about the city
Come to San Francisco to get lost in the palpable buzz of creativity and innovation, the details of the Victorian homes impossibly perched on the steep hills, and the jaw-dropping views of the blue bay. I'm not usually at a loss for words, but I love this city I called home for over 5 years so much that I feel my words can't do it justice. Because of that, I'll leave you with a couple of quotes that I think perfectly describe the heart-pumping delight that this city brings me:
"If you're alive, you can't be bored in San Francisco. If you're not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life. San Francisco is a world to explore. It is a place where the heart can go on a delightful adventure. It is a city in which the spirit can know refreshment every day." - William Saroyan
"You wouldn't think such a place as San Francisco could exist. The wonderful sunlight here, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes, beautiful Chinatown, every race in the world, the sardine fleets sailing out, the little cable cars whizzing down the city hills... and all the people are open and friendly." - Dylan Thomas
This city guide is a little different from the rest, as I have led so many "tours" of San Francisco for family and friends that I have the exact itinerary down! I have somehow managed to boil down [most of] my favorite things to do into a three day guide that will give you a good sense of the diversity of this incredible city. I sure hope your heart is delighted as much as mine! Bring walking shoes. This guide contains a lot of walking, as the locals do. You've been warned!
Before you go
1. Please never call this city "San Fran" or this state "Cali." That s how to annoy a local 101. Just no. We call the city "SF" and the state "California."
2. When you are downtown, you will see an alarming number of homeless people with mental illnesses. It is a widely discussed problem in the city known for its wealthy population. This is the best article I have found to summarize the problem and the terrible divide between the wealthy and the poor.
where to stay
San Francisco is a hard one for hotels. I have to admit, I still haven't cracked the code on this one for when my parents visit. It's easy to find very nice hotels, but the middle-of-the line hotels are hard to find. Send me recs if you have any!
Be careful about booking hotels downtown. "Union Square" can many times be a cover-up for the Tenderloin, which is the sketchiest part of San Francisco. Avoid staying there at all costs as a newbie to the city, so really check on a map.
The Fairmont- This is the most famous hotel in San Francisco set up top of Nob Hill. The cable cars will come rolling by, and you'll have easy access to the touristy parts of the city here. With the famous Tonga Room (tiki bar with a pool in the middle) downstairs, you'll also have a fun night right at your fingertips. Stay with the celebrities.
Palace Hotel- I love the downstairs lounge here, where you can grab a glass of wine or cup of tea under a majestic frosted glass ceiling. This place is surely luxurious and the rooms are clean and modern. Treat yourself by staying here.
J.W. Marriott- You can never go wrong with Marriotts, and this is no exception. Set very central downtown, you'll have easy access to public transportation, a grand place to come back to, and a killer bar on the top floor with a panoramic view of the city.
The Laurel Inn- In Laurel Heights (they advertise as Pacific Heights, but don't be fooled), this place is a great find if you're looking to stay near the west side of the city. It's not easily accessible to quick public transportation. There are buses but no subways. As long as you don't mind Ubering, this is a good spot.
Parker Guest House- This place is on the Mission, the designated "hipster"part of the city that is also always warmer. It borders the Castro District. If you want to be within walking distance of some of the best restaurants, nightlife, and parks in the city, this location can't be beat. It's also just far enough off the main street of Valencia that it won't be too loud at night. It is right off the J subway line for easy access to downtown and not far from the N, which will take you to the beach and the west side of the city.
As always, I suggest AirBnB for finding affordable options and feeling like a local. Don't stay downtown if you're going this route. Sketchyyy. I would choose a spot in Alamo Square, the Mission, or Cole Valley, which is where most of my friends live, you'll have easy access to public transportation, and you're within walking distance of lots of cafes, bars, restaurants, etc.
itinerary: day 1
Welcome to San Francisco! Day 1 is full of checking out the diversity of San Francisco neighborhoods (the Castro - SF's gay neighborhood, North Beach - SF's Little Italy, Chinatown, and downtown). You'll also get to check out SF's fun transportation options. Yes, today's the day you'll get your cable car Instagram pic.
