[November 2014 Update]
I figured now that I finally live in San Francisco, I should update this post! Please feel free to comment if you have any questions for your particular visit. I hope you find this useful =)
Lately, a lot of people have been asking me about things to do (and eat) in the Bay Area. I've had these long emails written out for a while now and think they are worth posting since people have found them pretty useful! Please keep in mind that I've never lived in SF before, only visited myself and that this is a short list I've compiled and for people coming in from outside of CA.
I have to say special thanks to my best friend Judy C. for her advice on how to get around + restaurant recommendations, Nick C. for sending me his list of awesome restaurant recommendations and my boyfriend Jing for taking me to some of these places!
Hope you guys find this useful. And for those of you native San Franciscans please leave comments with some of your suggestions!
How to get there / around
- In SF, the most convenient way to get around is by using ride sharing apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. My personal favorite is Lyft (first time users can get a free $10 ride by entering code JESSICA623 – I get $10 when you use it too!).
- My favorite way of getting around SF though is WALKING – you get the best views and a real feel for neighborhoods. Just don't/be careful about walking through the Tenderloin (the area west of Union Square, north of Market, east of Van Ness) – it's an area with a lot of homelessness and many tourists would find it unpleasant. Also, I usually walk only in the daytime.
- Public Transit: Options in SF include MUNI (the bus), and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit – like a subway). However, be warned that MUNI can be slow and unreliable. I use Google Maps to route which buses to take.
- To/From SFO: From SFO, I've heard of a new service called Wingz dedicated to affordable rides to/from SFO ($35 to/from SF to SFO). Their website says that the drivers also track your flight so they know if you're delayed (which happens often in/out of SFO because of all that fog!) Otherwise, all yellow cabs and ridesharing apps also work to/from SFO! You can also take BART.
What to Wear
I know this isn't a fashion blog and I'm not about to give any fashion advice, but here are some tips on attire when touring SF
- A note about SF seasons: SF is odd because summer is very very cold! I am always amused seeing European tourists wearing tank tops/shorts/flip flops in the summer here when it's 50 degrees and foggy. Also, fall is VERY HOT – like 80's hot! So do check the weather forecast and remember it gets windy!
- Wear comfortable flat shoes: it's hilly, and it's often windy/cold. That's why instead of flats, I prefer comfortable walking boots. Many girls wear booties instead of heels at night too.
- LAYER UP! I think because SF is near the water and gets lots of wind, the weather can change pretty quickly. Even if it's hot during the day, it's probably going to be cold once the sun goes down, so layer, layer layer!
Things to do / see
- Union Square - Park in the center of downtown SF with fancy shopping, beautiful hotels and department stores all around. Especially pretty around Christmas with the tree in Union Square park!
- Ferry Building - It's like an indoor farmer's market with lots of boutique breadshops, cheeseshops, olive oil shops, etc. One of my favorite restaurants to visit there is Hog Island Oyster Company – super fresh oysters and great clam chowder! Great place to grab a coffee and sit outside to soak in the sun and view of the Bay Bridge too.
- Ride a Cable Car - I've always wanted to do this! They start on Market Street and go north/west from there. Refer to this map! The one at Union Square is always super packed and I heard a less crowded version is to get on at Van Ness and California and it'll take you across Nob Hill and to the Financial District. It's $6 per ride.
- Coit Tower - Another great view. I've never been up the tower, but I have brought a croissant from the Ferry Building and came up here to reflect on life =P This is a great place to "hike" up to – hilly and lots of stairs!
- Ghiradelli Square / Pier 39 / Fisherman's Wharf - I think these are all along the same street near the ocean. Get some clam chowder from the alley way at the wharf, hot chocolate from Ghirardelli, and stop by Hooter's too if you want some delicious fried chicken sandwiches. There's also an In n' Out here!
- Bike Across the Golden Gate Bridge - I think this is a MUST DO if you're up for it! Rent a bike from Blazing Saddles in Pier 39 or Ghirardelli Square and they have directions that take you to Sausalito. Once you get to the other side, you can take a ferry back. You get some awesome views of SF and the Golden Gate bridge from the ferry station in Sausalito too. Sausalito is also a super cute town to explore.
