Fatima Sousi is uniquely qualified to speak about San Francisco’s confluence of cultures—and she can do so in five languages. The multilingual Barcelona native moved to San Francisco in 2005, intending to stay for a year or two. Seventeen years later, she’s still listening to the cable car bells in Union Square.
“The beauty of San Francisco is that it has people from all over. Having an accent or looking different is not a big deal here because people are very open and welcoming,” Sousi says. “You can be whoever you are. Even when I first moved here, I never felt out of place.”
The senior sales manager for Hilton San Francisco Union Square and Parc 55 San Francisco—two Union Square high-rise hotels that attract vacationers, tour groups, business travelers, and flight crews from around the globe—describes San Francisco as a rich global fusion of cuisines and customs.
“It’s a city that seems very different from other American cities. It’s small—only 7 miles by 7 miles—but it offers so much culture. Every neighborhood is a different experience.”
When friends or family visit, Sousi takes them on a 2-mile walk from Union Square’s high-end shops to Chinatown’slively markets and North Beach’s trattoria-lined sidewalks, then down to the waterfront by Fisherman’s Wharf and Hyde Street Pier.
“We start from the hotel, then go up to Grant Avenue and turn left. We go through Chinatown to see all the interesting shops, and then head up Columbus Avenue to North Beach,” she says. Her walking tour always ends with Irish coffee at the historic Buena Vista Cafe.
“I always take people there because I think it’s so cool, and it has a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge,” she says. “I recently learned that they serve 2,000 Irish coffees per day. They make them really fast, 10 drinks at a time, and they’re always perfect. The recipe has stayed exactly the same for years, and it always tastes so good.”
To return to Union Square, everyone boards the cable car—San Francisco’s most recognizable icon and a National Historic Landmark that’s been delighting visitors since 1873.
At sunset, Sousi’s favorite place to be is Cityscape on the 46th floor of Tower 1 at Hilton San Francisco Union Square. The city’s tallest skybar crowns the top of California’s largest hotel, with 1,921 rooms in three towers.
“Cityscape has the best views in the city because it has huge windows that show both sides of the city—the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge,” she says.
The lounge’s 360-degree vista sweeps across the downtown skyline, San Francisco Bay and its islands, City Hall, Twin Peaks, and the 61-floor Salesforce Tower. “A lot of large groups choose to stay at the Hilton specifically because of Cityscape’s view. Watching the light change at sunset is amazing, and the bartenders make great cocktails,” Sousi says.
San Francisco’s multicultural food scene is also a big draw for visitors, she says. “I like food from all over the world, and here in San Francisco you can get anything you want. Near Union Square, I recommend Akiko’s, which is a charming boutique Japanese restaurant. I also recommend Bouche, which serves Northern French food. Bouche has a new menu every 10 days and a ‘surprise’ appetizer every night. You order it and try to guess what’s in it.”
For Indian and Pakistani food, Sousi goes to Aslam’s Rosoi in the Mission District. “My friends and I have been going for 10 years, sometimes as often as once a week,” she says. “My favorite dish is the chicken tikka masala. The lamb chops are also very good—they come to the table in a sizzling skillet.”
Among the city’s 28 Michelin-starred restaurants is Kin Khao at Hilton’s Parc 55 San Francisco. The Thai restaurant serves elevated versions of turmeric rice salad, rabbit green curry, caramelized pork belly, and black rice pudding.
San Francisco’s cultural melting pot is on display at museums near Union Square, Sousi says. “The Museum of the African Diaspora is so interesting and has so much beautiful art. And the Contemporary Jewish Museum has fascinating exhibits on Jewish culture, history and art. Both museums are a 10-minute walk from our hotels.”
She also recommends the Tenderloin Museum. “A lot of people don’t know about it. The museum offers walking tours, and you’ll learn about the families who founded that neighborhood, which was very important to the city’s history,” she says.
To get around the city, Sousi suggests using public transit or setting out on foot. “San Francisco is one of the most European cities in the United States because you can walk so many places, and the public transportation system is very good,” she says. “When I lived in Russian Hill, I would ride the cable car to work. Every trip was so cool.”
FIVE MORE FAVORITES
Sousi’s top picks for San Francisco include these spots:
Parks: San Francisco has beautiful parks. My favorite spot in Golden Gate Park is the Japanese Tea Garden. It’s very serene, and the gardens and buildings are beautiful. Golden Gate Park’s California Academy of Sciences stays open late on Thursday evenings. It’s perfect for a date. You can walk around and look at the exhibits, and it gives you something to talk about. I also love Mission Dolores Park, which is next to the Castro. You can see a mix of all kinds of people, and everybody seems super happy.
Brunch: Very close to our hotels is Lapisara Eatery. It’s a great weekend brunch place with a Thai-influenced menu. I love their chicken and waffles, and they have good cocktails and margaritas. Another great brunch place is Sweet Maple in Japantown. It’s one of the best brunch spots in San Francisco, and they serve different types of bottomless mimosas. The food is amazing. That area is really nice because you’re near all the shops on Fillmore Street.
Family-friendly: Kids will be very happy in San Francisco. Families should definitely walk around Fisherman’s Wharfand go see the sea lions at Pier 39. They should also spend time at the Exploratorium at Pier 15. It’s a wonderful interactive learning museum. Take the boat to Alcatraz Island and walk around the famous prison—but make sure you buy tickets in advance because it’s often hard to get them at the last minute. Go to Golden Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences. It’s a huge museum with exhibits that are fascinating for all ages. Make sure you take the tour so you can go see the view from the “living roof.”
San Francisco Ferry Building: La Mar is a wonderful Peruvian restaurant. They make really good pisco sours, which is one of my favorite drinks, and delicious ceviche. You can sit inside or outside overlooking the yachts in the harbor. I also like Coqueta for great tapas and gin and tonics, and Waterbar for seafood. After dinner, take a walk along the Embarcadero to see the lights of the Bay Bridge. It’s beautiful to walk out to the end of the piers and look at the lights.
Mission District: The Mission has gorgeous murals. I always take people to see the five-story-high mural on the Women's Building. The painting shows history’s most inspiring women and their contributions to the world. I get emotional just looking at it. A great way to learn about the Mission District is to sign up for a food and culture tour. If you go on your own, get tacos at Tacolicious and dessert at Dianda’s, a wonderful Italian bakery. They make beautiful pastries and tres leches (milk cake).