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San Francisco city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in California’s bohemian coastal city

With a colourful political history, big-scale bridges and peaks and an international food scene, Cali’s cultural city packs in a lot, says Ali Wunderman

Thursday 19 May 2022 14:52 BST
The ‘Painted Ladies' of San Francisco, colourful and historic Victorian houses
The ‘Painted Ladies' of San Francisco, colourful and historic Victorian houses (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Summer of Love, sourdough bread and steep hills: these are just a few things that make San Francisco stand out. Despite being home to fewer than a million people, the “City by the Bay” has a global reputation, one which has drawn visitors from across the world for centuries.

You’ll find yourself among locals who are a mixture of techies and yuppies, artists and activists, as well as tourists donning Alcatraz sweatshirts because they expected Los Angeles weather. Conversations about tech and social innovation are backdropped by the good – such as Victorian architecture – and the bad – broken car glass from break-ins. But all of it stimulates the creative spirit that defines San Francisco.

Between Michelin-starred restaurants, crisply distinct neighbourhoods and breathtaking bridges, there’s a lot to see and do. Here’s where to start.

The de Young Museum, San Francisco (de Young Museum)

What to do

Visit the Golden Gate Bridge

Some might say the only way to truly experience the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is to walk across its 1.7 mile span – but while that’s totally fun and manageable, there are other options. Instead of driving or taking a bus to the Welcome Centre at the south end of the bridge, as many do, consider going across and up to Battery Spencer for a nearly eye-level view with the bridge towers. The bonus of this approach is that San Francisco often has so much marine fog over the bridge that the view is obscured anyway, but the view from above in the same conditions is beautiful. If you have the time and energy, you can also walk across the bridge and then up to the viewpoint to get the full experience.

Explore the different neighbourhoods

San Francisco is a relatively small city at 7x7 miles, making it very walkable – if you can handle the hills – and there’s great variety in the different neighbourhoods. It can feel like a challenge to explore them all, so plan ahead before diving in: if you want to feel like it’s the Summer of Love, head to Haight-Ashbury to get immersed in hippie culture. Many LGBTQ+ newcomers and visitors to San Francisco are drawn in by the city’s accepting culture, particularly in the Castro, where rainbow flags and crosswalks greet you.

A lot of international cultures have found a home in San Francisco, forming distinct communities. North Beach is where you’ll find the city’s Italian flavour, but also the legacy of its Beat Poets. Head to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana for the former, and City Lights Bookstore for the latter. Don’t miss dining and shopping in the Mission District – historically a Latin neighbourhood, it now shares space with the hipster crowd. Finally, don’t miss the sound of mahjong tiles clacking in the city’s Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia and the best place for getting to know Chinese-American culture. The Chinatown Ghost Tour ($45/£37) is an extra-special way to get acquainted with this unique part of San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square are the city’s tourist centres, but it’s fine to skip them as they’re a bit generic.

See as much of Golden Gate Park as possible

Even a lifetime of living in San Francisco isn’t enough to see everything in the sprawling, varied Golden Gate Park. Find your way to the de Young Museum ($15/£12), the city’s oldest museum and architecturally striking even from the outside. It showcases fine art, and is conveniently situated near the California Academy of Sciences, which has interactive science exhibits including a planetarium. Of the park’s many gardens to explore, be sure to check out the expansive San Francisco Botanical Garden ($10/£8), the greenhouse-style Conservatory of Flowers ($10/£8), and the soul-quieting Japanese Tea Garden ($10-$12/ £8-£10).

Take the cable car

If there’s one classically “touristy” experience you have to do in San Francisco, it’s riding the city’s cable car. Catch one on the turntable on Market Street in the downtown area all the way across the hills to Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can see Pier 39’s famous sea lions. Check out the MTA website for more information on getting tickets.

The lobby at Fairmont San Francisco (Fairmont Hotels)

Where to stay

For boutique luxury, stay in the SoMa neighbourhood at Hotel Zelos. The rooms are stylish and unique, with deep tubs and fun bathrobes. Their restaurant and bar, Dirty Habit, has incredible views and food. Doubles from $209 (£168), room only.

To get a taste of the eccentricity that gives San Francisco its unique identity, stay at Noe’s Nest Bed & Breakfast in Noe Valley. Each room is more eclectic and quirky than the next, and all of them are dog friendly. If you can manage to pause perusing the strange collections and memorabilia in the house, you’re well placed to explore the Mission District. Doubles from $225 (£180), B&B.

To get a taste of old school San Francisco, head to the Fairmont at the top of Nob Hill. This is an upscale hotel, with Edwardian architecture and refined ambiance that truly evoke the city’s spirit. Staying here or not, a visit to the Tonga Room is necessary to get a taste of San Francisco’s tiki culture. Doubles from $300 (£244), room only.

