San Francisco is famous for its casual hippie counterculture personality, its postcard Victorian-era houses and its endless vegan restaurant options. But these are just small parts of what makes the city one of America’s great urban centers. Explore San Francisco’s past as a gold rush town to understand what an unlikely modern success story it is. But to be properly seduced by the city, look past the Embarcadero and Pier 39 to the alleyways and main drags of neighborhoods like Hayes Valley and the Mission to find where the locals live and play. You’ll discover that the city’s beating heart is nowhere near the center of town.
For my Vietnam-based friends that ask about my hometown, here’s an ideal weekend for all kinds of visitors to The City by the Bay.
One of my favorite restaurants in town, modern Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door sits waterside near the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. You can’t beat the water views here while you enjoy a well-produced contemporary Vietnamese meal prepared by the team led by award-winning chef Charles Phan. The interior design features mostly glass and an open kitchen. It feels public, activated, and fun.
After dinner, head over to Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for a movie. This spot is well known for actually serving decent food and beverage options for a cinema, which you can enjoy during your movie. It’s an iconic part of the San Francisco experience, right in the middle of Japantown.
Start off your morning with a cup of tea at Samovar Tea Lounge. Cosy with a variety of teas and meals on offer, it’s one of my favorite places to kickback with a newspaper in the morning. Right next to it is the newly reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). One of the largest museums in the world, you should plan to spend at least a few hours in this new space.
After your morning at the museum, head over to trendy Hayes Valley where you’ll find Souvla and Smitten Ice Cream. Souvla, a Greek eatery, features amazing salads and wraps that leave you stuffed so come hungry! They also have fantastic Greek-style fries and delicious frozen Greek yogurt. If you want something creamier, stop by Smitten for their churned-to-order ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. It’s fun to check out your ice cream being made to order before you enjoy it. And don’t forget to stop by the popular Warby Parker store to try out some new frames.
If you find yourself on the other side of town, go to my favorite dual-identity spot that includes a Blue Bottle Coffee and Heath Ceramics. Grab a bottle of New Orleans Iced Coffee and peruse through the ceramics on offer.
Souvla, 517 Hayes St (at Octavia St) San Francisco, CA 94102
Smitten Ice Cream, 432 Octavia St #1A (at Linden St) San Francisco, CA 94102
Warby Parker, 357 Hayes Street (Franklin Street) San Francisco, CA 94102
Blue Bottle Coffee, 2900 18th St (btwn Florida & Alabama St) San Francisco, CA 94110
Heath Ceramics, 2900 18th St (btwn Florida & Alabama St) San Francisco, CA 94110
One place doesn’t take reservations, the other does. El Techo, a Latin American street eats and cocktail spot, is set in the heart of the Mission District. It’s famous for being one of the only eateries in town with a rooftop view. Don’t worry about the wind chill, it’s got heated lamps and windows to insulate from the cold. A personal favorite of mine, it was right around the corner from my old flat.
If you’re looking for something cozy and indoors, make sure to grab a table reservation for Nopa. A California eatery, it’s one of the hippest spots in town for either a brunch or dinner. You’ll find quality ingredients and creative cocktails here. Both spots are near bars and lounges which you can check out after your meal.
If you find yourself in the Mission District in the morning, stop by my favorite bakery in town, Arizmendi Bakery. A worker-owned bakery specializing in pastries, breads, and pizzas. Vegan options include tomato & mushroom focaccia, banana nut muffins, scones, breads, and the pizzas. All at very affordable prices.
All the way at the beginning of the Embarcadero neighborhood is the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. After shopping for some local produce, my suggestion would be to start at Marla Bakery for a pastry then swing by Blue Bottle Coffee for a New Orleans Iced Coffee. Check out the Cowgirl Creamery to round it out. You can find it all inside the Ferry Building.
If you’re looking to spend your afternoon in the city, look no further than Mission Dolores Park coupled with an ice cream at the iconic Bi-Rite Creamery. Bring a blanket and lawn mat to enjoy the afternoon here (if it’s sunny enough).
If you’re looking for something a bit outside of the city, my favorite afternoon combo is the Legion of Honor and Baker Beach. Both are found near Land’s End on the northern end of the city, waterside. You’ll have great views of the water. And don’t forget to check out the ancient and modern European art collections at the immaculate Legion of Honor, a full-scale replica of the French Pavilion in Paris.
If you’re looking for something indoors, stop by my favorite bookstore The Booksmith. It’s set on the main drag in the Haight neighborhood, which is also home to some edgy restaurants, bars, and indy stores.
Bi-Rite Creamery, 550 Divisadero St (at Hayes St) San Francisco, CA 94117
Mission Dolores Park, Dolores St (btwn 18th & 20th St) San Francisco, CA 94110
Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave San Francisco, CA 94121
Baker Beach, 1504 Pershing Dr (at Lincoln Blvd) San Francisco, CA 94129
The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St (btw Clayton & Cole Sts.) San Francisco, CA 94117
Where To Stay
I’ve tossed in a mix of new, old, and right-outside-of San Francisco options here. My favorite hip and trendy hotel in town is Hotel Zetta, which sits right on Market Street across from Nordstroms and the cable car stop. It features one of the few popular hotel bars in the city and a fun game room on the mezzanine floor complete with a photobooth and shuffleboard.
On the other end of the spectrum is the old-school luxury hotel Hotel Drisco. Situated in the sleepy Pacific Heights neighborhood, Hotel Drisco features scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding neighborhood. A great place for a quiet getaway.
The last suggestion on the list is Cavallo Point, which can be accessed by a quick drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to the sleepy town of Sausalito – my favorite hidden gem in the Bay Area. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth a visit. Situated on a national park, Cavallo Point features both contemporary and historical suites, most with views of the Golden Gate Bridge or of the city. In the middle of the grounds is a huge open lawn perfect for kiting or sitting back and enjoying the view. Right around the corner from the resort is the Marin Headlands drive and cycling trails.
Hotel Zetta, 55 5th St (btwn Mission & Market St) San Francisco, CA 94103
Hotel Drisco, 2901 Pacific Ave San Francisco, CA 94115
Cavallo Point, Fort Baker (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) Sausalito, CA 94965