I get asked all the time what people should do in San Francisco if they’re coming for a visit. And while I’ve lived here three and a half years already, I still don’t think I can give a complete answer to that question; there’s so much to see! My list, unsurprisingly, is fairly weighted towards the food (and drink) side of things, and I’ve tried to make it as self-explanatory and useful as possible.
The best way to approach San Francisco is by neighborhood, so I’ve divided my suggestions up like that; the hope is that you can do one or two neighborhoods each day. A few are missing, most likely because I just don’t spend too much time in them—this list is definitely more of a compilation of my favorite San Francisco places, rather than the definitive city guide!---but that’s why I’ve added a section for reader suggestions at the end too. So now you just need to get here. We’ll be waiting.
Chances are, you’ll be staying in Union Square; it’s where most of the major hotels are. It’s also where most of the major shops are, so it you’re coming from a city that doesn’t have an H&M, this might be great news to you. There’s nothing particularly special about the stores around Union Square---it’s basically one large urban mall (though there’s actually a mall mall too)—but if you’ve got some time and money to spend, this is probably where you’ll find the largest concentrated number of shops in which to spend it.
Transport-wise, Union Square is very well-located; you can catch both BART and Muni from the Powell Street station (the former is very convenient for the airport; more on that below), and you’re within walking distance to a host of other neighborhoods as well (Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, Chinatown, and North Beach—though the trek to the latter will probably get you off gym duty that day.) Union Square is also the easiest place to catch a cable car, if you want to cross that off your San Francisco must-do list; they leave from the bottom of Powell Street, right outside Forever 21. The line is usually long but moves fairly fast and a single ride is $5. Take the Hyde Street line to the famous Lombard Street—there you go, another San Francisco must-do checked off—then walk down it, admiring the views, into North Beach (more on that later too).
One of my favorite places in Union Square is Fiona’s Sweet Shoppe, a tiny little British sweetie palace—I wrote about it here, if you’re interested---where the walls are lined with jars of jeweled-colored candies that the lady behind the counter will measure out for you and pour into a pretty bag. For a quick bite to eat while you’re shopping, ‘Wichcraft—Tom Colicchio’s sandwich place—is convenient, but my absolute favorite lunch spot is The Sentinel, where the corned beef sandwich will make you cry (and I didn’t even think I liked corned beef; that’s how good it is. The egg salad is a very close second.) The Sentinel is a tiny kiosk (cash-only), but you can take your sandwich a few blocks away to Yerba Buena Gardens for an outdoor picnic. Practically next door to The Sentinel is a great bar called the House of Shields, You’re also within spitting distance of the MOMA (half price on Thursday nights and free the first Tuesday of every month!)
Just a hop up the hill from Union Square is the Tenderloin, which is…well, one of the grittier neighborhoods, I guess you’d say. In truth, we lived on the edge of it for more than three years and never felt unsafe. I probably wouldn’t go walking around it at three o’clock in the morning, of course, but as long as you keep to yourself, you’re fine. Besides, it’s where you’ll find some of the best food in the city—although I’m probably biased, I guess.
Everyone in San Francisco has their own favorite Thai restaurant; ours is Bang San, which we discovered after a co-worker of Sean’s told us he ate there every week with his Muy Thai boxing crew. We used to go to the original hole-in-the-wall location, but they’ve since opened up a bigger one right around the corner with more than three tables; they’re both as good (and cheap) as each other. A few doors down from the original one is a bar called Bourbon & Branch; its whole shtick is that it’s modeled after a Prohibition-era speakeasy, which means you need to make a reservation in advance and then give a password at the (unmarked) door. The whole idea of this used to kind of make me cringe, but then I actually went there and really liked it. The drinks are pricy but incredibly strong, so you can still kind of be a cheap date. Also across the street is a great place for brunch (though come on a weekday, else you’ll be waiting at least an hour); it’s called Dottie’s True Blue Café.
A dive bar we like is called the Edinburgh Castle; it has proper British cider on tap and a great trivia night on Tuesdays (tell me if you’re going—we’ll form a team!) You can order fish and chips from the bartender and someone from the pub will run out across the street and pick them up for you, bringing them straight to your table. Nearby, you can get great Vietnamese food at Pagolac, authentic bahn mi at Saigon Sandwiches (get the pork), and what I consider to be the third best falafel sandwich in the city—we’ll get to the best and second best in a minute—at Café Zitouna. To round out the grease factor, I should tell you that we’re also partial to the burgers and “swings” (sweet potato fries and onion rings) at Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers. Should you be feeling a little more upmarket, I recommend a drink on the gorgeous upstairs porch at Le Colonial—I haven’t ever eaten here, but it’s supposed to be quite good. Just a few steps away is Fino, which I’ve also never been to, but which Sean and I saw Michelle Obama walking into one day. And if it’s good enough for the First Lady…..
