It’s no wonder Tony Bennett left his heart here. San Francisco is a compact city of world-class culture, historical landmarks, award-winning dining, outdoor adventures and nightlife — all wrapped up in a sparkling bay flanked by the famous Golden Gate Bridge, visible from hilly streets’ whizzing cable cars. Even the unpredictable fog adds to the beauty.
Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered the inlet in 1775, but it wasn’t until 1847 that San Francisco got its name — just before gold was discovered in “them thar” Sierra Nevada hills to the east. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the union and by 1854 more than 500 saloons and 20 theaters graced the booming Gold Rush town. But the real “gold” to be found was in its seas — and the area known as Fisherman’s Wharf, on the San Francisco Bay, was once the center of Northern California’s commercial fishing industry.
Indeed, the City by the Bay reflects its roots. A morning stroll down Fish Alley — Jefferson between Hyde and Jones — offers a chance to view fishermen at work, and an old saloon established in 1861 still stands in the city’s North Beach neighborhood with cracked barstools and a dusty wooden floor. (It is one of the three oldest taverns in San Francisco, which somehow survived demolition by man and earthquakes, including the major one in 1906 that resulted in fire and widespread destruction.)
But above all, today’s San Francisco is playfully sophisticated with a mix of distinct contemporary neighborhoods like the tie-dye-wearing, peace-loving Haight; up-and-coming Deco Ghetto; swank Pacific Heights; and fabulously gay Castro, home to many of the city’s GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) businesses and households. But with rainbow flags lining nearly every street, the culture has spread citywide: San Francisco is actually the self-proclaimed gay and lesbian capital of the world.
The treats of San Francisco are worth indulging for several days: mah-jongg parlors in Chinatown (with yummy samples from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley), cable car rides over Nob Hill, the staircase down the very steep and crooked Lombard Street, the ferry ride to enchanting Sausalito across San Francisco Bay, and — of course — an escape to Alcatraz.
San Francisco Attraction
You can’t visit here and not spend time at Fisherman’s Wharf; check out all the crab stands near Jefferson Street. Look out across the Bay and you’ll see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge — look down and you might see a few sea lions trying to get a tan. Younger kids will love the hand-painted, two-tiered Venetian carousel topped in almost 2,000 twinkling lights at Pier 39. Nearby is the Aquarium of the Bay, where the highlight is a brand-new habitat for river otters.
Ghirardelli Square started out as a factory in 1864, making Civil War uniforms — but it’s famous for being the chocolate and spice factory from the 1890’s until the mid-1960’s. Look for the original 1860 cast-iron chocolate grinder from France on the lower level and make sure you stop at the old-fashioned soda fountain down there too. These days, the factory is in another part of town and this place, though on the National Historic Register, is a multi-level mall filled to the brim with shops and restaurants.
Heralded as one of the world’s most beautiful bridges, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge attracts more than 10 million visitors each year. There’s a toll to drive across the span of the bridge (southbound only). Pedestrians (including wheelchair users) and bicyclists may access the sidewalks during daylight hours. Or view it from afar on a ferry ride across the bay to…
Alcatraz (a.k.a. the Rock), run by the National Park Service, is where some of the most notorious felons were sent from 1934 until 1963; alums include Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and of course, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” The ferry departs from Pier 33 every half hour or so, starting around 8:45 a.m. There are some evening (read: spookier) tours, as well as a longer “behind the scenes” tour that visits a few areas not included on the regular version; check the schedule before you book. Notes: There is a bit of an elevated walk from the ferry to the cell house, so wear comfortable shoes. If you think it might be a difficult trek for you, consider taking SEAT — an electric shuttle that runs regularly between the dock and the cell house. Bring a heavy sweater or a windbreaker because it gets chilly out there.
All at once trendy, nostalgic, funky and touristy: That’s the legendary intersection of Haight-Ashbury. Made famous by the psychedelic 60’s, it’s a bit more gentrified these days with swank shops and hip restaurants. You’ll still spot a few aging hippies here and there along Haight Street — and a lot of strangely colored hair atop club kids’ heads. If you want to see where the Grateful Dead lived in the mid-60’s, head for 710 Ashbury Street. (Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin once lived in the area as well.)
Where prices are subject to discussion, Chinatown is beyond the great big red and green gate on Grant Avenue. Inside you’ll find a 24-block maze of restaurants and shops, an ornate temple, and cheap dim sum joints galore.
Photo ops abound not far from North Beach at Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Built as a memorial to the city’s volunteer firemen, it was finished in 1933. The Diego Rivera-inspired murals at its base are wonderful to see — all done by 25 artists under the WPA during the New Deal. For panoramic views of the city and the bay, take the elevator to the top of the tower.
