It’s easy to fall in love with San Francisco. Boasting our country’s biggest Chinatown and one of its largest urban parks, 215 historical landmark buildings, and ten historic districts, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and enough natural beauty to make you forget not miss the countryside, San Francisco doesn’t lend itself to quick introductions or check-it-off to-do lists. It’s a seductive city to be courted slowly, and here’s where to begin.
For some great vintage shopping, people-watching, and a look at some of the city’s most beautiful and historic Victorian homes, visit the Haight-Ashbury (Haight St. at Ashbury St., San Francisco), the neighborhood that was once the hangout spot for bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. The fading spirit of the once-rebellious Haight Street lives on at Bound Together, an independent anarchist bookstore. Other worthwhile shopping includes Amoeba Records, Aardvark’s vintage clothing, and the Booksmith.
A rose garden, plenty of rolling green hills, a Japanese tea garden, and two major museums — the de Young art museum and the California Academy of Science — fill Golden Gate Park (between Fulton St. and Lincoln Way, Stanyan St. and the Great Highway, San Francisco) with enough activities to keep visitors busy for a few days. If you’re feeling ambitious, hike the three-plus miles from the park’s east end all the way to the Pacific Ocean at the other side.
Historic North Beach (Columbus Ave. at Broadway St., San Francisco) has some of the city’s best coffee, bookstores, and Italian food, and has become famous as the former hangout of Beat writers. Don’t miss the legendary City Lights Bookstore and the Beat Museum. When the weather is nice, get a treat from Stella Pastry, Z Cioccolato, or Caffe Trieste (supposedly the first espresso vendor on the West Coast) and relax in Washington Square Park, or make the trek up to Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, for panoramic views of the city.
For the past fifteen years or so, the once entirely Latino Mission (Mission St., San Francisco) neighborhood has been the place for nightlife, eclectic cuisine, and unique shopping. The Mission is also home to the city’s oldest building, Mission Dolores, which was founded in the 1770s. Every weekend you’ll see Dolores Park crowded with picknickers, hula hoopers, musicians, and drinkers enjoying the sunshine and sublime city views. Join the line around the block for an ice cream cone from Birite Creamery, or stop by the Revolution Café for good food and sangria. Nearby, Ritual Coffee makes some of the best espresso in the city, and very unusual shopping awaits at 826 Valencia (a pirate store), Paxton Gate (a garden and taxidermy shop), Aquarius Records, and Needles and Pens (an artist collective). For good cheap entertainment, check out the Elbo Room or Amnesia, or choose from dozens of hole-in-the-wall bars. Among the many Mexican restaurants, Puerto Alegre is probably the most popular — good luck finding a seat.
Five dollars gets you a seat on a roller-coaster-esque cable car ride (starts at Powell St. at Market St., San Francisco, SFCableCar.com) up and down the city’s steepest hills, and connections to Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.
The first West Coast museum dedicated solely to 20th-century art, SFMOMA (151 Third St., San Francisco, SFMOMA.org) recently opened its long-awaited Rooftop Garden, a sculpture-filled aerie that merits a visit on its own.