Local's Art & Culinary Guide to San Francisco
Arts & Culture
I like to eat, and drink and explore new places. Even after 25 years here, I continue to be amazed by this place and never tire of exploring this ever-changing city. Because it is contained by water on three sides, there is ample opportunity to access the coast, and it is small enough to enjoy a number of neighborhoods in one trip: the Mission, Embarcadero, Hayes Valley, (the newest) Dogpatch. Oh, and did I mention the FOOD!?!
And if you have time, plan to get out of “The City” for a drive along the coast, to points north and south. It is a fantastic drive!
The Fora Difference
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Where to stay in San Francisco
Palace Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Francisco
Established in 1875, this historic hotel in Union Square is a bay area landmark for its Gilded-Age architecture, classically-inspired, modern decor and their famous tea room.
$100 food / beverage credit.
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Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco at Embarcadero
San Francisco landmark towering over the downtown with an array of elegant, convenient and luxurious accommodations.
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San Francisco Proper
Flagship property housed in a landmarked flatiron-style building in San Francisco’s vibrant Mid-Market district.
Special amenity / experience ($50 or $100 value).
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Things to do in San Francisco
Even if, maybe especially if, you are traveling with children, don’t overlook these! The de Young Museum is my favorite, if only for the building itself: the spiral tower with a 360-view of the city is hard to beat. The simulated earthquake crack that kids can follow from the front sidewalk, through boulders and to the entrance is incredible. Permanent exhibit and the I-have-never-been-disappointed rotating exhibits range from Chihuly to YSL gowns.
California Academy of Sciences: A perfect stop if you have kids, though be forewarned that the crowds can be off-putting. But if you can stand it, the aquariums, albino alligator, live penguin exhibit and butterfly jungle are bound to be hits (and you will like the living roof!)
Near the CAS and de Young are the Golden Gate Park Botanical Gardens and the Japanese Tea Garden. Both are worth a stroll, if you have time. There is a lake where boats and bikes can be rented, as well. You can choose whether you are looking for romantic or kid-style fun!
If you decide to venture to the Golden Gate Bridge (take a coat!) don't miss the new tunnel tops at the Presidio, including playground, gorgeous views for a picnic, lawn for running through and a place to stroll the marsh to enjoy wildlife. And you won't believe the views!
Minnesota Street Project: This is a relative newcomer and a local gem; it is an old warehouse in the Dogpatch neighborhood full of galleries which rotate their wares. It is open, airy and I guarantee you will discover a new artist to love. Across the street is the Altman Siegal gallery. Don’t miss the stroll through the Minnesota Grove to get there. (Also, a short drive from here is Flora Grubb Gardens, if you are a gardener, this place will put a smile on your face and provide inspiration to take home.)
This is a memorable way to experience San Francisco—the audio tour is a must (voices of prisoners and guards). Yes, you need reservations well in advance!! And plan for half a day.
Take the Trolley
Rice-A-Roni aside, the trolley really is a San Francisco treat! For the biggest bang for your buck, start at the turntables on Market Street (yes, there will be a line, but it goes quickly). You can also hop on at Union Square, if it’s not a busy day and buy a pass. Park at the Sutter Stockton and walk a block. Buy a pass with on/off privileges so you can hop off at the Cable Car Barn—downstairs you can watch the cables run through their paces, below the streets, incredible. At your destination (near the Wharf), you will be hit hard with the feeling that you have stepped into a trap, and you have—a tourist one. But since you are there, have a stroll down the water, visit the seals and grab a soup bowl at Boudin Bakery (home of the sourdough) after showing the kids how they make the bread out front.
What NOT to see!
Please skip the Wharf/Pier 29, unless you are doing Alcatraz. The only other exception is the Bay Aquarium, which is especially delightful for its underwater tunnels.
Rent a car and drive the coast down to at least Half Moon Bay for a walk around (small, quaint little town, takes 30 minutes). Pacifica is en route, and while it doesn’t have a town center, per se, does have one of the most popular surfing beaches in all of northern California- it makes for a beautiful morning stroll, after stopping at Soul Grind for a Cubano.
