There are a million reasons why you might want to put San Francisco on your list for a visit, with around the same number of city guides for this place that I have called home for more than a decade and where I return to when I’m not travelling. This San Francisco city guide is a curated list of my favourite things about the Bay Area. Now one of the most coveted places to live in the world, and constantly challenging New York City among other cities as the most expensive in the world. There are plenty of things to do in the city and surrounds to get excited about. I hope this local’s guide to San Francisco whets your appetite to explore beyond the popular tourist sights and fall in love with this soulful city.
A Local’s Guide to San Francisco
Arriving in San Francisco
Getting to San Francisco from any direction is incredibly easy with two major airports: San Francisco International Airport and Oakland Airport. Search flights to San Francisco here. In addition, highways run in every direction if coming by car is your mode of transportation.
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Where to Stay in San Francisco
There are literally thousands of options for staying in San Francisco, home of Air B&B, you can even try your luck with a listing on this popular app. When I want a staycation in my home city, or I’m craving a splurge weekend in the city I book a room at Clift.
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The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel has been my number one hotel choice in San Francisco since moving here. Not only does it have one of the most iconic bars in the city, but it is a property with a great history for mixing old and new, for appreciating careful design, and it has a casual luxury that is easy to slip into.
The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel San Francisco is a sexy hotel and you feel sexy staying there, I love this. The design is a fusion of old-world hotel elegance with bold contemporary energy and glamour and just enough whimsy to keep you honest; this century-old hotel is quintessential San Francisco.
The Clift’s magic begins to take as soon as you walk into the lobby leaving the city behind. Designed by Philippe Starck and Ian Schrager, their world is a fantasy land of eclectic furnishings exciting all five senses at once. A signature floral scent tickles your nose and an inviting purple glow welcomes you into the soaring lobby that contains chairs from Ray and Charles Eames, a coffee table by Salvador Dali, The Apple Stool by Roberto Sebastian Matta inspired by René Magritte, and a sculpture custom made by William Sawaya. To say it is an Instagrammable lobby is an understatement, there is goodness tucked in every corner and plenty to muse you. This first impression is bar none and one of my favourite things about staying here – you are in another world instantly.
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I suggest you find ways to spend time in the lobby; enjoy a drink beside the thirty-five-foot fireplace centrepiece with a bronze chimney sculpture by Gerard Garouste, or take a seat (if you can) on the larger-than-life chair for a great photo. Don’t forget to look under the chair for a scavenger hunt worthy secret in San Francisco.
The whimsy of scale, and modern colour, mixed with timeless elegance carries into the 372 luxury guest rooms of this property. From the Malin + Goetz bath amenities to the 300 thread count bedding, down duvet, and Merino wool lavender blanket, the luxury is palpable here. It is sensual, tactile and elegant. Each room features beautifully crafted furniture custom-designed by Starck. English sycamore is accented by velvet, leather and chrome. Playful splashes of an orange glow against the milky flat lavender walls and carefully curated accents in so many different textures that it teases you to keep up. A wooden “wheelbarrow” chair inspired by Man Ray is illuminated by a custom Venetian glass lamp, the room is poetry in motion, a work of art, a brilliant piece of thought paused for each guest to slip into a create a new story each time they stay and I’ve done just that.
The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel is located seconds from Union Square and Nob Hill and many of my favourite places in the city but you don’t even have to leave the building to experience one of my all-time favourite places to grab a drink and nosh. The famed Redwood Room located just off the lobby of the Clift is iconic San Francisco. Dripping with glamour and sex appeal the big room features the original redwood panelling and enormous bar, which legend has, was carved from a single redwood tree. The room carries this motif throughout and is dressed in art-deco jewels of mirrored tables, velvet seating, and Venetian etched glass. Ever-changing and evocative digital artwork is displayed on plasma television screens hung throughout the room like art – Redwood Room’s craft cocktails and light fare will give you plenty of reasons to grab a dress and a gent and enjoy a slower, sexy, cozy pace.
What to See and Do in San Francisco
San Francisco is widely considered one of the best places to visit in the USA. It’s clear to see why, as there are many incredibly fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco all the time. We have many museums, plenty of shopping, lots of parts, an ocean, beaches and you can literally go in any direction to find adventure. Here are a few of the best things to do in San Francisco.
Coming from the Midwest, it’s nice to get my winter fix of ice skating once a year around Christmas time when Union Square and a special spot on the Embarcadero turn into a winter wonderland. You can easily walk to these locations from public transportation or nearby hotels, and there is parking under Union Square for anyone coming by car. Renting skates is part of the fun, and makes this plan completely spontaneous-worthy. Outdoor ice skating in San Francisco begins in November and goes through December, daily from 10 am until 11:30 pm and is one of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids.