- Visit Alcatraz Island - hop on a ferry from Pier 33 (great views on the way there) and explore the island. I just visited recently and blogged about it here. There's also an Ai Weiwei exhibit going on there through April 26, 2015. The visit takes 4-5 hours.
- Twin Peaks - Great place to get a super nice view of the city! Gotta get lucky with the fog though and you need a car to drive up.
Neighborhoods to Explore / Shopping
- The Mission - If you want to see the hipster side of SF, definitely visit the Mission! Around Valencia and 17th Street is where all the gentrification is going on (or is completely done). Clarion Alley is an alley between Valencia and Mission that has tons of mural artwork that you should check out if you're in the area. Also visit the famous coffee shops and bakeries there (Tartine Bakery, Sightglass Coffee, Ritual Coffee, Bi-Rite Ice Creamery). Sunny Dolores Park is also THE place to hang out, especially on the weekends! On Valencia Street, there are lots of boutiques that sell more unique/hipster clothing/gifts.
- Union Street and Chestnut Street - Super cute streets with tons of boutiques, fun restaurants, and bars. On Union St, I love Roam Burger and consignment shops like Fillmore & 5th. On Chestnut St, you get more mainstream stores like Gap and Apple, but also lots of restaurants (see below)!
- Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights: Similar to these shopping areas (perhaps a bit more high end) would also be Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights (between Sutter St. and Pacific St.) Pacific Heights is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in SF (read: Old Money), so this shopping area is catered for them. There's a froyo shop that I love going to there too called Fraiche – organic ingredients and fresh fruit toppings.
- Explore Hayes Valley – Hayes Valley is a really cute neighborhood – it's fairly new b/c the area used to be under a freeway, but it collapsed during the 1989 earthquake so there's been a lot of rebuilding there. Things to see include Patricia's Green park where you can check out the sculpture art and people watch. The stores near the park are super unique because they are all made out of shipping containers – there's even a clothing store made out of 4 stacked containers where they retrieve clothes with this mechanical rack! Must check out: Smitten Ice Cream (made to order ice cream using liquid nitrogen), Blue Bottle and Ritual Coffee (super popular), and Chantal macarons (my favorite)! There's also an awesome beer garden too (great German beer and food, but expect a line on weekends Biergarten). There are also tons of cute boutiques in the area too (Lavish, Azalea, Rand Stratler, Cary Lane, Acrimony)! Start exploring at Hayes and Octavia Streets.
- Haight-Ashbury - Hippie area that's fun to see and shop around. I've been a couple times in a tourist capacity, but don't really visit the area as a local. There's some really interesting history about the neighborhood though (more info on the Summer of Love here).
Below are some ideas on things to do at night in SF. There are of course the usual bars/clubs, but these hopefully give visitors a different perspective on SF city life! Also, there's an app called Sosh that has current events and uses your location to give you suggestions on things you can do. I've used it many times to figure out my weekend plans!
- Speakeasy Bars – SF has tons of speakeasy bars. Most are located in the Tenderloin district so I advise taking a cab / Lyft there.
- Bourbon and Branch - make reservation on their website
- Wilson & Wilson - go to website and make reservation to get PW
- Local Edition - speakeasy style place, but no res needed. Very popular for happy hour.
- Burritt Room + Tavern - sounds like a fun bar, inside a hotel. I really want to visit!
- Rickhouse – speakeasy vibe, but just a bar. punchbowls are awesome!
- Museum Nights – lots of SF museums open up at night for adults only and play music and serve drinks.
- Exploratorium After Dark – first Thursdays of the month from 6-10pm. The theme changes each month so check out their website and buy tickets online!
- California Academy of Sciences Nightlife – awesome museum that has events every Thursday night! Theme also changes so check out their website. They usually have interactive exhibits where you get to make /create something. There are have long lines to get in when I've been, but don't be shy about walking up to the front to ask them which line you should be in (skipped the entire line once doing this... I guess everyone else wanted to wait?)
