This post is mainly for people who want to visit San Francisco from out of town. Visitors typically have a day or two and need some tips on where to go and what to see. As a local, I often 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 I give into a big blog post. Not every neighborhood is covered, but there is a good collection of destinations to consider. Destinations are listed in no particular order, each with a crappy iPad painting from yours truly.
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 dropping into town swinging 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 (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 (great for kids).
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 them.
Fillmore street is also a home for many well know high fashion brands 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 a little fancy on Fillmore.
If you are about to go to the Symphony and need a place to eat, the Fillmore is a great option. The area is nice but also still a “neighborhood” and has pet stores, bakeries, hardware stores and all the things that make it more than just 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 tourists, or people who are stuck in the 60’s 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. Also one of the best places in the city to find Vintage clothing. So if you need 1920’s flapper dress, there is probably a store that has it.
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 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 the city 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 turns into a parade or cosplay convention and when it comes to getting a seat at a restaurant, all bets are off. Food, in particular ramen is one of the best reason to visit.
The Kabuki theater is known for playing independent films, and serving alcohol in the theater. From my perspective it is one of the best places in the city to see movies. There is also the Kinokuniya book store, and Daiso (epic Japanese dollar store) for various odds and ends.
Also worth a stop 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 for a massage, acupuncture, seaweed wrap and other spa related activities.
The Marina district is an interesting place to go for a walk. The neighborhood is between the waterfront, the Palace of Fine Arts and Presidio park which 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 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.
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 espresso and read a book, then North Beach is the place to start. If you are on the waterfront, 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.
From Union Square you can stroll on over to China Town, or walk down market street to see the Ferry Building. There is also the Metreon, which is one of a few places in the world that have both IMAX and Dolby theaters. Westgate mall is fairly standard - 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 collection of rocks, plants and dead animals. Sounds strange I know, but it is done is a way that makes it all part of an experience. 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.
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 full of 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 a shopping mall. 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 spray paint art on the street, there is a charm to the Wharf, but you need to look for it.
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.