San Francisco makes it wonderfully easy to tap into the Good Life. Between the hot arts scene, the tempting boutiques, the awesome bay views, and all those stellar, locally focused restaurants and wine bars, it’s the perfect place to indulge yourself.
San Francisco Sights
You could live in San Francisco a month and ask no greater entertainment than walking through it,” wrote Inez Hayes Irwin, author of The Californiacs, an effusive 1921 homage to the state of California and the City by the Bay. Follow in her footsteps and you’ll find her claim as true today: simply wandering on foot is the best way to experience this diverse metropolis.
Snuggled on a 46½-square-mi tip of land between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is a relatively small city of about 750,000 residents (4% fewer than during the dot-com heyday in 2000). San Franciscans cherish the city, partly for the same reasons so many visitors do: the proximity of the bay and its pleasures, rows of Victorian homes clinging precariously to the hillsides, the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Longtime locals know the city’s attraction goes much deeper, from the diversity of its neighborhoods and residents (trannies in the seedy Tenderloin, yuppie MBAs in the Marina, elderly Russians in the Richmond, working-class Latino families in the Mission) to the city’s progressive free spirit (we voted to ban handguns, we embrace a photographer’s project that involves naked people frolicking in trees on public land, our thirtysomething mayor poses for GQ and is seen out on the town with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, a former model). Take all these things together and you’ll begin to understand why, despite the dizzying cost of living here, many San Franciscans can’t imagine calling anyplace else home.
San Francisco’s charms are great and small. You wouldn’t want to miss Golden Gate Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Golden Gate Bridge, or a cable-car ride over Nob Hill. But a walk down the Filbert Steps or through Macondray Lane or an hour gazing at murals in the Mission or the thundering Pacific from the cliffs of Lincoln Park can be equally inspiring.
San Francisco Restaurant Reviews
Since the city’s earliest days, food lovers have flocked to San Francisco—a place where diversity rules and trends are set. The gold rush of 1849 brought a flood of immigrants from all over the world, and they quickly introduced their national tables to their new neighbors. Today San Francisco remains a vital culinary crossroads, with nearly every ethnic cuisine represented—from Afghan to Indian to Vietnamese. And although locals have long headed to the Mission District for Latin food, to Chinatown and the Richmond District for Asian food, and to North Beach for Italian food, they also know that every part of the city offers dining experiences beyond the neighborhood tradition.
This historical diversity has helped to create a city of adventurous diners and has kept chefs here busy inventing fare to satisfy their demanding clientele. The now-famous California cuisine, an ephemeral term that generally implies full-flavored dishes consisting of fresh, usually organic produce and meats and drawing inspiration from both European and Asian cookery, is a hallmark of that drive. Developed in the early 1970s at the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant, across the bay in Berkeley, this classic local cooking style today is featured in dozens of San Francisco restaurants, each always striving to be a little different from the competition down the street, and usually succeeding.
A bevy of nationally celebrated, highly innovative chefs, including Judy Rodgers, Traci Des Jardins, Gary Danko, and Mark Franz, call San Francisco home. They are all serious trendsetters, but in the end it’s the local diners who decide whether a trend succeeds or not. Early this decade, for example, a couple of restaurants switched to small-plate menus, drawing on the tradition of Spanish tapas. In no time, these establishments became wildly popular, and now a slew of Italian, French, Asian, Latin, California-cuisine, and, of course, Spanish restaurants are satisfying the hunger for little bites of lots of tastes at a single meal.
Not every trend is new. In the 1970s the city was known for its French restaurants, including the high-profile Le Trianon, opened by René Verdon, former chef to the Kennedy White House. Eventually French food fell out of fashion as other culinary waves, such as rustic Italian, pan-Mediterranean, and fusion cuisine (the introduction of Asian ingredients in Western kitchens), washed over the city. But French food has come roaring back into style, with bistros and brasseries popping up everywhere from the Financial District to Pacific Heights and Potrero Hill.
Fortunately, some trends don’t fade. San Francisco is the birthplace of sourdough bread, and you find pungent, chewy loaves of it everywhere, particularly along Fisherman’s Wharf. You also find moderately priced California wines just about everywhere—thanks to the proximity of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, to the north. Look, too, for the excellent Anchor Steam beer, an old city label that nearly disappeared in the 1960s only to be resuscitated and prosper. Many credit its success, built on traditional brewing techniques, with helping to launch the revival of microbrewing in the United States.
Selecting some 125 recommended restaurants is a next-to-impossible task. Several restaurants represent each popular style of dining in various price ranges. In most cases, the restaurants were chosen because of the superiority of the food but in some instances because of the view or ambience. The areas of town most frequented by visitors have received the greatest attention. This has meant leaving out some great places in the more distant corners of the city. The outlying restaurants that are recommended were chosen because they offer an experience not available elsewhere.
