It may measure less than 50 square miles, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront and a soaring crimson bridge, the ‘City by the Bay’ truly has it all. Trend-setting cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to outrageous food vans; world-renowned symphony, ballet, theatre and opera; plus almost boundless outdoor adventures, San Francisco justifiably stands out as one of the ultimate must-sees on any traveller’s wish list.
It has been 50 years since thousands of American teenagers flooded San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood in search of free love, consciousness-expanding drugs, and an alternative to the mainstream. You can celebrate the anniversary of the free-spirited Summer of Love in and around the San Francisco Bay Area through a series of local events, exhibits, and tours designed to take you back in time.
The summer of 1967 served as both the climax and the unravelling of a counterculture that had roots in the Beats, the civil rights movement, an avant-garde theatre scene, and a community of hippies. “[They] were seekers. [They] were people looking for something a little more spiritual, a little gentler and a lot freer,” says historian, author, and former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, who co-curated the exhibit “On the Road to the Summer of Love” for the California Historical Society.
To create your own Summer of Love experience, start in San Francisco and then follow your own path throughout the Golden State. Admire psychedelic posters inside the de Young Museum, wander Golden Gate Park, and follow a guitar-toting guide to the Dead’s former haunt at 710 Ashbury Street. Or, as McNally suggests, take a trip to Love on Haight, a tie-dye store that channels the energy of days past. The crowds of free-loving folk may have long dispersed, but inside that rainbow-hued boutique, he says, “the spirit remains.”
See where it all started
The best way to transport yourself back to the San Francisco of 1967 is to go to its beating heart: the iconic crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets. Plenty of tour companies would be happy to show you around. Hop a VW Bus painted with vibrant murals and let San Francisco Love Tours give you a historic overview of the city, or join Wild SF on a pay-what-you-want Free Love tour, where you’ll follow a singing guide past the homes of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Magic Bus’ Summer of Love tour focuses on the psychedelic side of 1967 with 3D glasses and a bus that transforms into an LSD-inspired experience on your way to landmarks like The Fillmore concert hall.
More inclined to explore at your own pace? Download the Detour app and take the Haight-Ashbury walking tour narrated by actor Peter Coyote, who experienced the Summer of Love first-hand as a member of the activist theatre troupe, the Diggers. Coyote’s storytelling illuminates both the idealistic vision for the neighbourhood and its sometimes-dangerous reality, along with personal anecdotes and secret spaces you might otherwise miss.
Take a culture trip
“Sex, drugs, and rock ’n‘ roll is kind of the tagline that we take away from the Summer of Love, but there really was a defined aesthetic element to this moment of San Francisco history,” says Colleen Terry. The co-curator of the de Young Museum’s “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll” has assembled an exhibit exploring the creative output of the era—rock posters in bold, bulbous fonts, clothing heavy on leather and crochet, and trippy light shows that are now fixtures at concerts and festivals.
But don’t stop there. Museum-hop to the California Historical Society, where “On the Road to the Summer of Love” examines, through rare photographs and artefacts, the forces that coalesced into a vibrant counterculture. And don’t miss “Love or Confusion: Jimi Hendrix in 1967” at the Museum of the African Diaspora, featuring images of Hendrix’s wild coming-out party at the Monterey Pop Festival. Finally, those interested in LGBT history can learn about the impact of four queer icons, including poet Allen Ginsburg, in “Lavender-Tinted Glasses” at the GLBT History Museum.
Join the party
Seasonal accuracy aside, the Summer of Love really kicked off in January 1967, when the Human Be-In drew thousands to Golden Gate Park and psychologist Timothy Leary exhorted the crowd to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” So it’s fitting that San Francisco is celebrating the 50th anniversary with multiple festivals and special events. Broadway musical “A Night with Janis Joplin,” at the American Conservatory Theater, June 7–July 2, chronicles the all-too-brief life of the rock tour de force who lived in the Haight during its heyday. The Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, launched in 1978, returns June 11 with crafts, iconic posters, and food, and the Jerry Day concert, in commemoration of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, takes place August 6 in McLaren Park.
