The Original Guide to San Francisco
Birthplace of Levi’s, hippies and Chinese fortune cookies and home to cable cars, a notorious prison and some giddyingly steep streets, San Fran is California’s coolest city. We’ve sought out the best recs for a jaunt here, whether you’re a craft beer buff, a vintage treasure trawler, or gaga for no-frills seafood
Pre-trip culture checklist
READ: San Francisco Stories. These 23 adventurous tales by Jack London, better known for White Fang and The Call of the Wild, include first-hand accounts of the 1906 earthquake and fire and vivid snapshots of the city that rose from the ashes and rubble. Also worth a read: Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
LISTEN: Counterculture collective The Grateful Dead lived in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love and penned locally inspired tracks such as ‘Mission in the Rain’, referencing the 18th-century Mission Dolores, and ‘Wharf Rat’, about a lost sailor wandering the city’s docks in search of a new beginning. Also worth a listen: The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
WATCH: Vertigo. Hitchcock specifically chose SF for his classic thriller because of its steep terrain, reflecting well the vertigo experienced by Jimmy Stewart’s dogged private detective as he pursues his femme fatale across numerous city landmarks. Also worth a watch: Marielle Heller’s 2015 Diary of a Teenage Girl.
A local’s view
“When I came to San Francisco in the 1960s it gave me a whole new life and culture, after I’d previously been drowning in a place I never fitted in. To this day, the best thing about the area of Haight-Ashbury where my shop is is that it’s the designated area for vintage clothing and costumes, offering a huge variety of not only antique clothing and collectables but also designer wear from the 1940s up to the 2000s. Celebrity sightings like Jean Paul Gaultier and Santana are common. There are also some great restaurants, whether for a gourmet sit-down or just a quick snack. My biggest other love is the music scene here. In the 1960s, I lived right across the street from the Grateful Dead’s house in Haight, and experienced the ‘Summer of Love’ highlight: Monterey Festival, featuring Hendrix and Otis Redding. Although those days are long gone, today’s music lovers should try Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – an annual gathering in Golden Gate Park with dozens of acts and completely free. My other tip for more retro scene lovers is Verdi Club, home to the best vintage ballroom and dance floor in San Francisco.”
Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street has been a thrumming, no-frills seafood institution for more than 110 years and retains its nostalgic charm with its century-old 18-seat marble counter. It’s as alive today with the sounds of snapping crab claws and chatter as it was in its early 20th-century heyday.
Since opening in 2010 in the sprawling SoMa district, Benu has become the first restaurant in the city to receive three Michelin stars. The multi-course menu, which can take three hours to complete, has a strong Asian influence thanks to chef patron Corey Lee, with standouts including jellyfish-wrapped king prawn and 1,000-year-old quail egg.
It’s been 90 years since construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge, which remains San Francisco’s key landmark and one of the world’s most recognisable spans. For a more expansive view of both sides of the vast crossing, head to Battery Spencer: a historic military fortification on the Marin Headlands. Even better, time it for when the famous coastal fogs roll into the bay, and you could be rewarded with an epic shot of the tops of the bridge’s towers poking out of the all-encompassing vapour clouds.
The Museum of Modern Art in SoMa is a dependable haven on the wettest of days, offering seven floors of arresting visuals and installations. But on an even quirkier indoor front, interactive museum Musée Mécanique at Fisherman’s Wharf houses 300-plus vintage coin-operated machines and penny arcade games to sink a few dimes and nickels into. If retro fashion is more your bag, vintage emporium Decades of Fashion in Haight-Ashbury sells clothing dating back to the mid-1800s. After all that, grab a brew at the bohemian Vesuvio Café, where Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas used to hang out and write.
The original craft beer
The craft beer revolution may be as alive as ever on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the US it all began right here in San Francisco. Anchor Brewing Company (est.1896) has its roots in the California Gold Rush and has since survived earthquakes, Prohibition and near insolvency. The sad news for beer lovers, however, is that the brewery is to cease operations by the end of 2023 following its buyout by Japanese brand Sapporo and “challenging economic factors”, it announced this summer. Anchor leaves in its wake a multitude of smaller craft microbreweries, though – check out Standard Deviant in the Mission District, housed in a former auto body shop, for a prime example of those taking up the baton.
