San Francisco prides itself on its Mexican food, so when chef Gabriela Cámara moved from Mexico City to open Cala in 2015, it was both a show of confidence and a nod of respect. The celebrated chef behind Mexico City’s legendary Contramar, Cámara opened her first American restaurant in a warehouse-like former sound studio just off the main commercial thoroughfare in Hayes Valley. The restaurant’s abundant greenery—creeping kangaroo vines and a statuesque fiddle-leaf fig tree—makes guests feel as if they are dining on a patio somewhere decidedly more tropical than San Francisco. Cámara’s food uses ingredients familiar to Mexican food devotees, but she prepares them in unexpected ways, to extraordinary results. She serves a whole fire-roasted sweet potato, for example, with a stack of warm, house-made tortillas and a scoop of salsa negra—an extra-rich mole infused with bone marrow. Pro tip: Do not miss the trout tostadas with chipotle, avocado, and fried leeks. One order probably won’t be enough, so put in for two as soon as you sit down.
Chef David Barzelay wants to invite you to a dinner party. As with most successful social engagements, the host graciously introduces himself at the door, promptly offers guests a glass of punch, and encourages them to mingle with the 39 other lucky souls who were able to nab a spot at this nightly foodie fete. Lazy Bear is another player in the “don’t call it a restaurant” game: instead of taking reservations, 40 tickets are up for grabs for each event (there are two per night), and diners are treated more like party guests in a home than customers. But what makes Barzelay’s concept so innovative—and enjoyable—is the laid-back vibe. Two long communal tables fill the dining room, and as at the wedding of old friends, guests get up between courses to chat with each other or peek into the surrounding open kitchen. It’s an appropriate graduation for a chef who developed a cult following with his roving underground pop-ups. And beyond the conviviality, there’s the food, which is the real life of the party—and the reason Lazy Bear nabbed a Michelin star in 2016. There’s no menu, and Barzelay himself describes the inventive dishes—such as dry-aged squab with blueberries, chanterelle mushrooms, and sumac—to diners.
If you’ve never tried Spam, the canned cooked meat product, Liholiho Yacht Club is the place to finally take the plunge. Ask your server for the Spam musubi, slices of grilled Spam set atop a ball of sticky rice and wrapped in nori. Chef Ravi Kapur’s dishes are a playful mash-up of fresh California cuisine and the culinary traditions of his native Hawaii. To experience the full range of what the restaurant offers, order the Ohana table tasting menu, which features such favorites as duck liver toast with jalapeño and pickled pineapple alongside continent-hopping dishes like Cornish game hen katsu, with Japanese curry and daikon kimchi. And don’t forget the international language of cocktails—Liholiho’s bar program has made ordering all those fun island-themed concoctions a delicious proposition. One sip of the Pineapple Dance, made with plantation pineapple rum, Cynar, and freshly squeezed pineapple and lemon juices, and you may be inspired to do a little hula in your bar stool.
In China, the most exclusive way to enjoy a meal isn’t at an upscale restaurant. Shifan tsui, which translates to “private chateau cuisine,” is the practice of inviting small groups of guests to enjoy elaborate meals prepared by personal chefs. This is the concept behind Eight Tables, the distinctive dining experience located—both literally and metaphorically—at the very top of China Live, the ambitious culinary and cultural destination by restaurant mogul George Chen. While anyone can wander into China Live, access to Eight Tables is spectacularly guarded. Guests are met at a metal gate on Vallejo Street then whisked away (occasionally by rickshaw) to a private elevator that opens to a room set with eight tables. Waiters wear three-piece Ralph Lauren suits and blue Hermes ties, and the procession of the meal’s 10 courses is only matched in pomp and circumstance by the mad-scientist cocktails from the bar. The gin-based Lily Pond features “forest water,” made by juicing sour grasses into cucumber water. It is served in a delicate white bowl with a single nasturtium floating on top. The tasting menu changes regularly, but such decadent ingredients as caviar, lobster, and foie gras are regular fixtures.
As far as culinary origin stories go, it’s hard to beat Aaron London’s. As a rebellious teenager in Sonoma, he taught himself to cook in his family’s home kitchen. Flash forward a decade and he’s at the helm of his own pioneering restaurant—one that was named the best in the country in 2015 by Bon Appétit. Fruits and vegetables take center stage at Al’s Place, but London’s approach expands on the California cuisine of previous generations. Instead of preparing ingredients simply to stand on their own, London takes them through their paces. The fries, for example, take four days to prepare, while the season’s freshest offerings show up in unexpected ways: peach mayonnaise accompanies perfectly tender asparagus spears. But while London is known for being meticulous, the vibe of the dining room is laid back. Staff dress casually in a style befitting the neighborhood (plenty of kitchen-appropriate clogs and sleeves of tattoos) and are friendly, knowledgeable, and free of pretension. Pro tip: Show up early and join the loyalists and super fans who wait in two lines—one for those with reservations, one for walk-in guests—and then find out for yourself what a four-day fry tastes like.
