San Francisco Vacation: An Insider’s Guide

Our local expert shares her city secrets for individuals and families alike, to help you plan your ideal San Francisco vacation.

As a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought the city was magical. With its filmy fog, the clang of the cable car bells and the twinkling lights at night—San Francisco still has me under its spell.

From its role as the gateway to the 1849 Gold Rush (the city’s 49ers NFL team is named after those who came to look for riches) to its phoenix-like rise from the rubble and ashes of the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire to its Flower Power generation lure—San Francisco consistently recasts itself to appeal to modern tastes, yet retains an Old World, European charm. The city’s current streak of reinvention is easy to witness in museums, parks, hotels and restaurants.

City of Neighborhoods

Just 49 square miles, most attractions in San Francisco are easily accessible to some form of public transportation, from bus to streetcar to cable car. Locals tend to refer to places by the neighborhood in which they’re located. Some districts were named after the ethnicity of the people who settled there, like Chinatown and Japantown. Others are named after landmarks (the Mission, after Mission Dolores). Still others are known for more modern-day settlers, such as the Haight’s home to ’60s-era hippie culture or the Castro’s vibrant gay community. [Read our Family-Friendly San Francisco article for three neighborhoods that are great for families.]

For a city relatively small in size, San Francisco is chock-full of green space—from huge Golden Gate Park to the Presidio to small neighborhood stomping grounds. The largest, Golden Gate Park, is a lush green strip that covers more than 1,000 acres from the center of the city to the far western edge. [Read our San Francisco Green Spaces article for more great park destinations.]

Don’t Miss: First Timers

There’s a reason why some of San Francisco’s main attractions are classics. Alcatraz, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge are icons of the city, and they attract tourists and locals alike.

Alcatraz—Known as “the Rock,” Alcatraz is a former federal prison and home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse and fort. It also was the site of an 18-month occupation in 1969 by Native Americans—in order to help establish tribal rights. Access is only by ferry. Daytime tours are available, and evening programs offer guided tours and cell door demonstrations. Alcatraz Cruises leave from Pier 33, tel. 415-981-7625,

Chinatown—The best way to experience San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood is to begin at the elaborate Dragon’s Gate at Grant Ave. and Bush St. Pass through and take a look at the golden dragon streetlights. Now, just wander the streets and alleys of the neighborhood, take in the incredible food smells, and discover a treasure of Asian import shops and live markets. Nearby Portsmouth Square (at Kearney and Washington Streets) is where Mexican governor Jose Figueroa authorized Francisco de Haro to plot out a town in 1839—originally called Yerba Buena. It was also the site of California’s first public school, in 1848.

Fisherman’s Wharf—With great views of the city, fantastic Dungeness crab, street performers and barking sea lions—this is the best place for an inexpensive good time. As much as locals like to say they hate Fisherman’s Wharf, the best excuse for them to go is when friends are in town. If you’re visiting someone in San Francisco, ask him to take you. The nearby Cannery and Ghirardelli Square shopping centers offer a welcome relief from the tacky souvenir shops. The Fisherman’s Wharf area spans from Piers 33 to 45.

Golden Gate Bridge—Who doesn’t want to walk across San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge? Pedestrians and bicyclists can access the sidewalks during the daytime, and linger over the spectacular views that drivers often miss. The bridge is just over a mile-and-a-half long, and has a subtle arc in the middle. Bring extra clothing for the cooler weather and ocean breeze if you plan to walk or bike across. Sidewalk access times vary with the season, and depend on whether you are walking or cycling. Directions to the sidewalks are available at

Don’t Miss: Return Travelers

If you’ve seen all the first-time attractions and are looking to round out your San Francisco experience, here are a few ways to do it:

Ferry Building Marketplace—San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building on the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street dates back to 1898. It’s now home to the artisan food community, with shops run by local farmers and food businesses. If you’re looking for the best produce at the outdoor Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, get there by 8:30 a.m. One Ferry Building, tel. 415-693-0996. [Read our San Francisco Culinary Tour article for more information on the Ferry Building Marketplace and other great foodie destinations.]