- Off the Grid – Off the Grid is an organization that has food truck gatherings all over the city. Check out their website to see where they will be. The Twilight in Presidio one is awesome because they set up campfires and tents during the summer/fall months.
- Embarcadero to see Bay Bridge LED Art Installation – SF recently spent some money getting an artist to install LED lights on the bridge so it sparkles ever so nicely at night! Video here about the art installation.
- Lookout point at Golden Gate bridge - Another bridge you might want to see at night is the Golden Gate. This article has specific directions on how to get one of the best views of the Golden Gate at night.
- Bar hopping on Polk Street – most locals I know love bar hopping on Polk Street. The bars span from Russian Hill all the way down to Civic Center (between Sutter and Union, closer to Union being nicer and closer to Sutter being a little more divey). Some cool bars I've been to: UpCider (more like a restaurant bar, tons of ciders!), Playland (2 story bar, dancing upstairs, can be super super crowded though), Nick's Tacos (taco stand connected to Rouge bar. Has TVs playing sports (at least on weekdays..). LOVE the Nick's fish tacos so delicious! Discounts on Tuesdays), Lush Lounge.
Here are the restaurant recommendations I've compiled from places I've been to and from friends. Take a look at all their yelp reviews before you go and I hope you enjoy =) When in doubt, just fire up your Yelp! app in whatever neighborhood you're in and try something new!
The House (North Beach, 1230 Grant Ave)
This is one of my FAVORITE restaurant in SF. Asian influenced dishes. The Seabass is their most famous dish and what I get everytime. Also heard they have amazing Ahi Tuna Taretare and Pork Chop. A small place so make reservations. Saw Patrick Dempsey there once too!
Wayfare Tavern (Financial District, 558 Sacramento St)
Just ate here last Christmas break -- see my post here
Salt House (Financial District, 2 Shaw Ally)
"Organic American cuisine that is awesome. The place has a great drink list and again a really good raw oyster bar. Must get the Poutine as a starter. Really like the ambience, has some cool murals and easy lighting." -Nick C.
Marlowe (SoMA, 500 Brannan Street)
Took my mom here on her birthday and everything was super delicious and well made! Busy though so do make a reservation. Across the street from the Caltrain station.
Mission Beach Cafe (Mission, 198 Guerrero St)
BEST and most delicious brunch ever! They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait. They do have a coffee bar you can grab a drink from while you're lounging around for your table. See my post for photos and food recs =)
Foreign Cinema (Mission, 2534 Mission St)
"French and Italian influenced organic foods. Great raw oysters but a bit over priced. They show a classic movie during dinner. Great ambiance." -Nick C.
Isa (Marina, 3324 Steiner St)
"Organic French small plates -- amazing food. Ask for a table in the back atrium / courtyard area." -Nick C.
Chapeau! (Inner Richmond, 126 Clement St)
Small French bistro in the Richmond district -- haven't been here in years, but LOVED it when I went! Great food, decent prices and very friendly staff.
Burma Superstar (Inner Richmond, 309 Clement St)
SF has a large Burmese population and many like to say that Burma Superstar made Burmese food cool. The line here is always ridiculously long, but if you call ahead, they can put your name on their list and then you show up closer to when your table will be ready. BStar is their other restaurant (same food I believe). I usually just go to other great Burmese restaurants in SF though like Mandalay and Burmese Kitchen (I'd rec Burmese Kitchen for lunch only b/c it's on the edge of the Tenderloin). Definitely get the tea leaf salad at any of these restaurants!
Local Cheap(er) Eats
San Tung Chinese Restaurant (Inner Sunset, 1031 Irving Street)
Best dry-fried chicken wings in SF! They are sweet, savory, and sticky and OH SO DELICIOUS! So delicious that there's always a wait! PRO TIP: If you have a party of 6+, you can reserve a table. So even if your party isn't that big, just grab a couple people in line to join you when you arrive (I'm sure they wouldn't mind skipping the wait!).
