Martin M303 / Fotolia.com
Cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid—San Francisco is a travelogue of iconic images. Even if you've never been to California, you've seen these seven hills in classic films and TV shows. For a first-time visitor, every sight is new but familiar. Who wouldn't recognize the lantern-strung alleys of Chinatown, the stately Victorian mansions of Pacific Heights or the serpentine twists of Lombard Street? Who hasn't sung the Tony Bennett song? Our photographic memories of San Francisco go back to the Great Earthquake of 1906, and more recently, Loma Prieta. Our cultural mileposts include the leather bars of Castro Street, the Latin taquerias of the Mission District and the incense shops of Haight-Ashbury (though the flower children sport more piercings and tattoos these days).
Alex Proimos / flickr
In DepthIn the shadow of a needle-pointed, 853-foot-tall skyscraper that signifies corporate America, an elderly vendor wearing silk slippers sells unfamiliar-looking vegetables piled in wooden crates under signs hand-lettered in Chinese characters.
A disheveled man sits cross-legged on a busy sidewalk in the Financial District, holding out a battered cup and soliciting spare change from wheeler-dealers dressed in expensive suits as they hurry by while perusing their smartphones.
A young woman with pierced ears, pierced eyebrows, a pierced nose and a bright green buzz cut walks along Haight Street gulping down a strong cappuccino and holding a bag containing a gluten-free, vegan banana muffin as she heads to work at a boutique that sells vintage hippie clothing. Meanwhile, in a fashionable home accessories store on Valencia Street two young men check out tables for the dining room of a renovated Victorian they’ve just purchased.
Droplets of dew still gleam on the grass as an early-morning jogger runs past a stand of eucalyptus trees; the scent of their leaves permeates the cool air. Meanwhile, the sun peeks above the horizon as fog rolls off the Pacific, billowing around the base of the Golden Gate Bridge as the sky turns from pink to pale blue.
This is San Francisco. Everywhere you turn there’s an intriguing juxtaposition. The idealized image is of a worldly, sophisticated metropolis whose residents are blessed with the finer things in life—fantastic food, fine arts, handsome homes, picture-postcard views. And many do live this good life.
Then there’s the other side of the coin: overcrowding, gentrifying neighborhoods and trying to find a parking space. The economic hardship extends to those free-spirited souls who by choice live in parks or on the street rather than under a traditional roof, and who have long given San Francisco its reputation for embracing both creative and alternative lifestyles.
And lurking in the background is an unpleasant thought that most residents manage to suppress but few can forget about completely, namely the threat of rattling dishes, wall cracks—or worse. Blame the San Andreas Fault.
But the City by the Bay remains seductive, especially for visitors. It’s all about location, location, location. Varying in elevation from sea level to 939 feet, the city rests on some 40 hills at the northern end of a narrow peninsula, bounded on three sides by water. The urban cityscape almost seems to bob up and down on them, like a boat riding a wave. For the record, there are seven major hills: Nob Hill, Rincon Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, Mount Davidson, Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks.
And San Francisco neighborhoods are true communities, not idealized versions of reality designed to appeal to tourists. Chinatown has bustled since the 1850s. Vibrant murals cover buildings and gritty back-alley walls in the Mission. North Beach’s nonconformist beat and Haight-Ashbury flower power paved the way for the prominent and politically active LGBTQ community centered in the Castro.
So what should you do? For one thing, eat out—this is one of the best restaurant cities in the world. Take a nice long walk in Golden Gate Park. Ride a ferry. Hang out in Union Square. Go to a farmers market. See a film at the Castro Theatre. These are just a few of our suggestions; you’ll no doubt come up with many more.
By CarScenic north-south routes passing directly through San Francisco are US 101 and SR 1. They enter the city separately from the south, merge on the San Francisco approach to the Golden Gate Bridge and continue together through a few miles of southern Marin County. Because SR 1, the curvy coastal route, is subject to dense fog and the possibility of landslides, you should check weather and road conditions before driving it.
The fast north-south route, I-5, is east of San Francisco; connections to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge are via I-505 and I-80 from the north and I-580 from the south. Another route, SR 99, closely parallels I-5 and also has connections into the city.
The primary route from the east is I-80 across the Sierras. I-80 skirts the Sacramento metropolitan area to the north before approaching the Greater Bay Area via Vallejo and then merging with I-580; access into the city is via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Air TravelThe San Francisco Bay Area is served by three major airports. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 13 miles south near San Bruno off US 101 (Bayshore Freeway). Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 3 miles northwest of downtown San Jose. Oakland International Airport (OAK), off I-880 about 10 miles south of downtown Oakland, is more convenient than SFO if your destination is the East Bay.
In keeping with the city's progressive reputation, San Francisco International offers travelers a yoga room and rotating museum exhibits. The popular “You Are Hear” concert series offers everything from jazz and classical to R & B and world music served up by Bay Area musicians. Live music takes place on Fridays in July and August between 11 and 2 and also during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
To reach downtown from SFO, exit from the north terminal area and take US 101 north. At the US 101/I-80 junction, choose I-80 and then take the 4th Street exit. Follow 4th Street north past Moscone Center to Market Street; Union Square's hotels and the Financial District are just a few blocks to the north and east.
SuperShuttle travels from San Francisco International to major downtown hotels every 30 minutes, 5 a.m.-4 p.m. One-way fare for the 30-minute ride is $17. For reservations phone (800) 258-3826.
Door-to-door minivan shuttle service between the airport and hotels, businesses and residences is offered by several companies, including SuperShuttle and Airport Express, (415) 775-5121. The vans make frequent pickups from the blue zones on pedestrian islands on the airport's upper level. One-way fare is $15-$17 per person.
Airport shuttle buses pick up passengers on the arrivals level. Taxi fares between downtown and San Francisco International Airport average $35-$50; limousine service costs $50-$75.
AirTrain, an automated light rail system with nine stops throughout the airport, links the International Terminal with other terminals, parking garages, the rental car center and the airport BART station.
Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) Pittsburg/Baypoint line provides direct service to the airport. Transfer at the San Bruno station to a Millbrae train to connect with Caltrain rail service down the peninsula to San Jose. Other BART lines can be accessed via the Balboa Park transfer station. Fare for the approximately 30-minute ride from the airport to the downtown Powell Street station is $8.95. For BART schedule and fare information phone (415) 989-2278.
Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport is conveniently located just off US 101. When leaving Terminal C (which receives most domestic flights) or Terminal A (which receives American Airlines and United as well as JetBlue and Delta), follow signs to US 101 and head north. On the way to downtown San Francisco US 101 bypasses Palo Alto and San Mateo.
To reach downtown San Francisco from Oakland International Airport, exit the terminal building and take Airport Drive east toward downtown Oakland. Exit north onto I-880 (Nimitz Freeway), which connects with I-80. Continue west across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. For automobiles the toll is $4-$6, depending on the time of day and the day of the week. Take exit 2A (5th Street) north to Market Street to reach the Union Square/Financial District area.
Hertz, with locations at the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports, offers discounts to AAA members. Phone (650) 624-6600 for the San Francisco airport location, (415) 771-2200 for the location at 325 Mason St., (510) 639-0200 for the Oakland airport location, (408) 437-5700 for the San Jose airport location, or (800) 654-3080.
Rail ServiceMost Amtrak rail service terminates in Oakland at Jack London Square (Alice Street and the Embarcadero) or at Emeryville. From Jack London Square, passengers are transported via shuttle bus to the following San Francisco stops: the Ferry Building, downtown at the foot of Market Street; Fisherman's Wharf at Pier 39; the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall at 4th and Market streets; in front of Macy's at Union Square; outside the Hyatt Regency San Francisco at California and Drumm streets; and at the Caltrain depot, 4th and King streets. For schedule, fare and additional information phone (800) 872-7245.
Street SystemTwo main thoroughfares are Market Street, which runs diagonally from 17th and Castro streets to The Embarcadero, and north-south Van Ness Avenue. Major east-west streets downtown are Bush and Pine, both one-way streets with synchronized traffic signals. Bush goes toward downtown, while Pine heads out. Numbered avenues run north-south in the residential neighborhoods north and south of Golden Gate Park, and the streets form a grid pattern. Streets also form a grid in much of the downtown area.
The Financial District is anchored by north-south Montgomery Street. Union Square is bordered north-south by Post and Geary streets and east-west by Stockton and Powell streets. Note: Ongoing construction associated with an extension of Muni's T Third Line from Bayshore to SoMa to Chinatown may cause occasional traffic delays, especially in the vicinity of Union Square.
Government buildings cluster around Civic Center, between Van Ness Avenue and Leavenworth Street and Golden Gate Avenue and Market Street. Civic Center, Union Square and the Financial District are all north of Market Street; south of Market north-south streets are numbered.
Although the street layout looks straightforward on a map, keep the extremely variable topography in mind when traveling, as the steep hills can be difficult to negotiate. If you're visiting, it may be more advantageous to use public transportation or walk rather than drive. If you'll be driving your own car, you might want to have your brakes checked before departing.
San Francisco intersections are subject to strict enforcement of the Anti-Gridlock Act. The fine for blocking an intersection with your vehicle is $106; the fine for blocking an intersection while turning is $110.
“The Boot” (also known as “The Denver Boot”) is a metal clamp that immobilizes a car when attached to its wheel. This device is applied when five or more parking tickets have accumulated or if registration is not current; it is removed only when all outstanding fines and/or registration fees and a $445 de-booting fee have been paid. If the fines are not paid, the car may be towed within 72 hours.
Visitors should also be aware that municipal buses are equipped with a video camera used to ticket motorists who drive in designated public transit-only lanes (a $79 fine) or park in designated bus zones (a $288 fine).
The downtown speed limit, unless otherwise posted, is 25 mph (15 mph at blind intersections). Right turns on red are legal unless otherwise posted. Traffic is heavy throughout the day in the downtown area and on major thoroughfares. Avoid the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during rush hours, about 7-9 a.m. and 4-6:30 p.m.
Pedestrians using designated crosswalks always have the right of way. Many major intersections downtown and throughout the Bay Area have visual countdown displays indicating the number of seconds remaining before the light changes for pedestrians.
The latest highway improvement is the Presidio Parkway, which took 15 years to plan and build and opened to traffic in 2015. It replaced Doyle Drive (US 101) as the main south access route to the Golden Gate Bridge from downtown. The 1.6-mile parkway features two sets of tunnels and a viaduct that climbs above the rolling green hills of the Presidio en route to the bridge.
ParkingSan Francisco is not a parking-friendly city. There is a shortage of on-street spaces and a plethora of parking regulations, which are strictly enforced. On-street metered parking is permitted in some areas, but much neighborhood parking is reserved for local residents and is by permit only.
There are parking garages at Fisherman's Wharf, 655 Beach St. at Hyde Street, (415) 673-1735; downtown at 833 Mission St. (at 5th Street), (415) 982-8522; at the Moscone Center, 255 3rd St., (415) 777-2782; and in Chinatown at 733 Kearny St., (415) 982-6353. Fees range from $1.50-$7 per hour and $15-$34 per day. The only public parking available for recreational vehicles is at Candlestick RV Park, south of the city limits off US 101 on Gilman Avenue; phone (415) 822-2299.
On-street parking is strictly regulated. In addition to posted tow-away zones, pay particular attention to curb colors, which determine parking availability. Red means no stopping, standing or parking whatsoever; yellow curbs indicate commercial loading and unloading (7 a.m.-6 p.m.). Passenger cars left unattended in downtown loading zones are subject to heavy fines and towing.
White curbs allow a 5-minute limit to pick up or discharge passengers during the hours the adjacent public building is open. White curbs marked with a taxi sign are within a taxi zone. Green curbs indicate 10-minute parking 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Blue marks spaces for use by the disabled; the fine for illegally parking in designated spaces for the disabled is a hefty $875, while the fine for parking in bus zone spaces is $288. In several areas of the city local residents have priority parking rights; be sure to read carefully all posted regulations wherever you park.
How you park also is subject to regulation. It is illegal to park a vehicle on any grade exceeding 3 percent without effectively setting the brakes and blocking the wheels by turning them against the curb or by other means. When parking uphill, the front wheels must be “heeled,” or turned out, so that a tire is resting securely against the curb. When parking downhill, they must be “toed,” or turned in. If there is no curb you must use a block. The emergency brake must always be firmly set.
If your car is towed, expect to pay plenty to get it back. Parking violations start at $52 for blocking a private entranceway, plus a hefty fine for towing and additional daily storage fees. Fines for illegally parking in disabled-designated spaces, in bus zones or in an area blocking access to a wheelchair ramp range from $288-$875.
In most cases, towed vehicles can be retrieved from Auto Return at 450 7th St. (between Harrison and Bryant streets). For additional information contact the City of San Francisco Parking and Traffic Department; phone (415) 553-1200.
Public TransportationSan Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) provides bus, streetcar, light rail, trolley bus and cable car transportation. The cash fare for buses, streetcars, light rail and trolley buses is $2.75; $1.35 (ages 5-17 and 65+ and the physically impaired). Exact change is required. Single-trip fares paid with a Clipper card or via MuniMobile on buses and trains cost 25c less than fares paid with cash.
Cash fare includes a free transfer good for use on any other Muni vehicle (except cable cars). A bus transfer can be used within a 30-minute period; the driver will give you one when you pay the fare. A light rail single-ride fare card purchased at a Muni station can be used one additional time within a 90-minute period.
The Clipper card is an all-purpose electronic transit card that can be used on Muni, BART, Caltrain and Golden Gate Transit and Ferry transportation. Clipper card readers on buses and at Muni and BART entrance stations tag the card and then display the remaining cash balance or pass expiration date. Transfers are automatically calculated, eliminating the need for a paper transfer. A variety of different passes and cash value options can be added. For more information phone (877) 878-8883.
The MuniMobile ticketing app can be downloaded to an Android or iPhone to purchase, save and use tickets for bus, rail and cable car travel. The app allows you to buy tickets and passes in advance or on the go and pay with a credit/debit card or PayPal account. For more information dial 311 (within San Francisco) or phone (415) 701-2311 (outside San Francisco).
The Muni Passport, valid on all Muni transportation, offers unlimited all-day usage and is worth purchasing if you're a visitor and plan on using the system multiple times. A 1-day pass costs $21; a 3-day pass, $32; a 7-day pass, $42. The 3- and 7-day passports are valid for consecutive days only. A pass valid for 1 month costs $75 (Muni only); $94 (Muni and BART); $38 (ages 5-17, ages 65+ and the physically impaired; Muni pass only). Monthly passes are only available on a Clipper card.
Passes and Clipper cards can be purchased at San Francisco International Airport; at the San Francisco Visitor Information Center, Hallidie Plaza (lower level) at Market and Powell streets; at TIX Bay Area, inside the Union Square Garage at the Geary Street entrance; and at Walgreens stores, Whole Foods markets and other businesses. For schedules, routing and other information phone (415) 673-6864.
Note: You must be prepared to show proof of payment (Muni pass, Clipper card, single-ride ticket or transfer) for the duration of your travel on all forms of Muni transportation. Random checks of passengers exiting the turnstiles at Muni stations are frequently conducted, and a citation of up to $120 may be issued if you cannot show proof of payment.
Muni buses are numbered and destinations are marked on the front of the vehicle above the windshield. During the day most buses make stops every 10 to 15 minutes; stops are more frequent on major streets. Routes along busy thoroughfares like Van Ness Avenue provide 24-hour service, although stops are less frequent at night. Many covered bus stops have an automated timetable that displays the number of minutes until the next bus arrives.
Muni light rail cars run underground along Market Street downtown and above ground in outlying neighborhoods. There are eight lines: F (Market & Wharves), J (Church), K (Ingleside), L (Taraval), M (Ocean View), N (Judah), S (Castro-Embarcadero shuttle) and T (Third Street). Color-coded maps of the system are posted on the wall at each underground station.
The Muni's F Line (also called the Market Street Railway) carries passengers on vintage streetcars. The route begins at Market and Castro streets, runs down Market to The Embarcadero, then runs up The Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf, ending at Jones and Beach streets. Don't board a streetcar if you're in a hurry; they're much slower and make more stops than the light rail lines.
A 1.7-mile extension of Muni's T Third Line, currently under construction, will extend the line from the 4th Street Caltrain Station north to Chinatown. Four new stations are being built: a street-level station at 4th and Brannan streets, and underground subway stations at 4th and Folsom streets, Stockton Street at Union Square, and Stockton and Washington streets.
