Ask anybody who's been to San Francisco about the best things to do in the city, and they'll have a list as long as their arm. The metropolis is stuffed full of sight-seeing spots, cocktail bars, excellent eateries and photo opps, all while giving off the most welcoming vibe of 'cool'.
Whether you're planning a long weekend or a road trip stop, here are our pick of the best things to do in San Fran. Trust me: you'll want to go again before you've even left.
Where to stay
The 1 Hotel
Big city travel can be exciting, but also exhausting. So it’s a dream to find a hotel that feels like a proper oasis amid all the hustle and bustle. With décor inspired by Northern California’s landscapes, the interiors combine wood, neutral paints and oodles of greenery to give a truly zen vibe. In fact, sustainability is at the heart of the hotel’s ethos, with bottled water replaced by water fountains on every floor with in-room carafes, local and reclaimed materials used throughout, energy-efficient lighting and various other offsets to reduce the 1’s carbon footprint.
The hotel has incredible bay views, including an outdoor terrace, and is literally across the road from the Ferry Building (more on that below), making it a great location for exploring both locally and further afield. Speaking of, there’s also an electric Audi ‘house car’ that operates on a first come, first served basis, taking you anywhere within a 2-mile radius for free. There’s also a Bamford spa, gym and a calendar of in-house events to occupy you, if you fancy some down-time.
Plus, the rooms are heavenly. Huge king beds with pillow-top mattresses, 55” LCD TVs set up for streaming and casting, Nespresso machine, rain shower… you get the picture. Rooms start at around £395 per night ($500).
What to do
To say San Francisco will keep you busy is an understatement: there is SO much to do. Here are just a few suggestions:
Sail around the bay on a Catamaran
There's no better way to see the bay area of San Francisco than by boat, which makes the AdventureCat bay sail perfect. Float past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, before getting an incredible view of the city's skyline on your return. This was one of the most memorable days of our whole trip; the staff were welcoming and friendly and the views were unforgettable. Photo opportunities to boot.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alcratraz, the small island that housed a federal prison until 1963. The self-guided tour is absolutely fascinating, giving you an insight into what prison life was like on the island, as well as the many failed escape attempts. If you only have time for one excursion, make it this.
City Lights Bookshop
City Lights is one of the oldest and most famous bookstores in San Francisco, functioning as a literary hub since 1953. Since then, it’s made a name for itself as a bookshop that champions progressive writing and up-and-coming authors, with a passion for spotlighting banned books and underrepresented voices. Here for it! Plus, very much here for the huge selection of mainstream and indie titles, piled high in the shop's twisty turny and incredibly cool layout.
The Ferry Building
The Ferry Builing is a must for anyone who is vaguely interested in food (that's everyone, then). The covered market is a perfect stop whether you're people watching or feasting, and has a kitchen shop you could spend hours in. Whether you're after snacks from an independent seller or a yummy lunch for sustenance, they've got you covered. Plus, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is on outside three times a week, giving you even more food to drool over.
Our top picks? Humphry Slocombe’s secret breakfast ice cream (which blends bourbon and corn flakes), Neighbour bakehouse’s ginger pull-apart pastry (stocked at Red bay Coffee), Tartine Bakery’s morning buns (stocked at Epicurean Trader) and Hog Island Oyster Co (more on that below…)
Charmaine's Rooftop Bar & Lounge
The West coast of America's sunsets are second to none. Catch one like the below from Charmaine's Rooftop Bar, and dance with a cocktail of your choice in hand while the sky turns from blue to pink to orange. It's special.
Cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge
Unsurprisingly, inner San Francisco is not the only thing this part of California has to offer. Hire a bike from Bay City Bike Rentals & Tours and head across the Golden Gate - not only will you get beautiful views while up close and personal with the bridge, but you'll see what towns like Sausalito have to offer, too.
Because what's a long weekend away without a bit of ~culture~ thrown into the mix? San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art has exhibits from David Hockney to Andy Warhol, and was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art.
