If you have been following my blog you’ll already have read a good deal about my love for San Francisco. Over the past few years, several of my UK based friends have ventured out west and asked me beforehand for my top tips. So I thought it was about time I made these universally available for any other prospective visitors.
I must stress at the outset that these are my “personal” favourites and, therefore, may not be to someone else’s taste. And a handful have changed over the years. I make no apologies for inclusing some very touristy things, but others are less so. But here goes. By the way, Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers can’t be wrong 17 years running by voting SF the best city in the USA (though I read yesterday that it was finally been ousted by Charleston, South Carolina)!
1. Ride the Cable Cars
An iconic SF experience. There is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world. Although there are only three lines left they are the coolest way to travel. Hurtling down those hills with one spectacular view after another in front and to the side of you is truly thrilling. Have your camera ready! And one other tip – don’t sit down inside but try to take what is called the “lead position”. There are only two per trip (one on each side) but you can hold onto the rail and hang out into the street waving to motorists and people passing in the opposite direction on another car. Not for those with a nervous disposition though! If you can’t get the lead position, at least stand on the outside to get the best from the experience.
2. Brunch at the Cliff House
You’ve already read about this. After our first night’s sleep in the city we always head out next morning to the to the Pacific Ocean to have brunch at the Cliff House, the former centrepiece of what used to be a great seaside amusement park and elaborate public baths (though little else of it remains now). There are two restaurants there with the most fabulous views of famous Seal Rock (I think the name speaks for itself), and miles of golden but windswept beach stretching south and past the western edge of Golden Gate Park. You may have to wait for a table but, when you do, get a seat by the big picture windows (you will be directed to one anyway) and enjoy. The Crab Eggs Benedict is to die for!
3. Painted Ladies
You will possibly already be familiar with the famous scene of the six colourful Victorian houses with the modern cityscape behind them. The “Painted Ladies” (I don’t think I could afford one even after a triple rollover on the UK lottery!) are positioned on the southern edge of Alamo Square in the Lower Haight neighbourhood, which has the added advantage of being a perfect spot for a picnic (and dog watching!).
4. Golden Gate Park
One of the largest urban parks in the world, you could spend several days exploring the Park, but here are a couple of highlights:
a. Japanese Tea Garden
Glorious setting with beautiful trees, winding footpaths, curved bridges, still pools with enormous carp swimming in them and a massive bronze Buddha – you could almost be in Japan. Enjoy a range of oriental teas and snacks whilst giving your feet a well earned rest.
b. California Academy of Sciences
Planetarium, rainforest, aquarium and other displays in one stunning building. Opposite is the highly acclaimed de Young Museum.
Plenty of other attractions such as Stow Lake, the Buffalo Paddock, Dutch Windmill and the Conservatory of Flowers, and facilities to enable you to undertake every possible physical activity and sport.
5. Beach Blanket Babylon
This musical revue, performed in Club Fugazi (pictured), is the longest running in the world, another of our must do activities on every trip to SF – we never miss. Uniquely San Franciscan, it follows Snow White (who hails from SF of course!) on her travels round the world to find the man of her dreams – she has to do this because most of the men in her native city are gay!). She meets dozens of familiar and, to a non-US resident, perhaps some less familiar, characters and…..well, I won’t spoil it for you. It is an hour and a half of sheer fun, fast-paced, absolutely hilarious, lots of extravagant costumes and you can have a bottle or two at your seat to supplement the mood!
The oldest, and one of the largest Chinese communities in the States, it is virtually a city within a city, a vibrant, densely packed 24 blocks crammed with gift shops, market stalls (you need a strong stomach to look too closely at some of the produce!), restaurants and even a fortune cookie making factory. And you cannot go to SF without having at least one meal there. We would recommend the R & G Lounge and the Great Eastern.
