When to Visit
April, May and June are good bets. So are September and October. November – March is likely to be rainy; July and August will be chilly and foggy.
Where You Should Stay
The major concentration of hotels is in Union Square, conveniently located right next to the worst neighborhood in San Francisco, the Tenderloin, home to tranny hookers, the mentally deranged and crack vials in the streets. (What did they expect when they named it the “Tenderloin”? If they’d’ve called it “Daisyville,” maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible.) Your best hotel deals will be in Union Square, with its shopping and theaters. Take them. Despite its drawbacks, it is central.
If you can swing it, book a place on the south side of Market Street (the W, the Intercontinental) so you’re not smack on the side of a hill (which is a totally impractical novelty, so pull yourself together) and bunking with all the other tourists. If you’ve got some extra change, get a place on the Embarcadero, like the Vitale, which fronts on the bay, but keep that south of Market too or you’ll end up too close to the surreally schlocky Fisherman’s Wharf area.
Alternatively, check for an apartment rental or trade on Craigslist or Air B&B. This will almost certainly kick you into one of the more residential neighborhoods. To stay fairly central, I’d stick to the Mission, Potrero Hill, SoMa, the Marina or North Beach. Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, Sunset, and the Richmond are a little far for comfortable touristing. Chinatown and the Financial District are crowded and deserted respectively.
Get a car. San Francisco is a town masquerading as a city. The BART (subway) and rail lines do not provide comprehensive coverage of the city and the busses, which do, are inconsistent. Your chances of ending up with a crazed meth addict next to you are about even with your chances of scoring a banker. As a result, with the exception of some of the nice-neighborhood-to-business district lines, I find that riding buses in San Francisco depresses my optimism about the human race. Hence, get a car.
(Related, the city is crawling with the drug-addled and the homeless – don’t ask: yes, it should be solvable, no they’re not solving it – so car break-ins are routine. Never, ever leave anything in your vehicle that you aren’t OK with having stolen, even in broad daylight. Conversely, if you have some bags of stuff you were going to drop off at Goodwill, you can leave them in your car and there’s a good chance someone will break in and save you the trip.)
What You Should Do
The de Young Museum. It re-opened in its spectacular new form in 2005 and you should go. It’s a great building, inside and out and just wandering around in it is calming. Their special exhibits run to the popular – Nan Kempner’s clothes, a Vivienne Westwood retrospective – and, whether or not that’s your cup of tea, the standing collections are worth the visit. Climb to the top of the tower and have a look out over Golden Gate Park and the rest of the city. On Friday nights, they usually have music and late hours. The café is pleasant and the food’s good, although predictably pricey. If the current exhbition is popular, book tickets ahead through their web site.
The Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor and the de Young are sibling museums, so a ticket to one will get you in (on the same day) to the other. This is a truly beautiful museum, a hidden gem, and home to the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside Paris. Walking out the front and towards the water, you’ll find miles of paths along the cliffs with stunning views of the ocean, the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Academy of Sciences. Across the plaza from the de Young, the Academy re-opened even more recently (2007) in a building by Renzo Piano, complete with a living roof, an enclosed rainforest and a great set of aquarium habitats. Be warned: as a kid magnet, it is very often very crowded. Get there when they open and queue up for the rainforest first or you’ll have a wait on your hands. Alternatively, if you’re in town over a Thursday and are over 21, the Academy is open late, brings in DJs and serves cocktails, so you can check out the trippy seahorses until 10PM. The café is very good and there’s a proper restaurant, Moss, on-site as well if you want to feel like a grown-up after stumbling over 3-year-olds for a couple of hours. Admission is a whopping $25.
Napa/Sonoma. Even if you’re not a wine connoisseur, you should go. The countryside is beautiful, the tasting rooms friendly and casual, and, if you time it right, it can be a relaxing day trip. If at all possible, go during the week when the roads and vineyards are so much less crowded. There are plenty of guides to the area that can provide details, but here are a couple of my personal highlights and recommendations:
- Unless you’re bent on visiting a specific vineyard in Napa (along Route 29, the most common wine route), the Russian River Valley is altogether more charming. It’s a nicer drive to get there (up 101 through Marin instead of out 80 to the East Bay), less crowded once you are there, and the small vineyards tucked into the hillsides are less commercial and have more personality than the high-traffic wineries like Mondavi.
