In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, I’ve been posting articles that originally appeared elsewhere. This piece was originally published by the The Morning News in 2006. Thanks to Andrew Womack, for the edits. (Andy!)
There seems to be a park every few blocks in San Francisco, so people often favor the park closest to their apartments. We meet in parks all year to listen to music, to share food, to celebrate together. Friends of mine married atop Tank Hill near their Cole Valley apartment, and my own husband proposed at a nearby dog park with a hurricane fence and a sweeping view of the city lights. There are too many parks to list, and possibly to count, so these are a few of the standouts. I highly recommend coming to visit, so you can choose a favorite of your own.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a lot like New York’s Central Park, only larger, and you can walk on its paths at night with a reasonable hope of emerging alive. The lush, 1,017-acre expanse was coaxed from a desert of unstable sand dunes at the west end of the city. Two Dutch-style windmills once pumped water through the park, maintaining an electric-powered waterfall, several small lakes, and the running creeks connecting the lakes.
For a few years, I rose early Sunday mornings, laced my red Converse with leather glued to the bottoms, and rushed to meet the lindy-hop dancers who gather in the Music Concourse. People came from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and as far as Sweden to dance together there in the park, while a tai chi group moved in slow motion nearby. Afterward, I would walk over to the five-acre Japanese Tea Garden to read over a cup of green tea and a plate of almond cookies.
Model-yacht enthusiasts head out to Spreckels Lake (near 36th Avenue), which was specially designed for mini-yachting. We go to watch the little boats when my niece and nephew are in town, or rent paddleboats on Stow Lake and take turns directing the kids to keep their hands out of the murky water. We gawk at the herd of bison whose ancestors have called the park home since 1892, and visit the recently restored Conservatory of Flowers to hunt for geckos on the panes of milky glass.
The park is a throughway for the annual Bay to Breakers race, attracting tens of thousands of drunken, costumed revelers pushing fully operational tiki bars up and down San Francisco’s hilly landscape. Golden Gate Park is the only place to relieve yourself on the route, which means that everyone stops to pee in the bushes together. Now that’s a San Francisco treat.
Ocean Beach is where Golden Gate Park meets the ocean. It’s also where everyone goes for bonfires, mostly in October and November.
After the holidays, San Franciscans are known to collect truckloads of withered Christmas trees to burn on the beach. (If you’ve never watched a Christmas tree burn, I highly recommend it. It takes about 15 chilling seconds for the entire tree to go up in a whoosh of flames, and the tinsel makes sparks!) Regular police patrols keep the fires moderate, so hide the flask when they stop by.
Next door is Baker Beach, where a few friends met in 1986 to burn an eight-foot-tall wooden man, the humble beginning of the unabashed Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
One of hundreds of small neighborhood parks scattered throughout San Francisco, South Park has a distinctly European flavor. It feels as though you should be able to visit a butcher, a baker, and a cheese shop simply by crisscrossing the grassy oval.
But the park’s denizens, with their heavy-framed glasses and silk-screened graphic T-shirts, betray SOMA’s actual economic engine. Tech geeks flock here to meet, eat lunch, and grab a quick espresso fix.
Around 1999, I worked at a web magazine a few blocks from South Park, and I would queue up for half an hour to buy lunch at Café Centro on the edge of the park. The area was awash in dot-commers attracted by the low rents and artistic potential of the newly renovated warehouse spaces.
A few years later, the pigeons were the only company. A local artist trucked in dozens of tumbleweeds and set them out on the grass. Those of us who’d somehow survived the bust could almost hear the harmonica on the wind.
But today, picnic tables are scarce as ever. Geeks are back in force, and everyone seems to know everyone else. That makes it hard to plot secret business plans on the back of a café napkin, but easy enough to get them funded.
You may remember Alamo Square from its cameo in the opening sequence of the regrettable ’80s sitcom Full House. The family is picnicking in the park, in front of the Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.
Because of the Painted Ladies, Alamo Square is the park mostly likely to be seen by tourists and forgotten by San Franciscans. Buses stop at the top of the Hayes Street hill so passengers can snap a photo, and then everyone climbs back aboard—leaving the park blissfully crowd-free and ready for the locals.
I mention this park for one reason only—Pug Sunday, people. The first Sunday of each month, pug owners from all over the Bay Area gather here to unleash their pugs on hapless trees, fire hydrants, and picnic blankets.
Go to gaze upon the romping, wheezing mass, and listen to the baffled owners calling out, “Prudence?” “Winston?” “Reeeeehmington!”
