San Francisco—the fabled “City by the Bay” where Tony Bennett left his heart, Otis Redding sat at the dock of the Bay, and the Mamas and the Papas wore flowers in their hair—is situated on the northern tip of the Peninsula. From the sweeping panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge to the vertiginously steep hills and rows of candy-colored Victorian houses, this alluring city overflows with natural beauty, scenic vistas, landmarks, museums, shops, restaurants, and colorful neighborhoods. -by Marlene Goldman
San Francisco ranks second only to New York as the best walking city in the US, despite the hilly terrain. Star-studded Embarcadero runs along the eastern waterfront past the Chase Center, the Golden State Warriors’ new state-of-the-art arena opening September 2019; Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, adorned with sparkling lights at night; and the Ferry Building, which in addition to docking commuter ferries from across the bay also hosts a local farmers’ market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, as well as popular restaurants, artisanal food purveyors and other shops. Got kids with you? The Embarcadero’s Pier 15 is the home of the one-of-a-kind Exploratorium, featuring over 600 hands-on exhibits.
If time permits, a great way to get to know San Francisco is by strolling its diverse neighborhoods. Peek into the city’s bawdy Gold Rush past with self-guided tours of the Barbary Coast Trail, starting in the Financial District. For those with the fortitude to make the steep climb, the top of Nob Hill boasts Gothic-style Grace Cathedral, while the Top of the Mark cocktail bar at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco overlooks Nob Hill and the entire bay.
Downhill, Chinatown is a vibrant mix of dim sum restaurants, Chinese bakeries, Buddhist temples, teahouses, Chinese herb outlets and kitschy souvenir shops, with Grant Street serving as its tourist center.
Adjacent to Chinatown, North Beach preserves the city’s Italian heritage with boisterous trattorias, outdoor cafés and bars. In the 1950s, the area also served as the Beat Generation’s unofficial headquarters and still features holdover Beat hangouts like City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café, as well as a revamped Tosca Café, still carrying its proverbial torch.
Follow the rainbow flags to The Castro, the hub for San Francisco’s LGBTQ community. The neighboring Mission District, home to the Mission-Dolores Basilica, the city’s oldest building, has a predominantly Latino population and offers everything from haute cuisine to taquerias. The Mission’s Balmy Alley adds a splash of color with its rotating murals by local artists.
Golden Gate Park stretches over 1,017 lushly landscaped acres, encompassing the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, Japanese Tea Garden, and the iconic California Academy of Sciences, which houses a spectacular aquarium and four-story living rainforest. Themed nightlife programs replete with cocktails take over on Thursday nights.
Another of the city’s parks, Land’s End, features a section of the Coastal Trail, while The Presidio, a former military base that is now a national park, contains the Presidio Officers’ Club cultural museum and numerous hiking trails.
Even when shrouded in the city’s notorious fog, the Golden Gate Bridge stands as the most majestic of San Francisco’s landmarks, welcoming pedestrians, cyclists and drivers to its 1.7-mile expanse. Painted in a hue dubbed “International Orange,” the bridge straddles the narrow mouth of San Francisco Bay, connecting the city to Marin County and other points north. The best vantage point for taking in the city is the viewing area just past the landing point on the Marin side. From there, you can drink in the sweeping vista of the city’s skyline, Alcatraz and Angel Islands, the Bay Bridge and architectural standouts like the Palace of Fine Arts, a graceful Greco-Roman-style remnant of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Most prominent on the horizon is the imposing Salesforce Tower, topped with its “Day for Night” art installation, which plays after 9 p.m., featuring images recorded with cameras placed across the city.