Most incoming international flights will cross the huge tidal estuary that is San Francisco Bay, meaning it will be difficult to miss its key landmarks of the Golden Gate Bridge connecting the city to Marin County, California, or the four-mile-long ridgeline of San Bruno Mountain and its surrounding 2,416-acre national park. Finally, there’s the unmistakeable isolated outcrop of Alcatraz Island.
As seen on screen
Many San Franciscans contend that the city wouldn’t be what it is today without gay rights activist Harvey Milk: the first openly homosexual person elected to public office in California. The 2008 biopic Milk, which won Sean Penn the best actor Oscar, was filmed in the actual historical locations throughout the celebrated Castro District where Harvey lived, and which remains the international LGBTQ+ centre he envisioned. Meanwhile the cross-dressing comedy classic Mrs Doubtfire, which brings the late Robin Williams’ hyperactive energy to a family home in Pacific Heights, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. You can recreate the climactic ‘reveal’ scene in the same restaurant – Bridges – still taking bookings across the Bay bridge in the leafy suburb of Danville.
Access all areas
San Francisco is generally accessibility-positive across the board, with wheelchair users able to ride most public transport and well accommodated at city hotels and attractions. Special mention goes to California Academy of Sciences, whose natural history museum, aquarium and planetarium are committed to inclusion: ramps for all exhibits, theatre and planetarium seats reserved for those with reduced mobility and accessible loos on all floors. Meanwhile Muir Woods National Monument – a forest of towering redwoods, 40 minutes’ drive from downtown SF – provides a raised accessible boardwalk as part of its main trail, so no one is excluded from enjoying some of the tallest trees on earth.
The sensory six
It’s all about coffee and whiskey at Buena Vista Café – birthplace of the Irish coffee, of which up to 2,000 are served a day (the most anywhere in the world).
Beginning life as a shellfish farm 50 years ago, Hog Island Oyster Co today harvests more than 3.5 million of the molluscs a year, serving them direct to your plate on the half shell at its Ferry Building venue overlooking the Bay.
The Exploratorium contains more than 600 interactive exhibits examining human perception through hands-on engagement – enjoyable for adults and kids alike.
You can observe an impressive herd of bison grazing in their paddock at Golden Gate Park, as they’ve done since the 19th century, owing to a local effort to preserve the once mass-hunted species.
THE SIXTH SENSE
Explore the evocative Haas-Lilienthal House – SF’s only intact, preserved Victorian-era home, now open to the public as a museum.
The one thing
If we had to single out one restaurant amongst SF’s extensive scene, it might have to be Che Fico in the buzzy NoPa district, with its striking vine-draped setting, once a stable, and a market-driven Italian and Roman-Jewish menu. If you can’t bag a table, perch at the kitchen bar overlooking two wood-fired ovens where its famed Parmesan-sprinkled pizzas bake. An unmissable sight is one San Franciscans see most days but, famously, rarely enter: the world’s most famous prison island, Alcatraz, preserved as it was when infamous inmates such as Al Capone spent years behind its now flaking bars. And if you fancy a drink after your steep-street exertions, be sure to visit Old Ship Saloon – SF’s oldest bar, built on the ruins of a Gold Rush-era ship – or another venerable tavern, Tenderloin’s Ha-Ra Club, for a classic jukebox-and-pool US bar experience.
If San Fran is your scene, you’ll love Melbourne. It may be on the other side of the globe but matches SF in most departments. For one, there’s its kindred liberal social climate, considered the most LGBTQ+-friendly city in Australia. It’s also the country’s music capital: home of Nick Cave and Crowded House, and countless live venues, from jazz basements to rock’n’roll dive bars. Other similarities include its tram-based public transport system, its truly diverse and multicultural culinary scene, world-class arts and museum options, and even its very own Alcatraz in the form of Old Melbourne Gaol – another Victorian edifice-turned-museum, which incarcerated the likes of Australia’s most infamous outlaw bushranger, Ned Kelly.
The Original Guide to
Enjoyed this guide? Then check out The Original Guide to London