Construction of the subway tunnel and stations is scheduled to last through 2017, with the new line opening sometime in 2019. Until then both motorists and pedestrians can expect occasional disruptions, especially in the vicinity of Union Square.
Although there are frequent stops and the trip is slow (travel speed is 9.5 mph), riding a cable car is an essential San Francisco experience. Preserved as national historic landmarks—the only ones on wheels—they began operating back in 1873. Maroon with cream and blue trim, cable cars are an integral part of the urban landscape.
There are three routes. The Powell-Hyde line begins at Powell and Market streets and ends at Victorian Park, at Beach and Hyde streets. The Powell-Mason line also begins at Powell and Market streets but ends at Bay and Taylor streets near Fisherman's Wharf. The California Street line travels between Market Street and Van Ness Avenue.
Cable cars run daily from 6 a.m.-1 a.m. One-way fare is $7. A Clipper card loaded with a Muni monthly pass or cash value is also accepted. No transfers are issued or accepted. If you're just riding for fun, the California Street line is likely to be the least crowded.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects San Francisco with East Bay cities, terminating at Richmond (north), Pittsburg/Bay Point (east), Dublin/Pleasanton (southeast) and Fremont (south). On the San Francisco side of the bay the terminus is Millbrae, approximately 30 minutes south of downtown.
BART operates Mon.-Fri. 4 a.m.-midnight, Sat. 6 a.m.-midnight, Sun. and holidays 8 a.m.-midnight. Color-keyed wall maps at the stations list destinations and fares; tickets are dispensed from machines at each station. The one-way fare between downtown San Francisco stations is $1.95; 70c (ages 5-12, ages 65+, the physically impaired and if paying with a Clipper card). All fares are posted at the ticket machines. Phone (415) 989-2278 for schedule and other information.
AC Transit is a bus service that runs from the Transbay Terminal to various destinations in the East Bay area (Alameda and Contra Costa counties). Bus service via the Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco to Sausalito, Mill Valley and Tiburon in Marin County and to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. Phone (415) 455-2000 for schedule, fare and other information.
Passenger ferries link San Francisco with northern Bay Area destinations and also crisscross San Francisco Bay, providing both commuter service and sightseeing pleasure. The Blue & Gold Fleet, (415) 705-8200, operates daily commuter service to Tiburon and Sausalito. Golden Gate Ferry, (415) 455-2000, has daily service to Larkspur and Sausalito; no service is available Jan. 1, Thanksgiving or Christmas. One-way rates to Sausalito are $12; $6 (ages 6-18, ages 65+ and the physically impaired). Rates to Larkspur are $11.50; $5.75 (ages 6-18, ages 65+ and the physically impaired).
The San Francisco Bay Ferry operates weekday ferries from Alameda to the San Francisco Ferry Building. One-way fares are $6.80 (cash) or $5.10 (Clipper card); $3.40 (ages 5-18, ages 65+ and the physically impaired). The Alameda/Oakland Ferry provides service to and from Alameda, Angel Island, Oakland and San Francisco. The Alameda/Oakland/San Francisco one-way fare is $6.80; $5.10 (Clipper card), $3.40 (ages 5-18, ages 65+ and the physically impaired). Phone (415) 705-8291.
About the City
Sales TaxState and county sales taxes total 9.5 percent in San Francisco. A hotel room tax of 15 to 15.5 percent also is levied.
Whom To Call
Police (non-emergency)(415) 553-0123
HospitalsCalifornia Pacific Medical Center, (415) 600-6000; Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, (415) 353-6000; St. Mary's Medical Center, (415) 668-1000; San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center, (415) 206-8000; University of California San Francisco Medical Center, (415) 476-1000.
Where To Look and Listen
NewspapersThe major daily newspaper is the morning San Francisco Chronicle. The free tabloid The Examiner is published Monday through Saturday.
RadioSan Francisco radio station KCBS (740 AM/106.9 FM) is an all-news/weather station; KQED (88.5 FM) is a member of National Public Radio.
Visitor InformationSan Francisco Visitor Information Center 900 Market St. SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94102. Phone:(415)391-2000
Air TravelSan Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 13 miles south near San Bruno off US 101 (Bayshore Freeway); it receives flights from some 50 carriers as well as private charters. Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 3 miles northwest of downtown San Jose. Oakland International Airport (OAK) is off I-880 about 10 miles south of downtown Oakland.
Rental CarsHertz, with locations at the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports, offers discounts to AAA members. Phone (650) 624-6600 for the San Francisco airport location, (415) 771-2200 for the outlet at 325 Mason St., (510) 639-0200 for the Oakland airport location, (408) 437-5700 for the San Jose airport location, or (800) 654-3080.
Rail ServiceFor schedule and fare information phone Amtrak at (800) 872-7245.
BusesGreyhound Lines Inc., (800) 231-2222, departs from the Transbay Temporary Terminal at Folsom and Main streets. Greyhound passengers enter on Folsom Street. The temporary terminal will be in use until construction of the new Transbay Transit Center is completed in late 2017.
TaxisTaxis in San Francisco are metered, with fares averaging about $3.50 for the first one-fifth mile and $2.55 for each additional one-fifth mile or minute of waiting time. Either phone for a cab or wait at a hotel taxi stand (hailing one on the street often takes time and persistence). Limousine service ranges from $60-$80 per hour.
Public TransportationSan Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) provides public transportation consisting of buses, streetcars, light rail, trolley buses and cable cars. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects San Francisco with East Bay cities, and passenger ferries link the city with the northern Bay Area.
Inspector 76 / AAA
EssentialsSpend the day in Golden Gate Park (between Fulton Street, Lincoln Way, Stanyan Street and the Great Highway). Observe multicolored tropical fish and other marine creatures at The California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Dr.), contemplate great art at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.) or stroll through plantings from around the world at the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum (9th Avenue and Lincoln Way).
Inspector 76 / AAA
Explore the Sutro Baths (1004 Point Lobos Ave.), the oceanside ruins (due to a fire) of what once was a lavish bathing spa complex with the world's largest indoor swimming pool. Then watch the sun set from the elevated vantage point of the nearby Cliff House (1090 Point Lobos Ave.).
Yes, Fisherman's Wharf (along The Embarcadero from Pier 39 to Ghirardelli Square) is touristy, but nibbling Dungeness crab or scarfing down clam chowder from a sourdough bread bowl is one of those things you just have to do. Stop by the flagship location of Boudin Bakery, watch the team of bakers do their thing from an observation window and don't forget to pick up a fresh loaf or two to take home.
While at Fisherman's Wharf, take the sightseeing ferry cruise from Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island (in San Francisco Bay), site of the infamous federal penitentiary where the likes of Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly did time. Purchase tickets in advance to get the departure time you want.
Definitely ride a cable car (just don't call it a trolley). The Powell-Hyde line begins at Powell and Market streets and ascends up and over steep Nob Hill before ending at Beach and Hyde streets. If you're interested in learning more about the massive engines and wheels that power this manually operated system, visit the Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse Viewing Gallery (1201 Mason St.).
Climb the Filbert Steps (Filbert and Sansome streets) ascending the east side of Telegraph Hill (near the east end of Lombard Street) and then take the elevator to the observation deck at the top of 210-foot Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill) for panoramic views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.
The block of Lombard Street (between Hyde and Leavenworth streets) is often called “the crookedest street in the world.” The serpentine brick street, with its sculpted hedges and seasonal displays of pink and blue hydrangeas, is a prime photo op—and of course it's easier walking down than up.
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
Grab a sidewalk seat and sip a cappuccino in North Beach (along Columbus Avenue), this town's Little Italy. Browse the tomes at City Lights bookstore, a Beat generation hangout, then have dinner at the North Beach Restaurant (1512 Stockton St.), an old-school Italian experience all the way.
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
Top Picks for Kids
Under 13Cutting-edge technology takes center stage at the Children's Creativity Museum (221 Fourth St.), whether it's crafting clay characters and learning the basics of stop-motion animation or testing new apps and high-tech games in the Innovation Lab.
What kid wouldn't be mesmerized at the sight of a giant thorny phasmid (more commonly known as a walking stick) or delight in feeding baby farm animals? The emphasis is on personal animal encounters at the San Francisco Zoo's Fisher Family Children's Zoo (Sloat Boulevard and Great Highway).
The panoramic view from the top of the hill in Grandview Park (14th Avenue and Noriega Street) is one of the city's best, offering not only visual “Wow!” but an opportunity for an impromptu geography lesson pointing out various city landmarks. The climb up—via five steep flights of stairs—is strenuous, so be watchful if you have younger kids.
TeensThe roundup of interactive exhibits at the Exploratorium (Pier 15 on The Embarcadero) will pique the curiosity of inquiring and non-inquiring minds alike. The scientific principles at work when you cook an egg and an optical-illusion experiment involving a very famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci are two of the intellectually stimulating offerings.
Haight Street (between Stanyan and Divisadero streets) still channels 1967, the Summer of Love, and many teens whose only connection to the '60s is via YouTube videos will want to check it out. Amoeba Music (1855 Haight St.) has a huge selection of vintage albums and rock posters. For hippie-style jewelry and all things tie-dye, Love on Haight (corner of Haight and Masonic) is the place to go. The aroma of incense fills The Love of Ganesha (1573 Haight St.), a cool shop that sells clothes, crystals, rings, necklaces and groovy trinkets.
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
How do you get kids interested in history? One way is to take a ferry to Alcatraz Island (in San Francisco Bay), the notorious former federal penitentiary that is one of the city's top tourist attractions, and with good reason: The crumbling building's fascinating, and the ferry ride to get there is always fun. Exploring the cell blocks on a night tour increases the spook factor.
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
Stow Lake (middle of Golden Gate Park) is an idyllic refuge. Rent a paddleboat and putt along in a lush green setting complete with quacking ducks and turtles sunning on logs. Or bring a picnic lunch, hike to the top of 430-foot Strawberry Hill and enjoy the views.
Inspector 511 / AAA
iStockphoto.com / peeterv
iStockphoto.com / rncotton
ShoppingWhether it's malls, farmers markets, retail complexes, souvenir shops, stylish boutiques, secondhand stores or designer showrooms, San Francisco offers cosmopolitan, funky, kitschy and trendy choices guaranteed to keep committed shopaholics blissfully happy.
AntiquesThe handsome brick and cast-iron commercial buildings in historic Jackson Square are among the city's oldest, dating from the gold rush era, and most survived the 1906 earthquake. In the 1870s this was a rough-and-tumble part of town known as the Barbary Coast. Wedged between the Financial District, Chinatown and North Beach, it's the best place in the city to browse for high-quality art and antiques.
Within a two-block radius along Jackson, Washington and Montgomery streets you can find dealers specializing in fine and decorative arts, 17th- and 18th-century English and European furniture, 19th-century French impressionist paintings, fine rugs, antique posters and maps, early California art and cutting-edge contemporary design. Arader Galleries (432 Jackson St.), paintings, watercolors and prints.
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
In addition to service businesses and an assortment of casual eateries there's a handful of chains (think Banana Republic, Gap and Sephora), plus the Embarcadero Center Cinema. The Villancourt Fountain in adjacent Justin Herman Plaza (between Four Embarcadero Center and The Embarcadero), an assemblage of massive concrete blocks and shooting sprays of water, is a refreshing sight when the water's running (which seems to be about half the time).
iStockphoto.com / londoneye
Farmers MarketsFerry Building Marketplace is thronged with tourists and locals every day of the week but especially so on Saturday mornings when the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market sets up behind and in front of the building. As farmers markets go this one is fantastic—basically everything is organic, and the seasonal selection of fruits and vegetables, mostly from farms in nearby counties, is dazzling. Flowers, baked goods, jams, jellies and specialty foods are sold as well. Graze your way through the stalls, nibbling on free samples and marveling at the sheer bounty of it all.
You can get your breakfast here, too, courtesy of the food vendors offering omelets, quesadillas, fried oyster po'boys and much more. The people-watching is fun, the street musicians are cool and the view of the Bay Bridge simply can't be beat.
There’s more browsing potential just across The Embarcadero from the Ferry Building, where souvenir vendors set up their merchandise every day of the week, although Saturday is the big day. Sure, you’ll see jewelry, sunglasses and tie-dye T-shirts, but also interesting art and knickknacks.
The market, at the foot of (appropriately enough) Market Street, is open Saturday 8-2 and, in smaller versions, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. After making the rounds—if you aren't loaded down with purchases and especially if it's a sunny day—take a walk along The Embarcadero.
Greg Weekes / AAA
The Alemany Farmers Market , at 100 Alemany Blvd. in Bernal Heights, is a bit more ramshackle (some of the produce is sold out of the back of trucks). There are lots of prepared ethnic foods, along with spices, nuts, hummus and Thai chiles, and food trucks dish up yummy Mexican, Filipino and Afghan dishes. It's open Saturdays 6-2:30. Parking can be problematic, especially before noon, but the market is within walking distance of Muni's #67 bus, which you can board near BART's 24th Street station.
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NeighborhoodsAlthough many tourists tend to think of Chinatown as a place to go for dim sum and souvenirs, this bustling city within a city offers a lot more. Shoppers will want to focus on the many establishments lining Grant Avenue, where the merchandise ranges from cheap (back scratchers, plastic Buddhas) to pricey (fine antiques, jade jewelry), and sidewalk displays are meant to lure you inside.
Peking Bazaar (826-832 Grant Ave.) has everything from kimonos and Chinese lanterns to plush panda dolls for the kids. On a more global scale is Michael Fine Art and Antique (400 Grant Ave.). Three floors offer a selection of expensive items like marble statues, decorative glass, bronze mermaids, candelabras and solid gold chess sets. It’s nice eye candy even if you don’t purchase anything.
Herb shops are located primarily along Washington and Jackson streets. Even if you’re feeling perfectly healthy, step inside a couple just to inhale the aroma of ginseng and tea leaves.
The Golden Gate Bakery (1029 Grant Ave.) is known for egg tarts—flaky pastry surrounding a smooth custard filling. Loyal customers swear by them. They also sell almond cookies (get a pink box to go) and moon cakes (the sweetness comes from lotus seed paste). Expect to wait in line, and bring cash.
Shopping in Japantown (also known as Nihonmachi) focuses on the Japan Center complex bounded by Post, Geary, Laguna and Fillmore streets; look for kimonos, wind chimes, teapots and bonsai trees. Daiso (22 Peace Plaza) is the Japanese equivalent of a Dollar Store and therefore a boon in this expensive city; it carries everything from bento boxes to cosmetics to flip-flops. Kinokuniya Bookstore , 1581 Webster St., has a wide assortment of manga comics in both Japanese and English, Japanese movies and music, toys and electronics. There’s a large children’s section in the back of the store.
From Japantown it’s a short walk up Fillmore Street to fashionable Pacific Heights, where shopping for women's clothes is chic, trendy and fun—as long as you bring plenty of money. A good place to start is the five-block stretch of Fillmore from California Street north to Pacific Avenue. Smartly dressed fashionistas peruse clothes from top European designers like Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten at Cielo (2225 Fillmore St.), a high-end boutique. Eileen Fisher (2216 Fillmore St.) is beloved by those who are fashion-conscious but not skinny; the established brand specializes in high-quality, figure-flattering basics like maxi skirts, cardigans and wool trousers.
Edgy apparel by hip designers (think Nanette Lepore and Trina Turk) is displayed in the window at Heidi Says Collections (2426 Fillmore St.). Be forewarned; the goods are definitely on the pricey side. Gallery of Jewels (2115 Fillmore St.) sells lots of items by California designers; prices for rings, necklaces, bracelets and cuff links range from pretty reasonable to stratospheric.
Hop on the #22 Muni bus heading north on Fillmore toward the bay to reach the six-block Union Street shopping district, full of art galleries, jewelry stores and boutiques. Z Gallerie (2154 Union St.) features high-quality home décor—furniture, lighting, dinnerware, artwork. Fog City Leather (2060 Union St.) has a large selection of men’s and women’s leather jackets, pants, belts and motorcycle vests. They also custom make everything from wallets to murses (men’s purses) and do repair work on damaged garments.
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If you remember—or want to relive—the counterculture days of the Summer of Love, then a trip to Haight Street is a must. Parts of the Haight still look like they're stuck in 1967, even though the neighborhood as a whole has been gentrifying for years and isn't nearly as gritty as it used to be. Head shops, funky boutiques and vintage clothing stores offer oodles of browsing potential.