By the way, there are things to do in the Tenderloin that aren’t food-related, in case you were wondering. Check out the Asian Art Museum in the Civic Center area (there’s a BART stop right outside), and our pretty City Hall across the way. On Sundays, they have a farmer’s market right outside—it’s mostly fruit and veggies but it’s quite pleasant for a stroll.
As well as being on the edge of the Tenderloin, our old apartment was on the edge of Nob Hill, which is pretty much as antithetical of a neighborhood as you can get (there are many ritzy heiresses walking around in large hats.) At the top is Grace Cathedral, which is beautiful, and across the street is the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel; take the elevator up to the top of the latter and have a (very expensive) drink at Top of the Mark at sunset for stunning views of the city. Another kind of fancy thing to do in Nob Hill is afternoon tea at the Ritz; my friend took me for my birthday once, and I took my mum a few months later, that’s how much fun it was. If you’re more into tiki bars than finger sandwiches, you must visit the famous Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel; there’s a live “rainstorm” every 20 minutes while a band plays on a boat in the middle of a lake. It’s amazingly cheesy and awesome. For a bite to eat afterwards, Nob Hill Café is a couple of blocks away and has a great neighborhood feel: if you go on a Tuesday night, you’ll probably see the famous San Francisco twins who have a standing date and always sit in the window. Don’t get it confused with Nob Hill Grille, which used to be our number one go-to brunch place (please get the pesto scramble, please please please), since it was only a couple of blocks from our apartment. It’s also a great place for lunch or a casual dinner. For an amazing sandwich, Bite is right around the corner and the Gouda Good is incredible (rotisserie chicken, gouda, and a very addictive creamy, peppery sauce made from crack cocaine itself---I mean, I’m assuming). Right next door is Dolce, so you can finish your meal off with some gelato.
There’s some good food in Russian Hill, a lot of it on one strip of Hyde Street. Frascati is great for a fancy date kind of feel (we went for one of Sean’s birthdays; try and get a table at the window and watch the cable cars go by). Zarzuela has good tapas and we always used to get our pizza delivered from Za Pizza, but you can eat inside there too (I’d suggest the pesto pizza with spicy sausage, feta, and sundried tomatoes but that’s just me.) Line up for ice cream afterwards at Swensens, which is just up the street and always has a line going out the door (it moves fast!) Down on Polk Street, Cheese Plus is a cheese shop that also makes really good sandwiches. We also like Spencer and Daniel’s Wine Outlet if you need to pick up a bottle of wine for some reason (actually, do you even need a reason?) The whole of Polk Street is good for browsing, actually, with lots of shops and cafes and wine bars. Please get the apple fritter at Bob’s Donuts; it’s as greasy as the booths in this 24-hour coffee shop, but you’ll thank me when you bite into it.
Man, this is going to be a long one, since I’m kind of cramming two areas into one; my office sits on the border between the two neighborhoods, so as you can imagine, I’m very well-versed in all the food options around here. First of all, you cannot visit San Francisco without taking a trip to the Ferry Building; if you come on a Saturday, Tuesday, or Thursday, there’s a farmers’ market going on outside, and you can pick up lunch from one of the many incredible stalls (it’s not just produce for sale; there are all kinds of options.) Alternatively, head inside the Ferry Building and get a loaf of bread from Acme, a hunk of cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, a cup of coffee from Blue Bottle, and a cupcake or pot de crème from Miette, then sit outside in the sunshine and have a picnic with the Bay Bridge in the background. Three of my other favorites inside the Ferry Building are Gott’s (seriously good burgers, fries, and milkshakes), Il Cane Rosso (the beef brisket sandwich is delicious and you can eat outside overlooking the water), and Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, which is a really fun place to grab a very reasonably priced glass of wine (you can also order bread and cheese plates from Acme and Cowgirl here while you drink.) The Ferry Building is also (obviously) where you can catch a ferry over to Tiburon or Sausalito, which is kind of a fun thing to do (remember when they did it in Party Of Five? It’s kind of like that. But bring a hat, because it gets insanely windy.)
