp turns are said to make it the most crooked street in the world and a must drive for visitors. The quarter mile downhill stretch is lined with gorgeous homes and gardens and the sign at the top recommends a speed of 5 miles per hour. Next, head to Alamo Square Park for some photos of the Painted Ladies. This row of seven perfectly pastel, ornate Victorian homes from the 1890s lines the eastern side of the park. This stretch of homes is also called Postcard Row. Another popular spot for photos is the Palace of Fine Arts, located in the Marina District. Originally designed for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, this domed rotunda is all that remains from eight identical structures built to show the world that San Francisco had risen from the ashes after the devastating 1906 earthquake. It features a lagoon with swans and is a nice place for a tranquil stroll.
San Francisco has many superb museums and my 3 favorites are the Legion of Honor, de Young Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The Legion of Honor is located high on the headlands in Lincoln Park. This grand museum was a gift to the city of San Francisco from Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. A marble clad replica of Paris' Legion d'Honneur, the Legion is a monumental tribute to commemorate California soldiers killed in France in the first World War. The collection includes works by European masters, from Monet to Rembrandt and major holdings of Rodin sculptures. The grounds offer spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Founded in 1895 and located within Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is an architectural masterpiece designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. It showcases collections from the Americas and Pacific Islands and features a tower observation deck that provides excellent views of the city. Note: both the Legion of Honor and de Young Museum are closed on Monday. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is located in the SoMa District (South of Market Street) and it is rad. Originally designed by Mario Botta and recently reopened and expanded with the new white Snohetta designed building behind it, SFMOMA is the largest modern art space in the nation. It houses over 33000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts. There are entire floors of abstract American art, contemporary art and pop art. Highlights include: Frieda and Diego Rivera by Frida Kahlo, A Set of Six Self Portraits by Andy Warhol and Guardians of the Secret by Jackson Pollock. SFMOMA is closed on Wednesday.
There are a few city tours that are worth doing. First, the City Sightseeing Tour is a great way to see more of the city without exhausting yourself. The tours on these open top, double decker buses feature live guides and tickets are valid for 48 hours so you can hop on and off at your leisure. Mission Mural Walks explores more than 50 magnificent murals (Balmy Alley) and the stories behind them in an eight block walk through the Mission District. The All About Chinatown Tour lasts 2 hours and includes a look into architectural history, an herbal pharmacy and a fortune cookie factory. It's a cultural, historical and culinary (dim sum and tea tasting optional) walking tour of the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. Note: be sure to visit nearby City Lights bookstore at 261 Columbus Avenue - the bookshop that brought us the Beats (Beat Generation).
WHERE TO EAT
San Francisco has some of the best restaurants in the country - one for every mood, palate and occasion. No matter what cuisine you're craving, this town has got it all. There are also several great places to drink and see some live music. With so many options to choose from in this diverse city, I would like to share a few of my go to spots. The Ferry Building has 2 popular eateries, Hog Island Oyster Company and The Slanted Door. Hog Island is a lively spot on the waterfront and is famous for its happy hour, clam chowder, po boy sandwich and of course those delicious oysters. Slanted Door serves modern interpretations of Vietnamese cuisine and it won the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award a few years back. Chef Charles Phan does some tasty dishes including the crispy imperial rolls and the delectable grass fed estancia shaking beef. Located at 490 Pacific Avenue in Jackson Square is Cotogna. This rustic Italian eatery serves meat, fish, pizza and pastas. Chef Michael Tusk changes the menu every day, all bottles of wine are under $50 and the service is top notch.
One cannot visit San Francisco without eating in Chinatown. R&G Lounge (631 Kearny Street) is a celebrated, multilevel space that does some solid Cantonese grub. The downstairs area is casual while the upstairs is more formal. The menu includes tank fresh seafood, salt and pepper crab and other classic dishes. The newly opened China Live (Chinese version of Eataly) is located at 644 Broadway and it's massive. The 30000 square foot food hall has multiple options for eating, including the Oolong Cafe with grab and go items, the Market Restaurant with dim sum style offerings, and a bar. There are four counters surrounding the walk in only seating space, each dedicated to a different style of cooking: barbecue and grilling, wok and seafood, dumpling and dim sum and dessert. Try the soup dumpling, Singapore wings in pepper salt and the stone oven roasted duck - Peking style. My favorite restaurant in Chinatown is at 28 Waverly Place. Mister Jiu's does contemporary Chinese cuisine with a California accent in a restored historic building. The food is divine, the drinks are dynamite and the staff is pleasant. I highly recommend the Dutch crunch bbq pork buns, the steak fried rice and the sizzled Alaskan halibut. Wash it all down with the Prosperity (vodka, lotus, lemongrass, passion fruit and egg white). Afterward, head upstairs to the newly opened Moongate Lounge for a nightcap. Do try the delicious IO (mezcal, black garlic, cherry, flamed nine spice - in a rad dragon glass).
