Top 10 Ways to See San Francisco Like a Local
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.