Go beyond the Bay Area
The Summer of Love may have been cantered in San Francisco, but its impact reverberated far beyond the Bay. You can mark the anniversary with a visit to the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where an exhibit will transport you back, through historic publications and posters, to daily life along Haight Street, or head to The Monterey International Pop Festival, the concert that catapulted the careers of Hendrix, the Who, and Otis Redding in 1967. It returns June 16–18 with an epic line-up—including a few names that were there the first time around, like soul man Booker T. and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh—but most of the line-up is dedicated to newer acts, including Gary Clark Jr., the Head and the Heart, and Father John Misty.
Elsewhere in the Central Coast region, influences of the nature-first cultural movement remain intact. Organic farming is thriving at places like Earthbound Farm in Carmel, where you can cut your own herbs, and taste and smell your way through a sensory garden. East of Santa Barbara in the spiritual haven Ojai, daily yoga and organic meals are the norm and Meditation Mount is a popular panoramic spot to practice mindfulness.
In Los Angeles, you can find a piece of rock ’n‘ roll history at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live, where Jim Marshall’s photographs of 1967 are displayed, or shop for peace sign-adorned apparel at eco-luxury boutique J Gerard Design Studio on Melrose Avenue. Cap off your Summer of Love tour with cocktails on the patio of Sunset Marquis, the Sunset Strip hotel that also serves as home to one of the most historic studios for music’s A-List—NightBird Recording Studios.
With towers soaring 227 metres into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay and all of it painted bright red-orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.
It’s pretty easy (and free) to walk across the bridge itself, or to explore the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center , which offers a colourful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 3-metre stainless-steel 'test tower' used in 1933.
You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called the 'Golden Gate' is in fact orange. It is generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay, the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for 'Golden Gate') by early explorer John C. Fremont. Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or 'Golden Horn.' So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson colour? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the colour be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint colour.
'The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.'
Technically, that colour is ‘International Orange’, but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking or pedalling across the 1.7-mile span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the bridge, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike hire companies abound (two favourites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighbouring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.)
There’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns, and impressive cables.
Hanging onto the outside (yes, the outside) of one of these clanging trolleys (trams), chugging through Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and other city neighbourhoods—well, it doesn’t get much more San Francisco than this. The truth is, the city’s cable cars (trams) aren’t just an entertaining way to get around this up-and-down city; they really function as public transport too—just count how many package- and computer-toting locals climb on and hop off as you ride. In summer, queues can get long at the turnaround at Powell and Market Streets especially for the Powell-Mason Cable Car line. Get just as good a ride on the quieter Powell-Hyde Cable Car line. For a fascinating look at how the historic cars have criss-crossed the city since 1873, visit the free Cable Car Museum, with inside peeks of how the cables that power the cars actually work.
Known for such famous inmates as Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud, Alcatraz is certainly one of San Francisco’s most sobering sites. Standing on the wind-and-fog-whipped island, looking across to the dazzling City by the Bay, so close yet so far away (the waters here are notoriously cold and treacherous), it’s easy to imagine how agonising it must have been for inmates incarcerated at this federal prison between 1934 and 1963. Early bird, morning and afternoon visits to the island with cell house audio tours are offered daily. The audio tour that includes recorded comments from former Alcatraz inmates is both chilling and fascinating, and adds notable depth to your visit. For a bizarre twist, consider taking the eerie after-dark tour.
But a visit to ‘the Rock’ isn’t all gloom and doom. Rich in history, the island is also home to the first lighthouse and first US military fort built on the West Coast. On clear days, Alcatraz boasts 360-degree views. Walk around Alcatraz to take in views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and dramatic Bay Bridge heading to the East Bay, lushly green Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island—a California State Park and another worthy island destination in San Francisco Bay.
What’s more, Alcatraz has morphed into an important nesting site for seabirds, and roughly a third of the island is roped off during the nesting season to let the birds rear their chicks. Scan the island’s decaying buildings and overgrown gardens (former wardens’ and guards’ wives were known for their green fingers) to spy nesting cormorants, pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons and California gulls, who seem particularly good at laying eggs directly in the middle of pedestrian paths.
Note: Though ferry boats depart frequently from Fisherman’s Wharf, make reservations early; tickets often sell out weeks in advance.
