San Francisco is a tiny city of only 49 square miles on the west coast of the USA in northern California. What it lacks in size, it makes up amply in charm, unusual topography, natural beauty, unique geography, vibrant culture, diversity and unmatched culinary landscape. If you have yet not visited this amazing city that I call home, let this guide convince you to drop everything and catch that flight. Pronto!
San Francisco’s Main Attractions
Golden Gate Bridge
No visit to San Francisco is complete without a view of the iconic Golden Gate bridge, possibly the most famous and photographed bridge in the world. Completed in 1937, this 80yo bridge connects the city of San Francisco to the Marin headlands, specifically the beautiful artsy city of Sausalito. Although there are viewing points at both ends of the bridge, the best way to view it is from a distance. Ocean’s beach or Marshall’s Beach in the Presidio, Crissy Field or San Francisco’s Marina provide excellent views of the orange-red bridge. I highly recommend starting your day by crossing the bridge over to Hawk Hill to catch a sunrise.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square
These final cable car destinations in the north-eastern quadrant of the city are also the most crowded and touristy. Fisherman’s Wharf is the other name for Pier 39 which is where you see the sea lions basking in the sun and people queuing outside of Boudin’s bakery and restaurant to get some of the famous San Francisco clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. Ferries depart from nearby Pier 41 to Tiburon and Angel Island which is considered the Ellis Island of the east and was the main immigration point in California. Ghirardelli square is another famous attraction where chocolate aficionados go to buy the famous chocolate squares and fudge sundaes. There is a small sandy beach near the square as well. If jostling with hundreds of people in crowded Ghirardelli square is something you’d rather not do, then I suggest you visit one of the many artisanal chocolate stores in San Francisco who make their product locally and practice ethical sourcing and 100% bean to bar practices. Recchiuti Confections and Dandelion chocolates are two such small businesses with their kiosks in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The Exploratorium makes for a fun filled day with the kids or better yet, visit on an adults only night.
Located in San Francisco’s prettiest neighborhood, Russian Hill, a portion of this east-west running street between Hyde and Leavenworth streets has several hairpin bends which has earned it the nickname “the crookedest street in the world”. You can drive down Lombard, but be mindful of the fact that it is a residential street and hundreds of distracted tourists will be constantly stopping to take photos. While in the area, stroll to nearby Ina Coolbrith Park for a magnificent view of the city or spend some time at the beautifully landscaped Fay Park Garden, which is brimming with rose bushes. Both are just a block away from Lombard Street.
Union Square and China Town
San Francisco’s Union Square is a shopper’s paradise. You will find all big brands on its glitzy sidewalks which are brimming with tourists. The square itself, facing Macy’s, gets converted to an ice skating arena in winter complete with a stall selling hot cocoa. The Stockton street tunnel, the largest in North America, connects Union Square to China town. Dragon’s Gate on Bush Street is popular with tourists and there are lots of stores, groceries, restaurants, and bakeries selling everything from souvenirs to Chinese sweet treats. Don’t forget to stop by the Golden Gate fortune cookie factory on Ross Alley which is the birth place of those crunchy crescent cookies.
Alamo Square and Painted Ladies
Ever seen a postcard of San Francisco showing a tidy row of painted Victorian houses? Those are our beloved “painted ladies” standing right next to Alamo Square Park. Surprisingly, not many visitors come here, but if you do, bring a picnic basket along to lunch like the locals.
Built in honor of the San Francisco firefighters, this tower stands tall and proud in the North Beach neighborhood (Little Italy). The area hosts some fantastic murals drawn by resident SF artists inspired by Diego Rivera, the famous muralist from Mexico. You can either take the bus to the parking landing of the tower or climb up the steps of Filbert street for some hardcore exercise. The murals are free to see but there is a fee to go up the tower and tickets can be purchased onsite.
Golden Gate Park
You can spend an entire day at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and still have enough unfinished business for later. Bigger in area than NYC’s Central Park, this patch of green has a variety of attractions to keep you occupied and many of them are free to enter on certain days. The Japanese Hagiwara tea garden, San Francisco arboretum, the California Academy of Sciences and de Young museum are all part of the Golden Gate Park. Additionally, there is a beautiful Shakespeare rose garden and a hidden waterfall in the Strawberry Hill section of the park near Stowe Lake.
Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco’s Palace of Fine arts is an architectural beauty which was constructed for the Panama-Pacific exposition in 1915 to showcase the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. It has a beautiful swan lake, a small museum and is a venue for concerts, weddings, and photo shoots. The rotunda is magnificent and perfect for an afternoon stroll.
Although not technically in San Francisco, this world-famous island penitentiary which held criminals like Al Capone is only a short ferry ride away. There are both day and night guided tours to the island and the ferry leaves from Pier 33. Reservations need to be made in advance since this is an extremely popular activity.
Land’s End and Mile Rock Beach
Head to San Francisco’s Land’s End to see the ruins of the famous Sutra Baths. The coastal trail which leads to the secluded Mile Rock Beach is nearby. This is where the locals go to experience a surreal sunset. Dinner or brunch at the nearby iconic Cliff House is a must for great food and an even better view.
San Francisco’s beaches are deceptive; think extremely windy with deathly cold water. Ocean Beach near Land’s End is a great spot to catch a sunset and Baker Beach and Marshall’s Beach in Presidio have breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco’s Presidio has many hiking trails, houses the Walt Disney Museum and has sweeping views from Inspiration Point.
Stop by San Francisco’s Japan town to visit the Peace Plaza and get a taste of good Ramen, mouth-watering mochi and all things Kawaii (cute). These four blocks or so on Webster Street also have street signs in Japanese and host many street festivals, including the cherry blossom festival every spring.
San Francisco’s Best Food & Drink Options
Bon Appétit magazine proclaimed San Francisco as the best food city in North America in 2015. Here are some of my recommendations.
Brunch & Lunch
San Franciscans are crazy about brunch and Zazie’s, the charming French cafe on Cole Street is by far my favorite. For something different try Bon Nene in the Mission (a mix of Japanese meets French) or Rooh in the SOMA neighborhood for amazing Indian. Burmese kitchen serves the best Burmese food in the city, Cala showcases a taste of Mexico City and Aina, in the Dogpatch neighborhood serves up yummy Hawaiian including spam and musubi.
Do not miss the farm to table movement started by the legendary Alice Waters for a very Californian take on American cuisine. This movement showcases the best of local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients obtained from in and around San Francisco. Experience a Californian-Italian meal at Piccino, Californian-American dining at Huxley or Octavia and some good Californian-Vietnamese grub at the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building.
Spruce, Saison, Quince, Coi and Benu are San Francisco’s fine dining spots for indulgent occasions. They all serve a version of Californian-American cuisine and their chefs continue to be featured on the prestigious James Beard award list.
Must Eats & Budget Options
Don’t leave town without tasting USA’s best burrito at La Taqueria or enjoying lunch at Zuni’s, an iconic San Franciscan restaurant. Check out the Ferry Building’s outdoor farmer’s market on Saturdays (USA’s largest) and the food trucks at Off the Grid in Fort Mason every Friday night. Get some Californian style pizza at Tony’s Take Out in North Beach, Del Popolo, or from the food truck at the Presidio on Sunday. Finally, be sure to try the dim sum (Cantonese dumplings) at either Hong Kong Lounge in the Richmond neighborhood or Kingdom of Dumpling in the Sunset neighborhood.
Bakeries and Desserts
How can you leave San Francisco without some dessert? Get some Taiwanese shaved snow at Powder on Divisadero or gorge on some Tai-yaki (baked waffle fish shaped cake with red bean paste) in Japan town. Wait in long lines for the pastries at B. Patisserie (Lower pacific Heights) and Tartine Bakery in Mission or try the famous Almond Croissant at Arsicault bakery in Laurel Heights (named the best US bakery in 2016 by Bon Apetit magazine) or the notoriously good Cruffins (a cross between a croissant and a muffin) at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in TenderNob. Ice-creams at either Bi Rite (Mission or NOPA), Humphry Slocombe (Mission or Ferry building), Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous (Dog Patch) or Salt & Straw (Lower Pacific Heights) are a must.
