What are some of your favorite memories of San Francisco, CA?
Some of my most memorable nights in San Francisco have been in North Beach, the Italian neighborhood stretching along Columbus Ave from Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf. One of the first places I visited when I moved out was City Lights bookstore, which has a storied history as a favorite of Beat poets like Jack Kerouac, and is still a focal point of SF’s literary scene. People-watching over a bowl of risotto at Trattoria Pinocchio is a good way to start an evening, but if you can grab a seat at the bar at the family-run Sotto Mare, you might be lucky enough to get a bowl of the best ciopinno (seafood stew) in the city. Evenings everywhere in SF can get a bit chilly, and a brandy hot chocolate at Tosca Café is a decades-old tradition to beat back a chilly night (or Prohibition.) But perhaps my favorite little bar in North Beach is the oddly-named Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum Café, which is neither a café or museum. Look for the numbers 1 and 2 inside a pair of spectacles to find it, in an alley around the corner from Tosca.
How would you spend 36 hours in San Francisco, CA?
I would start at the Ferry Building with brunch at Boulette’s Larder, arguably the best breakfast in the city, and worth waiting in line. Properly provisioned, a perfect morning hike would be to wind up the Embarcadero to the Wharf and Fort Mason. The stretch along Chrissy Field is a great spot to fly a kite when the wind is right and take in the view of the hills of Marin County across the bay. Crossing into the Marina, the swan lake and colonnades of the Palace of Fine Arts make for an opportune moment to use the panorama mode on your phone, before crossing the street to the Lucasfilm campus and snapping a portrait with the Yoda statue. Continuing on foot or bike, I’d cross over to Fort Point where you can find staircases leading up to the Golden Gate Bridge. Lastly, if I had time to do something I’ve never done, I’d spend the night at Cavallo Point at the opposite end of the bridge - supposedly one of the most scenic spots in the city, and a chance to make s'mores while taking in the full view of your day's voyage.
What kind of practical information should first-time visitors know about San Francisco, CA?
A taxi is the best way to get around the city at night, and dialing (415) 333-3333 is convenient and cheap. While slightly more expensive, the Uber and Lyft smartphone apps can sometimes locate a ride quicker.
The websites nextbus.org, bart.gov, and sfmuni.org are all indispensible for navigating public transportation. BART (the underground) tends to be more reliable than the Muni (buses and light rail) - and the cheapest way to get to and from the airport - but reaches only a few neighborhoods. Bike, Segway and even electric scooter rentals are also options for getting around more scenic parts of the city.
Hotels of all sorts are available, and websites like AirBnB and Couchsurfing are popular alternative to book rooms at cheap rates. Of several hostel options, the Downtown Hostel near Union Square is one of the best. Many people visiting Northern California will also want to make a trip to Muir Woods, Napa Valley, or Yosemite, and car rentals and organized tour buses are good options for getting around the state for a day or two.
What are some precautions that people should take while exploring San Francisco, CA?
San Francisco is remarkably safe for a city of its size, but the same precautions that apply to any big city apply here. In general, don’t walk out at night alone unless you are familiar with the neighborhood.
Street food is plentiful and generally safe, especially from the many food trucks, SOMA's Streat Food Park, and Off The Grid . The dress code is almost uniformly casual even in expensive restaurants. Smoking is generally not permitted indoors or in public places, so inquire about smoking options before lighting up.
Any other indispensable pieces of advice to share?
Always carry layers! The weather in San Francisco is not only unpredictable but changes dramatically from microclimate to microclimate. You won’t regret carrying around a jacket, fleece or windbreaker, and few locals travel more than a few blocks without one.
Driving down the iconic 'crooked' section of Lombard Street on Russian Hill is an exercise in trust-building. Will your friends indulge your inner stunt driver as you take down the hairpin turns? Even if you manage to avoid ending up in someone's living room, there will probably be a curse or two thrown your way. Best to take the time to smell the roses.
My favorite day trip out of San Francisco is just an hour north of the canyons of the Financial District - their tranquil counterparts among the towering redwoods at Muir Woods National Park. Many of the trees here soar hundreds of feet tall and predate Columbus, but even at the ground level there are reminders of the fragile and diverse ecosystem that supports the park . A treasure to enjoy at your own pace.
Compared to its flashier, golden cousin, the Bay Bridge definitely gets much less postcard love, but it is just as iconic to San Francisco residents. For the next 2 years, the SF-facing stretch of the bridge is the site of an enormous art installation, in the form of the Bay Lights project. Conceived by Leo Villareal, over 25,000 LED lights along the bridgespan form stippled and swirling patterns every night, from dusk until 2 AM. A great view is from the Americano outdoor patio on the Embarcadero.
