I would never trade summers in the midwest with family, but I’m always a little heartbroken when far-flung friends email, “We’re coming to San Francisco this summer!” and I have to write back, “Sorry, but we won’t be there…”
Good friends came to San Francisco for the first time this month, and when they emailed to ask for some recommendations, I wrote back saying, “I’m really not the best source for San Francisco info.” But then I’d think, “Oh, I need to tell her this…” and shoot off an email – “and this…” – another email – and by the time I was done I thought I should dig up some photos and put together a virtual guide for you and my future star-crossed summer visitors, so you can see the San Francisco that I see.
San Francisco is a hilly city, at the tip on a peninsula with water on three sides. Scenic views pop up everywhere, if you can bear to take your eyes off the rollercoaster one-way roads. It’s not the place for nervous drivers on stick shift.
San Francisco is not a nocturnal city – the vibe here is early to bed, early to rise/jog/bike/hike/coffee. There are pockets of nightlife, but it’s definitely not the kind of city that wakes up when the sun goes down.
It’s no wonder Uber was founded in San Francisco – with limited public transportation, a poor cab network, steep hills for walking, and a stunning lack of parking – this is the perfect city for on-demand car services.
San Francisco is not a big city – 7 miles square – but it’s hard work on foot. Steep hills make a short distance feel much longer (hang on tight to your strollers). And unlike in denser cities, walking in SF often entails long uninteresting stretches between centers of activity.
Aside from the ups and downs, driving here isn’t hard. But street parking is near impossible to find, and outside of downtown, parking garages are scarce. San Franciscans well know the experience of arriving at one’s destination, only to circle endlessly looking for parking, give up, and leave in defeat.
I recommend downloading both Uber and Lyft – you will find sometimes one is faster/cheaper than the other.
West coast dress
The main wardrobe consideration in San Francisco is dressing in layers, including a warm outer layer, even in summer. When the fog is in – which it often is, at least for part of the day – summer in San Francisco can be just as cold as winter (September and October are more reliably sunny).
Fog is damp and cold, and San Francisco is a windy city. But the minute the fog burns off, magically lifted by the sun, you’ll want to shed your sweatshirts and jackets.
Aside from temperature considerations, anything goes. It’s near impossible to be underdressed in this town. Billionaire techies look just like college techies in jeans and tees, in the office or out to dinner. So feel free to come as you are. Grunge or glam, you’ll raise no eyebrows here.
Golden Gate Bridge
Everyone in SF has a favorite viewing spot for the most iconic landmark of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge. Mine is Battery Spencer in the Marin Headlands, directly across the bridge and perched above for a high, birds-eye view that never fails to awe.
It’s an arial view without the helicopter. You want to reach out and stroke the majestic glowing red spires and the dramatic swoop of the cables. The only thing stopping you is fear of falling off the edge.
It’s lovely seeing the city by the bay framed by the bridge. In light fog, the colors turn into a palette of grays, with the city fading away in the distance. In the densest fog the massive bridge, close as it is, disappears entirely.
Alcatraz is the rocky island in the bay with the lighthouse and big cream-colored building. It served as a military fort in its earlier days and, notoriously, as a maximum-security prison from the 1930s to the 1960s. You can take a ferry out for a self-guided tour of Alcatraz, but book ahead; tickets often sell out early.
The view to the left is so compelling, with the bridge, the city and the bay, it’s easy to forget the vast infinity of the Pacific Ocean to the right.
Battery Spencer used to be an active coastal fortification, with mounted artillery guns, until the guns were scrapped for metal during World War II.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside Asia, but San Francisco’s Chinese population is so strong now – over 20 percent of the city’s total – that you can find Chinese enclaves in multiple areas of town.
Still, the original Chinatown is the top attraction in the city, drawing more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s conveniently located close to downtown, and now that older neighborhoods in China have been replaced with skyscrapers, San Francisco’s Chinatown is maybe even more nostalgically Chinese than cities of modern-day China.
San Francisco has the oldest Chinatown in North America, dating to the mid-1800s, when Chinese came to escape civil war in China, many working on America’s transcontinental railroad or seeking fortune in California’s Gold Rush.
These days the restaurants of the newer Chinese communities in the Richmond and Sunset districts outshine those in downtown’s Chinatown, but for sightseeing the original is still the place to go.
You can find different fruits and vegetables (eg lychees) at the many produce markets and marvel at the swimming fish and pungent smells of the seafood markets (Chinese like to buy live seafood, so they know it’s fresh).
When you catch a powerful, earthy scent through an open doorway and look in to see shelves of jars, or a wall of small wooden drawers, that’s a Chinese pharmacy, with trained herbalists compounding all kinds of remedies.
The whole fortune cookie concept is entirely inauthentic to China, but Golden Gate Fortune Cookies, a small fortune cookie factory, is still a schmaltzy fun stop. Finding the tiny place in a tiny alley is half the fun, and they’ll hand you samples of round, flat cookies, crisp and sweet, as you enter. They smartly hand out samples as you enter, which makes it hard to leave without buying a bag to take with you.
