What to See and Do in San Francisco

I've lived here since 1992. Here's what I find interesting or cool in San Francisco.

(See also: My Guide to Silicon Valley.)

What to Wear in SF

  • Okay, it can be 90F in Palo Alto, but SF is at the entrance of the Pacific Ocean so it can be very very cold, even in July. Shorts are okay, but you must have a good thick fleece sweater (not a light one). Tourists come to SF in the summer in their T-shirts and shorts: that's why SF sells so many fleece jackets! :-) SF has micro-climates. It can be 85F in one neighborhood and you go four blocks and it's suddenly 59F. The steep hills, the sunlight, and the fog cause that.
  • SF is a walking city. Wear good walking shoes. We also recommend that you save your feet: take taxi as much as possible.

SF on Foot

  • Start in the morning at 9 am.
  • Cable Car: Absolutely must. Go (walk or taxi) to Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround at Hallidie Plaza (Powell & Market) to ride the Powell-Hyde line. (There is also a Powell-Mason line: you don't want that one. Be careful, you also don't want the street car or tram. You want the cable car.)
  • Often a crowd, so get there early and get in line. Bring $5 cash to pay for the ticket. To get good photos, get a standing spot either at the front or the back.
  • When you get to the end, you can either go to the right and see Fisherman's Wharf, etc., but it's just tourist stuff: T-Shirts, bad food, etc. We recommend China Town. Take the cable car back and get out at Bush Street. Walk a few blocks downhill to Grant.
  • China Town: Start at the Dragon Gate at Grant & Bush . Walk through the gate and continue on Grant. Go all the way to the end. Brings you to North Beach.
  • North Beach (The Italian Neighborhood): Cross the street and continue on Columbus. Time for lunch. Lots of places for sitting outside for a pizza. Plus Italian ice cream and bakeries. Go 4-5 blocks to the park, where you'll see St. Peter & Paul Cathedral. When you see weddings in American movies, the outdoor scene is often here, even if the movie wedding is in NYC or Boston :-)
  • It'll be now 2-3 pm.
  • Flag down a taxi and go to Cliff House at Seal Point. Spectacular views. If it's very clear, you can see the Farallon Islands on the horizon about 35 miles away. Lots of seals in the surf. Walk around the complex there. Walk down to the beach. Take off your socks and walk in the surf. Here, you should be wearing shorts, not jeans.
  • Walk as far as you want. On the way back, just across the beach road, is Beach Chalet, which is actually a restaurant. (1000 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 94121. (415) 386-8439. beachchalet.com‎) Plan ahead and make reservations. Try to get a seat by the window. Spectacular ocean sunset view.
  • It'll be late evening. Ask the hostess to call a taxi. Back to your hotel to crash.
  • Day 2: Redwood Forest, Pacific Ocean, Napa: Get a car. Go to the Golden Gate Bridge. Cross over. Stay in the far right lane. The person in the passenger seat should have the camera ready to take photos. Drive slow. At the end of the bridge, take the first right: that brings you into a parking lot. Park wherever you can. Walk to the scenic view. Lots of great views of the bridge, SF, Alcatraz, the Bay, etc. Lock your car, leave no valuables in sight, and watch your stuff: lots of pickpockets too. And lots of plainclothes police to catch the pickpockets.
  • At the parking lot exit, bear right. Continue a few miles down the hill to Sausalito. Go to the downtown area and park wherever you can and walk around. Very pretty Northern California town. Find a supermarket or deli and get sandwiches and drinks. You must get food in Sausalito; in a few miles, there will be no shops at all for the rest of the day.
  • Continue to Muir Grove. Get there early; it can fill by mid-afternoon. It's a great place to walk in a redwood forest. You can picnic there. The hills, the curves, the views are very Northern Pacific Coast.
  • Continue along Muir Woods Road to Muir Beach. Very nice place.
  • Return over the Golden Gate and back to SF for dinner.

