San Francisco travel guide: Things to do, restaurants to visit and places to sleep

WT Writer
Sep 7, 2021

Planning a trip to San Francisco? Bookmark this for the experiences and hot-spots not to miss when in The Golden City.

Kick back in the original hippie city for outdoor loveliness and fab food. The sun may have set on the Summer of Love, but the City by the Bay is still one of the loveliest spots for urban outdoor fun. A rarefied place, where the city melts into the water, redwoods stretch into the sky and skyscrapers get swaddled in fog rolling in off the Pacific. Layer up (beach doesn’t mean bikini) and get back to nature.

Things to see and do

San Francisco Cable Cars on California Street at sunrise, California, USA
Cable cars in San Francisco. Image Credit | Istock

Cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge

Your first San Francisco moment: standing on the rust-coloured Golden Gate Bridge, boats chugging by underneath. Cycle there in style — rent an electric bike from Blazing Saddles (blazingsaddles.com), then mooch along Crissy Field, a misty beach with wild views of the bridge, and up through Presidio Park — its steep incline will convince you that you made the right choice going electric.

Walk to Point Bonita Lighthouse

On the other side of the Golden Gate are the rumpled, emerald Marin Headlands. Wind your way to the far western tip, where a footbridge cantilevered over the void takes you to Point Bonita Lighthouse, saviour of many a ship. Weave north to the Marine Mammal Center, which rescues seals and sea lions along the coast, to meet its honking in-patients.

Drive to California’s gentle giants

California’s gentle giants — the famous redwood trees — are just 20 minutes’ drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge at Muir Woods. The ethereal Cathedral Grove, its trees lined up like Olympian-sized columns, feels so peaceful that delegates from the newly founded United Nations congregated here in 1945. A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk winds through the trees.

View of steep streets of San Francisco
View of steep streets of San Francisco. Image Credit | Istock

Visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden

There are redwoods in the city, too — a whole grove in the San Francisco Botanical Garden within the whopping Golden Gate Park. The 22-hectare garden is crammed with 8,000 plants from all over the world, but you’re here for the local bits: the rambling California Native Garden, with poppies and tree daisies running wild, and the groves of Monterey cypress, pine
and eucalyptus.

Party in Mission district

These days, the Mission district is rated for nightlife and shopping, but this city’s historic Latin American hub is also known for its political murals. A weekend walking tour with Precita Eyes (precitaeyes.org) will take you through Balmy Alley, where artists are constantly reworking and painting over walls to give their take on world events and human rights issues.

Wander the stands at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market

The farm-to-table movement began here, and you can see why at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Wander around stands brimming with produce, then break for a grilled artisan cheese- of-the-day sandwich from Sidekick Cafe and Milk Bar. That should set you up for an afternoon at Alcatraz — boats leave for the infamous prison island from the nearby Pier 33, but advance booking is a must. It’s very popular.

Stroll Fort Funston Beach

Bid farewell to the city from Twin Peaks — two conical hills topping a ridge above the Castro Theatre. Depending on the fog, the 360-degree views take in the entire Bay area, from Oakland to San Francisco’s 8km Pacific-pounded beach. Follow the mist down to Fort Funston Beach for one last wind-blown stroll below 60-metre sand-dune bluffs.

Places to eat

Pasta at Cotogna
Raviolo di ricotta at Cotogna, San Francisco. Image Credit | Gary He

Japantown stalwart – Mums

It’s been going strong for 36 years with its homely, tasty Japanese- American menu. The signature shabu-shabu — tendrils of rib-eye and veg stewed DIY at the table — is included in an all-you-can-eat dinner each evening at Mums.

Cult Chinese – Mission Chinese Food

Behind the facade of the nondescript Lung Shan restaurant, Mission Chinese Food is known for its superb Sichuan dishes as well as inventive crossovers such as Chongqing chicken wings. Book ahead — once a queue fest, it now takes reservations.

Chi-chi beatniks – Tosca

The once infamous dive bar is today an Italian restaurant owned by star chef April Bloomfield, with top dishes including San Fran anchovies and polenta with mascarpone and parmesan. This is Beat territory — across the street from Tosca, you’ll find both Vesuvio, Jack Kerouac’s one-time pub, and Ferlinghetti’s bookshop.

Stellar vegetarian – Greens

This vegetarian restaurant helped kick off the farm-to-table scene 40 years ago, mostly using produce grown on its sister farm near Muir Beach. Ask for a window table at Greens, so you can overlook the Golden Gate Bridge as you dine.

Pasta master – Cotogna

Hailing from the same restaurant group as Michelin-starred Quince — though more casual — at communal wooden tables sit diners who have come here solely for the fantastic fresh pasta. Probably. It’s best enjoyed as the single oversized ravioli at Cotogna.

Places to stay

Four Seasons Hotel at Embarcadero
Four Seasons Hotel at Embarcadero. Image Credit | Four Seasons

City slicker – Four Seasons Hotel at Embarcadero

It occupies the top 11 floors of one of the city’s highest buildings, offering silky-chic rooms and with ‘bridge-to-bridge’ views from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate — yours to enjoy from the Sky Deck, which opens in 2022. Don’t pay for an official bay view — the City View rooms have fascinating glimpses of the Bay through skyscraper-spiked hills.

Zen style – Kimpton Buchanan

In Japantown, this beautifully simple hotel is peaceful, excellent value and thoroughly un-American with its kimonos and in-room easels. Kimpton Buchanan‘s untouristy location — 15 minutes from Fisherman’s Wharf — keeps prices down. You’re a few seconds’ walk from the best mochi in San Francisco at Benkyodo.

Golden Gate digs – Cavallo Point

At the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, this former military base has been transformed into a high-class, understated resort. Nights are quiet at Cavallo Point but for the sound of the foghorns of passing ships (use the in-room earplugs). Book a room in a new-build block for floor-to-ceiling windows, often skewed towards the bridge.

Rooms with a view – Inn Above Tide

All rooms at this gorgeous B&B, cantilevered over the water in Sausalito, overlook the Bay, Alcatraz and the city beyond. The in-room breakfasts and nightly cheese and wine are worth staying in at the Inn Above Tide for. Take one of its bikes to the Golden Gate Bridge to work off breakfast.

See more travel inspiration here.