Non-tourist guide for San Francisco tourists

As someone who’s lived in San Francisco for several years now, I get saddened seeing hordes of tourists come and get sucked up by the tourist traps. They’ll go to the Golden Gate Bridge, see the crooked street, visit Ghirardelli Square, hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf, shop in Union Square and maybe eat at the Cheesecake Factory or McDonald’s. Yuck. Please don’t be that tourist. Please. I can help you not be that tourist.

Tourist traps that are okay
First of all, if you feel the need to really be a tourist to experience San Francisco, there are a few touristy things you can do that are excusable.

You can visit Alcatraz and take the audio tour. It’s educational, fun, a little scary, and breathtaking (the views you can get of SF from the island).

You can go to Twin Peaks and see everything from there (Market Street from the Castro to the Embarcadero, the East Bay, Coit Tower, Treasure Island, Alcatraz, Sausalito, The Golden Gate Bridge, Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park). It’s a great place to get good pictures.

Golden Gate Park is a wonderful place to devote a day to. There’s plenty of parking. You can also explore it on bicycle or on foot. The Conservatory of Flowers is a little expensive for the little you see, but the plants are quite fascinating. If you can go when the butterflies are hatching, you may actually get your money’s worth. The Botanical Garden is a great, free stroll. You can see old people lawn bowling, take your kids on the carousel, play tennis, and go peddle-boating on Stow Lake. On Sundays, the park is full of runners, walkers, and rollerbladers, and there’s usually some kind of dancing going on (participatory or not). Avoid the Japanese Tea Garden.

Places to Visit
If you can come during an event, you will feel the real San Francisco. Run in Bay to Breakers. March in the Gay Pride Parade. Where crowds of San Franciscans gather, you’re bound to have a good time either watching or joining. If you’re a party person, see if there is some kind of festival going on in North Beach or on Union Street.

Sometimes tourism can be tiring, though, and you just want to soak up a movie and relax. Why go to a megaplex like the Metreon (hint: don’t go there) when you go to an independently owned neighborhood theater like the Castro, the Red Vic, the Presidio, or the Four Star? I would highly recommend The Balboa Theater in the Outer Richmond (just north of the western part of Golden Gate Park). It feels like a 1920s theater (and they still have a lot of memorabilia and news clippings from that time period in the theater), the folks who work there really care about movies, the movies are affordable, the popcorn butter is real, and they have a good mix of blockbusters and artsy films. Sometimes they even have trivia and prizes at the beginning of films. You can’t miss the old-timey marquee and neon lights!

If you have to go to see a show, go to The Post Street Theatre. Their theater is attached to a hotel and is very cozy and has character. More importantly, they tend to pick shows that are entertaining, not always the big Broadway hits.

If you’re into free things, you might want to check out Film Night in the Park. During the summer, there are also free concerts at Stern Grove, a very family-friendly venue with beautiful scenery and “natural” acoustics.

And don’t forget that museums are usually free the first Tuesday (sometimes Wednesday) of every month. The Cartoon Art Museum is small but really interesting.

Where to eat
My wife would have her own recommendations, of course, but these are what I would recommend. Don’t go to the Cheesecake Factory, please!

  • Art’s Cafe. This little diner near Golden Gate Park is run by a Korean couple that makes the food right in front of you. They have the best Strawberry Lemonade! The place is cute (if not a little small), and the food is good and, more importantly, cheap.
  • Park Chow. Also by Golden Gate Park, Park Chow I’ve eaten at literally hundreds of times and it’s always been good. I don’t think I can say that about any other restaurant. Park Chow isn’t always stellar, but it’s always good, if not great. The service is wonderful, and the food tasty (their apple pie a la mode is incomparable). The one time my wife and I did get bad service (it took 40 minutes for our food to come out, because they’d forgotten to put our order in), they gave us complimentary desserts. That’s once out of hundreds of times.
  • The Matterhorn Swiss Restaurant. It’s a little pricey, but the fondue is excellent, whether you’re getting cheese, beef, or chocolate. If you do get the cheese, I’d highly recommend “the Mature One.”
  • Mifune. If you’re in Japantown and hungry, grab some soba or udon noodles at Mifune for cheapness and goodness. They have sushi on the menu, but don’t order the sushi here.
  • Bill’s Place. I hear the burgers are good here (I’m vegetarian), but I know the fries are good. And the cookies and cream milkshake is amazing! Do not order the vanilla milkshake, though. It’s terrible.
  • Chiang Mai. Just some good Thai food. I don’t even usually like Thai.
  • Burma Superstar. You’ll hear differing opinions on this restaurant if you ask a lot of San Franciscans. Some will say it’s the best. Others will say it’s overrated. The first time my wife went, she was sorely disappointed. Then she heard that you’re supposed to order only the starred items on the menu, and she’s been a convert ever since. Make sure to get in early. After 6 PM, there is a huge line until closing. If you do come late, though, you can leave your name and cell phone, and they’ll call you just before your table’s ready.
  • Little Star Pizza. Good pizza is hard to come by in San Francisco. If you are looking for some good deep dish, though, you should visit Little Star Pizza. You won’t leave hungry. Just make sure you get there early (after 6:30, it gets louder than a nightclub) and bring cash with you (they don’t take credit cards).
  • Kabuto Sushi. Do you like sushi places that specialize in adding in a lot of extra rice and giving you the 49er roll or the Dragon Roll? Don’t go to Kabuto Sushi. Kabuto is some darn good speciality sushi. And even their non-fish rolls (the ones I get) are stellar.

