San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities. Sitting up high on the tip of a Northern California peninsula, it’s natural beauty and cooler climate is as unique as the citizens that inhabit it. For being such a small area in terms of acreage, SF packs so many things to see and do in every square mile. There’s no way you can see everything, or afford everything, as it is one of the most expensive places in the world. But, there’s also many free or affordable things to do as well, which we’re all about.
One visit, one dozen visits are not enough to experience the entirety of “the city,” but this what I like to do on a weekend visiting the city by the Bay.
save me, san francisco
I am fortunate enough to live a little more than an hour from San Francisco, so it’s not too difficult for me to take quick jaunt into the city. I love to drive over the Bay Bridge when the morning fog chills the air. I don’t care, for my heart waits there, right?
I get there early because the line at Mr. Holmes Bakeshop forms early. People go crazy for the cruffins (croissant muffins) that this South Korea-based-instagram-paradise offers, but I actually really just like their donuts and danishes so I pick some up for the rest of the day. And I don’t have time to wait in that cruffin line, honestly, there’s too much to do, and you’ve got to get to Chinatown for some dim sum.
Like in Vancouver, the best dim sum is probably found in Richmond (weird coincidence), but hey, you’re here, you need to see the country’s biggest and best Chinatown anyway. I like to go to Good Mong Kok bakery for some take out dim sum, but Great Eastern is a solid choice, at least solid enough for President Obama, who dined here a few years ago.
If you have a lot of money to burn, Yank Sing in the adjacent Financial District has the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong with the prices of both HK and SF combined. I’ve never been, there’s something I really like about a small hole in the wall where steam acts as the central heating, but it’s a more high end option.
One of my favorite things about SF is that its an American city that truly has distinguishing architecture, from its Victorian townhomes all smushed together, to the grandeur of City Hall to the striking pyramid of the TransAmerica building, to, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Perhaps the most famous street in the world, be sure to drive or walk down Lombard street at least once in your life. Curves for days, this street is more out of a theme park than real life, but real life it is. Check out the tony homes and manicured landscaping as well. The view of the Coit Tower is amazing from the top of the hill as well.
San Fran is home to many world class museums, and you won’t be disappointed in any of them. The Asian Art Museum, the DeYoung, Palace of Fine Arts, the SFMOMa, all fine choices.
The SFMoma‘s cafe is a great place to rest and enjoy a snack, with its view overlooking the sculpture garden. Drink some blue bottle coffee (SF original recently purchased by Nestle), the New Orleans style chickory is my favorite.
After spending a few hours museum exploring, ease over to Hayes Valley for a late lunch. This is my favorite neighborhood because it’s very comfortable (hygge), like if the concept of brunch was an actual place. It is a neighborhood that is like one gigantic meet cute from every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. There’s quaint little home decor shops, and boutiques, stores and don’t forget to stop into Miette, the daintiest little candy parlor/bakery in which you’ve ever set foot. Everything is literally carousel colored, a pastel wonderland. Their ginger snaps are delicious.
Chicken shawarma at Souvla is just muah (kisses fingers). This intimate eatery has hearty Greek food, and I could watch the dozens of chickens rotate around the spit for hours. It’s fast, easy and won’t break the bank.
After hanging out in this neighborhood (spend some time in the park, too), a site that must be seen are the famous painted ladies. You might recognize them from their iconic feature in Full House’s opening credits. This row of colorful houses across from Alamo park sits at just the right angle where you can see the skyline/TransAmerica building the background. Sit in the park (Full House and 5 Year Engagement) and take a second to enjoy a donut or cookie you’ve holed away. The view is gorgeous and stirring. That’s the good thing about fog, once it clears, you can see the skyline and the bay quite clearly.
Head towards the Embarcadero area to relax on the dock of the bay. Reveille Coffee Company is an uber trendy place to fill up on caffeine on your way to the sea.
The Ferry building at the Embarcadero, which houses dozens of food vendors and farmers is an excellent choice for the afternoon. There’s lots of SF favorites including some you’ve already visited (Miette and Blue Bottle), Gott’s, Slanted Door (Charles Phan’s famous restaurant known from its summer rolls), Humphrey Slocombe. Pick up some non-perishable snacks for tomorrow, you may be impromptu picnicking.
Near the Embarcadero, you can catch the California cable car line. Cable cars are thrilling, and touristy, but uniquely a San Francisco treat. If it is the weekend, it will be crowded, it will take a long time, but again, once in your lifetime. The California line is probably the least crowded, and a great option if you just want to experience it. To catch a cable car along its route, stand under the sign and give a wave to the driver as you them coming. They will stop the car, make sure you look both ways before stepping across traffic. I like the hang off the side, but there are seats on the interior, too. It’s $7 per way.
