A compact city built on more than 50 rolling hills along the north end of the San Francisco Peninsula, the city is known for its fog, sports teams, cuisine, arts, and entrepreneurial spirit. Wrapping around the bay that shares its same name, San Francisco has strong culture and neighbourhoods with distinct personalities. Many visitors start their exploration of the Golden City with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge (as well as Golden Gate Park), Pier 39, riding through the hills on the historic cable cars, Alcatraz prison, the Museum of Modern Art, and other well-known attractions. Whether this is your first trip to San Fran or you’re a seasoned visitor, exploring the city like a local is easy to do and makes for a memorable experience. Below are a few insider travel tips to get you started.
1. Stroll through the Presidio
The former military base-turned 6km sq (2 mi sq) park is a mix of wooded areas, grassy lawns, sandy beaches, historic buildings, and beautiful architecture. Enjoy a picnic, take a long walk through the classical Roman rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts, or stroll along Crissy Field at sunset with the locals and marvel as the sun sets over San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Don’t forget to pack your camera, this is one of the best views of the famous bridge in town.
While at the Presidio, pop over to the marina and catch a concert at the Wave Organ. One of the most unique musical instruments in San Francisco, this organ is played by the bay itself. Constructed out of 25 PVC organ pipes beneath the pier — which was made from material from a demolished cemetery — this musical artwork makes sometimes pleasant and sometimes strange sounds as the tides come in and out.
2. Eat your way through the Mission
The Mission, San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood, is considered by locals as one of the hottest areas to find great food in the city. Named after the Mission Dolores, which was founded in 1776, this district’s long Hispanic history is reflected in the culinary traditions. Sporting some of the best Mexican food in the city, there are also all-day brunches (serving every kind of food imaginable), tasty street food, fancy cocktail bars, local micro breweries, handmade ice cream, and plenty of international restaurants and eateries. Savour a sweet pastry at Tartine, pop into the Bi-rite Creamery for gourmet sweets and handmade ice cream, enjoy a strong coffee at the Ritual Roasters or Four Barrel, and dine on some of the best international cuisine in the city at restaurants like Pancho Villa or Delfina.
3. Light a bonfire on Ocean Beach
Popular on both the weekend and a warm weekday evening, Ocean Beach is where San Franciscans come to watch the sunset, enjoy a BBQ with friends, and light a bonfire. Pack a picnic dinner, bring s’more fixings, or just enjoy the ambiance and view over the Pacific. Arrive early to secure a fire pit for bonfires and be sure to pack your own logs, lighter, and kindling. Evenings like these build great travel memories.
4. Enjoy a drink at the Bourbon and Branch
Many of San Francisco’s best bars and cocktail saloons are hidden down an alley, around a corner, up non-descript stairs, and through doors that often require passwords. The Bourbon and Branch is no exception. Located in the Tenderloin, the trip getting there can be just as exciting as the bar itself and harkens back to the time of prohibition with hidden bars and secret passwords. First, locate the sign that says “Anti-Saloon League San Francisco Branch Est. 1920” and press the intercom at the non-descript front door. An attendant will ask, “password?” Answer with, “books,” and the door will swing open just long enough to let you slip inside. A tall bookshelf near the bar hides the entrance to the bar and library. This modern-day speakeasy is both a great spot for a drink or dinner. Be sure to make reservations, as it’s a favourite amongst locals and travellers alike.
5. Shop for local food, arts, and crafts at farmers’ markets
While the Ferry Building Marketplace is one of the biggest and most well-known farmers’ markets, San Francisco has many others that are also worth a visit. Located in an un-touristy part of town, the Alemany Farmers’ Market, was the first market in California and today is still one of the best local experiences around. For more than 71 years, local farmers, cheesemakers, butchers, bakers, chocolatiers, florists, woodcarvers, and artists have been selling their goods to locals and in-the-know-travellers. Open daily from dawn to dusk, it’s a great place to rub elbows with fellow shoppers, people watch, pick up a picnic lunch, or browse local artisans’ work.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to San Francisco encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.