Headed to San Francisco - help make my trip awesome!

Next week I am finally leaving on a very much needed vacation! My husband and I are celebrating our first anniversary with a trip to California - we’re planning on a couple of days in San Francisco, and a couple of days each at adorable overpriced B&Bs in the Napa and Sonoma areas. We’ve never been out there before, so we’re looking over all the tourist info trying to decide what’s worth seeing on our short trip.

Where to eat? What to see? What to avoid? Recommendations for vineyard visits? We have a rental car and our SF hotel is near-ish the airport, and we’ll be in wine country mid-week. We don’t have a huge budget but we’re willing to make a splurge or two for a worthy cause. Any good ideas, dear Dopers?

I really enjoyed the Alcatraz night tour. You need to book it now, though, if you want to do it, because it often sells out.

A movie at the Castro Theater is a neat experience also.

When I lived in Seattle, I used to adore Teatro ZinZanni. It was like a Cirque Du Soleil, with more plot…and food. There are only 2 locations, Seattle and…San Francisco. I’d recommend it for a romantic anniversary dinner.

In the cheap-to-free range:

The Cable Car Museum is free and entertaining; you can see the machinery that actually turns the cables and pulls the cars through the street as it happens.

The Westin St. Francis Hotel is too expensive to actually stay in, but it’s very tall, it’s right downtown, and their glass elevators are on the outside of the building. You can totally just walk in, go straight up to the top of the building in the elevator to enjoy the view, and come right back down. Just be sure to walk confidently and act like you’re supposed to be there.

San Francisco is famous for its street performers. See if you can spot Bush Man: he holds two skimpy branches from a bush in front of him, crouches right in the middle of the sidewalk, and jumps out to scare people walking by. It’s amazing how many people just don’t look closely enough to realize that he’s not a potted plant. If you give him a couple bucks, he’ll try to scare any person you want.

When you’re ready to eat, you should go to either Chinatown or Little Italy; the two neighborhoods are adjacent and both famous for their respective cuisine.

My Lord do I love that town. We did a lot of wandering through the city; one of our best walks was along the Embarcadero, picking up picnic stuff at the Ferry Building farmer’s market just as it opened (It must have been a Tuesday or Thursday, it opens at 10 those days, earlier on Sundays), then walking for about two hours along the water, into the park, and picnicing in a shady spot close to the cemetery.

Another thing we loved was Pirate Cat Radio Cafe… delicious coffees. My husband had a love affair with the bacon lattes, and dragged me by each morning.

I’ll post more as they come to me, promise. We also followed up San Francisco with a trip to Napa and to the French Laundry for dinner; obviously it’s too late to get a reso but if you’re near Yountville do stop into the Bouchon bakery.

Be aware that your “near-ish the airport” hotel is actually about 10 miles from the tourist areas you’ll want to see. You’ll have to deal with the freeway and parking. (This is not a bad thing, just be sure to budget for those costly expenses.)

If you haven’t been to SF before, go for the typical tourist stuff. Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Golden Gate Park, the Haight, etc. Most of these things are free. Then come back or check old threads for things to do on your second visit.

I usually mention the free walking tours given by sfcityguides.org. The tours are usually about 2 hours long, cover a mile or two of actual walking, and are a lot of fun.

Ditch the overpriced B&B one night and head north into the Redwoods.

Point Reyes National Seashore. About a 45-60 minute drive from either the city or Sonoma valley. Great area for day hikes, watching the surf, etc. If you are looking for outdoor activity, consider this. Free, so easy on the budget.

And I second Chinatown or Little Italy for eating.

Congratulations on your first anniversary! I love SF and the Bay Area as a whole. I lived across the bay in Berkeley for 3 years or so and I just visited again last December. It was just as great as I remembered it.

First off, if your hotel is by the airport, you might be near a BART station and it might actually be cheaper to travel by BART than to drive around San Francisco futilely looking for very expensive parking. I remember one unfortunate trip years ago where a whole group of us drove into San Francisco and came back having only visited one out of the four places we wanted to visit because we were unable to get any parking anywhere since there was three or four events going on in the city and the area was packed. I also remember visiting a friend of mine in downtown SF for lunch and paying $24 for one hour of parking. This last trip, my boyfriend and I ditched the car and it made for a much less stressful trip.