In San Francisco, ingredient-driven menus reign supreme. With some of the nation’s best produce at their fingertips, chefs in the City by the Bay create edible magic, often changing menus nightly to reflect what’s freshest and tastiest that day. Many chefs work closely with local farms and food purveyors to get exactly the ingredients they want. Early morning trips to one of the city’s year-round farmers’ markets are part of the routine for these wizards of the kitchen. Special occasion restaurants, many sprinkled with Michelin stars, abound, like the smooth sophistication of double-starred Coi, Atelier Crenn, and Quince. Lively, crowded and trendy options line the streets of The Mission District, particularly along Valencia Street. But inexpensive options are easy to find, too: consider Clement Street for outstanding pho and other Asian foods, or track down food van gatherings sponsored by Off the Grid. And for one-stop you’ll-definitely-find-something grazing, walk (slowly) through the Ferry Building Marketplace, where permanent booths sell local delicacies like crusty sourdough (Acme Bread) and artisan cheese (Cowgirl Creamery), and sit-down restaurants, like Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door, offer amazing food and waterfront views.
Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, trend-defining, Michelin-starred cuisine, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, San Francisco, aka the “City by the Bay”, truly has it all and stands...
One of the most visited areas of the city, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf has earned its popularity thanks to one thing more than any other: the wide range of restaurants, right on the water, serving up fresh-from-the-ocean seafood. And yes, there really are fishermen there. Bobbing at the docks are a handful of weathered boats, and they still chug out to catch Dungeness crab, scallops, halibut and other seafood in and around the bay, as they have for over a century.
Want to witness it all happening, with all five senses? Early risers can watch them unload their catch at Pier 47, nicknamed Fish Alley. Or sleep in and just sample the catch: try the fresh crab cooked in steaming cauldrons set up on the pavements here—cracked crab dipped in melted butter and paired with a fresh loaf of local sourdough bread is a delicious San Francisco tradition. And if you like buying kitschy souvenirs (who doesn’t need a 'can of fog' or a foam crab-claw headdress?) then you have found your mecca in Fisherman’s Wharf.
'Wander along to Pier 39 for more seafood restaurants, shops, street performers and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions.'
Other attractions—the San Francisco Dungeon, with its spooky take on San Francisco history, and the antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique are fun diversions too. At the San Francisco branch of Madame Tussaud’s, you can plot your own virtual jail-break: its escape-room experience Alcatraz: The Breakout challenges guests to think their way out of the legendary prison. The rest of the popular wax museum features likenesses of film stars, historic figures and Bay Area royalty such as Jerry Garcia, Steph Curry and Mark Zuckerberg.
Wander along to Pier 39 for more seafood restaurants, shops, street performers and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions who have turned some of Pier 39’s floating docks into a sea lion beach party. Knowledgeable aquarists from Pier 39’s Aquarium of the Bay are on hand 11 am to 4 pm daily (weather permitting) to answer questions about the hefty pinnipeds (bulls can weigh 300 kg).
Ferries to Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park are based at Fisherman’s Wharf’s Pier 33 and make a wonderful day trip for families. Children also love exploring the historic ships and the USS Pampanito, a Second World War submarine, all part of the National Maritime Museum (at nearby Hyde Street Pier). If they’ve still got too much energy, have them work it off on a walk east along the beautiful, bay-hugging Embarcadero to The Exploratorium hands-on science centre at Pier 15. Finish this perfect day with double scoops of Humphrey Slocombe's ice cream at the adjacent Ferry Building Marketplace.
Insider tips: there are several car parks nearby; most Fisherman’s Wharf businesses open around 9 am and remain open until at least 10 pm.
This elegant square circled by tall palm trees, in the city centre, is the hub for luxury shopping. Walk streets surrounding the square to jot down your anything’s-possible wish list of finds at Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Dior and Bulgari (as wells as major retailers such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nike). Slip into the sultry Clock Bar, in the Beaux Arts–style Westin St. Francis, to clink martini glasses and compare notes. Anyone longing for a European vibe will feel right at home strolling the narrow, boutique-lined, almost-pedestrian-only Maiden Lane (car free from 11am to 6pm). It’s just off the square, and is home to Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Gumps (the place in town for wedding presents), as well as cafes that set up little tables right on the street. Just south of the square, on Market Street, you’ll find Westfield San Francisco Centre, the city’s upmarket, indoor shopping centre.