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Exotic jewelry, clothing, scarves, trinkets and a great selection of incense can be found at The Love of Ganesha , on Haight near Clayton Street. This shop overflows with good vibes, from the welcoming proprietor to a complimentary cup of lemonade at the door.
With “creepy little things” like doll baby heads and dried puffer fish, Loved to Death (1681 and 1685 Haight St.) appeals to the macabre side. The merchandise ranges from books, art, jewelry, old photographs and home décor to skulls, framed butterflies, dead creatures displayed in shadowbox frames and cool-but-weird wall art.
Haight head shops always have awesome window displays—usually featuring ‘60s music icons Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison as well as reggae superstar Bob Marley—and Land of the Sun (1715 Haight St.) is no exception. Inside you'll find Dead posters, tie-dye T-shirts, peace necklaces, smoking paraphernalia, candles and other reminders of the Summer of Love.
No Haight visit is complete without a stop at Amoeba Music (at the foot of Haight near Stanyan Street). The selection of albums and CDs in this cavernous space is encyclopedic, plenty of signs identify the different music genres and store staff will knowledgeably steer you in the right direction. The murals that practically cover the building are classic examples of Haight Street graffiti art.
Cliff's Variety (479 Castro St.) is a Castro institution. It’s a hardware store and carries all the things you’d expect to find in a hardware store—plus toys, games, gag gifts, crafts and fabrics, bar accessories and kitchen items (everything from cast-iron skillets to teapots).
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Valencia Street once had plenty of Mission grit, but now it's crowded with pricey condos. The blocks between 16th and 24th draw hordes of hipsters who congregate at restaurants and clubs, but for the non-hip there are plenty of offbeat shops. One of our favorites is Paxton Gate (824 Valencia St.), filled with all manner of bizarre things (mobiles of tiny bird skeletons instead of alphabet blocks and baby toys, giant insects displayed in glass frames, mounted bat heads). But it’s not all bones and taxidermy; there’s also a selection of hand-crafted garden tools and unusual plants, primarily succulents and orchids.
Dijital Fix (820 Valencia St.) appeals to audiophiles with trendy Bluetooth speaker systems and synthesizers. Among the nifty gadgets are a bike wheel monkey light, protective iPad sleeves and a chimney humidifier (who knew humidifiers could be so stylish?).
In contrast, the Community Thrift Store (623 Valencia St.) harkens back to the halcyon hippie days of yore with its hodgepodge of funky furniture, vintage clothing, old-fashioned knickknacks, teacups and china, used books and old records. They also donate a portion of their proceeds to local charities.
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Bordering the square and lining the surrounding streets are major department stores and ultra-chic, ultra-expensive boutiques. A huge Macy's towers above Union Square; Macy’s Men’s Store occupies a separate multi-floor building just across Stockton Street. Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co. rub elbows on Post Street. Neiman Marcus boasts a six-story rotunda topped with an elaborate stained glass dome. In this heady company the likes of Williams-Sonoma and Victoria's Secret are rather small potatoes.
Facing the square on Post Street, at the corner of Stockton, is Apple Union Square . The tech giant's brand-new West Coast flagship, which replaced the former location at Stockton and Market, is fronted by spiffy sliding glass doors that double as huge two-story windows. The customer service section boasts a lineup of living trees, bringing the outdoors inside, while a “forum” area behind the building is open 24/7 and features a 50-foot green wall, free Wi-Fi and a refurbished, landmark 1970 fountain created by San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa.
Maiden Lane was once lined with bordellos; today this small side alley between Stockton Street and Grant Avenue is the location of several fancy-schmancy boutiques. Bring plastic if you plan on hitting Chanel, Hermès, Prada or Marc Jacobs. Nearby Burberry and Cartier are on Post Street between Stockton and Grant Avenue; Giorgio Armani is at Post and Grant.
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NightlifeDiversity is what this city is all about. The raucous forty-niners knew how to live it up way back when, and that good-time tradition continues. Cool blues, chill jazz, frenetic rock, classy cocktail lounges, bars with history, views with your booze (or some combination thereof)—San Francisco won’t disappoint.
BarsThe perfect spot on a cool San Francisco night might just be the Buena Vista Cafe , near Ghirardelli Square and the cable car turnaround at 2765 Hyde St., where you can warm up with an Irish coffee. Legend has it that this is the birthplace of that whiskey-infused cup of joe, but in actuality it’s the first place the drink was served in the United States. (in 1952, to be exact). Grab a seat and warm the cockles of your heart after a busy day of sightseeing. Phone (415) 474-5044.
The Gold Dust Lounge (165 Jefferson St.), a longtime Union Square bar, relocated to Fisherman's Wharf in 2013. This space is much larger but retains such signature features as the massive chandeliers and a pressed-tin ceiling complete with cherubs. It’s fun to hit at happy hour. Phone (415) 397-1695.
In addition to being known as San Francisco’s “Little Italy,” North Beach is also where you’ll find some of the city’s most popular late-night hangouts. This is where the beat generation poets caroused in the 1950s, and two bars still recall that era.
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In an alley just across Columbus at 12 Saroyan Pl. is Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum Cafe (Spec’s for short), where irreverent cartoons and bizarre antiques cover the walls, and the beers come with crackers and a hunk of cheese to nibble on. Both bars attract a mixed clientele that enjoys reliving a bit of the past. Phone (415) 362-3370 for Vesuvio or (415) 421-4112 for Spec's.
At the Tosca Café (242 Columbus Ave.) an espresso machine still stands by the bar and the jukebox is still heavy on operatic standards, but the red booths were upgraded to real leather a couple of years ago. Another addition was an open kitchen, and this iconic bar serves dinner until 1 a.m. (the bar stays open another hour). Phone (415) 986-9651.
Hipsters love Chinatown's Li Po Cocktail Lounge (916 Grant Ave.)—but don’t let that stop you from taking a look around. There’s more than a little bit of David Lynch atmosphere going on in this dive bar’s dark, red back room, with its parade of interesting characters. The signature drink here is a mai tai; if you want something more potent, the Chinese whiskey packs a wallop. Phone (415) 982-0072.
Another no-frills Chinatown joint is Red's Place (672 Jackson St.). It's got friendly bartenders, draws a mix of locals and out-of-towners, and features a wide selection of bottled beers plus Chinese pop tunes on the jukebox. Regulars engage in fervent dice games; ask the bartender to teach you how to play liar’s dice. Phone (415) 956-4490.
Climb to the top of ritzy Nob Hill and The Fairmont San Francisco, then take the elevator downstairs to the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar . It's tiki kitsch elevated to an art form, from the palm trees, thatched huts and a lagoon with a floating ship (doubling as a bandstand) to the thunderstorm that arrives on cue every 20 minutes. They make a mean mai tai—and yes, your drink comes in a coconut complete with paper umbrella. There's an Asian-inspired buffet on select weekdays during happy hour, and dancing begins at 8 p.m. Phone (415) 772-5278.
If you find yourself in Pacific Heights following an afternoon of shopping—or you're looking for a place to kick-start the evening—sidle on in to Harry's Bar (2020 Fillmore St.). The ambience is casual but not grungy, and the crowd is mostly local residents and young professionals unwinding after a tough day at the office. Phone (415) 921-1000.
The Marina Lounge (2138 Chestnut St.) has been around for decades. There's no pretense here—decent beers on tap, a jukebox heavy on classic rock and ‘80s hits, a pool table, a couple of old-school video games and a distinct absence of yuppie types. In the Lower Haight, Toronado (547 Haight St.) has plenty of space for locals and tourists to hang while watching playoff games or knocking back brews. Their craft beer selection is notable. Phone (415) 922-1475 for the Marina Lounge, (415) 863-2276 for Toronado.
The Castro is full of casual, friendly hangouts. Although it's a restaurant, Cafe Flore also has a full-service bar. The location—at the high-visibility corner of Market and Noe streets—makes this a prime spot to see and be seen. Go for one of the happy hour drink specials and sit outside for the best view of the always-entertaining street parade. The place is packed on warm evenings (or at least what passes for a warm evening in San Francisco), but even if the weather's chilly there are heat lamps and twinkling lights to keep the mood festive. Phone (415) 621-8579.
You won't encounter a lot of attitude at Midnight Sun (4067 18th St.). Convivial crowds gather at this small, laid-back bar for the 2-for-1 drink specials while watching music videos and “RuPaul's Drag Race” on big TV screens. Local drag queen Honey Mahogany is often on hand to emcee events. Twin Peaks Tavern (across from the Castro Muni station), referred to as the “Glass Coffin” for its big windows and more mature clientele, is more amenable to conversation than most other Castro bars. Next door is Hot Cookie, highly regarded for fresh-baked treats. Phone (415) 861-4186 for Midnight Sun or (415) 864-9470 for Twin Peaks Tavern.
Cocktail LoungesIndulge yourself with cocktails at Top of the Mark , the classy lounge at the top of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco that has been a Nob Hill landmark since 1939. The room isn't small but still feels intimate and cozy. Live music (mostly jazz) often enhances the mood, and movie screenings are offered on Tuesday nights in summer. Request a seat along the wall of windows for breathtaking views. Arrive with someone special at twilight, then watch the sun set and city lights come twinkling on for a truly magical experience. Phone (415) 392-3434.
Cool, sleek and fashionable defines the Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel at Union Square (495 Geary St.). This modern lounge exudes panache, from its redwood paneling to the changing display of digital artwork. Phone (415) 929-2372.
The Starlight Room is a throwback to when a night on the town meant dressing up for an evening at a swanky hotel’s top-floor lounge—in this case Union Square's Sir Francis Drake Hotel (450 Powell St.). Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served in an opulent setting complete with red velvet booths, silk draperies and imported chandeliers. The dance floor can get crowded on weekend evenings. Sunday afternoon shifts gears with the very popular “Sunday's a Drag” hosted by local celebrity and drag performer Donna Sachet; in addition to the show there's an all-you-can-eat buffet brunch. Phone (415) 395-8595.
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Dance ClubsSoMa (South of Market Street) is where the city's hippest clubs are concentrated. Two standbys are the DNA Lounge (375 11th St.) and 1015 Folsom (the name is the address). Both are invariably packed and loud. Depending on the night, DNA might feature DJ sets, name bands or the Hubba Hubba Revue, a burlesque and variety show. At Folsom, DJs whip the crowds into a frenzy with hip-hop and electronic jams. Phone (415) 626-1409 for DNA, (415) 991-1015 for Folsom.
111 Minna Gallery (Minna Street at 2nd Street) leads a double life—art gallery by day, special event/dance club at night. It's a large space with high ceilings, and there’s edgy, thought-provoking art everywhere—on the walls, on the bar, on the DJ platforms. Monthly dance party events include “Back to the '90s vs. 2000s.” Phone (415) 974-1719.
Mezzanine (444 Jessie St. at Mint Street) is a cavernous, brick-walled space with a booming sound system that showcases live and electronic music—everything from salsa to hip-hop to electro-funk disco. When bands aren't playing, hot DJs take over. Multimedia art and fashion shows are regularly scheduled; purchasing advance tickets for these events is strongly recommended. Phone (415) 625-8880.
Temple Nightclub (540 Howard St.) has two dance floors. The floor on the main level is more spacious than at many other clubs; the music is mostly house. Downstairs it's crowded and sweaty and the music is mostly hip-hop. Phone (415) 312-3668. Butter (354 11th St.) calls itself a “white trash bistro,” a theme borne out by Miller High Life served in paper bags and trailers (including a vintage Winnebago) that are part of the décor. DJs favor songs from the '90s and early '00s. Phone (415) 863-5964.
Note: Parts of SoMa can be sketchy, particularly after dark. If you’re going to hit the clubs, go with a group. And neither Union Square nor SoMa is parking friendly; take a cab or use public transportation.
Rock and Blues ClubsSwanky and retro both describe the main room of Bimbo’s 365 Club (1025 Columbus Ave.), a North Beach institution that's been in business since 1951. Tables and chairs in the red-accented room are arranged in a U-shape around a stand-or-dance area in front of the stage. The concert schedule is varied—rock bands, jazz artists, world music, stand-up comics—and plenty of big names appear. Arrive early if you want to snag a good table seat; phone (415) 474-0365.
Another San Francisco mainstay is the Boom Boom Room (1601 Fillmore St. at Geary). This was a blues spot in the 1930s, although nowadays you'll hear R&B, funk and soul as well. Check out the assemblage of old photos from past gigs on the club’s walls. Legendary blues artist John Lee Hooker was affiliated with the Boom Boom Room in the late 1990s. Phone (415) 673-8000.
Former Steve Miller Band member Boz Scaggs opened Slim's (333 11th St.) back in the ‘80s, and it’s one of the better places in town to see a rock band. Drink prices are reasonable and the sound system is decent. There’s also a fair amount of street parking available in the vicinity, always a plus in this city. Phone (415) 255-0333.
Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St.) is at the bottom of Potrero Hill. Pop, punk and noise bands, many local, play to young, enthusiastic crowds seven nights a week. The back patio is good for taking a break and chilling with friends. Go with a group, since the neighborhood tends to get a little sketchy late at night. Phone (415) 626-4455.
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The Fillmore (1805 Geary Blvd. at Fillmore) was a big name in the '60s San Francisco music scene: Promoter Bill Graham brought local rock bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service as well as visionaries like Jimi Hendrix to his ballroom for concert “happenings” complete with psychedelic light shows. It's still the venue of choice for many performers today. Phone (415) 346-6000.
Another longtime rock palace is The Warfield (982 Market St.), a former vaudeville theater. The cozy ambience—complete with a beautifully detailed gold-leaf ceiling—is perfect for watching acts old and new do their thing. Note: Parking in the vicinity is practically nonexistent, but the theater is a short walk from the Powell Street Muni station. Phone (415) 345-0900.
The Chapel (777 Valencia St.) has rustic/industrial décor and a concert schedule featuring the usual buzzed-about names. Be forewarned that the venue sells out quickly depending on who’s playing. If you can’t make the show, hang out on the patio. Phone (415) 551-5157.
The Independent (628 Divisadero St., a block west of Alamo Square) is another popular joint with a good sound system and surprisingly non-funky bathrooms. The room is small enough that you have no trouble seeing the stage but big enough that it doesn't feel claustrophobic. Get tickets well in advance for shows by up-and-coming bands; they usually sell out quickly. Phone (415) 771-1421.
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Performing ArtsSan Francisco's tempestuous 19th-century adolescence was more attuned to drinking and gambling than refined pleasures. Even so, 15 legitimate theaters operated amid the saloons of the Barbary Coast. But today residents and visitors take advantage of a world-class symphony, opera and ballet companies, and theatrical fare from touring Broadway blockbusters to a full house of offbeat experimental productions.
Two major performing arts facilities are just west of the Civic Center. A bronze Henry Moore sculpture squats in front of Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. The building's wraparound design places seating around and even behind the orchestra. Opera, dance and performing arts troupes perform at the War Memorial Opera House, opposite the Davies. This venerable structure looks just like it did in 1931.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Datebook section, published in the newspaper's Sunday edition, carries complete listings of area theaters and nightspots as well as information about upcoming events. TIX Bay Area offers cash-only, half-price tickets for selected theater, dance and music events on the day of the performance, and also serves as a Ticketmaster ticket outlet (for credit card purchases). It is located inside the Union Square Garage, accessible through the Geary Street entrance; phone (415) 433-7827.
DanceInnovative new productions as well as classics are performed by the San Francisco Ballet at the War Memorial Opera House. The company's repertory season lasts from late January into early May, although the Nutcracker Suite is performed in December. For the box office, phone (415) 865-2000 Mon.-Fri. 10-4.
Across the bay, the Oakland Ballet has been presenting its own revivals and contemporary productions since 1965. The season begins in fall; performances take place at the Paramount Theatre of the Arts, 2025 Broadway near the 19th Street BART station. Phone (510) 465-6400 for information.
FilmThe Bay Area is a mecca for film lovers. Independent film-making tradition thrives here: Documentaries and experimental features are produced on cut-rate budgets throughout the city. Many movie theaters in San Francisco show primarily art house or foreign films, and film showings at several colleges and universities also ensure a wide variety of fare.