You’ll need to make a token contribution if you want a picture of the woman seated at the folding station who deftly folds a hot circle of cookie around a small slip of paper and sets it down to cool and harden. You can also see the cookie machine next to her, churning out the warm cookie circles.
The Wok Shop is a fantastic little cookware store in Chinatown. You’ll be amazed at the variety and amount of merchandise squeezed into its narrow storefront.
Directly across the street is also the Chinatown Kite Shop, which has a dazzling collection of kites for sale. Buy a kite here to fly down near the bay, at Chrissy Field beach or Marina Green, while you enjoy the view of the bay and the bridge. Most of the kites fold compactly, so you can fit them in your luggage to take home.
And if you want to go to dim sum (Hong Kong-style small plates brunch), your best bet nearby is outside Chinatown at Yank Sing in the Financial District. There are two locations, 101 Spear Street or 49 Stevenson Street. It’s a brunch/lunch thing, so don’t try to go for dinner.
On the edge of Chinatown is the Cable Car Museum, where you go below street level to see the motors turning, at a constant 9.5 mph, the actual cables that run the cable cars around the city.
The cables underground cycle continuously. On the street, the cable car driver (gripman) operates a giant clamp underneath the cable car which grabs on to the cable when it’s time to move and lets go when it’s time to stop.
The gripman and conductor use the cable car’s bells to communicate with each other, as well as to alert nearby cars and passengers of the cable car’s approach. For tourists in the city, the cable car bells are one of the city’s sensory charms.
At the end of the line, the cable car terminates at a turntable. The gripman and conductor hop down and push the car from opposite ends to turn it around. Then they load passengers and head back again.
In theory, you can hop on or off a cable car along its path, but the reality is that cars are usually too crowded. Lines at the turntables are long, especially at the tourist-heavy Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines. The California line is less scenic but also less of a wait.
Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building Marketplace is a fantastic place to stroll and eat along the bay front. Go on a farmers market day (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) and check out the amazing selection of fruits, vegetables and prepared foods from local producers.
If you miss a market day, Frog Hollow Farm has a cafe inside the Ferry Building as well. They grow the best organic stone fruit (peaches, apricots, plums) around. You’ll get the full selection outside on a farmers market day, but you can also buy fresh fruit and insanely delicious preserves to go at the cafe.
There are also excellent restaurants at the Ferry Building, including SF institution The Slanted Door, serving high-end Vietnamese food, or Hog Island Oyster Company, with oysters fresh from their Tomales Bay oyster farm in Marin County.
Afterward, take a walk along the Embarcadero, with its wide scenic walkway along the bay front, which begins at AT&T Park on the south end, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, to Fisherman’s Wharf on the north end.
The Mission District used to be as much as a cultural enclave for Latinos as Chinatown is for Chinese. When I first went with my high school Spanish class for a day of language immersion, the Mission was like another country. Chinatown always has a hefty mix of tourists with the local population, but the Mission then was strictly no hablo ingles.
But by the late 1990s, dot-com companies looking for more affordable office space began encroaching south from SoMa into the Mission, and since then the sunny neighborhood has steadily evolved into the lively, edgier alternative to traditionally yuppie enclaves such as the Marina and Pacific Heights. Now it’s San Francisco’s version of Brooklyn.
San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood, the Mission District sprouted around Mission San Francisco de Asis (commonly known as Mission Dolores), one of the 21 original Spanish missions in California established by Franciscan priests to spread Christianity to Native Americans. After its early days of farming and ranching, through Mexican independence, the Gold Rush boom and California statehood, the Mission was eventually developed into a working-class neighborhood that hosted waves of immigrants: German, Irish and Italian.
It was around World War II that the Mission became San Francisco’s Latino neighborhood, home to bodegas, hole-in-the-wall taquerias and colorful murals. Supersized burritos originated in the Mission – those warm, foil-wrapped bombs of rice, beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa and whatever else can be stuffed into the giant rolled tortilla – hearty, portable meals for workers on the go.
Now the Mission is an alluring mix of new and cool, earnest and artisan, no-frills and old school. Between old and new, you can choose your own eating adventure:
- Grab an old-school taco and agua fresca at La Taqueria.
- Dine on California-Mediterranean cuisine at Mission mainstay Foreign Cinema, inside the former movie house or outside in the sunny courtyard, where 35 mm films are silently screened on a high wall.
- Line up around the corner to get into Tartine Bakery, to buy one of the most celebrated loaves of bread in the country. The heavy levain rounds emerge from the oven around 4:30p; planners can call a day ahead to reserve a loaf or half-loaf.
- An easier path to Tartine bread is simply to eat at Bar Tartine or Delfina, two of the Mission’s best eateries that also happen to serve the famed levain.