I’ll second Golden Gate Park. The De Young Museum and the Japanese Garden are both worth a visit. Golden Gate Park is pretty far from the BART lines, but there are buses that go directly into the park itself.

Visit the Ferry Building on a Saturday if possible, there’s a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and I love to sample the fruits and cheese and buy some to snack on during the day. They also have prepared food vendors if you want breakfast or lunch. The shops inside the Ferry Building are great as well. Acme bread, Cowgirl Creamery, Scharffen Berger Chocolates, and McEvoy Olive Oil all are delicious and highly regarded. Il Cane Rosso has great sandwiches. There’s an oyster bar called Hog Island that serves amazing raw oysters. The Blue Bottle serves one of the best coffee in the West Coast. Basically, if you enjoy eating gourmet food, this is a good place to go. You can also catch a ferry to several different locales as well if you want.

Chinatown and Little Italy are right next to each other and they’re fun places to walk around if you like odds and ends shops. There is a hole in the wall place called Golden Gate Bakery on Jackson St. in Chinatown that serves piping hot egg tarts for around a dollar a piece. The custard in the middle is sweet and hot and the crust and nice and flakey. There’s usually a line out the door, but the line moves fast. The older ladies who work there are usually kind of gruff, but they’re efficient and it’s fun to see them tally up the order by hand. The Imperial Tea Court also has their original location in Chinatown and you can drop in for some tea and snacks if your feet start to get tired.

The Cable Car Museum is small but free. I enjoyed it and it’s close to the Ferry Building.

I’m not a big fan of Fisherman’s Wharf, since it’s all a bit overpriced and bland in my opinion, but there’s the Musee Mechanique, which is free as well and for a few quarters you can amuse yourself with old pinball games and other little gadgets.

Another place to visit would be the Mission District. It’s very artsy and there’s lots of little art galleries that you can just pop in and look around. You can walk around and check out all the different murals in the area. Some of the area looks a little sketchy, but I’ve never felt threatened there unlike the Tenderloin district (and even there the drug dealers and prostitutes left us alone). The area has lots of good Mexican restaurants and cheap divey restaurants in general. Last time we ate at a Burmese restaurant that was just a kitchen with 10 barstools attached to a bar, but we were stuffed full of tea salad and noodles for around $10/person. Bi-Rite creamery and Humphrey Slocombe both sell inventive and tasty ice cream in this area as well. Tartine Bakery also has great baked goods and sandwiches.

If you do end up having your car and you can’t figure out where to go, visit the Sutro Baths by the coast. It’s usually nice and isolated and has a great view and an interesting history.

I love San Francisco like no other city. It’s a great walking town and there’s just so much good food and culture. Hope you have a great trip!

I seem to be the only one who ever recommends it (probably for good reason), but I make a point of visiting Tommy’s Joynt when I’m in the San Francisco area. It’s decidedly not to everyone’s taste, but they do a good job on what they serve for a reasonable price; and I find the decor (for want of a better word) intriguing. My impression is the they invented the “explosion in a flea market” theme that TGI Friday’s and suchlike have bastardized, but even if they didn’t, they put a unique twist on it.

My other chronic suggestion is Japantown (or Japan Center). Much the same Oriental ambiance as Chinatown, but not nearly so touristy.


Then go to Chinatown and find the restaurant with the most Chinese people eating in it and eat there.

This octopus knows his/her SF shit. Nothing on this list is wrong, and there is enough in the thread to keep you going for weeks. However, there is one thing that I didn’t see in the thread. When you get to GG Park, it is fairly close to Haight Ashbury. Get a picture on that corner to prove to your friends that you are a hippie for a day.

Ride a cable car. It’s not likely to be the quickest way from point A to B, but way more entertaining than the buses back home.

