A film-favourite bay, tower-topped peaks, and that world-famous bridge – holidays to San Francisco cover sightseeing from every angle.
An eclectic city
San Francisco has collected its fair share of nicknames over the years. This one-of-a-kind metropolis has been branded The Golden City, The Paris of the West and The City by the Bay. The former’s a nod to the city’s gold rush past, as well as its treasure-coloured bridge and sunsets. Meanwhile, the latter draws attention to its beautiful bayside setting.
The saying ‘only in San Francisco’ didn’t come from nowhere. This place is cosmopolitan and traditional in equal parts. It leads the way with its state-of-the-art museums and anything-goes nightlife, but it’s the neighbourhoods where the city’s heart really lies. Alamo Square’s home to six, pastel-coloured Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies. Taquerias and vibrant murals make up the Mission District, and then there’s the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia. Take all this into account, and it’s easy to see why San Francisco regularly ranks as one of the country’s most liveable cities.
New York might have the Empire State Building, but San Francisco’s highs are all natural. You can get wide-angle views of the city from one of its 43 peaks. The hikes up aren’t for the faint-hearted, though. Telegraph Hill, for example, involves a 400-step climb to the top, which is crowned by the Art Deco-style Coit Tower. But the wild parrots and hillside houses help soften the blow. The city’s manmade feats are just as impressive. Even the occasional fog can’t take away from the grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge – for many people, this famous monument is reason enough alone to book a trip to San Francisco.
Scenic days out
Hop on a ferry across the bay and you’re just a bus ride from the centre of California’s wine country – Napa Valley. The vintage-looking wine train will take you between estates, so there’s no need to appoint a designated driver. Just make sure you set some time aside to explore the area’s chic spas and farm-to-table eateries. Plus, if you head south out of the city, you’ll hit whale-watching hotspot, Monterey. This little town’s sea-centric, boasting an impressive aquarium, fresh-as-you-get seafood and a marine sanctuary.
Things to See and Do in San Francisco
The City by the Bay
San Francisco’s beaches aren’t the first port of call for most tourists. But, the city’s surrounded by water on three sides, so good-looking stretches are easy to come by. You’ve got every kind of sandy escape going, from huge belts to tucked-away coves and ones with surf-friendly waves.
The big beach
Extending for nearly four miles along the city’s west coast, Ocean Beach is a please-all sort of stretch. Dog walkers love its length, picnickers dominate the fire pits, and pro-surfers head out to ride the waves. Despite its popularity, the beach is as wide as two football pitches in some places, meaning overcrowding is practically unheard of. Plus, grab a window seat for lunch at Cliff House, and you can clock the furry natives on Seal Rocks in between bites.
The secret beach
China Beach is the mini and lesser-known neighbour of Baker Beach. This tiny cove still gives you that standout shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, minus the masses. Photos and sunbathing aren’t the only things on the agenda, either – you can check out the monument to gold rush-era fishermen, or dip your toes into the rock pools at low tide.
As well as great food, the Mission District’s off-the-wall boutiques and vintage stores are worth a wander. The same can be said for Chinatown. Here, you’ve got stands, as well as multi-storey shops selling all things Asian. You can pick up everything from silk dresses and woks, to decorative kites and tea.
The shop fronts total over 150 at the Westfield San Francisco Centre, which is no less than you’d expect from the global retail brand. European names like Zara, H&M and The Body Shop join forces with American favourites, Hollister and Banana Republic. Luxury stores like Bloomingdale’s, Rolex and Tiffany & Co also make an appearance.
All the big labels assemble around Union Square – the city’s main shopping hub. And it’s designer central. A stone’s throw from the plaza, you’ll find Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton – to name just a few.
You can forget Broadway, because San Francisco sells more theatre tickets per capita than any other major American city. If plays aren’t your thing, the city’s also home to the nation’s only purpose-built jazz hall, SFJAZZ. Alternatively, you can combine a martini with 360° views at Top of the Mark. This high-end and high-up bar has more than 100 different variations of the cocktail on its menu.
San Francisco’s renowned for its anything-goes attitude, and its night scene follows suit. The clubbing options are as diverse as the city itself – there’s even a club which you enter via a giant slide. Plus, the gay bars are legendary. Drop in any day of the week, and you’re likely to stumble upon mud-wrestling tournaments, drag shows and wild parties.
In a city that’s known for its seafood and sourdough, it’s easy to see why San Francisco’s clam chowder is big business. This seafood creation has made its way across from the east coast. The potato-based soup’s made with clams, broth, onions and celery – and served in a bread bowl. It’s best eaten on the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Mission burrito goes by another name, too – a San Francisco burrito. That’s because it originated in the city’s Mission District. It’s set apart from your average burrito by its big size and extra rice. The Mexican taquerias in these parts have even bagged awards for their burritos.
This Italian-American dish is another San Francisco first. It’s made with the catch of the day, which is usually a combo of Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops and squid. The seafood’s mixed with fresh tomatoes in a wine sauce to create a fish stew. It’s served with toasted bread, so dipping’s encouraged.
The head chef at the former St Francis Hotel is the brains behind Celery Victor. This simple starter shines a spotlight on the under-used veg. Celery hearts are simmered in chicken broth, chilled, and served with vinaigrette over lettuce leaves.
San Francisco’s take on scrambled eggs comes with a back story. The dish was stumbled upon in 1932 at long-gone New Joe’s. A local bandleader came in for some food, but the kitchen only had spinach, onions, mushrooms, ground beef and eggs left. He mixed them together to create Joe’s Special, which you’ll find on the menu at numerous restaurants.
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