Car Tour of SF

  • First: DO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING IN YOUR CAR , especially if your car is a rental car. Thieves see the bar code on the back window and know it's a tourist's car. Don't park and then put handbags, camera bags, etc. in the trunk; thieves see that and wait for you to leave. I've seen thieves smash windows and break into cars in daylight while hundreds of people were around. You'll waste hours to get a police report and exchange the rental car.
  • Second: If you don't know SF really well, it's not easy to drive around by car in downtown SF: many streets are one-way the wrong way, the streets take odd angles, etc. Parking is also very difficult and generally expensive. It's much better if someone else drives: either taxi, Uber, or Lyft. If you like the driver, then ask if they'll drive you all day off the meter. You pay the driver directly, so it'll be cheaper than the usual fare.
  • Let's start. Drive to the intersection of Lincoln Way and Great Highway. Go north along the beach. If the weather is good, park your car and take a walk on the beach.
  • Walk (or drive) up the hill and park in the parking lots. You can look out over the Pacific. Look for seals on the rocks. If it's very clear, you can see the Farallon Islands about 30 miles away.
  • Drive east on Geary Blvd. to 34th Avenue and turn left. Go through the golf course to the Museum of Art at the Legion of Honor. It's an excellent art museum with very good views. Continue north along El Camino del Mar (which turns into Lincoln Blvd. Lots of great views. Go under the tunnel and turn left to the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • On the Golden Gate Bridge, stay in the far right lane. Have your camera ready. You can see SF, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island. Look up at the bridge's towers.
  • At the end of the bridge, turn right into the parking lot. DO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING IN YOUR CAR . Park and see the view. BEWARE of PICKPOCKETS .
  • Return on the Golden Gate Bridge. Continue on Highway 101, which turns into Lombard St. Stay on Lombard all the way up the hill. Over the hill, you'll drive down the snakey curvy street.
  • Continue on Lombard up the hill again. Drive through North Beach and up to Coit Tower. Again, don't leave anything in the car (but if you left anything in the car at the last two places, you won't have anything by now :-) Great views of SF.
  • Drive down and turn left onto Columbus Ave. Drive through North Beach, the Italian neighborhood of SF. Lots of great places for pizza, pasta, pastries, etc.
  • At the intersection of Columbus and Broadway: The Condor was the first strip club in the US. Across the street is Citylights, one of the best bookstores in the US. To the right is China Town.
  • Go to Union Square and park in an underground parking lot (much safer for your car). Walk to Union Square. See the statue on the column? That's Chick on a Stick. She was modeled after Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville, the original Sugar Baby; her wealthy benefactor was Adolph Spreckels, the original Sugar Daddy (because he owned a huge sugar company). He paid for the column, so he placed his semi-nude girlfriend up there. Who knows what his wife thought about this?
  • Walk to the intersection of Market Street and Grant St. At the east end (across Market St.) is the Four Seasons. Walk west along Grant and see the major luxury stores. Continue on Grant to China Town at the intersection of Grant and Bush. Go through the Dragon Gate into China Town. It's better if you park and walk in China Town. Walk to the end at Columbus. Lots of places to eat and shop.

More Stuff to See in SF

  • 16th Ave. Tiled Steps: Inner Sunset, 16th Ave., between Moraga and Noriega
  • Lyon Street Steps
  • Vallejo Street Steps
  • Valencia Street between 16th and 24th streets
  • St. Mary's Cathedral on Geary. You can park in the parking lot. Go inside.
  • Victorian SF: See SF how it was in the 1890s. The Haas-Lilienthal House is a Victorian house that’s open to the public. 2007 Franklin St. 
  • Art Museums: SF has several good art museums: California Legion of Honor, MH de Young Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Great Views: Go to the top of Coit Tower
  • China Town: Start at Grant + Bush and walk through the Dragon Gate all the way to North Beach (the Italian neighborhood). Continue on Columbus all the way to the cathedral St. Peter & Mark. Lots of places for pizza. Try Calzone’s. Or go to US Restaurant next door has incredible pesto pasta.
  • Go to Jail: Alcatraz, the prison on that island in the bay, is super interesting place to visit. You can walk around inside a prison and see what it’s like. There is a 3-to-5 day wait for tickets.