Along the California line, you will see the Masonic theater and Grace Cathedral and a host of expensive hotels in Nob Hill. You’ll also see views like this:
If you exit on Mason or Taylor, you are a few blocks from Union Square. San Francisco blocks are LONG ass blocks. And they’re hills, so wear comfortable footwear, because your calves will be killing you. Best calves in America belong to San Franciscans, seriously. Luckily from California Street, it’s mostly a downhill walk. Union Square is filled with every high end luxury retailer you can dream up. It’s the best and it’s so easy to get caught wandering around for who knows how long.
Since I’ve been noshing all day on snacks upon snacks, a nice late dinner of pizza and drinks calls my name. The perfect place for this sits at the edge of Union Square, Del Popolo. Wood-fired neapolitan-style pies in a cozy, rustic environment that are affordable and won’t completely overwhelm you or your wallet.
Start out your morning at Philz coffee, one of SF’s favorite coffee chains, for good reason. They do not serve your typical drinks found at any run of the mill coffeehouse, but rather their own custom blends. The mint mojito is a refreshing standout, with real mint leaves to give subtle flavor to accentuate the richness of the coffee itself. They also have some pretty hipster avocado toast and ricotta toast.
Set out on a morning drive through Haight Ashbury, Golden Gate Park and the Presidio area. Everyone knows the Haight from its history as the heart of the 60s hippie free love movement. The Grateful Dead house is there, another colorful Victorian home, along with vintage shops and eclectic people galore.
Golden Gate park is gigantic, and filled with a lot of attractions from the Dutch Windmill, Japanese Tea Garden to the DeYoung museum to the Bison Paddock (where there’s actual bison) and the newly minted Robin Williams hill (RIP). If you ever have a chance, Outside Lands music festival is held here every August, and is a very well-heeled, well run festival with culinary offerings that are off the hook. Seriously, great food there.
The Presidio is also a large green space, located on a former military base. It houses several museums as well, like the Walt Disney Family museum and also Lucas Films. And it’s pretty much the gateway to the beaches that have direct views of the bay.
From here, head up the 101 so you can cross California’s most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. This is an engineering marvel. It’s a gorgeous gem of architecture, and it’s worth driving, riding or walking across to see the expanse of the bay and the city. If you are driving, they actually take a picture of your license plate, so there is no actual toll to pay at the time you cross back into the city.
On the other side, Alexander’s point is the lookout, and if you don’t get there early, you’re not going to find parking (hint, get there early). Continue up the highway to get a taste of Marin County, one of the richest counties in the country. Mill Valley is small and artsy, Tiburon is ritzy as hell, and Sausalito is at the other end of the Golden Gate and has houseboats upon houseboats in its large marina.
Fish is a fantastic way to experience sustainable seafood with marina views. It’s cash only, so make sure you’ve got a lot (seafood ain’t cheap).
After you make your way back to the city, head to the Castro. This vibrant area is one of the strongholds of gay culture. There are also historic buildings like the Castro Theater and the Mission San Francisco, one of California’s historical landmarks dating back to the 1700s. On Market street you can catch the cable car going all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. Dolores Park is a park popular with locals for its dramatic view of the city.
It’s about time for a snack, so get in line (SF is a city of lines) at Tartine Bakery. This is SF’s most famous bakery, and while I know visiting in the late afternoon will probably not get you any of the frangipane or morning buns, you will still likely be able to sample the lemon tart, bread pudding and a loaf of the world’s crustiest, loveliest bread (available after 4:30 PM).
Since you’re already in the Mission, explore all the little shops and cafes in this district. There are a ton of well known eateries in this area, you could spend your whole trip eating here and have tons of places left unturned. Since this is your second night, go big. Delfina is a hugely popular Italian restaurant located next to Tartine that has been around for almost 20 years. To last that long in SF? You know it has to be good.
If you want to have a chance of trying the roast chicken and the spaghetti, you’ve got to get a reservation a month in advance. This is a restaurant worth the planning. Other hot spots in this area are Mission Chinese Food (Pork Mapo Tofu, Salt Cod Fried Rice, and Kung Pao Pastrami) and Foreign Cinema (everything is very rich both in flavor/price).
Before you leave town on your last day, you have to experience a San Francisco brunch, arguably the most popular meal in this town. Plow has exceptional breakfast food, so you will be waiting with everyone else who wants to try it. The ricotta pancakes and crispy potatoes are worth every minute of waiting. At least you can wait across the street at Farley’s coffeehouse.
Spend your afternoon hanging out with the seals at Fisherman’s Wharf or stuffing your face with chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, or take a ferry to Alcatraz. I have to be honest, I have not done any of the classic touristy things in SF since I was a kid, but these are places that should be seen with your own eyes once in your life. San Francisco is your oyster.
So much to see, so little time. That’s why you leave your heart here, so you have to keep coming back to try and find it.
Must eat: chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, seafood, blue bottle coffee, chinese
Listen to: Journey. Tony Bennett’s classic, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Third Eye Blind, Train, Metallica, Carlos Santana, Grace Slick, All 4 One.
Sports teams: Giants (MLB), 49ers (Santa Clara–NFL), Warriors (Oakland–NBA)