Unique Food Experiences
Join a food tour or have a pop-up meal with several other diners at a communal table. I highly recommend Chris Milano’s foodie adventures and Feastly, a SF based startup that organizes pop up meals all over the city and caters to different cuisines and palates.
San Francisco Libations
Our 49 square miles is brimming with cafes, bars, pubs and tea lounges, so whatever your poison, there is something for you to sip on here. Jane’s on Fillmore, YakiniQ Cafe in Japantown (ask for their famous sweet potato latte), Cafe St. Jorge in Bernal Heights, Elite Cafe on Fillmore, Mr. Tibbles Recording Room in Hayes Valley and the Alembic in Haight are some of my favorites. Since nights are almost always chilly and windy in San Francisco, rooftop bars are not our jam but you can check out Jones in Tenderloin and El Techo in the Mission for drinks with a view of the city. Sit down for a good cup of tea at either Crown and Crumpets in Japan Town or Lovejoy’s Tea Room in Noe Valley for bottomless pots of tea to go with those pastries and finger sandwiches. Finally, no trip to San Francisco is complete without some wine tasting. Although Napa and Sonoma are super close, you can still taste some pretty good wine at Bluxome Street Winery in SOMA or stop at the Ferry Building Wine Merchants.
Getting Around in San Francisco
Our tiny city is notorious for lack of parking space, so driving is not advisable. Despite the hills, walking is the best way to see the city and most neighborhoods have a very good walking score, but when you’ve had enough, public transportation is your best friend. San Francisco’s BART (Metro) has eight stops along Market Street and our trams, trains and buses are all covered by the SF MUNI system. You can download the Munimobile app to purchase 1, 3 and 7 day passes for unlimited rides on all MUNI modes of transportation or buy these passes at MUNI kiosks or in the SF Ferry building. Lyft and Uber originated in San Francisco and their shared rides are a great way to get around the city for much less than a taxi. Just download the apps and avoid using Market street as your pick-up spot as only taxis and buses are allowed there.
Places To Stay in San Francisco
Accommodation can be extremely expensive in the city particularly around Union Square, the shopping hub in downtown. Your best bet is to stay near the Embarcadero at the Hyatt and if you are lucky you may get a room overlooking the bay. Other options are Hotel Kabuki in Japan town, Hayes Valley Inn in Hayes Valley or the no-frills Monarch Hotel in the Tenderloin (although I do not recommend that neighborhood for safety reasons). The other option would be to go for an Airbnb in residential neighborhoods such as Glen park or Western Addition. Fancy hotels abound in Union Square, try The W San Francisco, Fairmont San Francisco, Palace Hotel, JW Marriott, Kimpton Sir Francis Drake or the Hotel Union Square, to name a few.
Don’t miss out on San Francisco’s
This is a quintessential San Francisco experience and a must do, regardless of how touristy it is. There are three cable car lines operating in the city, the most famous being the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines. They chug uphill northward to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square respectively. If you do not want to stand in a LONG line, simply hop onto the east-west running California line from near Market and Drumm Streets and transfer at California and Powell. You can pay on the cable car using cash ($7/adult) or your MUNI pass, but cable car tickets are non-transferable between cars.
Art and Street Art
Did you know that San Francisco’s Modern Art Museum (SFMOMA) hosts North America’s largest modern art collection? Or that the Legion of Honor is one the prettiest fine arts museums with a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge? Or that our Asian art museum has one of the best Asian sculpture and art collections in the USA? All these museums are spectacular and extremely well curated. However, if spending an entire day indoors is not your thing, then street art may be up your alley (no pun intended!). San Francisco has a thriving street art scene and you can find a treasure trove of murals in the city’s Mission and Haight neighborhoods. The Mission is the last Latino bastion of San Francisco and it’s Clarion Alley is where some of the most famous murals in the country can be found, echoing San Francisco’s ethos on social justice and tolerance. You can also simply walk down 24th Street on Mission and see tons of murals everywhere. The Haight, often known as the Shangri-La of the flower power movement, has lots of colorful murals along Haight Street. Finally, Polk Street running through Nob Hill also has many interesting murals.
