Photo by Changyu Hu on Unsplash
Although we moved back to Colorado after 9 years living in San Francisco, I still get excited when I get to go back for a visit or when I hear of friends traveling to the Bay Area for vacation. I was just about to email someone with a list of my San Francisco favorites, but thought I’d just write a page for future reference. And, I can add to it anytime. So, this is for you Trish and John.
Food is serious business in San Francisco and the Bay Area. There are so many great restaurants and so many new ones opening all the time. But, here are my favorites that I try to visit whenever I go back. Any good concierge at hotels should be able to recommend others, but I prefer smaller places outside of the downtown area in the neighborhoods.
Coqueta – I like to grab a place at the bar overlooking the sunset. I haven’t had a bad meal yet. I dream of the gin and tonic they make with the peppercorns.
Plouf – French Seafood – over 16 variations of mussels. It’s on Belden Lane in the Financial District. Don’t let anyone tell you to visit any other restaurants on this street. The rest of them aren’t nearly as good. Very European vibe.
Cafe Claude – tiny little place between Union Square and the Financial District. I’ve had many a nice happy hours or nights with a friend or two here. I also like sitting by myself at the bar.
Market Bar at the Ferry Building – I like their Prix Fix – always something different – I like to sit outside
Chow – I don’t know exactly how to describe Chow except it’s our comfort food home. Thai Style Noodles or meatloaf or even ravioli. And PIES PIES PIES. Great cocktails. If you’re downtown, take the F line to the Castro. We used to go to Park Chow near Golden Gate Park in the Sunset. I wish we had a Chow in Denver!
Gott’s at the Ferry Building – the most awesome burger joint. Originally in Napa County, but with a location here. Great burgers, but I actually love their Cobb Salad. And a great wine list.
21st Amendment near downtown (South Beach area) – great microbrewery with great food.
Slanted Door (Vietnamese) at the Ferry Building – People swear by it. They also have a take-out in the back called “Out the Door”
Blue Bottle Coffee at the Ferry Building – a religious coffee experience. Sit and enjoy the coffee and just enjoy the moment. One of the only places that I can sit and drink straight black coffee and smile. (Please, for the love of java, don’t go to Starbucks while you’re in SF. Sure, I drank the bucks every day when I worked, but there are way too many great artisinal coffee shops throughout the city.)
The Historic Cliff House is right on the ocean in the northwest corner of San Francisco (north end of Ocean Beach). There is nothing better than enjoying breakfast or brunch with a window table while the fog blows in. Be sure to wait to get a good table, though. The upstairs dining room is more casual while the downstairs in finer dining.
Okay, maybe I should have just said the ENTIRE Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. I love it all. Gelato. Chocolate. My favorite olive oil. Cowgirl Creamery (seriously, they are angels making cheese), Ferry Building Wine Merchants (great wine flights and we bought a bottle every night to take to our hotel the last time we were there).
If you are looking for good breakfast (if you’re in a downtown hotel), I like the Grove.
Shopping & Neighborhoods
So much shopping in San Francisco. Lots of shops right around Union Square, but so many great independent shops scattered throughout the city. I love walking through shops on Fillmore, the Marina, The Haight, Noe Valley, and Valencia, and the Castro. If you like vintage or retro shops, Valencia is great.
And, you need to visit Hayes Valley…just a bit down from downtown. Don’t mind the Tenderloin rif-raff…just blow right on past and hit Hayes Valley. Can you say totally cute shoes?
If grunge bothers you, you might want to pass on the Haight, but there are so many great funky shops and the famous Ameoba music store is at the west end. North Beach is basically “Little Italy” and is always fun. One of our favorite Italian grocery stores is there. It’s an easy walk from downtown. If you can, I like to drive down the streets in Sea Cliff and see all of the fabulous mansions with waterfront views.
You can do what we love to do—-just wander around for serious people watching and fabulous views!
Take public transportation if you can. It’s crazy and crunchy and fun. From downtown, take the F Line, which uses historic street cars. Also, you can pick up the Street Car line. I recommend picking it up at the California line where the crowds are much smaller than around Union Square.
Parks & Recreation
Believe it or not, San Francisco has lots of green space. I recommend visiting Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and Crissy Field. Crissy Field is adjacent to the Presidio, but its definitely easier with a rental car.
Please Avoid the Usual Tourist Traps
I promise that the locals don’t really go to Fisherman’s Wharf. A few of the seafood places with crabs are good, but most of the restaurants are not worth the money.
Be careful about renting a bike and riding over to Sausalito or Tiburon. If you do it, be sure to head over early in the day so that you can take the ferry back.
Outside of San Francisco
– Definitely walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. You gotta do it…nothing compares to it. Just bring a jacket!
– We love hanging out in Tiburon and enjoying brunch.
– One of our favorite Sausalito places is FISH. Totally casual. Totally tasty, but totally pricey.
– Wine Country is always worth a visit. Personally, we prefer to visit Sonoma County rather than Napa. Less traffic and more casual tasting rooms. I love the town squares of Sonoma and Healdsburg. If you do visit Napa, the drive over the hills between Sonoma and Napa Counties is great. One of my favorites is Schramsburg Sparkling Wine. The tour has gotten expensive and you need an appointment, but it doesn’t disappoint. And, it doesn’t have the crowds of the other wineries producing the bubbly.
Definitely pack layers. You don’t want to be caught buying a $40 fleece jacket with a SF logo. Sweaters and scarves are a good idea all year long.
We love the De Young (in Golden Gate Park), the Exploratorium (in the Presidio), the California Museum of Sciences (in Golden Gate Park). MOMA is great, but it’s a small museum when compared to others.
If you’re short on time, some of the museums have free admission in the last hour of the day. That’s how we always visited the Exploratorium. Which is great for kids of ALL ages.
Talk to your concierge…you MAY want to check out the Museum passport. They have great packages for museums and muni passes combined.
If it’s only a few of you, it’s totally easy and convenient to take the BART train from SFO airport to downtown. Cheap and super easy. If you’ve got a group in tow, it is probably easier to arrange a car service or limo. Works out well without the craziness of the cabbies.
Once you’re in the city, consider getting a multi-day muni pass. The Muni pass includes the buses, the streetcars and the Muni train. They change the prices all the time, so ask the concierge at your hotel. But, it’s the best way to see the city, even if it grinds along at it’s own pace.
– F Line for downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf and on to Crissy Field (and Exploratorium and Marina neighborhood) and back the other way to the Castro
– 22 to Fillmore
– 7 to the Haight (goes all the way to the Ocean)
So, you could ask your hotel if they have privileges at a great health club. Most of them do. But, just walking out your door and enjoying San Francisco IS the exercise. Wear comfortable shoes and walk this great city. San Francisco is only 7 miles by 7 miles. I think I’ve walked or run most of it. Walk it or run it all and you can eat and drink to your heart’s content. If you’re up for a run, the Embarcadero is right on the water. I love it, but I hate to run it more than once a week. That granite sidewalk is way too hard on my body. I recommend hopping on the F Line down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Then jump out and run along the water west towards Aquatic Park, the Marina Green, Crissy Field and Golden Gate Bridge. Incredible views and more fun. I wish I was running there just thinking about it!