Yummy Yummy next door is also good if the wait is too long and you're down for some vietnamese food / noodles. The family's kids opened a branch in SoMA called SO Kitchen, but definitely call ahead because that place is ALWAYS closed... once my friend made a res for a birthday dinner and they confirmed, but when we arrived, they were closed!
Roam Artisan Burger (Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow locations)
Delicious burgers, love the one with an egg in it!
The following restaurants are all in one corner area in the Little Saigon neighborhood of SF – it's part of the Tenderloin so be prepared for some interesting smells and homelessness. That said, because of the neighborhood, most of them are not open for dinner and close around 5pm. I've noted that below.
Turtle Tower (Tenderloin, 645 Larkin St) - not open for dinner
This place is like a San Francisco institution. Ask any young person who lives in SF where they go on Saturday/Sunday mornings after a night out and I guarantee you that Turtle Tower will get lots of mentions. The pho here is a little different as it's Northern Vietnamese pho – most places in California serve Southern Vietnamese pho. Northern Vietnamese pho emphasizes chicken broth more than beef and some condiments are different (you'll see no Sriracha sauce here). If you come here, get #9, Pho Ga (chicken pho).
Hai Ky Mia Gai (Tenderloin, 707 Ellis St) - not open for dinner
Around the corner from Turtle Tower, this place has Chinese/Vietnamese noodle soups. Very delicious and inexpensive and they have nice service too! Most people love the braised duck leg noodles with soup on the side (you can specify dry). I like #7 the house egg noodle soup with thick noodles.
Ha Nam Ninh (Tenderloin, 701 Larkin St) - open for dinner!
This is the newest restaurant on the block near Turtle Tower and Hai Ky Mia Gai. It's been around since 1958 though, just in a much smaller location on Jones Street. Anyway, this place is famous for their dry pho noodles which is SO addictive and delicious! It's #25 and you can get it with the rice noodle or ask for half egg noodle, also +$1 for large and +$1 for fried egg on top. The only problem is that their service is super inconsistent and quite terrible. I think they are still working out the kinks of having a restaurant 5x the size of their old one... It's also kind of expensive compared to the other places (~$10-11 per bowl vs. $8 at Hai Ky Mia Gai).
Lers Ros (Tenderloin, 730 Larkin St) – open for dinner!
One of the most popular Thai restaurants in SF. They have many dishes beyond the typical Pad See Ew and Pad Thai – just ask them what's popular. My favorites are the Pork Shoulder appetizer, 5 Spice Duck, Crispy Pork Belly, and they also have this dry noodle that's very good. The normal things are super delicious too though (green curry chicken, pad see ew/pad thai, etc.).
Burmese Kitchen (Tenderloin, 452 Larkin St)
Delicious Burmese food at an affordable price!
Other Suggestions from Nick C.
Terzo (Marina): 3012 Steiner St
Organic Italian influenced new American cuisine, great wine list.
Chaya (Downtown): 132 The Embarcadero
Asian and French influenced plates. Pricey but very classy and a great view of the bay.
Zuni Café (Civic Center): 1658 Market St
Organic, very popular but definitely one of the best restaurants in the city...If you have time (1 hour) get the chicken for two, it is amazing. Great bar, wine list and raw oyster bar.
Blue Plate (Castro): 3218 Mission St
Hidden gem, organic American cuisine. Must ask for a table in back courtyard area if possible. Very hip and cool place.
2223 (Castro): 2223 Market St
Delicious food and very fun atmosphere. Good wine and drink list and always good for "sightseeing" in the Castro for out of towners.
Sushi Bistro (Richmond): 445 Balboa St
Best sushi in the city...I started going here before that Apple commercial came out. Great place if the you like sushi but atmosphere is less romantic.
ChouChou (Twin Peaks): 400 Dewey Blvd
Owner Nick is very gracious and fun guy. The food is phenomenal and the environment is perfect for a date.