For a quick salad that feels fancier than it is, join all the other office drones at Mixt Greens: there are a few locations around the area, and don’t be dissuaded if you see a long line—it moves really quickly (just have your order ready!) If you’d like to experience what I’m confident is the world’s best falafel sandwich (told you I’d come back to it), I would like to point you in the direction of the hole-in-the-wall Ayola (when they ask you if you want it spicy, say yes.) Right opposite Ayola, you’ll find some seriously chunky cookies at Specialty’s Bakery (though they also have a few other locations around the city. The brownies are excellent too.) For lunch or dinner, both Town Hall and Salt House are really great options; they’re owned by the same people and I’m a sucker for the design details of both. I also like Michael Mina’s RN74, which used to be an old train station and still has the décor to prove it.
When I want to pretend I’m in a French bistro, I order a citron pressé and the Pig Salad (I know, the name is worrying, but trust me) at South Park Café; across the park, The Butler and the Chef is equally as charming (I’ve only been to both for lunch, but they do serve dinner as well.) If you’re looking for a bite to eat before catching a Giants game at nearby AT&T Park, one of my new favorite places is Ironside (repeat after me: the slow-roasted turkey sandwich or the pressed Cubano with a black cherry soda) or you could grab a beer and a burger at 21st Amendment, a brewpub with a really great selection on tap. If you’re in the mood for grilled cheese (who isn’t?), American Grilled Cheese Kitchen sells nothing but; I recommend the one with bacon, goat cheese, and jalapeno-apricot jam. For a nice dinner, you might also consider Coco 500 (they have these fried green beans that are an excellent example of how to make something healthy incredibly unhealthy. Not that I’m arguing.) I’m also a fan of Pazzia, which has a slightly strange strip mall-ish location but is probably the best Italian food I’ve tried outside of Rome.
It’s tourist central down here, so go at your own risk, but I do want to point you towards a lovely little tea shop called Crown & Crumpet, which is a nice place to sip some Earl Grey with your pinkie raised in the air, and the inimitable Gary Danko, which is where Sean took me for my 29th birthday and which remains one of my top meals ever. The cheese plate will make you cry, in the best possible way. It’s kind of stuffy and full of old rich people, but the service is the kind where they tip-toe around you and call you Ms.Burns. (I mean, they probably won’t call you Ms. Burns, because that would be weird. But you get what I mean.)
I think North Beach is my most favorite neighborhood in San Francisco, and I would insist that you go while you’re here, even if it’s just to wander around and drink coffee artsily in coffee shops (actually, that’s the best reason to go.) You’ll find City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, replete with all the Beat Poet history you could ever ask for, and an excellent bar called Tosca a couple of steps away, where you shouldn’t order the “house cappuccino” without being aware that it will be packed—quite dangerously packed, in fact—with sweet, delicious booze (I went here one evening with Maggie and we had to abandon her car and get taxis home. Which actually worked out just fine, really, because we couldn’t even find the car after a few of those house cappuccinos.) To line your stomach, I suggest a sandwich from Petite Deli, which really is about as petite a deli as you can imagine; it’s run by the friendliest Korean woman in the world and only two people can fit comfortably inside (well, maybe three) but the sandwiches are huge, cheap, and delicious. Grab a cup of coffee and some truffles from XOX Truffles right next door—free truffle with every coffee!---and take everything across the street to Washington Square Park, where you can sit in the park at gaze at the church where Marilyn Monroe wanted to marry Joe DiMaggio but couldn’t because she’d already been divorced. You can buy coffee by the pound to take home at Graffeo, and some seriously fantastic foccacia at Liguria Bakery (go before 12pm or they’re all sold out.) Continuing on the food theme, you might like the old wooden booths at Café Francisco for a casual lunch or the casual Italian food at Trattoria Contadina for dinner. North Beach is also home to a (very large, pleasingly uncrowded) Trader Joe’s, if you don’t have one where you’re from, and a place where you can rent bicycles to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge (and burn off everything I’ve just forced you to consume.)