Mission District and WPA-era Murals—The Mission District is San Francisco’s Latin Quarter. A wealth of cuisine can be found here, from taquerias and pupuserias to Bretagne crêpes to the fantastic Mitchell’s Ice Cream shop (688 San Jose Ave.). [Read our Quirky San Francisco article for offbeat destinations in the Mission and elsewhere in the city.] You may come for the food, but stay for the murals in Balmy Alley. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center offers weekend walking tours of the murals in the neighborhood.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a relief measure established in 1935, which gave unemployed artists the opportunity to decorate many public buildings. Notable WPA murals in San Francisco can be found in Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower and the Visitor’s Center on the ground floor of the Beach Chalet at Ocean Beach. Precita Eyes. 2981 24th St., tel. 415-285-2287. Coit Tower. One Telegraph Hill, tel. 415-362-0808. Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant. 1000 Great Hwy., tel. 415-386-8439.

North Beach—The North Beach neighborhood is home to San Francisco’s Little Italy and the Beat movement of authors (most notably, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg). Linger in Washington Square and gaze at the towering Saints Peter and Paul Church—where Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio took wedding photos after getting married at City Hall. Stop in at City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Ave.), the original publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Wander down Grant Ave., the oldest street in San Francisco, and part of the original Barbary Coast. Wind up your visit at any of the neighborhood’s Old World delis or cafés. One of my favorites is Caffe Trieste, at 601 Vallejo St.

Don’t Miss: Family Attractions

Children love everything in the First-Timers through the Return Travelers lists (although younger kids may get bored with the murals much sooner than teenagers will). Younger children can return to Fisherman’s Wharf on nearly every San Francisco trip, and they’re happy. Here are a few more fun places for families in the city:

Koret Children’s Quarter—The perfect place to let the kids play until they can’t play any more. One of the oldest playgrounds in the United States (renovated in 2007), it includes swings, slides, climbing Treehouse Village and wave walls, and is home to a 1912 Herschell-Spillman carousel (which was originally powered by steam). My 4-year-old niece Sofia prefers the carousel and slides, while her 1-year-old brother Dominic is wild about the swings. Located at 320 Bowling Green Dr. in Golden Gate Park. Tel. 415-831-5500.

Exploratorium—This interactive science museum at the Palace of Fine Arts is a dream for both kids and adults. In fact, going with kids is probably the best way to experience the Exploratorium. See with your hands in the Tactile Dome; play professor in the Biology Lab; learn about life sciences, electricity, physics and sound with fun, hands-on exhibits. The Exploratorium even has seasonal events, such as the Phantasmagorium Halloween Night—full of sweet and spooky activities. 3601 Lyon St., tel. 415-561-0360.

Chocolate and Fortune Cookies—What kid doesn’t like sweet treats, especially on vacation? And in San Francisco, you can watch chocolate and fortune cookies being made before you dig in. At the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square, you can see the original ice cream and chocolate manufactory, where Ghirardelli Chocolate began in 1852. Stay to sample the goods, of course. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is located in Chinatown’s Ross Alley, the oldest alley in San Francisco. Watch fortunes being placed on top of thin, flat cookies before they get folded into their familiar shape. The best part of the visit is tasting freshly made fortune cookies. Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. 900 North Point St., tel. 415-474-3938. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. 56 Ross Alley, tel. 415-781-3956.

San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtSFMOMA offers a spectacular array of modern art, and their Family Days include gallery tours for families and hands-on art projects—at no charge. Upcoming Family Programs in 2008 are Sept. 21 (celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month), Oct. 5 (science and photography) and Oct. 19 (science and art). [Read about Zeum, a nearby children’s museum, in our Child’s Play article.] 151 Third St. Call the Education Programs Information Line (tel. 415-947-1292) to reserve your spot, as space is limited.

Where to Stay

Well-known classic hotels in San Francisco include the Mark Hopkins San Francisco with its fabulous bay views) and the Westin St. Francis in the heart of Union Square (which is scheduled to complete a $40 million restoration in spring 2009). In addition, San Francisco-founded hotel chains Kimpton and Joie de Vivre, have plenty of excellent and unique properties in the city, such as the Hotel Vitale (see below).

Hotel Vitale. The luxurious Hotel Vitale on San Francisco’s waterfront (conveniently across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building Marketplace) opened in 2005. With comfortable modern interiors, smashing service, tasty bar and restaurant Americano, and spa (complete with rooftop soaking tubs—I’ve tried them!), this is one of my favorite hotels in the city. 8 Mission St., tel. 888-890-8688. Rates begin at $319 per night for superior queen and king rooms. 

