A Very Basic Guide to San Francisco
Or why you should probably walk rather than use a car in the city
This is a long post, and a wall of text follows with detailed description of some interesting areas to visit and itineraries. If you want the TL;DR version, just use this map where a few spots of interest are already marked, with brief descriptions for each:
Main LGBT district, most famous one in the US other than Greenwich Village (mostly because of Stonewall — Castro has much richer colours in the rainbow). Watch for funny signs everywhere (“Today’s specials: free beer, naked servers, false advertising”) and humour in general (Manicure shop called “Handjobs” that sells “I got a handjob today” tees). Fun place to walk around and window shop. Lots of LGBT erotic art and posters everywhere, together with leather/kink shops, so it doesn’t help to be squeamish — it’s all about good humour and positive vibes and chill.
Do not miss: Hot Cookie, Brand X antiques and Aardvark/Dog Ear Books.
Hot tip: Check out Healthy Spirits, near Castro, for an eclectic selection of unique beers and herbal liqueurs (get the absinthe!)
2. Haight Ashbury:
The original San Francisco neighbourhood, home of the hippie movement and the Summer of Love when 100,000 young people — hippies, free love, anarchist radicals, civil rights activists — descended into this spot and made it their home. Lots of psychedelic colours and 60s free love paraphernalia everywhere, and a very, very strong smell of weed everywhere — even before it was legal in CA, people would accost you at every corner either offering to sell weed or asking you if you have a stash. The original hippies have mostly left — now it’s more touristy that activist — but you will still see some aging radicals around the district.
Do not miss: Bound Together Bookstore, run by the Anarchist Collective. Chat with the guy at the front about politics and war and capitalism — he loves to chat if he is in a good mood, and often has interesting stories
Hot tip: Great place for people watching. Many of the stores — especially those selling wearables in psychedelic colours — are targeted towards tourists; you can probably get most of the wares for cheaper elsewhere, or even online.
The oldest Chinatown in the US, and either the largest or 2nd largest (this is still a hot debate). Chinese friends of mine have described it as the closest they have ever felt to being in China, outside of China — the chaos, the colours, the aromas or herbs and dried seafood, the energy, the hustle and bustle and the complete lack of traffic rules (do not try driving through here) is a very unique experience. And shop till you drop — you will get all sorts of completely useless but endlessly fun junk, all for a few cents each. You can fill up two suitcases for less than $50 here, so do make use of that — don’t forget to bargain if the prices seem too high! Try the lotus seed mooncake (get the one with the egg yolk), and fresh hot dan tat (egg custards) straight out of the oven. Try the tea tastings in the various tea centres — these are free but it’s polite to buy something if you do end up doing a tasting. Try the unusual looking fruits on Stockton Street — they are dirt cheap and often very delicious, and they won’t kill you, mostly (first make sure they are edible, though — not everything that looks like a fruit is meant to be eaten, many are used in Chinese medicine, or as a household insecticide).
Do not miss: Z & Y restaurant (Sichuan food: go early to avoid the crowds) and Great Eastern Restaurant (go for lunch because that’s when they serve dim sums. There may be a 45–75 min wait, but there’s a way to navigate around it — just make sure this is one of the first places you stop by, get a number and an estimated wait, explore Chinatown in the meanwhile and show up on the dot — their estimates are usually very accurate)
Hot tip: If you want the non-touristy authentic Chinatown experience, explore Stockton Street rather than Grant Street— that’s where you will find the Chinatown residents, buying fresh fish, meat or produce in the morning, gambling, chilling with friends over tea and pastries, etc. and generally going about their day-to-day business.
This is where the soul and conscience of San Francisco currently resides, with its throbbing heart of justice activism— not Haight Ashbury, at least not anymore. The single most diverse district in the city with significant Hispanic, Black-Hispanic, African American, African-African and Asian populations, and the locals drawn from an eclectic motley of groups — lots of artists, hipsters, hippies, LGBTQ, anarchists, radicals, socialists and civil rights activists.
Because of so many artists in the area (really, this has to be the highest density in the country) the street art is massive, the street art is phenomenal and the street art is everywhere. Murals abound in the district, with nearly every building and empty wall filled up, to the extent that the entire area looks like a massive crowd-sourced painting — the massive mural on the walls of the Women’s Building is a great example. Most of the art is provocative political art — and by provocative, I mean very provocative — drawn from all kinds of sources from Native American folklore to Aztec/Maya mythology to pop culture to radical queer/feminism to civil rights to Marx. This is the most thriving part of the entire city, with a vibrancy that screams “WE ARE ALIVE” from every corner, but the justice activism also draws a significant homeless/transient population (in every sense of the term) which results in the area being less than spotless clean. But then, the welcoming-to-all, authentic, anything-goes culture makes it all worth it — and besides, what is a city if it’s not gritty?