Shopping in SF

  • The best place for shopping in San Francisco is 40 miles away from San Francisco. The Outlet in Livermore has 180 stores, incl. Prada, Gucci, Versace, Coach, Burberry, Cole Haan, Kate Spade, Ralph Lauren. Take BART from Montgomery St. to the Dublin/Pleasanton Station (~45 min) and then take the Wheels Bus Route 14 to the outlet. Open every day. Info tel. 925.455.7500. The Outlet in Livermore

Food in SF

There are three types of restaurants in SF: trendy, tourists, and junk.

  • Trendy: There are several thousand restaurants: only about 100 are the best. The trendy restaurants change very rapidly. They're also expensive. They don't want kids, tourists, Yelp reviews, or any reviews at all. If you think the CIA has something to do with spies, then don't go to these.
  • Tourist: Fairly okay to really terrible. Terrible, as in expensive, poor quality, bad service. Best tip: ask your concierge. If your hostel doesn't have a concierge, go to one of the large hotels and ask the concierge. His recommendation will be based on your shoes: nice shoes, good place. Cheap shoes, cheap eats. Go for pizza in North Beach or lots of places around Union Square. There is also the Ferry Building, which has lots of super good small restaurants in a space where you can walk around for hours. Don't go to Chinese restaurants in SF; they're for tourists and generally bad. Spices (two locations, at Clement+6th or Clement + 8th) is good Sichuan. Real Chinese food is in Silicon Valley. Don't rely on the reviews in tourist guides; the restaurants paid for those. Generally, if it's in a tourist guide, it's not good.
  • Junk: Who cares?
  • California Cuisine: If a restaurant in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or Copenhagen serves locally-grown fresh food from small farms, that’s California cuisine and that was started in the early 70s by two women: Alice Waters and Patty Unterman. Practically all good restaurants worldwide are like this now to the point that we think it’s normal. Try Chez Panisse ($$$) in Berkeley or go to the SF Ferry Building.
  • Sunday Morning: Go to the back of the Ferry Building. Large farmer’s market. Many of the top restaurants have booths and offer great stuff at low prices for lunch. Try a fried oyster sandwich. (At the end of Market St at the water).
  • Chinese Restaurants: Dol Ho (dim sum from carts. 808 Pacific Ave.); Hang Ah (1 Pagoda Place, Hang Ah Alley, between Clay + Sacramento St.); Great Eastern (649 Jackson St.); Z+Y Restaurant (Sichuan style, v spicy). (Great Eastern and Z+Y are next to each other).
  • BBQ: Memphis Minnie’s BBQ. Get Tennessee smoked pork sandwich or Texas brisket (576 Haight St.)
  • Crab and Seafood: The Franciscan. Make reservations and ask for a table by the window for great views of bay (Pier 43 1/2, Fisherman's Wharf)
  • Happy Hour: E&O Kitchen: $4 beer, $6 cocktails, $1 oysters, $1 dumplings, $2 mushroom satay, $3 ahi tuna tartare, $4 naan, $4 ribs, $24 pu pu platter for four. Mon-Sat, 3-6p (314 Sutter St.)
  • Little Paris: Homesick for France? Go to Belden Place. Lots of small French restaurants. May we suggest moules plouf at Café Plouf? (Belden Place at Pine + Bush)

California Nature

  • Sea Lions: Go to the end of Pier 39 (left side, at the water, follow the sound of barking dogs). Lots of sea lions.
  • Redwood Trees: Redwoods are only in California. Go to Muir Woods (30 min north of SF.) Bus tour from SF ~$50/person or rent a car. If you drive, you MUST have reservations. nps.gov/muwo/planyourvisit/reservations.htm
  • Yosemite National Park: One of the five best places on the planet. Bus from SF ~$150 or rent an SUV for five people. You should stay overnight. You MUST have dinner at the Awahnee (if you don’t have reservations, show up at 5p and ask if someone has cancelled.)

Yosemite, LA, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, etc.

  • Bus Tours: There are bus tours with bus+hotel to Yosemite, Las Vegas, LA, etc. Example: taketours.com
  • SF to LA for $26: GoToBus.com, MegaBus.com, BoltBus.com. Overnight bus (with bed) at RideCabin.com For cheap flights, try Oakland to LAX (Los Angeles).

In Closing

If you have suggestions to add, let me know.

See also: My Guide to Silicon Valley.