In 2002, pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt and her husband, bread baker Chad Robertson, opened Tartine Bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District. Ever since, crowds of locals and tourists have lined up outside the artisanal bakery for country bread, morning buns, and croque monsieurs. In 2016, the couple expanded by opening Tartine Manufactory—a coffee shop, bakery, restaurant, and bar rolled into one—in a light-filled corner of the massive Heath Ceramics building. The Los Angeles–based design studio Commune collaborated with San Francisco architect Charles Hemminger to build out the 5,000-square-foot space, and the aesthetic is equal parts modern Scandinavian, rustic Japanese, and sunny Californian. All day long, the casual Manufactory turns out ingredient-first dishes: for breakfast, coddled eggs served with trout roe, horseradish, za’atar, and grilled bread; for dinner, California halibut crudo with kiwi, leeks, puffed rice, mint, and cilantro. The wine list includes a mix of local producers plus notable varietals from France, Italy, and Germany. The food presentation is as attractive and innovative as the space, and Prueitt and Robertson see the restaurant as a natural extension of their close collaborations with local farmers, artists, other chefs, and winemakers.
Husband-and-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski first gained recognition for State Bird Provisions, a game-changing, dim-sum-meets-California-cuisine restaurant that was supposed to be a temporary stand-in while they worked to open their larger space a few doors down. The couple picked up a prestigious James Beard Award for that effort. So if State Bird was their warm-up, it’s no surprise that their follow-up act, the Progress, has been a wild success. The space wows at first sight with its barrel ceiling and curved walls wrapped in simple wood slats. The Progress is three years old but has something new to offer on each visit, from the food (grilled Monterey abalone served with a butter flavored with ramps, yuzu, and seaweed) to the rotating works by local artists on the walls. Brioza and Krasinski recently changed the format from a prix fixe menu of family-style dishes to an à la carte experience, which is better for the casual, lively atmosphere. Plus, now you don’t have to share your pork and kimchi ravioli.
In Partnership with Afar.
It may measure less than 50 square miles and have a population that doesn’t even surpass a million, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorian buildings, cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront and a soaring crimson bridge, the 'City by the Bay' truly has it all. Trend-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining aplenty to outrageous food vans; world-renowned symphony, ballet, theatre and opera; plus almost boundless outdoor adventures, San Francisco justifiably stands out as one of the ultimate must-visit cities on any traveller’s wish list.
The hardest part may be deciding where to go first. (Well, that and packing for the city’s famously unpredictable weather.) Golden Gate Bridge Park is one of the most iconic spots in the city and has spectacular views; from there, walk or cycle over the span to Marin Headlands. Or stay on the San Francisco side and stroll over to the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio or Lands End, a rugged, windswept playground where you can watch for whales and check out the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
Fisherman’s Wharf beckons with its seafaring vibe and amazing seafood restaurants; look out across the water and you’ll see another fascinating destination not to be missed, Alcatraz Island. The bustling plazas of Union Square and Ghirardelli Square offer shopping and more great dining options. The city’s patchwork of distinct neighbourhoods the Mission District, Chinatown, North Beach, Haight-Ashbury, Nob Hill and so many more offer endless diversions both day and night.
Read on to find out more about what to do in this beautiful, historic and thoroughly enchanting city.
It has been 50 years since thousands of American teenagers flooded San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood in search of free love, consciousness-expanding drugs, and an alternative to the mainstream. You can celebrate the anniversary of the free-spirited Summer of Love in and around the San Francisco Bay Area through a series of local events, exhibits, and tours designed to take you back in time.
The summer of 1967 served as both the climax and the unravelling of a counterculture that had roots in the Beats, the civil rights movement, an avant-garde theatre scene, and a community of hippies. “[They] were seekers. [They] were people looking for something a little more spiritual, a little gentler and a lot freer,” says historian, author, and former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, who co-curated the exhibit “On the Road to the Summer of Love” for the California Historical Society.