1. (Breakfast) Cafe Mystique/The Castro- To see the heart of the US LGBTQ civil rights movement, head on over to the Castro. Cross the rainbow crosswalks, see the famous Castro sign on the Castro Theater, and view the huge waving rainbow flag at the heart of the neighborhood. I've heard that the Castro Detour (guided walking tour app) is one of the best ones. Definitely learn about the history of the gay rights movement that has been and still is so important in this neighborhood and grab breakfast at Cafe Mystique (bottomless mimosas!) on Castro Steet or at one the dozens of cafes that pepper the streets. This is one of my favorite areas!
2. Streetcar- First, go down into the underground Castro Station and buy a Clipper Card. It's $5, but if you're going to do the cable car later, this can be worth it to avoid the ridiculous line. Load $10 on it, which you'll use to ride one of streetcars down Market (F Line) and then the cable car a little later. Grab a streetcar at Market & 17th St heading east and pay with your Clipper Card. Take a good look at the various ones that pass by- they've been given to SF from cities all over the world who are no longer using them!
3. Union Square- Get off the streetcar at Market & Powell. Walk north on Powell up toward Union Square. There's tons of high-end shopping, but that's not my thing, so I suggest getting a quick look and then heading to the cable car.
4. Cable Car- Next to no locals actually use this as any kind of real transportation, but I still say you've got to do it. Here's the pro tip: don't buy your tickets at the Powell Street ticket booth and wait in that horrendous line. Instead, use that Clipper Card I already told you to buy, and walk up to Union Square. You should see a stop at the southeast corner of Powell & Geary. They save a few spots for people to get on along the way. You still might wait 15 minutes or so, but it's way faster than the hour and half wait just a couple blocks down. Often times this way you get to hang off the side too! Worth it for the fun ride, bay views, riding past Lombard Street, and look into the lives of San Franciscans as you pass by apartments and sidewalk cafes. Take the Powell-Hyde line. Better than the Mason or California lines.
5. Fisherman's Wharf- The cable car will drop you off here. It's touristy AF, so just walk through it. You can grab yourself some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl here or wait for the next option (pizza!). Swing by Boudin Bakery and watch them making their famous sourdough that SF has become known for. Walk out onto the pier ACROSS from Pier 39 to watch the seals and get a view of the Golden Gate Bridge (skip Pier 39 altogether. It's terrible and a tourist trap).
6. (Lunch) Tony's Slice House/Washington Square Park- Instead of waiting forever at the restaurant portion of the world-famous pizzeria in North Beach, just go right next door and grab one of the rotating section of slices. Take it to Washington Square Park and eat in front of the gorgeous church. You can walk here or Uber from Fisherman's Wharf.
7. Coit Tower- For a good urban hike, take the Filbert Steps that start on Filbert Street by Washington Square Park (there should be signs for Coit Tower). You'll walk through a lush hillside with beautiful homes and, if you're lucky, parrots! At the top, you'll get to Coit Tower, one of the most famous landmarks of the city. There's a gorgeous view at the top if the line isn't ridiculous, but if it's going to take a really long time, it might not be worth it since you already have a good view from the top of the hill. These steps are hard, so if you're exhausted, don't do it.
8. (Drinks) Comstock Saloon- This cute little cocktail place has a 20s decor with some great drinks and small bites. After a busy day full of lots of walking, you earned this one. Sit back and relax in their cozy booths to the sounds of live jazz.
9. (Dinner) China Live- China Live has turned the mayhem of a Chinese market with long tables in the center and lots of stands serving various types of foods around the sides, into a sophisticated, posh, artistic retreat. With several kitchens serving various types of upscale Chinese dishes, choose what you want and eat it family-style. The waiters are knowledgeable. I suggest asking them what to order and order a dish from every kitchen. If there's a wait, put your name down and browse through their attached market full of beautiful Chinese pottery or walk down Grant Ave. to see the heart of Chinatown- complete with hanging lanterns overhead.
itinerary: day 2
You did a lot yesterday. Today you've definitely earned your up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge! Stroll through a quaint neighborhood full of coffee shops and stores, gawk at some of the $$$$ homes in the Marina, relax amongst the incredible nature that paints this city, and get a taste of the pulsing nightlife of the Latino meets hipster Mission District.
