San Francisco is a city that makes its own rules and is known for its fog, hills, clam chowder and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also fast becoming “the best food city in America right now,” according to Bon Appetite (2015), and Eater (2015) called the Bay Area the country’s “top fine dining destination.” With such accolades we had high expectations for this cool, quaint, breezy city and a very short time (four days) to tick off as many boxes as possible, including a visit to the said bridge, the famous Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz and of course sample some amazing food…
There’s so much we didn’t get to do unfortunately but we can save that for the next trip. In the meantime, here are our top 5 highlights and general tips:
- Golden Gate Bridge – we hired bicycles from Bay City Bikes, and cycled over this iconic bridge. Apparently it is said to be one of the most photographed things on Earth, that doesn’t surprise us one bit – it’s definitely impressive.
- For those looking for a little adventure Tam Hiking Tours is an an outdoor recreational service on Mt. Tamalpais and surrounding areas. A surprise find but nonetheless a fabulous discovery. We wanted to experience San Francisco in a unique way and this enabled us to do that. The hike is led by Debra Schwartz (founder of Tam Hiking Tours), a nature enthusiast and passionate host who will make you interested in all that is around you.
- Alcatraz – a visit to the world famous prison is definitely a must. Some of the United States’ most notorious criminals were incarcerated there. Though several tried, no inmate ever made a successful escape from “The Rock.” The prison was closed in the 1960’s and stories about Alcatraz are legendary. The audio tour is brilliantly insightful. Whilst we were on the island we also saw a really interesting exhibition showing old inmates and asking the question “should we show compassion?” The thought provoking exhibit was a highlight and we would encourage those who can to go see it. Get there with Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33 (the best time to visit Alcatraz is January-March because tickets are available, even for last minute travellers). Advance reservations are recommended.
- Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39 is a festive waterfront marketplace that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. A community of California sea lions has taken up residence on the floats to the west of the pier and visitors line the nearby railing to watch their antics. From there it’s a short walk to the famous crab vendors selling walk-away crab and shrimp cocktails.
- North Beach, the big surprise at the city’s Italian quarter is that it’s not even a beach. We embarked on a culinary adventure with Local Tastes of the City Tours and killed two birds by eating and learning simultaneously. Our friendly host Tom shared his local knowledge and we learnt that this is a neighborhood of romantic European-style sidewalk cafes, restaurants and shops centered near Washington Square along Columbus and Grant avenues. The beautiful Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a beloved landmark.
Where to stay
San Francisco is full of boutique hotels with lots of character and The Phoenix Hotel (from the Joie de Vivre Group) is no different, this retro motor lodge has hosted many rock musicians and other celebrities since the 1950s. It’s located in the Tenderloin neighborhood, a 10-minute walk from a BART rail station. Joie de Vivre pride themselves on imagination and authenticity and this lovely hotel certainly does that with it’s quirky frog sculptures, pop colours and heated pool – this a must and very reasonably priced so if you’re on a budget but fancy a unique hotel, this is the one for you. The on-site restaurant Chamber Eat + Drink is also an added draw. For those looking for a little more on the luxury side The Clift (from Morgans Hotel Group) is the dream. With an impressive arty lobby and spacious rooms with Malin + Goetz products, this contemporary hotel is relaxed and inviting. The iconic Redwood bar oozes glamour and whilst it attracts ‘hipsters’ it’s by no means pretentious which is refreshing. Located just off Union Square it’s a stone throwaway from the fancy shops too.
Nothing seems very far away but once you factor in the hills you’ll soon be riding local cable cars – Muni buses, cable cars and historic street cars – we recommend checking out SFMTA to plan your travel. Alternatively you can hail local taxis or book an uber. If you’re in an active mood you can cycle around the city there’s lots of companies offering bicycle hire for a few hours or the day – we used Bay City Bikes and found them to be helpful and flexible when we missed our Ferry, another great way to get around.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try as much as we would have liked to on our short trip, however the few we managed were pretty amazing. 1 Ferry building is great, especially the Farmers Market open three days a week – Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Saturdays, the much larger market is held both in front of the Ferry Building and on the rear plaza overlooking the Bay and is full of delicious foodie goodness. The Ferry building is also home to the newly opened upmarket Asian Fusion restaurant by Charles Phan, The Slanted Door. We were blown away by the banh bot doc, (gulf shrimp & pork belly tapioca dumplings, shallots, thai chili-fish sauce, scallion oil) and the cellophane noodles (green onion, dungeness crab, sesame). For an upmarket restaurant the vibe is chilled, which makes for a great dining experience, and the staff are friendly and helpful with suggestions. We’ll definitely be going back with a bigger appetite (we were cheated by our jet leg on our last visit). Zuni Cafe located at 1658 Market Street between Franklin & Gough is also a popular one not to miss. This too is upmarket but in a relaxed way. Their signature roast chicken salad for 2 may take an hour but it’s worth the wait. The menu changes daily but all that we can tell you is that the ricotta and spinach gnocchi and yellowfin tuna steak we tried was scrumptious. Unfortunately, we didn’t make Lazy Bear this time around but we were intrigued by their modern day dinner party with the communal idea of sharing food and stories with other diners. The food is said to be modern American and they offer tasting experiences for the ultimate foodie experience of 14+ courses. The experience is ticketed so book well in advance. In fact, we would recommend booking all of these popular restaurants in advance. No visit to California is complete without a cheeseburger at IN-N-OUT, those in the know can ask for the ‘secret menu’ we however did not and stuck with the our usual and left satisfied!!
Kabuki Springs & Spa is an oasis of serenity in San Francisco, most popular for their Japanese style communal bath but they also provide amazing spa treatments and massages. The communal baths have specific dates for men/women/mixed so check online to see what dates suit before booking.
For hanging out with beer nerds and hipsters (as well as trying some of the world’s rarest/best/most hyped beers) try the City Beer Store, 1168 Folsom St. If you’re lucky they may have the rare, ‘best in the world’ Pliny the Elder from Russian River beer on tap. Saloon Bar at 1232 Grant Street in North Beach, is one of the top blues bars in the City.
We flew the 11hours there with Virgin Atlantic for around £700rtn.
For more information on San Francisco check out The San Francisco Travel Association