To create your own Summer of Love experience, start in San Francisco and then follow your own path throughout the Golden State. Admire psychedelic posters inside the de Young Museum, wander Golden Gate Park, and follow a guitar-toting guide to the ‘Dead’s’ former haunt at 710 Ashbury Street. Or, as McNally suggests, take a trip to Love on Haight, a tie-dye store that channels the energy of days past. The crowds of free-loving folk may have long dispersed, but inside that rainbow-hued boutique, he says, “the spirit remains.”
See where it all started
The best way to transport yourself back to the San Francisco of 1967 is to go to its beating heart: the iconic crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets. Plenty of tour companies would be happy to show you around. Hop a VW Bus painted with vibrant murals and let San Francisco Love Tours give you a historic overview of the city, or join Wild SF on a pay-what-you-want Free Love tour, where you’ll follow a singing guide past the homes of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Magic Bus’ Summer of Love tour focuses on the psychedelic side of 1967 with 3D glasses and a bus that transforms into an LSD-inspired experience on your way to landmarks like The Fillmore concert hall.
More inclined to explore at your own pace? Download the Detour app and take the Haight-Ashbury walking tour narrated by actor Peter Coyote, who experienced the Summer of Love first-hand as a member of the activist theatre troupe, the Diggers. Coyote’s storytelling illuminates both the idealistic vision for the neighbourhood and its sometimes-dangerous reality, along with personal anecdotes and secret spaces you might otherwise miss.
Take a culture trip
“Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll is kind of the tagline that we take away from the Summer of Love, but there really was a defined aesthetic element to this moment of San Francisco history,” says Colleen Terry. The co-curator of the de Young Museum’s “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll” has assembled an exhibit exploring the creative output of the era—rock posters in bold, bulbous fonts, clothing heavy on leather and crochet, and trippy light shows that are now fixtures at concerts and festivals.
But don’t stop there. Museum-hop to the California Historical Society, where “On the Road to the Summer of Love” examines, through rare photographs and artefacts, the forces that coalesced into a vibrant counterculture. And don’t miss “Love or Confusion: Jimi Hendrix in 1967” at the Museum of the African Diaspora, featuring images of Hendrix’s wild coming-out party at the Monterey Pop Festival. Finally, those interested in LGBT history can learn about the impact of four queer icons, including poet Allen Ginsburg, in “Lavender-Tinted Glasses” at the GLBT History Museum.
Join the party
Seasonal accuracy aside, the Summer of Love really kicked off in January 1967, when the Human Be-In drew thousands to Golden Gate Park and psychologist Timothy Leary exhorted the crowd to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” So, it’s fitting that San Francisco is celebrating the 50th anniversary with multiple festivals and special events. Broadway musical “A Night with Janis Joplin,” at the American Conservatory Theater, June 7–July 2, chronicles the all-too-brief life of the rock tour de force who lived in the Haight during its heyday. The Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, launched in 1978, returns June 11 with crafts, iconic posters, and food, and the Jerry Day concert, in commemoration of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, takes place August 6 in McLaren Park.
Go beyond the Bay Area
The Summer of Love may have been centred in San Francisco, but its impact reverberated far beyond the Bay. You can mark the anniversary with a visit to the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where an exhibit will transport you back, through historic publications and posters, to daily life along Haight Street, or head to The Monterey International Pop Festival, the concert that catapulted the careers of Hendrix, the Who, and Otis Redding in 1967. It returns June 16–18 with an epic line-up—including a few names that were there the first time around, like soul man Booker T. and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh—but most of the line-up is dedicated to newer acts, including Gary Clark Jr., the Head and the Heart, and Father John Misty.
Elsewhere in the Central Coast region, influences of the nature-first cultural movement remain intact. Organic farming is thriving at places like Earthbound Farm in Carmel, where you can cut your own herbs, and taste and smell your way through a sensory garden. East of Santa Barbara in the spiritual haven Ojai, daily yoga and organic meals are the norm and Meditation Mount is a popular panoramic spot to practice mindfulness.
In Los Angeles, you can find a piece of rock ’n‘ roll history at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live, where Jim Marshall’s photographs of 1967 are displayed, or shop for peace sign-adorned apparel at eco-luxury boutique J Gerard Design Studio on Melrose Avenue. Cap off your Summer of Love tour with cocktails on the patio of Sunset Marquis, the Sunset Strip hotel that also serves as home to one of the most historic studios for music’s A-List—NightBird Recording Studios.
With towers soaring 227 metres into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay and all of it painted bright red-orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.
It’s pretty easy (and free) to walk across the bridge itself, or to explore the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center , which offers a colourful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 3-metre stainless-steel 'test tower' used in 1933.
