Mighty Life List
Sep 6 2010

Top 10 Ways to See San Francisco Like a Local

10 Ways to See San Francisco Like a Local | Mighty Girl

I would like you to come to San Francisco, because it is great here. Please come, and fall in love, and stay for several years.

If you can only manage a few days, these places will help make those days memorable. Because if you visit and don’t want to come back, there’s only one possible reason. You did it wrong.

Allow me to show you how it’s done:

1. Eat beautifully. If you like to plan lunch while you eat breakfast and dinner while you eat lunch, San Francisco welcomes you. There’s so much excellent food here that your meals will depend more on personal tastes than availability. I have a few restaurant suggestions below, but if gluttony is a key motivation for your trip, refer to 7×7’s The Big Eat. It’s a local magazine’s list of the 100 Best Things to Eat in the San Francisco. I made a Big Eat map so you can find four or five square meals a day wherever you happen to be.

2. Gawk at the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field. Most tourists want to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is lovely until you realize that you’ll eat up most of a day doing it. I take friends out to Chrissy Fields, a National Park on the Bay where locals go to jog and fish off the pier. The view from beneath the bridge is memorable, plus you’ll get requisite photos of your giant head with the entire span of the Golden Gate behind you.

3. Have a milkshake for breakfast at the St. Francis Candy Store. This soda fountain has been around since 1918, and was run by three generations of the same family until 2000. In 2002, the current owners renovated the 1948 dining room and installed a kitchen, making it my favorite diner in the city. Everything is good, but I like the Nebulous Potato Thing – a mound of potatoes fried with onions and whatnot, smothered in melted cheddar with sour cream on top. Breakfast shake on the side.

4. Nerd out at Green Apple Books on Clement Street. I have a friend who likes to go to church when he visits a new place because he says it gives him deeper insight into what the locals are like. That’s how I feel about bookstores. Green Apple Books is a friendly, creaky, multi-story book store with a mixture of new and used offerings. It smells like warm paper and cinnamon. They have a great selection of local interest books, and the shop is right in the heart of San Francisco’s actual Chinatown, as opposed to the be-snowglobed wonder downtown. Clement Street is a fantastic neighborhood, actually. Wander.

5. Spend an afternoon in the Mission. Speaking of great neighborhoods, the Mission is my favorite. For local shops, head up Valencia between 24 th and 16 th. Then turn left on 16 th and walk toward Dolores St. Don’t miss the pirate supply store at 826 Valencia, Paxton’s Gate curiosities next door (and its toy shop up the street), the Curiosity Shoppe, Room 4, and any number of other vintage clothing and furniture stores. The Mission is San Francisco’s “little Mexico,” and Mission burritos are famous, so don’t leave the city without trying one (I like Pancho Villa on 16 th). If it’s sunny, get your burrito to go, and walk over to Dolores Park to take in a sweeping city view. Afterward, head across the street to Bi-rite Creamery for salted caramel ice cream. If you’d like something delicious to take home, Bi-Rite market is just up the street, and it’s packed with locally made gourmet sweets and treats. (Also? Some of the best fruit anywhere in the city.) There are too many amazing restaurants to mention them all, but try Tartine for pastries, Ritual Roasters or Four Barrel for coffee, and Bar Tartine, Farina, or Delfina for dinner. Make reservations for dinner, por favor.

6. Roast marshmallows on Ocean Beach. Bonfires on the beach are a good reason to be alive. And if you’d like to survive your bonfire on Ocean Beach, you’ll need to bundle up — I mean jeans and a sweater and a jacket and a scarf. Take the Fulton 5 out to the beach, it’ll turn around the parking lot of a grocery store. Climb out, head into the store and buy two Presto logs, a lighter, and some kindling sticks. You’ll need fixings for smores, maybe some sausages, skewers for roasting everything. Walk across the street to the beach, find a vacant fire ring, and watch the sun go down over the Pacific while you warm your feet.

7. Pass through the revolving bookshelf at Bourbon and Branch. San Franciscans are serious about cocktails, and no one more so than the folks at Bourbon and Branch, our local speakeasy. It’s in the Tenderloin, the crappiest part of a pretty safe city, so take a cab there. It can be tough to find, so look for a small sign that reads “Anti-Saloon League.” Once you do find it, there’s an intercom at the front door. Press the button and wait for someone to answer. They’ll say, “Password?” You’ll say “books.” The door opens into a warm, crowded room full of folks who have made reservations to eat. The hostess leads you past them to a bookshelf, which hides the entrance to the library/bar. You like gin, so order an Aviation. Happy you could make it. Cheers.

