San Francisco Recommendations
Andy’s San Francisco Recommendations
Ferry Building and Northern Waterfront – San Francisco’s Northern Waterfront from the Ferry Building to the Presidio is a breathtaking part of the city. See my Downtown and Northern Waterfront tour for ideas.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz – Alcatraz is lots more fun than you may think (make reservations early), the cruise is great and the island is really interesting. Check out the Boudin French Bread Museum in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. The restaurant upstairs is quite nice and calmer than the downstairs café. Also try the ‘walkaround’ crab cocktails being sold on the sidewalks outside the large restaurants. See my North Beach – Chinatown – Union Square tour for more.
North Beach – One of my favourite neighbourhoods. From downtown walk up Kearny Street to Columbus (another option is to take Grant Avenue, it goes through the touristy part of Chinatown). Turn up Columbus and you’ll pass the City Lights Bookstore (think Beat Poetry) with its great selection of books. Have a drink at the Vesuvio Café next door. Continue walking up Columbus and you’ll find yourself surrounded by cafes and restaurants that remind you of Italy. My favourite cafes include Café Trieste (Grant/Vallejo), Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store (Columbus/Union), Puccini and Roma (both on Columbus).
Rose Pistola, next door to Café Roma, is a great restaurant, try the Ciappino, San Francisco’s seafood soup. Don’t miss a walk down Grant Avenue (lots of interesting shops and restaurants), Union Square (park) and the hike up to Coit Tower (walk east on Union Street), although there is also a bus that goes there. Go inside Coit tower to see the great WPA murals and ride the elevator to the top for great views. See my North Beach – Chinatown – Union Square tour for more ideas.
Museum of Modern Art – The SFMOMA on Third Street south of market was designed by Swiss Architect Mario Botta. It’s a fine building with a nice collection, good shows and a great gift shop. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is across the street with a great open green space in the middle. Behind the SFMOMA on New Montgomery are two great lunch spots: a branch of Henry’s Hunan Restaurant (on Minna Street) and Chipote (a chain Mexican restaurant, but high quality and inexpensive). See my Downtown and Northern Waterfront tour for more ideas.
Mission District – The Mission is San Francisco’s sunniest neighbourhood. Take BART to 16th/Mission and you’ll be in the heart of the neighbourhood.
Mission Street and east is full of South and Central American immigrants, shops and restaurants; west of Mission is full of Hipster immigrants, shops and restaurants. Some of San Francisco’s best restaurants are in the Mission. Unfortunately the neighbourhood is gentrifying rapidly and this is creating a great deal of tension.
See my Mission – Haight – Golden Gate Park tour for more.
Mission – Noe Valley – Castro Circuit – You can see many sides of San Francisco making this circuit (it can take all day). Start at BART’s 16th/Mission station, walk around the Mission (eat lunch). Walk up 24th Street towards Castro, this is the heart of Noe (No-ee) Valley, where hipsters go to raise children. At Castro catch the #24 Divisadero bus up the hill (unless you want a real workout), get off at 20th Street and walk down through the Castro, one of the first Gay neighbourhoods in America. At Market turn right and walk or catch one of the historic F-Market streetcars back downtown.
Baker Beach – You can’t really swim in San Francisco, it’s too cold for most people, but you can walk on the beach and sunbathe (when it’s not foggy). A favourite beach is Baker Beach in the Presidio. You can get there easily by bike and there’s a bus nearby. One end of the beach is frequented by nude sunbathers, forewarned is forearmed.
Sunday in Golden Gate Park – On Sundays cars are banned from the eastern part of Golden Gate Park, it’s a great time to enjoy the park and its cultural institutions. Go for brunch on Haight Street (ground zero for San Francisco’s Summer of Love), walk west on Haight exploring the shops to Golden Gate Park.
Don’t miss the deYoung Art Museum and the California Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park Concourse. If you are in the mood for exercise, you can walk all the way to Ocean Beach. See my Mission – Haight – Golden Gate Park tour for more.
San Francisco Transport Highlights
San Francisco Transit Pass
Be sure to buy a transit pass for San Francisco if you plan to use the cable cars! The cable car fare is very high and so a pass pays for itself after a couple rides. Muni sells single and multiple day tourist passes.
A San Francisco City Pass includes entry into several museums along with a 9-day Muni transit pass, quite a good deal if you want to visit museums too.
Note that these passes only cover Muni (buses, streetcars, cable cars), not the many other transit systems operating in San Francisco (e.g. BART).
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a ride on the cable cars – be sure to buy a visitor pass (see above) because single rides are expensive! However, they are often crowded and waits are long during the day.
I recommend the Hyde-Powell cable car sometime after 9 pm. Try to stand on the running board in the front, dress warm – it’s even better on a foggy summer night! You will ride over Nob Hill, Russian Hill and on to the Aquatic Park.
Have an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Café (across the street from the cable car terminal), they claim Irish Coffee was invented here, and get back on the cable car (maybe you’ll need to sit after the coffee!) for a few more trips halfway to the stars!
San Francisco has a wonderful historic tram line operating from Castro Street via Market and the Embarcadero to Fishermans Wharf. The idea came from the non profit organisation Market Street Railway and they continue to support the service in many ways.
The historic tram fleet comes from several cities and many of the President’s Conference Commission (PCC) cars are painted in the liveries of different US cities. Riding these trams is a wonderful experience.
Ferry to Sausalito
Take a ferry ride from the Ferry Building. The Golden Gate Ferry offers service to Sausalito and Larkspur. Take the ferry to Sausalito: it’s a nice town with interesting shops and restaurants. The ferry is much cheaper on weekdays than weekends. Golden Gate also offers lunch cruises with music during the summer.
Eating in San Francisco
San Francisco Ferry Building
San Francisco is a food lover’s paradise and the Ferry Building is the Cathedral! High mass is every Saturday morning from 8 am to 1 pm when the local farmers market is held. There are smaller markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays (depending on the season). But, the Ferry Building is worth visiting anytime because it’s filled with extraordinary food stores and interesting restaurants.
TIP: the Slanted Door Vietnamese restaurant is one of the best in the world, it’s hard to get a reservation but you can sit at the bar and get the same food without a reservation; get there early and you won’t need to wait.
San Francisco is a paradise for Asian food. There are many great places and many hidden gems. If you see Asian families eating somewhere it’s probably a sign that the food is good.
Be sure to check out neighbourhoods beyond Chinatown like Clement Street in the Richmond. Great restaurants and food markets.
Henry’s Hunan Restaurant is one of my favourite all-time restaurants. They have several locations in San Francisco. It was one of the first in America to serve the very spicy food typical of China’s Hunan province. The great thing is that it’s a really clean fire. My favourites include the hot and sour chicken, dry braised string beans and harvest pork.
San Francisco’s large Japanese population and serious foodie culture means that sushi is high quality, fresh and (relatively) inexpensive. There are many good sushi restaurants throughout the city.
If you want a bit of Japanese flavour visit the Japantown area Post/Laguna where there is a mall with Japanese oriented shops (including the famous Kabuki Japanese Baths).
Walk over to Fillmore Street for interesting shops and restaurants. One of my favourite sushi restaurants is Toraya Sushi Bar and Grill located at 1914 Fillmore between Bush and Pine, it’s only open for dinner.
Living in Europe I really miss Mexican food. Take BART to the Mission District for lots of great choices. Two of my favourites are at 16th Street: Taqueria Pancho Villa and La Cumbre (Valencia, just south of 16th).
I also like the Chipote chain of Mexican restaurants which you can find all over the United States. They serve tasty Mexican inspired food for reasonable prices.