Ah, San Francisco. From hippies to hipsters, techies to the Castro, SF is still a place where fresh ideas flourish, nature is always just outside your door, streets cascade up and down the city’s hills, and you can travel the world in food for days on end. While San Francisco is changing rapidly, dubbed one of the (if not the) most expensive cities to live in the US and gentrification taking hold, the city still maintains its core essence as the beauty by the bay.
Gorgeous year round, San Francisco is best in May/June and September/October. They say SF has ‘summer in fall’ because July/August in SF are typically quite foggy and it is necessary to hop across the bay on weekends to get some sun and experience summer along with the rest of the country. A sure sign of a tourist in August is a ‘San Francisco’ sweatshirt because said tourist likely thought they were going to LA in August and upon arriving in SF realized that s/he needed to buy some layers asap.
SF is only 7×7 miles so the city is extremely accessible by foot, ride share and public transport. Most tourists stick to downtown and maybe wander into the Mission or Haight Ashbury but the true SF lies outside the center in its distinct neighborhoods.
The tram on Market street
Dogpatch and the Mission
Dogpatch has been sprouting new roots as residents are looking for ‘affordable’ housing in once quieter areas of the city. On a sunny weekend day, a stroll around the Dogpatch area is a perfect distraction from downtown. Around 3rd Street between 20th Street and 22nd Street you’ll find a host of shops and restaurants that are perfect for a short walk. Check out Serpentine or Piccino for brunch but be sure to save room for ice cream at the devilishly good Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous. Walk around 3rd Street and check out pop-up shops and gourmet delights like Olivier’s Butchery, Poco Dolce Chocolate Shop, Neighbor Bakehouse, and La Fromagerie Cheese Shop.
The Mission area is vast and bursting with culture and history. Formerly a heavily Latino district, now inhabited by hipsters and young families, depending on the street the Mission is still at its core a place filled with sights, sounds and scents that are not to be missed. It is also home to some of the best restaurants and cafes in the city. It’s hard to summarize, but the best way to tackle the Mission is to start from 16th Street and Valencia Street and make your way down towards 24th Street, though you could start with a proper hip coffee at Four Barrel on 14th Street and Valencia first. As you stroll down Valencia you’ll see a number of shops, cafes and restaurants. Things not to be missed include Dandelion Chocolate, Ritual Coffee, Tacolicious (the best location of this local franchise), The Chapel music venue, the Roxie movie theater, wild Paxton Gate store filled with random treasures, and for music equipment fans, Aggregate Supply.
To the right of Valencia from 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores, you’ll find the world famous original Tartine Bakery (beware of extremely long weekend lines!). A morning bun and pressed sandwhich here are a must, which you can eat at the cafe or take to Dolores Park as you pass SF’s also famous BiRite market and creamery as well as 18 Reasons, a great place for a cooking class. To the left of Valencia you’ll find Mission Street which thankfully has not been gentrified (yet) and hosts random shops as well as some great taquerias. There is strong debate as to whether El Farolito or La Taqueria is best, but I cast a vote for La Taqueria, both of which are around Mission and 24th Streets. Deeper into the Mission along 24th Street towards Potrero Avenue you will find a mix of eclectic shops, some new, some old, as well as a number of other great options for Mexican food.
Another great direction to wander during the day is from 20th Street at Alabama Street. Here you’ll find local gems like Flour + Water and Central Kitchen restaurants, Trick Dog bar with a unique and changing cocktail menu, the lovely Sightglass Coffee, Southern Exposure art space, as well as on 18th Street and Alabama Street, the new Tartine Manufactory (a la Tartine Bakery) as well as SF’s famous Heath Ceramics store.
The view from Mission Dolores Park
Oranges on sale on Dolores street
Tasty coffee and breakfast at Mazarine Coffee
Alamo Square and the Castro
Did you watch the TV show Full House? Well, if you did Alamo Square will make you nostalgic. Home to the famous historical ‘Painted Ladies’ Victorian houses, Alamo Square is a great place to sit for a picnic and take in the view. Head to Divisidero Street for coffee and next level toast at The Mill, lunch at 4505 Meats BBQ or a sandwich from BiRite, or come in the evening when the street lights up, from The Independent music venue, to the classic and amazing NOPA restaurant, Madrone Art Bar with its rotating theme nights, or any of the other popular food and drink locales.
The Castro is special and a point of pride (pun intended?) for San Franciscans. The epicenter of the gay rights movement, former home of hero Harvey Milk, and an overall center of refuge and revelry, the Castro is definitely worth a stroll. Walk across the rainbow colored cross walks, have a phallic-shaped treat from Hot Cookie, and see a show at the wonderful and renowned Castro Theater.
The Marina and PAC Heights
For those that want a little more of a refined tour of the city, the Marina and Pacific Heights are your spots. Between Van Ness and Divisadero Streets on Chestnut Street and Union Street you’ll find the main commercial streets of the Marina. But venture off the beaten path in this area and you’ll find magnificent San Francisco architecture, including mansions westward toward the Presidio (towards Lyon Street from Green or Vallejo Streets), or take yourself to the dock of the bay along Marina Blvd where you’ll find bikers, runners and a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This area is always full of new shops and restaurants, but one is a standby for a reason. A16 is a cozy, well-established Italian restaurant where you’ll find locals enjoying a nice glass of wine and dine for lunch and dinner.
If you want a little more go up and over the hill into Pacific Heights (aka Pac Heights) along Fillmore Street. Again you’ll find lots of shops and eateries, but you can also wander down to Post Street where you’ll find the Kabuki Theater, which hosts blockbuster and independent films and further along the street, Japan Town with lovely markets and Japanese shops.
Cavallo point, a former military base overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge
Old warehouse at Cavallo point
- Alamo Square Park and Dolores Park – Views and vistas of the city
- Marina Blvd – Take a stroll along the bay and see the Golden Gate Bridge afar from the tourists
- The Castro Theater – The organ player at the beginning of every show is worth a trip regardless of the show
- Cavallo Point and Suasalito – beautiful countryside short trip from the city, Cavallo point offers great views to the Golden Gate bridge. Suasalito is offered for a lot of treks in nature
- Alcatraz Island – Notorious prison that closed down in 1963, a few months after the infamous escape. Now serves as a museum, accessible by ferry on a short 20min ride from SF downtown
The kitchen area of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
- Central Kitchen – Interesting California cuisine in a casual local environment. Also features a nice patio when the weather is good
- NOPA – SF staple that serves late, a rarity in the city!
- A16 – Classic Italian Marina hot spot, serving great Neopolitan pizza, housemade pasta and many more
- Dandelion Chocolate – European hot chocolate, just do it. Handmade candy bars and brownies!
- Tartine Bakery – World famous bakery that speaks for itself
- At a taqueria, you’re in California!