By Hillary Copp, MD, MS
Welcome to San Francisco, a 49-square-mile city with 36 unique neighborhoods, 43 hills (some seeming nearly perpendicular) and so many microclimates that you can download an App to decide where you want to spend your day in the city based on the ever-changing weather. Herb Caen, a beloved journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle famously said, “One day, if I go to heaven … I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’”
The City by the Bay has much to offer with variety to suit all tastes. There are three-star Michelin restaurants and cheap eats you can’t beat. Fine museums, parks, beaches and breweries abound so bring your walking shoes and explore beyond downtown!
Expect mild weather for May, usually low 50s at night and mid 60s during the day. But always depart your hotel with layers or else you’ll join numerous past visitors from around the world who left San Francisco with the famous SF Fleece.
To get around you can take a cab, Lyft or Uber, or you can take Muni or BART (SF public transportation).
San Francisco has an incredible culinary scene and boasts more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. For San Franciscans, dining out is a sport as beloved as Giants baseball, where, by the way, you can find some exceptional eats such as pizza by Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Rich Table porcini doughnuts, Crazy Crab’z amazing crab sandwich, and the famous Cha Cha bowl with beans, rice and jerk chicken from Orlando’s Caribbean BBQ (named for the Giant’s Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda).
Chinatown is one of the oldest and most established Chinatowns in the U.S.
655 Jackson St., 415-981-8988
A very popular Chinatown restaurant with Sichuan & Northern Chinese dishes packed with plenty of spice.
The Embarcadero is the eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco.
Ferry Building, 415-861-8032
Trendy Charles Phan eatery serving modern Vietnamese fare in a glass-heavy space with bay views.
22 Hawthorne St.
Stylish seafood spot with oysters, a horseshoe-shaped bar and patio with up-close views of Bay Bridge.
49 Stevenson St.
Classic dim sum served from carts is the main draw at this bustling Chinese standby.
The Financial District is the city’s business center and close to the convention center.
490 Pacific Ave., 415-775-8508
Serves rustic Italian cuisine with spit-roasted and grilled meats and fish, wood oven pizzas and homemade pastas. Located in historic Jackson Square.
200 Jackson St., 415-981-0983
Traditional, tavern-inspired Greek cuisine served in a cozy, candlelit, wood-beamed dining room.
252 California St., 415-397-9222
One-star Michelin restaurant that offers upscale New American fare in an elegant space.
140 New Montgomery St. #1, 415-660-2500
One-star Michelin restaurant with Moroccan fine dining and a California twist in a swanky, modern setting.
470 Pacific Ave., 415-775-8500
Upscale, farm-driven, three-star Michelin restaurant featuring Californian contemporary cuisine.
240 California St., 415-391-1849
Circa 1849, the oldest continuously running restaurant in SF. It has been called the “institution for fresh fish and classic cocktails” and embodies an old-school setting with a buzzy atmosphere.
242 Columbus Ave., 415-986-9651
Local icon for cocktails and Italian fare with late night food until 1 am seven days a week.
558 Sacramento St., 415-772-9060
A popular upscale eatery owned by Food Network star Tyler Florence where American fare is served in a British pub-style setting.
Hayes Valley is a cool, revitalized neighborhood. The main commercial stretch, Hayes Street, teems with upscale boutiques for designer fashions and home decor, plus dessert shops, chill watering holes and a wide array of on-trend restaurants.
300 Grove St., 415-861-5555
Chef Traci Des Jardins’ restaurant serves California-French cuisine in a romantic, art deco space.
609 Hayes St., 415-864-1744
Sophisticated French bistro offering a chef’s tasting menu, wine pairings and à la carte options.
199 Gough St., 415-355-9085
California fare from local ingredients, served in a salvaged barnwood space with an open kitchen.
517 Hayes St., 415-400-5458
Casual, hip haunt featuring roasted meat sandwiches and salads, plus delectable Greek frozen yogurt with baklava.
The Mission District, or “The Mission,” was named for the 1776 Mission Dolores. It’s an exuberant, evolving neighborhood with Latino roots and a hipster vibe.
