Two weeks from Monday, I leave for a four month round-the-world trip, and in the middle of panicking about finishing up 100 work projects while simultaneously preparing for my departure, you know what happens?
Well, let's just say an emergency surgery and lots of bed rest happens. Naturally.
However, on the plus side, all this down-time has given me lots of time for self reflection; such as, wow, I haven't posted on my blog in awhile. And so, in my half-delirium this morning, I decided to finally put together a post that a lot of you have asked for: San Francisco.
After living here for 2.5 years and the finish line sorta-kinda appearing in sight, I figure now's as good a time as any to talk about my personal favorite highlights and must do's/eat's/stay's/hikes in San Francisco. Consider it an homage to this gem in Northern California. Consider it a comprehensive list of places you're most likely to find me on any given afternoon.
Here's my San Francisco.
- Ferry Building farmers’ market (saturdays, 8 am - 2 pm): get the best donuts of your life at Pepple’s Donut stand, sample hundreds of different baked goods and hummuses and fresh jams, not to mention tons of food stalls both inside the ferry building & all around outside. Go hungry and ignore your bank account.
- The Slanted Door: top-notch Vietnamese food right on the water with spectacular bay views, with a very upscale vibe that feels like it belongs more in New York or London.
- Sourdough from Boudin: listen, I know it’s touristy, but if you don’t have sourdough while in SF, you’re sincerely missing out
- Gracias Madre and Puerto Alegre: two of the best Mexican spots in the city, bar none
- The Plant Cafe: lots of locations throughout the city but the best is on the Embarcadero. Sit outside on a warm weekend morning for brunch.
- Hakkasan: upscale cantonese spot in the financial district (I’ve been to their London location, it’s top notch).
- Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: in Little Italy; won best margarita pizza in the world several years in a row at a competition held annually in Tuscany
- Delfina: fabulous Italian food with great wine selection, out of the way of annoying tourist areas
- Holy Gelato and Smitten: the best ice creams in the city (holy gelato happens to have 20 vegan flavors by the way, though Smitten has a few vegan options, but it has a crazy line most days- for good reason tho)
- Millennium: okay this one’s in Oakland but is my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area, so if you’re keen to try some of the best vegan food in the country (literally, as ranked by the New York Times) then it’s worth the 15 mins on BART; also the neighborhood it’s in is lovely
- Crepevine: cheap, hearty brunch with heavy-handed mimosas
- Louis’ Restaurant: an SF institution that’s 100% more sentimental to me than it is good; it’s your typical diner fare but has sweeping 360 degree views of the ocean and Sutro Baths (so stop here for lunch or breakfast if you’re in the area). Really nice on chilly, gray days when you’re in the mood to look pensively over the ocean with a cup of coffee.
- Underdog: if you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park and have a hankering for something cheap, fast, delicious, and portable, get a giant organic hot dog with all the best fixins (including several vegan dogs and vegan potato salad / mac & cheese)
- Lime Tree: literal hole-in-the-wall in the Inner Sunset that serves the best Indonesian food I’ve ever had in my life. You’re paying nickels and the owners are remarkably friendly; truly feels like you’re in Southeast Asia. Get the curried noodles and then go to heaven
- Aziza: high end michelin-star Moroccan food
- Shizen: hands down the BEST sushi I’ve ever had in my life. absolutely phenomenal, and I don’t say that lightly. indulge here then stroll to Cream across the street for a mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich between two fudgy warm cookies for dessert.
Favorite Coffee Shops:
- Cafe St Jorge: definitely not the most accessible place if you’re not in the neighborhood, but absolutely worth the time to get there. dozens of the best cookies/muffins/cakes/breads you’ll have in the city, and the coffee is wonderful, the atmosphere is beautiful and lovely, and the entire place is unpretentious which is super refreshing in SF. A good homework/writing/reading spot to buckle down in for a few hours.
- Four Barrel: a classic, but a must; there’s a reason why we’re famous for our coffee. however, I say skip the pour-over and get their almond milk latte instead. out of this world
- Blue Bottle: because you’re in SF, and people will literally get mad at you if you don’t try Blue Bottle coffee.
