contributed by Alyssa Schulke [computer whiz / master gardener / aspiring travel writer]
Ah. San Francisco. The city has engendered many a sigh from people who have been there and fallen in love. Between the breathtaking location, tantalizing array of restaurants, athletic teams, music clubs, and historical attractions, this city has something to offer anyone, except those that hate good views, food, shopping, and music. But who wants to travel with those people”
The city is setup on a seven-mile wide peninsula that juts north into San Francisco Bay and is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The airport is a bit south of the city and it takes about an hour to get downtown by taxi. It isn’t necessary to have a car the entire time you are there.
The city is setup in districts that have unique personalities. Most of them are within walking distance of one another, but the streets can be a bit confusing (one ways, merging streets, don’t forget big hills) so it doesn’t hurt to cab it once in a while. Some visitors rent a car for part of the stay for day trips north or south, or to do some driving around the more hilly south side of town. Many rental agencies have offices right in the heart of downtown and usually reserve at as good or better rates than at the airport. If your trip is just going to be spent exploring all the city has to offer, forego the car and enjoy the fresh air. And bring shoes with cushy insoles, or a personal foot masseuse. (Do such people exist”)
The climate is “Maritime”, which is a polite way weatherpeople say it rarely gets warm. It is almost always windy and/or foggy, so be sure to bring extra layers for the sometimes-dramatic climate changes during the day, especially if you plan to be out on the water. That being said, early fall and late spring offer the best times to go as there is usually sun at these times and less crowds.
[Note: Scoll down to the bottom of this article for all relevant links.]
Because there is so much to cover, I have only included descriptions of my favorite parts of San Francisco, along with good sights, restaurants and nearby shopping. Sure, there is more to see, but – hey – it’s my party.
Union Square and Nob Hill
Union Square is the center of the city and the focal point for many hotels, restaurants, and theaters. The highest concentration of shopping is also here. Nob Hill is the highest point in the downtown area, and – along with Pacific Heights – was the home to the wealthy citizens (‘nobs’) at the turn of the century. Today it features some of the nicest hotels in town, including the Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton, and Mark Hopkins Intercontinental. Drinks or tea at one of the hotels is a fun experience, if only to experience how the other half lives.
South of Market Street, or SOMA, has the city’s spectacular Museum of Modern Art, the California Historical Society, and the busy Civic Center area. As well as being close to the Mission District with its great historical sights, Mexican restaurants and shopping, this is primarily a warehouse district where gentrification is creating hip lofts, clubs, and art galleries. A number of clothing outlets are here, including ISDA & CO., and Esprit (yes, you 80s babies, it still exists). PacBell Park, home to the San Francisco Giants and their ‘larger than life’ Barry Bonds is also here. Watch out if you are hanging around on game day as traffic on the quaint old streets can back up in a hurry. This is a great place to amble around, stopping off in funky design shops and cafes as the spirit moves you.
Although the kitschy aspect of this area can be a bit overwhelming (mini-replica of a cable car, anyone”), the sights of the bay and the bridge are worth a trip. There are also some excellent seafood restaurants in the area. Check out Scoma’s – a San Francisco institution. There are two locations – one on stilts across the bay in Sausalito, and one in the Wharf on a nondescript fishing pier. This one has an old supper club feel, and the drinks and menu enforce it.
No kids, seeing The Rock doesn’t count, even if Sean Connery is worth the price of admission. Alcatraz deserves your attention. The National Park Service runs the park, but contracts out the ferry rides and tour tickets to the ‘Blue and Gold’ line out of Fisherman’s Wharf. Tickets to the ferry are sold by date and time and sell out in advance. Luckily, intelligent and prepared travelers such as yourself can buy them before you leave at the park’s informational website. The audio tour that can be purchased at the same time is highly recommended, and gives a great historical perspective on the famous pokey, as well as some informative stories of escape attempts and anecdotes on prison life. In addition to the prison, there is also an abundance of nature on the island. If you have time, consider some of the other wildlife tours that are offered during the year.
When the moon hits your eye… North Beach is the Italian district, but also was the center of the Beat movement. Spend a leisurely day here with an early espresso and croissant in a café, then go to the famous City Lights Bookstore and soak in some book learnin’ and atmosphere. It’s open into the wee hours if you are inclined to visit late. If you are in the area later at night, enjoy a late night dinner and espresso while people watching. There are great music clubs in this area, most of them focusing on jazz.
A show in the North Beach area about which people always have an opinion is Beach Blanket Babylon, a cabaret that spoofs current events in grand costumes while a jovial audience swigs down wine and beer. To experience the show is to experience a bit of the San Francisco culture and sense of humor. I recommend everyone see it at least once. If you go, get tickets in advance, and get there about 45 minutes early to stand line, as seating is first come, first serve.