- Among my favorites: Iron Horse, a tiny place with a killer view that specializes in champagnes; White Oak, in Healdsburg; Cakebread, if you are venturing over towards Napa; and St. Supéry (just up the road), which has an antiseptic feel but makes the most lovely moscato that will win over even the most jaded non-moscato drinker.
- I am a huge fan of Mom’s Pies outside Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley. If you’re passing by, get a pie to eat in the car or one to bring home frozen. If it’s lunchtime, their sandwiches are top notch, particularly the meatloaf. Also in Sebastopol, Screaming Mimi’s homemade ice cream which is breathtakingly good. None of that whipped bullshit. Cream, nuts, fruit, done.
Driving circuit of the city. In a sort of circular order, starting from somewhere around Union Square.
- The Painted Ladies. Classicly painted Victorian homes along Alamo Square (actual address: Steiner Street between Hayes and Grove). Continue on down Fell Street into the Haight for more Victorian action.
- The Presidio. Windy roads through what used to be an army post but is now a huge park with views of the water. End up in the Marina, San Francisco’s trendiest (read: typical nouveau riche) neighborhood and revel in the absence of homeless people. (It’s amazing what a pile of money and political clout can achieve!)
- The Golden Gate Bridge. You have to at least drive across it. If you’re a masochist and a cyclist, you can save this for your bike trip up into the Marin Headlands.
- Presidio Heights. Home to massive homes that have no business inside a real city’s city limits, but what are you gonna do? These are the places you see in movies about San Francisco. If you want more of the same head east towards Pacific Heights.
Eat. San Francisco is famous for its restaurants. Partially this is because we are California and can get a diversity of fresh produce year round. The other part is because we all eat out enough that a lot of very good chefs have touched down here and made themselves at home. See the restaurants section below.
What You Could Do
Giants game at AT&T Park. This is a really nice park. And I’m saying this as someone who is bored out of her skull by baseball. For one, the park’s on the water which is – literally – cool. For another, you can get lattes and sushi so if you’re not part of the hot dogs and churros crowd, there’s something for you too. A Giants game with the family is a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. (If it’s not sunny, bring blankets, ’cause it is seriously chilly on the water.)
Marin Headlands. If you like hiking or biking, the Marin Headlands are a great place to do this. They have spectacular views of the Bay and are often, but not always, sunnier than the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. As a non-hiker, I’m not a good resource, but there are a ton of guides that are more than happy to help.
Drive south down Route 1 along the coast. It is a stunningly beautiful drive, as long as you’re not doing it in the frustrating traffic of a weekend. I personally don’t think Carmel (rich, small), Santa Cruz (hippies, hemp), and Monterey (killer aquarium) are worth spending one of your precious days in northern California, but if you’re here for a while, have a free weekday to mosey, or are a surfer, go for it. Make sure you stop at the winery with the best labels ever (also some quite good wines: try the Big House Red and Cardinal Zin), Bonny Doon, and do not – DO NOT – fail to go to Vasili’s Greek Restaurant at any hour for the best souvlaki I’ve ever had. (Please note: I have not yet been to Greece so don’t get all huffy if you have been, OK?) Both of those just north of Santa Cruz.
What You Can Totally Miss
Fisherman’s Wharf / Ghirardelli Square. If you have never, ever been to a city before and you would like to meet other people who also do not have the good sense they were born with, by all means, head over to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you think Branson, Missouri, is a gem, Ghiradelli Square will make you feel at home. If not, don’t go. The place is packed with tourists and all the things that tourists live for: overpriced garbagey clothing with logos and pictures of landmarks drawn in glitter; sub-par food for exhorbitant prices; pennies flattened with sea lions on them. Trust me: there is nothing there for you except pain. Fisherman’s Wharf is to San Francisco what Disneyworld is to the planet Earth.
The only exception is if you feel you must take a ferry somewhere or if you are a big fan of sea lions. If either of those is the case, go early or go late and, in the case of your ferry trip, pre-buy your tickets, get in and get out as quickly as possible.
Alcatraz. I’m claustrophobic and it’s crowded, so I’ve avoided it. The only reason anyone goes to visit Alcatraz – and the only reason this prison was noteworthy in the first place – is because it’s on an island. It’s a prison, people. Come on. If you’re dead set on going to an island, you can hit Angel Island and get the ferry ride and the exercise without all the hassle, tourists and nightmares. (They don’t lock you in the cells as part of the tour anymore because there was an incident a few years ago when they couldn’t get people back out again. I’m telling you: nightmare central.)