If whizzing around on roller skates makes you happy, you’ll be happy to discover that you can rent skates at Golden Gate Park Bike & Skate near Golden Gate Park and skate until your heart is content. On Sundays skaters from all over the city meet up in the park to show off, this has been happening in the park since the 1800s.
I love the museums in San Francisco. You can take your pick between the de Young Museum where I’ve swooned over Goethe, the SF MOMA where I’ve feasted my eyes on incredible modern art collections that span the 45,000 square feet of art-filled space that you can explore for free including a peek at Frida Kahlo’s wedding portrait, or the brand-new and highly coveted and Instagrammable Museum of Ice Cream (be sure to grab a ticket well in advance for this one because it’s super popular).
If horticulture is your thing, don’t miss the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden, really close to the de Young. I spent the day at the Conservatory of flowers recently enjoying the butterfly room and it was incredible, the Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States and it is definitely worth visiting, especially in the Spring.
A local’s guide to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without a couple of the most Instagram-worthy spots in the city. At the top of the list are the beautifully colourful mosaic steps leading up to Lincoln Park. They are easy to find, and capture and the park beyond the steps is worth a pause too. Clarion Alley, located in one of my favourite parts of the city, the Mission, is worth a visit if street art is something you appreciate. This community mural project spans one alley block and each piece of art is a great backdrop for your next post. This alley is also located between two of my favourite streets in San Francisco for dining and shopping and it is one of the warmest parts of the city usually.
Do you know the words to every Greece song from the musical? If you love musicals, and you love singing, the Castro Theater Sing Along offers a unique experience in San Francisco. Pre-book tickets before your visit. The theatre comes alive with a showing of the musical on the big screen complete with sing-along lyrics, and great animation. Every ticket includes a goodie bag with all of the props you need to get in the mood for this fun and very San Francisco treat.
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Unique Things to Do in San Francisco
Two of the most unique experiences in San Francisco are the Fog Bridge and the Audium. The Fog Bridge was intended to be a temporary art installation and it was so well-received that the Exploratorium decided to keep it as a permanent exhibit. You can experience real fog most of the time in San Francisco, but in the form of “art” through this really cool installation. Fujiko Nakaya created this installation in 2013 and it is now a free experience between Piers 15 and 17 on the Embarcadero in the city. The 150-foot-long pedestrian bridge is filled with real fog and you can walk, dance and play in it daily at these times: 10 am, Noon, 2 pm, 4 pm and on Thursday evenings at 7 pm.
Audium is a sound experience that you must experience for yourself to fully appreciate. It is the only theatre of its kind in the world. Listeners are bathed in sound that surrounds them in the space so much that the sounds can be felt moving past, over and under them. “Sound Sculptures” are performed in darkness in the 49-seat theatre with 176 speakers sharing sound.
A visit to Grace Cathedral should be on your list, especially if practising yoga inside on the labyrinth sounds like something you’d like to do. Visit the cathedral during the day to appreciate the grandeur and beauty of this incredible place, plan to join hundreds on your mat any Wednesday night of the year for yoga with live music and if you are lucky Darin Main will be there teaching the class. These classes are donation-based and one hour long, bring layers and an open heart.
You cannot visit San Francisco on a sunny day without a visit to Dolores Park. This park is the heart of San Francisco, with lawns and views and people watching galore. Stop by the nearby Bi-Rite for fresh things to picnic, or grab a gourmet ice cream at their second nearby location and take a blanket and pick your spot. If you wonder what it must feel like to live in this eclectic city, a picnic in this park will give you the perfect answer.
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San Francisco Area Beaches
California is synonymous with beaches and San Francisco has its share of beach options. If a San Francisco beach experience is on your list head to Crissy Field where you can catch the sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge and a beautiful view of the Bay, Marin and beyond. Head to Ocean Beach for a quintessential Northern California beach experience with an expansive beach, Baker Beach is more quiet with another view of the Golden Gate Bridge or take a trip over the bridge and into Marin for the beaches on the other side of the bay: Kirby Cove, Rodeo, Cronkite, Sausalito, Stinson, and Bolinas. Each beach has its own personality and climate, be sure to check the weather and know that the water temperature in San Francisco is 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius) at its warmest which is from mid August until late September.
Where to Eat and Drink in San Francisco
San Francisco is a foodie town, and a craft cocktail town, we take both very seriously. The list below is a snapshot of some of the best restaurants and cafes in San Francisco.
For meatballs as big as your head and a spaghetti experience like no other, make plans to visit Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack in the Mission, dinner is my favourite especially on a cold night when you want to feel cozy and feast on comfort food but they are now open for lunch too. Make a reservation or wait in a long line for this popular and very local spot.