You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called the 'Golden Gate' is in fact orange. It is generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay, the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for 'Golden Gate') by early explorer John C. Fremont. Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or 'Golden Horn.' So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson colour? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the colour be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint colour.
'The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.'
Technically, that colour is ‘International Orange’, but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking or pedalling across the 1.7-mile span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the bridge, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike hire companies abound (two favourites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighbouring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.)
There’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns, and impressive cables.
San Francisco’s cable cars, aka streetcars, aren’t just an entertaining way to sightsee around this up-and-down city; they really function as public transit too. Hanging onto the outside (yes, the outside) of one of these clanging trolley buses, chugging through Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and other areas too—well, it doesn’t get much more San Francisco than this. Just count how many package and laptop-toting locals climb on and hop off as you ride. In summer, queues can be long at the turnaround point at Powell and Market Streets, especially for the Powell-Mason Cable Car route. This can provide a good opportunity to see cars arriving and getting turned around on the massive turntable, but if you want a shorter wait, you can get just as good a ride on the quieter Powell-Hyde Cable Car line, or you can board a car at any of the en-route stops.
For a fascinating look at how the historic cars have criss-crossed the city since 1873, visit the free Cable Car Museum, where you can see three antique cars from the 1870s and gain an understanding of how the cables that power the cars actually work.
Fares are available as a single ($7), or buy a 1-, 3- or 7-day pass. At the terminus, single (one-way) fares must be bought in advance of boarding. Fares may be paid to the conductor on board at all other stops. You can also purchase fares via the free MuniMobile app; the cable car routes start running at 6.30 am and close just after midnight, 365 days a year. A downloadable map of the cable car routes is available on the Market Street Railway site.
Insider tip: transfers from buses or metro lines are not accepted on the cable cars.
Known for such famous inmates as Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud, Alcatraz is certainly one of San Francisco’s most sobering sites. Standing on the wind-and-fog-whipped island, looking across to the dazzling City by the Bay, so close yet so far away (the waters here are notoriously cold and treacherous), it’s easy to imagine how agonising it must have been for inmates incarcerated at this federal prison between 1934 and 1963. Early bird, morning and afternoon visits to the island with cell house audio tours are offered daily. The audio tour that includes recorded comments from former Alcatraz inmates is both chilling and fascinating, and adds notable depth to your visit. For a bizarre twist, consider taking the eerie after-dark tour.
But a visit to ‘the Rock’ isn’t all gloom and doom. Rich in history, the island is also home to the first lighthouse and first US military fort built on the West Coast. On clear days, Alcatraz boasts 360-degree views. Walk around Alcatraz to take in views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and dramatic Bay Bridge heading to the East Bay, lushly green Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island—a California State Park and another worthy island destination in San Francisco Bay.
What’s more, Alcatraz has morphed into an important nesting site for seabirds, and roughly a third of the island is roped off during the nesting season to let the birds rear their chicks. Scan the island’s decaying buildings and overgrown gardens (former wardens’ and guards’ wives were known for their green fingers) to spy nesting cormorants, pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons and California gulls, who seem particularly good at laying eggs directly in the middle of pedestrian paths.
Note: Though ferry boats depart frequently from Fisherman’s Wharf, make reservations early; tickets often sell out weeks in advance.
In San Francisco, ingredient-driven menus reign supreme. With some of the nation’s best produce at their fingertips, chefs in the City by the Bay create edible magic, often changing menus nightly to reflect what’s freshest and tastiest that day. Many chefs work closely with local farms and food purveyors to get exactly the ingredients they want. Early-morning trips to one of the city’s year-round farmers' markets are part of the routine for these wizards of the kitchen. Special occasion fine-dining restaurants, many sprinkled with Michelin stars, are aplenty, like the smooth sophistication of triple-starred Quince, Benu, Atelier Crenn and Saison, and the double-starred Coi, Acquerello and Lazy Bear.
Of course, Michelin stars are not a prerequisite to having a memorable dining experience. Lively, crowded and innovative options line the streets of the Mission District, particularly along Valencia Street. At Fisherman’s Wharf, where seafood is king, a bowl of cioppino (an Italian-American 'catch-of-the-day' stew made with Dungeness crab, clams, prawns, scallops, squid, mussels and fish) is an absolute San Francisco must. Scoma’s has been serving it up on Pier 47 for over half a century. Another long-standing seafood favourite is Tadich Grill, near the Embarcadero. And the Union Square area has long been a destination for both fancy meals (Campton Place and Morton’s Steakhouse come to mind) as well as numerous more inexpensive options.