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The following theaters show a mix of foreign and independent films in addition to repertory programs and revivals of old classics. The Embarcadero Center Cinema is on the promenade level at One Embarcadero Center, at the corner of Battery and Clay streets; phone (415) 352-0835. The Opera Plaza Cinema is at 601 Van Ness Ave.; phone (415) 771-0183. The Clay Theatre is at 2261 Fillmore St.; phone (415) 561-9921. The Roxie Theater is at 3117 16th St.; phone (415) 863-1087. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is at 701 Mission St.; phone (415) 978-2787.
MusicUnder the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony performs in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall from September through June. Guest conductors and internationally known soloists round out the repertoire of standards. The box office is open Mon.-Fri. 10-6, Sat. noon-6 and two hours before concerts on Sun.; phone (415) 864-6000.
As a free alternative to the often sold-out symphony productions, orchestral and band concerts take place summer Sundays in the natural amphitheater of Sigmund Stern Memorial Park, Sloat Boulevard and 19th Avenue; phone (415) 252-6252 for concert information. Golden Gate Park also is the scene of concerts throughout the year.
During the academic year both students and faculty perform at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at 50 Oak St. Phone (415) 503-6277 for 24-hour schedule and price information, or (415) 864-7326 Mon.-Fri. 10-12:30 and 1:30-4 for tickets. Occasional classical music concerts take place at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, 1111 California St.; phone (415) 776-7457, or (877) 598-8497 (Ticketmaster) for tickets.
SFJAZZ Center, 201 Franklin St. (at Fell Street) in Hayes Valley, functions as a hub for music, art and culture, encouraging interactions between audiences and musicians. The season, which runs from January to early June, features extended residencies by a wide spectrum of noted jazz artists. Summer sessions also are presented. Performances take place at the state-of-the-art Robert N. Miner Auditorium, which can be adjusted from 350 to 700 seats. Phone (866) 920-5299 for the box office.
A performance space at the former High School of Commerce was reborn as the Nourse Theater (275 Hayes St., between Van Ness and Franklin streets). It was closed for more than 30 years before a restoration project in 2012 refurbished the 1,600-seat hall, preserving original architectural details while installing state-of-the-art lighting and sound. The Nourse is the home of City Arts & Lectures, a series of onstage conversations with leading figures in science, literature and the performing arts. For ticket information phone (415) 563-2463.
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TheaterMajor touring plays and productions of Broadway shows are presented at the Curran Theatre (445 Geary St.) and the Orpheum Theater (1192 Market St.). Musicals run at the Golden Gate Theater (1 Taylor St.) and at the Curran. Phone (415) 358-1220 for the Curran; (415) 551-2000 for the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters.
The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) is San Francisco's major repertory group and presents plays at the 1910, Edwardian-style Geary Theater (405 Geary St.) and the more intimate Strand Theater (1127 Market St.); phone (415) 749-2228.
Lamplighters Music Theatre, another repertory company, specializes in operettas and musical spoofs, with an emphasis on Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. Performances take place at various venues, including the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St. at 3rd Street, and the Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave. Phone (415) 227-4797 for schedule and ticket information.
A uniquely San Francisco theater experience is “Beach Blanket Babylon” at Club Fugazi at 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. (formerly Green Street). This feel-good show, which has been running since 1974, features cabaret-style entertainment, outlandish costumes and a constantly updated parade of pop culture characters. These days theatergoers will encounter everyone from Bernie Sanders and Sia to characters from "Game of Thrones" and "Orange is the New Black." Phone (415) 421-4222 for reservations.
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (762 Fulton St.) showcases the works of African-American writers; phone (415) 345-3980. The Magic Theatre in Building D at Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street in the Marina District, presents West Coast premieres and occasional solo shows; phone (415) 441-8822. And Fort Mason's Cowell Theater, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street (at the end of Pier 2), features one-man shows and other performances; phone (415) 345-7575.
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Sports & RecBay Area fans vigorously support their hometown teams, and San Francisco's and Oakland's professional and college lineup—the Giants, Oakland A's, 49ers, Golden State Warriors, Raiders and Sharks—offer plenty to cheer for. In addition to the spectator sports venues listed below, the Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Ave. at Santos Street in nearby Daly City, is a venue for rodeos, ice shows and other events; phone (415) 404-4111.
San Francisco's wilder side is within the 76,500-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The city's northern and western shorelines offer scenic views and miles of walking trails, a peaceful getaway for bird-watchers, beachcombers, hikers, bicyclists, surfers and nature lovers.
BaseballLed by young pitching ace Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants won the 2014 World series, their third Series win in the last 5 years. The Giants play at AT&T Park. The stadium is right off The Embarcadero at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, seven blocks south of Market Street and just south of Pier 40. Phone (877) 473-4849 for ticket information. The rival Oakland A's play at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, I-880 at the 66th Avenue exit in Oakland; phone (877) 493-2255.
BasketballLed by Stephen Curry, the Bay Area's Golden State Warriors achieved the seemingly impossible during the final game of the 2016 NBA season, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies to notch their 73rd win and break the Chicago Bulls' wins record set in 1996. The Warriors play at Oracle Arena in Oakland, off I-880 at either the 66th Avenue or Hegenberger Road exits. Phone (510) 986-2222 for ticket information.
Area universities whet hoop appetites as well. In San Jose, the San Jose State University Spartans play their home games at the Event Center at San Jose State University, 7th and E. San Carlos streets; phone (408) 924-7589. The University of California Golden Bears play at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley; phone (510) 642-3277 or (800) 462-3277. And fans of the University of San Francisco Dons head to War Memorial Gymnasium, 2335 Golden Gate Ave.; phone (415) 422-2873.
FootballBay Area football fans divide their attention between two NFL teams. The San Francisco 49ers have won the Super Bowl five times. From 1971 to 2013 they played home games at Candlestick Park, built in the late 1950s for baseball's San Francisco Giants. This city landmark near the San Francisco Bay shoreline is being disassembled manually by construction crews (local residents opposed an implosion) to make way for new housing, a mall and a hotel.
The 49ers play at Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara at 4900 Marie P. DeBartolo Way and Tasman Avenue. Convenient access to the stadium is off major highways US 101, I-880, the Lawrence Expressway and the San Tomas Expressway. The venue has stadium-wide Wi-Fi capability and enormous HD video screens, features a green roof atop the suite tower on the west side and has three solar bridges that connect to the main parking area. For ticket information phone (415) 464-9377.
On game days, Caltrain provides service from San Francisco that connects with Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail trains and buses at the Mountain View Transit Center, Evelyn Avenue and Castro Street. Caltrain passengers must purchase a separate ticket to ride VTA light rail; adult day passes can be purchased at Caltrain station ticket machines. For schedules and more information check the Caltrain or VTA websites or phone VTA at (408) 321-2300.
The Oakland Raiders play at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; phone (510) 864-5020 for Raiders ticket information.
HockeySouth of San Francisco Bay, the San Jose Sharks players circle their prey. The Bay Area's NHL representatives take to the ice at the SAP Center at San Jose, 525 W. Santa Clara St. at Autumn Street. For schedule and ticket information phone (408) 999-5757.
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Bay City Bike provides rentals, maps, tours and recommended itineraries for those who want to pedal their way around the Bay Area. Two routes are especially popular: north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, then returning by ferry; and through the Presidio into Golden Gate Park. Bikes can be rented at four locations in the Fisherman's Wharf area—2800 Leavenworth St., 2661 Taylor St., 2830 Jones St. and 501 Bay St. A fifth location is at 1669 Haight St. For more information phone (415) 346-2453.
Bike rentals are located along Stanyan Street and Geary Boulevard near Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park Bike and Skate, 3038 Fulton St. at 6th Avenue, is another convenient rental outlet for a ride through Golden Gate Park, the Presidio or across the Golden Gate Bridge. Rollerblades and roller skates also can be rented; phone (415) 668-1117. Several area touring companies organize longer jaunts to the Sonoma wine country and other scenic spots outside the Greater Bay Area.
Blazing Saddles offers bike rentals as well as tours, including a popular route along the San Francisco Bay Trail over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito; the return trip is by ferry. This 9-mile-long route, which can be done as either a self-guiding or guided excursion, is quite scenic, stays close to the bay and covers mostly flat terrain, with the last 3 miles to Sausalito going downhill. Bikes can be rented at six Fisherman’s Wharf locations, (4715 Hyde St., 2555 Powell St., 465 Jefferson St., 550 North Point St., 757 Beach St. and Pier 41) as well as at 433 Mason St. in Union Square. For more information phone (415) 202-8888.
Ford GoBike enables you to rent a bike from a solar-powered electronic kiosk, ride to your destination and return it at the closest kiosk. You can take a single ride or buy a day pass or annual membership. Single 30-minute ride $3 (available only through the app); $9.95 for a day pass or $124 per year with unlimited 45-minute trips.
Most kiosks are located in the Financial District, along Market Street and in the vicinity of Civic Center, with a planned expansion to other city neighborhoods, including the Mission, the Castro, Upper Market and Hayes Valley. The program is especially popular with commuters due to the emphasis on short trips. For more information phone (855) 480-2453.
FishingAt Lake Merced, south of the San Francisco Zoo, anglers can fish for largemouth bass, trout and catfish. Fly-casting pools are south of the bison paddock in Golden Gate Park, next to the Angler's Lodge; bring your own equipment. There's a municipal fishing pier in Aquatic Park, at the northern end of Van Ness Avenue. You can also cast a line from Pier 7 on The Embarcadero, a short walk north of the Ferry Building.
Guided sport-fishing excursions ply the waters of San Francisco Bay for striped bass and giant sturgeon; outfitters are concentrated along Jefferson Street in the vicinity of Fisherman's Wharf.
GolfRain may dampen fairways during winter and temperatures can also be on the nippy side, but otherwise San Francisco's year-round mild weather is nearly ideal for golf. With space at such a premium, however, there are only a few public courses within the city limits.
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The Lincoln Park Golf Course is at 34th Avenue and Clement Street in Lincoln Park. The layout includes glimpses of the ocean; phone (415) 221-9911. The Presidio Golf Course is on Finley Road at Arguello Boulevard; phone (415) 561-4661. There's also a nine-hole course at the western end of Golden Gate Park at 47th Avenue and John F. Kennedy Drive; phone (415) 751-8987.
HikingA 4-mile stretch of sandy coastline, Ocean Beach parallels the Great Highway that runs along San Francisco's Pacific back door. It offers few frills, but the flat terrain is ideal for an extended hike.
One of the most delightful getaways in San Francisco is the Coastal Trail, which runs above the rocky shoreline at Lands End from 32nd Avenue west to the Sutro Baths site. At the signed detour to Mile Rock Beach (at the trail's approximate midpoint), descend a set of steep steps down to a rock-strewn beach with crashing waves and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's hard to believe this serene, spectacularly scenic trail is in a densely packed urban area.
Mount Tamalpais State Park and the Marin Headlands, just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, offer hiking routes ranging from gentle to strenuous. Trails at higher elevations have the added bonus of sweeping San Francisco views. Miles of hiking trails run through the Presidio as well.
Also in neighboring Marin, Muir Woods National Monument has paved walkways threading through a reserve of towering redwoods. There's no more majestic place in the Bay Area to commune with nature.
The top of Bernal Heights Park, off Bernal Heights Boulevard in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, offers fantastic 360-degree views of the downtown skyline, San Francisco Bay and the hills of the East Bay. This is one of the sunniest areas in the city, and the windswept slopes of Bernal Hill often escape the afternoon fog that can roll in elsewhere. A network of dirt trails winds around the hill's flanks and up to the summit.
For a good workout, hike to the top of Buena Vista Park (access off Haight Street, Buena Vista Avenue E. or Buena Vista Avenue W.). A crisscrossing network of paved walking paths and wooden steps offers various ways to get there. Although you'll be huffing and puffing, the trails are shady. At the summit is a flat oval space where you can catch your breath and admire the tree-framed views. Despite being a popular place for city dwellers to walk their dogs, it's seldom crowded.
Nearby Corona Heights Park is also a hill, bare and rocky rather than cloaked in trees. A trail winds around the hill to the top, where the 360-degree views of downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Twin Peaks, the Potrero Hills and the Castro, Noe Valley and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods are spectacular on clear days. To get there, take Castro Street north to 16th Street, then 16th Street west to Museum Way.
Jogging and WalkingStroll the foot trails in Golden Gate Park from the eastern boundary to the ocean, admiring the gardens and verdant parklands along the way; just remember that the distance is 3 miles and you'll have to walk back (or hop on a Muni bus).
If you don't mind whipping winds, the pedestrian walkway along the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge offers breathtaking views. It's 1.7 miles across, so unless you're up for the trek back, arrange to have someone pick you up at the north end.
One of the city's most popular jogging areas is the paved Golden Gate Promenade, part of the regional Bay Trail. It runs the length of Crissy Field to Fort Point and up to the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge (via a stairway). There's beach access, a salt marsh habitat frequented by many types of birds and great views of the bridge. This level stretch is used by cyclists and in-line skaters as well as walkers and joggers.
The Embarcadero is a wonderful place to take a brisk early morning walk. From Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf south to the Ferry Building the sidewalk is wide and the views of the bay, the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz Island are terrific. Two blocks south of the Ferry Building is Rincon Park, a narrow strip of green bordering The Embarcadero where you can ponder “Cupid's Span,” a giant sculpture of a bow and arrow created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
If it's plain old exercise you're looking for, simply step outside your hotel room door. The city's seven principal hills provide both a good workout and scenic vistas galore, and some of the steepest sidewalks have built-in stairways. For starters, puff your way up Lombard Street from Leavenworth to Hyde—the famous block dubbed “the crookedest street in the world”—then turn around and take the much easier way back down.
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Water SportsSailing the blue waters of San Francisco Bay offers year-round enjoyment and a close-up look at the San Francisco waterfront, Alcatraz and Angel islands, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Currents are tricky, however, so unless you're an accomplished skipper it's best to leave the sailing to experienced hands. Boat rentals and charters are available throughout the greater Bay Area.
Row, paddle and electric boats can be rented at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park—perfect for a lazy afternoon sojourn around Strawberry Hill, which rises from the middle of this man-made body of water. Phone (415) 386-2531 for rates and information.
Another perfect afternoon on the water is a ferry ride to Sausalito or Tiburon. The Blue & Gold Fleet, departing from Pier 41 at Fisherman's Wharf, offers daily service to both of these picturesque waterfront communities, along with bay sightseeing cruises.
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SightseeingSightseeing tours are available by land, sea and air; if your time is limited, the bus tours that touch briefly on city highlights are recommended.
Boat ToursTours of the harbor operate from Fisherman's Wharf. In addition to 1-hour bay cruises, The Red and White Fleet also schedules combination boat and bus tours.
If you're interested in seeing what life on Alcatraz Island was like, be sure and buy your tickets ahead of time, as the tours frequently sell out. Ferries operated by Alcatraz Cruises depart for “The Rock” from Pier 33 on The Embarcadero. Reservations 2 weeks or more in advance are recommended during the summer months and around holidays; phone (415) 981-7625.
The Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry runs daily. The schedule varies with the season; phone (415) 435-2131 for information. Angel Island State Park, offers picnic facilities, beaches and hiking trails. The park includes the Angel Island Immigration Station.
The Blue and Gold Fleet offers 60-minute bay cruises that depart Pier 39 daily at frequent intervals. The company also offers San Francisco, Muir Woods, Sausalito, Tiburon, Alcatraz and Angel Island tours by boat; phone (415) 705-8200.
Hornblower Cruises and Events , Pier 3 on The Embarcadero, offers daily dinner and lunch cruises and weekend brunch cruises aboard the motor yacht California Hornblower. Live music is provided with dinner and brunch, and there are dance floors on two decks. Other cruises are offered. Reservations are required; phone (415) 788-8866.
Bus and Van Tours
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Upon presentation of your AAA membership card, AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah can furnish a map with a suggested tour covering much of San Francisco. The 49-Mile Scenic Drive map also is available from the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau Visitor Information Center on the lower level of Hallidie Plaza at Market and Powell streets (near the cable car turnaround).
Segway ToursElectric Tour Company
Guided Walking Tours
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Thuyvi Gates / AAA
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San Francisco is filled with awesome street art, which is on particularly vibrant display in the Mission. Artistic expression is represented in almost equal measure by graffiti and murals. Graffiti can be seen practically everywhere there’s a surface to scrawl on, while murals adorn walls, churches, the sides of buildings, garage doors and alleyways. You could spend all day hitting Mission streets and checking out the art.
