This post is mainly for people who want to visit San Francisco. They typically have a day or two and want some tips one where to go and what to see. I typically give the same advice, check out this place, if you want good sushi go here etc.
What I have done is wrap up all the advice into a blog post. Not every neighborhood is covered, but there is a good bakers dozen worth of destinations to consider. Some with caveats like don’t go here on the weekend, keep your wallet in your backpack and other fun tips.
I have listed the destinations in no particular order, each with a crappy iPad painting from yours truly, most likely done on an airplane to pass the time. At the end I will suggest what a two day whirl wind tour might look like if you make it to SF.
The Castro District
San Francisco is in general a very LGBT inclusive city, but that is most true in the Castro District. If your conservative relatives are coming to town dropping by the Castro might result in seeing two men in thongs making out in the street, but if you pick the right time of day and week, the neighborhood is actually fairly tame.
The Castro has a theater which is known to play things you will not find at AMC, Cliffs Variety Store, which should be your first stop for DIY Halloween costumes. It is also home to Deki Jewels - Tibetan Blankets and gem shop as well as other interesting stores, not to mention all things LGBT, book stores, fashion and things you never knew existed.
I avoid the Castro during pride, as the neighborhood turns into such a party it is hard to walk down the street. But on a week day or in the afternoon it can be a fun place to take friends and family when they are in town. Near by attractions include Buena Vista Park which is a great hike and view of the city once you get to the top.
As a San Francisco native I actually like China Town, but in limited quantities. If you are in Union Square and want to go to North Beach for coffee, then China Town is a good way to get there. The street is Grant Avenue which has the landmark entrance on Bush Street.
The entrance is also near Café de la Presse which is a good place for Mimosas and brunch. If you are walking down Grant Ave and notice that all the stores are selling the same stuff and everyone is from middle America and has a fanny pack, congratulations, you have seen China Town.
Form here you have a couple options. Book it up the hill one block to Stockton street and see the real China Town, which I highly recommend, or jump in a Lift, Cab, or Uber and see what has become the “new new” China Town, which is Richmond District.
To be fair, the Richmond District is a melting pot of all ethnicities, but has become a popular destination for Asian immigrants. There are many reasons to go the Richmond, the best might be the food. So in short, see China Town, see Stockton street, and go to the Richmond for authentic Asian cuisine.
The Ferry building is one of San Francisco’s treasures, and one of the places I suggest all visitors stop by. As someone who grew up in Seattle, it has the same charm as the Pike Place Market. Shops, wine, books stores, (well book store) as the ferry building is not that big.
If a friend is in town and they want to catch up over a drink, I will often suggest the Ferry Building. It is one of the few places that is a hot spot for tourists, but also a place that locals go to pickup artisan breads, honey, and cheese.
The best (and worst) day to see the Ferry Building is Saturday afternoon. Best because of the farmers market that takes place, worst because it is often crowded. The wine bar in the Ferry building is great, as is the little book store. Go during off hours for shorter lines (Tuesday morning for example).
The last bit of fun with the Ferry Building is well the ferry, which can take you across the bay to Sausalito, which is a great trip and destination if you are in town. The ferry building is also close to the baseball stadium (which is also a concert venue) and the Exploratorium which is great for kids of all ages.
Some have called Fillmore street the Rodeo Drive of San Francisco. That might be a stretch, but there is certainly an element of class and sophistication (high concentration of people with money) that can be felt in this particular part of town.
For this reason you will find a number of high end dining destinations as well as a number of shopping experiences ranging from more mainstream to boutique. Independent fashion brands will setup shop, and this is a good place to go to find these sorts of things.
Fillmore street is also a home for many well know high fashion providers ranging from Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, to Rag & Bone and James Perse. The reason I like Fillmore street and the reason I include it in the list is that you can be fancy on Fillmore.
If you are about to go to the Symphony and need a place where you can be dressed to the 9’s and get something to eat, well Fillmore is a great option. The Fillmore is also a “neighborhood” and has pet stores, bakeries, hardware stores and all the things that make it more than a high end outdoor shopping mall.
