Whenever anyone finds out that I grew up in San Francisco, I’m asked one of two things: “Really, there are houses there?” Or, “Do you have any recommendations for our next visit?” My answers to both are always: “Yes.”
The following are my off-the-beaten track must-do’s—no admission required—for anyone looking for a good time in San Francisco. Regarding the first question, I have two words for you: “Full House.”
Adolph Sutro was a wealthy former mayor of San Francisco in the late 1800s. His dream? To build the largest indoor swimming pool establishment, complete with seven pools, each varying in temperature. The location he chose was a beautiful, small beach inlet nestled beneath the now-famous Cliff House on the most western coast of the city. Tragically (and quite suspiciously), a fire destroyed this financially-challenged establishment in 1966, and all that remains are its eerie, picturesque ruins, and an infamous, unsigned replica of a painting that depicts the extravagance of what once was (sutrobaths.com).
In the heart of Chinatown sits a hidden gold mine down Ross Alley. While there is no legible sign on the door, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory can be found simply by following your nose (sanfranciscochinatown.com). In back of the narrow shop sit several Chinese men and women, carefully molding soft dough into what we’ve all come to know as the auspicious end to a Chinese meal. Don’t forget to ask for free chocolate samples, and snap their photo for 50 cents. That may be the only time you see them smile.
Every other travel article will tell you to go to the Ferry Building, which I, too, encourage you to do (ferrybuildingmarketplace.com). However, when you’re done with all that coffee spilling and crowd pushing, walk out the back and sneak onto the promenade, lined in a wrought iron railing with flowers, that will guide you along the water all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf on foot. You may even have it all to yourself.
Musee Mechanique is located on Pier 45, at the west end of Fisherman’s Wharf (museemechanique.org). Once you walk inside, you will be taken back to the turn of last century with one of the world’s largest privately-owned collection of coin-operated antique arcade games and musical instruments that still work. The museum also boasts one of the most famous automated funhouse characters, Laffing Sal, who, with a clink of two quarters, will laugh your socks off.
While I realize public transportation can make some people’s lips pucker, MUNI (AKA: “the bus”) is really the best way to get around (sfmta.com). Heck, I even took one to prom. MUNI runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And with more than 80 different stops around the city, you’re sure to be dropped off at least within two blocks of wherever you want to go—all for a measly two bucks.
Sure, Giants hats and Golden Gate Bridge key chains make great gifts for the house sitter, the dog walker, or whomever you’ve tasked with holding down the fort while you’re in San Francisco, but wouldn’t it be great to give thanks with the very sourdough bread that put San Francisco on the culinary map? Boudin Bakery on 10th and Geary—the one that actually bakes all of the city’s Boudin sourdough—opens at 6 a.m. Get there before the trucks do, and grab a piping hot baguette … it may still be warm by the time you get home.
Personally, I stay at my parents’ house, but let me tell you where we put everyone else. The Chancellor Hotel, located in the heart of Union Square, has recently been renovated, has a great bar and lobby, and rooms are under $200 (chancellorhotel.com). For those folks who are little more discriminating, Hotel Vitale, a boutique hotel on the waterfront, has an even better bar and lobby (hotelvitale.com), and The St. Regis San Francisco (starwoodhotels.com) offers luxury accommodations in the heart of the SOMA district. Rooms here are over $200. For those guests who like airline pilots, Parc 55 Wyndham is the place for them, which is where the entire fleet of United stays in between flights (parc55hotel.com). Go ahead, ask me how I know that.
Since I’ve usually blown my daily calorie intake after the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, I am not the expert in this category. Lucky for you, however, I went to high school with one of SF Weekly’s hottest restaurant critics, Alex Hochman, AKA: Urban Stomach.
Breakfast: “Brenda’s French Soul Food is a temple of all things brunch from the bayou,” Alex says (frenchsoulfood.com). “Every table orders at least one order of beignets (go for the gooey chocolate variety), fried to order … nothing better.”
Lunch: “Wo Hing General Store is the newest entry from notable San Francisco restaurateur Charles Phan, best known for Slanted Door. This is no typical Chinese dive, mind you. In fact, Wo Hing General Store was recently named one of the 10 sexiest new restaurants in America by Details magazine.” (wohinggeneralstore.com)
Dinner: Original Joe’s. I actually could have answered this one (originaljoessf.com). The original Original Joe’s, a San Francisco institution, was brought down by a fire more than five years ago. But rather than reopening in its old seedy location, Joe’s took a prime corner in North Beach. “A humongous platter of eggplant Parmesan and good old-fashioned calf’s liver and onions are must-orders,” according to Alex. Personally, I always get the linguini with clams.
My final bit of advice to you is this: To misquote Mark Twain*, “the coldest winter I ever spent was summers in San Francisco,” so be sure to bring a coat. (* He actually said this about Paris.) LBM
By the Bay
Located south of San Francisco, the waterfront town of Monterey Bay offers an array of land- and sea-based adventures and attractions. Make a detour as you travel up California’s scenic coast to enjoy some of the best Monterey has to offer.
Where to Stay
With breathtaking views of the bay, Portola Hotel & Spa features an on-site spa, newly renovated guest rooms and an ideal location for visiting Monterey’s unique shopping, fine dining, coastal trails and beaches. (portolahotel.com)
Located on the water’s edge along historic Cannery Row, Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa welcomes guests with its elegant European architecture and sweeping coastal views of the Pacific. (montereyplazahotel.com)
In the heart of downtown Monterey, you’ll find the Spanish-style Hotel Pacific, which offers luxury all-suite accommodations for a romantic getaway or family vacation. (hotelpacific.com)
Where to Play
Indulge your adventurous spirit on Cannery Row, Monterey’s historic waterfront district made famous by John Steinbeck. (canneryrow.com)
At the end of Cannery Row, pay a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium—home to thousands of plants and animals that provide visitors with a window into the wonders of the ocean. (montereybayaquarium.org)
For those looking to whale watch at any time of the year, you can depart from the docks of Fisherman’s Wharf on a tour with the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. (montereybaywhalewatch.com)
Where to Dine
Take a walk along Fisherman’s Wharf for an array of the finest seafood Monterey has to offer, and get a dining experience with a view to boot. (montereywharf.com)
Featuring handcrafted beer brewed on site, Peter B’s Brewpub at Portola Hotel & Spa offers a friendly atmosphere and monthly brewmaster’s dinners with multi-course beer pairings.