A couple of weekends ago, we returned to San Francisco, California for the first time in a couple of years. We have both made many trips here both together and separately over the years. One thing that makes this place great, as America itself, is its incredible diversity. We ate fabulous Italian food in North Beach, strolled past (only because we’d just had brunch) ramen shops in Japan town, witnessed an amazing parade celebration of the Chinese New Year (the largest outside of Asia and in and of itself a display of diversity from Chinese dragons, fireworks and martial arts displays to northern Californian high school bands and local politicians) and were Ubered (yes, we still use Uber) around town by Ukrainian, Russian and Yemeni drivers.
Here are some of our favorite things to do in the Bay City:
- Walk the neighborhoods and hills. If you’ve read our posts, you know we are walkers. We’ve most recently stayed near Union Square and from there, launched on long walks around the neighborhoods:
- Through the Mission and the Castro, back down to the Haight and back through Japan Town (that’s a long one).
- Through the financial district to North Beach and then through Pacific Heights and back.
- Down to the marina through Chinatown and back.
- To Golden Gate Park via Japan Town and Western Addition and Alamo Square.
- The Haight, Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park. Step back into the 60s and picture yourself with Jerry, Phil and Bobby on Haight Street (it was, after all, home to the very first head shop (source: Wikipedia) opening in the US on Jan 3, 1966. I’m pretty sure there are a few folks hanging around from those days still and quite a few who are still living as though they were there despite their post-60s birth date). You can also get some great food there (we stopped for Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches for our cheapest and one of our best meals there) before heading into the park. Golden Gate Park (and it is not near the bridge) is massive (3 miles long and about 1/2 mile wide) and is 20% larger than Central Park in NYC. It houses several museums, a botanical garden, plenty of walking trails and is a good path to the beach. Stop by the Beach Chalet for lunch if you make it all the way down to Ocean Beach.
- The Academy of Science. We just discovered this little gem this past trip. It is chocked full of interesting stuff but doesn’t overdo it. You can stay as long or as short as you like. The aquarium exhibits, the earthquake simulator and the planetarium were highlights for us. Before leaving, check out the view from the “living roof”. For other museum ideas, check out this website.
- North Beach and China Town. North Beach is San Francisco’s “little Italy”. Until the late 18th century, it did actually border the bay and was a beach. The Italian immigrant population moved in after reconstruction following the earthquake of 1906. As Chinatown (its neighbor) has grown, fewer residents of Italian descent actually live in the area, but it is still the place to go for Italian food. We don’t have any particular restaurant we choose, we just walk down Columbus Ave and its vicinity and pop into one that looks good. We did eat at the North Beach Restaurant (with Melissa’s co-workers who were all there for work) this time, and it was great.We’ve mostly used Chinatown as a passthrough to North Beach and the marina, but this neighborhood definitely deserves more exploring. In my 20s, a friend and I instructed a cab driver to “take us to the chicken fried rice” late night and we were shockingly deposited at a fantastic Chinese restaurant with dining area upstairs and a dumbwaiter which carried food dishes up and empty dishes down, which I’ve never been able to locate since. After the Chinese New Year’s parade this time, more exploring is definitely back at the top of our next visit’s list.
- Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods. A quick trip over the Golden Gate bridge will deposit you Marin County in the area of Sausalito to your east (worth a driving or ferry day trip for lunch) and Mt. Tam to your west. Take Highway 1 from the bridge towards Stinson Beach and you’ll see park signs. Mt. Tam is a California State park. The highest summit is nearly 2600 feet and the park has over 100 miles of trails and fire roads. The name Tamalpais comes from the Coast Miwok name for the mountain which meant “west hill”. (source: Wikipedia).Muir Woods is a national monument maintained by the US National Park Service. Named after naturalist John Muir (whose environmental activism and lobbying led to establishment of the national park service), Muir Woods is and old-growth redwood forest located in a valley below Mt. Tam and it was declared a National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. Get there early if you want to find a parking spot and bring layers as it can be cold.After a visit to either or both, stop by the Mountain Home Inn for a sip and a snack before heading back across the bay to the city.
- Alcatraz Island. We’ve not done this together, but I found this a great trip both times I’ve been. Back in the 70s, they would actually lock you in solitary confinement so you could experience the sensory deprivation (yes, my father, sister and I did it). I’ve heard that they stopped doing it when it took them a few hours to get the door back open one time. “The Rock” was originally a military prison and was converted to a federal penitentiary in 1934 and hosted inmates such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Whitey Bulger. It claimed no prisoners ever escaped, alive, until the to-this-day-not-proven escape by three inmates in 1962 dramatized in the Clint Eastwood movie- Escape From Alcatraz. Catch the ferry from San Francisco at Pier 33 and book tickets in advance (up to 90 days).
- Anchor Steam. Back before microbrews and craft brews were all the rage (yes, there was such a time, youngsters) and “Sam Adams” was just getting popular as a “micro”, I discovered Anchor Steam on a west coast trip. I’ve been a devotee ever since. American Brewing, which became Anchor, was founded in 1871. You can get it all over the city, and its brewed there, so check it out for your freshest chance at a taste. You can also tour the brewery.
- Ride a Cable Car. Touristy? Yep. Still. Do it. It would be like being in Venice and foregoing a gondola ride, being in Rome and skipping the Coliseum, being in Paris and never laying eyes on the Eiffel Tower and… well, you get the point. Skip the gas powered tour-company operated ones and go for the real thing.