Should we check out “the Haight”, long pause, ok here are some thoughts on “the Haight”. If you are putting together a 60s counter culture costume, this should be your first stop. If you just read “the electric kool-aid acid test” and want to see the history, drop by as I’m sure you will find it interesting.
As a local, I tend to avoid the Haight. It’s dirty, and tends to be full of either tourist, or people who are stuck in the 60s drug culture. What the Haight does have going for it is brunch. If you love brunch, then drop by the Haight on a Sunday Afternoon.
If rose colored glassed and tie-died shirts are your jam, then by all means, drop by the Haight and see the sights. What you might find is that the counter culture of the 60s has turned into a bit of a tourist trap, and what has held on is the darker side of substance abuse.
I mentioned the brunch, brunch in the Haight is good, and there are a ton of shops selling everything from Tibetan rugs, to buddhist statues, and if you are into smoking pot, well I’m sure you can find a hand blown bong or whatever you are looking for, but the love of the 60s seems to be missing and what is left is interesting but not always inspiring.
I love Hayes Valley, and I’m not really sure why. I lived in Hayes Valley around 2010 and have seen it grow into a hip destination. The heart of Haves Valley is Hayes and Octavia, where you can find an outdoor theater and numerous shops selling everything from fresh pressed juice and kale salads to macaroons and art.
Hayes Valley is small, so you can drop in see what you need to see and be on your way. There you will find hip sun glasses, stores that only sell super soft t-shirts and hoodies that cost a fortune but make you wonder where they have been all your life. Also many great places to have a lunch dinner, and drinks.
They also have one of the best collections of restaurants in a small set of city blocks in the city. La boulangerie is great for coffee, there is also b8ta (beta) which showcases all the latest technology for the modern home, ice cream at Salt and Straw, and many other destinations.
I recommend seeing these things on the “off hours”. Salt and Straw ice cream is good, but there is also a line that wraps around the block. Also, don’t forget to see the sights around Hayes Valley. The Zen Center is close and is a piece of history, Yoga Tree is a world class yoga studio, but is easy to miss when you are bouncing from store to store.
Japan town is small, but it also has a special place in the heart of San Francisco. Many neighborhoods in San Francisco get reinvented every five years. Japan town seems to have a certain timeless nature to it. As with all neighborhoods in SF it is good to look at a calendar to see what is going on.
My favorite time to visit Japan town is during the “off hours”. There are certain days out of the year when the little strip of city blocks known as Japan Town turns into a parade or cosplay convention and when it comes to getting a seat at a restaurant, all bets are off. These events are often fun to see, but my favorite time is when things are slower.
The Kabuki theater is now owned by AMC, but it was once the (Sundance Kabuki 8) and known for being a destination for seeing independent films, and I might add, allowing alcohol in the theater. From my perspective it is still one of the best places to see movies in the city and a goto destination for independent films.
There is also the Kinokuniya book store, which is a personal favorite of mine, and if you love ramen, I highly recommend dropping by Japan Town for just that. I typically visit Japan Town to stock up on high quality Incense (Asakichi), and to visit Daiso (epic Japanese dollar store) for various odds and ends.
Also worth a stop by is Nijiya Market, which sells Sashimi by the pound and other Japanese essentials. Also in Japan town is the Kabuki Springs Spa, which is the place you want to go to get a massage, acupuncture, seaweed wrap and all relaxing spa things.
The Marina district is a good place to go for a walk. The neighborhood includes the waterfront and the Palace of Fine Arts, Ghirardelli Square is a short walk away. The Marina is part of the general Cow Hollow area which is known for shopping, eating and general sight seeing.
To me the Marina feels like LA. Most of the people who live in the Marina are into fitness, style, eating gluten free, doing juice cleanses and shopping. Sometimes it feels like you are at a Sorority or Fraternity party, but overall the Marina is a fun and safe neighborhood to visit.