A step back in time, the sunken pools and ruins of the Sutro Baths are a short but fascinating hike along Land's End. A century ago, this was the world's largest indoor swimming pool, fitting 25,000 people at capacity, and paintings you'll find around the ruins show the glamour of another era. A great place to end your hike is the famed Cliff House restaurant, built in 1858 from the remains of a nearby shipwreck.
Alcatraz became one of the world's most famous prisons for at least two reasons: 1) an almost tragically gorgeous view of the San Francisco skyline, and 2) the alternately impassable and inconsequential distance that swim to San Francisco - and freedom - represents. Be sure to book boat tours to Alcatraz a week in advance, as they often sell out, and don't miss the opportunity to get locked in a cell of your own (watching 'The Rock' beforehand is highly recommended.)
There are views of the city, and then there are Views of The City. The 360-degree Top of the Mark is about as perfect a place to watch a sunset as you'll find - be sure to get there early and grab a seat by the western windows. Getting to the top of Nob Hill can be a bit of a climb, so this is a perfect chance to ride San Francisco's famed cable cars, from the Powell or California lines.
Golden Gate Park is a stretch of land rolling from the center of the city to the ocean – roughly 1000 acres to Central Park’s 800. Nestled inside you’ll find many secluded groves, lakes, paddocks and other spots to get lost in. Some of the biggest attractions, well worth visiting, include the Botanical Gardens and the pair of museums – the De Young and the California Academy of Sciences – in the center. To the west, you’ll know you are nearing Ocean Beach when you find yourself in fields of tulips and one of the pair of giant windmills, the Dutch and Murphy. But my favorite spot to relax after a day in Golden Gate Park are the pavilions, koi ponds, and moon bridges of the Japanese Tea Gardens. Be sure to stop for a ceremony at the family table in the tea house – considered to be the origin of fortune cookies in the United States, now found in every Chinese-American restaurant.
Mural art is an integral part of the Mission District dating back to the 1970s, and the Precita Eyes Mural Association organizes walking tours of many historic examples. But Clarion Alley is a striking example of how graffiti art, mural art and painting come together - artists here abide by unwritten rules respecting each other's work, and cover every inch of the alley with political figures, sci-fi scenes, and geometric shapes. Some artists at Clarion Alley have gone on to become art world fixtures, such as Barry McGee, and a Banksy can be found at nearby Sycamore Alley. Also a block away is Danny Bowien's punk-inflected foodie pop-up, Mission Chinese Food - look for the nondescript Chinese restaurant with a throng of people waiting outside.
San Franciscans love food, farmers and coffee, and the Ferry Building is as close to a hub of the local, artisan food movement as you’ll find west of Brooklyn or south of Portland. Biking, walking, or running (this is the starting point of the San Francisco marathon) up the waterfront Embarcadero, you can’t miss the giant clock tower as a landmark among the piers. Once inside, you’ll have your choice of local producers of honey, macaroons, oysters, mushrooms, and (in season) oyster mushrooms. After you’ve worked up an appetite, grab a bench looking out over the bay and Treasure Island. There’s also a farmers market with several of the city’s many food trucks outside several days a week.
Coit Tower and the hilly neighborhood that rises up to meet it represents everything endearing and old-fashioned about San Francisco – steep (even treacherous) streets, twinkling city lights, secret staircases that pop-up out of nowhere, and a quirky cast of characters (some immortalized in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.) The tower itself was built by the wealthy, cross-dressing gambler Lillian Coit to commemorate her love of San Francisco’s firefighters, but just as interesting are the Depression-era murals on the inside, most with a barely hidden political message (for which they were subsequently defaced.) The best way to approach is by the Filbert Street Steps on the south slope, but take your time – this is one of the steepest streets in the world, and it’s worth enjoying the view, and contemplating what kind of person would live here.
On any given weekend in the summer, Dolores Park overflows with an eclectic crowd of the young and the hip, picnic baskets and blankets in hand. On a weekday, you can prop up on the hill with a good book, and take in dogs bounding up and toddlers rolling down. Within a few blocks are some of the best restaurants and coffeeshops in San Francisco, but right on 18th street are two of the most famous - crowds line up down the block one way in the morning for Tartine Bakery's buttermilk scones, and the other way at night for Bi-Rite Creamery's olive oil and sea salt sundaes.