MaestraPeace, the stunning mural that covers two exterior walls of the four-story Women's Building (on 18th Street a block west of Valencia Street), is the work of seven female artists. The sheer vibrancy of the colors is remarkable; these walls practically sing. Note how the fabric patterns, human figures and historical scenes blend right into the building's structural elements.
La Llorona's Sacred Waters, the large wall mural at the corner of 24th and York streets, is the work of California muralist, printmaker, painter, educator and activist Juana Alicia. It's also known as the Blue Mural for obvious reasons; except for a bright red stripe at the roofline and a couple of well-placed red accents this mesmerizing work is executed entirely in shades of blue.
It’s along Mission alleys where art and graffiti often mix to striking creative effect. One example: narrow Osage Alley, off 24th Street between Mission and Bartlett streets. The weathered brick walls are covered with a blizzard of graffiti, but look down at the sidewalk and you'll see a row of identical images of singer-songwriter Lou Reed from the cover of Reed's 1972 album “Transformer.”
Long-term public art installations are mounted regularly at Pier 14 on The Embarcadero (just south of the Ferry Building). In recent years they've included a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois; the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, a metallic, 40-foot-tall retro-futuristic artwork; and SOMA, a free-form metal sculpture equipped with LED lights that could be interactively manipulated to produce a range of colors, mimicking neuron patterns in the brain.
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San Francisco in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in San Francisco.
Day 1: MorningHead out to San Francisco's northwestern corner and Lands End . Back in the 1870s this was wild and woolly country far beyond the city limits, but today it's a serene refuge from crowds, congestion and the ceaseless honking of car horns. Poke around the Sutro Baths , the ruins of a once-fashionable seaside spa, then stop by the Lands End Lookout for some educational background about the Lands End area (and to use the restroom facilities if need be).
Then tramp along the cypress-lined Coastal Trail—the views of the Marin Headlands and the rocky, wave-battered Pacific coastline below are stunning. You can follow the trail all the way to the end (at the junction with 32nd Street). At the approximate midway point, a signed detour off the trail leads down a winding series of steps to Mile Rock Beach . Watch waves crash against the rocks while sitting on a log at this lovely, secluded cove, then hike the dirt trail that winds up a steep hill to a vantage point offering spectacular views.
Contemplate the rest of your day at the Legion of Honor in company with a bronze cast of Pierre Auguste Rodin's “The Thinker.” This museum's impressive art collection includes paintings by such masters as Anthony Van Dyck, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, plus English and French porcelain and noteworthy Rodin sculptures.
Try and snag a window table at Cliff House-The Bistro , the more casual of the two restaurants in the Cliff House . This historic building overlooks the ocean and offshore Seal Rock, where sea lions occasionally hang out. Whether it's a late breakfast or an early lunch, order Eggs San Francisco—two poached eggs with Dungeness crabmeat and toasted sourdough bread—and make sure you try the signature popovers, which are delish with the addition of butter and strawberry or orange marmalade.
Day 1: AfternoonYou could easily spend an entire day at Golden Gate Park , the city's beloved, rectangular swath of green 3 miles long and a mile wide, so prioritizing what you want to see and do is paramount. Museum lovers should immediately head to the de Young Museum , which has outstanding collections of art from the Americas, Africa, New Guinea and Oceania, or The California Academy of Sciences , home to a state-of-the-art planetarium and numerous green-friendly exhibits (don't miss the undulating roof, a living carpet of native California plants).
The park's exuberantly lush gardens and woodlands are particularly enticing for nature lovers and gardeners. Meditate in the Japanese Tea Garden , a small, precisely landscaped retreat of still ponds, stone sculptures and shaded paths, or stroll among orchids, tropical blooms and bizarre-looking aquatic plants in the Victorian-style The Conservatory of Flowers . Pause and reflect among redwood trees at the volunteer-maintained National AIDS Memorial Grove. Then wander past rhodies ablaze with blooms (May and June are the peak months) in the Rhododendron Dell, where there are also wooded paths to stroll. Adjacent to the dell is the Primitive Plant Garden, full of cycads and giant tree ferns.
For exercise walk around Stow Lake, actually a moat that encircles Strawberry Hill. A stone footbridge crosses the north end; from there you can hike to the top of the hill. It's a moderately strenuous trek, but the reward is lovely views framed by tall trees. Little Lloyd Lake, just off John F. Kennedy Drive, is a quiet spot with a couple of benches where you can relax and listen to the contented quacking of a resident flock of mallards. The group of stone columns standing at the edge of the water, dubbed Portals of the Past, was part of a Nob Hill house destroyed by the great 1906 earthquake.
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Day 1: Evening“If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Heed the hippie anthem of the Summer of Love (that would be 1967) and head to Haight-Ashbury, the former epicenter of the counterculture that still has a groovy vibe. Check out the head shops, vintage clothing boutiques and funky gift shops along Haight Street, or search for obscure vinyl LPs at Amoeba Music (1855 Haight St.).
The Haight is known for the psychedelic art adorning many storefront walls and Victorian houses known as “painted ladies.” They range from expensively renovated to endearingly shabby and often display rainbow colors. The purple Victorian at 710 Ashbury St. (between Frederick and Waller) was once a communal pad where the Grateful Dead crashed back in the day.
From the Haight it's an easy walk (or board a 33 Muni bus on Haight Street) to the Castro. A constant and occasionally outrageous parade of people pass through the junction of Castro, Market and 17th streets, the Castro's focal point. Standing at the corner of Castro and Market is Twin Peaks Tavern, one of the neighborhood's oldest bars. In less liberated times the walls hid patrons who had to slip in unnoticed, whereas now big glass windows reveal a laid-back crowd of folks who congregate for drinks and socializing.
Burger joints, taquerias and other casual eateries abound. For yummy lobster rolls, crab cakes or fish and chips, try the Woodhouse Fish Company (2073 Market St.).
The Castro Theatre (429 Castro St.), a grand old movie palace, has a beautifully opulent interior complete with a Wurlitzer organ that rises from beneath the stage for a pre-show musical performance. Films run heavily to repertory series and revivals of old classics, with the occasional Hollywood blockbuster thrown in. Many special events and live appearances also take place; phone (415) 621-6120 or check the website for schedule information.
Day 2: MorningSpend the morning hanging out along The Embarcadero, the waterfront street that hugs San Francisco's northeastern perimeter. Seagulls wheel and cry and joggers get in an early run against the scenic backdrop of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge , the city's other iconic span. Make your first stop Ferry Building Marketplace .
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A wide sidewalk and lively maritime activity makes The Embarcadero a great place for a walk. If you're up for exercise that comes with a bonus of lovely views, head north on The Embarcadero to Broadway, turn left and walk four blocks to Sansome Street, then turn right and walk four blocks up to Filbert Street and the foot of the Filbert Steps . The steps ascend the east side of Telegraph Hill , past gardens and increasingly panoramic vistas of the bay as elevation is gained. It's a healthy climb, but once at the top you're at the base of Coit Tower , where there are more views—and the walk back down is a heck of a lot easier.
Day 2: AfternoonUnion Square is the heart of downtown San Francisco. This block-square paved plaza, fringed with date palms, is a popular gathering place where people meet, socialize or just spend an afternoon hanging out. During the winter months there's an ice-skating rink, and the annual lighting of an enormous Christmas tree in late November draws massive crowds and marks the official start of holiday season festivities.
The streets surrounding the square offer shoppers major retailers like Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gump's and the flagship location of Williams-Sonoma, complete with a demonstration kitchen where you can take a cooking class. High-fashion boutiques are sprinkled along Geary, Post and Sutter streets and little Maiden Lane, a narrow alley that runs between Stockton and Kearny streets.
Even if you don't buy anything, Emporio Armani (166 Grant Ave.) is worth wandering through; it's housed in an early 20th-century building that was once a bank and retains that era's old marble columns, along with a contemporary minimalist layout highlighting metal and wood. Alessi (424 Sutter St.) features high-quality housewares that resemble—and are priced like—works of art.
Art galleries are on Geary, Post and Sutter streets. Check out the complex of galleries at 49 Geary St., spotlighting contemporary and emerging Bay Area artists, photography and the works of modern masters like Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. Many galleries are open late the first Thursday of the month.
Explore nearby Chinatown . Grant Avenue shops sell everything from cheap souvenirs to fine jewelry. One block over on Stockton Street, crowds navigate past bulging sidewalk bins of produce and windows displaying whole fish, various animal parts, dessert buns and brightly packaged home remedies.
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Day 2: EveningStroll Washington Square, a small, grassy North Beach park shaded by cypresses and poplars, frequented by pigeons, dog walkers and practitioners of tai chi, and overlooked by the twin spires of the neo-Gothic Saints Peter and Paul Church . The cathedral has long served a parish of Italian immigrants, and baseball great Joe DiMaggio famously posed in front of it for wedding pictures with new bride Marilyn Monroe.
City Lights (261 Columbus Ave.), founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is a landmark independent bookstore with a history of progressive politics. The era of tour buses pulling up for a glimpse of beret-clad “beatniks” is long gone, but this is still a place where book lovers and bohemians in spirit come to browse and attend regularly scheduled events and author readings.
There's more history next door at Vesuvio. Order the house drink (rum, tequila, and orange and cranberry juice served in a bucket glass with a lime) named after Beat Generation icon and “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac, who frequented the bar. Loaded with gritty atmosphere, the joint attracts artists, musicians, poets and all-around characters.
Columbus Avenue is lined with restaurants, and their sidewalk tables are perpetually filled. But take our advice and head to Tommaso's Restaurant , less than a block off Columbus on Kearny Street. Whitewashed walls and straw-covered bottles exude charm, and the food is delizioso. Order a thin-crust pie that emerges piping hot from the wood-fired pizza oven with toppings like fresh burrata cheese, prosciutto, anchovies or sliced meatballs.
After dinner head to Caffe Trieste, on Vallejo Street between Columbus and Grant avenues. Dark wood walls covered with nostalgic old photos will put you in the mood to linger over espresso or a cup of the house-roasted coffee. If you hit this place on the right evening you'll be treated to poetry readings or live music.
Day 3: MorningAlcatraz Island is one of the city's most popular tourist destinations. Purchase a timed ticket in advance (up to a week ahead during the summer months) at Pier 33, the only departure point for ferries to Alcatraz. If you board the first departure at 8:45 a.m., you'll be able to explore at leisure before the crowds start arriving.
Immortalized in movies like 1962's “The Birdman of Alcatraz” and the Clint Eastwood-starring “Escape From Alcatraz,” the infamous federal penitentiary that stood on this small, rocky island for almost 30 years has a reputation akin to myth. Today's reality is a bit more prosaic: prison facilities in various states of disrepair. The recreation yard is a dismal-looking, fenced-in concrete rectangle, and the cells in the main prison building—each equipped with a toilet, tiny sink and single bunk—are depressingly small and grim. A guided audio tour, narrated by former inmates and correctional officers, provides details about daily life on “The Rock.”
Adding unexpected beauty to the setting are The Gardens of Alcatraz , created and maintained by both inmates and the families of prison guards who resided on the island. When the penitentiary closed in 1963 the carefully tended landscape became overgrown and wild, but a dedicated group of volunteers has kept the gardens spruced up. Hardy, sustainable plants and flowers native to South Africa and the Mediterranean basin, regions with a climate similar to San Francisco's, thrive on the island. Since there are no natural predators, Alcatraz is also a bird sanctuary, and you'll see cormorants, snowy egrets and lots of Western gulls.
Day 3: AfternoonDisembark the Alcatraz ferry and walk up The Embarcadero to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf . The hodgepodge of restaurants and souvenir shops is a fun area to wander. Depending on the time of year, sea lions are crowd pleasers at the pier.
Eating clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is a quintessential San Francisco experience, and there are several casual eateries where you can sample this treat. One place you won't find it, though, is the Crab House at Pier 39 , where the bread bowls are filled with crab chowder instead and the specialty of the house is “killer crab” roasted in a secret garlic sauce. Tureens brimming with crab cioppino, garlic-steamed clams or zuppa di pesce (seafood stew) are popular as well.
For more upscale dining, Alioto's has big windows with views of the bay and rows of docked boats, plus favorites like Sicilian-style fried prawns and pan-roasted rockfish with wild mushrooms. The restaurant opened as a fresh fish stall in the 1920s and still has a street stand where you can watch busy cooks cracking and packing heaps of Dungeness crabs turned ruddy reddish-orange from immersion in a pot of boiling water.
Chocoholics will want to savor the wares in the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square , where there's also a display of original chocolate manufacturing equipment. Sourdough bread aficionados head to Boudin at the Wharf: Museum & Bakery Tour to pick up sourdough and other fresh-baked loaves to go at the on-site shop.
Burn off the calories at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park , where historic vessels are docked at the Hyde Street Pier, and then take a walk to the end of the Municipal Pier at adjacent Aquatic Park. Afterward, celebrate your fortitude with a glass of piping-hot Irish coffee. The whipped cream-capped brew was first introduced to American drinkers at The Buena Vista Cafe , at the corner of Hyde and Beach streets. If you're not in the mood for a jolt of whiskey-infused java order Pilsner on tap, otherwise known as a “pull one.”
Day 3: Evening
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This route passes the Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse Viewing Gallery , where visitors can learn about the massive engine-and-wheel system that powers the world's last manually operated cable car system. Take the cable car all the way to Market Street (via Powell Street), then walk down Market to The Embarcadero (or get on Muni at the Powell Street station and disembark at the Embarcadero station).
AT&T Park, at the south end of The Embarcadero, is home to the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, much beloved by Bay Area sports fans. In addition to winning ways (23 National League pennants and 20 World Series appearances to date), the team boasts such notable Hall of Famers as Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and the one and only Willie Mays.
If you don't have tickets, you're not a baseball fan or it's not baseball season—and you're in the mood for something special—have dinner at Gary Danko . (Don't, however, expect to just waltz in; advance reservations are essential.) The small space—only 75 seats—is exquisitely appointed. Danko, a James Beard Foundation award winner and critically acclaimed American chef, employs classic techniques to prepare extraordinary, seasonally based dishes. The five-course tasting menu and wine pairing is admittedly pricey, but the food and service are absolutely top notch. You'll want to dress up for the occasion.
AttractionsIn a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
By Greg Weekes
San Francisco sits on a peninsula, bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the east by San Francisco Bay. At the northern tip is the Golden Gate Bridge , the instantly identifiable landmark that is not only an iconic visual symbol of the city but a vital transportation link that connects it to Marin County and points north. For an up-close view of this AAA GEM attraction's mighty suspension span—not to mention dizzying views of San Francisco Bay and the Marin headlands—take a windy walk (1.7 miles one way) along the pedestrian sidewalk.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area , one of the largest urban parks in the world, encompasses 59 miles of bay and ocean shoreline at both ends of the Golden Gate Bridge. Noted for expansive scenic vistas, it encompasses major tourist destinations like Alcatraz Island and Muir Woods National Monument as well as such city locations as Crissy Field, extremely popular with joggers, kite fliers and sightseers.
On any sunny afternoon, Golden Gate Park is one of the most popular places in San Francisco. This GEM has it all: botanical gardens, museums, sports fields, playgrounds—even a buffalo enclosure and a fishing pond. A verdant green rectangle stretching 3 miles from Stanyan Street west to the Great Highway, the park covers just over a thousand acres.
A Dutch windmill stands at the northeastern corner; the white, Victorian-style The Conservatory of Flowers , an enclosed, humid jungle of tropicals, aquatic plants and delicate orchids, is located near the eastern end. In between are shady wooded areas, grassy meadows and man-made Stow Lake. The entire park is a quiet, peaceful oasis of exotic greenery, the legacy of Scottish landscaper John McLaren.
Otherworldly plants from Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa make the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum an unforgettable walk. The Japanese Tea Garden , developed for the 1894 World's Fair, is a lovely, precisely landscaped haven at any time, but especially so when cherry blossoms bloom in the spring.
On rainy days, Golden Gate Park offers two outstanding museums. The burnished copper facade of the de Young Museum , a AAA GEM attraction, has an outstanding collection of American paintings and regularly presents notable traveling exhibitions. An indoor observation room on the ninth floor of the Hamon Tower has floor-to-ceiling windows offering fantastic 360-degree views of the surrounding neighborhoods—and you can take the elevator to the top without paying the museum admission if you choose.