8. Cure your hangover with dim sum at New Asia. If you’ve had a late night at Bourbon and Branch, the best cure is a late morning at New Asia. All the guidebooks will tell you to go to Ton Kiang or Yank Sing for dim sum (Chinese dumplings). The food at those places is excellent, but it’s also expensive. If you’d rather try everything on the menu than worry about a $120 bill for breakfast, consider New Asia. It’s delicious, cheap, and full of Chinese people who know what for when it comes to dim sum. It’s also in Chinatown, so it’s convenient if you’re already there doing the tourist thing.

9. Shop for vintage clothes on the Haight. When I need a cocktail dress or something special for a party, Haight Street is my first stop. There are a several places to dig, but the two I particularly recommend are down near Golden Gate Park. Decades is impeccably organized by era, with a huge selection. Across the street, La Rosa is well curated, with a helpful staff who are passionate about the clothes they carry. I always come away with something that has people asking where I got it.

10. Have a drink on the water. Before you leave, have a cocktail with an ocean view. Do not pay $20 for the privilege. Three options near downtown where you can imbibe without getting fleeced:

  • Waterbar – a well-heeled restaurant and bar with an excellent happy hour . Oysters are $1, and the featured cocktail won’t cut into your rent money.
  • Highdive — a popular after work spot with moderately priced drinks, good bar food, and great views.
  • Red’s — a burger shack with bottled beer, classic burger joint fair, and a patio on the dock.

Bonus beloveds: A bottle of champagne on Union Square to celebrate a successful shopping haul, dinner at the charmingly retro Presidio Social Club, and brunch on the back lawn at the Park Chalet.

That’s it. What did I miss? Tell me more about your San Francisco in comments.

If this piece was useful, you might also like:
7 Ways to Keep Cozy in San Francisco, and
Top 10 Worthwhile Tourist Attractions in San Francisco. Come on over and see us sometime.

25 Responses to “Top 10 Ways to See San Francisco Like a Local”

  • terry Says:

    Okay, I hate to be one of those nitpicky types, but it’s actually Crissy Field – no “h” in Crissy, no “s” in Field. And you’re right to point out how wonderful it is.

    Nice list! For dining, I’d also recommend La Mar for its amazing Pisco Sours and fantastic food…as well as Dosa Fillmore.

  • Yatima Says:

    Super duper ultra pro tip: have kids, and enroll them in swim classes at La Petit Baleen in the Presidio. You’ll get to gawk at the Golden Gate from Crissy Field every week, and on the Labor Day weekend you’ll nab primo parking for Balsa Man.

    Pancho Villa burritos and Four Barrel and Ritual Coffee and Tartine pastries FTW! But the best Ritual Coffee and pastries in town right now are at Sandbox Bakery on Cortland.

    I am also passionately attached to Mission Thrift. And the gardens behind Blue Plate and Progressive Grounds and Wild Side West. And absolutely everything about Flora Grubb, up to and including the San Jose Guerrero median strip greening project. And don’t get me started on Glen Park…

  • nelking Says:

    Bourbon and Branch it is next time. I love Aviation and your recommendation caused me to by Basil Hayden bourbon for my husband. Because of it, I am now a Bourbon convert.

  • tastingsf Says:

    I love your lists, it’s fun to see the stuff I still haven’t done after living here for 7 years (Bourbon and Branch! Bonfires!). I’d add Philz on for great coffee as well, and there are a few of them throughout the city.

  • Toni Says:

    Bourbon and Branch sounds magical.
    Someone should turn this list into a video to the tune of “My Favorite Things”. I would watch that. :)

  • Liesel Says:

    Oh man…Foreign Cinema in the Mission for brunch. Delicious. Ask for the server Sarina, she’s the best! At least that I’ve had there.

  • Jinxie Says:

    Your list is great, but in addition I would say:
    Go to any farmers’ markets that’s not the Ferry Building one
    Go to Arizmendi, get a couple of slices of pizza to go, and walk over to GGPark and find yourself a tree to sit under while you eat
    Ride the 33 from the Haight to the Mission* to reminder yourself that, no matter how much our transit system might suck at its main purpose (actually getting you where you need to go on time), it does at least provide the occasional breathtaking view

    *Taking the 43 through the Presidio also works.

  • Lise Says:

    I wish I’d read this list before visiting San Francisco for the first time last summer. Instead we did very touristy things. . . including getting engaged while dining at Alioto’s, looking at the water and the Ghirardelli sign. So I suppose the trip turned out okay.

  • Annie Says:

    And when you’re shopping along Valencia down in the Mission, stop by Clarion Alley, between 17th and 18th. Full of graffiti murals of all types. (Just plug your nose as you walk.)

