History: This address, 501 Jones Street, has been operating as a drinking den since 1899, when the phone book listed it as the H. W. Vette & Co. Grocery Saloon. Irishman John J. Russell, a whiskey runner, later ran the property as a so-called cigar shop from 1923 to 1933. “According to a local historian, scores of exquisitely dressed ladies and gentlemen visited ‘JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop’ at all hours during Prohibition, although not too many cigars were ever sold,” says Brian Sheehy, chief executive of Future Bars Group, which owns Bourbon & Branch—the newest iteration of this speakeasy, now over a decade old. “Bourbon & Branch features five secret exit tunnels, with one specifically designated as a Ladies Exit—the most obscure—for a quick getaway,” Sheehy says.
How to get in: Make an online reservation to get your password, then ring the doorbell on Jones or try the unmarked door on O’Farrell. Once inside, see if you can uncover the Wilson & Wilson, the even more elusive speakeasy within the speakeasy. And be sure to follow the rules—they encourage speaking, well, “easy,” turning off your phones, and not standing at the bar.
What to order: A highbrow cocktail (note: Cosmopolitans are frowned upon). Consider the Cucumber Gimlet (gin or vodka, lime, elderflower, orange bitters and sparkling wine) or the Revolver (Bulleit bourbon, Tia Maria, orange bitters).
Also try: Marianne’s is one of the city’s most iconic speakeasies. Set discreetly behind a bookcase within the Cavalier restaurant (360 Jessie Street), the bar was once members-only. Now it merely requires an online reservation, available one week in advance.
It may measure less than 50 square miles/130 square kilometers, 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-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to outrageous food trucks; world-renowned symphony, ballet, theater, and opera; plus almost boundless outdoor adventures, San Francisco justifiably stands out as one of the ultimate must-sees on any traveler’s wish list.
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. Whichever way you travel, make sure to stop at Fort Point for the ultimate bridge selfie.
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 traveler to the frequent visitor will love. Here’s where to shop, eat, stay, and explore in the Golden City.
Stay at The Fairmont San Francisco
Named for the railroad barons (“Nobs”) who built their mansions in the area, Nob Hill is one of the most high-end neighborhoods in San Francisco. At its pinnacle sits the historic Fairmont San Francisco, 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 Situ faithfully 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 neighborhood’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 bluepoints 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 favorites like shaking beef, cellophane noodles, and imperial rolls.
When she’s not courtside at a Golden State Warriors game, cheering on her two-time MVP husband Stephen, Ayesha Curry is probably busy working on her multi-faceted culinary career that includes a new cookbook, The Seasoned Life; a Food Network show, Ayesha’s Homemade; and her upcoming line of cookware, created in nearby Solano County. Below, the lifestyle expert and mother of two dishes out some of her California favorites.
Where do you live? East Bay in San Francisco
Why there? My husband Stephen plays for the Golden State Warriors so the San Francisco Bay Area has been our home for the past eight years. We live in the East Bay and absolutely love it. It’s family-friendly, has great schools, and is in a central location.
Who or what is your greatest California love? Dub Nation! If you’ve ever been to a game at Oracle Arena (also affectionately called the “Roaracle” Arena), you know that Warriors fans are some of the most passionate, loyal fans around. It’s a community I’m so grateful to be a part of.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we’re all bad drivers!
What is the stereotype that most holds true? People view Californians as very eco-conscious, which I definitely think holds true—particularly in the Bay Area.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? As someone whose passion is food, I feel so fortunate to live in a place with such incredible restaurants and some of the most talented chefs in the world. My favorite splurge is sushi. Some of my go-tos include PABU and Ozumu.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? Time off in my house is difficult to come by with everyone’s busy schedules, but luckily Napa Valley is just a short drive away. It’s one of my favorite places to enjoy some downtime with friends and family.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? I’m a firm believer in gathering everyone together for meals. It’s a time to unplug and reconnect, and make memories with the ones you love. It’s a theme I’ve embraced in my restaurant, International Smoke, where every dish is served family-style and is perfect for sharing. My decree would be to dine family-style, whether at home or dining out!
