From the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to romantic fog, and from beatnik history to an obsessive farm-to-table food scene, San Francisco enchants with a host of must-do experiences. This weird and wonderful city on the Bay has managed to be a hot spot for generations of innovators—from hippies to techies—and is still home to a dizzying array of eclectic, only-in-San-Francisco experiences that will please all types of travelers.
GOLDEN GATE PARK AND OCEAN BEACH: BEST BEGINNER BIKE RIDE IN SAN FRANCISCO
I have an aversion to hills, especially when riding a bike. This is not ideal, because I live in San Francisco and some days it feels like an entire city of hills. This bike ride is one of my favorites not only because it goes right through the heart of Golden Gate Park and ends up at Ocean Beach on the Pacific Coast, but there are—you guessed it—no hills.
Rent a bike at Golden Gate Bike Rentals on Haight Street and cruise through the park to the sea. On the way back, it’s a little tougher because you are headed on a gentle upward slope, but you can always catch the number 5 bus and put your bike on the rack for the return journey.
PRESIDIO – WOOD LINE: ANDY GOLDSWORTHY’S WOOD LINE
A few blocks east of Goldsworthy’s more prominent Spire is this installation of fallen trees snaking through the still standing ones. Wood Line is located within the cypress grove near the intersection of Presidio Boulevard and West Pacific Avenue, just off Lovers’ Lane. Thousands drive by this spot and never notice it. It’s a beautiful work. View it, walk around it, walk on it, experience how it changes over time.
MA-TSU TEMPLE: WORLD TRAVEL AT HOME
Often, when I feel overly strapped to my desk, hankering for a trip to another land, I stroll into San Francisco’s Chinatown. Once I’m off the main drags and into the residential neighborhoods or the commercial streets chockablock with shops markets frequented only by locals, that sense of wonder and winding down transports me, at least until I’m back in front of the computer.
NAPA: BIKING, HIKING, AND KAYAKING IN NAPA
Most people come to Napa for the wine, but the Napa Valley is also an amazing place for people who love nature and the outdoors. Napa Valley Adventure Tours offers hiking, biking, and kayaking trips around the Valley. And of course, in addition to breaking a sweat, you also get to taste some local wines. The biking trip covers around 13 miles but stops at three boutique wineries. The Napa Valley also has some of the area’s best hiking. I love spending an afternoon exploring Zim Zim Creek Trail and Bothe State Park.
PRESIDIO OF SAN FRANCISCO: AUTUMN IN SAN FRANCISCO
While summer is universally the most popular time to travel, October and November are, in many ways, the best months to visit San Francisco. The heat of the midsummer sun in the Central Valley of California means fog for much of the coastline during June, July and August (see Samuel Clemens’ take on summer in SF), but when the temperatures begin to even out between inland and coastal regions, San Francisco basks in fall sunshine—the results are views like the image posted above, which I took during a cycling trip from the city to Marin.
THE WARFIELD: WARFIELD WONDER
The Warfield Theater in San Francisco opened in 1922 as a vaudeville theater, but lives on as a live music venue in current times. Starting with entertainers that included Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin, its prowess lives on with Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson and Frightened Rabbit, current day. At one point in 1979 when it didn’t look like the theater was going to survive financially, Bob Dylan breathed new life into the performance hall with 14 consecutive sold out shows. The 2,300 seat arena ate it up night after night and the hall has been ‘rocking ever since’.
EDEN & EDEN: ECLECTIC JEWELRY AND HOMEWARES IN SAN FRANCISCO’S NORTH BEACH
There are a handful of stores in San Francisco that sell quirky and distinctive clothing, jewelry, and homewares. Eden & Eden is one. The brother-and-sister owners stock some vintage pieces and a nice selection of funky jewelry from the U.K. I’ve also paid visits here for housewarming gifts—a set of the turquoise champagne flutes is a personal favorite.
FOURBARREL COFFEE: BEST COFFEE AROUND. GUARANTEED!
Yesterday I got a glimpse of just how serious San Franciscans can be about the stuff they consume.
When it’s the best, it’s the best!
Go have a cup and chill with the the hipsters.
TARTINE BAKERY: TARTINE – SAN FRANCISCO’S BEST BAKERY
With no sign above its unassuming storefront, Tartine is most easily recognized by the line that snakes out its door and down Guerrero Street. People patiently wait for flaky pains au chocolat (the best outside Paris, in my opinion), decadent banana cream tarts, and hot-pressed sandwiches stuffed with fillings like smoked sheep cheese and quince jam. The bakery’s James Beard Award-winning pastry chefs also turn out loaves of stone hearth-baked bread, available every day after 4:30 p.m. Nurse a coffee and nibble on a croissant at the communal table, or take picnic provisions to nearby Dolores Park.
MISSION DOLORES PARK: FUN BEFORE THE FOG
Since moving to San Francisco three months ago, I’ve gone to Dolores Park almost every weekend. The vibe there embodies what I’ve come to love about San Francisco. There’s public drinking, yes, but people clean up after themselves, and behave pretty well to boot. But be sure to bring a sweater—when the fog rolls in, there can be sudden drops in temperature!
ALCATRAZ ISLAND: ALCATRAZ
Alcatraz—the very name conjures dark images of impregnable prisons, infamous criminals, and daring escape attempts, but the island is not all murder and mayhem. “The Rock,” set a few kilometers offshore in the San Francisco Bay, is designated a National Historic Landmark and managed by the National Park Service; it’s an important area for nesting seabirds, the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse, and has hosted a military garrison and been occupied by American Indian activists.
The main draw for visitors, of course, is the abandoned maximum-security state penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963 this almost-mythical prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous and troublesome criminals, including Al Capone. The audio tour is fascinating. Narrated by former inmates and guards, the tour ushers you down dank corridors, into cramped cells, and through common areas and staff quarters. You hear stories about the prisoners’ daily routines, escape attempts, and riots, all set to an atmospheric prison life soundtrack of echoing footfalls, clanging doors, and jangling keys.
The only way to reach the island is via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance booking is recommended; during peak times tickets can sell out weeks in advance. By day you can explore the island, or combine it with a trip to Angel Island; by night you get more broody views of the Rock.