- Samovar: okay, this is a tea lounge, but is so wonderful & chill & and the tea selections are out of this world. awesome for a rainy afternoon; they have snacks and small plates, too.
- Java Beach Cafe: if you’re a student or a work-from-anywhere type, bring your books here and tuck in with a hummus bagel and organic dark french roast, then stroll to the ocean 10 yards from the outdoor patio
- Black Point Cafe: charming spot next to Ghirardelli square, so a good spot to pause and recharge when you’re on your tourist route near fishermans’ wharf. their lavender latte is especially delicious.
- Press Club: extremely attractive & classy wine bar downtown, absolutely perfect for when you’re in the mood to get a bit dressed up and be transported to midtown Manhattan or central London. Lengthy and interesting wine selections with a knowledgable staff, and prices aren’t outrageous considering the dress and location.
- The Barrel Room: also downtown, much smaller wine bar with just as many great wines; great for if Press Club has an insane wait. Good for when you just want to hunker down with a book or have a conversation where, you know, you can hear the other person.
- Wayfare Tavern: fabulous cocktails, exposed log beams, and a roaring fireplace; feels like you’re in a cozy, classy, antique lounge in Edinburgh.
- Beach Chalet: a hidden gem for sure, only really known to surfers and locals who live in the neighborhood. It’s a restaurant right across the ocean and on the corner of Golden Gate Park; have a house-made brew in the back garden/patio then dinner upstairs overlooking the Pacific, then walk across the street to the beach to catch the sunset. Don’t forget to check out the tulip gardens and old windmill!
- Local Edition: ignore its weird eclectic design and focus on the drinks; some of the best cocktails in SF
- Biergarten: for warm lazy weekday evenings (you’ll never find a seat on a weekend evening, be forewarned); totally outdoors and German-styled, where you sit elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors at picnic tables under hanging lights.
- 21st Amendment: local brewery, a bit of a sports bar vibe but their beer is some of the best in the city (get their “hell or high watermelon” and thank me later)
- Top of the Mark: get there early to grab a seat by the window to watch the sunset from one of the highest points in SF. Drinks are overpriced but, for that view, you pay for what you get…
- Techo de Lolinda: one of the few rooftop bars in SF, with fireplaces and heat lamps and strung up lights. Expect long waits on weekends but worth it on a warm evening.
- Hopwater Distribution: a classic charming spot for the beer lover, with plenty of room and over 30 beers on top (with 200+ bottles to choose from if you want to be that guy)
Favorite Ways to Spend an SF Day:
- Embarcadero walk: eat your heart out at the Ferry Building (try to see the farmers market if you’re there on a saturday), then walk along sunny Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, stopping to visit the sea lions and getting sourdough at Boudin; lay in the grass in Ghirardelli Square, then continue walking towards the Presidio to catch the sunset and epic views of the Golden Gate from the high-end shops of the Marina and Crissy Field (this entire walk is just gorgeous)
- Museums: the deYoung is a must, Legion of Honor will take your breath away, and now the SFMoMa!
- Golden Gate Park: stroll through the botanical gardens, the conservancy of the flowers, the Academy of the Sciences, the Japanese tea garden, walk through wildflower-lined paths surrounded by redwoods and eucalyptus groves that lead to quiet meadows and ponds, and rent a boat to paddle around Stow Lake on a warm afternoon. Oh, and don’t miss the 3-day-long free concert Hardly Strictly Bluegrass if you’re here in October.
- Presidio, Palace of Fine Arts, and Baker Beach: The Presidio is great day hike to explore all the winding paths and parks that lead to hidden vistas of the sweeping skyline; end with a late afternoon gaze up at the high Roman domes and statues at the Palace of Fine Arts, and catch the sunset against the Golden Gate at Baker Beach.
- North Beach and China Town: for the finest Italian food, espressos, and City Lights Bookstore, then remarkably cheap and divine dumplings under the hanging street lamps of eclectic China Town.
- Lands End: a park literally at the edge of the world. quiet and stunning and hovering in the trees above Sutro Baths. You can also fairly easily reach the Legion of Honor from here too, so consider doing this all in one loop.