Wait for the end, as the owners try to re-gather their pets. A few pugs will have shaken off their identifying bandanas and stretchy collars, making them indistinguishable from one another.
When the sun is high, Dolores Hill is one of the most popular and stunning parks in the city. It boasts a panoramic view of downtown, and row upon row of achingly beautiful gay men working on their tans.
The Speedo Nation shares the park with a small population of homeless people who use Dolores as a sleeping and meeting place. You’ll also find Scrabble-playing Mission hipsters, Frisbee-tossing dog owners, and families taking advantage of the large playground and barbecue areas.
The park was a Jewish cemetery until 1894, when San Francisco outlawed burial inside the city limits. Most of the remains in the city’s graveyards were exhumed and moved to nearby Colma, where the dead now outnumber the living.
Dolores Park takes its name from the Mission San Francisco Dolores, which is up the street. On Independence Day and New Year’s Eve, I meet friends here to pass flasks and watch the fireworks, which are invariably obscured by fog.
Getting married is like having a child, suddenly everyone wants to tell you what to do. I’m no exception. In fact, if you’re newly engaged, you may want to sit next to someone else at dinner, because I will not shut up about your wedding. It’s insufferable, I know, but I’m powerless to stop myself.
Anyway, here’s a little dose of unsolicited advice for those of you fortunate enough to live out of earshot:
Take a group photo. Nearly all the people you love are here, in one place. This isn’t likely to happen again until your funeral.
Be prepared. I had a kit on hand for minor emergencies. Having all my little fixes in one place made it easy for anyone to grab me a pair of scissors, some clear nail polish, a flask of bourbon. Here’s a bridal emergency kit list, but you’ll find a zillion of them online. Bridesmaids, if you’re extra helpful, telling the bride you’ll assemble this kit is a thoughtful gesture.
Let go of traditions that bug you. I’m a tall girl with an unfair advantage in the bouquet catching game. It often felt like an obligation to catch the bride’s bouquet before it fell on the floor when everyone else stepped out of the way. Of course then, you must grapple with the look of mild terror on the face of Boyfriend du Jour. So at our wedding, we called everyone onto the floor and announced that catching the bouquet meant prosperity beyond your wildest dreams.
The 6’8 Dutch guy caught it, and he’s currently my husband’s business partner. Fingers crossed, but I have heard a glowing crotch is auspicious.
Do something fun with your guest book. We had a friend take polaroids of guests, and it was such instant gratification to flip through it the next morning. Plus, we still look at it every once in a while.
Plan with a sense of humor. Sure weddings are solemn and import laden, but receptions can be fun — whatever that means to you. Worry a little less about whether something is appropriate and consider whether it will add to the celebration. Crazy straws at the bar? Candy cigarettes as wedding favors? Yes.
Consider consumables as attendant gifts. I got cool necklaces for my bridesmaids and the female attendants on Bryan’s side, but the groomsmen and ushers got port. Looking back on the now-outdated necklaces, I think the guys did better.
Choose your financial battles. Decide what’s important to you, spend your money there, and aim for festive with everything else.
For us, the bar was key, so we did it up. But Bryan used to work in catering, and both of us agreed that once the crowd gets over 100, you really have to pay through the nose for wedding food to be memorable. We decided to make the food fun and celebratory instead. In lieu of passed appetizers, we had a popcorn machine and a cotton candy machine out front. We brought in a BBQ truck for dinner so folks would have some solid food to offset the cocktails.
We were among the first couples to order cupcakes from Citizen Cake — before they upped the prices to reflect the trend — which also meant we didn’t need to rent cake plates and forks. Later in the evening, we had passed Krispy Kreme donuts as a snack. The food was casual for sure, but there was plenty of it, and the bar was a masterpiece.
So those were my big lessons from our wedding, but what are yours? I’m curious to hear pet peeves you have as a wedding guest, what you’ve loved about weddings you’ve been to, what you took away from your own wedding? Spill. I have an anniversary party to plan.
Typekit is moving into a new office that’s still under construction. The staff is all over the country, so when everyone flew in for an all-staff meeting, Bryan surprised them with a dinner party in the construction zone. Best view in the city.
Now that so many of us carry digital cameras everywhere, we’re finding new and amusing ways to annoy one another with them. We post awful photos of obviously drunk acquaintances, and push camera phones so close to people’s faces that it impedes their ability to blink. Read more…
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.
Every few weeks, one of you sends me a note asking what to do while you’re in San Francisco. I get anxious when I don’t have time to answer in detail. Everything! You must do everything!