The two streets you will want to see for shops and restaurants are Union, and Chestnut. This is where you will find laser hair removal boutiques, stores that only sell yoga pants, bars that have low calorie cocktails on the menu, soul cycle, baby strollers, dogs with bows in their hair, people talking about diets while eating salads etc.
Sound like fun? Perhaps this is your ideal city experience, but even if you are not into this lifestyle, the Marina is a great place to take a stroll. The Crissy Field Beach is the best place to dip you feet in the water and see the Golden Gate Bridge. The Fort Mason farmers market on Sunday is one of the best in the city.
Noe Valley is young family and stroller territory. It has a feel to it which is very safe neighborhood, and is known for being the type of place that you can go for an afternoon stroll, get brunch and peruse boutique book stores.
I like Noe Valley because it feels like an actual neighborhood. The people who are in Noe Vally typically live in Noe Valley. It has the charm of San Francisco without being a tourist destination. Noe Valley would be a great place to rent a house for a week or two if you are in town and looking for a home base that is safe but also has character.
From Noe Valley you can walk to Dolores park which in the summer looks like a where’s Waldo book from the 90s. A person or group of people every ten feet, but for good reason, it is beautiful, and the perfect place to put down a blanket and enjoy the city while reading a book, or playing hacky sack and getting high (Dolores park has a little of everything, find a spot that speaks to you).
If you are planning a visit to Noe Valley, it is best to look at a calendar and see what is going on. The neighborhood is fairly sleepy during the week, and is a bit more active on the weekends and during festivals and farmers markets, which is the ideal time to visit. Good place to bring young kids, and in general a very safe neighborhood to visit.
North Beach – Little Italy
It is difficult to say where North Beach begins and ends. There is a certain point where China town and Little Italy merge and half the restaurants are Italian and half are Chinese. If you got in a cab and told them to go to the North Beach they would probably drop you off at Washington Square.
This is a good place to start, and the home of many Italy centric events throughout the year including a Ferrari festival. Just down the street you can find City Lights Bookstore, which is famous for being part of the beat generation poets, and general movement which includes Jack Kerouac and others.
If you are going to get a double shot expresso and read a book, then North Beach is a great place to start. If you are on the water front, around pier 17 or the Exploratorium, you can walk up the hill towards north beach. This usually results in finding fun pathways with amazing views, often winding through gardens and residential areas.
If you plan to eat in North Beach this is probably a safe bet. You can find everything from grab and go to fancy meals. Take a look through yelp and see what looks good before going. I typically go for the coffee. Réveille is great, but Little Italy takes coffee seriously, so anywhere you go will most likely be amazing.
This is one of the most popular destinations for tourist when visiting San Francisco, and although it has many charms there are some caveats. This can be a colorful neighborhood, especially at night. I live near Union Square, and although it can be very safe, it is best to pick the streets you walk on carefully.
Union Square is the fashion center of San Francisco. This is where you will find Barney’s, Neiman Marcus, Burberry, Coach, and many other high fashion brands. You can also find many fast fashion brands like H&M and Uniqlo, which is why many locals go to Union to pick up basics.
There is also the mega Apple store, but also some gems that can’t be found in every city. Britex Fabrics has been in the area for over 60 years and is the place to go for couture fabric. Christian Louboutin has a store tucked away in a romantic alley where you can also find Italian suits care of Isaia, which is in a historic Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Union Square is a great destination. You can stroll on over to China Town, walk down market street to see the Ferry Building. There is also the Metreon which is one of a fews places in the world that have both IMAX and Dolby theaters. Westgate mall is fairly standard and includes Bloomingdales and Nordstroms, as well as Zara, J Crew and all the others you would expect.
The last bit about Union Square is the Tenderloin which I would not recommend. San Francisco takes care of those in need, and we are proud of that, but sometimes people in need can be lot to handle. If you want to go from Union to Hayes Valley, don’t make a B-line through the Tenderloin. It is a rough neighborhood especially at night. Get a cab from Union Square if you want to venture South.