1. (Breakfast) Le Marais Bakery (Chestnut St. location)- A French-style bakery, grab a delicious pastry and coffee or stay a little longer for an egg dish at this adorable place where everything is melt-in-your-mouth tasty.
2. The Marina- Walk west down Chestnut street and stop into boutiques along the way full of lotions, candles, SF gifts that are cute, not touristy, etc. and view the various coffee shops and wine bars that fuel this lively area. Turn right onto Divisadero and then left onto North Point to view beautiful, typical SF-style architecture and get you to your next stop.
3. Palace of Fine Arts- These fake ruins on a large picturesque pond with swans was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. They are charmingly beautiful yet wonderfully odd, just like SF itself. Stroll around and take a look at the homes circling the Palace- some of the most beautiful in the city!
4. Crissy Field/Golden Gate Bridge- Avoid walking across the Golden Gate Bridge unless it's one of those rare yet absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful perfect weather days. Instead, walk along the Crissy Field beach + walking path that starts across the street from the Palace of Fine Arts and ends at the Golden Gate Bridge. You'll have stunning views and not have to battle the bitter wind. At the end, there's a place called the Warming Hut where you can grab a coffee or hot chocolate.
5. (Lunch) Burma Superstar- Take an Uber here to this locals' favorite spot in the Inner Richmond District. Featured in Sunset Magazine and Food Network, this places serves some of my very favorite food in the city. Who knew how good Burmese food is?! They're best known for their tea leaf salad, so you absolutely must order that. My other favorite dish is the mint chicken (spicy!) with a side of coconut rice. My favorite dish in SF.
6. Golden Gate Park- Walk or take an Uber to the largest city park in the U.S. To get a good sense of how big this park is, Central Park in NYC is only 60% the size of it! You'll find waterfalls, roaming bison, polo fields with horses running around, Japanese tea gardens, Conservatory of Flowers, botanical gardens, tennis courts, windmills, and some of the best museums in the city (such as the DeYoung or California Academy of Sciences). Choose your own adventure here because it's hard to go wrong, but JFK Drive is a good road to walk down in general and is closed to cars on Sundays. The botanical gardens are also gorgeous and a nice respite!
7. (Drinks) Etcetera Wine Bar/The Mission- Uber on over to the Mission, the historically Latino neighborhood that has seen some changes recently and become more hipster with the tech boom. You'll find a mixture of hole-in-the-wall burrito joints and some of the nicest restaurants in the city. Before dinner, stop at my favorite wine bar, conveniently located on Valencia Street, one of the main drags. Before or after dinner, make sure to stop by here and order a glass of wine from their extensive wine list and some Spanish meats and cheeses to split. If you can, sit in the window seat for some people watching.
8. (Dinner) Limón Rotisserie or Tacolicious or La Taquería- I couldn't decide where to tell you to eat dinner because there are so many good options in the Mission, so I'm giving you three different Latin options:
Limón Rotisserie (Valencia location): Come for fantastic Peruvian food and the best chicken you'll have in your life (something I never normally go for). Order a starter of ceviche, sangria, and the "Pollo a la Brasa" with a side of yuca fries and vegetales salteados (sauteed veggies). They make simple dishes mouth-wateringly delicious. I give this place a 10/10.
Tacolicious (Valencia location): You probably already know my Mexico City obsession. Well, this place is about as close to Mexico City style upscale tacos as you can get. In fact, the chef got his inspiration from many of my favorite Mexico City restaurants. The margs, guac, pozole, and rotating selection of small tacos are out of this world.