Another GEM, The California Academy of Sciences , is noted for such sustainable architectural features as recycled steel construction and a living green roof. The Steinhart Aquarium and the all-digital Morrison Planetarium are both state of the art, while the domed, four-story Osher Rainforest replicates a tropical forest environment right down to the steamy humidity.
Nearby Lincoln Park is the location of another GEM attraction, the Legion of Honor . This Beaux Arts building is modeled after the 18th-century Palais de la Légion d'Honneur and was built to honor Californians who died in France during World War I. Standing in the museum courtyard is a cast of Rodin's famous statue the “Thinker”; inside is a notable collection of sculptures, paintings, prints and decorative art objects.
A little patch of wilderness at San Francisco's western edge, Lands End is all the more special for being part of a city notable for its dense urbanity. The California Coastal Trail, running the length of Lands End, makes for a wonderful hike along a wooded path high above the crashing waves and rocky shoreline. Then explore the Sutro Baths , the ruins of a lavish former bathing resort that burned to the ground in 1966 as it was in the process of being demolished. Another longtime San Francisco landmark, the Cliff House , overlooks the ocean and is a great place to have lunch with a view—if you're lucky enough to get a window table.
Bounded roughly by Kearny, Powell, Bush and Vallejo streets, Chinatown should be at the top of the list for first-time San Francisco visitors. This AAA GEM is part tourist destination, part workaday neighborhood. The ornamental gate arching over Grant Avenue at Bush Street is Chinatown's ceremonial entryway. Souvenir shops line Grant Avenue; Stockton Street, one block west, is a cacophony of bustling produce, meat and fish markets. For sensory overload hit Stockton Street on a Saturday morning, when Chinatown residents do their shopping.
A spectacular collection of Asian art spanning 6,000 years is housed at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco , a AAA GEM. Here are exquisite Persian ceramics, Cambodian deities, Indian temple reliefs, Thai daggers, Japanese textiles, Tibetan scrolls and one of the oldest Chinese Buddhas in the world. Don't miss the elephant throne, or howdah, an extravagantly decorated conveyance that once bore members of Indian royalty.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) exhibits a who's who of masters like Diego Rivera, Alfred Stiegitz, Andy Warhol and Richard Serra. The museum reopened in May 2016 following a major renovation and expansion project. The new public spaces on the first and second floors not only display art installations but are free to visitors.
In contrast to this modernistic landmark, the Palace of Fine Arts resembles a Roman ruin. The classical rotunda, built as the entrance to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, was meant to last only a year, but San Franciscans loved it so much they made sure it escaped the wrecking ball. A landscaped lagoon borders this palatial-looking structure; it's a serene place to take an early morning walk.
The palace was long home to the Exploratorium , a AAA GEM devoted to “science, art and human perception,” before the museum relocated to Pier 15 on The Embarcadero. Visitors of all ages will get a kick out of the interactive exhibits, which are meant to stimulate your thinking cap.
The Mission San Francisco de Asís is one of the city's oldest buildings; it still retains the rawhide lashings used by Spanish missionaries to secure redwood timbers. This GEM attraction, popularly known as Mission Dolores, withstood the 1906 earthquake while newer buildings fell. The adjacent church is a striking counterpoint to the simple mission, its lovely interior illuminated by stained-glass windows. The cool, leafy mission cemetery, protected by thick stone walls, offers a quiet haven for personal reflection.
San Francisco is chock-full of street art, and it's on particularly vibrant display in the Mission. Balmy Alley is one of the best places in the city to see a concentration of cool murals. Local artists use the alley's walls, fences and garage doors as a canvas, with the subject matter ranging from politics to cultural pride to pop culture icons (like a crotch-grabbing Michael Jackson), most of the designs executed in rainbow colors.
Sooner or later every tourist makes the pilgrimage to Fisherman's Wharf . San Francisco's northern waterfront bustles with sightseers and souvenir hunters. Adding to the fun are the gregarious sea lions that make seasonal appearances flopping on and off the floating docks at Pier 39 .
Among the attractions in the vicinity are Ripley's Believe it or Not! Odditorium , the Aquarium of the Bay and Boudin at the Wharf: Museum & Bakery Tour , where you can sample clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, a San Francisco culinary creation. Pose with historical notables like Janis Joplin, Al Capone and Harvey Milk at Madame Tussauds San Francisco , or experience the city's checkered past on a creepy tour through The San Francisco Dungeon . Then visit San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park for a look at historic ships docked at the Hyde Street Pier.
Alcatraz Cruises ferries depart from Pier 33 for Alcatraz Island and the former federal penitentiary that sits atop this lonely rock about a mile offshore. There were 36 escape attempts between 1934 and 1963, the year the penitentiary was closed, but none of the escapees made it to freedom, and many of them died in the attempt. This AAA GEM is a tourist must-do.
In stark contrast to the prison cells are The Gardens of Alcatraz , created by the families of corrections officers and now maintained by a corps of volunteers. Succulents and flowering plants adapted to the island's harsh natural environment grow among the crumbling buildings. National park rangers lead guided tours of “The Rock,” or you can explore it on your own. Ferry excursions fill up quickly during the summer months, so reservations should be made well in advance.
If you've ever ridden a San Fran cable car (and who hasn't?), the Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse Viewing Gallery is worth a visit. Displays at the Washington-Mason Powerhouse include the first cable car, built in 1873. In an underground gallery you can observe the intricate network of chains and pulleys that guide the cars from beneath the street.
If there's any time left to explore beyond the city limits, one noteworthy destination is Muir Woods National Monument , on the southwestern slope of Mount Tamalpais. The drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge on SR 1 is formidably twisting but grandly scenic; if you're not up to maneuvering the road's serpentine curves, take advantage of one of the many sightseeing tour companies that offer excursions to this AAA GEM.
Muir Woods preserves and protects one of California's last old-growth stands of coast redwoods. These ancient trees can grow more than 250 feet tall, have trunks up to 15 feet in diameter and live for hundreds of years. A paved walking trail leads from the visitor center to the aptly named Cathedral Grove, a majestic concentration of towering redwoods.
Traffic bound for Muir Woods can be heavy on weekends, so plan accordingly if you're driving. Continue north on SR 1 to reach the pristine beaches, grassy dunes and numerous hiking trails at spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore .
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RestaurantsOur favorites include some of this destination's best restaurants—from fine dining to simple fare.
By Greg Weekes
San Francisco is one of the world's great food cities, offering globally inspired cuisine and restaurants that range from humble neighborhood joints to pillars of fine dining. People come here just to eat, because it's all good.
At the top end of the scale is Saison , where Joshua Skenes and sushi chef Jiro Lin team up to create culinary magic via tasting menus that take full advantage of the Bay Area's vast array of seasonal ingredients. This is French-influenced California cuisine with an emphasis on impeccable freshness and extraordinary flavors. And it's definitely a once-in-a-blue-moon dining choice: You'll be presented with up to 15 courses, dinner will last more than 3 hours (and the meal starts without you if you show up late), menus are not posted in advance and the check is guaranteed to be stratospheric. But you don't go to Saison just to eat dinner; it's a full-blown gastronomic experience, enhanced by an open kitchen that heightens the anticipation of what savory thrill is coming next.
Another foodie favorite is award-winning chef Gary Danko 's 75-seat Fisherman's Wharf restaurant. The décor is a blend of relaxed California modern and Upper East Side NYC swank, enhanced by museum-quality paintings and dramatic pin-spot lighting. Service matches the setting—unfailingly professional but also genuinely friendly. The menu is seasonal and California inspired, with French accents. Dungeness crab salad with avocado, citrus, bulgur and a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette isn't so much a creatively out-of-the-box appetizer as it is divinely delicious. Entrées like roasted quail stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms and foie gras are similarly noteworthy. And lemon soufflé cake with a raspberry sorbet is simple yet delectable. The extensive wine list includes more than 1,200 selections. Be advised that reservations are essential, and not easy to come by.
Another outstanding choice for special occasion dining is Boulevard . The waterfront Embarcadero location (in the French Mansard-style Audiffred Building) is classic San Francisco, and the décor—dark wood, decorative iron accents and mosaic floors—adds to the stylish ambience. California red abalone with king trumpet mushrooms and pine nuts is a terrific first course, and for an entrée you can't go wrong with wood oven-roasted sea bass or a pork prime rib chop accompanied by creamed kale, Brussels sprouts and a chestnut and parsnip mash. For dessert butterscotch pudding is gussied up with chocolate crackle ice cream and mini dark chocolate truffles. Service is professional but friendly. Reservations are advised, and be prepared to pay top dollar for the experience.
San Francisco is synonymous with seafood, and some of the city’s best seafood restaurants are located at, appropriately, Fisherman’s Wharf. Of course clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is a touristy Wharf staple, and it’s served at the Fog Harbor Fish House , on the second floor at Pier 39. The big windows and bay views will immediately put you in a maritime mood. Seafood cioppino is unsurprisingly the house specialty, brimming with crab, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and fresh fish in a tomato-herb broth. Other seafood winners (the menu is 100 percent sustainable) include grilled swordfish, fish and chips and whole Dungeness crab. Oh—and the blue cheese garlic bread is delish.
Another Fisherman's Wharf mainstay is Scoma's Restaurant , tucked away by the water at Pier 47. The vibe is vintage all the way—timeworn red carpeting, faded photographs of Hollywood celebrities on wood-paneled walls, white-jacketed waiters. And the menu is similarly old school. Start with lobster bisque or spice-seared albacore. Swordfish piccata is beautifully broiled, the meat fresh and moist. Order one of the mixed seafood grills or Pasta Diplomatica (two small lobster tails, shrimp, scallops and clams with linguine) and you'll probably be taking leftovers with you. Scoma's is pricey, but you're paying for the experience as well as the food.
It's on Polk Street, not by the bay, but that doesn't mean seafood lovers should pass up Swan Oyster Depot —not by a long shot. This tiny, family-run, super-casual place has counter seating only and a line that's frequently out the door. (Two-hour waits are not unheard of.) The reason? Only the freshest sea critters make it to your plate. Clams or oysters should be liberally dunked in one of the offered sauces. The combo salad is a plateful of crisp lettuce heaped with crab and shrimp and served with Louie dressing. Another winner is the Italian-style sashimi—raw tuna, salmon and scallops drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with capers. It isn't cheap and credit cards aren't accepted, so bring plenty of cash.
Tadich Grill has been in business more than 160 years, so the restaurant must be doing something right. It's a classy joint frequented by business types who gather for two-fisted power lunches. Service can be on the brusque side, but you almost expect that in a place like this. This isn't the only San Francisco restaurant vying for bragging rights when it comes to seafood cioppino, and here it's done well; you'll be sopping up every last bit of broth with a crusty piece of sourdough. Other house favorites are crab Louis, a traditionally prepared oysters Rockefeller and, for non-seafood lovers, old-fashioned pot roast with mashed potatoes. Reservations aren't accepted, and there's frequently a line to get in.
Yet another seafood hot spot is Bar Crudo , in the North of the Panhandle (NoPa) neighborhood. We suggest going during happy hour, when you can get a break on prices ($1 oysters, for example). The menu is small and changes seasonally, although crowd-pleasing favorites like the lobster-beet salad with fresh burrata, arugula and pistachios are usually always available. The crudo sampler (arctic char, tuna, butterfish and scallops) is another popular choice. If you're not in the mood for raw fish, a bowl of piping-hot seafood chowder—fortified with potatoes and Applewood-smoked bacon—is comfort food that's especially satisfying on a chilly day. Beer lovers have an extensive list to choose from.
Two blocks south of Union Square, John's Grill is classic San Francisco. The oak-paneled walls and period furnishings ooze century-old atmosphere. It's no wonder author Dashiell Hammett made the restaurant a setting in “The Maltese Falcon”; you can almost imagine Sam Spade sitting at the bar. The menu of steaks, seafood, pasta and salads is basic but done right; try broiled salmon with hollandaise sauce or “John's Steak,” a thick, bone-in New York cut. Desserts are similarly no-nonsense—New York cheesecake or, for something less decadent, seasonal berries. It's touristy, usually packed and therefore noisy, so don't go if you want an atmosphere conducive to intimate conversation.
All visitors to the City by the Bay eventually make their way to Lands End and the Cliff House, perched atop a rock overlooking the Pacific. Of the two restaurants in this landmark building, the more casual choice is Cliff House-The Bistro . Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis and reservations aren't accepted, so whether you go for breakfast, lunch or dinner, try to arrive early in order to snag a window table (which you'll definitely want to do). Crab Louis is the signature dish; another fave is the Ben Butler, an open-faced Dungeness crab salad sandwich with melted cheddar cheese on sourdough bread. The accompanying popovers are scrumptious when slathered with butter and jam, and you can buy a package of popover baking mix to take home.
Chinatown is famous for its restaurants and dim sum emporiums, and many of them are deservedly popular, catering to tourists with standard plates of beef lo mein and sweet-and-sour pork. But as its name makes clear, Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant dispenses with animal products entirely. From “chicken” curry to chow mein, everything is strictly meat-free, although you'll swear you're eating meat. And traditional vegetarian dishes, like taro-stuffed mushrooms with baby bok choy, are just as delicious. For dessert have a lotus seed cake—flaky and slightly sweet—with your tea. Lucky Creation is a hole in the wall, but you're not coming here for a ritzy dining experience, just good vegetarian cooking.
Ambience is also not a notable feature at San Tung Chinese Restaurant . The décor is utilitarian, the noise level high and service is just so-so, but regulars nevertheless flock to this Inner Sunset eatery for heaping quantities of tasty Chinese home cooking, and they all rave about the signature dish: fried chicken wings. These crispy, sweet, spicy morsels come both “wet” and “dry” (dry is the original), and either way you're given different dipping sauces to slather them in. The wings are a featured lunch special, along with string beans sautéed with garlic, shrimp and leek dumplings, noodles with peanut sauce and many other choices. A word of advice: Street parking is scarce, so unless you live in the neighborhood take public transportation.
Mission Chinese Food epitomizes this city's hipster vibe: It's basically a Mission District dive that specializes in Americanized yet innovative takes on traditional Chinese dishes. First off, don't expect refinement. There's often a long wait at the door after you sign the clipboard (no reservations). The long, narrow, dimly lit dining room has a bare-bones ambience, the background music is loud, and service is on the inattentive side. The food, however, is full of bold, spicy flavors. General Tso's veal rib has a crispy exterior from being dry-fried and is topped with a thick, onion-filled sauce, while kung pao pastrami, strongly salty, incorporates potatoes, celery, roasted peanuts and chili paste. Lamb cheek meat, bok choy and pickles are the main ingredients in tingly lamb face noodle soup. Heed the dragon symbol denoting dishes that pack heat; they're not kidding.
There are more charming Italian restaurants than you can shake a breadstick at in North Beach, so narrowing the choice to one is a daunting proposition. But although it's off Columbus Avenue and thus misses out on that street's vibrant outdoor café atmosphere, Tommaso's Restaurant is deservedly popular. It's also quaint as can be, from the whitewashed walls to the straw-covered Chianti bottles. The menu is straight-up traditional. Caprese salad—tomatoes, basil and mozzarella—is delicious simplicity. Spaghetti with meatballs is the real deal, homey and utterly satisfying. And the thin-crust pizza with mushrooms and Italian sausage, brought out piping hot from the wood-fired pizza oven, will not only have you singing Tommaso's praises but eagerly planning your next visit.
Delfina is in the Mission, not North Beach, but it is one of the best places for mid-priced Italian fare in the city. There are several reasons why it's packed almost every night. The space—hardwoods, fresh flowers, an open kitchen—is warm and inviting. The restaurant makes its own sausages, pasta and gelato, and the menu changes daily to take advantage of what's available locally. Servers are friendly and knowledgeable about the food. Insalata di Campo—field greens, pancetta, walnuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and a balsamic vinaigrette—is a nice starter course, while spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic and extra virgin olive oil is a simple primi course that nevertheless bursts with flavor. And for dessert, the coconut panna cotta with bits of candied Buddha's hand (an unusual citrus fruit) is luscious.