1499 Valencia St., 415-416-6136
Relaxed, modern, New American, one-star Michelin restaurant with an inventive take on seafood and vegetable dishes.
1001 Guerrero St., 415-875-9810
One-star Michelin restaurant that serves inventive, responsibly sourced Californian fare and extensive wines in a casual space.
2224 Mission St., 415-355-1500
One-star Michelin restaurant that offers innovative American farm-to-table menu in a trendy space.
2889 Mission St., 415-285-7117
Awarded “Best Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco” time and again, this no frills taqueria serves Mexican eats, including famed traditional style, rice-free burritos. The tacos dorados are a local favorite.
3611 18th St., 415-437-6800
Energetic, farm-to-table restaurant serves up Neapolitan-inspired pizza complemented by a daily changing roster of seasonal antipasti and piatti (small entrees).
600 Guerrero St., 415-487-2600
A local favorite where people line up around the block for scrumptious breakfast pastries, hot pressed sandwiches and coffee.
The neighborhood of Nob Hill was once home to the mansions of the Big Four railroad barons and retains a sense of wealth and privilege.
1722 Sacramento St., 415-567-5432
Two-star Michelin, high-end Italian cuisine and wines served in a converted chapel with vaulted, wood-beam ceilings.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St., 415-673-1101
This cash-only, no frills counter nook in a fish market has been a well-known locals’ hotspot for raw bar fare and casual seafood. Its popularity and wait times increased after a visit from American chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain.
North Beach is a buzzy neighborhood steeped in Italian heritage.
373 Broadway, 415-393-9000
Three-star Michelin restaurant that serves cutting-edge, seafood-focused cuisine with a display of artistry.
155 Columbus Ave., 415-617-0071
Fancy, turn-of-the-century digs house vintage cocktails, upscale bar fare, cozy booths and live jazz.
601 Union St., 415-775-4877
A quintessential, classic San Francisco dining experience with great family atmosphere. A fabric of the city for 75 years, it’s located in the heart of the historic and majestic North Beach.
1652 Stockton St., 415-989-7300
Lively and trendy bistro serving creative American eats in a stylish space with wood-beamed ceilings.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
1570 Stockton St., 415-835-9888
Bustling Italian eatery with varied pizza options from coal-fired to Roman style, plus beer on tap.
SOMA, or South of Market, is a vast warehouse-filled district encompassing Mission Bay and South Beach, where the Giants play baseball at waterfront AT&T Park.
21st Amendment Brewery
563 2nd St., 415-369-0900
House-made brews, pub grub and brunch are served at this restaurant plus bar near AT&T Park.
22 Hawthorne St., 415-685-4860
Minimalist, three-star Michelin restaurant featuring innovative, ultra pricey American cuisine and renowned tasting menu.
564 4th St., 415-974-0700
Upscale California fare served in a buzzy, two-floor space with an open kitchen and farm animal decor.
500 Brannan St.
Stylish and lively option serving Californian comfort food in a hip and sprawling space.
665 Townsend St., 415-865-0633
13-seat sushi counter with one Michelin star.
178 Townsend St., 415-828-7990
Three-star Michelin restaurant with open kitchen space in a historic building known for luxe, innovative French-American tasting menus.
The Tenderloin is not always picture-perfect, but if you’re willing to brave this gritty part of the city you’ll be rewarded with some good eats.
Liholiho Yacht Club
871 Sutter St., 415-330-5446
Buzzy, casual eatery with heritage-driven Hawaiian, Indian and Chinese food using fresh California ingredients that will not disappoint.
560 Larkin St., 415-474-5698
This small, cash-only takeout spot draws long lines for super delicious meat or tofu banh mi sandwiches and other comfort foods.
Union Square is the central shopping, hotel and theater district of the city. It’s also close to the convention center and where many of the conference hotels are located.
251 Geary St., 415-296-4272
Located at the top of Macy’s in Union Square, renowned chef Hubert Keller offers an upscale menu of creative burgers with captivating views of Union Square.