There are people who know a lot more about the Mission than I do, but I will say this: come here for burritos. Our favorite taquerias are (in this order) El Farolito, Taqueria Cancun, and El Toro, but it’s actually pretty hard to go wrong if you’re looking for burritos in the Mission. It’s also pretty hard to go wrong if you’re looking for ice cream: my first choice would be Humphrey Slocombe (you must try the Secret Breakfast, whose main ingredients are bourbon and cornflakes; yes, you read that right) and my second choice would be Bi-Rite, where the salted caramel is the thing to get. There is good coffee at Ritual Roasters and there is good Indian food at Dosa. I went to Delfina for my 28th birthday and wanted to eat the butter with a spoon (I think I actually did, come to think of it), and I simply cannot let you leave the Mission without popping into Tartine for some sort of baked good. Huh, as you can see, I wasn’t kidding when I told you this guide would be mainly about food.
Western Addition/Alamo Square
If you are looking for a photo op with the Full House houses, this is the place to come. While you’re here, go to Little Star Pizza for some incredible deep dish (there is something called the Brass Monkey that isn’t always on the menu but is fantastic) or—if it’s breakfast time and you’re not feeling the pizza yet—to Bean Bag Cafe which is a nice independent coffee shop that’ll make you look up and down and go yep, we’re certainly in San Francisco. I like the bagels there. I don’t think they’re any particular special kind, I think they just put a crapload of cream cheese on them, and I guess that floats my boat.
Hayes Street is a charming little place for a stroll, and you certainly won’t want for places to eat and drink; first off, if you didn’t go to Miette or Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building already, you can find their original outposts here. You may prefer to drink a very large beer from a boot and we won’t judge you for that; you can do it at German restaurant Suppenkuche. For the second best deep dish pizza in San Francisco, Paxti’s is just a hop, skip, and a jump away (it’s pronounced Pah-cheese, which is appropriate, since there is so much cheese on the pizza you’ll go up a dress size just looking at it), and Absinthe on the corner is a really nice place to have a drink; the bar is the kind of place where you can say to the bartender “I’m in the mood for something with bourbon, mint, and a decadently high alcohol level” and he’ll whip you up something from scratch.
While Golden Gate Park is accessible from lots of parts of the city, the Richmond is a good place to enter it from because you’re near both the excellent de Young Museum (I really love this place) and the California Academy of Sciences. You’re also near a great Irish pub, the Plough & Stars, and an impeccable French restaurant, Chapeau! (which is actually where I went for my 30th birthday. Wow, we’re covering all my birthdays in this guide.) You can get good Burmese food at Burma Superstar—certainly much better than any Burmese food Sean and I actually had in Burma, which is rather ironic---and browse to your heart’s content afterwards at Green Apple Books.
Inner and Outer Sunset
New neighborhood in the house! We’re still discovering it out here, and unless you’re coming to see me, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of reason for you to be out here, but if you want to take great lungfuls of breezy ocean air and walk along the pretty coastline of the Pacific, you can get to Ocean Beach by taking the N Judah all the way from any Muni stop to the end of the line. While you’re out here, eat at Outerlands Café (they serve drinks in mason jars!) or warm up with some coffee at Trouble, before taking the N back inbound and stopping off at Milano’s for some old-school pizza and a cheap pitcher of beer, Sunrise Deli for—I swear to god, I’m not kidding this time—the absolute best falafel in the world, or Durty Nelly’s, which is a nice authentic Irish pub with a fireplace and also probably the most off-putting name in the city, am I right?
Other Things To Do in San Francisco
If it’s pretty views you’re after, head to Crissy Field and walk along the water, where you’ll get excellent shots of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background (this is where they always seem to go in The Bachelor when they want to show San Francisco while simultaneously making everything seem super romantic.) If you have a car and can drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, so much the better; you’ll find some stunning vistas in the Marin Headlands, which is all craggy coastline and rolling hills and steep drops down to the ocean. You might also want to head to Baker Beach for good views of the bridge too—if you go on a warm day, however, be warned that you’ll feel overdressed even in a tank top and shorts (it’s a nudie beach and its visitors aren’t…uh….shy.)
More San Francisco must-dos that don’t verge into total tourist territory are the views from Coit Tower and Twin Peaks (though you’ll likely need a car to reach both), and the nighttime tour of Alcatraz. We also recently took a brunch cruise with Hornblower that was surprisingly good fun—any of their boat trips are really enjoyable and many of them sail under the Golden Gate Bridge, which means you can get some really good pictures. If you wore a lot of tie-dye and lit a lot of incense in high school (didn’t we all?), you’ll want to take the old standby picture of the Haight and Ashbury signs intersecting; you can do this, unsurprisingly, in Haight Ashbury, where you’ll also find some pretty good vintage shops on Haight Street (just don’t buy back that old tie-dye.)
