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.
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.