For a city that’s only seven miles long, San Francisco packs in a lot of magic. Besides icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars, there are diverse neighborhoods, quirky historic spots, and countless unique experiences—if you know where to go.
“It's really a city in layers,” says Erica Messner, the cofounder and editor-in-chief of The San Franciscan magazine. In the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, Messner and two other San Francisco locals peel back some of those layers, chatting with host Soterios Johnson about their favorite hidden gems around the Bay Area.
Josh Armel, owner of Painted Ladies Tour Company, offers one undeniably unique way to explore the city: a ride in his colorful, eyelash-accented VW buses. Not only can these old-school vehicles navigate areas in hilly San Francisco that big tour buses can’t—like crooked Lombard Street—but the van itself is part of the fun. “The first thing people do when they get in is start bouncing on the seats, because there's actual metal springs,” Armel says. “It's definitely a kick.”
His classic two-hour tour includes top sights like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Painted Ladies houses, but also “hits different neighborhoods like Hayes Valley and Lower Haight, where people can get a little bit more of a local's perspective.” Sometimes, too, they’ll stop for burritos in the Mission District, at the James Beard Award–winning La Taqueria, then see the neighborhood’s many murals. “There's so much talent and history and culture and food.”
“There's a vibrant art scene in San Francisco these days,” agrees Messner, who tells Johnson about the variety of poetry and mixed-media readings held in bars across the city. She recently attended one at The Little Shamrock, an 1893 bar in the Sunset District. “It has a rich history, with a back room where drinking happened during prohibition,” Messner says. “It was really cool to be in a place where people are so intently focused on poetry. At the end, there was wild cheering.” She shares more tips on creating a unique weekend getaway, like stopping for the raisin focaccia at North Beach’s Liguria Bakery, or taking a whale-watching cruise to the remote Farallon Islands.
A third local expert, MeeSun Boice, recommends another island getaway hidden in plain sight: Treasure Island, the man-made island just off the Bay Bridge. “Treasure Island is becoming a new San Francisco community, like the Mission or the Castro or Nob Hill,” says Boice, owner of the family- and dog-friendly restaurant Mersea. The still-developing island has its own museum and an increasing number of places to eat and drink—including Gold Bar Whiskey, the official distiller of the San Francisco 49ers. It will soon have ferry service, too, from San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace.
Treasure Island is a don’t-miss for the city views alone, says Boice: You’ll see the Golden Gate Bridge, the skyline, and Alcatraz. “Stroll down along the water,” she says. “It is the single most spectacular view of the skyline. You're not going to stop taking pictures.”