Inexpensive options are easy to find, too: consider the many Asian restaurants in Richmond, where along Clement Street you’ll find outstanding Vietnamese at Pho Hyunh Sang, and Burmese cuisine at Burma Superstar and B Star Bar. In the same area, there’s Jijime for Korean and Jiangnan Cuisine for Shanghainese. Visit the Mission for their famously cheap and gargantuan burritos, or track down food vans serving up nearly every kind of food imaginable at gatherings sponsored by Off the Grid. San Francisco also has more than its share of excellent places to eat where the view is as good as the food.
Walk (slowly) through the Ferry Building Marketplace, where permanent stalls sell local delicacies such as crusty sourdough (Acme Bread) and artisanal cheese (Cowgirl Creamery), and sit-down restaurants, like Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door, offer amazing food and waterfront views.
One of the most visited areas of the city, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf has earned its popularity thanks to one thing more than any other: the wide range of restaurants, right on the water, serving up fresh-from-the-ocean seafood. And yes, there really are fishermen there. Bobbing at the docks are a handful of weathered boats, and they still chug out to catch Dungeness crab, scallops, halibut and other seafood in and around the Bay, as they have for over a century.
Want to witness it all happening, with all five senses? Early risers can watch them unload their catch at Pier 47, nicknamed Fish Alley. Or sleep in and just sample the catch: try the fresh crab cooked in steaming cauldrons set up on the pavements here—cracked crab dipped in melted butter and paired with a fresh loaf of local sourdough bread is a delicious San Francisco tradition. And if you like buying tacky souvenirs (who doesn’t need a 'can of fog' or a foam crab-claw headdress?) then you have found your mecca in Fisherman’s Wharf.
'Wander along to Pier 39 for more seafood restaurants, shops, street performers and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions.'
Other attractions such as the San Francisco Dungeon with its spooky take on San Francisco history, and the antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique are fun diversions too. At the San Francisco branch of Madame Tussaud’s you can plot your own virtual jail-break: its escape-room experience, Alcatraz: The Breakout, challenges guests to think their way out of the legendary prison. The rest of the popular wax museum features likenesses of film stars, historical figures and Bay Area royalty such as Jerry Garcia, Steph Curry and Mark Zuckerberg.
Wander along to Pier 39 for more seafood restaurants, shops, street performers and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions who have turned some of Pier 39’s floating docks into a sea lion beach party. Knowledgeable aquarists from Pier 39’s Aquarium of the Bay are on hand from 11 am to 4 pm daily (weather permitting) to answer questions about the hefty pinnipeds (bulls can weigh 300 kg).
Ferries to Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park are based at Fisherman’s Wharf’s Pier 33 and make a wonderful day trip for families. Children also love exploring the historic ships and the USS Pampanito, a Second World War submarine, all part of the National Maritime Museum (at nearby Hyde Street Pier). If they’ve still got too much energy, have them work it off on a walk east along the beautiful, bay-hugging Embarcadero to The Exploratorium, a hands-on science centre at Pier 15. Finish this perfect day with double scoops of Humphrey Slocombe's ice cream at the adjacent Ferry Building Marketplace.
Insider tips: there are several car parks nearby; most Fisherman’s Wharf businesses open around 9 am and remain open until at least 10 pm.
Union Square, the elegant space encircled by tall palm trees in roughly the middle of San Francisco, is a bustling gathering place that also serves as a hub for California luxury shopping. Walk the streets around the square to jot down your anything-is-possible wish-list of finds at Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Dior and Bulgari (as well as at other major retailers such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nike). Slip into the sultry Clock Bar, in the Beaux Arts–style Westin St. Francis, to clink martini glasses and compare notes. Anyone longing for a European vibe will feel right at home wandering the narrow, boutique-lined, almost-pedestrian-only Maiden Lane (car-free from 11 am to 6 pm). It’s just off the square, and is home to Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as cafés that set up little tables on the street itself. Just south of the square, on Market Street, you’ll find Westfield San Francisco Centre, the city’s upmarket, indoor shopping centre.
Of course, all that shopping can be exhausting. Union Square makes it easy to recharge: the square has plenty of sunny benches for relaxing. Or order an espresso and a flaky pastry at the fancy Emporio Rulli, with its pleasant outdoor seating under market umbrellas in the square. World-class restaurants are clustered nearby too - book a table at Akiko’s Sushi Restaurant, Bouche or the Michelin-starred Campton Place, three of the best upmarket eateries. If you are on a tighter budget, try Dojima Ann for Japanese comfort food, or have the classic American diner experience at the Pinecrest Diner.