Do not miss: Clarion Alley, La Oaxaquena, and any of the other authentic Mexican/Central American hole-in-the-wall eateries
Hot tip: Visit the “ethnic” grocery stores and browse through the aisles — you will find tons of unusual and interesting trinkets, all at throwaway prices. And check out the crowds doing their shopping in them — you will truly appreciate the harmony-in-diversity vibe here when you see an elderly Vietnamese woman running the cash registers of a Nicaraguan grocery store selling spicy Mexican hot chocolate to a Nigerian dude while sharing the latest about housing-rights activism
Usually they group “Mission-Valencia” together, but the vibes are so different that I think they deserve to be dealt with separately. Valencia Street (and chunks of neighbouring streets like Van Ness, Folsom and so on) is the trendier, more upscale, more hipstery version of Mission Street. You still have the eclectic mixture of art and activism and culture, but the main objective here is to cater to the diverse globalised tastes of young adults in reasonably well-paying jobs, rather than, you know, bringing about justice and equality and social change. Don’t get me wrong — while there is definitely a gentrifuckation problem going on, this does not mean that Valencia Street is “fake” in some way or malicious — it’s just more of a shiny idealised image of what young people want the world to be like, rather than the gritty reality of what the world is really like, a la Mission. While prices on most spots around the street tend to be on the moderate range, there are enough inexpensive spots which are actually affordable to the people who work here, while at the same time being just as cool and just as young and just as hip as can be.
It remains one of my favourite hangouts with a vast array of cool restaurants and shops — a true melting pot, where cultures and personalities and art styles influence and are influenced by each other, and cooperatives abound where local artists and local chefs and local artisan chocolate makers and local craft brewers and local designers all come together and hang out and work together, and create this welcoming vibe that tells you that everyone is invited. The place is very young, very diverse and very innovative in everything that it does — the entire street has one of the most unique eclectic experimental vibes anywhere.
Do not miss: Dandelion Chocolates (along with the chocolate bars, get the Mission Hot Chocolate), Radio Habana Social Club (take a camera, even if it’s your mind’s camera to record all of the extremely wacko and extremely creative and extremely interesting artwork covering the space both inside and outside)
Hot tip: Cross alleys that connect major streets can be just as interesting, so do keep an eye open for interesting-looking storefronts. And of course, if the weather is nice, Dolores Park is great for people watching.
I was going to describe it as a smaller, more industrial-chic version of Valencia Street, but I think the Dogpatch is pretty unique in itself and has enough individuality to have exceeded that moniker. It’s a very unique area, defined by its hip vibe that is equal parts hipster and equal parts dirty industrial, owing to being populated mostly by young creative types, as well as its close proximity to the working class South San Francisco industrial city. Some very Meatpacking District vibes, with exposed red brick and rusty iron everywhere, and a fresh breeze flowing in from the Bay parallel to the street.
Do not miss: Workshop Residence, Hard Knox Cafe
Hot tip: Walk up Potrero Hill on 25th street to get the most amazing view of South San Francisco and the Bay. If you are in the mood, you can follow the path all the way to the Mission District, but switch to 24th Street after you cross Bayshore Freeway — 24th Street is the historic Latino Cultural District, and is a very colourful walk. It’s an interesting exercise in urban exploration, because the neighbourhood changes very rapidly — from a majority-minority residential area to a posh area with fancy single-family houses, all within a single block. Plus lots of not-too-steep slopes, and the views are always stunning.
6. North Beach/Telegraph Hill:
This area right next to Chinatown is defined by two major influences. First, this was the historical centre of the Beat Movement and legendary spots like Cafe Vesuvio and City Lights Bookstore still preserve the 50s counterculture vibe very well, together with the Beat Museum, the Jazz Mural, Language of the Birds public sculpture and Jack Kerouac Alley. The second major influence here is Italian — this is San Francisco’s Little Italy, and has plenty of Italian stores and cafes and restaurants, including some very unique classic spots like The Stinking Rose which is essentially a culinary ode to garlic. The main streets to explore here are Broadway and Columbus Avenue, all the way to Washington Square Park, and the area is especially happening after dark when the burlesque theatres, strip clubs and dance halls that dot the street come to life.
Do not miss: City Lights Bookstore, one of the last remaining San Francisco legends
Hot tip: Look out for an original Banksy at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, on a rooftop wall right across the street from City Lights Bookstore and the Beat Museum (it’s a tad difficult to find, so maybe ask someone).
As the name suggests, it’s all about Japan — Japanese restaurants, shops selling everything from Japanese snack products to manga to hentai/echhi to anime/Japanese shows to tea to kimonos and everything in between. Seems somewhat more touristy, but it’s actually quite legit — in particular, wonderful yet affordable restaurants serving everything from ramen and zaru-udon to yakitori and takoyaki, stores selling classic manga and anime titles on dvd, and wonderful confectioners selling mochi and mitarashi dango. Do check out Nippon-Ya for some innovative mochi options, and Benkyodo for sweets. The bubble tea here is really great too. Japantown organises many events throughout the year on the Peace Plaza, so do remember to check the events calendar every once in a while.