The Exploratorium, now in a new location at Pier 15, has a wealth of fascinating exhibits for kids and adults alike — including the Tactile Dome, where kids must navigate a series of environments and obstacles in total darkness, figuring out the course by touch. You can also look into a giant mirror that turns the world upside down, explore a monochromatic room or listen to the sounds of a 27-foot-high harp that sings in the wind.
It may not be Manhattan’s Central Park, but Golden Gate Park sure comes close — at 1,017 acres, it is one of the largest inner-city parks on the planet. Here you can rent bikes (try Golden Gate Park Bike & Skate on Fulton St.), go horseback riding or simply gaze out on the Pacific. A must-see site in the park is the Japanese Tea Garden, a beautiful collection of waterfalls, bonsai trees and Japanese-style architecture.
Union Square is considered the center of the city; many hotels, department stores, restaurants and tony boutiques frame the small park (mostly along Post, Stockton, Geary, Powell and Sutter Streets). The Theater District is just three blocks away. There are also a handful of decent art galleries in the area — in particular, the Xanadu Gallery on Maiden Lane that is inside a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Around the perimeter of the park, you’ll find the sidewalks dotted with colorful flower stalls and jewelry vendors.
For people-watchers, the best coffeehouses are found in the Italian enclave of North Beach (where baseball great Joe DiMaggio grew up). Don’t look for a beach — there isn’t one — but there’s plenty of history in this part of town. Grant Avenue is the city’s oldest street, and legend has it that as fires swept through the city after the 1906 earthquake, locals cracked open barrels upon barrels of red wine and soaked blankets that were then draped over their houses. The Italian restaurants (with the obligatory red and white checked tablecloths) are matchless, and there’s plenty of nightlife along Columbus and Grant Avenues.
For a view beyond all views, head to the top of Market Street to Twin Peaks. If you want to reach it without too much of a hike, find the Pemberton Stairs near Clayton Street. It won’t get you all the way to the top, but the views are still awesome.
The Walt Disney Family Museum, located in the Presidio, offers a fascinating look at the life of Walt Disney, from his childhood in the Midwest to his biggest film successes.
A visit to the GLBT Historical Society on Mission Street is an opportunity to visit world-class exhibits related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history and culture.
The Museum of the African Diaspora is one of the city’s smaller gems. This recently renovated space hosts interesting exhibitions related to African history, culture and art.
Home to a new LEED-certified visitor center, Land’s End is a great spot to watch the sun set over the Pacific or to take a walk along the coast. You can also check out the ruins of the Sutro Baths, once an extensive complex for swimming and dining in the 19th century. These days you can still do lunch or dinner with a view at the Cliff House.
An excellent culture stop is the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Inside you’ll find one of the best collections of American art with more than 1,000 works from colonial times through the 21st century.
The massive new California Academy of Sciences is your one-stop shop for scientific exploration, housing a planetarium, aquarium, rain forest habitat, walk-through planet Earth and much more, all within an environmentally sustainable building. (The walls are insulated with recycled blue jeans!) It’s located in Golden Gate Park near the de Young Museum.
Contemporary art lovers should spend time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. You can’t imagine the breadth of works here from artists such as Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. And because the museum places tremendous focus on photography, you will have the opportunity to see work from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Stieglitz.
Jay Gifford, a Victorian aficionado, offers a two-hour Victorian walking tour around the hills of Pacific Heights, pointing out architecture inside and outside some 200 restored Victorian homes while imparting some fairly good local gossip. For Hollywood fans, this tour gives you a chance to see the house used in “Mrs. Doubtfire” as well as the one featured on “Party of Five.” For info, visit VictorianHomeWalk.com.
Located in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge is Fort Point, which was completed in 1861 to protect the city in case of an attack by sea. In addition to some fascinating military history, the fort also provides excellent photo ops of the city’s most famous bridge.
Head out about 12 miles beyond the Golden Gate for a walk in Muir Woods (it may seem familiar since scenes from “Return of the Jedi” were filmed here). The ancient redwoods are jaw-droppingly gorgeous as you walk along trails marked for 30-, 60- and 90-minute hikes.
Take a 30-minute ferry ride (available year-round) to Sausalito, a seaside village on the bay. Visit the art galleries, shops and restaurants, or take a stroll through a park guarded by large concrete elephants — erected for the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition.
Even if you don’t rent a car, California’s wine country is accessible. Take an eight-hour luxury bus tour with the Blue & Gold Fleet through Sonoma and Napa that allows for wine-tasting stops, tours and time for lunch. Buses depart daily at 9:15 a.m. from Pier 41, Fisherman’s Wharf.
Take a day trip to Berkeley, which is a quick BART ride from San Francisco. You can eat your way through the so-called Gourmet Ghetto, the area along Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street where you’ll find a cluster of innovative restaurants, and stroll the leafy campus of the University of California at Berkeley.
