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?
(via Laura Mayes)
Going to dinner by myself is one of my favorite things.
I’m just now reading this. Favorite parts of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
“She stared at her reflection in the glossed shop windows as if to make sure, moment by moment, that she continued to exist.”
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
“Every month you get a book in the mail that hasn’t been released yet. You’re invited to a moderated online discussion with the author at the end of the month… You can also write a review of the book and we’ll run the best written review(s) on the website.
It’s neat because we’re going to have a discussion about new books, rather than waiting to be told what books are approved for cultural consumption.”
Such a cool concept, and you can subscribe by the month or the year. Yes to books.
I love this Ask MetaFilter thread on relationship hacks (via Not Martha). I recommend reading through the whole thing, but these are the points I’ve used to good effect. If you have any good advice, let me know.
-”Have a set ‘date night’ every week and don’t deviate from it unless you HAVE to. This is especially important if you have roommates or children.” -Unicorn on the Cob
-”Never yell. Heck, never even raise your voice.” -teg4rvn
-”…People often start negotiating from what they think they can get, not what they really want–so even if the other person says yes, they are still disappointed. …People should start by being honest about 100% of what they want. My partner and I use this all the time, for things big and small. ‘My 100% would be having dinner before we see the movie.’ ‘My 100% would be to move to a bigger house in two years.’
…One thing that is surprising is how often you can have your 100%–and then you feel really lucky and happy and loved. And you also have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave your partner what they _really_ wanted. On the other hand, if the 100% isn’t possible and you have to negotiate down from there you at least know that what you wanted was heard.” -Not that Girl
-”Don’t tell people they’re wrong about trivial things. Inevitably someone will insist something silly, like that Kevin Costner starred in The Fifth Element or whatnot. You’ll know they’re wrong, but saying so is just going to be taken as adversarial and lead to ill feelings that turn into fights… It’s not worth upsetting each other over something so unimportant.” -Pufferish
- “If you have friends of the indecisive sort, learn how to play 5-3-1. It’s a trick to settle the ‘where do you want to eat?’ ‘I don’t care, where do you want to eat?’ game. One partner names 5 places, the other eliminates two of those choices, and the first one eliminates the remaining two. It’s decision making in turns, and it works just as well as anything else.” -Alice Ayres
That last one has saved me hours just in the last week. Apparently I am the indecisive friend. How about you? Tell your secrets.