Street Fairs, Festivals and Performing Arts
Nothing symbolizes San Francisco more than the street fairs, festivals, and parades that occur during summer from June-August. This includes our SF Pride Parade, Bay to Breakers race and Summer of Love festival. In addition, we have neighborhood street fairs, the Cherry Blossom festival, the Anime/Manga festival, the J-Pop festival and the Nihonmachi street fair in Japan town. If you are into music, the Stern Grove Park holds free music concerts in summer or catch some smooth jazz tunes at the San Francisco Jazz Center in the Hayes Valley, a neighborhood with cute boutiques and great restaurants. Theater lovers can get their fix at the A.C.T or SF Playhouse in San Francisco’s theatre district.
San Francisco packs quite a punch in terms of hiking, thanks to its hilly topography. The reward for huffing and puffing your way to the top is terrific views of the city. A sunrise or sunset atop Bernal Hills, Kite Hill Open Space Reserve, Tank Hill Park, Billy Goat Hill or Corona Heights Park is a San Francisco experience like no other. My other favorite spot is Mt. Davidson Park, which not only provides a great view of the city but is also home to a huge white cross belonging to the Armenian-American society.
16th Street and Lyon Street Steps
The 16th Street Steps on Morgaga which lead to Grand View Park are hugely popular with tourists but are relatively secluded in the eastern corner of the city. The mosaic steps, created and maintained by the neighborhood council, are extremely colorful and perfect for those Instagram shots. Lyon Street in San Francisco’s richest neighborhood Pacific Heights has a series of steps going down into a landscaped garden. Standing atop these steps provides a great view of the Palace of Fine Arts with the bay as a backdrop.
Things to Know
My beloved city has a few unique quirks …
- Weather: Most cities have defined weather patterns but we have microclimates and very un-California like weather. While we don’t get the warm sun of southern California, we are happy with a perennial 65-70F (18-21C), foggy mornings, bright afternoons and chilly evenings when the fog rolls in again. Always carry a jacket and dress in layers. Those darned microclimates can be very tricky with the sun in one neighborhood and fog in another.
- We have over 20 neighborhoods in this pint-sized city.
- Our fog has a name, we call it Karl.
- Marijuana is legal here. You will see a lot of pot dispensaries. This has completely taken away the charm of sketchy people soliciting their wares in Haight-Ashbury.
- Union Square, modeled after NYC, is simply a giant shopping promenade and is the least San Francisco thing about San Francisco. Vintage neighborhoods like Telegraph, Nob Hill, and Russian Hill is where the spirit of San Francisco is still alive and kicking.
- The Mission neighborhood has the largest number of restaurants.
- When we say “city” in the Bay Area, we mean San Francisco.
- We have 2-3 weeks of summer-like weather called Indian Summer, in September-October which is the best time to visit the city. The actual summer months (June-August) are pretty cold.
- Many famous tech startups such as Square, Lyft, Uber, Yelp and dozens of others originated from the SOMA neighborhood in San Francisco.
- San Franciscans love their burritos. Chilling in Dolores Park, talking about the highest rents in the nation, their “hoods” (neighborhoods) and new restaurants in their hoods are some of the most popular brunch conversations.
- San Francisco is extremely dog-friendly. Most dog parks have great city views.
- Northern Californians are friendly and laid back. We love to dress colorfully and our style is very relaxed.
- We are hooked on the latest tech gadgets, thanks to the city being a tech incubator and our proximity to Silicon Valley.
I was not born in San Francisco but chose to make it my home and my love affair with this city continues. Herb Caen once quipped “One day if I do go to heaven…I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’” I could not agree more, and once you visit, you will realize why.
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Paroma is a scientist living in San Francisco with her husband and four legged son. When not sulking in the lab, she can be found dreaming of new travel destinations to visit, new restaurants and photography gear to try out. Follow her on her site Year Of The Monkey to learn about her travels. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest here.