Lombard Street. If you took my advice and got a car, you can drive down it at some point in your driving tour of the city. If you didn’t get a car, let it go. It’s really not that interesting. It’s a curvy street and you’re going to schlep out of your way to see it. The only exception to this recommendation is if it’s the weekend of the races down Lombard. I wouldn’t recommend participating, but if you like X-Games, you’ll like this. (Note: they moved the race this year to Potrero Hill, maybe permanently.)
Coit Tower. It’s a tower. If you haven’t ever been in a tower, you probably don’t need to spend the money to come all the way out here to see one.
The Ferry Building. I’m not saying the bakeries and cheese shops and olive oil kiosks here are not top-knotch. I just know you could spend half as much money finding these goods elsewhere in the city and spend half as much time finding parking in the process. Much is made of the farmer’s market set up in the alcoves on Tuesdays and Saturdays but it’s no different from other farmer’s markets except that it’s way more expensive.
Union Square. This is for people who do not live in a.) the United States, or b.) cities. I can’t think of one store there that is not a chain, but, to be fair, the chains have enormous footprints. That is, the Levi’s store is the flagship Levi’s store. The Nike store has five or six stories. There’s Saks, Nieman Marcus, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and, recent additions, Barney’s (on one end of the spectrum) and H&M (on the other). There’s also a new Bloomingdale’s, but if you’re used to the one on 59th in New York, this one’s kind of an insult. All the usual hangers on are represented in the San Francisco Center (mall) and the streets and alleys around Union Square. Disney, Tiffany’s, Banana Republic and so on. The “square” in Union Square is no longer the swaths of grass interrupted by palm trees that won me over when I visited. Now, it’s tiers of concrete.
If you want young designers, go to the Mission. There are also a ton of vintage stores stretching up Valencia Street from 15th out to 24th. Amongst them are all manner of quirky offerings, from high-end Japanese luggage (Hideo Wakamatsu) to small designers collected at places like Candy Store (on 16th between Valencia and Guerrero) and Sunshee Moon (same block). There’s even a pirate supply shop at 826 Valencia, the front entrance of the writing workshop concern founded by Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s fame. If you want to pick up some sex toys, books or porn, you can get them at the well-lit Good Vibrations store where the staff will be happy to answer your questions. Be aware that the Mission is not your mom’s tourist destination: the streets are dirty and there are a lot of crackheads and homeless wandering around. Not dangerous, just grimy.
If you want expensive young designers, go to Hayes Valley. Uko has great, pricey offerings from France. Scandinavian Details has Swedish housewares, and jewelry. Bulo has shoes from everywhere. There are art galleries and cafes interspersed among the shops. If you’re over there, stop at Frjtz for an excellent crepe or salad or Suppenkuche for the best spaetzle outside of Switzerland (early dinner is best to miss the crowd). Blue Bottle Coffee, in Linden alley, is supposed to be the best coffee in San Francisco, if not anywhere.
Your kids will want to go to the Haight. When rents skyrocketed all over the city, the Haight lost a lot of its character, but the grungy potheads still hang out on the sidewalks and there are still a lot of shops hawking bongs and tattoos. I don’t go over there much anymore, not since I stopped going to Burning Man (and needing corsets, tutus and other oddities) and the little design shops got priced out of their real estate, but it’s still a landmark destination. Just don’t expect to walk away with anything super-cool. (If you know St. Mark’s Place in New York, Haight Street is just a longer version of that).
The Marina is a pretty, expensive neighborhood that’s home to professional moms who spend their days getting manicures, doing yoga and looking for the perfect throw pillow. Their husbands are post-frat boys made good and the bars and shops reflect that demographic. If you live and die by Daily Candy, this is the place for you and your wallet. For a quick and excellent lunch, hit Blue Barn Gourmet.
North Beach has a scattering of cutie places to shop on Grant Street as does Fillmore Street (between, say, Bush and Pacific) but, like the Marina, you’ll pay quite a bit for that adorable dress that will make you look just like everyone else. While we’re on the subject, I wouldn’t look for dinner in North Beach if I were you. Yeah, there are good places, but there are way more places serving sub-par, over-garlicked Italian food to tourists. Get an espresso at Cafe Greco or any of the other places rated here and head to the other side of town for your evening meal.