If you’re in Japantown, you may also want to visit the nearby Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption which is probably one of the most striking buildings in the city. An exquisite example of modernist (almost neo-futurist) architecture merged with Catholic symbolism — geometric hyperboloids coming together to form a cross, and a “levitating” organ — the church is a great combination of the old and the new. Go outside of prayer times, because this is ultimately a church and people take worship seriously — tours are prohibited when the service is on. But even if you have to wait, it’s worth it just to see the stunning iridiscent glass bars which make up the modernist chandelier inside.
Do not miss: Forest Books, which is technically in Japantown but outside of it in a sense. It’s small but probably one of the best bookstores in the city. Very knowledgeable proprietor, and a vast collection of literature from the Far East and Northern Europe, all organised according to some idea of “theme”. And the unique bookmarks, each of which has a different quote on it — a total of 2000 different aphorisms and quotations from all around the world
Hot tip: Some of the stores offer free matcha tastings, so do keep an eye open for that. In general, this place has great food options — I would definitely recommend the street food along with most of the sit-in restaurants — they serve everything from takoyaki to mitarashi dango, and at very affordable prices.
8. Presidio/Golden Gate:
Golden Gate is great to bike on, but not very interesting otherwise. The main thing that stands out about the bridge is how massive it is — pictures do not do it justice. Apart from that, the Presidio offers decent light hiking trails scattered here and there.
I’d recommend walking back to the city via the western cliff-side woods on the Presidio, as opposed to, say, taking the bus. A little walk from the bridge you will find a hidden-ish staircase with a sign saying “Marshall Beach” (Google for exact directions on how to find it). I’d highly recommend following that trail — it’s a bit of a hike down, but the beach is stunning, with a great view of the cliffs and also the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge anywhere in SF. It’s a nude beach, and a gay nude beach in parts, so keep that in mind — in particular, I wouldn’t go too far north if I were someone bothered by exhibitionists. Skinny dipping here is fun if you can tolerate the chill in the water (I jumped out within milliseconds of jumping it). And there are also porpoises/dolphins in the water on most days. It’s a far far far better beach (much cleaner, far less people, far nicer people, and barely any tourists) than Baker Beach, which can also be accessed on the way back from Marshall Beach — use the sand ladder, it’s more fun.
Do not miss: The views of the Pacific — most people stare at the Bay side from the Presidio, but the Pacific is much more enchanting, and more untouched by anthropogenic activity
Hot tip: Check the weather report and tides if you plan to visit Marshall’s Beach — it’s not dangerous, but high tide certainly limits how much of the beach is accessible (to an extent that sometimes it’s not worth it). Even if you do not want to go to Marshall’s Beach, you might still follow the trail part of the way — there is a fork in the road, and the left route leads to Baker’s Beach — at any rate, it’s far, far more fun compared to taking a bus or walking on the paved road.
Itinerary for Short Visits:
Since I actually did a two-day SF tour for a friend who visited from Austria, I have a crash course itinerary as well. May be useful in case you have a visitor you want to take around the city. You need not do ALL of the things listed here — feel free to pick and choose, or even start and stop anywhere in the middle— but I would recommend keeping the order intact because the list has been optimised that way.
Saturday: hectic — if you’re only there for one day, follow this:
1. If you live in the city, skip to step 2: otherwise, take the local service train to 22nd Street station (preferably get there by 10.30–11-ish)
2. Roam around the Dogpatch district
3. Lunch at Hard Knox Cafe
4. Walk to Mission Street via 25th, then 23rd, and then 24th Street (~55 minute walk, but totally recommended because of the views of South/Industrial SF and Bay from Potrero Hill)
4.5 Check out Balmy Alley
5. Walk around Mission/Valencia. Drink Mission Hot chocolate and buy artisanal bars at Dandelion chocolates (do this even if it’s the ONLY thing you do in SF).
5.5 Check out Clarion Alley
6. Walk through Dolores Park and Castro
7. Climb Buena Vista, stop by Healthy Spirits on the way to buy/browse
8. From Buena Vista, go downhill to Haight-Ashbury
8.5 Visit the Anarchist Collective Bookstore, get the IPA at Cafe Magnolia
9. Return same way, have dinner at one of the many Mission Street places (try La Oaxaquena if you have never had Mexican food (read: if you have never lived in Mexico/Texas/SoCal/Arizona/New Mexico))
10. Get back to wherever
Sunday : leisurely …kinda —you can also follow this list in reverse order:
2. Lunch at Great Eastern or Z&Y Restaurant
3. More Chinatown
3.5 If you can, spare some change for the elderly musicians steadfastly playing songs like “Yankee Doodle” or “Happy Birthday” on their Erhu
4. Chinatown/Stockton Street Markets
6. Get out North East corner of Chinatown at Pacific Avenue
7. North Beach/Little Italy/Columbus Avenue
8. Spend hours at City Lights Bookstore
9. Eat garlic everything at The Stinking Rose
10. Turn on Filbert Street/Washington Square Park, walk up to Coit Tower
11. Walk downhill on the other side, get to the Embarcadero
12. Walk along the waterfront at the Embarcadero, do touristy stuff (photographs of the Bay Bridge, etc.)