While here, Italian food is a must. Some good places are Il Pollaio, Il Fornaio, and Mona Lisa. Many will recommend The Stinking Rose, a garlic restaurant. A one-time experience, this place will truly test your affection for the people with whom you are traveling, but will keep you safe from vampires. The aroma will ooze out of your pores for at least the next day, so make sure you at an appropriate stage in your relationships.
If you aren’t ready to sleep or want the garlic to wear off a bit before bed, Tosca and Vesuvio are good local cocktail bars.
Years later, Haight still draws crowds that expect a glimpse of the 60s, man. Unfortunately, the Haight is nothing like the image it conjures up in most people’s mind. Check out the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin houses, and maybe grab a coffee or quick bite of lunch from one of the eclectic eateries cum bars in the area. There are a few funky vintage clothing shops, as well as record stores for serious collectors, but don’t expect to spend more than a few hours on this street. Spend the time checking out the great architecture in the nearby neighborhoods, or while away some time at Golden Gate Park, which is within walking distance.
Also not far, but a good brisk walk from Haight is Alamo Square with its famous row of houses. I recommend you visit and reenact your favorite Full House scene. Alamo Square is a great place for a picnic lunch, especially for those who swoon for architecture (or the Olson twins). Walk up to the top – whew, you can do it – and check out the incredible view of the skyline, the ubiquitous Victorian houses, and toast the good ol’ days when bad TV wasn’t only picked up for ten seasons, but syndicated for the rest of your natural born life.
Golden Gate Park
Despite its name, Golden Gate Park really isn’t that close to Golden Gate Bridge. It is over three miles long, and borders the Pacific Ocean on the west side. There is a free shuttle that runs every fifteen minutes from the major sights in the park (through October), including a Japanese tea garden and the beautiful AIDS Memorial Grove. If you are there in the summer, check the local papers for free outdoor concerts, which are held in the park. There is a museum and aquarium in the park, but they were closed for renovation last time I was there.
Towards the end of your time in the park, try to spend the afternoon at the beach. Remember the chill factor, bring a sweater and spend some time walking along Ocean Beach before sharing some good food and house-made microbrews at the Beach Chalet Brewery, right on the coastal highway. Just north of the Beach Chalet is Cliff House, another restaurant with views of the famous Seal Rocks.
Golden Gate Bridge
At nearly 2 miles long and 746 feet above the water, the bridge is impressive from any view, but a drive across is an experience. If you don’t have a car to take you across the span, a number of tours will take you and stop for pictures at appropriate spots along the way. It is also possible to walk across. On the city side, Baker Beach and Crissy Field are big draws for locals and tourists alike who enjoy the outdoors in the shadow of the bridge. Bike rental is an option, and fishing is good from the beach. Pacific Heights
This district lies between the bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, and is home to some of the most impressive architecture in the city. There are two nice parks with views down to the harbor, as well as good restaurants on Fillmore. This area, along with the Marina, is home to the yuppies of the city and is becoming home to some fun designer shops and restaurants.
The cable car is probably the most identifiable San Francisco icon after the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to catch one during the year due to overcrowding and – often – three hour queues to get on. I’ve never ridden one, despite having traveled to the city countless times. If you can get on, you are lucky, but your happiness should not depend on this one. So buck up, little camper, and see something else!
While San Francisco is an expensive place, bargains can be found in some great hotels with good planning. Between the big chains, and smaller boutique hotels, I recommend the latter. San Francisco has a large array of small hotels right in the middle of downtown, and I’ve found they offer a more personalized stay than the ‘biggies’. However, if you need a lot of space to spread out, you are better off with one of the chains.
I have always been able to find a good rate on Expedia.com or Hotwire.com for around $100/night right downtown, and sometimes less, depending on the time of year. Expedia seems to have the best selection of the smaller hotels – the other travel sites seem to focus on the large chains.
The hotels I list below are all in the Union Square area of the city. I have found it is best to stay in this area and walk – or pay a few bucks for a cab – to virtually anywhere you would want to go. Another feature – most of these have free happy hours in their lobbies before dinnertime. And who says nothing is free”
Kensington Park Hotel – one block off Union Square in an old 1920s gentleman’s club. The lobby is marble with high carved-wood ceilings. Excellent service. The street can be a bit loud outside your windows, but higher rooms have good views and a bit more quiet. Sherry service instead of wine says they like to mix things up a bit.
Hotel Monaco – higher prices and the surroundings to match. Extremely luxurious. I have seen some good web deals on this one at off-peak times.
Beresford Arms – a bit old-looking, but charming nonetheless. Rooms are large. Usually has some of the best prices in the area. A sister property, Beresford Manor, is even less expensive and includes breakfast.