San Francisco Hotel Reviews
Few U.S. cities can rival San Francisco’s variety in lodging. Its plush hotels rank among the world’s finest; its renovated buildings house small hostelries with European flair; its grand Victorian-era homes serve as bed-and-breakfasts; and its private residences rent rooms, apartments, and cottages. You can even find accommodations in boats bobbing on the bay, but the popular chain hotels and motels found in most American cities are here, too. The city’s hilly topography and diversity of neighborhoods contribute to each property’s unique sense of place, and you may feel like a kid in a candy store as you go about choosing which of the approximately 32,000 rooms here will be your home-away-from-home.
Some inns and hotels, such as Jackson Court and Nob Hill Lambourne, emphasize serenity and seclusion, and many properties offer massage and other spa treatments. Establishments such as the York Hotel, W San Francisco, and Sir Francis Drake Hotel give you access to a lively cosmopolitan scene via their dining and/or entertainment venues. Hotel Monaco, Clift, and Hotel Triton are among the deluxe hotels that have embraced a dynamic and playfully artsy style that says, “Look at me!” The Mandarin Oriental and other ultraluxurious hotels bring the world to your room through sweeping views and lavish room-service menus, whereas humbler lodgings may inspire you to explore the outside world. Many small hotels and inns commonly offer complimentary evening wine and hors d’oeuvres, giving you the chance to mingle with fellow travelers even if you don’t want to “make the scene” in a big way.
San Francisco is one of the top U.S. destinations for vacationers, business travelers, and convention goers alike, and the greatest concentration of hotels is in the downtown hub of Union Square. Here you find excellent shopping, the theater district, and convenient transportation to every spot in town. The Union Square area west of Mason Street and south of O’Farrell Street blurs with the edgy Tenderloin district; use your street smarts here, and find out from your hotel which routes are best to avoid after dark. Up-and-coming SoMa, across Market Street from the Union Square area, is also a convenient spot to bed down, as it’s near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Gardens complex, and other attractions.
High-rise growth has turned the Financial District, also near Union Square, into a mini-Manhattan and a spectacular sight by night. Most hotels here have great city and bay views, and there’s easy access to the Embarcadero, Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf, Market Street shops, and SoMa’s many restaurants and nightclubs. Don’t expect much nightlife in the Financial District itself; most restaurants and bars close soon after the last commuters catch the BART train home.
Nob Hill, synonymous with San Francisco’s high society, contains some of the city’s best-known luxury hotels, all with gorgeous views and notable restaurants. Cable-car lines that cross Nob Hill should help you avoid the short but steep trek from Union Square.
In Fisherman’s Wharf, city ordinances limit hotels to four stories, so this isn’t the area for fantastic views. However, all accommodations are within a few blocks of restaurants, shops, and cable-car lines. Nearby North Beach has surprisingly few lodgings, although some small B&Bs are tucked into unassuming Victorians on the neighborhood’s side streets.
Lombard Street, a major traffic corridor leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, stretches past San Francisco’s poshest neighborhoods: Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, and the Marina. The least expensive accommodations are along Lombard Street. If you prefer to be out of the hustle and bustle, opt for lodging on smaller side streets. Many motels in this area have free parking and local calls, providing significant savings over the $40-a-day parking tab at most downtown hotels and the $1-per-call charge in most city lodgings.
Although scaffolding covered many of the grand buildings in the Civic Center/Van Ness area during the late 1990s, the neighborhood has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts. To the west, the Western Addition neighborhood has everything from funky auto-repair shops and soul-food and pizza joints on bustling Divisadero Street to gingerbread-trimmed Victorian mini-mansions on verdant Alamo Square. North of the Western Addition is Japantown, dominated by Japantown Center, a large shopping, dining, and entertainment complex. Lodgings in these areas cover all price categories.
Construction booms near San Francisco International Airport during the mid-1980s and late 1990s brought several luxury hotels to this rather prosaic area. Rates are about 20% lower than at in-town hotels, and weekend prices are often slashed because clients tend to be midweek business travelers. However, the drive from the airport area to downtown San Francisco takes 20 to 30 minutes, so what you gain in value you may lose in convenience.
San Francisco Nightlife
From ultrasophisticated piano bars] to come-as-you-are dives that reflect the city’s gold-rush past, San Francisco has a tremendous variety of evening entertainment. Although you never know exactly where you might stumble upon an elegant cocktail lounge or a hip dance club, knowing some neighborhood generalizations can improve your chance of finding the kind of entertainment you want. Nob Hill is noted for its plush hotel bars and panoramic skyline lounges. North Beach—though it still has a short stretch of strip clubs along Broadway—is mostly known for historic bars that invoke the city’s beatnik past and sleek lounges full of locals and visitors alike who stop in before or after dinner at one of the area’s many mom-and-pop Italian restaurants. Fisherman’s Wharf, although touristy, is great for people-watching and is convenient to many hotels. Tony Union Street and the nearby Marina are where you find singles bars that attract well-dressed and well-to-do crowds in their twenties and thirties. South of Market—or SoMa—is a nightlife hub, with a bevy of popular dance clubs, bars, and supper clubs, as well as a few excellent live-music venues. The gay and lesbian scenes center on the Castro district and along Polk Street. Twentysomethings and alternative types should check out the ever-funky Mission District and Haight Street scenes, although even these two neighborhoods get more upscale cocktail lounges and fewer dive bars every year.