Come on a Sunday to enjoy a champagne brunch in the lavishly luxurious Garden Court of the Palace Hotel (a top spot for local matriachs spoiling their grandchildren), which is just one of many destination-in-themselves hotels in the area. During the Christmas season, Union Square transforms into a wintry, family-filled charmer, with an ice-skating rink and little ones staring up at an enormous Christmas tree—and glittering shop windows all around.
Insider tip: if travelling to Union Square by car, plan your journey with the help of this parking and street map of the area.
Wrapping around the north end of San Francisco, the Presidio, a 14,491-acre park that’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is an outstanding destination for families, adventure seekers, history enthusiasts and anyone else who likes to relax on the edge of one of the most beautiful bays in the world. First, there are the beaches (and how many major cities have several beaches?).
South-west of the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s Baker Beach, which has a wild feel and amazing views. Be warned though: clothing is optional, particularly on its north end. Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the Presidio’s north-east corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs (they’re okay off-lead here) and kite-boarders and wind-surfers. Golfers can hit the links at one of the oldest courses on the West Coast, the Presidio Golf Course. Splurge on a stay at one of the two historic hotels on-site, the Inn at the Presidio or the Lodge at the Presidio. And just inland from Crissy Field is the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo and now home to an intimate theatre.
Walking and mountain-biking trails loop through the heavily wooded park and are a wonderful way to see evidence of the Presidio’s past life: from 1846, before California was even a state, until 1994, it was an active US Army base. Today, the more than 790 buildings that once housed personnel and fulfilled other needs of the Army serve as excellent examples of military architecture through the years. Thanks to preservation efforts many of them have been handsomely converted into open to the public destinations including justly popular restaurants such as Sessions at the Presidio, the Presidio Social Club and The Commissary. Also taking up residence is the Walt Disney Family Museum which focuses on the personal history and brilliance of the man behind the mouse. It’s definitely not Disneyland (don't let the children get overly excited) but more for grown ups.
Another notable site is the Letterman Digital Arts Center which is part of the Lucasfilm empire. Though the buildings are generally closed to the public, you can give your regards to the Yoda statue in the campus’s main courtyard.
Like a trip to China, San Francisco’s Chinatown makes you feel like a time traveller: in a blink you go from the suit-and-tie orderliness of the city’s financial district to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia (and the oldest in the US), with crowded pavements filled with Cantonese and Mandarin chatter, overflowing food stalls, dim sum restaurants and mysterious-looking shops. It is a trip in every sense of the word, and probably as close as you can get to Asia without a passport.
While it’s fine to stick to Chinatown’s main artery of Grant Street, a shopping thoroughfare lined with markets and trinket and jade shops (the latter especially clustered around the Chinatown Gateway at the district's southern end), strike out onto quieter streets to find even more surprising discoveries. Here are eight worthwhile destinations and activities; for an even more in-depth experience, consider joining a guided tour, such as the All About Chinatown walking tours or food-centric Wok Wiz.
Time your trip to coincide with Lunar New Year (typically in late January or February, to match the lunar calendar) for a real treat: the Chinese New Year Festival & Parade. First started in 1860 to commemorate the homeland of the city’s booming population of Chinese immigrants (drawn to San Francisco during the Gold Rush), the event—now the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia—includes fireworks, floats, lion dancers, drummers, and the crowning of Miss Chinatown.
Inside the landmark Chinatown YWCA building, designed by architect Julia Morgan in 1932, this museum does a superb job of presenting exhibitions and programmes related to Chinese culture and Chinatown history. You can find out about various Chinatown events here as well. Admission is free.
Go back in time in the century-old Buddhist temple, housed in a four-level apartment building, where locals pray, burn incense, and get their fortunes read. A donation is requested.
Feeling lethargic? Let the helpful proprietors of this long-respected Chinese apothecary recommend revitalising teas and tonics prepared with dried herbs, or buy their famous ginseng and other herbs by weight.
Chinatown’s restaurants are one of the district’s main attractions; this one is a longstanding favourite beloved for its high-quality signature Cantonese dishes. Notable favourites include tender glazed spare ribs and delicate salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab.
Sample the many brews served at this tea bar and shop, which has three locations. It is filled with an extraordinary variety of teas, with intriguing blends such as baby chrysanthemum and ginger pine, as well as more traditional green, white, and oolong teas.
This old-fashioned grocery and de facto sweet and snack emporium seems to offer everything from litchi gummies and green-tea Kit Kats to dried and salted fruits, noodles and spices.
If you’re in the market for fresh dan tat, the traditional Chinese egg-custard tart with a flaky, buttery crust, then make a beeline for this amazing bakery. Don’t be daunted by lines, the treats are worth the wait.
