I was lucky enough to grow up in the Bay Area, so it’s with a bit of bias that I say that San Francisco is the jewel in the Golden State’s crown. It combines all the best things about the state in one trip to California. Nature, food, art, nightlife…there are always things to do in San Francisco.
But before we get to things to do, we’ve got to get a place to stay. Safe and convenient neighborhoods are North Beach (with the caveat that it’s also pretty touristy) Nob Hill (if you want to treat yourself), and the Inner and Outer Sunsets (if you want to stay closer to the beach). Accommodation can be expensive in San Francisco—the city has the highest rent in the world, which makes space a premium. For an iconic and luxurious stay, try the St. Mark’s Hotel in Nob Hill, which, as an additional bonus, has a stellar penthouse bar. For the local experience, an Airbnb in the Mission or the Pac Heights will make you feel right at home.
The Guide to San Francisco from a Local
Find a hidden rooftop
These top-secret local gems go by the name POPOS (Privately Owned Public Spaces), and are scattered through downtown. They offer little patches of calm in the bustling city, quiet spots to have a coffee or eat a to-go lunch, and most times, fantastic views. The catch? You’ve got to find them. Enter your San Francisco local guide! I won’t give them all away (after all, the thrill is in the hunt), but my personal favorite is at 343 Sansome, which lies in the literal shade of SF’s Transamerica Pyramid and offers views over the water. Grab a snack from one of the local food trucks (Señor Sisig is worth that wait), and head to the top.
Eat your heart out
Any local will tell you—San Franciscans are foodies, and visitors to this beautiful city will have no complaints when it comes to food. Enjoy authentic Mexican eats in the Mission— La Taqueria has outstanding tacos. Pearl’s Burgers has hot-of-the-grill options for both carnivores and vegetarians. Sample some delectable Italian dishes at Delfina. Ready for dessert? Make your own ice cream cookie sandwiches at trendy Cream, or go for an off-beat flavor at Henry Slocumbe’s, where you can try a scoop of Vietnamese Coffee, Peppercorn, Cheese, or Spotted Dick ice cream. If you want to take it up a notch, visit Nopa, State Bird, Lazy Bear, or Foreign Cinema—reservations highly recommended.
Grab a beer
There’s no better way to enjoy the sun than with a cold beer in hand. San Francisco’s gone all-in on the craft beer scene, and the city is spangled with microbreweries galore. If you’re in SoMa, try 21st Amendment. Hopwater, seated near the ridge of Nob Hill, offers a huge sampling of tap beers and lots of seats. Zeitgeist, at the crux of the Mission, has a big beer garden and bigger personality. Magnolia Brewing is off-the-beaten path but reward you with a gorgeous rustic-chic ambiance. And South Pacific brewing company is best enjoyed after a meal of sumptuous Mission Mexican food. Hardcore hopheads can tour local breweries Anchor Steam Brewing Company and Triple Voodoo, complete with tastings.
Have a cocktail
If cocktails are more your speed, fear not! There’s plenty of places that will stir and shake to your heart’s content. Grab a Gin & Tonic in steampunk-y Whitechapel. Visit the Tonga Room for Zombies, Mai-Tais, and rum punches galore. Rickhouse has a wide selection for this whiskey-inclined (their sours are divine). Or let your inner child run free at Wreck Room, where you can grab long drinks while playing a number of old-school arcade games.
If after a few drinks, you’re in the mood to go harder, the San Francisco nightlife scene is ready to deliver. The most typical of the bunch is Temple, with a chic city feel. For a more pulsing beat, techno houses Audio, Public Works, Monarch, and Mezzanine are often hosts to big-name European electro DJs. Badlands and DNA Lounge are both come-as-you-are establishments, with drag shows, high-energy music, and a widely varied crowd. Not your jam yet? Try Bootie, a major mashup party held at DNA Lounge on Saturdays; get funky at Motown on Monday, held at Madrone Art Bar; or catch a live swing session at Press Club.
Or maybe you prefer to dress up for a different reason. The San Francisco art and culture scene has fantastic options for every interest and budget bracket. In addition to Mahler and Brahms, the San Francisco Symphony frequently performs movie scores during film screenings. The opera and ballet present epic productions and offer lower prices for adults within certain age brackets. The theater district often hosts pre-Broadway productions, so you can catch major musicals and plays prior to their New York debuts. And San Fran’s many museums often have extended hours and special, adults-only events for a sophisticated and educational night out—whether you want to tour the rainforest at the Academy of Sciences, or take in contemporary art at MOMA.
No local guide to San Francisco is complete without recommending the surrounding nature. Rent bikes at Golden Gate Park and tour the grounds, visiting the bison, ponds, windmills, and beer garden, and end at Ocean Beach. Hiking more your speed? Twin Peaks offers jaw-dropping views over the entire city. Land’s End takes you down around the coast—look for the labyrinth and the ruins of the Sutro Baths. And the former Presidio offers views of the Golden Gate Bridge that will leave you breathless. Just make sure you dress for the coastal weather—our sneaky fog is famous for a reason!
There’s plenty of shopping options that will leave your wallets lighter and your suitcases heavier. Designer boutiques and high fashion stores line Fillmore Street. Hayes Valley is a haven for those looking for chic pieces. For the classic experience, visit Haight Ashbury, where you can hunt down some amazing vintage items. The big chains are all gathered around the Westfield Shopping Center near Union Square.
Embrace the off-beat
Long before it was associated with the tech giants, San Francisco had a reputation for being a quirky, eccentric place that fully embraced the weird, wacky, and original. While the gentrification from the influx of startups has dulled that edge a bit, there’s still plenty of personality to be found—and a local guide to San Francisco has to point you towards some of it. Whether it’s touring the ever-changing street art in the Mission’s Clarion Alley, getting your fortune read by a vintage, animatronic clairvoyant at Musée Mécanique, curling up in a corner of City Lights to read the latest political rhetoric, or widening your eyes (and maybe your perspectives) at the fetish shops in the Castro.
Cross the bridges
Both literally and figuratively. Across both of San Francisco’s bridges lie treasures worth beholding. Over the Golden Gate, you can stop for a glass of wine in charming Sausalito, or delve further north and visit the stands of redwoods in Muir Woods. Or cross the Bay Bridge and visit Oakland, the home of funk, with its vast sampling of bars, restaurants, and music venues. Jack London Square, which proudly still features Jack London’s original cabin and favorite bar, is a must-see (and the ending point for the local ferry). Also an easy reach is Berkeley, where you can feel the peace and love radiating from every corner of the tree-lined boulevards. Stop for a beer and pizza at Jupiter, peruse the local shops, or take in the latest campus performance.
When you’re ready to return, book a seat on the ferry and watch the lights go down in the city as you cross the bay.