Of course, all that shopping can be exhausting. Union Square makes it easy to recharge: the square has plenty of sunny benches for relaxing. Or order an espresso and a flaky pastry at upmarket Emporio Rulli, with pleasant outdoor seating under market umbrellas right in the square.
Come on Sundays to include champagne brunch in the lavishly luxurious Garden Court of the Palace Hotel (top spot for local doyennes spoiling their grandchildren). During the Christmas holidays, Union Square transforms into a wintry, family-filled charmer, with an ice skating rink and young children staring up at an enormous Christmas tree—and glittering shop windows all around.
Wrapping around the north end of the city, this 14,491-acre park, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is an outstanding destination for families, adventure seekers, history buffs and anyone else who likes to relax on the edge of one of the most beautiful bays in the world. First, there are the beaches (and how many major cities have several beaches?). South-west of the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s Baker Beach, with a wild feel and amazing views (just be warned: it’s clothing optional, particularly at the north end). Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the Presidio’s northeast corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs (they’re okay off-leash here), kite-boarders and wind-surfers. Just inland from Crissy Field is the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo, now home to an intimate theatre.
Hiking and mountain-biking trails loop through the heavily wooded park, a wonderful way to see buildings that once housed military personnel (the Presidio was a working US Army base from 1846, before California was a state, until 1994). Many buildings have been handsomely converted into open-to-the-public destinations, including justly popular restaurants (Dixie, Presidio Social Club and the Presidio Officer’s Club) and the Walt Disney Family Museum, which focuses on the personal history and brilliance of the man behind the mouse (definitely not Disneyland, in case the kids get overly excited, but more for grown-ups).
Another notable site: the Letterman Digital Arts Center, part of the Lucasfilm empire—though buildings are generally closed to the public, you can give your regards to the Yoda statue, in the campus’s main courtyard.
Like a trip to China without the 12-hour flight, San Francisco’s Chinatown makes you feel like a time traveller: in a blink you go from the suit-and-tie orderliness of the city’s financial district to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia (and the oldest in the U.S.), with crowded pavements filled with Cantonese and Mandarin chatter, overflowing food stalls, and mysterious-looking shops. It is a trip in every sense of the word, and probably as close as you can get to Asia without a passport.
While it is fine to stick to Chinatown’s main artery of Grant Street, lined with markets and trinket and jade shops (the latter especially clustered around the Chinatown Gateway at the neighbourhood’s southern end), strike out onto quieter streets to find even more surprising discoveries. Here are nine worthwhile destinations and activities; for even more discoveries, consider joining a guided walking tour, such as Chinatown Walking Tours or food-centric Wok Wiz.
Time your trip to coincide with Lunar New Year (typically in late January or February, to match the lunar calendar) for a real treat: the Chinese New Year Festival & Parade. First started in 1860 to commemorate the homeland of the city’s booming population of Chinese immigrants (drawn to San Francisco during the Gold Rush), the event—now the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia—includes fireworks, floats, lion dancers, drummers, and the crowning of Miss Chinatown.
Chinese Historical Society of America.
Inside the landmark Chinatown YWCA building, designed by architect Julia Morgan in 1932, the museum does a wonderful job with exhibits and programmes related to Chinese culture. Admission is free; address is 965 Clay Street.
Tin How Temple
Go back in time in the century-old Buddhist temple, housed in a four-level apartment building, where locals pray, burn incense, and get their fortunes read. A donation is requested; address is 125 Waverly Place.
Great China Herb Company
Feeling lethargic? Let the in-house doctor prescribe you revitalizing teas and tonics prepared with dry herbs at this long-respected Chinese apothecary. Address is 857 Washington Street.
R & G Lounge
A long-time restaurant beloved for its high-quality signature Cantonese dishes; notable favourites include tender glazed spare ribs, and delicate salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab. Address is 631 Kearny Street.
Vital Tea Leaf
Sample the many brews served at this tea bar and shop. It is filled with an extraordinary variety of teas, with intriguing blends such as baby chrysanthemum and ginger pine, as well as more traditional green, white, and oolong teas. Address is 1044 Grant Street (also at 509 and 905 Grant Street).