The best thing about a visit here is witnessing owner Tane Chan in action as she whirls from one customer to the next, chatting, laughing, and helping to select the best wok for each shopper.
Insider tips: most of Chinatown’s shops open around 10 or 11 am and close around sunset. Visit sfparkingguide.com for information on where to park in Chinatown.
The City by the Bay, known for its liberal, alternative lifestyles, is one of the best-known areas in the world for LGBTQ. In the Castro, a rainbow flag flaps in the wind above colourfully painted pedestrian crossings, making one big statement: San Francisco welcomes the LGBTQ community with open arms. There are more than 60 gay bars and clubs, and although the Castro serves as the epicentre of LGBTQ culture and nightlife, gay-friendly businesses are sprinkled throughout the city—frankly, it’s the norm here. Find out more about the remarkable role the city played and is playing in the gay movement at the GLBT History Museum, or on a guided 'Cruisin’ the Castro' historical walking tour.
Every June is Pride Month, which culminates on the last weekend when up to a million visitors flock to the city for the annual (and outrageous) San Francisco Pride celebration. Taking place in front of City Hall at Civic Center Plaza—a location steeped in LGBTQ history– the festivities include live music and comedy on the main stage, plus cabaret, a Country-Western Dance Corral, a Leather Alley carnival and, pretty much everywhere you look, elaborately costumed performers. Keep your eyes open for celebrities—the celebration has become a real see-and-be-seen opportunity. The main event is Sunday’s parade, which begins at the intersection of Market and Beale Streets and ends near the Civic Center. If you’re in town during Pride Month, also check out a screening or one of the many events hosted by the Frameline LGBT film festival.
Attending the world’s largest LGBTQ gathering can present a few challenges; check out some tips on how to get the most of it. If you are new to the city’s gay scene, Badlands, Lookout and Twin Peaks Tavern are legendary haunts, and The Parker Guest House, the Hotel Whitcomb, Joie de Vivre Hotels and the W are just a few of the city’s gay-friendly hotels.
A note to parents: there are plenty of pride events that are family and child friendly going on in San Francisco during Pride Month. Directly opposite the Asian Art Museum right around the corner from the Civic Center, the annual Family Garden event offers the perfect venue for kids to celebrate diversity with arts, crafts, face-painting and more; children are also encouraged to participate for free in the San Francisco Frontrunners Pride Run. You can also check the events calendar at Habitot.org and the Pride with Our Families page at ourfamily.org.
Insider tip: when planning a visit to San Francisco during Gay Pride Month, be sure to book well in advance, as accommodation fills up quickly.
Gardens, glades, quiet lakes—Golden Gate Park is the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals can find something amazing to see or do. The park’s cultural hub is in its northeast corner, surrounding a broad concourse featuring fountains and a band stand. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classical art from around the world. Take the lift to the top of the museum’s eye-catching, asymmetric tower (admission to the tower is free) for a spectacular view of the whole park, as well as the city, the bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living four-storey rainforest and natural history museum all under an undulating living roof. From here, it’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden which is always lovely, but is especially breathtaking in spring when the cherry trees and azaleas are in bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; make sure you get a lock too). Wander among the colourful flower beds fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanical gardens (great for birds as well as plants) and look for the surprising herd of American bison at the park’s north-west end.
If you don't fancy cycling or walking, there’s a free shuttle bus at weekends and on major holidays, with stops throughout the park; if you are visiting by car there are several parking areas. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, rowing across little Stow Lake and horse riding on broad paths. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
Insider tip: going to the park with a particular activity in mind? The park’s collection of maps can show you where is best to picnic and enjoy the flowers.
In San Francisco, there are few quiet nights and though bars and clubs may call it quits at 2 am, the city makes sure you stay busy until closing time. For those seeking more refined forms of entertainment, San Francisco boasts an outstanding symphony orchestra, classic and contemporary ballet, and numerous opera companies. There’s also a thriving theatre community, most notably the American Conservatory Theater, which presents classic and new works at The Geary Theater, near Union Square. Broadway tours always stop in San Francisco; check the schedule for SHN, which presents most of the works at the impressive Orpheum Theatre, on Market Street. City Arts & Lectures offers intriguing conversations with celebrities, stars, and global movers and shakers. Attend an open-to-the-public gallery show, or a special museum night.