7. Golden Gate Bridge
If I needed any proof that these selections were not necessarily in order of favouritism it is the fact that I have left this to number seven. You must drive it, bike it or walk it of course. After you have done so, there is a scenic spot that the tour buses use to take their photos looking back at the bridge or across to the city. But the stellar views of the bridge with the city and Alcatraz in the background come from crossing the main road (it is signposted from the aforementioned car park) onto the Marin Headlands. There are several wonderful spots there, the best being just before you return to the main road. You can’t miss it.
8. Palace of Fine Arts
Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, designed to showcase the remarkable recovery of the city since the great earthquake and fire nine years earlier, this remains one of the most beautiful and tranquil locations, especially at dusk when swans, geese and ducks glide serenely on the lagoon whilst young children run after balls on the perimeter.
9. Ferry Building Marketplace
Ferry embarcation point for Oakland and Alameda, the building also houses a superb collection of upscale eateries and produce stalls, all providing the freshest ingredients. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday the front – and, on the latter, the rear too – plays host to the wonderful Farmers’ Market, one of the best in the U.S.A. You may even have your lunch prepared by one of the city’s top chefs as they advertise their creations here too.
Unreconstituted and fully paid up member of the Woodstock Nation that I am I could not complete my list without recommending that you take a look at the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. The centre of flower power in 1966-67 it still retains some of that independent, colourful streak and there’s some interesting shops and cafes along the main drag. The architecture of the area, principally Victorian, is very attractive too and you are only a few minutes walk from Golden Gate Park.
I said at the beginning that this was my personal “best of” collection. There are, however, plenty of other places and experiences that we enjoy greatly in the city. I haven’t mentioned the tourist honeypot that is Fishermen’s Wharf not because I don’t like its carefree, festival atmosphere, its one of a kind gift shops, seafood restaurants and hilarious sea lion colony, just that there are places I’d rather spend my time.
And then there’s Alcatraz – no (first) visit is complete without a trip to the island just a mile and a half offshore. Admittedly, there are thousands of tourists streaming back and forth across the bay from dawn to dusk, but there is no doubt that it is an awesome and moving experience. Even better if you do the Alcatraz by Night tour when you are on the island at sunset, very atmospheric and quite scary.
Coit Tower, with its views and delightful steps leading up to it on all sides is another favourite, provided I have trained sufficiently for the climb! The panoramic scene from Twin Peaks is worth being run over by tour buses for too. And how could I forget the awesome, 8.4 mile long Bay Bridge which is currently getting a makeover following the part that was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake.
Neighbourhoods such as the Mission (Latino and Hispanic) and the Castro (gay capital of the world) are fascinating areas to visit with great ethnic restaurants and shopping. And the walk from the Golden Gate Bridge along the marina back into the city is lovely and very bracing! Be prepared to do a lot of walking, the best way to get around.
If it’s shopping you want the city offers a diverse and eclectic experience, from gift shops providing gifts from all over the world to the designer stores of the huge Westfield Shopping Center, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s flagship (yes, it’s in SF not NYC!) in Union Square.
Janet and I love eating out and there is no better place to do it than in SF, witness the host of awards, including that of being America’s finest dining city, it has won. There are 3,489 restaurants (last time I walked round and counted them), and you can savour every cuisine, from tacos and burritos in the Mission District, dim sum in Chinatown and crab in Fisherman’s Wharf to upscale establishments (that we couldn’t possibly afford!).
We love fish and seafood in particular and you can’t really go wrong with that in SF. Although Fisherman’s Wharf gets a bad press from the food snobs we would recommend the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace andMcCormick and Kuleto’s, all of which have fantastic views across the bay.
Whenever a survey is carried out by the tourist authorities in SF the single most important factor people cite about why they visit the city is its “atmosphere and ambience” with restaurants, scenic beauty and diversity not far behind. And I suppose when push comes to shove (had to get a Grateful Dead quote in here somewhere), that’s what I would say too - the tolerant, friendly disposition of the locals, allied to its cultural diversity, make for a really attractive liberal, laid back atmosphere.
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