Getting around
As long as you avoid the 19 and the 30, most of the buses are pretty good for getting around. You’ll run into your occasional smelly drunk or graffiti-spraying punk kid, but for the most part… that’s San Francisco, and there’s no better way to experience San Francisco the way the natives do than to take the bus around. A lot of bus shelters have little displays telling you when the next bus will come (only about a 4/5 chance of it telling you the truth, unfortunately). If you want some beautiful scenery, take the 29 from Stonestown Galleria to the Presidio Transit Center. It’ll take you close to the ocean, through the green scenery of Sunset Boulevard, through Golden Gate Park, past the Golden Gate Bridge, and up through the Presidio. [2010.06.30: Unfortunately, due to MUNI major mismanagement, there have been severe cuts to service, and the part of the 29 route from Baker Beach to the Presidio got chopped]

Bus rides are $1.50 $2.00 a person, and the transfer will last you as many bus rides as you can squeeze in before the cut-off time on your transfer stub. You can also get day passes and weekly passes. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions from other passengers. People may look as if they’re absorbed in reading The Examiner, picking their noses, or listening to their iPods, but they’ll help you find the best bus route if you ask nicely. And if they don’t, some other passenger will take pity on you and give you the right directions. It’s actually quite amusing sometimes when you get a tourist caught in a debate amongst several passengers as to what the best route is to get to downtown.

If you want to rent a car for a day or two, you would do well to drive down the Great Highway (do not drive faster than 33 MPH if you want to get all green lights) and then take Route 1 all the way down to Half Moon Bay. I-280 also has some beautiful scenery. Avoid 101, as it is often full of traffic… and quite ugly to look at.

Well, that’s about it for now. Obviously, I can’t give you the full SF experience I’ve had, but hopefully I’ve given some potential tourists a few tips that’ll help them get the most out of their visit.

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

  1. thank you!! … i am going in August to San Fran and I was looking for exactly this type of insight! I have the same feeling when tourists come to my city !!! (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

  2. Hello UbuntuCat,

    I luckily stumbled upon your post; I’m coming up Friday 6/27 from Austin, Texas. Generally very helpful stuff. So thanks.

    FWIW, I’m also a fellow Ubuntu user (but not a geek at all, in fact, I need help with it — can’t get drivers to load for a scanner I have). I also identify with your tag (except the religion part). I don’t find an email for you so I guess I’m posting, but as you now have my email, I would welcome further info on what it means to you to be a tourist or not, and what else you would advise tourists to do/not do.

    I have been there three times (the first time I was a kid), but the visits were all so short or focused on the East Bay that I hardly remember a thing.

    Anway, I would ask a rhetorical question and make an observation. How are your restaurant and other recommendations any different from a guide book author’s? Sure, you’ve eaten at a place alot, but maybe they have too. I mean, The Lonely Planet guide book seems authentic and honest enough, and is written by three locals. Others I’ve seen seem to be aware that San Fran has suffered from hype and do suggest some alternatives. On the other hand, to advocate for satan, what’s really so wrong with people clogging the Wharf and throwing money away? (And I don’t mean the Dutch.) Is that a bit of the San Fran Nob Hillish-ness creeping in?

    That is to say, there’s no accounting for taste. For another example, I followed some links and found reviews of the Balboa Theater. They were all over the place. So I guess it’s caveat emptor — whomsoever buyeth advices (even free-alicious bloggy ones), beware, decide for yourself, YMMV, etc.