    (Ditto on the Crissy Field spelling comment! ;)

  • Betsy Says:

    Oh, Maggie, this list REALLY makes me want to visit San Francisco.

  • Maggeh Says:

    Noted on the spelling. Thanks, you guys.

  • jen Says:

    an alternative to seeing the bridge from crissy field: have a picnic in sutro park (or brunch at louis’), then walk across the street, take a look at the sutro baths, and continue along the coastal path until you come ’round the bend and see the bridge. gorgeous.

    http://www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/sutro-historic-district.html

  • Michelle Says:

    This is totally the list I would build. Four years away from SF and I still make time to visit Green Apple every time I’m in town. It feels like home.

    One thing I’d add for those who have some sunshine and are inclined to do something a little more physical: rent bikes, ride across the GG Bridge and into Sausalito (there are a couple of hills to climb, but you’re in no rush) have drinks on the water, then take the ferry back.

    Oh, and seconding the commenter above who endorses Philz!

  • Megan Says:

    Some of my constants when I come to visit:

    A silly night at the Tiki Room: start with the drinks that come in bowls for two and then order other drinks to come in bowls. Put an umbrella or two in your hair. Try not to annoy the hotel guests.

    Followed the next morning with morning-after bahn-mi Vietnamese sandwiches from Saigon Sandwich and a walk along the Pier in the early sunlight.

    Thanks for the dim sum tip. I really needed one on my last visit. We risked it and chose very very badly.

  • cousin Colleen Says:

    Taking notes, Maggie! I really do need to get back out there one day.

  • Rachel Says:

    Ooh, I love the speakeasy info. My husband’s dream vacation would be a tour of speakeasies around the country. So I’m probably going to put my grad school work on hold for a couple of hours to research them now.

  • amy Says:

    Oh, sheister – I am nowhere near being able to visit SF but do I ever want to now!!! This will be bookmarked in head for future…

  • Meg Says:

    Apparently we do all the same things. By which I mean, this is a good list you guys, you should come and do it all.

    And I got my wedding dress at La Rosa vintage. Just saying.

    Oh. And maybe while you’re out at Green Apple Books, you should eat at Burma Superstar, just like the locals. Expect a line.

  • AbraCat Says:

    I want to go to San Francisco sooo badly, and this doesn’t help the situation. I wish I wasn’t afraid to fly.

  • simone Says:

    Dammit- I was just in SF in July and wish I would have had this list! I really love the breakfast places–I think I cried a little into my home fries when we were there. I definitely want to try the candy store. I’m having MAJOR city envy right now.

  • Abby - Bright Yellow World Says:

    -Wait in line for an hour at Burma Superstar. It makes the samusa soup that much more delicious.
    -Philz Coffee
    -Hit House of Bagels, on Geary, for a breakfast pick-up and then head out to eat at the Sutro Bath ruins

  • Knighton Says:

    My husband and I were in SF just this weekend for my birthday. We walked everywhere, which is just about the best way to discover the secret treasures of a wonderful place. Great lists. I love your city!

  • Cori Says:

    Thanks for this! We’ve been here in SF for a year now and still feel like tourists every time we go out. I would love to hear any family-friendly SF tips you have.

    Also, good luck to Hank on starting preschool. My son started mid-August and so far so good.

  • tea_austen Says:

    I’ll second (or third) the Burma Superstar rec–put your name down and browse Green Apple Books, and Kamei Housewares (awesome kitchen/restaurant supply store), they’ll call you when your table is ready. If I may be bossy, I’d tell you to order the tea leaf salad and the samusa soup.

    Go on a staircase walk–either up the Filbert Street Steps (to Coit Tower), or up Saturn and Vulcan Streets out of the Castro.
    http://www.sisterbetty.org/stairways/index.htm

    Especially in September/October, watch a full moon rise from the hilly park above the Randall Museum. Magical.

    If your guests are sporty and have good shoes—walk the Land’s End Trail for a view of GG Bridge most don’t ever see.

    While in the Mission, don’t miss the murals: Clarion Alley, Balmy Alley, and my favorite on the corner of York and 24th (conveniently located to Humphrey-Slocombe: get ice cream).

    Lindy Hop in GG Park on Sundays!

    Grab a drink, or a bite, or a something and sit by the bay on a sunny day–the kind where the light glints off the water–and you’ll know that you are in one of those magical cities. You’ll probably never want to leave.

  • Shem Says:

    This was posted 4 days before we left but I’m only reading it now :-(
    But we had a fantastic time in San Francisco (and Yosemite!) and I’m sure we will return one day – it’s a long trip from London!