Of course the Mission—the entire city, really—is brimming with Mexican taquerias. One of the oldest is La Taqueria . Things are done a bit differently here; the burritos are smaller than what you'll get elsewhere, and they don't include rice, just your choice of meat, beans and salsa (additional toppings like cheese and sour cream are extra). This puts the spotlight on the meat, and on quality as opposed to quantity. The carne asada burrito stands out for its deliciously juicy grilled beef—or order a taco “el dorado” style, a crispy shell wrapped in a soft tortilla. Each bite also should be anointed with a splash from the squeeze bottle of salsa verde on the table. There's almost always a line, which moves fast thanks to the quick and efficient assembly-line operation. Bring dinero; it's cash only.
Like many San Franciscans, we're huge Taqueria Cancun fans, and with good reason; their tasty, no-frills food totally rocks. The menu has no surprises, and that's a good thing. Get the carnitas plate, shredded pork that's moist and flavorful, with fried bits adding crunch. Mix the creamy pinto beans with some of the rice and pile it on a tortilla with a helping of the meat—YUM. The salsa fresca is nice and fresh, and the yummy salsa verde isn't too hot. The atmosphere is festive, with a Mexican shrine on one wall and rows of rainbow-colored flag pennants hanging from the ceiling, and the cooks dish up orders really fast, keeping the waiting line manageable. It's cash only, and closed on Tuesday.
Gracias Madre , on the other hand, is anything but a hole-in-the-wall joint. Although located on a stretch of Mission Street thick with panaderías and produce markets, it stands out because the hip clientele and sophisticated take on Mexican food seem more suited to, say, SoMa—with prices to match. Subdued lighting and lovely art create an intimate atmosphere, although most of the rustic wood tables are communal. The exclusively vegan dishes emphasize organic, locally sourced ingredients; try butternut squash enchiladas or pozole, a traditional Mexican pork and hominy stew that in this version skips the meat. Desserts change frequently, but if it's on the menu the Mexican chocolate cake is a tasty ending.
Another restaurant that deviates from typical taqueria fare (no burritos!) is Nopalito on 9th . Casual and contemporary in look, it emphasizes authentic Mexican flavors in intriguing ways. Snack on a bowl of complimentary garbanzo beans that have a spicy kick before sharing a plate of totopos con chile, thick tortilla chips topped with a spicy salsa (do you see a theme here?), onions, cilantro and a shower of cotija cheese, with sour cream on the side. Entrées are distinguished by creative preparations, like enchiladas rojas de camaron, guajillo chile-dipped corn tortillas wrapped around shrimp, tomatoes, red onion and cabbage with queso fresco, crema and salsa escabeche. Don't expect to just drop in and snag a table; call ahead and get your name on the waiting list. There's another Nopalito on Broderick Street in the Lower Haight.
La Mediterranee is a favorite for lunch—and especially a lingering late lunch, if you've got the time—since this cozy Pacific Heights eatery is reminiscent of a Parisian bistro. We hate to lean on the word “charming,” but that's exactly what this place is; a vintage poster here, a Persian rug there, interesting art on the walls. The menu focuses on Mediterranean flavors with a healthy dollop of Middle Eastern influence. A salad of organic greens topped with grilled, marinated chicken, apples, almonds and feta is one of the lunch specials, as is lule kebab, a skewer of spice-infused, ground lamb meatballs with onions and tomatoes served over rice pilaf. For dessert, a cup of Moroccan mint tea goes well with the house-made baklava. There's another location at Noe and Market streets.
Get acquainted with Peruvian cuisine at Limon Rotisserie . This small, casual Mission restaurant specializes in pollo a la brasa, rotisserie chicken with a crispy skin that's moist, tender and flavorful, served with three dipping sauces (be forewarned; the rocoto molido is fiery). You'll also want to try such Peruvian specialties as ceviche mixto, a trio of fish, calamari and tiger shrimp that tastes fresh and has a chile kick. The sweet potato fries are thin, crispy and addictive, and tacu-tacu—mashed, sautéed rice and beans—is delicious. Service is fast and friendly.
Best burger in San Francisco? It's a subject that inspires almost as much debate as the best taqueria. When longtime institution Joe's Cable Car Restaurant closed in 2014 burger fans began checking out other options, and one place that earns their seal of approval is NOPA . The polar opposite of a greasy-spoon diner, this two-level space is graced with high ceilings and perpetually packed with beautiful people. Grass-fed chuck is ground in house for NOPA's thick, juicy burger, served on a grilled brioche bun. The pickled red onions on the side make a flavorful topping, and the accompanying fries are hot and crispy. A word of advice: Don't walk in without reservations, especially on a weekend; you'll wait forever for a table. Also try to sit upstairs, where the noise level is lower and there's a view of the goings-on in the open kitchen below.
Zuni Café has been around for what seems like forever, a Market Street institution that exemplifies the “daily changing menu, seasonal organic ingredients” California cuisine concept. Windows in this two-level space let in lots of natural light. Salads, burgers and pizzas are all popular, but the house specialty is chicken for two, a whole bird roasted in Zuni's brick oven, served atop a warm bread salad doused in the chicken drippings and spiked with mustard greens, scallions, dried currants and pine nuts. (Take note: It requires about an hour to prepare.) The accompanying shoestring fries, which you can also order as an appetizer, are the bomb—not too greasy and served with house-made ketchup. Be prepared for waits that are on the long side, even if you have reservations.
The Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street is a San Francisco landmark—and a major destination for foodies. The city's biggest farmers market (the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, held on Saturday morning) sets up outside, and the building also houses Ferry Building Marketplace and several restaurants that draw devoted crowds.
The Slanted Door has a spacious interior with big tables perfect for groups, but the hipsters who pack this place (we recommend making reservations) are forever trying to commandeer one of the coveted outdoor tables for the awesome view of the Bay Bridge and lively waterfront vibe. If you're with a group, order “family style” to maximize the number of tasty dishes you'll get. The apricot tart with blueberry creme fraiche ice cream is a fabulous dessert. It's pricey, but the quality is undeniable. If you're in a hurry and want to grab an on-the-go lunch, order a steamed pork bun or chicken porridge and a Vietnamese iced coffee from Out the Door, the adjacent takeout operation.
The outdoor tables behind the Ferry Building are similarly sought after at Hog Island Oyster Co . As the name makes clear, oysters are the thing here, and you can get them freshly shucked, grilled or on the half shell as part of a sampler platter. The clam chowder is chock-full of Manila clams in the shell, potatoes, bacon and fresh herbs swimming in a briny broth. Hog Island serves Acme Bread Co. baguettes for sopping up every last bit of broth and cocktail sauce, and you can pick up some bread to go at Acme's Ferry Building location. It's massively popular at lunchtime and reservations aren't accepted, so plan accordingly; we suggest getting in line before it opens, especially on weekends.
The Niman Ranch beef patties at Gott's Roadside come in eight variations; try the green chile cheeseburger with grilled onions, salsa verde and charred jalapeño mayo on a toasted egg bun (you can also substitute a turkey patty for beef). Gott's regulars recommend the ahi burger—the tuna is seared rare and served with ginger wasabi mayo and Asian slaw—and sweet potato fries dusted with chile spice. The kid-friendly mini hot dogs deep-fried in batter are like potato chips; even adults can't eat just one. Although you'll contend with crowds, Gott's is a perfect spot for a nosh after a morning spent strolling along The Embarcadero.
Blue Bottle Coffee's shop in the Ferry Building is a perennially popular stop for java, but at Blue Bottle Cafe you can also have breakfast or lunch to accompany the specialty brew of your choice. A small, hard-to-spot blue bottle sign above the door marks this airy cafe's location at the rear of the Provident Loan Building, just off Mint Plaza in SoMa. The city made headlines several years ago when The Mill, a café and bakery near Alamo Square, added a $4 slice of artisanal toast to its menu. You can get that here as well (thick cut and served with butter, but still), along with steel-cut oats, a Belgian-style waffle and an open-face ham sandwich with Gruyère, pickles and a spicy cilantro sauce. Food is served until 2 p.m.
At Tartine Bakery & Cafe the aroma of brewing coffee and the array of pastries in the display cases—buttermilk scones, coconut cream tarts, chocolate croissants—will suck you right in. Their country loaf is terrifically crusty on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside and bursts with earthy flavor. Many San Franciscans swear it's the best sourdough bread in the city, which is high praise indeed, and even at a steep $9.25 it's worth every penny (order ahead or pick up a loaf at the bakery after 4:30 p.m.). If you're lucky enough to snag a table (they always seem to be full, and there's always a line out the door), linger over a steaming bowl of café au lait.
The same folks who run Tartine Bakery are also behind Bar Tartine , which is a perfect fit for Valencia Street's hipper-than-hip vibe. A laid-back place to relax over a lunch sandwich (weekends only), the restaurant transforms into a sophisticated (and pricey) dinner destination, with candlelight softening the industrial décor. Menu choices—king salmon with squash, smoked potatoes enlivened with black garlic—are creatively prepared, and the oat porridge bread is well worth the carbs, especially when slathered with kefir butter. The prix fixe “friends and family” menu features an assortment of small plates, a main dish and dessert.
If you decide to go out for breakfast on a weekend and choose Mama's on Washington Square , one thing is certain: You'll be standing in line. This North Beach institution is notorious for the seemingly interminable wait to get inside (it's not quite as crowded during the week). And once you finally do walk through the door there's another wait to place your order at the counter and pay before you're seated. The space is cramped but cheery—yellow walls, wooden tables and chairs, homey knickknacks, little vases of fresh flowers. And Mama's does come through as far as food is concerned. There's a full menu of omelets, Benedicts and pancakes; we also like cranberry-orange French toast with a garnish of seasonal fruit (add a healthy dollop of homemade jam from the jar on the table). The Monte Cristo sandwich is another winner.
Another San Fran institution is Tommy's Joynt , which opened way back in 1947. You can't miss this mural-covered building at the corner of Geary and Van Ness streets. The clientele is a mix of tourists and longtime regulars, and the vibe is old-school all the way. Grab a tray, get in line and get ready to order at one of the carving stations where knife-brandishing cooks slice roast turkey, ham, beef brisket and pastrami for a no-frills sandwich served on a sourdough roll. In addition to daily specials, Tommy's offers house favorites like spaghetti and meatballs and buffalo stew over rice. There's also a classic saloon-style bar on the premises with a great selection of draft and craft beers, ciders, lagers and ales.
In business even longer—since 1849—San Francisco's Boudin Bakery is as famous for its sourdough as the city is for summer fog. At the original Fisherman's Wharf location of Boudin Bakery & Cafe watch bakers make the bread, then line up to purchase a loaf while it's still warm. Clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is the signature menu item, but you can also order a Waldorf salad, vegetarian tomato soup or seafood and andouille sausage gumbo, all served with some freshly baked 'dough.
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EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, this destination hosts a number of outstanding festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
San Francisco's packed events calendar kicks off with the Sea Lions' Arrival at Pier 39 , a celebration welcoming the crowd-pleasing pinnipeds back to Pier 39's K-Dock. The sea lions, mostly young males, spend the winter in San Francisco Bay, feeding on herring, maneuvering for prime basking spots on the floating platforms—and seeming to mug for tourists' iPhone cameras. They first showed up at Pier 39 after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, disappeared almost completely in 2009 (a vanishing act thought to be related to a reduced herring population) and have since made a partial comeback.
It's followed by an explosion of color—the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade & Festival . Held in January or February in Chinatown , the annual procession of stilt walkers, acrobats, lion dancers and ornate floats draws up to 500,000 spectators. The finale features a 250-foot-long golden dragon and a massive explosion of firecrackers.
Springtime in San Francisco is welcomed with a bevy of events. It arrives early at Fisherman's Wharf (around mid-February) courtesy of the Tulipmania Festival , when thousands of jewel-colored tulips—along with other spring flowers like daffodils, English primroses and Iceland poppies—burst forth from barrel planters in the vicinity of Pier 39. Sponsored by the San Francisco Orchid Society, the Pacific Orchid and Garden Exposition at The Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park features thousands of exotic varieties from around the world. The three-day event takes place in late February.
The St. Patrick's Day Parade & Festival takes place the Saturday before March 17 and includes religious services at St. Patrick's Church. The parade begins at 2nd and Market streets and proceeds up Market Street to Civic Center Plaza.
Another springtime celebration is the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show , held at the San Mateo County Event Center in early April. The 5-day celebration of all things green not only spotlights beautiful gardens but offers practical tips for the home gardener, courtesy of guest speakers at some 100 seminars and workshops. Among other things, you'll find out how to successfully garden in small spaces and nurture a healthy edible garden. The event also includes a roundup of well-known Bay Area chefs and wine producers.
Presented by a charitable organization whose members cross-dress as nuns and wear Kabuki-inspired makeup to call attention to gender and religious issues, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Easter Celebration is campy fun, San Francisco style. There's an Easter egg hunt for kids on Easter Sunday morning, but the real entertainment commences afterward, with a bonnet contest, musical performances and various adult-oriented shenanigans. It usually takes place in Golden Gate Park .
Two consecutive weekends in mid-April bring the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival , an elaborate display of Asian culture and customs. Most events take place at the Japan Center complex at Post and Buchanan streets and the adjacent blocks of Japantown. The festival's Grand Parade begins at the Civic Center, proceeds up Polk to Post Street and ends at Post and Fillmore streets.
The 2-week San Francisco International Film Festival , which begins in early April, has been held nearly every spring since 1957. The works of adventurous filmmakers are screened at a handful of theaters, including the Victoria Theatre and the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.
Mid-May brings the Bay to Breakers 12K race. The name Bay to Breakers was adopted in 1965, and it also describes the course—from a starting point a block east of The Embarcadero (and San Francisco Bay) to the finish line at the Great Highway at the western end of Golden Gate Park (and the ocean's crashing waves). The east-west route across the city officially measures 7.46 miles.
By the 1980s running boom the number of race participants had swelled to more than 100,000, and these days tens of thousands of people join in the trek along downtown streets and across the length of Golden Gate Park. Over the years different traditions also have emerged, from Batman and Wonder Woman costumes to occasional displays of public nudity. Today the party vibe is such that serious runners usually get an early start before the route becomes crowded with revelers.
Carnaval San Francisco , a multicultural, Mardi Gras-inspired street festival with a Latin American/Caribbean vibe, takes place in the Mission District over Memorial Day weekend. The main event is the Grand Parade, which begins at Bryant and 24th streets, proceeds west to Mission Street and then up Mission to 17th Street and the festival area. The parade is followed by a masquerade ball. Expect plenty of wildly colorful costumes, exuberant dancing and hip-shaking music.
For the Union Street Festival , which takes place the first weekend in June, six blocks of Union Street are transformed into “worlds” focusing on such topics as fashion, technology and health. Craft beer and wine-tasting pavilions offer gourmet culinary pairings, and food and craft vendors are also on hand.
The Haight-Ashbury Street Fair , the second weekend in June, celebrates the cultural history, diversity and overall grooviness of one of San Francisco's best-known neighborhoods. In addition to arts and crafts, food booths and a family-oriented area, live music takes place on two stages. In keeping with the Haight's long tradition of street art, each year a poster contest is held, and many of the creative posters advertising the event have become collector's items.
A trio of events takes place in early to mid-June. The San Francisco Jazz Festival brings the biggest names in jazz to the San Francisco Jazz Center and other venues around the city for a program of more than 30 concerts. The lineup of talent includes established names as well as up-and-coming talent and features artists from around the world who are creating traditional as well as adventurous new jazz sounds.
The Juneteenth Festival commemorates the end of slavery in the United States with a day of festivities that includes a parade along Fillmore Street between Eddy and Geary streets, a health fair, a classic car show and a petting zoo. The North Beach Festival is a lively street fair that includes a juried arts and crafts show, a pizza-tossing contest, a play area for kids and live entertainment.
June is also Gay Pride Month, when visitors from all over the world come to San Francisco for a packed schedule of parties, dances, and film and arts festivals. The 2-day highlight in late June is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender SF Pride parade up Market Street. With entertainment on more than 20 stages and venues—including the Main Stage in Civic Center Plaza, next to City Hall—this is the largest LGBT gathering in the country.
Held in conjunction with Pride and presented by Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival showcases the work of filmmakers from around the world. The 11-day schedule of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-themed films includes features, documentaries, short films and web series. Most showings take place at the Castro Theatre; other venues include the Roxie Theater and the Victoria Theatre.