Best California song? E-40 “Choices (Yup)” Warriors Version
How would your California dream day unfold? My dream day would begin with wine tasting in Napa, followed by a picnic lunch at Crissy Field overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The day would end with dinner prepared by my favorite Bay Area chef, Michael Mina.
Walt Disney’s daughter Diane founded The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio to explore the life, career, and times of her father—but it also offers a compelling look at the art of animation and how Disney’s work has shaped pop culture.
Located in a former barracks building at the Army-post-turned-national-park, the 40,000-square-foot museum houses interactive galleries, education classrooms, a Fantasia-themed theater, plus a shop and café.
The museum is primarily focused on the visionary behind the cultural institution. “Guests are consistently impressed with the experience of Walt’s personal story, and as part of the museum experience we allow visitors to embrace the opportunity to learn about him as a man and as an innovator, versus solely as a brand,” says museum spokesperson Victoria Rainone.
Indeed there are 10 galleries devoted to the life and work of Walter Elias Disney, including ones devoted to his boyhood and artistic development in Missouri; his nascent Hollywood studio in the 1930s (and his invention of “storyboarding”); and special projects like his patriotic films during World War II and the nature documentaries he produced in the 1950s.
The museum also stages long-run exhibits, like shows about the pre-digital artistic process that created Pinocchio, or Disney’s innovative collaboration with Salvador Dali. It also offers classes for visitors (some just two hours, some intensive full days) on animation technique and technology, like how to “animate” sadness by drawing the eyes, mouth, and even head shape. The theater does screenings, such as Winnie the Pooh shorts, full-length films (including live-action Disney classics like The Absent-Minded Professor), or “deep cut” Disney cartoons from the archives.
While the museum seems, in some ways, geared toward grown-up Disney super-fans, art-loving kids will be easily drawn in too. “The Museum’s learning centers provide plenty of hands-on activities for young visitors, as well as various screenings of classic Disney films, with different screenings depending on the week and month,” says Rainone. “The goal the Museum's educational programming is to nurture the next generations of creative talent while inspiring them to embrace their imagination.”
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With towers soaring 746 feet/227 meters 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 colorful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 12-foot stainless-steel “test tower” used in 1933.
You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called “Golden Gate” is in fact orange. It’s 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 color? 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 color be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint color.
"The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing."
Technically, that color is “International Orange,” but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking, or pedaling across the 1.7-mile/2.7-kilometer span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the span, 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 rental companies abound (two favorites 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 neighboring 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, chugging through Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and other city neighborhoods—well, it doesn’t get much more San Francisco than this. Truth is the city’s cable cars aren’t just an entertaining way to get around this up-and-down city; they really function as public transit too—just count how many package- and computer-toting locals climb on and hop off as you ride. In summer, lines 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 crisscrossed the city since 1873, visit the free Cable Car Museum, with inside peeks of how the cables that power the cars actually work.
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 truck 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 artisanal cheese (Cowgirl Creamery), and sit-down restaurants, like Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door, offer amazing food and waterfront views.
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End your road trip by exploring one of the world’s great cities. 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-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to...
Yes, there really are fishermen at Fisherman’s Wharf. Bobbing at the docks are a handful of weathered fishing boats, and they still chug out to catch Dungeness crab and other seafood in and around the Bay, as they have for over a century. Early risers can watch them unload their catch at Pier 47, nicknamed Fish Alley. Or sleep in and just sample the catch: Try fresh crab cooked in steaming cauldrons set up on sidewalks here—cracked crab dipped in melted butter, paired with a fresh loaf of local sourdough 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.
"Stroll to Pier 39 for more seafood eateries, shops, street performers, and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions."
Other attractions—the new San Francisco Dungeon attraction, with its spooky take on San Francisco history and antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique—are fun diversions too. Stroll to Pier 39 for more seafood eateries, 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 nearly half a ton).