Where to Eat
This is San Francisco’s claim to fame. Below are some of my current favorites. These are mid-range places (dinner for about $80 – $150 for two people, depending on how much you like wine) that serve great, fresh, usually local food.
Mama’s in North Beach, on the southeast corner of Washington Park has a killer breakfast. Fair warning: everyone knows this. So don’t plan on going on the weekend unless you want to wait.
Tartine. Go for the morning buns. Oh. My. God. Even if you get there when they open, you’ll have a wait, but it shouldn’t be too long, especially if you’re taking out. It’s worth a trip. Their coffee sucks, though, so you might want to take your morning bun and wander back over to Valencia’s Ritual Coffee for a latte made with care by a barista who takes coffee far too seriously.
Get a burrito from one of the Tonyanese burrito trucks scattered around the Mission. Carnitas with everything. It will weigh more than your infant. It will taste the way a burrito’s supposed to.
Burma Superstar. It’s like Indian food only different. And worth the trip out to the avenues for their Rainbow Salad, Tea Leaf Salad and Samosa Soup. If you get there for lunch around noon or 12:30, the wait won’t be long. A great place for lunch after a morning at the de Young.
Ti Couz, no question. Breton crepes of all kinds (the daily special is invariably the best), truly excellent salads, the Ti Couz 10 (a cocktail of champagne, muddled blackberries and vodka), and a central location on 16th St. at Valencia make this a medium-priced must. [Sadly, Ti Couz have closed their doors. For crepes, try Frjtz just up Valencia between 16th and 17th for slightly less good – and less French crepes – but very, very good Belgian fries and beers to accompany them.]
Range. My current favorite of favorites. The menu is hard to pin down – don’t bother. Everything is perfect. You will definitely need reservations at least a week ahead of time, unless you go during the week. But go. The lamb is worth it. I love the space, the service. And the lamb. Even the standards – like a Lyonnaise salad – are better here.
Firefly. Off the beaten track in Noe Valley, Firefly serves rich, perfect food in a laid back atmosphere. It’s small, so you’ll need reservations. Lovely for a date or for a not-too-loud party of 4-6.
Blowfish Sushi. If you like sushi and are down for a trendy evening at the same time, reserve at Blowfish. It’s noisy – definitely not a romantic dinner for two – but the sushi is top-notch and they’ve build a substantial menu of offerings you can’t find anywhere else.
For a business dinner, if you want to eat on the water, or if you want good, albeit pricey, Vietnamese food, the wildly popular Slanted Door is for you. You have to reserve a couple of weeks in advance or you can show up on the day-of at 5:30 and they’ll sort you out if you’re lucky. I know a lot of people who Love This Place. The businessmen put me off a bit. But there’s no doubt that the food is top-notch Asian.
- There are a lot of theater groups in San Francisco, ranging from the experimental (Killing My Lobster) to the established (American Conservatory Theater), but…how do I say this? Um. I am not attached to any of them and have been disappointed by most of them. If you want theater, go to New York or Chicago.
- Through the fall, winter and spring, City Arts & Lectures brings in everyone from Madeline Albright to Amy Sedaris to talk about what they do.
- Cal Performances series in Berkeley hosts everyone from Ira Glass to Chinese acrobats to Renee Fleming.
- Cobb’s Comedy Club in North Beach and the Punchline downtown usually have good rosters of comedians in pretty friendly spaces.
- The Bay area is home to some serious literary talent. In any given week, some event or other is sure to have Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Tobias Wolff, Amy Tan or any of the other over-exposed literary lights reading or fundraising. Weekly round-up here.
- Literary-type standout events include the Porchlight Storytelling series and Mortified, a monthly-ish night of (curated, thank God) people reading about their worst embarassing experiences, usually from adolescence.
- There are a ton of sporty options in the general vicinity of SF: hiking, biking, surfing, camping, skiing, and so on. But since a.) I am not outdoorsy, and b.) if you are, you are probably planning those pieces of your trip west as their own little adventure, I’ll stick to what I know. The San Francisco Circus Center offers group flying trapeze classes under controlled and safe circumstances on Saturday or Sunday morning classes. No fitness required.