Sadly, it took me five years to return to San Francisco from Los Angeles. This time I skipped some of San Fran’s most popular attractions for first-time visitors, to discover my own greatest hits. Although you shouldn’t miss walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, sailing around Alcatraz, riding a trolley, seeing Lombard Street aka “the world’s crookedest street” and perusing Fisherman’s Wharf and Sausalito, try some of these memorable excursions for your next visit.
LihoLiho Yacht Club
Not a yacht club, but we stumbled upon this popular dinner spot near our hotel in Nobb Hill. A long line was out the door at 5 PM, so we returned an hour later to find a seat at the bar where we devoured one of the most memorable meals of our San Fran weekend. Apparently, this place is a hard ticket to get reservations – the exceptional food is definitely the reason why! We sampled a mesh of Asian, Indian, and Hawaiian cuisine. A whole pre-cracked Maine lobster almost deep fried with a black bean sauce and coconut curry Manila clams with pillow-y Naan bread made in their Jasper oven were stand-outs. Save room for desserts like guava mochi cake with white chocolate buttermilk cream and strawberries and the Baked Hawaii with caramelized pineapple ice cream and vanilla chiffon. Dine in a booth in this brick-walled space or book the Ohana table located at the front of the restaurant in the picture window for 8-10 guests to share ten or more dishes.
Edible Excursions Food Tour in the Mission District
The “walking feast” plus history tour in the Mission District was led by incredibly fun and informative Travis whose own mission is to explore and walk every inch of San Fran. The tour allowed us to sample bites at places we may have just walked by had we not known their significance and stories. Starting at Mission Minis we began our jaunt with gourmet bite-sized cupcakes with flavors like Aztec Chocolate, Cinnamon Horchata, and Swiss Almond Coconut. Winner of Cupcake Wars, Mission Minis was created by a former musician who enjoyed making cupcakes because it made him feel more relaxed.
After sipping well known San Francisco Philz Coffee, we devoured moist pastrami sandwiches from a Jewish deli called Wise Sons. Our walk included interesting neighborhood tidbits from one restaurant to the next while gobbling down El Salvadorian pupusas with cabbage and salsa at D’Maize and a super burrito with 12-hour grilled pork at 55-year-old Taqueria El Farolito. At the back of La Palma Mexicatessen, we gazed in awe as individual tortillas were being made from scratch. This raw edgy part of town is known to be the sunniest and oldest part of the city, where perhaps the city sprang forth.
Randomly we stumbled upon a 58-year old bakery called La Victoria that was closing the next day for good, so we relished in taking home a few of their specialty pastries and cookies. Balmy Alley was part of our 3-hour tour, ending with ice cream at another new San Fran staple – Humphrey Slocombe where we relished in scoops like Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with cornflakes), Fudgesicle, Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, and Strawberry Capn Crunch. In such a short time we got a real feel for the Mission District. What a phenomenal way to appreciate the cultural richness and foods that make San Francisco so special. Edible Excursions award-winning walking food tours include other areas too, such as the Ferry Building, Japantown, Oakland, and Berkeley.
Balmy Alley Murals
Located in the Mission District, cruise down Balmy Alley midday and admire more than 30 outdoor constantly changing murals. The public community art reflects Latino flavor and themes of diversity, injustices, and peace in Central America. Before cars, people once parked their horses in the alley.
An illicit bar, a crooked casino, and a vaudeville cabaret make for an extraordinary night out. Step back in the 1920’s and come dressed for the part (or you won’t be let in) as Prohibition-era comes alive all around you underground. The Speakeasy situated through a laundry room in the North Beach area is a night you will never forget. A secret knock and the right catchphrase to a handler allows you in. Phones are taken upon arrival. Prepare to gamble with raucous characters, drink old school cocktails, and dance the Charleston with a room full of guests. It felt like we stepped into an episode of Boardwalk Empire. Over 40 character actors infused throughout the night provide drama soaked hilarity that seemed all too real while the cabaret room offered nonstop entertainment and laughs. Don’t forget to Speak Easy or prepare to be kicked out.
