My list for friends on what to see and do in San Francisco. I’ve lived here since 1992. Here’s what I find interesting or cool.
(See also: My Guide to Silicon Valley.)
What to Wear in SF
Okay, it can be 90F in Palo Alto, but SF is at the entrance of the Pacific Ocean so it can be very very cold, even in July. Shorts are okay, but you must have a good thick fleece sweater (not a light one). Tourists come to SF in the summer in their T-shirts and shorts: that’s why SF sells so many fleece jackets! 🙂 SF has micro-climates. It can be 85F in one neighborhood and you go four blocks and it’s suddenly 59F. The steep hills, the sunlight, and the fog cause that.
SF is a walking city. Wear good walking shoes. We also recommend that you save your feet: take taxi as much as possible.
SF on Foot
Start in the morning at 9 am.
Cable Car: Absolutely must. Go (walk or taxi) to Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround at Hallidie Plaza (Powell & Market) to ride the Powell-Hyde line. (There is also a Powell-Mason line: you don’t want that one. Be careful, you also don’t want the street car or tram. You want the cable car.)
Often a crowd, so get there early and get in line. Bring $5 cash to pay for the ticket. To get good photos, get a standing spot either at the front or the back.
When you get to the end, you can either go to the right and see Fisherman’s Wharf, etc., but it’s just tourist stuff: T-Shirts, bad food, etc. We recommend China Town. Take the cable car back and get out at Bush Street. Walk a few blocks downhill to Grant.
China Town: Start at the Dragon Gate at Grant & Bush . Walk through the gate and continue on Grant. Go all the way to the end. Brings you to North Beach.
North Beach (The Italian Neighborhood): Cross the street and continue on Columbus. Time for lunch. Lots of places for sitting outside for a pizza. Plus Italian ice cream and bakeries. Go 4-5 blocks to the park, where you’ll see St. Peter & Paul Cathedral. When you see weddings in American movies, the outdoor scene is often here, even if the movie wedding is in NYC or Boston 🙂
It’ll be now 2-3 pm.
Flag down a taxi and go to Cliff House at Seal Point. Spectacular views. If it’s very clear, you can see the Farallon Islands on the horizon about 35 miles away. Lots of seals in the surf. Walk around the complex there. Walk down to the beach. Take off your socks and walk in the surf. Here, you should be wearing shorts, not jeans.
Walk as far as you want. On the way back, just across the beach road, is Beach Chalet, which is actually a restaurant. (1000 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 94121. (415) 386-8439. beachchalet.com) Plan ahead and make reservations. Try to get a seat by the window. Spectacular ocean sunset view.
It’ll be late evening. Ask the hostess to call a taxi. Back to your hotel to crash.
Day 2: Redwood Forest, Pacific Ocean, Napa: Get a car. Go to the Golden Gate Bridge. Cross over. Stay in the far right lane. The person in the passenger seat should have the camera ready to take photos. Drive slow. At the end of the bridge, take the first right: that brings you into a parking lot. Park wherever you can. Walk to the scenic view. Lots of great views of the bridge, SF, Alcatraz, the Bay, etc. Lock your car, leave no valuables in sight, and watch your stuff: lots of pickpockets too. And lots of plainclothes police to catch the pickpockets.
At the parking lot exit, bear right. Continue a few miles down the hill to Sausalito. Go to the downtown area and park wherever you can and walk around. Very pretty Northern California town. Find a supermarket or deli and get sandwiches and drinks. You must get food in Sausalito; in a few miles, there will be no shops at all for the rest of the day.
Continue to Muir Grove. Get there early; it can fill by mid-afternoon. It’s a great place to walk in a redwood forest. You can picnic there. The hills, the curves, the views are very Northern Pacific Coast.
Continue along Muir Woods Road to Muir Beach. Very nice place.
Return over the Golden Gate and back to SF for dinner.
Car Tour of SF
- If you don’t know SF really well, it’s not easy to drive around by car in SF: many streets are one-way the wrong way, the streets take odd angles, etc. Parking is also very difficult and generally expensive. It’s much better if someone else drives. You can get a taxi. Another idea is to get Uber or Lyft for a short ride. They know city traffic very well. If you like the driver, then ask if they’ll drive you all day. Work out a price. You’re paying the driver directly, so it’ll be cheaper than the usual fare.
- Start at Union Square. See the statue on the column? That’s the Chick on a Stick. She was modeled after Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville, the original Sugar Baby; her wealthy benefactor was Adolph Spreckels, the original Sugar Daddy (because he owned a huge sugar company). He paid for the column, so he placed his girlfriend there. Who knows what his wife thought about this?
- Walk down to Grant St. At the east end (across Market St.) is the Four Seasons. Walk west along Grant. The major luxury stores are here. Continue to China Town.
- Continue on Grant through China Town to North Beach
- Cross Broadway and continue along Columbus. Walk to Peter & Paul Cathedral and return on Columbus to the Transamerica pyramid building. Next door is a small redwood forest.
- Go up to Broadway, turn left to Van Ness
- Turn right on Hyde and right on Lombard
- Continue all the way on Lombard to go up to the Coit Tower
- Return on Leavensworth,
- Left on Chestnut, Left on Larkin, go to Van Ness
- Go to Golden Gate Bridge
- Go to WWII cannon defenses (first is the best)
- Return over Golden Gate
- If you want fairly-okay Chinese food, turn right on Clement. Try Spices (a Sichuan restaurant) at 6th+Clement. The best Chinese food is in Silicon Valley.
- Golden Gate Park to the buffalo park
- Seal Rock (and cafe)
- Go to the Beach
- Ft. Funston for hang gliders
More Stuff in SF
- Coit Tower: You may want to go up to Coit Tower. Good views of the city. You can walk up there (good long walk!)
- 16th Ave. Tiled Steps: Inner Sunset, 16th Ave., between Moraga and Noriega
- Lyon Street Steps
- Vallejo Street Steps
- Valencia Street between 16th and 24th streets
- St. Mary’s Cathedral on Geary. You can park in the parking lot. Go inside.
Food in SF
There are three types of restaurants in SF: trendy, tourists, and junk.
- Trendy: There are several thousand restaurants: only about 100 are the best. The trendy restaurants change very rapidly. They’re also expensive. They don’t want kids, tourists, Yelp reviews, or any reviews at all. If you think the CIA has something to do with spies, then don’t go to these.
- Tourist: Fairly good to really terrible. Terrible, as in expensive, poor quality, bad service. Best tip: ask your concierge. If your hostel doesn’t have a concierge, go to one of the large hotels and ask the concierge. His recommendation will be based on your shoes: nice shoes, good place. Cheap shoes, cheap eats. Go for pizza in North Beach or lots of places around Union Square. There is also the Ferry Building, which has lots of super good small restaurants in a space where you can walk around for hours. Don’t go to Chinese restaurants in SF; they’re for tourists and generally bad. Spices (two locations, at Clement+6th or Clement + 8th) is good Sichuan. Real Chinese food is in Silicon Valley. Don’t rely on the reviews in tourist guides; the restaurants paid for those. Generally, if it’s in a tourist guide, it’s not good.
- Junk: Who cares?
If you have suggestions to add, let me know.
See also: My Guide to Silicon Valley.