By Lisa Arcella
Tony Bennett left his heart there, and of course you will, too. Absolutely everyone falls in love with San Francisco. On your first trip to this amazing city, there’s a list of things you just must see and taste. Here’s your ultimate Frisco checklist.
What to See Inside the City
You might not want to ride a bike on the crookest street in the world, but you definitely need to check out the famous land on Russian Hill. There are great views of the Bay and lots of flower gardens along its zigzagging path.
You might wonder why anyone would want to visit a former prison, but this is perhaps the most famous prison in the world. It’s just a mile and a half from Fisherman’s Wharf, but for those who were once locked up at this facility, it was a world away. A federal penitentiary from 1934-1963, it once called home to infamous criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. You can also still see the tiny cell where the real life escape, documented in the Clint Eastwood flick Escape from Alcatraz, was hatched.
This is maybe the most visited destination in the city at the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf at Beach Street. There’s great restaurants, shopping, and entertaining views of the barking sea lions nearby. It’s also the perfect place to get snaps of the skyline, The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Alcatraz and Angel Island (also known as the Ellis Island of the West).
Golden Gate Bridge and Park
When in Rome, err San Francisco, it’s de riguer to visit “the bridge that couldn’t be built.” After a treacherous building period, it finally opened in 1937. Its sidewalks are open to pedestrians and bike riders during the daylight hours. On the south side there’s a three-mile oasis that houses gorgeous gardens, all kinds of sports facilities and the California Academy of Sciences (which houses an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum), The de Young Museum (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Koret Children’s Quarter.
Once home to the military, now it’s a beautiful national park with incredible views of the Pacific Ocean and the city, with many, many hiking and walking trails. You will also find the Walt Disney Family Museum here, a 40,000-square-foot facility dedicated to the legacy of the legendary artist and entrepreneur.
The Cable Car Museum
Of course the cable car is synonymous with the city of San Francisco, and you have to take a ride on one before you leave. This fun museum on Nob Hill takes visitors traveling back to a time when the trolley car was the only way to get up and down these giant hills, with antique cars from the 1870s and many displays.
Yerba Buena Gardens
In the downtown cultural district, this is a great spot to take the family with an antique carousel, ice skating, and even a garden dedicated to children.
Situated on Pier 15, this is the perfect place for kids and grownups who never want to grow up. There are over 600 exhibits to touch, feel, and try. Also, don’t miss popping into the Bay Observatory. The all-glass portal offers amazing views of the city. The San Francisco Zoo and Gardens is another great spot to take kids, with over 1,000 endangered and rescued animals and lovely gardens.
Asian Art Museum
With collections from Turkey, India, China, and more, this building holds one of the biggest collections of Asian Art in the world and is absolutely worth a visit.
This is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese community outside of China with a population of over 100,000. Wander its streets, take in its architecture and tastes, and step into another world.
What to See Outside of the City
The famous wine country is a short trip from the city and home to hundreds of wineries, gourmet restaurants, and wonderful shopping.
As Napa’s sister town, Sonoma is usually a lot less crowded. The main square is a great place to grab a glass of vino and recharge the batteries.
A super cool, only-in-California beach town with a big surfer community, Santa Cruz has a really fun boardwalk in the Victorian-themed downtown, and nearby is Big Basin Redwoods State Park, home to those giant trees.
Yosemite National Park
Absolutely breathtaking 1,200 acres of protected meadows, valleys, giant sequoias, and spectacular waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains – this park is a great one-day trip out of the city center.
Muir Woods National Monument
Just 12 miles away from the city in Marin County, this national park is the home to a forest of redwood trees.
What to Eat
San Francisco is a foodie paradise, and no, as any local will tell you, Rice-a-Roni is not the San Francisco treat! But did you know that the fortune cookie was invented here and not in China? Also, almost three quarters of Fernet (an aromatic but bitter liquor made from herbs and spices) purchased in the US is bought in the City by the Bay. If you want to eat like a native, try these suggestions:
It may be hard to find in other places in the US that offer Southeast Asian cuisine, but here, hotspots like Burma Superstar thrive with exotic dishes like pumpkin port stew and Oh Noh Kauswer (coconut chicken noodle soup).
Bi-Right Creamery is known for its incredible and inventive ice cream concoctions like honey lavender.
Pho is sometimes lovingly called the best hangover cure in the world, and you can find some of the best versions of this Vietnamese noodle soup at Joy King BBQ Noodle, even when you haven’t indulged in one too many.
San Franciscans love their burritos are they’ve developed all kinds of variations like the Sushirrito, which is yes, a burrito combined with sushi. The Little Chihuahua is one of the best places in town to chow down.
Yes, it’s a bit touristy, but who cares! When you visit Pier 39, try clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. San Francisco is the home to the best sourdough bread in the world, hands down, and the chowder in this town is amazing.
Hog Island Oysters is the place to get a real San Francisco treat, with selections from all over the northwest coastline. The restaurant is also right near a fantastic farmer’s market, so be sure to visit on a Saturday.
Of course, there is some of the best Chinese food this side of Beijing in San Francisco, but for a twist, try the Kung Pao Pastrami at Mission Chinese Food. You’ve never tasted anything like it!
The slightly spicy fisherman’s stew called Cioppino is a well-known favorite throughout the city. You can find some of the best at Sotto Mare on Green Street.
Where to Stay
Hotel Union Square
In the heart of the shopping district and close to many attractions, Hotel Union Square is the city’s first boutique hotel, and since it was built more than a 100 years ago, you’ll adore the fusion of art deco with modern facilities. Plus, the Cable Car Turnaround is just one block away. (Ask your travel agent how to get complimentary breakfast daily here.)
Fairmont San Francisco
A five-star property that’s within walking distance to many must-see spots, the Fairmont San Francisco is the only spot in the entire city where all the cable car lines meet. The hotel’s Garden Room was where the United Nations Charter was drafted, and the Venetian Room was where Tony Bennett debuted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The hotel has also been featured on numerous TV shows and movies, such as Hotel and The Rock.
Hotel Zephyr Fisherman’s Wharf
Formerly the Radisson Fisherman’s Wharf, this hotel underwent a massive renovation and is now a high-style property that takes up an entire city block, right in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. Bringing Fido? In addition to the smart TVs with streaming, a pirvate car and limo service, and trendy guestrooms and suites, the hotel also welcomes pets.