Chinatown is certainly worth a wander, though if you can get off the main thoroughfare of Grant Avenue and venture down any of the other little streets, you’ll have a far more authentic experience. I like the Palace of Fine Arts for a moody, foggy day, and if you’re here on the first Sunday of the month and you like digging for treasure, I highly recommend the Alameda Flea Market (though you’ll need a car to get there. Probably also to lug back that chair you couldn’t resist. Whoops! Hope you don’t mind paying an extra checked baggage fee.)
But Where Should I Stay?
There are a ton of very good hotels in San Francisco, and if you’re in the Union Square area – as you’ll likely be – you’re in walking distance of a lot of the neighborhoods I’ve mentioned above, and very close to public transport options too. A couple of recommendations: the Orchard Garden hotel on Bush Street, where my mother and sister stayed while visiting me once, is small but sleek and very well-run (they both also raved about how comfy the beds were). If you’re okay being about fifteen minutes walk from Union Square---smack dab in the middle of my old neighborhood, actually; right around the corner from my old apartment---I’d also highly, highly recommend the Hotel Carlton. My parents stayed here while visiting me once and very much enjoyed it; the staff is just so incredibly friendly and warm, there’s a great happy hour with free wine every evening, and the lobby is decorated pretty much exactly the way I’d like my house to look. (Plus, you’re a block away from the world’s third best falafel at Café Zitouna, which I mentioned above. Incentive!) Finally, I haven’t actually stayed here but if you’re looking for an alternative for a high-rise hotel, Annie’s Cottage Bed & Breakfast comes highly recommended by my friend Victoria, who stayed there on her honeymoon in San Francisco.
A Couple of Other Things
* This might be controversial, but look, I just wouldn’t bother with Fisherman’s Wharf. I know, I know, it’s in every guidebook known to man, but I just can’t see the appeal: you’ll get the same views from the Ferry Building and the food’s a whole lot better. I guess you might want to go to see the sea lions, but that’s kind of the only reason I can think of for going there. And sea lions get old after about three minutes. (Or is that just me? I mean, they just lie there.)
* It’s going to be cold. Just trust me on this. Even if it’s warm during the day (our best months for sunny weather are September and October), it’ll be chillier than you think once the sun goes down. The key is to bring layers that you can peel off and on as the temperature changes (and I’m not even kidding when I say it will do so from neighborhood to neighborhood---hell, often from block to block.) The hoodie is your friend. So is the emergency pair of leggings stuffed in your purse. I have friends who carry around a hat and gloves at all times just in case, and I, for one, am never without a pashmina-type scarf for strategic warming. Don’t be the guy who has to buy the oversized I LOVE SF sweatshirt from a street vendor because you’re freezing. Come prepared!
* Wear flats. Or if you have to wear heels, at least have a pair of flats in your purse, because you will not believe how much walking you’ll be doing, much of it up hills.
* The easiest way to get into the city from the airport is to take a cab, but it’ll cost you $35-$40. The cheapest way is to take BART, which will run around $8 (just follow the signs in the terminal, buy a ticket at the machine, then sit back for half an hour or so and get off at Powell Street if you want to be in the middle of Union Square.) A middle-of-the-road compromise is to take a shuttle, which will cost about $17 (plus $10 for each extra person); you’ll see them right behind the taxis when you come out of the airport (I mostly take Super Shuttle, because they always seem to be there, but I’ve taken a few of the lesser-known ones as well.) The downside is that you may have to wait for other passengers to join before the driver has filled enough seats to go, and you might end up being the last one dropped off. If you get lucky and end up being the first, though, you’ll feel like you won the lottery.
* If you’re getting on a bus, have exact change (the fare is $2 as of the time of writing) as the drivers don’t make change. If you’re catching a MUNI train from a station, you’ll need to put two dollars in change into the turnstile (there are machines around that can break notes) or just pay the driver directly if you’re getting on at a stop without machines. If you’re taking BART, buy your ticket in the station; fares vary but you can pay with a credit card, which makes things a lot easier. If you’re here for a couple of days and know you’re going to be taking a lot of public transport, consider a Visitor Passport, which might save you money (particularly if you’re going to be taking a cable car, which is $5 a pop.) You’ll find the SFMTA website helpful for route-planning, as well as 511.org and nextmuni.com.
* Whatever you do, don’t call it San Fran. You just give yourself away.