If you have a day or two to spare, Carmel-by-the-Sea (in my opinion) is not to be missed. It can be done in a day, but should really be two, with an overnight. Please note: holiday booking can be tricky, most places require a two to three night minimum and book early. Keep in mind that Carmel By the Sea and Carmel Valley are different places… one inland, the other on the ocean. Both are wonderful, but only Carmel by the Sea offers a walkable town and beach access.
If your kids don’t get sick in the car, I would highly suggest doing a drive down our coastal Highway 1. Between here and LA is Santa Cruz (you could do a day at the amazing Boardwalk/amusement park), Pismo Beach, San Clemente, Isle Vista—or if you want a more, LA-style beach (nutty, star-studded), try Venice or Manhattan beaches. I just did a drive down the coast to Paso Robles wine country and stayed in a teeny, beach town called Cayucos. The beach stretched for miles, sand dollars underfoot, seals, dolphins, fish and chip shack, three antique stores and one hotel… it all just depends on whether you want that laid-back, old west feel or a more modern, bustling area.
North Sausalito is another wonderful, little town to visit, too—just north of Golden Gate Bridge… its view of the City is hard to beat. Take the ferry (or drive, and stop to gawk on the GG Bridge) for a real Bay Area experience (catch at the Ferry Building or at the Wharf)… If you don’t have kids with you, a stop at the new Cavallo Point resort for drinks (or dinner) might be in order! And then there’s wine country…
Places to eat & drink in San Francisco
It has been said that if everyone in SFO went out to dinner at the same time one night, there would be enough seats for everyone. Restaurants, good ones, are a dime a dozen. I have many favorites, here are just a few for a very San Francisco experience.
This neighborhood was hit hard during Covid. Many of my favorite places did not survive. However, there are, happily, some budget-friendly newcomers such as Khamsa (Moroccan) and Burma Love (Burmese). Lolo always makes me smile when I walk in, as there is always something new displayed on the floor-to-ceiling walls, such as cowboy boots or barbie dolls. The food is as equally happy and easy featuring small Mexican plates.
Downtown in Union Square
I love Café de la Presse. I love the location, I love the food and I really love the atmosphere. But be forewarned, this feels, truly, like stepping into a corner of Paris, not necessarily San Francisco.
Besharam: If you make it to the Dogpatch to explore, don’t miss the Minnesota Street Project, a collection of art galleries. On the bottom floor is one of the most inventive Indian/Californian restaurants (owned by husband and wife team) I have enjoyed in a long while. And the bar! I can hardly begin to tell you how their new and exotic concoctions will tickle your tongue.
Greens: This institution has been around for a while for a reason. It sits right on the water at the marina and has never been a disappointment. Note, it is a vegetarian restaurant, but please don’t let that scare you away. It is a delight both in ambiance and in surprisingly delicious and filling creations.
When my girlfriends and I want a special treat, we spend the whole day here. You can choose to hop from food stand to restaurant, or just buy enough for a picnic and sit outside on a bench to watch the boats and people go by. Start at the Hog Island Oyster Company (get there when it opens) for a quick six, work your way to Boulette’s Larder for a European-kitchen-inspired lunch at the community table (a must), go by the wine store for a tasting and to browse their stacks, relax outside to people watch at MarketBar. While strolling, don’t miss the Beekind honey tasting stand if they happen to be there, and, Happy Girl Kitchen (pickled dilly beans and zucchini will make your eyes roll in delight), the macarons at Miette (organic and they give even Ladurée a run for their money.)
Atelier Crenn: If you happen to be a foodie, and think the art of cuisine is worth the price of entry, book a table (if you can) at Atelier Crenn; I promise it will not disappoint (though your wallet will come out much lighter). This sensory experience takes place in a stunningly serene room with only 5 or 6 tables, the menu comes to you as a poem, and the evening is not only about flavors, but your tactile, and olfactory will be dazzled, as well. Chef Crenn is a delight!
Need to Know
P.S. Bring layers, layers, layers.
If you are looking for family-friendly tips for travel around France, check out my Family-Friendly Trip to Normandy, France, Things to Do on a Culinary & Cultural Adventure in Bordeaux and The Ultimate Family-Friendly Trip to Paris, France.
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