Ming Lee Trading
This old-fashioned grocery and de facto sweets and snack emporium seems to carry everything from litchi gummies and green-tea, to Kit Kats, to dried and salted fruits, noodles, and spices. Address is 759 Jackson Street.
Golden Gate Bakery
If you like fresh dan tat, the traditional Chinese egg-custard tart with a flaky, buttery crust, then make a beeline to this amazing bakery. Don’t be daunted by lines, the treats are worth the wait. Address is 1029 Grant Street.
The Wok Shop
The best thing about a visit here is witnessing owner Tane Chan in action as she whirls from one customer to the next, chatting, laughing, and helping to select the best wok for each shopper. Address is 718 Grant Street.
The City by the Bay, known for its liberal, alternative lifestyles, is one of the best-known areas in the world for LGBTQ. In the Castro, a rainbow flag flaps in the wind above colourfully painted pedestrian crossings, making one big statement: San Francisco welcomes the LGBTQ community with open arms. There are more than 60 gay bars and clubs, and although the Castro serves as the epicentre of LGBTQ culture and nightlife, gay-friendly businesses are sprinkled throughout the city—frankly, it’s the norm here. Find out more about the remarkable role the city played and is playing in the gay movement at the GLBT History Museum, or on a guided 'Cruisin’ the Castro' historical walking tour.
Every June is Pride Month, which culminates on the last weekend with up to a million visitors flocking to the city for the annual (and outrageous) San Francisco Pride celebration. Taking place in front of the City Hall at Civic Center Plaza—a location steeped in LGBTQ history—the festivities include live music and comedy on the main stage, plus cabaret, a Country-Western Dance Corral, a Leather Alley carnival, and, pretty much everywhere you look, elaborately costumed performers. Keep your eyes open for celebrities—the celebration has become a real see-and-be-seen opportunity. The main event, of course, is Sunday’s parade, which begins at Market and Beale streets and ends near the Civic Center. If you’re in the city during Pride Month, don't miss a screening or one of the many events hosted by the Frameline LGBT film festival.
Attending the world’s largest LGBTQ gathering can present a few challenges; check out some tips on how to make the most of it. If you are new to the city’s gay scene, Badlands, Lookout and Twin Peaks Tavern are legendary haunts, and The Parker Guest House, the Hotel Whitcomb, Joie de Vivre Hotels, and the W are just a few of the city’s gay-friendly hotels.
Insider tip: when planning a visit to San Francisco during Gay Pride Month, be sure to book well in advance, as accommodation fills up quickly.
Gardens, glades, quiet lakes—Golden Gate Park is the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone, from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals, can find something amazing to see or do. The park’s cultural hub is in its northeast corner, surrounding a broad concourse featuring fountains and a band stand. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classical art from around the world. Take the lift to the top of the museum’s eye-catching, asymmetric tower (admission to the tower is free) for a spectacular view of the whole park, as well as the city, the bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living four-storey rainforest and natural history museum, all under an undulating living roof. From here, it’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, which is always lovely but is especially breathtaking in spring when the cherry trees and azaleas are in bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; make sure you get a lock too). Wander among the colourful plantings fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanical gardens (great for birds as well as plants) and look for the surprising herd of American bison at the park’s north-west end.
If you don't fancy cycling or walking, there’s a free shuttle bus at weekends and on major holidays, with stops throughout the park; if you are visiting by car, there are several parking areas. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, rowing across little Stow Lake and horse riding on broad paths. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
Insider tip: going to the park with a particular activity in mind? The park’s collection of maps can show you where is best to picnic, enjoy the flowers or play with your dog.
In San Francisco, there are few quiet nights, and though bars and clubs may call it quits at 2am, the city makes sure you stay busy until closing time. For classy entertainment, the city boasts outstanding symphony, classic and contemporary ballet, and opera companies. There’s also a thriving theatre community, most notably the American Conservatory Theater, which presents classic and new works at The Geary Theatre, near Union Square. Broadway shows on tour always stop in San Francisco; check the schedule for SHN, which presents most works at the impressive Orpheum Theatre, on Market Street. City Arts & Lectures offers intriguing conversations with celebrities, stars and global movers-and-shakers. Attend an open-to-the-public gallery show, or a special museum night. For rowdier fun, there are rock concerts at the legendary Fillmore, indie bands at Bottom of the Hill and open mic nights at Hotel Utah Saloon. Here, nightlife wouldn’t be complete without a bit of hopping around the city’s bevy of bars, from upmarket establishments with craft cocktails (like Bourbon & Branch and The Alembic) to longstanding neighbourhood watering holes (The 500 Club) where you can go elbow to elbow with the locals.