340 Stockton St., 415-955-5555
One-star Michelin restaurant with upscale dining at the Taj Campton Place, highlighting refined Californian cuisine with Indian flavors and French techniques.
55 Cyril Magnin St., 415-362-7456
Located within the Parc 55 hotel in Union Square, this one-star Michelin restaurant serves up bright, authentic and original Thai dishes.
San Francisco boasts hundreds of “Painted Ladies,” colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses featuring three or more colors that enhance elements of their architecture. The most famous can be found in NoPa, the Lower Haight, Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley neighborhoods. But there’s one row, in particular, so iconic that it’s simply referred to as “the Painted Ladies” (or sometimes “Postcard Row”) — the houses of 710-720 Steiner St. at the corner of Hayes St. They have appeared in 70 movies, ads and television shows, including the 90s TV show Full House.
Converted from a lighthouse station to a military prison in the 1870s, this formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay became notorious when it was upgraded to a maximum security prison in 1934 holding some of the most infamous criminals of the early 20th century, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. Today you’ll only make it to “The Rock” via ferry from Pier 33. Once there, the self-guided audio cell house tour narrated by former inmates and guards will fill you in on harrowing escape attempts, prison riots and the 19-month occupation of the site by Native Americans demanding reparation for broken treaties in 1969. To get more creepy, try a night tour. Plan to spend about three hours roundtrip and bring a jacket to protect you from the island’s heavy year-round fog.
A 25-minute ferry ride away from Pier 41 in San Francisco, Angel Island State Park is a wonderful escape to nature. The largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island has astounding views of the surrounding bay. Tourists can enjoy the lovely scenery while hiking or biking on the well-groomed trails. It’s possible to hike up to the island’s summit, Mount Caroline Livermore, at 788 feet, where the views are sensational. The island also has five picnic areas, 11 campsites and several sandy beaches that are pleasant for walking and sunbathing. Well designed for visitors, the island has a café that is open all week during most of the year (except winter) and a casual restaurant that’s open on the weekends and features live music performances.
Home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park is a fun place to take in a baseball game while visiting the city. If you aren’t able to see a game, consider taking a ballpark tour for a behind-the-scenes look at places off limits to most people. You can learn about the historic moments that have taken place here and explore the architecture. Tours are scheduled around games and do not run every day, so check the online calendar in advance.
Once the land of the lawless where gambling, vigilante justice and prostitution reigned, today’s Barbary Coast, though considerably less raucous, still bears scars from its early days. Overlapping the neighborhoods of Jackson Square, North Beach and Chinatown, a meander down the Barbary Coast trail places you at the doorstep of a number of historical sites including beat-era hangouts like City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe, Jackson Square’s gold rush-era architecture, and Saints Peter and Paul Church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were photographed in 1954 after getting hitched at City Hall.
In the late 1800s, San Francisco’s cable cars ran 23 routes moving people around the city’s seven square miles. Today, most locals have switched to more efficient modes of public transportation to get around, but a ride on one of the three remaining cable car lines is still a classic San Francisco treat and a National Historic Landmark. Make a stop at the Cable Car Museum at Mason and Washington streets to learn more about the cable cars’ history and get a glimpse of the giant wheels turning the underground cables that power the cars.
San Francisco’s Chinatown centered on Grant and Stockton avenues is the oldest and largest enclave of Chinese immigrants outside of Asia. Chinatown has a storied and often tragic history in San Francisco, and there’s no better way to explore its historic buildings, pocket parks and shops than passing through the Dragon Gate at the corner of Bush St. and Grant Ave. Chinatown is considered the birthplace of American Chinese food like chop suey and is credited with introducing dim sum to the Western palate and inventing the fortune cookie.