No visit to San Francisco is complete without a stop at Fisherman’s Wharf, built over the rubble of buildings destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Lined with seafood hawkers selling clam chowder, Dungeness crab and other fruits of the sea, the wharf area is also home to a trove of additional visitor attractions. The world’s largest collection of historic ships dating from the 1800s to World War II is docked at nearby Hyde Street Pier. Pier 39’s dual-level dining, shopping and entertainment offerings include the Aquarium of the Bay, but perhaps its biggest attraction is the sight (and din) of dozens of sea lions basking on the dock. Ghirardelli Square, for one, packs in tourists for its Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, along with multiple stores and restaurants. Nearby, Pier 45’s Musée Mecanique is filled with antique arcade games and coin-operated machines from the early 20th century.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also an excursion hub where you can catch a variety of scenic bay cruises, two of San Francisco’s three cable car lines and its F and E line historic streetcars, which run along the Embarcadero and Market Street. The Powell-Hyde Street cable car passes the crooked stretch of Lombard Street known for its multiple hairpin turns around manicured gardens and hydrangea flowers. At Pier 33, Alcatraz Cruises runs tours
to Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary that, between 1934 and 1963, held such renowned convicts as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Fitness fiends can hike the Filbert Steps or Green Steps, both of which make the steep ascent up to Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy patron of the city’s firefighters, Coit Tower provides 360-degree views of the city and bay from its observation deck, while its inner walls exhibit 27 colorful murals.
Another architectural draw, the Painted Ladies—aka Postcard Row—is the colorful lineup of Victorian houses, built in the 1890s, across from Alamo Square.
San Francisco is no slouch when it comes to cultural highlights. The Civic Center, home to the regal beaux-arts City Hall, also showcases the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, as well as the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet at the War Memorial Opera House. Also at the Civic Center, the Asian Art Museum’s exhibits span 6,000 years of art from various Far Eastern cultures.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showcases a vast, seven-floor collection of modern and contemporary artworks. Nearby, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, set in a former power station, is an architectural draw emblazoned with the word “chai” (life) spelled out in giant Hebrew letters. San Francisco has two other outstanding fine arts museums—the de Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park, showcases mainly American art, while the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park, displays more than 4,000 years of ancient and European art.
Not much is mainstream about eclectic, quirky San Francisco, but Union Square is shopping central for classic department-store brands such as Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, together with marquee brands like Chanel and Armani.
High-end boutiques, jewelry shops and home decor outlets fill Union Street in the Marina district, sprinkled among numerous restaurants and sidewalk cafés. A similar scene plays out along nearly a dozen blocks of Fillmore Street, north of Geary Boulevard, packed with high-fashion boutiques, spas, jewelry shops and antique stores.
The Haight-Ashbury district, the famed focal point of the city’s hippie culture in the 1960s, now sports an array of trendy vintage clothing shops, second-hand outlets and the block-long Amoeba Records store. The Mission’s Valencia Street is another shopping corridor filled with clothing boutiques, bookstores and offbeat spots like Paxton Gate with its displays of taxidermied animals.
Food & Drink
From overstuffed Mission-style burritos to three-star Michelin fine dining, from vibrant craft beers and wine bars to cocktail couture, there is enough variety in San Francisco to satisfy anyone’s comestible cravings.
Timeless San Francisco dining experiences include Zuni Café’s roast chicken; lunch at Swan Oyster Depot; cocktails with ocean views at the Cliff House; cioppino and a martini at Tadich Grill, the city’s oldest restaurant; Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café, where the drink was purportedly invented; and happy hour at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a tiki bar in the Fairmont.
Ethnic food districts like Japantown, North Beach and, of course, Chinatown are almost overwhelming with their restaurant choices, while other funky fusion hot spots to tempt your palate include the Hawaiian-inspired Liholiho Yacht Club and old standards such as the House of Prime Rib.
Hayes Valley, one of the trendiest neighborhoods for young gourmands, is home to top-draw Barcino, known for its tapas and gin and tonics; Rich Table for porcini doughnuts; a Mano for pasta and cocktails; and Souvla for casual Greek cuisine; as well as funky bars like Smuggler’s Cove.
Locals also flock to the Mission to line up for croissants at Tartine Bakery, sample ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery, grab a burrito at La Taqueria, enjoy Mexican fine dining at Californios or try to score a reservation for Lazy Bear.
To experience the most epic level of indulgence, Saison is one of the city’s priciest and best places to feast, as are fellow Michelin three-star restaurants Atelier Crenn, Benu and Quince.
Finally, put a memorable cap on your evening with a rooftop cocktail at the Mission’s El Techo, or sip your favorite libation at Charmaine’s in the San Francisco Proper hotel (Mid-Market area). You can also absorb some evening live music either at the Fillmore district’s SF JAZZ or at the legendary Fillmore itself.