Pre-Uber, our relationship with San Francisco was shaky at best. It was filled with arguments, frustration, break-ups, and (somewhat reluctant) make-ups.
Post-Uber, the relationship is much more solid and steady. Maybe not as passionate, but perhaps more day-to-day reliable.
We like San Fran, but can’t use the word “love” (like we do for other cities like New York). It’s not just about our commitment issues (or the tumultuous past—see above), so why?
San Francisco is, unquestionably, a beautiful city. But it’s dense in all the wrong ways. There are four people per every 100 square feet of living space (OK, maybe a slight exaggeration—but it doesn’t feel like it). And the city lacks the critical mass, energy, and concentration of restaurants and retail. It’s so spread out, making easy, reliable transportation key to an enjoyable few days there.
I always think of San Fran as a rectangle to make sense of the orientation and angled streets. The bottom line is Cesar Chavez Street at the end of the Mission District, and the top is the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. I think of everything on the top middle to left as “sightseeing,” and everything on the mid to lower right as “eating and drinking.” The angled Market Street (and its parallel Mission Street) are the bisecting guideposts. Not scientific, but it makes sense in my crazy brain.
The sightseeing part is easy. Don’t miss the Marina District to Golden Gate Park (which backs up to the Presidio grounds). You’ve seen the pictures, you need to see it for real. It’s worth renting a bike to go over the Golden Gate Bridge, or taking a car and heading to Sausalito for the view back to the city, too. If you haven’t been to the Wharf, walk around, but the eating options are not highly recommended.
If you’re into that kind of thing, head to Alcatraz, although we thought it was a waste of time (the best part was the view back at city, which you can also get from Sausalito).
With that preamble, following are some sample ways to spend a few days in the city.
#1: The Embarcadero
Hotel Vitale, located right at Mission and Embarcadero.
The Ferry Building. It’s a great place to wander and see the shops. Then, walk the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s an easy, FLAT (unusual in this city), pretty walk. Enjoy the view of the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Boulevard, one of the oldest and best-known restaurants in the city, is right across the street from the hotel.
Take a trip to the Ferry Building and indulge at Slanted Door (the bar, of course), or Hog Island Oyster Co. for grilled cheese and oysters. Or go just about anywhere else in the building for wine, cheese, charcuterie, etc. and pack a picnic.
Coqueta by Michael Chiarello for Spanish food.
#2: Financial District
Since these are both basically in the Financial District, you have easy access to the Union Square area (or you can stay at Union Square, see below). After that, it’s a good jumping-off point to walk the hills up to Coit Tower and up to Nob Hill. There are a number of places to get great views of the city.
Since there are no mentionable hotels south of Market or in the Mission District, we often use this location as a jumping-off point to explore the Mission District, too.
Everything is a walk or car (see my preamble about no concentration of energy), but don’t miss AQ.
#3: Union Square
Union Square is a popular, centrally located place to stay with tons of options for hotels and shopping, but not as many great food options.
Shop. Or leave the Union Square area for a sightseeing excursion or walking the hills to Lombard, Nob Hill, Coit, etc.
This is where the challenge comes in. All the good options are a walk. A few in the close area include Burritt Room (in the not-highly-recommended Mystic Hotel, although the location is great), a Charlie Palmer restaurant with an incredible burger and a cool room, or the new Leo’s Oyster Bar smack dab in the Financial District. And after Leo’s, you can head to Tadich Grill for dessert. It’s as old-school and well-known as it gets in San Francisco (it’s a good dinner option if you want a classic-steakhouse type experience).
If you’re up for a walk up to Nob Hill, try the teeny-tiny classic Nob Hill Café. It’s cute, quaint, and has great Italian food.
Another walk (or maybe car) is to Zuni Café. It’s a classic in San Francisco for a reason and is not to be missed.
Restaurants (and clusters of them) worth an Uber Ride:
Cluster 1 in Fillmore:
Monsieur Benjamin (a modern spot inspired by classic Parisian bistros)
Rich Table (a comfortable neighborhood place serious about their food and sourcing)
Souvla (Greek sandwich shop and wine bar)
Petit Crenn (a little finer, set menu dining, and we recommend the marble chef’s counter)
Zuni Café (I can’t stress this one enough. If you don’t stop by as part of cluster, make it a destination. It’s truly a classic.)
Cluster 2 in Fillmore:
SPQR (cozy Italian spot with a Michelin star that isn’t fussy)
State Bird Provisions (even though it’s hard to get into. Show up early and stand in line, or show up late. Or put your name in and head to SPQR for a drink and app while you wait.)
Mission has the best collection of restaurants close together, so you could actually make a few evenings out of it.
Al’s Place (Aaron Landon’s corner restaurant, named Bon Appetit’s favorite last year)
La Taqueria (a no-brainer)
Mission Chinese Food (headquarted here in the Mission)
Locanda (great pasta and cocktails)
Flour + Water (regional Italian spiked with Northern California influence)
Trick Dog (a converted warehouse where the cool kids hang out)
Central Kitchen (also a heavy Northern California vibe, but not as good as Flour+ Water)
Foreign Cinema (worth it to see the building… Pretty cool)
Other singulars worth a ride:
Saison. In the South of Market/South Beach area, this is a destination spot and a reservation that will take a healthy bite out of your credit card. But some regard it as one of the best restaurants in the city. We like finding a spot in the lounge and ordering a la carte.
Really, our favorite way to experience San Fran is to make it a one-night stop on our way to and from Healdsburg, Yountville, or down south to Carmel, but we’ll leave those for later…