Added to the San Francisco skyline in 1933, this monumental love letter to the city remains an iconic welcome for travelers westbound across the Bay Bridge. Named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric whose $118,000 bequest to the city resulted in the tower’s construction, the tapered, fluted tower stands 180 feet tall at the crest of Telegraph Hill. At the top is the tower’s observation deck with 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay. A rotunda at its base is covered in Depression-era murals depicting not-so-subtle socialist images in scenes of California agriculture and industry painted by over two dozen artists, some of whom studied under famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
Transformed in 2001 from a defunct Army airstrip to an ecologically rich recreation area, this 4.3-mile, ocean-front promenade offers spectacular views of Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Walk or ride the groomed trail (several nearby outfitters offer bike rentals, including Sports Basement) ending at Fort Point, built as a defensive structure during the Civil War. On foggy days, make a pit stop at the Warming Hut for warm beverages, organic soups and sandwiches, and one of the best selections of unique San Francisco souvenirs around.
The Exploratorium is an incredibly popular science museum with exhibits for children and adults to enjoy. A huge number of diverse exhibits, and many with hands-on learning experiences, cover various areas of interest, all of which are designed to educate and entertain. Children tend to rate this museum very highly, with all kinds of experiments and interesting things to do, and whether they have kids or not, most adults also rave about the Exploratorium.
The Ferry Building
The Ferry Building is a food mecca that hosts the city’s largest tri-weekly farmers’ market and provides a permanent home for some of the region’s most beloved artisan producers. Indoors, you’ll find merchants ranging from Cowgirl Creamery, Dandelion Chocolate, Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream (try my favorite: Secret Breakfast!) and Fort Point Beer Company. Behind the Ferry Building on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am–2 pm and Saturdays from 8 am–2 pm, regional farmers and ranchers sell vegetables, flowers, meats and other edible and small-batch products. When your shopping is done, grab a bite at one of the itinerant food stalls on market days or brick-and-mortar restaurants like Charles Phan’s beloved Vietnamese juggernaut, the Slanted Door, or the popular Hog Island Oyster Company. San Francisco City guides offer regular free tours of the plaza.
Fisherman’s Wharf caters almost entirely to the city’s visitors but there are good reasons for even the most hardened San Francisco resident to visit, including the charming vintage arcade Musée Mécanique, the National Maritime Historical Park’s fleet of restored vintage sailing ships and the USS Pampanito submarine. At Pier 39, visit the raucous California Sea Lions at K Dock, shop or ride the merry-go-round. When you’ve had enough harbor excitement, grab a meal of local seafood and sourdough bread at Pier 45’s simple stalls and historic restaurants just feet from where ther commercial fishermen bring in their daily catch. Afterwards, indulge in a decadent dessert at Ghiradelli Square, home of the famed chocolatier.
Golden Gate Bridge
The world’s most photographed bridge never fails to impress even when shrouded in fog. Its iconic 746-foot-tall orange towers have stood sentinel over San Francisco Bay since 1937. Bikes and cars are permitted access across the bridge 24-hours a day, walkers can cross using the east sidewalk between 5 am–9 pm.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Not to be confused with Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is located across the Golden Gate Bridge from downtown San Francisco. Locals call it the Marin Headlands. This 600-square-mile park in Marin County is home to a myriad of attractions but is also a beautiful place to enjoy nature and relax. The park features walking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas and beautiful beach areas. Some of the beaches have fabulous views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is also a place of history and home to the historic Fort Baker, a former U.S. Army post from the early 20th century.
Golden Gate Park
1,017 acres of gardens, walking paths, lakes, recreation fields, museums and a Japanese tea garden are located along Golden Gate Park’s three-mile meander from Haight-Ashbury to the Pacific Ocean. The park houses some of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions, including the Victorian era, glass-ensconced Conservatory of Flowers, the de Young Fine Arts Museum and the Academy of Sciences, among others. On Sundays, the main drive is closed to cars. Snacks can be found throughout the park but for a meal and the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet on the park’s western edge offer lovely views and house-brewed beer.