Spruce is Chef Mark Sullivan’s restaurant and where you can find one of the best burgers in San Francisco. This is a great neighbourhood restaurant for dining with friends or pop into the bar – the wine list is amazing too. Another delicious burger can be found at Namu Gaji, where you will find a life-changing burger, among other delicious menu options.
Hog Island Oysters is a must when you are in San Francisco, especially if you leave or arrive by ferry. The Ferry Building location is the perfect place to meet friends or send friends from out of town. Order the baked oyster flight with bubbles or sit at the sidebar and sip a craft cocktail.
Trick Dog is a quintessential San Francisco Mission bar and one of my very favourite places for a true Old Fashion made with a huge handmade ice cube. On the World’s 50 Best Bars list, this bar is a must. The second reason to visit Trick Dog is the kale salad, trust me. I know this seems like an odd combination and if so don’t do it but if you arrive at Trick Dog hungry for more than a perfect craft cocktail order the kale salad and you are welcome.
Craft cocktails are synonymous with San Francisco, a few of my other favourite places to grab one are Alta CA, where you must order the deviled eggs and stay for dinner, Benjamin Cooper where your first task is finding the secret-ish place that also has oysters and other delectables with their cocktail list, Chambers Eat + Drink which is part of the old Phoenix Hotel and an incredibly groovy experience. Wander to the back bar where you’ll find an Instagram-worthy backdrop for a photo after you stay for cocktails and dinner.
Bourbon and Branch, a real speakeasy, is a must-see when you visit San Francisco. Be sure to make a reservation online where you will receive a personal password to enter which you really will need in order to enter. Don’t let the alley-like, no-nonsense façade fool you, this is part of the charm and what awaits you inside is magic and a step back in time. Be warned that there are rules, like no phones so no Instagramming here and if ordering a Cosmo is your MO you might want to skip this place or choose another drink. Visit Bourbon and Branch before or after dinner, they don’t serve a single morsel of food here and your table reservation is strictly enforced and by the hour.
Sunday brunching in San Francisco is a big deal. San Francisco brunch it is a day-long and beloved affair that we take very seriously. I love Foreign Cinema for dinner where you can sit outside in the courtyard and enjoy the vintage film playing for the night, but I love it even more for brunch. Be sure to make a reservation by calling or online if this spot is on your list because it is a popular spot in the city.
My favourite off-the-beaten-path and well-worth the trip restaurant is Outerlands which you can find by way of a trip to Ocean Beach. One of the best brunches in the city in my opinion and again, make a reservation or wait forever…if you find yourself waiting, either way, pop into nearby Trouble Coffee Company for a real treat in real coffee.
Four of my favourite restaurants with flavours from around the world are: Burma Superstar, please order the Tea Leaf Salad, Kokkari Estiatorio where you can feast on a delicious Greek menu, Flour + Water which has some of the very best pasta in town and Plouf, one of the most charming alley restaurants in San Francisco serving French flavours.
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For unique dining experiences make a reservation at one of these favourites: Straw, where the theme is the circus in everything from the drinks to the menu, be sure to order the Donut Burger, a burger served on a doughnut bun. Gracias Madre one of my favourite go-to vegetarian restaurants in the city, and Asia SF which is an all-inclusive dinner and drag show that has potential to be one of the highlights of your visit to San Francisco.
If a sweet treat is what you are craving please put these places on your list, they are my all-time favourites: Mr. Holmes Bakehouse home of the “cruffin,” a cross between a croissant and muffin and the spot with the famed “I got baked in San Francisco” neon sign. Hot Cookie, a must-see in the Castro with ooey-gooey cookies and other Rated R shaped treats. Dandelion Chocolate in the Mission, a great spot to stop after visiting Clarion Alley, order the Drinking Chocolate or a Brownie Bite Flight and plan to take some of this delicious chocolate home to someone for a gift.
Arsicault Bakery deserves its own piece because it is so spectacular, so much so that there is always a line at least a block long as soon as the bakery opens. Awarded the best bakery in America by Bon Apetit, it goes without saying that the pastries are delicious. Go early, order the Almond Croissant and take it with you to a place where you can savour every bite – guests are limited to only four pastries and pastries sell out before closing on most days.
If you are up for a cupcake tasting challenge, I challenge you to try and rate the cupcakes at my three favourite places (in this order): Sift Dessert Bar, Sweet Things Bakery, and Kara’s Cupcakes.
Staying Active in San Francisco
We have the luxury of year-round outdoor opportunities in San Francisco with December being one of the most beautiful times of the year to visit, because of this and the vast diversity in activities, staying active in and around this city is easy and encouraged.