For rowdier fun, there are rock concerts at the Great American Music Hall and the legendary Fillmore; indie bands, R&B and hip-hop at smaller venues like Bottom of the Hill Amnesia Beer & Music Hall,and Slim’s; and open mic nights at Hotel Utah Saloon. The dance club scene thrives at favourites such as DNA Lounge, the Cat Club and Raven Bar. And nightlife wouldn’t be complete without a bit of hopping around the city’s bevy of bars, from upmarket establishments with craft cocktails (like Bourbon & Branch and The Alembic) to longstanding local watering holes (The 500 Club, Zam Zam and Vesuvio) where you'll be elbow to elbow with the locals. San Francisco is also home to some of the most renowned tiki bars in the state; get the full rum-soaked south-seas experience at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, Smuggler’s Cove and Pagan Idol.
Insider tip: the Bay Area is one of the state’s hot spots for craft beer; definitely keep an eye out for local brews on tap.
The stately brick buildings in San Francisco’s impressive 1895 Ghirardelli Square, the original site of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory (previously a woollen mill), are now home to a stylish collection of shops and restaurants, plus the luxurious Fairmont Heritage Place hotel. One of the most pleasant places to wander and shop in the city, it also has the distinction of being the first successful adaptive reuse project of its kind in the country.
Wind through passageways and across squares to visit a range of boutiques and gift shops, or relax with bay views from a selection of restaurants such as the Cheese School of San Francisco, a café, cheese shop
and cheese school; The Pub BBQ; McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steaks; and Pico Latin Street Food. Before you go, check out the square’s calendar of upcoming events.
If you have children with you, you probably have one destination in mind more than any other: the original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. The queue can be out the door but don’t worry—it moves fast. Soon you’ll be facing the staggering menu of sundae choices: will it be the family-size 'Earthquake'? (Eight scoops, eight toppings, bananas, whipped cream, almonds, chocolate chips and cherries.) Or perhaps the 'Gold Rush' (vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter). Afterwards, enjoy a round of mini golf at Subpar Miniature Golf, where the holes all feature miniature San Francisco landmarks.
There’s no lack of transportation options in San Francisco but it’s important to plan ahead and pick the best route for your destination. In the city centre North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf are easily walkable. The city’s local MUNI buses, trams and streetcars travel citywide and are an economical and safe way to get around, just accept that you may need to wait a bit at your stop.
Here’s a look at all the ways to get around San Francisco:
Underground BART System
The underground BART metro system is a great way to travel within and beyond San Francisco with routes south to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and east to Oakland, Berkeley, Pleasanton and other communities.
San Francisco’s MUNI bus system is extensive and economical. Tip: if you plan to use public transportation consider getting a CityPASS; it allows three days of unlimited Muni bus and cable car rides, plus admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, Aquarium of the Bay and either SFMoMA or The Exploratorium.
Clanging cable cars are always fun but have a fairly limited system—best if you want to travel between the waterfront and Union Square. A downloadable map of the cable car routes is available on the Market Street Railway site. Fares are payable per trip or via a 1, 3 or 7 day pass or through a CityPASS (see above).
The 'F Market and Wharves' historic streetcar, which runs along the Embarcadero, is a popular tourist route with stops for Fisherman’s Wharf (at Embarcadero and Stockton), the Ferry Building (at Market and 4th Street) and Oracle Park (home of the Major League’s Giants baseball team) at Don Chee Way and Steuart Street. A downloadable map of the F-line and E-line streetcar routes is available on the Market Street Railway site.
Cycle Share Scheme
For do it yourself exploring try one of the innovative and inexpensive cycling systems available like Ford GoBike. Sign up for a low cost 24-hour or 3-day membership or a single ride. Then use your Clipper Card or the Ford GoBike mobile app to unlock a bike at the nearest station (scattered all over the Bay area, from San Francisco to East Bay to San Jose), and return it to any station. Healthy, inexpensive, car-free—not bad.
Taxis and Ridesharing
Taxis are concentrated in the city centre and of course rideshares are available everywhere; while they can often be the fastest way to get around, fares can quickly add up.
Guided tours are another fun way to explore without having to drive. Some tours use traditional vans or buses, while others employ more unusual modes of transport. Climb aboard a vintage fire engine to explore the city with San Francisco Fire Engine Tours and even cross the Golden Gate Bridge. You will definitely notice the stares and smiles.
Insider tips: a reloadable Clipper card, available at transit ticket offices and many Whole Foods Market and Walgreens stores, is a convenient way to pay your fares on all major Bay Area transit systems. You can find a searchable map of the various cable car, metro and bus lines on the San Francisco Mass Transit Association (SFMTA) site.
The massive new expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) has, according to Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo, “transformed the City by the Bay into a premier destination for art...