The stately brick buildings in this impressive 1895 complex, the original site of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory (previously a woollen mill), are now the home of a stylish collection of shops and restaurants—one of the most pleasant places to stroll and shop in the city. Wind your way through passageways and across plazas to visit an assortment of boutiques and gift shops, or relax with bay views from a selection of restaurants. If you have kids along, you probably have one destination in mind more than any other: the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop. The queue can be out the door but don’t worry—it moves fast. Soon you’ll be facing the staggering menu of sundae choices: Will it be the family-size ‘Earthquake’? (Eight scoops, eight toppings, bananas, whipped cream, almonds, chocolate chips and cherries.) Or maybe have a ‘Gold Rush’ (vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter throughout).
There’s no lack of transport options in San Francisco, but it’s important to plan ahead and choose the best route for your destination. Downtown, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf are easily walkable. The city’s local MUNI buses, trolleys and streetcars travel citywide, and are an economical and safe way to get around—just know you may need to wait a bit at your stop. The ‘F Market and Wharves’ historic streetcar (tram), which runs along the Embarcadero, is a popular tourist route, with stops for Fisherman’s Wharf (at Embarcadero and Stockton), the Ferry Building (at Market and 4th Street) and for AT&T Park (home of the Giants baseball team) at Don Chee Way and Steuart Street. Tip: If you plan to use public transport, consider getting a Passport from CityPass; it allows 7 days of unlimited Muni and cable car rides (plus discounts on area museums and attractions).
Clanging cable cars (trams) are always fun, but have a fairly limited system—best if you want to travel between the waterfront and Union Square. Taxis are concentrated downtown, and while they can often be the fastest way to get around, fares can quickly add up.
The underground BART system is a great way to travel beyond San Francisco, with routes south to San Francisco International Airport and east to Oakland, Berkeley, Pleasanton and other communities. Caltrain connects San Francisco with San Jose and points in between, and heads as far south as Gilroy. To travel north to Marin County, hop aboard a Golden Gate Transit ferry to ride to Sausalito, or a Blue and Gold Fleet ferry to Tiburon.
For do-it-yourself exploring, try the innovative and inexpensive bike system called Bay Area Bike Share. Sign up for a low-cost 24-hour or 3-day membership, then collect a bike at a designated station (scattered from Mission Bay to Market Street and Columbus Avenue to the Embarcadero), and return it to the same station, or ride to another station, do your exploring and collect another bike to continue on your way. You can stop and go as much as you want. Healthy, inexpensive, car-free—not bad.
Guided tours are another fun way to explore without having to drive. Some tours use traditional vans or buses, while others employ more unusual modes of transport. Ride the Ducks tours use wacky-looking amphibious vehicles to drive not just on city streets, but also straight into the bay. Climb aboard a vintage fire engine to explore the city with San Francisco Fire Engine Tours and even cross Golden Gate Bridge. You will definitely notice the stares and smiles.
A lifetime in San Francisco wouldn’t be enough to see the city’s countless wonders. That’s why we’ve selected experiences that everyone from the first-time traveller to the frequent visitor will love. Here’s where to shop, eat, stay, and explore in the Golden City.
Stay at The Fairmont
Named for the railroad barons (“Nobs”) who built their mansions in the area, Nob Hill is one of the most high-end neighbourhoods in San Francisco. At its pinnacle sits the historic Fairmont, a stunning expression of early 20th-century opulence. Channel your inner blueblood and relax among marble columns, crystal chandeliers, and giant gilded mirrors. The penthouse suite, which takes up the entire eighth floor, boasts a two-story circular library, a vaulted billiards room, and even a secret staircase that once facilitated dalliances between President John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
It’s easy to get lost in the SFMOMA in a wonderful sort of way. The largest modern art museum in the world houses more than 33,000 pieces by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, and Andy Warhol. The space itself is impressive, and every inch of the structure is in a sense an exhibition. The rippling white fiberglass exterior invokes rolling fog while the innovative restaurant In Situfaithfully reproduces dishes from famous chefs around the world.