Vintage Court – a small, pleasant hotel where the rooms are named and decorated after local wineries. As would be expected, the evening wine hour serves matching libations. One of the top SF restaurants, Masa’s, is off the lobby.
Phoenix Hotel – a newer hotel that has been home to visiting rock stars of late and can attract a matching crowd. Worth even a visit for the Bambuddha Lounge, a bar with eye-popping tropical drinks, served in a bamboo atmosphere.
While San Francisco is a cosmopolitan city, it has a laid-back West Coast air to it. Any type of cuisine is within a hop, skip and jump of anywhere you are. As far as dress codes go; anything goes, within reason. (Please wear pants.) Most good restaurants are fine with dressy jeans and a fab shirt. If one of my suggestions is dressy (dress pants and button down for the guys), I have made sure to mention it. I have yet to be in a restaurant where jacket and tie are required, and – much to the horror of my wallet – I eat quite well.
Most San Franciscans keep European dining hours. Meals here are often taken later, as in many large cities. It isn’t uncommon for people to go to a show and then have dinner afterwards, so don’t be surprised if ‘normal’ dining hours are available when you call for reservations, and the early/late hours are booked. We’ve waited for up to two hours for dinner after a show, and the staff won’t bat an eyelash if you shut the place down.
Aside from the places mentioned above, here are some other good bets:
Farallon – Near Union Square. Special seafood and décor for a special occasion. The interior of this restaurant has been written about many times, with the custom light fixtures made to resemble ocean creatures, and fanciful layout. I’ve always had good meals here, but sometimes feel part of the bill is paying for those fancy lights. It’s worth at least a stop in and a drink in the bar to see it.
Postrio – Near Union Square. Dressy. Are you on an expense account” By all means, check out this Wolfgang Puck masterpiece. Making a grand entrance down the grand staircase almost makes guys and girls alike feel like Cinderella at the ball.
Plouf – Near Union Square. Great for lunch while shopping downtown. This French bistro/seafood place is in Belden Place, a blocked off alleyway full of sidewalk cafes. Service has been spotty at times, but the food is reasonable and always good.
Cha Cha Cha – Haight-Ashbury. Caribbean tapas in a loud and fun atmosphere. The prices here are extremely reasonable (under $10). They don’t take reservations, so get your name in and then hang in a local bar for a while.
Note – The Mission District has some excellent cheap eats ($5) in the form of taquerias. Some notables are Taqueria Can-Cun, Taqueria El Farolito, and Taqueria San Jose. Most of these places will not take credit cards.
The city can seem quieter at night than some other large cities, but that isn’t to say nothing is going on. Since dining occurs on European time, many people are eating delicious meals until late at night. Most of the restaurants have bars open late so people linger over drinks until the wee hours.
There isn’t a real ‘bar district’ that I’ve found, aside from a clubby district south of Market Street. Each area of the city has great places to go, but it is common for people to spend all night at one or two establishments instead of bar hopping all night long – quality over quantity, if you will. An added benefit is less money spent on cabs, and more left over for local wine or Anchor Steam. And you thought I wasn’t looking out for you…here are some favorites:
Redwood Room – near Union Square in the Starck-designed Clift Hotel. One word to describe this place is ‘swank’, so dress the part. The entire interior of the bar is – ahem – redwood, but pay special attention to the computer-generated ‘art.’ To say it is transfixing is an understatement. The drinks here are excellent and have the prices to match. Have one or two, and then – kiss, kiss – be on your way.
Top of the Mark – on Nob Hill on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Within walking distance of Union Square, but your legs will love you if you take a cab instead of walking the wrong way up this ski slope. This jazzy bar can be found via a side elevator on the left side of the hotel lobby. Get here before 7 o’clock as there is a hefty cover. For that reason, I suggest going there for before-dinner drinks to soak in the amazing views and watch the sunset.
Fiddler’s Green – Irish. Between Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square. A great find after a long day of dodging crowds. Grab a nook in the downstairs or head upstairs for music later in the evening. Authentic menu and pours.
BamBuddha Lounge – a cab ride from Union Square. A new ‘be-seen’ place in recent times due to its proximity next to the Phoenix Hotel. Good drinks, if a bit on the ‘girlie’ side, and memorable décor.
GET YOUR SHOP ON
Good buys in San Francisco include local wines, seafood, vintage items, and ethnic art. Bookstores abound, as do household goods (such as locals made good Williams-Sonoma). Some stores I’ve liked to browse in:
Napa Valley Winery Exchange – Downtown. If you aren’t going to Napa, stop in here, pick up a few bottles, and tell your friends at home that Napa was FANTASTIC.
Artseal Gallery – A few blocks from Nob Hill. Art Photography in a cozy setting.