Where to Practice Yoga in San Francisco
The yoga scene in San Francisco includes yoga of all kinds and studios on every corner, each with its distinct feel and experience. My favourite places to practice yoga include Yoga Flow SF Union with Anna Hughes, Yoga Flow SF Ocean when Rusty Wells is in town, Yoga Tree in the Castro for Bhakti Kirtan with Nat Kendall and a rigorous vinyasa with Mark Morford, and Love Story with Peter Walters. For many of us in the city, it’s less about the studio or location of the studio and more about the teacher. I travel many miles to practice with these teachers because of who they are and the classes they teach.
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Running in San Francisco
If you are a runner, early morning runs along the Embarcadero are a beautiful way to start the day. You’ll run past the Ferry Building, Fisherman’s Wharf and even Cupid’s Span if you are feeling ambitious. Crissy Field is also a great place for running along the water.
The Best Bike Rides in San Francisco
Cycling is a must in San Francisco, especially if crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a bike is on your list. There are many bike rental companies in San Francisco where you can hire a bike and a map and they will point you in the direction of Marin, you can even rent an electric bike if pedalling help is what you are after. Cycling in San Francisco city is not for a novice and the ride from the city to the best stopping point in Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge is a doozy so you should be ready for a grand adventure but I promise you it will be worth every minute. Once you arrive in Sausalito there are many places to grab lunch and you can decide to pedal back or ferry back easily with your bike. If the bridge is your destination, there are great viewing points for a photo on both sides of the bridge and you can easily turn around and return to the city.
For serious cyclists, it doesn’t get more epic than cycling in Marin. Whether you are travelling by your own bike or looking to rent a comparable one, you will find many options for road and mountain biking just across the Golden Gate Bridge from the city. A few of the best San Francisco bike rides are The Headlands Loop (29.2km/18.2 miles with 2,051 feet of elevation) with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge as you climb gradually to the top and then enjoy an epic descent with an open water ocean view, The Tiburon Loop (42.8km/26.6 miles with 1,174 feet of elevation) which is a moderate loop around Paradise Drive in Tiburon with gentle rollers and as the ride suggests paradise views. The Alpine Dam and Mount Tam ride is one of my all-time favourite road rides, it is epic. It is an 86.4km/53.7 mile ride with 5,445 feet of climbing and it has every element including climbing and incredibly fast descents.
For mountain biking, climb Mount Tam on Railroad Grade up to Pantoll or take the Coastal Trail for a longer ride with spectacular single track and drop off panoramic views. Marin is the original home of mountain biking and we have many, many trails for this sport. One of my all-time favourite mountain bike rides is Tamarancho, you must add this ride to your list if you are a cyclist visiting San Francisco and be sure to do the Flow Trail for added adventure.
Day Trips From San Francisco
You can literally go in any direction for a day trip from the city. Day trips to the town of Sausalito and just beyond it in Marin are a must. Take a trip via Golden Gate Ferry from the Ferry Building in San Francisco directly to Sausalito where you will have a unique vantage point water view of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Area.
Once you arrive, you have many options for lunch including Cibo, an amazing spot with a house-made, organic menu which the owners Tera and Alfredo put their heart and soul into every single day. Order the Polenta Poptart and sip on coffee they roast here themselves.
The Sausalito Taco Shop is Bree’s Baja-style Mexican spot in town and my go-to for a sunny outside table and fresh and delicious Mexican food. Wander downtown on a sunny day for a skyline view of the city that never gets old and if you are lucky you will catch Bill Dan, the rock stacker who stacks rocks on the rocky beach.
If you stay for dinner, the best spot to watch the sunset over the skyline is at Barrel House. Grab one of the outside tables on the balcony and order one of their beautiful wines and a first course.
My favourite dinner spots in Sausalito are: Sushi Ran for artfully prepared and served Japanese – everything on the menu is delicious, Poggio for authentic and delicious Italian, Fred’s Coffee Shop for a local breakfast place where the Fried French Toast is a local favourite, Le Garage a French bistro perfect for dining al fresco when the weather is sunny enough (and close by the Schoonmaker Beach in Sausalito), Fish which is on the water and serves the most delicious fresh fish, bring cash and order the Crab Roll.
There are so many beautiful places to visit in Marin, just beyond Sausalito. A few to put at the top of your list are Angel Island, a great quick ferry ride from Tiburon and the perfect spot for a unique view of the bay and city. You can bike around the island, hike easy trails and/or take a picnic on a beautiful day. Napa is about one hour due North from Sausalito if wine tasting and exploring are on your list. Muir Woods is an incredibly beautiful way to see the Redwoods.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel San Francisco during our stay in San Francisco. However, our opinions, words and images remain authentically our own.
Pat Bailey is a certified Bhakti Yoga Teacher, published poet, writer, and entrepreneur with a passion for exploring the globe. Pat created her own branding academy helping to elevate brands and students through authentic and intuitive coaching.