- Explore the oddities and curio shops in the Mission and Hayes valley (a little too hipster for me – actually uncomfortably hipster – but a must-do if you’re in town). The thrift stores, street art, vegan eateries, and artisan chocolate shops feels a little like a mini-Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This area also comes alive at night with its rooftop bars (such as Techo de Lolinda) and iconic Dolores Park which sometimes shows outdoor movies.
- Have a bonfire on Ocean Beach, and do your best to spot dolphins and whales from where you lay in the sand.
Favorite Day Trips & Weekend Trips (from shortest to longest)
- Marin County and Redwood Forest: if you have the ability to rent a car (or are willing to brave the tourist buses that pick up/drop off in downtown SF so you don’t have to worry about parking), go to the Muir Woods to see one of the most gloriously beautiful redwood forests on the planet (just go super early!). Then pause at Muir Beach to dip your toes in the water, and if you want, keep on driving along Highway 1 to Stinson Beach and/or Bolinas for dinner and epic SF views (charming little surf beach towns that feel like they’re a million miles away). If you want to make this a weekend trip, spend a couple nights camping and backpacking at nearby Point Reyes.
- Tiburon & Angel Island: take the ferry from either Tiburon or San Francisco to Angel Island to hike to the summit of the island (around 2-3 hours) for absolutely stunning views of the ENTIRE bay area; you’ll hike through fields of wildflowers, eucalyptus groves, and be treated with remarkably few other people as lots of folks don’t realize this is even a thing.
- Pacifica, Pescadero, Half Moon Bay: Easily a day trip (or even half-day trip) if you have a rental car, these three towns are adorable beyond words. Pacifica is a mere 10 minute drive down the coast, then Half Moon Bay is about 10-15 minutes from there, then Pescadero is just another thirty minutes south. You’ll pass quaint lighthouses surrounded by fields of wildflowers and berries, rolling mountains tangled in vineyards and forests and farm pastures, steep, jagged cliffs cascading into the ocean. Go antique shopping in the sleepy towns, and if you’re around in the summer, go berry picking at Swanton Berry Farm near Pescadero, and have a picnic lunch on a hike or at the Half Moon Bay Brewery, with sweeping views of the ocean and hills. Just be back in Pacifica in time for dinner at Moonraker, where the floor-to-ceiling windows fall sheerly into the ocean, the farm-to-table food captivates you, and the sunsets will take your breath away. Live your California-road-trip-down-the-coast dreams.
- Petaluma: Petaluma is a great day trip just for the sake of awesome antiquing in downtown Petaluma and getting the beer sampler at Lagunitas Brewery. A nice way to see the Napa-area without going to the overwhelming tourist hole that is Napa itself.
- Mendocino: a weekend trip for sure, but a lovely getaway drive up the PCH to a stunning oceanside town where I stayed at the best bed & breakfast of my life (Stanford Inn by the Sea). Kayak and bike your heart out.
- Lake Tahoe: okay, this one you have to get to with your own car or rental, but, it’s merely 2.5 hours away, and do not miss it if you can.
- Big Sur: a weekend getaway, roughly 3 hours, just bring your own tent if you don’t want to pay for expensive AirBnB’s and hostels.
- Yosemite: easily reachable by car (3 hours) or by tourist bus that’ll pick you up downtown. No excuse. You’ve gotta go. (If you’re camping though, make reservations ahead of time).
Best Time to Go:
San Francisco’s summer truly peaks in late September / early October; it’s when the temps are at their balmiest (which is still just a mere 70-80*F) and when the fog is most tame. But you really can’t go wrong; the wildflowers are at their peak bloom in March and April, and the mountains & hills at their greenest in February and March (which also tends to mean the most rain). The weather shifts dramatically though so there’s no real telling how the temps will be; just pick a month and know it was luck of the draw.
Best Place to Stay:
I may be a bit spoiled by New York City standards, but San Francisco has notoriously the worst public transport system of any city developed to this high of caliber (I mean, come on, it shouldn’t take 50 minutes to travel 4 miles via bus). So I recommend staying somewhere relatively central/downtown, such as:
or, stay with me. Or, AirBNB-it. This is the AirBNB capital, after all.
Enjoy SF! Eat a lot, complain about housing prices, spend every evening catching a sunset, and you'll fit right in.