For information on who’s performing where, check out the “Datebook” insert of the San Francisco Chronicle, or consult the free San Francisco Bay Guardian, which lists neighborhood, avant-garde, and budget-price events. The SF Weekly, also free, blurbs nightclubs and music venues and is packed with information on arts events around town. Another handy reference is the weekly Where magazine, offered free in most major hotel lobbies and at Hallidie Plaza (Market and Powell streets).
Except at a few skyline lounges, you’re not expected to dress up. Nevertheless, jeans are the exception and stylish dress is the norm at most nightspots. Of course, stylish means a black designer outfit at one place and funky thrift-store togs at another, so you have to use your judgment. You can safely wear wool to a bar in San Francisco without fearing it’ll reek of cigarette smoke for days afterward: State law forbids smoking in any indoor place of work, including bars and clubs, except for the very few that are staffed entirely by the owners. Although bartenders in many drinking establishments tolerate smoking, the police do not, and anyone caught lighting up may be fined. But the cops don’t usually bother with enforcement (unless someone has filed a complaint), so if you smoke, follow the lead of locals. Bars generally close between midnight and 2 AM; those catering to an after-work crowd in the Financial District, however, may stop serving as early as 9 or 10 PM. Bands and other performers usually begin between 8 and 11 PM. The cover charge at smaller clubs ranges from $5 to $10, and credit cards are rarely accepted. At the larger venues the cover may spike to $30, and tickets usually can be purchased through Tickets.com.
San Francisco Shopping
From its swank boutiques to its funky thrift stores, San Francisco is simply one of the best shopping destinations in the United States. Deep-pocketed consumers as well as window shoppers visit the dozens of pricey international shops packed into a few blocks around Union Square, and bargain hunters who would never dream of paying full price frequent used-record and thrift shops in the Mission District and the Haight. Some locally owned shops show off San Francisco’s countercultural bent. An anarchist bookstore, tiny clothing boutiques owned by creative designers, art galleries exhibiting emerging artists’ works, and music stores selling rare vinyl are among the retailers that make the city unique. Excellent Italian delis and Asian and farmers’ markets sell foods unavailable at typical grocery chains, and the Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street at the Embarcadero, has a dense concentration of gourmet markets, offering everything from caviar to artisanal cheese to organic produce.
Visitors with limited time often focus their energies on the Union Square area, where almost all the city’s major department stores tower over exclusive boutiques. Nowhere else in San Francisco can you visit so many stores in so little time. And this will be even more true after the fall 2006 opening of the Westfield San Francisco Centre, where Bloomingdale’s will anchor the new complex in a restored landmark building adjacent to the San Francisco Shopping Centre. But options are plentiful if you can make more than one shopping expedition, or if you prefer locally owned shops to international boutiques and department-store chains. The Castro is the best destination for men’s clothing and gay-theme items; it also has a good selection of stylish and mostly affordable housewares. Nearby, the perennially hip Mission is a bastion of used-clothing and used-furniture stores, left-leaning bookstores, and boutiques selling clothing by the city’s funkiest designers. On the north side of town stores tend to be a little more mainstream and more expensive. The densest selection of retailers on this side of town is on Union Street, where women’s clothing, jewelry, and housewares are on offer. Japantown, in between these areas, sells Japanese antiques, kimonos, books, and foods to a local Japanese population and in-the-know shoppers. Chinatown is so crowded with tourists that many of the shops stock inexpensive, low-quality kitsch, but hidden down less-trafficked alleyways are shops selling groceries, herbs, and beautiful fabrics to San Francisco’s sizable Chinese population.
As for souvenirs, the ubiquitous shops around Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf sell the usual cable-car miniatures, T-shirts, and postcards. But if you look a little farther afield, you can pick up San Francisco-themed books—perhaps about the Beat poets or radical politics—at stores such as the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach or beautiful Japanese paper and stationery in Japantown. More ephemeral mementos include chocolates and wines produced in the area.
If shopping in San Francisco has a downside, it’s that real bargains can seem few and far between. Sure, neighborhoods such as the Lower Haight and the Mission have thrift shops and other inexpensive stores, but you won’t find many discount outlets in the city, where rents are sky-high and space is at a premium. And the 8.5% sales tax adds up for serious shoppers, though tax is waived if you arrange to have your purchases shipped to an out-of-state address. Seasonal sales, usually in late January and late July or August, are good opportunities for finding deep discounts on fashionable clothing. The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner advertise sales. For smaller shops check the two free weeklies, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SF Weekly, which can be found on street corners every Wednesday.