La Taquería: If you want to try a more casual, hole-in-the-wall place, come to La Taquería, which consistently wins the award for best burrito in SF (and the US!)- a VERY coveted title here in the city whose residents have claimed the burrito as our staple food. Has been featured on Food Network and won James Beard's 2017 title for "America's Classics."
itinerary: day 3
Start off in France (Cole Valley), be transported back to the hippie era (the Haight), pretend you're on the set of Full House (Alamo Square), hop on back to Europe (Hayes Valley), and end your day Japan(town). Today's another crazy fun one that shows off the never-ending adventures to be had in San Francisco.
1. (Breakfast) Zazie/Tank Hill- My favorite brunch spot unfortunately is lots of other people's as well, meaning there will be a wait. Put your name down on the list and take an urban hike up to the top of Tank Hill (go south on Cole, turn right on Carmel, left on Shrader, left on Belgrave, which will take you up to the path to the top). Here, you'll find one of my favorite views of the city with sights of the Golden Gate Bridge, ocean, and downtown. Once you get back to Zazie, split one of their benedicts and the gingerbread pancakes in this quaint French bistro.
2. The Haight- Walk north on Cole Street until you hit Haight Street. Walk east on the stretch from Cole to Masonic and get a look into the hippie days. You'll see apothecaries, tie-dye shirts to buy, grungy coffee shops, and record stores. Pretend that you've gone back 50 years to the Summer of Love, as you see hippies continue to sit along the sidewalks singing or selling gemstones. Take the Haight-Ashbury Detour (guided walking tour app) to learn the history if you want more.
3. The Panhandle- Turn left onto Masonic from Haight street, and you'll shortly run into a park call the Panhandle (it sticks out like a panhandle from Golden Gate Park). This is a classic route for bicyclists, so watch out, and make sure to stay on the right side of the path as you walk east down the path alongside Oak St. You'll be surrounded by trees and classic Victorians- a good stop for a photoshoot.
4. Alamo Square/The Painted Ladies- Keep walking east down Oak, turn left on Divisadero (stop at The Mill for a slice of the famous $4 fancy toast if you'd like), then turn right on Grove. This will bring you to the famous Alamo Square Park. On the east side of the park sit the iconic homes that you see on the cover of tourist books and the opening credits of Full House. Get your Instagram pic!
5. (Lunch) Souvla/Hayes Valley- Walk a few blocks east along Hayes St., which will bring you to the swank Hayes Valley. Full of great food and expensive stores, you'll find some of the latest "it" spots in this neighborhood that has recently become one of the most expensive to live in due to its central location and great amenities. Stop at one of these "it" spots- Souvla, a fast-causal Greek-American restaurant best known for its bomb salads (get the pork!) and holy-cow-what-a-showstopper frozen Greek yogurt (get baklava or olive oil & sea salt). I love enjoying these with a glass of their Greek rosé. Note: the salads are huge and can easily be shared, especially if you're getting the frozen yogurt. The line goes quickly.
6. Japantown/Kabuki Springs & Spa communal baths- Take an Uber to the intersection of Post & Buchanan- the heart of Japantown. Wander through the mall to be transported through stores selling Hello Kitty, crazy desserts, and every item you never knew you needed for super cheap (specifically check out Daiso). If you can, go to the traditional Japanese-style communal baths at Kabuki Springs & Spa. At only $25 for general admission, this is well worth it. Plan on spending about 2 hours relaxing in the hot tub, sauna, and steam room complete with salt scrub, cucumber shampoo, and ginger tea. It's such a treat and great way to pamper your tired body that has just walked miles and been overstimulated by crazy San Francisco. Note: There are different days for men and women, except Tuesdays, which are co-ed.
7. (Dinner) Ramen Yamadaya- End your transportation to Japan with some warm sake and the Kakuni Shio ramen at this second-story spot with a view onto the Japanese tower. You'll hear lots of Japanese and be pretty confused where you are. This is my favorite ramen of all ramen, and the atmosphere is awesome. Not feeling ramen? The shabu-shabu hot pot place, Shabu-Sen, right underneath is also really good and fun.