High Tea at a Historic Hotel
Enjoying high tea at a historic hotel gives tourists a sense of the city’s grandeur during the Victorian era and the turn of the century. The Fairmont San Francisco on Nob Hill, which opened in 1907, is renowned for its opulent lobby and elegant ambience. The Fairmont’s Laurel Court offers afternoon tea service on Saturdays and Sundays. Also on Nob Hill, The Ritz-Carlton is well-known for its fancy afternoon tea service in The Lounge, a sophisticated reception room with splendid city views. One of the city’s grandest historic hotels, the Palace Hotel, was built in 1875 in the downtown area near Market Street. The Palace Hotel awes visitors with its magnificent Garden Court reception area, where a traditional afternoon tea is served complete with fine china, sterling silver and classic specialties like finger sandwiches and handmade scones.
The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is the last remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this classical looking building is beautifully situated on a lagoon that reflects the mirror image on the surface of the calm water, while ducks and geese drift by. The palace has been restored, along with the grounds, and today hosts art exhibitions and performances. The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre seats approximately 1,000 patrons.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
After an extensive renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in the spring of 2016 with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space — nearly three times its previous size. The museum now has 10 floors with 45,000 feet of ground floor gallery space open to the public free of charge. In addition to the new space, the museum has acquired thousands of new pieces. The museum features a full range of exhibitions, some from the museum’s permanent collection and others specially commissioned for the opening. In Situ, the restaurant within SFMOMA, was awarded a Michelin star for its composed signature dishes from famous chefs around the world.
The sixth of 21 California missions built along El Camino Real (the King’s Highway), Mission Dolores has withstood major earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 to take the title of San Francisco’s oldest building. The old church is all that remains of the original 1776 Catholic compound and almost everything in the interior is original, including the beautifully patterned redwood ceiling beams and ornate Mexican altars. At the mission you’ll find a small museum and a cemetery (one of only two remaining in San Francisco city limits) that holds the remains of notable Spanish settlers, the city’s first mayor and the unmarked mass grave of thousands of Native Americans.
Napa and Sonoma Valleys
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are the two best-known and largest grape-growing areas in California. Situated at the southern end of the valley of the same name, some 52 miles from San Francisco, Napa is one of the largest Californian towns north of San Francisco. This is an incredibly scenic area with a drier climate than the coastal regions. It was founded in 1848 and bears the name of the long extinct Napa Indians. The western boundary is formed by the Napa Mountains. The Howell Mountains form the eastern boundary of Napa County and they also protect the valley from storms.
When the fog is on the move, Land’s End can truly feel like the edge of the world. This rocky, windswept park overlooking the Pacific Ocean was, at the turn of the 20th century, a hotspot of tourism. Until it was covered by a landslide in 1925, the Cliff House Steam Rail carried visitors from town out to the coast to swim at the Sutro Baths or have a meal at the scenic Cliff House restaurant. While you can still enjoy tasty provisions (and free popovers with your order) at the Cliff House, you’ll find only ruins of the railroad and former bath, begging to be explored. Walk the popular Coastal Trail to find the hidden Labyrinth at Eagle Point and the mysterious nearby winding path made of stones found only in the Wieliczka salt mines of Poland.
The Legion of Honor
This museum is not far from the Land’s End Coastal Trail and is housed in an impressive Neoclassical Beaux-Arts building. The Legion of Honor was the gift of the socialite, philanthropist and patron of the arts Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Because of her love for all things Parisian, the museum was designed as a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The Legion of Honor museum has a superb collection of European decorative arts, sculpture and paintings, along with antiquities from the Mediterranean and Near East.
These two unique and uninhabited hills, more than 900 feet high, are not in fact the highest of San Francisco’s 43 hills, a distinction belonging to Mount Davidson, which is 33 feet higher. But they do have one of the finest views out over the city and bay, they’re undeveloped and they’re easy to access. You can drive to the north peak parking area for fine views and hike along trails over the north and south peaks. The Twin Peaks are the only hills in San Francisco not to have been built over and remain in their original state. The Spaniards called them “Los pechos de la Chola,” or the Breasts of the Indian Maiden. Even on warm days, strong, cool breezes blow in from the Pacific, especially in the late afternoon. Warm clothing is recommended.