Orchard Garden Hotel. In the heart of San Francisco, just steps from the shops at Union Square, the Orchard Garden Hotel is another recent addition, in 2006. [Read our Eco-Vacations article for more information about this hotel and other green places to stay.] 466 Bush St., tel. 888-717-2881. Rates begin at $315 per night for a standard king room.

InterContinental San Francisco. Newly opened in February 2008, the InterContinental is located in the South of Market (SoMa) area, near the Moscone Convention Center. The cool aqua tower is easy to spot, and holds 550 elegantly styled guest rooms. Check out the hotel’s Luce Restaurant or Bar 888, or relax at the luscious spa. 888 Howard St., tel. 888-811-4273. Rates begin at $269 per night for a standard room.

Larkspur Hotel Union Square. Also located near Union Square, the Larkspur Hotel Union Square just finished a renovation in 2008, resulting in comfortable rooms at a reasonable rate. Rooms include LCD flat screen TVs and free wireless Internet. Bring Fido along, because the hotel is also pet-friendly. Bar 1915 is a welcome haven from cold and foggy days. Larkspur Hotels & Restaurants has other hotels in the Bay Area focused on personalized service, including another newly renovated San Francisco hotel, the Villa Florence.  524 Sutter St., tel. 800-919-9779. Rates begin at $160 per night for a traditional queen room.

Cavallo Point. Opened in June 2008, this is my new favorite hotel right outside the city. At Fort Baker, just at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge, the lodge offers historic rooms in renovated military barracks as well as contemporary lodging—all with green elements, such as sustainable fabrics and re-use of historic materials. Cavallo Point is situated around the 10-acre parade ground, and is surrounded by the majestic Marin Headlands and nearby waterfront town of Sausalito.

Activities include walking history tours, a cooking school, yoga classes, kayaking, bike rentals and spa. The hotel’s Farley Bar is a comfortable place to relax and enjoy the parklike scenery—or grab a bite at the Murray Circle restaurant. Light lunchers can choose a sandwich or salad at the spa’s Tea Bar. 601 Murray Circle, Sausalito. Tel. 888-651-2003. Rates begin at $250 per night for a double room.

Eating in San Francisco

The wealth of quality restaurants in San Francisco makes it a rich food city. With nearby small farms, artisanal food communities, and world-class wineries, the challenge is deciding where to eat.

On the city’s waterfront, Epic Roasthouse and Waterbar lock up the meat and seafood fans. Italian food is done just right at Delfina in the Mission District. Tried-and-true Zuni Café with its yummy oyster bar has lived in the Civic Center for more than 20 years. And farmerbrown offers “farm-fresh soul food,” supporting local and African-American farmers. Try their All-U-Can-Eat Brunch on Sundays, which includes live music.

For a change of scenery, cross the Bay Bridge to Berkeley and the Alice Waters empire. Her Chez Panisse restaurant opened in 1971, and Waters’ focus on organic and locally-grown ingredients continues to serve as an inspiration for chefs and restaurateurs. While the restaurant, with its fixed-price menu, is worth a visit—I prefer the casual upstairs café, which offers an à la carte menu at lunch and dinner.

Epic Roasthouse. 369 Embarcadero, tel. 415-369-9955. Waterbar. 399 Embarcadero, tel. 415-284-9922. Delfina. 3621 18th St., tel. 415-552-4055. Zuni Café. 1658 Market St., tel. 415-552-2522. farmerbrown. 25 Mason St., tel. 415-409-3276. Chez Panisse. 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tel., 510-548-5525 (restaurant) and 510-548-5049 (café).

Destinations: San Francisco

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Eat, Museums, Parks and Playgrounds, Sightseeing, Sleep

User Comments

Now that's San Francisco! Great article. I love the Return Travelers section - those are excellent tips. Especially Coit Tower and City Lights! I love the Chez Panisse Cafe - which has the best fried chicken ever - however the Chez Panisse Restaurant is as incredible as it gets (and worth making reservations a month-in-advance when they make them available). Ever been on the kitchen tour there? Just ask, and they'll take you between courses!

Great ideas! I've worked in San Francisco for over 5 years now and I learned some new things about "my city" in the article. Thanks for the great tips!

Worth Many Revisits I loved all of these articles on SF! Even though I've lived in the Bay Area for 40 years, they reminded me of places I haven't visited for awhile, and places I've never been---and want to visit.

Loved your take! I loved the take on this city and some helpful hints. I used to live there and am often asked to advise friends of weather and sites. From now on, I'm just going to send them to this site!