I’ve lived here for over a decade, and it is perfect. Perhaps you know someone who doesn’t agree that San Francisco is perfect, which is because they are deeply flawed. Come hang out here, and you’ll realize you don’t have to be friends with people like that.
While you’re in San Francisco, you should:
1. Ride a Cable Car. San Francisco has the oldest and largest running cable car system, and it’s the only place where you can still ride a manually operated cable car in street traffic. All the tourists try to board at Fisherman’s Wharf, where they wait hours for an angry, crowded, twenty-minute ride. You, on the other hand, will wait a few minutes on the corner of California and VanNess. When the car arrives, you’ll stand on the running board near the front and hang from a pole. Go ahead and hum the Rice-a-Roni theme song, we’ll indulge. Get off on the corner of California and Market, but before you do, ask to ring the bell. If you ask very nicely, most operators will let you. Ding-ding!
2. Go fishing at the Academy of Sciences. This is our newly revamped aquarium and nature center, and it’s a great place for science nerds to pass the afternoon. Settle in at the planetarium, squeeze tidal creatures in the touch tank, kiss the glass when a penguin gives you the eye, and sit very still for the Giant Grouper who has been with the Academy since the dawn of time.
3. Get a sweatshirt, and get out on the water. If you want to visit Alcatraz, you’ll need to make reservations, but the prison is fascinating and the boat ride alone is worth the ticket. If you’re a more spontaneous sort, you can take a cruise with the Blue and Gold Fleet at Pier 39, and it takes you right under the Golden Gate Bridge. If you like to hike, take the ferry over to Angel Island and explore the trails. It will be cold on the water, so bring a sweater lest you be forced to buy a San Francisco fleece — the universal signal that homeless people should hassle you until you give them a dollar.
4. Eat at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building marketplace is open all week, and you should eat everything you see there until you can no longer breathe comfortably. Try the Bluebottle coffee, the cured meats at Boccalone, a burger at Gott’s, chocolate pears at Rechiutti, the Cellophane Noodles with Dungeoness Crab at Slanted Door, anything at Boulette’s Larder — it’s hard to go wrong. If you happen to be here on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, you’ll get to experience the farmer’s market, which is among the best in the U.S.
5. Have tea at the Ritz. Tea at the Ritz Carlton Hotel is slightly cheezy, and an ideal cure for traveler’s fatigue. They have a harpist, bone china, and any number of tiny sandwiches. It’s a soothing way to pass an afternoon. If at all possible, borrow someone’s little girl so you can laugh while she twirls in her fancy dress.
6. Visit Golden Gate Park. There’s so much to do here, but here’s what you should do: Climb the moon bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden. Breathe in the steam at the Conservatory of Flowers. Take in the view from the DeYoung Museum viewing tower. Navigate the paddle boats on Stowe Lake. Brave the cement slide at the Koret Children’s Quarter park. Watch your neck.
7. Take some quarters to Musee Mechanique. This is an extensive collection of antique arcade machines. A few years ago, it moved from a magical, somewhat remote location on a cliff overlooking the sea… and relocated to Fisherman’s Wharf. Sad trombone. Many San Franciscans protested and mourned the move, and I was one of them. But! The vintage arcade machines are still amazing. Go have a look, and we’ll look the other way.
8. See the Golden Gate Bridge. Yeah, it’s gorgeous. Eat a loaf of sourdough bread while you walk across.
9. Hear the organist at the Castro Theater. This registered landmark was built in 1922, and is one of the few ’20s era movie palaces still in operation. The Castro Theater is awe-inspiring, jaw dropping, and when the Wurlitzer organ rises up from the floor, everyone cheers.
10. Have some fresh seafood at the Swan Oyster Depot. I think Rachel Ray featured this on her cheap eats show a while back, thereby guaranteeing that you’ll find a line at this tiny seafood diner. Wait in line. Take a seat on a swivel stool at the counter and enjoy a plate of oysters on ice. Grin at the suckers in line, and order another glass of white wine.
That’s it, except for a few bonus beloveds — The Tiki Room, Coit Tower, and the Exploratorium. On Monday I’ll do a locals guide, and tell you all about the places I drag my guests when they’re in town.
For now, what tourist attractions did I miss? Let us know what you’d recommend in comments.
(Photo from Today on MSNBC.)
I recently read a blurb about deep fried butter in The Week and kind of didn’t believe it. Oh, America. Apparently it tastes like a very well buttered biscuit with a slight aftertaste of death. Has anyone tried this?