If it's sushi you crave, head to ICHI Sushi (3369 Mission Street) in the Mission District, where chef Tim Archuleta slices the best fish in town. This is the place to go for traditional nigiri, sashimi and an extensive sake list. The recently renovated space is open for lunch and dinner and accepts reservations along with walk ins. Also located in The Mission at 2170 Bryant Street is Blowfish Sushi. It has a hip vibe with techno music and Japanese anime showing on multiple screens. Chef Ritsuo Tsuchida presents his culinary skills with some creative fusion sushi and the cocktails also impress. Stay in The Mission for the best Mexican food in SF. The best joint in town without question is La Taqueria (2889 Mission Street). For over 40 years, this no frills taqueria has been churning out affordable grub to happy customers. The tacos are awesome but the burritos are bonkers. They are served traditional style (no rice) with perfectly grilled meat, slow cooked beans and classic tomatillo wrapped in a flour tortilla. The line is usually long but it moves fast and the restaurant is cash only. A cool place in the neighborhood is Foreign Cinema, located at 2534 Mission Street. This vast, bohemian chic space compliments the always excellent California-Mediterranean cuisine. Some comfort food classics include the crisp sesame fried chicken and a well stocked oyster bar. A heated, covered patio screens a rotation of classic films projected onto one of three walls and the weekend brunch is very popular. Lastly, be sure to visit Al's Place and Tartine Manufactory in The Mission. Located at 1499 Valencia Street, Al's Place does simple, delicious vegetables and fresh local seafood in a clean white walls and wood tables setting. Tartine Manufactory (595 Alabama Street) is a stylish, industrial space with an amazing bakery (try the breads), California cafe, coffee counter, ice cream window and wine bar - this place rules.
If you want Italian food, go to North Beach Restaurant (1512 Stockton Street) in North Beach. This classic restaurant with old school waiters serves generous portions of hearty Tuscan cuisine from its extensive menu. The award winning wine list boasts over 500 bottles to pair with house specialties such as chicken al mattone and cioppino alla pescatora. Over in Nob Hill at 1517 Polk Street is Swan Oyster Depot. Founded in 1912, this seafood market and oyster bar is a San Francisco institution. There is always a wait at this tiny counter nook but it's worth it. Enjoy a pint of Anchor Steam beer, half cracked crab and a dozen oysters on the half shell. Zuni Cafe can be found at 1658 Market Street and is a French style bistro that specializes in roasted chicken and other wood fired eats. For late night dining, Nopa and The Brazen Head both get the job done. Named for its location North of the Panhandle near Alamo Square (560 Divisadero Street) the hip Nopa serves wood fired rustic cuisine nightly until 1am. The Brazen Head also caters to the late night crowd (kitchen stays open till 1am) with low lighting and reliably good French onion soup and the Angus beef pepper steak. This cozy pub is hidden in the heart of Cow Hollow at 3166 Buchanan Street. For the best brunch in town, head to 652 Polk Street and Brenda's French Soul Food. Chef Brenda Buenviaje blends New Orleans style Creole cooking with French technique to create some delicious dishes. House favorites include the beignets sampler, shrimp & grits and fried chicken with collard greens and biscuits. This place draws the crowds on weekends.
Culinary worlds collide amid the festive booths inside Liholiho Yacht Club, located at 871 Sutter Street. Here, the team merges influences and ingredients from Hawaiian, Indian and Chinese traditions. Along with favorites such as spam fried rice, tuna poke and twice cooked pork belly, they offer tiki style drinks that pair nicely with the food. I enjoyed the Surfer Rosa (hibiscus vida mezcal, punt e mes, benedictine, lemon and soda). An added bonus, downstairs from LYC is the chill Louie's Gen Gen Room. A cocktail bar with food, it has its own identity in all respects including exclusive food and drink menus. Be sure to check it out. One of the most popular restaurants in town is State Bird Provisions, located in the Fillmore District at 1529 Fillmore Street. It's worth the effort to get a reservation (book well in advance) and experience chef Stuart Brioza's culinary delights. This creative and innovative Michelin starred restaurant does dim sum American style. Carts wheel around small plates and diners can choose what they would like. The menu changes frequently based on seasonal availability, but the house specialty remains the state bird - a crispy half quail served with seasonal provisions. Also consider The Progress, the adjacent family style restaurant by the same team where you order six courses to share. Try the Napa Valley lamb tartare and the Point Reyes sauerkraut pierogies. Note: if you are unable to book a reservation, the bar area is walk in only. To conclude your eating extravaganza (if you happen to be in town on a Friday) check out Off The Grid, located at 2 Marina Boulevard at Fort Mason. Every Friday from 5-10pm, a caravan of the city's best food trucks circle their wagons in the parking lot. Everything from crispy Mexican tacos and spicy Indian curries to German sausages and French pastries. The same organization also hosts the popular food truck Picnic in the Presidio every Sunday from 11am to 4pm.