The 3-day Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in Golden Gate Park , held in early August, is a huge event that has upped the ante when it comes to music festivals. The lineup of acts and DJs includes not only established big-name superstars but the newest buzzed-about bands and artists. Along with the performances there's food, wine, beer and exhibits of cutting-edge art. This festival is also noteworthy for emphasizing going green for everything from purified water stations to waste disposal. Parking is basically nonexistent; festivalgoers are strongly encouraged to use public transportation.
All the world's a stage for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival , which presents free weekend in-the-park productions of the Bard's plays throughout the month of September. Performances take place at the Presidio's Main Post Parade Ground Lawn (between Graham Street and Keyes Avenue) and at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park (40 John F. Shelley Dr.).
If experimental theater is more your style, the 2-week San Francisco Fringe Festival in mid-September spotlights local, national and international companies starring in some 200 low-priced performances—everything from comedy and drama to magic shows and free-wheeling experimental fare. Shows take place at the EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (two blocks from the Powell Street BART station). Tickets can be purchased online in advance or on the day of the show on a first-come, first-served basis.
Calling all chocoholics! The Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival the second weekend in September is a celebration that will appeal to the sweet tooth in everyone. More than 50 vendors showcase yummy products like chocolate-covered almond biscotti and a mini version of the Ghirardelli ice cream sundae, and dessert experts offer culinary demonstrations. A Chocolate & Wine Pavilion is especially popular. The event takes place at—naturally— Ghirardelli Square .
Thousands of people congregate in North Beach for the Italian Heritage Columbus Day Parade on the Sunday nearest Columbus Day. The festivities begin at Fisherman's Wharf with the customary blessing of the fishing fleet, followed by a parade of handcrafted floats winding its way to the “fisherman's church,” the Church of Saints Peter and Paul at Washington Square. For a true celebration of Italian heritage, dine al fresco at one of the restaurants on Columbus Avenue along the parade route.
Over two weekends in mid- and late October the Cow Palace is the scene of the Grand National Rodeo, Horse and Livestock Show , which features rodeo events, prize-winning horse and livestock exhibits and the coronation of Miss Grand National Rodeo. Cheer on professional cowboys as they compete in bronc-busting, barrel-racing, bull-riding and steer-wrestling contests.
The San Francisco International Auto Show revs up in late November at the Moscone Center. In addition to showcasing new model year vehicles, attendees can get a look at classic cars, exotic sports cars from the world's major manufacturers, and a lineup of electric, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.
The Macy's Union Square Tree Lighting Ceremony ushers in the holiday season on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Macy's 83-foot-tall Great Tree, decorated with twinkling, energy-efficient LED lights and some 1,500 ornaments, is erected in the middle of the square. Live performances accompany the lighting ceremony. The illumination festivities bring hordes of onlookers, so taking public transportation is definitely advised. Union Square's seasonal ice-skating rink opens to the public at the beginning of November.
Rounding out the year in late December is the Foster Farms Bowl , which brings top college football teams from the Pac-12 and Big 10 conferences to Levi's Stadium.
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
Thuyvi Gates / AAA
Attraction PassesSan Francisco CityPASS offers a 42 percent savings off the normal cost of individual tickets for several San Francisco attractions. These attractions include a Muni & Cable Car 3-Day Passport (good for three days of unlimited rides on all Muni buses, light rail, streetcars and cable cars); The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park; the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure; the Aquarium of the Bay; and an option ticket for either the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor.
The validity period for each San Francisco CityPASS ticket booklet is 9 consecutive days, beginning with the first day of use. CityPASS is available online at CityPASS.com, at the San Francisco Travel Visitor Information Center at Market and Powell streets (Hallidie Plaza, lower level) or from the participating attractions.
The Go San Francisco Card is an all-access pass that allows visitors to save up to 55 percent on admission to nearly 30 Bay Area attractions. The card is purchased by the day (1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive calendar days). Attractions include The California Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Escape From the Rock cruise and a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, as well as other popular activities and sightseeing tours.
The Go San Francisco Card is available online or by calling (800) 887-9103.
A Day in the MissionPerhaps no neighborhood more vividly reflects the current ideological divide between “the way San Francisco used to be” and the kind of city it is becoming today than the Mission. In some ways this enclave rich in Latino history and culture—the city’s oldest neighborhood—is a battleground where decades-old traditions are butting up against an influx (some would say invasion) of gentrification brought on by the latest tech boom.
Of course skyrocketing rents and evictions are very real and serious issues to residents. Visitors, on the other hand, will find the Mission a feast for the senses, an intoxicating commingling of sights and sounds. And the fact that it’s one of San Francisco’s sunniest and least foggy neighborhoods is a definite plus when it comes to day tripping.
Generally speaking, the Mission is bounded north and south by 16th and 26th streets and east and west by Potrero Avenue and Guerrero Street. It’s a neighborhood that’s particularly rich when it comes to art and food, and any exploration should include one or both.
You won’t find a more vibrant and varied display of street art created by and for the people anywhere else in the city (although Haight-Ashbury runs a close second). Start by checking out Balmy Alley. This narrow alleyway’s walls, fences and garage doors are used as canvases. The subject matter is varied—everything from rainbow-hued, ethnically diverse family scenes to sharp critiques of well-heeled San Franciscans’ hipster pretensions. What’s especially cool is that vegetation, whether it’s a pot of succulents or a flowering vine exuberantly hanging from the roofline of a building, is an integral part of the overall artistic composition.
If you didn’t live in the neighborhood you’d probably never know about Lilac Alley (from 24th south to 26th Street between Mission and Capp streets), since its primary purpose is to provide access to private garages and the back doors of businesses. But it’s jam-packed with street art. Garage doors are covered with intricate geometric patterns, beastly faces, Mayan gods, scantily clad women, cartoon characters and the occasional anti-gentrification screed. Lilac Alley also has lots of crazy graffiti scrawled everywhere.
Last but not least, Clarion Alley (from Valencia to Mission Street, just south of 17th Street) boasts an inspired mishmash of psychedelic designs, space aliens, free-form graffiti and pointed political messages. Although you’re apt to see other tourists taking photos during the day, this is an alleyway in every sense, from the odd wandering panhandler to the occasional sharp smell of urine. But hey, it’s the city.
Since street artists are constantly flexing their creative muscles, the mural art in all three of these alleys changes now and then, especially in response to topical events. You may even encounter an artist working on a new creation. It makes repeat visits rewarding.
As far as food goes, many aficionados of Mexican maintain that the best taquerias in the city are in the Mission. A number of Mission joints turn up regularly on various best-of lists, primarily because they’re real-deal authentic. Take a walk along 24th Street from late morning on and you’ll almost certainly encounter the intoxicating aroma of grilling meat wafting out of open doorways.
The best burritos, quesadillas, salsas and other taqueria staples are hotly debated, but all things considered you can’t go wrong at La Taqueria (2889 Mission St.), Taqueria San Francisco (2794 24th Street) or Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission St.). Even in the midst of the trendy, pricey eateries along hipper-then-hip Valencia Street stands El Toro Taqueria (598 Valencia St.), where an efficient assembly line of workers whip up carne asada burritos, fajita combo plates and other tasty, no-frills grub.
Tartine Bakery & Cafe (600 Guerrero St.) is another place foodies favor, but for morning buns and chocolate croissants rather than tacos. The baked goods, cakes, scones, cookies and tarts at this very popular bakery earn raves, and the cappuccino is pretty darn good, too. To avoid the line that often extends out the door, go early and/or on a weekday, especially if you’re intent on snagging a table inside this small, bustling space.
Hidden StairwaysSan Francisco is a city of hills, and the dictates of such undulating geography mean that it is also a city of stairways—some 300 of them scattered throughout the city. For residents, they’re often a practical necessity or a convenient shortcut to get from point A to point B. From a tourist perspective, these stairways are often worth seeking out, not only for the exercise and the views but because—in a town that does such a good job putting a crimp in your budget—they’re free.
Some stairways, like the Lyon Street Steps (see attraction listing), have greater visibility and thus a higher profile. Finding the Vulcan Steps, on the other hand, seems like unlocking a mystery. The foot of the stairway is on Ord Street, a block off 17th Street; it leads up to Levant Street in a residential neighborhood located between the Haight and the Castro.
The stone steps are shaded by trees and bordered by luxuriant vegetation. The houses lining them are architecturally varied, and accessible only on foot. It’s a quiet little enclave that truly feels hidden.
Half a block back toward 17th Street, the Saturn Steps run parallel to the Vulcan Steps, connecting Ord and Saturn streets. There are gardens along these steps as well, and a brick terrace with benches where you can sit and take in the view.
The Vallejo Street Stairway is built into the side of Russian Hill. These steps begin heading uphill at a point between Mason and Taylor streets, about three blocks west of Columbus Avenue. Three separate terraces not only provide a chance to catch your breath but offer different vistas.
Ina Coolbrith Park (at Taylor Street) offers an unobstructed view of downtown San Francisco and landmarks like the soaring Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower, which sticks up above tree-crowned Telegraph Hill like a small appendage. A bit farther up is a landscaped rock garden and a couple of benches. Here the lovely views of North Beach and San Francisco Bay are framed by trees.
Cross Taylor Street and keep climbing to the top of the steps, which end at Jones Street. On the other side of a stone wall from the hilltop cul-de-sac is a little postage stamp of a park, complete with a manicured, tree-shaded patch of grass. On sunny days, the view of the bay and Alcatraz Island from this elevated perch is stunning.
The Chestnut Street Steps are a block north and two blocks west of the famous block of Lombard Street billed as “the crookedest street in the world.” If you stand at the bottom of this short, steep stairway and look up, the practical obstacles to street construction will be obvious.
Angling off to the right is Culebra Terrace, one of many charming little alleyways that contribute to San Francisco’s reputation as one of the world’s most picturesque cities. Climb to the top of the steps for a nice view looking down to Chestnut Street below.
City of SoulsReal estate has never been a hotter—and these days, pricier—commodity in San Francisco. Even back in the late 19th century, when a robust young city was experiencing booming growth, it was decided that land was just too scarce and too valuable to waste on the dead.
First came a decree forbidding burials within city limits, and later an ordinance evicting cemeteries. Between 1923 and 1941 laborers disinterred hundreds of thousands of San Francisco graves and moved them south to the town of Colma. This 2-square-mile municipality subsequently became known as the “city of souls,” the only place of its kind in the world. Today more than 1.5 million souls are laid to rest in Colma, and many residents are employed in the funeral industry.
San Francisco's first recorded burial took place in 1776 at the Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores). The U.S. Army established a military cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1854. These are the only two burial grounds remaining of the more than two dozen that existed at the turn of the 20th century. Relocating the city's four largest cemeteries—Calvary, Laurel Hill, Masonic and Odd Fellows—reclaimed 160 acres of land.
Many heirs and the Catholic Diocese opposed the desecration of hallowed ground, however. Of special concern were the graves of city pioneers, war veterans and statesmen. Legal challenges dragged on for decades, and in some cases it took that long to locate relatives of the deceased, as so many official records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Wealthy families could arrange for private burials, but thousands ended up in mass graves. Unclaimed headstones became recycled stone for public works projects; in Buena Vista Park it's still possible to discern faint epitaphs embedded in the storm drains.
In 1993, crews working on a major seismic strengthening construction project at Legion of Honor unearthed some 300 corpses dating to the gold rush era. A Serbian burial ground lies beneath the 13th tee at the Lincoln Park Golf Course. The Richmond neighborhood and the campus of the University of San Francisco both stand on old graveyards. The San Francisco Columbarium, built in 1898 as the centerpiece of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, survives as a repository for cremated remains. This domed Beaux Arts building holds thousands of urns—a few bearing famous names—and niches are still available.
Today Colma's cemeteries attract the curious as well as those paying their respects. Like the original sites in San Francisco, most are laid out by nationality or faith. They include two Chinese cemeteries, one Japanese, two Jewish, one Italian, one Serbian, one Greek Orthodox, one Catholic, four nondenominational—and one for pets.
Colma's Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, which inherited 35,000 graves from San Francisco, is noted for its park-like, beautifully landscaped grounds and elaborate mausoleums. Here are grandiose monuments to Andrew Hallidie, inventor of the cable car; mining tycoon James C. Flood; and the family of William Randolph Hearst.
Colma is the final resting place for Joe DiMaggio, buried at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, and Wyatt Earp, who lies with his third wife, Josephine, at the Hills of Eternity Jewish Cemetery. Joshua A. Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, rests in peace at Woodlawn Cemetery; an estimated 30,000 people attended the funeral of “Emperor Norton I” in 1880.
Colma is 9 miles south of San Francisco, off I-280 at the Daly City exit. Cemeteries are open daily to the public, and driving tour maps are available from the Colma Historical Association at 1500 Hillside Blvd.; phone (650) 757-1676. The association's delightfully ironic motto: “It's great to be alive in Colma.”
The Lincoln HighwayThe horseless carriage rolled onto the American landscape in the 1890s. By 1910 there were more than 450,000 registered automobiles, yet the country still lacked a public road system.
Organized movements for better roads brought issues to the attention of the federal government, which had not participated in major road construction since it funded the National Road project in 1806.
But one particular initiative captured the public's support with a unique idea. In 1913 Carl Fisher—the man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909—and automobile industry leaders chartered the Lincoln Highway Association for the purpose of defining a direct coast-to-coast automobile route.
The LHA's first official act was to delineate a 3,389-mile, 12-state continuous route from New York to California—one that would be passable before the opening of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Although not perfect, the thruway was ready as promised, and a motion picture of America's transcontinental highway was shown at the exposition. Over time, the association improved surfaces by using better materials, shortened the driving distance with realignments and published guidebooks about the Lincoln Highway. Automobile touring had never been so good.
Through example, the LHA educated the public as well as state and federal governments about the value of good roads for almost 15 years. The 1919 moving of a military convoy over the “Lincolnway” foretold the utility of an integrated highway system for national defense and interstate commerce.
With the 1921 Federal Highway Act came the funds for states to construct and maintain connecting arteries. Four years later the United States adopted a highway numbering system, and most of the Lincoln route became US 30, 40 and 50. The association disbanded in 1928, but not before it engaged Boy Scout troops across the country to place some 3,000 concrete Lincoln Highway markers along the route in all 12 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Many of these markers still exist.
San Francisco's Lincoln Park marked the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway. To get there from the Nevada border, motorists entered California through Truckee and negotiated the Sierra Nevada via historic Donner Pass; an optional route from Carson City took motorists along the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, followed the American River toward Placerville, then went through Folsom. The roads converged at Sacramento and the highway continued south through Lodi to Stockton, west through Livermore to Hayward, then north into Oakland, where a ferry served as the only connector to San Francisco until a bridge was completed in 1936. Another route from Sacramento approached Oakland from the north through Davis and Vacaville.
For more information about the old Lincoln Highway contact the Lincoln Highway Association, P.O. Box 308, Franklin Grove, IL 61031; phone (815) 456-3030.
Travel TipsSan Francisco temperatures are noted for their consistency; they normally do not rise above 90 or fall below 40 degrees. August and September are the warmest months, with highs in the low 70s and lows in the mid-50s; in January, the coolest month, highs average in the mid-50s, lows in the mid-40s. Daily temperature ranges are small, usually 15 degrees or less.
What is distinctive are the micro-climates that create different conditions in localized areas. City neighborhoods at or near the coast are often cloudier and/or foggier than those farther inland, and Bay Area coastal communities like Pacifica and Half Moon Bay are cooler and often cloudier than East Bay locations like Vallejo and Oakland. The Mission is typically designated the city's warmest and sunniest neighborhood. San Francisco weather also can be unpredictable: sunny, mild days in the middle of winter, overcast, raw days in the middle of summer, and mornings that start out sunny (or gloomy), only to switch back and forth several times as the day progresses.
Precipitation totals about 21 inches annually, more than 80 percent of it falling from November through March. Winter storms can bring occasional heavy rains, but thunderstorms are infrequent. From May through September it hardly ever rains. Morning fog frequently rolls in off the ocean; it usually dissipates before noon but can re-form again in the late afternoon, accompanied by a strong sea breeze.
When in doubt, dress in layers. Wear an extra shirt, a sweater, a light jacket or a windbreaker that can be easily tied around the waist if need be. An all-weather coat and an umbrella will come in handy during the winter months. San Francisco is a casual city, but dressing up for dinner at an upscale restaurant or an evening at the symphony is always appropriate.
Places in Vicinity