Forty-nine square miles, 43 hills, and 120+ neighborhoods (depending on who you ask). San Francisco isn’t just bigger than the space it occupies, it’s larger than life. The “City by The Bay” lives up to its reputation – enshrouded in fog, surrounded by water on three sides, and connected to the rest of the world by only a delicate thread — the Golden Gate Bridge.
Yes, San Francisco is exactly what you see in the movies: whimsically decorated Victorian houses, steep hills patrolled by cable cars and that bridge. But it’s also an evolving city, where techies rub elbows with organic foodies, and where you can find haute cuisine sat next to authentic Mexican food on the same corner. It’s also the home of our spring MarkMaker, Aleksandra Zee, an artist who works with wood to create large-scale wall hangings. Find out more about her in our Guide to the Modern Trail.
If you’re on the West Coast, check out our 24 hour guide to San Francisco:
San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood is where you’ll find many of the city’s historic hotels. Built in 1909 as the Fielding Hotel, the newly renovated Hotel G nods to the past (original wood floors and concrete ceilings) with modern touches and homey décor (hand-dyed rugs and California-shaped pillows) meant to feel more like a friend’s stylish apartment than a traditional hotel. There’s an on-site gym, restaurant and wine bar. Why leave? Read on.
Address: 386 Geary Street, San Francisco CA 94102
Photo: Libby Truesdell
There’s nearly always a line at Brenda’s so go early – and hungry. With a menu of delectable dishes like crawfish beignets, shrimp and grits, and French toast with butter pecan sauce, Brenda’s is no place for light eaters.
Address: 652 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Alcatraz Island has been home to a citadel, a military prison and a national park, but its most famous use was as a maximum-security penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. In that time it housed some of the century’s most notorious criminals like Chicago gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.
More than 1.4 million people visit each year to tour the former prison, hear tales of attempted escapes and view the cells of infamous inmates like Robert Stroud, better known as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’.
Tickets include the ferry ride to the island as well as a self-guided audio tour.
Address: Pier 33 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111
A short stroll down the Embarcadero brings you to the San Francisco Ferry Building, which was once the second-busiest transit terminal in the world. Today it’s not only the point of departure for ferries around the bay, but also a bustling food hall and marketplace lined with purveyors of olive oil, sourdough bread, wine, cheese, meat and much more.
Nosh your way around or have lunch at one of the many on-site restaurants, such as the Slanted Door, Gott’s Roadside or Hog Island Oyster Company. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, there’s an outdoor farmer’s market.
Address: One Ferry Building, San Francisco, California 94111
San Francisco is a city of hills so give your legs a rest (they’ll need it) by riding one of the iconic cable cars, part of the world's last manually operated cable car system. There are three lines: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California. During peak hours the lines at either end of the Powell lines can be hours long; hop on somewhere along the route or opt for the California line.
Address: 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
Fisherman’s Wharf is, on a bad day, a tourist trap overrun with people. But if you can see past the crowds, there’s some charm to discover. Head to Pier 39 to see lazy sea lions piled nearly on top of one another as they rest on the docks. Check out the sea life at the Aquarium of the Bay and don’t miss the antique and vintage arcade games at Musée Mécanique.
Musée Mécanique Address: Pier 45 Shed A, San Francisco, CA 94133
The Golden Gate Bridge has been an icon of San Francisco since it was built in 1937. Thousands of people walk and bike across its 1.5-mile span every day, checking out the stunning vistas of the city and the Marin Headland as well as Alcatraz and Angel Island. One popular bike route goes over the bridge and into Sausalito; from there, less ambitious bikers can ride a ferry back to the city.
Often a windy city, throw a waterproof lightweight jacket into your bag, like our Kibby Mountain Hooded Bomber Jacket to be set for all weather.
Hop-on, hop-off buses also offer transport across the bridge and make additional stops around the city, such as the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and Alamo Square, where you’ll find the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ Victorian houses that made a cameo in the opening credits of Full House. Cue theme song.
San Francisco has far more delicious food than you could ever eat in one day, so make the most of your time on a progressive dinner crawl around the Mission, the epicenter of San Francisco’s dining scene. Along the way, check out the city view from Dolores Park or wander down Clarion Alley to see beautiful street art.
On a nice day, start with a beer at Zeitgeist, a haven for hop-heads and beer enthusiasts. The beer garden serves 40 beers on tap and a limited food menu (burgers and brats). If wine and cheese is more your style, head to Mission Cheese for wine and cheese flights (pictured below). For cocktails and eclectic small bites that change with a new theme every few months, try Trick Dog or for a more substantial meal, go for pasta with a cult following at Flour + Water (pictured above).
If you have room, cast your vote for the city’s best burrito in the rivalry between Taqueria Cancun and El Farolito. Finally, cap it all off with your choice of whimsical flavors at Humphry Slocombe ice cream: be brave and try peanut butter curry, chocolate smoked sea salt or the indulgent Secret Breakfast with bourbon, vanilla, and corn flakes.
Zeitgeist Address: 199 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Housed in a former speakeasy, Bourbon and Branch is often credited with bringing the craft cocktail craze to San Francisco. There’s no bar sign and you need a password to enter (make reservations on the website) giving the outing an air of mystery. House rules, such as a ban on cell phones, keep up the façade, but it’s the delicious, Prohibition-era drinks that keep guests coming back for more.
Address: 501 Jones St, San Francisco, 94102