San Francisco has some great spots to drink and is home to several notable music venues. I would like to share a few of my personal favorites. Start with the always fun Zeitgeist at 199 Valencia Street in The Mission. This punk style beer garden has a spacious patio with picnic benches and offers a nice selection of craft beers. They also do a mean Bloody Mary and the outdoor grill turns out some darn tasty burgers. Happy hour is pretty much all day, every day and it's cash only. From there, head to Smuggler's Cove (650 Gough Street) in The Fillmore. This kitschy tiki bar boasts an over the top pirate themed decor along with exotic cocktails and over 400 types of rum - yo ho a pirate's life for me. Comstock Saloon is located at 155 Columbus Avenue and this 1907 Victorian bar revives the Barbary Coast's glory days. Get the Pisco Punch or Martinez (old tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters). Note: reserve a booth for the nightly live jazz. Just up the street at 255 Columbus Avenue is Vesuvio. This historic North Beach dive bar, fittingly located next door to City Lights bookstore, used to quench the thirst of Jack Kerouac - the Beat writer who penned the novel On the Road in 1957. Horsefeather is another chill spot at 528 Divisadero Street. This low key tavern does New American shared plates and creative cocktails in a space with vintage American style. Located at 501 Jones Street in The Tenderloin is Bourbon & Branch. It's a swanky, dimly lit unmarked speakeasy complete with secret exits from its Prohibition era heyday. For top shelf gin and bourbon cocktails in the library, give the gent the password (books) and you'll be led through a bookcase secret passage. Reservations are required for front room booths and include all passwords - a real cloak and dagger experience. The Mission has 2 additional bars that are not to be missed. Housed in a converted warehouse at 3010 20th Street, Trick Dog does inventive cocktails and eclectic small plates. Recently opened at 584 Valencia Street, globally inspired Bon Voyage serves African themed drinks and Chinese food. A suitable spot to conclude the evening is Whitechapel, which can be found at 600 Polk Street. Featuring the largest gin selection in North America, this Victorian themed lounge celebrates the history and traditions of this sensational spirit.
The SF Bay Area has numerous places to see a show, the following 3 are my go to spots. The Fillmore is the most historic music hall in town. Located at 1805 Geary Street and made famous by legendary promoter Bill Graham, this club (capacity 1200) has hosted every big name act in music - The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead, The Doors and Pink Floyd ~ just to name a few. The Fillmore is also well known for its chandeliers that adorn the ceilings and psychedelic concert posters of bands that perform there. Copies of the night's poster are given to fans free of charge as they exit selected, sold out shows. A chronological collection of these posters is on display in the mezzanine level of the auditorium. Other traditions are carried on to this day - one is a large tub of free apples for concert goers positioned near the entrance and another is a greeter who welcomes each guest as they enter with: "Welcome to the Fillmore!" The Independent is located at 628 Divisadero Street and has an intimate setting (capacity 500) with a full bar. This general admission, cube shaped venue features indie and emerging acts. The Great American Music Hall can be found at 859 O'Farrell Street in The Tenderloin. Built in 1907 as a bordello, it is known for its decorative balconies, columns, and frescoes and for its history of unique entertainment which has included burlesque dancing. Today, the venue (capacity 600) welcomes the best in blues, folk, jazz and indie rock.
WHERE TO STAY
San Francisco has several notable places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide modern amenities along with impeccable service. You can't go wrong with Hotel Vitale or Taj Campton Place.
Hotel Vitale is a modern boutique lodging located at 8 Mission Street on the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building. This Joie de Vivre property caters to travelers looking to be at the center of it all without sacrificing watery views. The sophisticated rooms feature amenities like spa style limestone bathrooms, Bose sound systems and flat screen TVs. WiFi is complimentary and what is especially nice is the soothing atmosphere in the accommodations. The on site Spa Vitale offers a variety of relaxing treatments and has a private bamboo garden and rooftop soaking tub. Its restaurant and bar, Americano, specializes in soulful Italian fare and boasts sweeping views of the bay.
Taj Campton Place sits about a block northeast of Union Square at 340 Stockton Street. This elegant 110 room hotel dates from the early 1900s and is surrounded by high end shops including the Apple Store. Rooms are equipped with flat screen TVs, Nespresso machines and free WiFi. They also offer plush linens, designer toiletries and twice daily maid service. The staff is friendly and helpful and the on site Michelin starred Campton Place Restaurant offers unique California Indian cuisine.
San Francisco is one of the greatest cities in America. It has so much to offer, from culture and food to nature and art. So when you go to San Francisco, wear some flowers in your hair.