Chinatown Kite Shop – Chinatown. A kite is a must-have if you plan to head down to one of the beaches. Get a kite, all the cool kids are doing it.
Rock Posters and Collectibles – North Beach/Columbus Ave. Features classic artwork from the local Fillmore concerts.
Otsu – SOMA/Mission District. Shoes with a conscience. Nothing in the store comes from anything that once had parents. Some of the designs are fun and worth it for those who like bringing home one of a kind things. Proceeds go to local artists.
Looking for goodies that focus on design” The SOMA and Marina districts are the best areas for specialty stores that focus on form as well as function.
So you have a bit more time to explore the Bay Area” Here are some surrounding areas within a short drive that deserve some attention.
Napa/Sonoma Valleys – The wine valley is approximately 45-60 minutes north of the city. A quick trip can be done in a day, or stay over night and check out some of the best wineries in the world.
Monterey and Carmel – These strikingly set towns are a day trip south on one of the most beautiful highways in the nation. Stay overnight and enjoy the serenity.
Marin Country – The cities of Sausalito and Tiburon are directly north of the city on San Francisco Bay, and can be reached in 15-30 minutes depending on location and traffic. Another great option is to take a ferry across the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoy a day of good eating and shopping. These cities have a northeastern feel, with their rows of sailboats and great seafood restaurants right on the water.
Muir Woods and National Park – The redwoods are about an hour north of the city, but often overlooked is the rest of the park, which includes beaches, hiking trails, and sweeping views of the city and ocean.
- Lonely Planet San Francisco
- DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – San Francisco
- SFGate – the local newspaper, has a great website at sfgate.com
- San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau – www.sfvisitor.org
San Francisco Neighborhood Guide – http://www.sfgate.com/traveler/guide/sf/neighborhoods
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – http://www.sfmoma.org/
California Historical Society – http://www.californiahistoricalsociety.org/
National Park Service Alcatraz information – http://www.nps.gov/alcatraz/welcome.html
City Lights Bookstore – http://www.citylights.com/
Beach Blanket Babylon – http://www.beachblanketbabylon.com/
Alamo Square – http://www.sfvisitor.org/visitorinfo/html/Alamo.html
Golden Gate Park – http://www.sfgate.com/traveler/guide/sf/neighborhoods/ggpark.shtml
Golden Gate Bridge – http://goldengatebridge.org/
Crissy Field and Baker Beach – http://www.crissyfield.org/
Kensington Park Hotel – http://www.kensingtonparkhotel.com/
Hotel Monaco – http://www.monaco-sf.com/
Beresford Arms – http://www.beresford.com/arms/default.htm
Vintage Court – http://www.vintagecourt.com/
Phoenix Hotel – http://www.jdvhospitality.com/hotels/hotel/12
Clift Hotel – http://clift-hotel-san-francisco.morganshotelgroup.com/
Mark Hopkins Intercontinental – http://san-francisco.intercontinental.com/
Scoma’s – http://www.scomas.com/
Il Pollaio – http://sanfrancisco.citysearch.com/profile/917517
Il Fornaio – http://www.ilfornaio.com/
Mona Lisa – http://www.bestofsanfrancisco.net/monalisa.htm
The Stinking Rose – http://www.thestinkingrose.com/
Beach Chalet – http://www.beachchalet.com/
Cliff House – http://www.cliffhouse.com/
Farallon – http://www.farallonrestaurant.com/
Postrio – http://www.postrio.com/
Plouf – http://www.plouf.citysearch.com/
Belden Place – http://www.beldenplace.citysearch.com/
Cha Cha Cha – http://chachacha.citysearch.com/
Tosca – http://www.worldsbestbars.com/city/san-francisco/tosca-cafe-san-francisco.htm
Vesuvio – http://www.vesuvio.com/
Redwood Room – http://www.worldsbestbars.com/city/san-francisco/the-redwood-room-san-francisco.htm
Top of the Mark – http://topofthemark.citysearch.com/
Fiddler’s Green – http://sanfrancisco.citysearch.com/profile/917616
Bambuddha Lounge – http://www.bambuddhalounge.com/
Napa Valley Winery Exchange – http://www.wineaccess.com/store/napavalleywineryex/shop.html
Artseal Gallery – http://www.artseal.citysearch.com/
Chinatown Kite Shop – http://www.chinatownkite.com/
Otsu – http://www.veganmart.com/
Napa Valley – http://www.napavalley.com/
Sonoma Valley – http://www.sonomavalley.com/
Monterey – http://www.monterey.com/
Carmel – http://www.carmelcalifornia.com/
Marin Country – http://www.visitmarin.org/
Muir Woods – http://www.nps.gov/muwo
Golden Gate National Park – http://www.nps.gov/goga