If you’re a fan of Snoopy and his cohorts, make a pilgrimage to Santa Rosa (about an hour and 15 minutes away by car) and the Charles M. Schulz Museum. The collections include the cartoonist’s personal effects, hundreds of drawings and sketches, and original “Peanuts” strips.
San Francisco Restaurants
Dungeness crab, Chinook salmon and Pacific herring are some of the city’s leading delicacies, particularly at Fisherman’s Wharf, where most of the restaurants are aimed at the casual day-tripper or tourist. But San Francisco also offers cuisines from all corners of the world — from the colorful streets of Chinatown to North Beach, San Francisco’s own “Little Italy” — for those watching their budgets and those looking to splurge.
The locals consider Mama’s on Washington Square the number one spot for served-all-day breakfast, but the lunch menu is pretty awesome, too — so definitely put up with the long wait for a table. Everything is delicious and made right there. You will not believe the whites-only egg creations.
It’s hard to say which is tops at Le Colonial — the fresh, flavorful Vietnamese dishes or the exquisite decor that surrounds you as you enjoy them (the rattan chairs and tropical plants are designed to evoke 1920’s French Vietnam). Specialties include Chilean sea bass wrapped in banana leaves, and wok-seared filet mignon with garlic-soy sauce.
The Stinking Rose is a beloved North Beach institution. But be forewarned … ya gotta love garlic! It’s in everything, including the ice cream. Start with their bagna calda, which is garlic cloves, oven-roasted in olive oil and butter with a hint of anchovy, then served in an iron skillet with plenty of just-baked bread.
Delfina offers unfussy Italian in the Mission District … and you’re bound to spot a celeb or two. The place is named after a restaurant in Tuscany, where owner/chef Craig Stoll worked in the early 1990’s. Dishes change daily and often incorporate organic and locally sourced ingredients.
For fine dining with an equally fine view, head to the Cliff House. Look out over the Pacific Ocean and the historic Sutro Baths as you dine on Dungeness crab cakes, duck breast with sweet potato latkes or artichoke ravioli.
The signature seafood bisque and beef medallions at Tommy Toy’s are worth dressing up a bit to dine there. The cuisine combines Chinese and French influences, and the decor is inspired by the Qing Dynasty. The fixed price menus are a worthy splurge.
Fifth Floor is one of the best restaurants in town. Recent menu delights include swordfish with beluga lentils, confit octopus with eggplant and purple potato, and duck with green curry and papaya. Reservations are a must.
Vegetarians, vegans and carnivores looking for healthy cuisine should head for the Plant Cafe Organic, which has both a full-service restaurant and a cafe right on the Embarcadero. Kale salad, lentil burgers and a ginger miso quinoa bowl typify the ultra-fresh fare on the menu.
Locals and visitors alike love the roaming street food carts of Off the Grid, which visit a variety of neighborhoods across San Francisco throughout the week (see offthegridsf.com for a schedule). In one spot you can sample tastes from around the world, like Vietnamese barbecue, Japanese rice balls, Peruvian sandwiches, Sicilian pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs. Top it off with a cupcake or creme brulee for dessert.
Boudin Bakery, located on Fisherman’s Wharf, falls into the “touristy but fun” category. This is the spot to indulge in one of San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread bowls filled with hot clam chowder. There’s a museum on site with info about the bakery’s history.
Shopping in San Francisco
San Francisco is a shopper’s dream, no matter what size your budget is. Huge department stores and tony boutiques can be found in the Union Square area, while bargain hunters flock to the thrift stores of Haight-Ashbury and the Mission District.
Head to Haight Street for hippie favorites like incense, used books and thrift store fashions. Bibliophiles should check out the Bound Together bookstore on Haight Street — you won’t find any Danielle Steel on the shelves, but you will find the works of Noam Chomsky and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mickey’s Monkey at 218 Pierce Street is a must if you’re looking for a lava lamp or other kitschy collectibles. With millions of new and used CD’s and LP’s, Amoeba Records is considered by many aficionados to be the best record store in America, offering everything from jazz and opera to R&B and progressive rock. You can literally spend an entire day picking through the racks (or you could just ask one of the staff — approachable music lovers who combine encyclopedic knowledge with a refreshing lack of condescension).
Union Square and its surroundings make up San Francisco’s most popular shopping district, where big-name stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks rub shoulders with designer boutiques like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Cartier.
In North Beach, you’ll find boutiques selling handmade goods, as well as City Lights, one of the city’s best and most historic bookstores (it was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and has served as a meeting place for writers, artists and intellectuals).
Chinatown‘s ticky-tacky tourist shops are fun to browse, but don’t miss the side streets, where you’ll find higher-quality items like fabric, jewelry and traditional herbs.
The fashionable Mission District offers a wealth of thrift stores, antique furniture and unique housewares. Valencia Street is the main drag.
–written by Lauren Price