- Adventurous diners should head to Mission Chinese Food – trendsetting, nontraditional Chinese-inspired creative fare by chef Danny Bowien. Begun as an experimental pop-up within an existing Chinese restaurant in the Mission, Bowien’s hypercreative dishes (eg kung pao pastrami) grew to overtake the traditional menu. Mission Chinese now has another outlet on New York City’s Lower East Side.
- Finish your Mission excursion at Bi-Rite Creamery for some of SF’s best ice cream.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park sits in the Richmond/Sunset District fog zone in the western part of town. There’s a ton to see and do there, including the completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences, one of the largest natural history museums in the world, and the tranquil Japanese tea garden, where you take a break at the tea house or just enjoy the koi.
You can also rent a paddle boat or row boat at Stow Lake.
And there’s real live American bison at the Bison Paddock, which I’ve always wanted to see. I think it’s a bit of a hike to find them; the paddock is large and if they happen to be at the far end, you won’t get a great view. But the American buffalo is a very cool animal – big and humpbacked and majestic – and it is fascinating to imagine millions of them roaming the open plains.
At the western end of the park is the Dutch windmill, a park landmark.
What about the beach?
It may be in California, but San Francisco is not a town for sunbathing on the beach. Even when it’s not cold and foggy, the beach is very windy, and the Pacific surf is fierce.
Your best bet in town is Chrissy Field, on the bay near the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s well located, sunnier than most, dog friendly (watch where you step), and the bay is tranquil.
You can also view the bridge from Baker Beach, on the Pacific side, but just keep in mind that the beach is not only dog-friendly but also nudist-friendly in part.
Ocean Beach runs a long swath down the Pacific edge of San Francisco. If you’re at the western edge of Golden Gate Park, it’s just on the other side of the wall.
There’s a San Francisco for lovers of art, nature, sports, food, culture, or any number of other interests. See the San Francisco that speaks to you.
And save some for next time.
San Francisco Directory
Golden Gate Bridge
Battery Spencer – bird’s eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Conzelman Rd, Sausalito
To get to Battery Spencer, drive over the bridge and take the second exit (Alexander Avenue). Take a left at the stop sign and go up the hill to the first small parking area on the left side of the road. It is hard to find parking; you may have to go past, turn around and then come back and wait on the side of the road near the parked cars until someone leaves. From the parking it’s a short walk, taking either a path through the concrete fortifications (photo below) or up on a raised path to the left (first photo with boy on path).
Chinatown and Downtown
Golden Gate Fortune Cookies – fortune cookie factory
56 Ross Alley (at Jackson St)
The Wok Shop – densely packed cookware shop
718 Grant Ave (btw Sacramento St & Commercial St)
Chinatown Kite Shop – tiny but mighty kite shop
717 Grant Ave (btw Sacramento St & Commercial St)
Cable Car Museum – see cables in motion; free admission
1201 Mason St (at Washington St)
Yank Sing – dim sum; actually in Financial District
101 Spear St (btw Mission St & Howard St)
49 Stevenson St (at Ecker Pl)
Ferry Building Marketplace – marketplace with farmers market, restaurants, and food vendors
1 Ferry Building (Embarcadero and Market St)
Ferry Building notables: outdoor farmers market (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday year round); Frog Hollow Farm Market (stone fruit and preserves); Hog Island Oysters (freshest local oysters); Slanted Door (high end Vietnamese)
La Taqueria – old school taqueria
2889 Mission Street (btw 24th St & 25th St)
Foreign Cinema – eclectic California-Mediterranean fare in a restored theater
2534 Mission St (btw 21st St & 22nd St)
Tartine Bakery – famed levain loaves and other baked goodies
600 Guerrero Street (btw 19th St & 18th St)
Bar Tartine – cozy California-European dining; also serves Tartine bread
561 Valencia Street (btw 17th St & 16th St)
Delfina – popular Italian spot; also serves Tartine bread
3621 18th St (btw Guerrero St & Oakwood St)
Mission Chinese Food – hypercreative Asian-inspired fare
2234 Mission Street (btw 18th St & 19th St)
Bi-Rite Creamery – hotspot for small-batch ice cream
3692 18th Street (btw Dolores St & Oakwood St)
Golden Gate Park
California Academy of Sciences – vast natural history museum
55 Music Concourse Dr
Japanese Tea Garden – tea house and koi garden in a tranquil Japanese landscape
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr
Stow Lake Boathouse – paddle and row boat rentals
50 Stow Lake Dr
Bison Paddock – grazing American bison
John F Kennedy Dr & Chain of Lakes Dr E
Chrissy Field – popular spot along bay; great view of Golden Gate Bridge
603 Mason St, Marina
Baker Beach – on Pacific side; nudist portions
1504 Pershing Dr, Presidio
Ocean Beach – western edge of the city
Fulton St & Great Hwy