Ferries to Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park (a wonderful day trip for families) are based at Fisherman’s Wharf’s Pier 33. Kids also love exploring the historic ships and the USS Pampanito, a World War II 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 center at Pier 15. Finish this perfect day with double scoops at Humphrey Slocombe ice cream at the adjacent Ferry Building Marketplace.
This elegant square circled by tall palm trees, in roughly the middle of the city’s downtown, is the hub for luxury shopping. Walk streets bounding 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 11 am to 6 pm). 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 upscale, indoor shopping mall.
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 upscale 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 holidays, Union Square transforms into a wintry, family-filled charmer, with an ice skating rink and little ones staring up at an enormous Christmas tree—and glittering shop windows all around.
Wrapping around the north end of the city, this 14,491-acre/5,864-hectare 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?). Southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s Baker Beach, with a wild feel and amazing views (just be warned: it’s clothing optional, particularly on its north end). Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the Presidio’s northeast corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs (they’re okay off-leash here), and 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 theater.
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 U.S. 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 grownups).
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 traveler: 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 sidewalks filled with Cantonese and Mandarin chatter, overflowing food stalls, and mysterious-looking shops. It’s a trip in every sense of the word, and probably as close as you can get to Asia without a passport.
While it’s fine to stick to Chinatown’s main artery of Grant Street, lined with markets and trinket and jade shops (the latter especially clustered around the Chinatown Gateway at the neighborhood’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 knockout job with exhibits and programs 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 longtime restaurant beloved for its high-quality signature Cantonese dishes; notable favorites 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’s 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-timey grocery and de facto candy and snack emporium seems to carries everything from litchi gummies and green-tea Kit Kats to dried and salted fruits, noodles, and spices. Address is 759 Jackson Street.
Golden Gate Bakery
If you’re in the market for fresh dan tat, the traditional Chinese egg-custard tart with a flaky, buttery crust, then make a beeline 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 LGBT. In the Castro, a rainbow flag flaps in the wind above colorfully painted crosswalks, making one big statement: San Francisco welcomes the LGBT community with open arms. There are more than 60 gay bars and clubs, and although the Castro serves as the epicenter of LGBT culture and nightlife, gay-friendly businesses are sprinkled citywide—frankly, it’s the norm here. Learn more about the city’s remarkable gay movement on a guided “Cruisin’ the Castro” historical walking tour.
Every June is Pride month, when visitors flock to the city for the annual (and outrageous) SF Pride Parade, as well as Frameline LGBT film festival. Badlands, the Lookout, and Twin Peaks Tavern are legendary haunts, and The Parker Guest House, W, and Casa Luna SF are just a few of the city’s gay-friendly hotels.
Gardens, glades, quiet lakes—here’s the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone, from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals, 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 shell. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classic art from around the world. Take the elevator 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, bay, and Pacific Ocean).
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living 4-story rainforest, and natural history museum under an undulating living roof. It’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, always lovely but especially breathtaking in spring when cherry trees and azaleas bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; be sure to get a lock too). Stroll among the colorful plantings fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanic gardens (great for birds as well as plants), and look for the surprising herd of American bison in the park’s northwest end.
If you’re not into cycling or strolling, there’s a free shuttle on weekends and major holidays, with stops throughout the park. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, rowing across little Stow Lake, and horseback riding on broad paths. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
In San Francisco, there are few quiet nights, and though bars and clubs may call it quits at 2 a.m., the city makes sure you stay busy until quitting time. For classy entertainment, the city boasts outstanding symphony, classic and contemporary ballet, and opera companies. There’s also a thriving theater community, most notably the American Conservatory Theater, which presents classic and new works at The Geary Theatre, near Union Square. Broadway road shows 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 upscale establishments with craft cocktails (like Bourbon & Branch and The Alembic) to longstanding neighborhood 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 woolen 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 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 line 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 transportation options in San Francisco, but it’s important to plan ahead and pick 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, 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 transportation, 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 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 pick up 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 pick up 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.