Shop in the Mission District
The Mission District is worth a visit if only to see this artsy neighbourhood’s vibrant outdoor murals. Once you’re there, stop inside any of the dozens of independent boutiques and eateries. Fuel up with a banana cream cupcake from Wholesome Bakery before browsing for urban camping supplies at Alite Outpost or creative gifts at the women-owned design collective Gravel & Gold.
Discover the Ferry Building
Beaux arts–inspired grandeur, locally sourced food, creative merchants, and killer views of San Francisco Bay—the Ferry Building is like a microcosm of the city itself. Stroll through the Great Nave to explore outposts of some of the Bay Area’s most interesting vendors. Be sure to sample some Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, try a few blue points on the half shell at San Francisco Fish Company, recharge with a siphon pour from Blue Bottle Coffee, and shop for handcrafted tableware at Heath Ceramics.
Eat at The Slanted Door
A meal at The Slanted Door is really all about the windows. Floor-to-ceiling walls of glass showcase sweeping views of the bay. Chef Charles Phan’s take on contemporary Vietnamese cuisine has made this restaurant one of the city’s most popular for more than two decades. Try favourites like shaking beef, cellophane noodles, and imperial rolls.
With its gently curved cables and deep orange hue, the Golden Gate Bridge is a total showstopper. Yes, it’s beautiful to behold, but the bridge’s charms are more than skin (steel?) deep. On your next trip to San Francisco, try these creative ways to enjoy the bridge and the surrounding area.
Stay at Cavallo Point
The story of Cavallo Point is even older than the Golden Gate. Before the bridge’s construction, the army established Fort Baker as a military base in an effort to fortify the bay. Today, the lovely colonial revival buildings have been transformed into a resort replete with understated luxury. Guests can enjoy morning yoga, evening wine receptions, guided hikes, cooking classes—and, of course, the stunning views.
Cruise San Francisco Bay
The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote, “You wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist. The wonderful sunlight...the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes.” Experience all three wonders at once with a boat tour around the bay. The Red and White Fleet is great for a simple voyage, while San Francisco Bay Boat Cruises host the area’s only floating wine tasting. Hornblower Cruises, meanwhile, hosts a variety of seated dinners, brunch buffets, and glamorous parties. During spring and summer, take one of Hornblower’s Alive After Five happy-hour cruises, which offer up cocktails and small plates as the ship glides past the bridge, Alcatraz, and other city sights
Explore the Golden Gate Recreational Area
Standing in bustling Union Square, it’s hard to imagine that expansive, untouched public lands are a few short miles away. The Golden Gate Recreational Area protects an astonishing 82,027 acres of land stretching from Silicon Valley to Tomales Bay, and some of its most beautiful spots are right around the Golden Gate. Hike to a hidden beach by way of the 1.7-mile Tennessee Valley Trail, see ruins of the Sutro Baths at Lands End, or get your heart rate up with a hike through the hilly headlands.
Recharge at the Round House Café
The Round House Café makes good on the promise of its name with 360-degree views from the wheel-shaped restaurant’s window walls. The Art Deco building, which opened in 1938, is your very last chance to grab a bite on the city side of the San Francisco Bay. Fill up on the massive hot dogs covered in slaw, California-style salads, or the ever-popular chowder in a bread bowl, which sells out nearly every afternoon.
Ride over the Golden Gate Bridge
Just shy of 2 miles long, the bridge makes for a thrilling but super-manageable bicycle ride. If you’re coming from the city, Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rentals and Blazing Saddles both offer rentals and tours for every size cyclist, while Sausalito Bike Rentals is your best bet if you’re coming from Marin. Wheel Fun Rentals (which has two locations in Fisherman's Wharf) offers an audio-guided bike tour that uses GPS technology to give you info on your exact location. Whichever way you travel, make sure to stop at Fort Point for the ultimate bridge selfie.