As inspiring and charismatic as its singular setting, San Francisco stands apart from other US destinations; in fact, you’ll struggle to find many places like it anywhere in the world.
The famed city is surrounded on three sides by churning water and threaded with a grid of streets that courageously tackles thirty-degree gradients, elements that transcend geography to infuse San Francisco with the boldly independent spirit for which it’s known.
This impression is evident not only in the city’s clanging cable cars and charming pastel-hued Victorian architecture, but also in its reputation for championing progressive ideals and LGBT rights.
Even the weather patterns here are idiosyncratic: summer sometimes doesn’t arrive until mid-September. If you’re heading to San Francisco for a weekend, here’s the best way to spend it.
1. Ferry Building and the Embarcadero
This stoutly constructed building was once the terminal for 50,000 commuters daily during the 1930s, but it’s now known as much (if not more) for its gourmet culinary marketplace.
Three times weekly, locals flock here for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Tues, Thurs & Sat), when a cornucopia of fresh California-grown produce – as well as prepared foods from several Bay Area restaurants – is sold from numerous stalls that flank the building.
Take a light breakfast before setting out along the bay-front walkway.
2. Filbert Steps and the Coit Tower
Take your time ascending these garden-flanked steps en route to a prized panorama. In spring, the foliage-consumed area around Napier Lane is marvellously fragrant with honeysuckle and roses.
Throughout your visit, watch and listen for the noisy green parrots populating the area – the sizeable flock, immortalized in the 2005 documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, grows by the year.
3. Stroll through North Beach
At one time a waterfront neighbourhood, North Beach lost its bayside setting once the city expanded on landfill north of Francisco Street.
The district grew as an Italian-American stronghold throughout the twentieth century and remains so today, with cultural and residential spill over from neighbouring Chinatown providing a twist to the city’s own Little Italy.
North Beach’s charms are best appreciated by strolling its vibrant streets, enjoying meals in its scores of restaurants and having a few rounds in its countless bars and cafés.
The pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana is always impeccable, thanks to the skills of eleven-time (and counting) World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani.
Whether you land a table next to the brick oven at this celebrated pizza parlour or elect to go the quicker, cheaper route at the co-managed Tony’s Coal-Fired Pizza & Slice House a couple of doors up the block, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to pizza heaven.
5. Explore Chinatown
Adjacent to North Beach, Chinatown seems a world all of its own, with chaotic commerce along Stockton Street and serene temples on nearby Waverly Place.
The oldest Chinatown in the US, the enclave was originally a rough-and-tumble area settled by Chinese sailors hoping to benefit from the Gold Rush, as well as Cantonese labourers who worked on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.
6. Ride a cable car
Make the short walk to the Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse, which provides a compelling peek into the world of late-nineteenth-century industry by peeling back the curtain on San Francisco’s signature cable cars and the ten miles of track along which they trundle.
Next hop aboard a nineteenth-century trolley to return to Market Street.
7. Go to a San Francisco Giants game
Catch a night-time contest at bay-side AT&T Park, where the garlic fries and sausages are as great as the views.
The action on the field has been superbly exciting of late: following a fallow period of over 50 years without a championship, the Giants earned World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Tickets can be quite difficult (and rarely cheap) to come by, so one clever option is to queue up for a three-inning standing-room-only spot behind the right field fence, free of charge.
Linger in South of Market for a post-game pint at the ballpark-adjacent brewpub 21st Amendment Brewery (which also serves reliable pub food) or head back up to buzzing North Beach, where late-night drinking options abound.
Try Tosca Cafe where the jukebox plays nothing but opera, or Comstock Saloon for late-night jazz.
1. Reflect at Alcatraz
Originally built as a US Army prison in 1912, Alcatraz became the country’s most infamous federal penitentiary in 1934, incarcerating America’s highest-profile criminals.
It was abandoned for financial reasons in 1963 and today sees over a million visitors ferried to its shores annually.
Book your morning tickets to this stark island well in advance; catching the day’s first ferry allows you to have the creepy old stockade seemingly all to yourself – if you can take the desolation.
© Maciej Bledowski/Shutterstock
Out of prison and back on the mainland, grab a takeaway lunch from Blue Barn Gourmet, an excellent sandwich and salad shop on Chestnut Street. Meat-lovers will undoubtedly want to indulge in the spicy Ragin’ Cajun sandwich.
3. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
Built for 1915’s Panama-Pacific International Exhibition – a world fair that confirmed San Francisco’s return to the international spotlight after the destruction the city endured nine years earlier – the Palace of Fine Arts perseveres as one of the Bay Area’s signature architectural pieces.
Enjoy your lunch as you admire the swans and the Palace of Fine Arts’ majestic open rotunda from a bench flanking its lovely lagoon.
4. Relax at Crissy Field
Stroll the paths or sit on the beach and watch the passing ships at this immensely popular green space in the shadow of the great orange bridge.
Golden Gate, San Francisco © Travel Stock/Shutterstock
5. Marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge
In a city rich with iconic images, few will contest that the Golden Gate Bridge tops the list.
The 4200ft suspension bridge was originally slated to be grey, but its so-called international orange primer coat proved so popular that it has endured since the span’s 1937 debut.
The ambitious can make the 4.5-mile round-trip walk over this instantly recognizable span; everyone, however, will want to ogle its imposing beauty regardless.
Reserve ahead of time at The Slanted Door, a this highly regarded waterfront restaurant serving peerless French-Vietnamese cuisine.
7. Catch a show at the Great American Music Hall or Beach Blanket Babylon
Check the calendar to see what’s on at the Great American Music Hall, the city’s finest and oldest live music venue.
Alternatively, if it’s a Saturday, aim to catch a 9.30pm performance of Beach Blanket Babylon in North Beach. Equal parts Snow White, Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, this unflagging show – the longest-running musical revue in the US – and its extravagant wigs never seem to lose steam.
Explore more of San Francisco with the Pocket Rough Guide to San Francisco. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image Pixabay / CC0.