Where to eat

San Francisco is a foodie city, whether we’re talking world-renowned restaurants or holes in the wall.

It’s possible that Sam Wo in Chinatown is the first Chinese restaurant in the entire country, but it’s almost certainly the first in San Francisco. It’s an institution that’s beloved by tourists and locals alike, and can make a great starting point for exploring Chinatown’s cuisine in general.

Cafe Zoetrope in North Beach is a triple threat: a piece of San Francisco history, a cinematic wonder, and a damn fine place to eat Italian food. This restaurant in the flatiron-style Sentinel Building is owned by The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. A collection of movie history and memorabilia will keep you entertained as you dine on traditional Italian dishes.

The House of Prime Rib is a San Francisco institution that harkens back to a time when a good meal meant good meat and potatoes, and a stiff drink. This was fine dining at its finest, and most lifelong San Franciscans agree that the city wouldn’t be quite the same without this restaurant.

San Francisco is a seaside city, and Sotto Mare is the place serving up the best of what the local ocean has to offer. This is the home of cioppino, California’s claim to fame when it comes to Italian food. You can also get Pacific delicacies such as Dungeness crab here (when it’s in season).

House of Prime Rib, San Francisco (House of Prime Rib)

Where to drink

There’s no shortage of places to get a good drink in San Francisco, whether your vibe is dive bar (Li Po), tiki (Smuggler’s Cove), fancy (Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins hotel), or just straight up weird (Kozy Kar). Chances are that no matter what you’ll like, Trick Dog will be up your alley, too.

When it comes to drinking and partying hard, there is nothing quite like Butter. The drinks are strong, relatively inexpensive, and the accompanying bar snacks are some of the best in the city.

This is a city that takes its caffeine seriously and Fluid Cooperative Cafe in the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace is particularly special. This trans-owned beanery serves up great coffee, and will give you a chance to explore San Francisco’s commitment to social justice through food.

Come to the Japanese Tea Garden because it’s beautiful and calming, stay because the tea service should not be missed. In the midst of exploring America’s very first garden of its kind, stop at the tea house – built in 1894 – to take part in the serene tea ceremony.

San Francisco’s Chinatown (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Where to shop

Union Square is San Francisco’s prime shopping district, with all the best brands and department stores. This is where you will find Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and the rest. It’s especially delightful around Christmas when the tree is up and Macy’s fills its windows with adoptable puppies and kittens from the San Francisco SPCA.

Wingtip is a high-end men’s store in the Financial District selling clothing and accessories for men of taste, plus cigars – and there’s even a classic barbershop onsite. If you’re lucky, they might let you peek in the private club a few floors up.

The Ferry Building is full of delightful shops, but it really comes alive on Saturdays during the farmer’s market. You might find yourself selecting produce alongside some of the region’s most renowned chefs as they hunt for the best ingredients.

Some of the best boutique shopping is centred around Haight Street and Valencia Street, in the Mission District. Both are home to vintage, second-hand, and one of a kind shops that can’t be found anywhere else.

Architectural highlight

Edwardian and Victorian architecture defines San Francisco, with its bright colours, ornate mouldings and overall extravagance. While you will encounter buildings like these everywhere, the most iconic collection of this style is the Painted Ladies. They became extra famous as stars of the intro sequence for the TV show Full House, but originally these grand homes reflected the elegance of the gold rush era. Head to Alamo Square park, especially at sunrise or sunset, for an incredible architectural view.

Cioppino, an Italian-American seafood stew you should eat in San Francisco (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

US dollars.

What language do they speak?

English, though Spanish, Chinese, and even Russian can be helpful in certain areas.

Should I tip?

18-20 per cent.

What’s the time difference?

Pacific Time Zone, or GMT-7

How should I get around?

San Francisco is a very walkable city if hills don’t bother you, otherwise MUNI buses and trains will get you where you need to go. The Van Ness BRT just opened in April 2022 as the city’s newest bus corridor, so you can try it out and let San Franciscans know what you think of this long-awaited project. The Bart train is also available in certain areas of the city, and is the best public transport option to the East Bay. For a scenic and cost effective option for travelling to the North Bay (and other areas), take the Golden Gate Ferry. More transport info can be found here.

If you decide to rent a car, make sure to have absolutely nothing – not even trash – visible in it when you park. Car break-ins, aka smash and grabs, have been on the rise, and the best defence is to make your car not seem worth the effort.

What’s the best view?

Drive up the winding road to Twin Peaks for a stunning view of the city and the surrounding Bay Area.

Insider tip?

Don’t call it “San Fran” if you want locals to like you. And always carry a light jacket – even if the weather seems hot and sunny, that coastal fog can sneak up on you fast.

Getting there

British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic all have direct flights from the UK.

Read more: Best budget hotels in New York

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