Edible Excursions Japan Town Tour
Immerse yourself in one of California's remaining Japan Towns with an Edible Excursions tour, which will take you on an eating experience while sharing some of the history of the district. You'll have the chance to sample everything from moreish mochi balls to sweet potato latte (trust us, it's delicious), and you'll leave feeling fully satisfied.
Where to eat
Open since 1965 Scoma’s is a San Francisco institution that was name-checked constantly by locals. Perched right on the seafront at Pier 47 (book a table at sunset and request one at the front of the restaurant), it serves great seafood, in an unpretentious setting. We had the calamari, clam chowder and crab cakes, followed by the pan seared shrimp & scallops and catch of the day. But everything is ‘pier to plate’ and freshly caught that day by Scoma’s own fishermen, so you can’t go far wrong.
You’ll see chowder and oysters all around SF, and amid all the ice creams, pastries, burgers, Little Italy pizzas and other stuff you’ll be gorging on, you might want a change of pace. Which is where Terrene comes in. The menu is all fresh and organic fare, made with locally-sourced ingredients and sustainability at its heart. But the menu is far from boring health-food. Think delicious homemade dips and flatbreads, peach and crispy serrano ham salad, seared scallops, harissa chicken skewer and za'atar fries, all washed down with their extensive cocktail list.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana
Not far from City Lights Bookshop is Little Italy, and Tony's Pizza Napoletana is the place to eat. They’ve produced some prize-winning pizzas that are worth the wait – seriously the best margherita I’ve ever had. But it’s the garlic bread with honey and garlic dip that I’m still dreaming about.
Palette prides itself on not only being contemporary and chic, but on creating a concept that is so much more than just a restaurant. Combining an art gallery, eatery and gift shop, Palette's mission is simple - encourage creativity through both art and food, in a setting that inspires all. If you go, order the scallops and halibut (pictured below), and definitely ask the sommelier for wine advice.
Inspired by family style eating, the dishes at Noosh are made to be shared; think Mediterranean dips, meat skewers and fresh salads. Not only is it surprisingly affordable, but the red pepper dip could be the best thing you ever put in your mouth.
Hog Island Oyster Co
No trip to San Francisco is complete without some fresh seafood, and the queue outside Hog Island Oysters will tell you it's the top spot to go. Set within The Ferry Building, it's worth waiting for a table outside, so you can drink their signature cocktails and watch the world go by. The clam chowder is the restaurants speciality, but the chipotle oysters are also exceptional.
Uno Dos Tacos
At Uno Dos Tacos you can bag a breakfast burrito for under $4, that will set you up for all the sight seeing you can muster. What's not to love?
August (1) Five
Explore the nuances of Indian cuisine at a restaurant that challenges everything you thought you knew about South Asian cooking. Alongside an extensive cocktail menu of twists on classics, August (1) Five encourages sharing food, so guests can sample offerings from their cold, warm and hot menus. The menu changes seasonally, but the palak chaat is a must, and the sticky toffee pudding is a delight.
While Tartine Manufactory might not be the most convenient to get to, the journey is worth it when you've tried their egg sandwiches. Fresh bread and perfect pastries are made on site, while people queue out the door for a chance to taste the coddled eggs or berry french toast.
Things you might find useful
America is big on tipping, and it's customary to do it everywhere you go. As a rough guide, you should try and leave 15-20% gratuity for seated service and $1/per drink for bar service, 15-20% on guided tours, and $1-$2 per day for hotel staff, such as housekeeping and the bellmen.
San Francisco's housing crisis means homelessness is not unusual in the city. While this absolutely isn't a reason not to visit, it's just something to be aware of.
You won't need a car in the city, and tourists tend to walk or get taxis everywhere. If you're flying straight in to San Francisco, you can get an airport shuttle into the city from $17.00, or a private taxi for around $25.
For more information on San Francisco, visit www.sftravel.com.
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