    But the Stern Cove link paid off — I’m hoping to catch the Symphony for FREE on Sunday! Had already planned to march in the Pride Parade through a link I found.

    Anyway, do please write me back if you’re so inclined.

    –AustinTraveler

  3. AustinTraveler, thanks for popping in.

    I guess the difference between my non-tourist guide and even “authentic” tourist guides like The Lonely Planet is that tourist guides all assume, whether they’re written by locals or not, that people want to be tourists and see all the landmarks, instead of experiencing local life. If you want to be a tourist, you can. It’s easy. Go to Fisherman’s Wharf. I won’t hunt you down and bop you on the head for it. I just wanted to provide an alternative for those wanting to experience San Francisco without doing all the usual tourist trap things.

    And, yeah the reviews for Balboa are all over the place, because some people want a huge multiplex theater and not a home-y, cozy theater with character. I hope that helps.

    Enjoy Stern Grove. Come early. Bring games or a book to read. And a blanket.

  4. Yo UbuntuCat,

    Sure, thanks for responding. Were you visiting Austin, I’d give much the same advice. And say let’s meet for a coffee or tea at Little City or any number of other coffeehouses (which may or may not be in the guidebooks) to discuss. But certainly not at a friggin’ Starbucks, which doesn’t jibe well with our slogan, Keep Austin Weird. Austinites can get a bit provincial ourselves. We’re surrounded on all sides by this strange, backwards, foreign country, after all.

    But if you came here, I would say sure, see 6th Street bars, the Capitol, walk around Town Lake (be sure to touch Stevie Ray Vaughan’s statue hand), eat bar-b-que, drive up to Mt. Bonnell, do the LBJ museum and UT, see the bats under the Congress Avenue bridge, etc. Maybe those aren’t very exotic sounding. But do whatever you like. It’s your time, money and trip!

    For me, I won’t let what a guide book dictate what I do, or I’ll be the cliche you talk about. I plan to let it guide me. And I looked at the alternative guide books too. But I plan to be open to spontaneity. However, if I am a cliche, that’s my choice, and so it’s ok with me. Of course, some people’s personalities aren’t geared toward being adventurous, and that’s ok too. We appreciate the hefty hotel tax receipts SXSW and Austin City Limits festival bring, and I’m sure the comparisons there are apply.

    Except San Francisco is much more of a destination place than Austin, and maybe you’re just totally tired of the whole tourist invasion. Sorry, I guess that when you’re one of the beautiful people, living in the beautiful city, that comes with the territory. It’s a love-hate relationship, this dance between tourists and locals, no matter where you go. (There you are.)

    So despite all that, I do think we’re largely on the same page. I probably will do some of the touristy things, but when I get that sickly feeling, I’ll know it’s time to head the opposite direction. Of course, anything I do will be touristy, to a local. I hope to experience some of the “real” San Francisco, whatever that means, and yet, the only way to really do that is to live there. Who knows? Maybe someday I will.

    Is this a touristy idea? It’d be fun to tour all the places in one of my favorite films, So I Married An Axe Murderer, with Mike Myers. Guess I’ll IMDB that.

    Anyway, UbuntuCat, thanks again for your insights and the chance to converse. I better get packing!

    –austintraveler

  5. Huh. What perfect timing. I’m headed out to Napa Valley in the spring to visit some family, and taking my girlfriend out to meet them too. Now I can actually pretend to her that I know where I’m going and what I’m doing :-)

    The only thing that made me sad is bus fare… you are so lucky with your $1.50. Over here buses cost up to $2.75, and they’re raising the rates $0.75 within the next year if the newspapers are telling the truth.

    Maybe I’ll see you at the theaters/restaurants/parks you recommended, ships passing in the dark. Isn’t the internet wonderful?

  6. @austintraveler
    Thanks for the tips on Austin. If I’m ever there, I’ll take those tips into account.

    @Dan
    Don’t know a whole lot about Napa, but my wife and I did eat at the Ubuntu restaurant there, and it was fantastic (though slightly pricey). If you’re into vegetarian fare, you should definitely give it a look. We also had quite a hearty breakfast at Gillwoods Cafe. Both are in downtown Napa.

  7. hi my dad lives here and i live here part of the time with him…. your probubly not gonna reply to this cuz ur post is so old but is there anything like the street slides that seem fun? for a 14 year old and a 10 year old going out with their dad?

  8. This is great..thanks so much!

    I have been looking for non-touresty things to do in the city, and these recommendations are right up my alley :)

  9. i always enjoy coming back and reading the articles and coments i found them interesting and informative

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