Rooftop Park at the new Salesforce Transit Center
The new elevated urban rooftop park at the new Salesforce Tower Transit Center features 60 species of trees from around the world and a 1,000-foot long fountain. Similar to New York City’s Skyline, visitors can stroll the four-block walkway of urban greenery or picnic in a meadow, jog on the path, or let children enjoy the playground. This transportation hub that serves as the primary bus terminal and future rail terminal has been transformed into an urban destination.
North Beach at night
No beach in site, but Italian heritage is thriving in this neighborhood similar to Little Italy. Arrive at night when the streets are teeming with people spilling in and out of Italian restaurants, dining outside at quaint cafes, grabbing a pizza slice or gelato, and living the good life by bouncing in and out of cabarets, jazz clubs, and even strip clubs. It is so lively here that I was reminded how quiet LA is at night. The Stinking Rose is a culinary tribute to all things garlic while Original Joe’s is a neighborhood staple that has been around for 100 years. Grab an award-winning pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana or a perfect deli sandwich at Molinari Delicatessen.
Spend an hour or more poking around this artisanal marketplace in the historic building along the bay. Glorious produce and merchants offer products like cheeses, meats, mushrooms, and ice cream. Take home souvenirs or sample some of my favorite vendors – Blue Bottle Coffee, Acme Bread Company, Beekind, Cowgirl Sidekick (a cheese and dairy bar), Far West Fungi (with every imaginable mushroom available and mushroom logs to grow your own at home), Hog Island Oyster Company, and Humphry Slocombe for ice cream. Sausalito-made Heath Ceramics showcased their mid-century pottery vases and tableware. The famed Vietnamese style restaurant The Slanted Door is here too.
Get lost in Chinatown and meander the largest Chinese enclave outside of China filled with bustling markets heaped with ducks, herbs, vegetables, and other affordable goods. Next to North Beach and adjacent to the Financial District, stroll this neighborhood of ornate lamp posts, hanging lanterns, pagoda roofs, tea houses serving dim sum, and restaurants offering Cantonese delicacies. China Live is an interactive culinary destination that is determined to demystify Chinese cuisine. Wok Wiz Tours allows for a mix of local history and flavors while less touristy and less crowded Stockton Street may be the most interesting place to explore where sidewalks team with elderly Chinese bantering and shopping. Even though fortune cookies aren’t really Chinese, you may want to stop in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory at 56 Ross Alley.
Marina/Pacific Heights area
Along the city’s northern shore, we walked in a rectangle first along Marina Blvd with bobbing boats and a distant expansive view of the Golden Gate Bridge towards the Palace of Fine Arts. No visit to San Fran seems complete without a stroll through the pastoral park with the Palace of Fine Arts, constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The theater’s Greco-Roman columns and lavish architectural details make for limitless Instagram-worthy shots. We cut down Baker Street and meandered in and out of roads to glimpse stately mansions before heading down Union Street filled with cute restaurants, bars, spas, and shops housed in restored Victorian buildings. Pass by Soul Cycle (where it originated), and relax at Belga or Palm House for brunch at an outdoor table.
Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill
Climb the steep hills to witness the beauty of this regal French Gothic-style structure, similar to the grandeur of cathedrals in Europe. Admire over 7,000 square feet of elaborate stained glass windows, Ghiberti Doors, intricate murals by Jan Henryk De Rosen, and both the interior and outdoor labyrinths. After 40 years the church was completed in 1964 just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver one of his stirring sermons to celebrate the cathedral’s consecration. It is hard to leave here without saying a prayer or thinking Oh My God.
While we recommend strolling neighborhoods to get a feel for various areas, we also suggest not overplanning your trip because often the best travel experiences begin without a strict schedule. We do recommend using Uber to get from one area to another or hopping on a trolley. The Hop-On Hop-Off Bus is also a fun way to learn about the city’s history and explore San Fran’s diverse neighborhoods too. Use the San Francisco City Pass to save money, especially since many children’s museums are included.