Valencia Street, and the Mission
The Mission district is rich in history and should be on your list if you are planning to visit for a day or two. If you live in San Francisco and want to say get a burrito, you don’t go to Chipotle, you go to the mission and get the real deal.
The mission is big and is known for being rich in culture. Valencia is a great street to walk down to capture the essence of the area, and has a few points worth taking note of. From Valencia you can stroll down to Dolores park, get some Bi-Rite Ice Cream, or make you way over to Tartine Bakery. If you want to see these destinations, my suggestion is to visit on a weekday to avoid the lines.
Valencia is also home of Paxton Gate which has a weird collection of rocks, plants and dead animals, which sounds weird, but is done is a way that makes it all part of an experience, which is what Valencia is all about on some level. Every shop is providing an experience of some sort. One sells only fancy backpacks, the next is all about smoothies, modern furniture with an 80 twist, you get the idea.
I typically walk down Valencia on Saturday, early enough that the crowds have not woken up from their Friday night parting to get brunch and lounge around in Dolores Park. This is the best time to drop by Lucca Ravioli Company for all things Italian. They are also in the Marina District and have the best pesto you will find in San Francisco.
The Fisherman's Wharf
If you are visiting San Francisco, it would be a shame to not visit Fisherman’s Wharf. If you visited San Francisco and all you did was visit the Wharf, you might as well just stay at home and look at a post card. Locals don’t go to the Wharf that often, mainly because it is swarming with tourists.
There are some reasons I love the Wharf, but here are a few reason a I hate it. Applebees, Rainforest cafe, Hard Rock Cafe, Celebrity wax museum, In and Out Burger, and the store where you can buy candy by the pound. At a certain point it just feels like one big tourist trap. With that said, here are a couple reason to visit.
The peer is actually a nice walk at night, and during the off hours can be wonderful. If you make it past all the tourist traps, people covered in gold paint pretending to be robots and people making spray paint art on the street, there is a charm to the Wharf, but you need to look for it.
If you are at the Wharf, see the board walk, but avoid the food, unless you want a bread-bowl filled with chowder that costs a small fortune. As you get closer to Geridelli Square, things get better in terms of class. Flying Ninja Sushi is decent, but food is going to be just “ok” compared to other neighborhoods, so take that into consideration.
From Fisherman’s Wharf, your best bet is going to be Exploratorium or Alcatraz, for things to do, and if you want to escape the tourist trap nature of the Wharf, the best thing to do is walk over to the Marina, see the Golden Gate Bridge, and enjoy the city sans tourists. In short, see the Wharf but don’t expect too much.
Two Day San Francisco Adventure
Ok, here is my advice for staying in San Francisco. Get a hotel near Union Square and make that your home base. On day one see Union Square, China Town, North Beach and the Ferry building. Lunch and dinner can be found at each and it is a matter of what you are looking for.
You will have room in day one to take young kids to the Exporitorim, or go to Alcatraz, see a base ball game, go to the symphony, or any number of things that are near Union square, which is also near the Metreon, but I would recommend Japan Town for Dinner, and a movie.
Day two I would recommend starting at the Wharf, soak it in early before all the middle American fanny pack families arrive. Then walk over to the Marina for lunch. From the Marina you can walk, or Uber to a number of destinations, Fillmore Street if you want to see what it has to offer or my suggestion, which is Hayes Valley.
From Hayes Valley you can walk to the Castro through Duboce Park which is filled with fun neighborhoods, cafes and shops. Do your thing in the Castro, then walk to Deloris Park, walk up Valencia street, and then end up in Noe Valley. After getting food, or shopping for strollers, get a ride to Japan town for dinner and a movie. Or Fillmore for fancy food and window shopping.
The last bit to mention are the parks, we have great parks in San Francisco. I mentioned Deloris and Duboce Park, but you could spend an entire day at Golden Gate Park and it would not be a waste. Golden Gate Park would be a nice day three activity, and perhaps after getting brunch in the Haight-Ashbury district.
Thanks for reading and enjoy your trip to San Francisco.