Giant trees are well worthwhile, even if it’s just a quick look. Your itinerary likely precludes going all the way up to the Eureka area. Muir Woods, however, is right across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Big Basin Redwoods SP is about 1.5 hours SW of the airport, but that would eat up most of a day, and there’s not a whole lot else in that direction. If it was winter, you could combine it with the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo, which are awesome.

Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghiardelli Square, and Pier 39 are touristy (some would say tourist traps), of the Hard Rock Cafe/saltwater taffy variety. Nothing you couldn’t see in a dozen other cities. Some people love that sort of thing, some hate it.

Haight Ashbury has some nice old Victorian houses and lots of head shops, but the counterculture angle is a little dated and a bit of a put-on. If you are into the whole summer of love historical thing, certainly worth it. Otherwise, you could see most of the same stuff at home.

The Legion of Honor and the de Young are both art museums and usually have a few traveling exhibitions in additon to their fine collections.

In addition to the de Young and the tea garden, Golden Gate Park is home to the California Academy of Sciences. Packed full of screaming kids, right? Yes, but on Thursday nights it’s 21+, with live music and cash bar. If drinking in a natural history museum/aquarium/giant terrarium sounds like fun (of course it does), it’s the only place in town to do it.

Like raw oysters? Try Hog Island Oyster Bar, in the Ferry Building and also in Oxbow Market in Napa. Don’t like raw oysters? They have baked oysters and ambrosiacal clam chowder. Don’t like oysters? That’s what I thought, until I ate some of theirs. Totally different than Gulf and East Coast oysters.

Like dim sum? Go to Yank Sing. It’s a bit more expensive than average, but the food is quite a bit better than average, so the extra money is well spent. Get some xiaolongbao.

Union Square and it’s environs is nice enough, but the shopping is probably nothing you couldn’t do at home.

The coastal environment is very different than the east coast. Point Reyes National Seashore is not far from where you will be. More or less any section of Highway 1 is packed with gorgeous views and plenty of places to stop and look. You may as well make use of that rental car.

If you’re going to be staying in an overpriced B&B in Napa, then you’ll probably enjoy a trip on the wine train.

The tour of Alcatraz was awesome. I highly recommend it. Also I’d avoid Fisherman’s Wharf if you do the tour. Nothing much there except touristy restaurants.

Definitely save the car for trips out of town; use public transit, your own feet & the occasional cab ride to get around The City.

Why be a Hippie when you can drop by City Lights Books & be a Beat?

Consider adding the SF Museum of Modern Art to your list.

If you visit the Mission District, drop by the Mission Dolores; its graveyard, mostly filled by immigrants in post-Mission years, is full of stories.

…and all that stuff mentioned above. Fisherman’s Wharf is a bit too touristy for me. You can discover treasures just walking around.

Thanks for the advice so far!

I am looking into public transportation - if parking is that expensive I don’t want to bother with it, and I’m not against some walking. How spread out are the areas in the city that I’ll want to visit, like Chinatown, Golden Gate bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf (I won’t kill a day there, thanks to your advice, but I still want to see it)?

The Ferry building sounds awesome, as does the California Academy of Sciences. Their website says it’s salsa night next week - does it turn into a nightclub? Do you still get to see the exhibits? Muir Woods is on my list now, too, even though we only have a couple of days… I’d rather see that than almost anything else, I think. And my husband will insist we go to the oyster place… they better have french fries or something else for the non-enthusiast!

How about vineyards? Does anyone have any favorites that you’d recommend? There’s no way I can afford the Wine Train, but thanks for the link anyway. We decided to spend a little on the B&Bs because we never spoil ourselves with that sort of thing and a couple of nights of luxury will do us good, but it means that our budget for everything else is a little smaller.

It’s not just expensive parking–it’s non-existent parking. I visited my sister while she was on a long-term assignment in SF. She happily drove but I remember her circling blocks endlessly to find a parking place; however, the restaurantwas lots of fun. (My visit wasn’t recent enough to offer restaurant recommendations but I doubt you’ll have a problem finding good food.)

She worked during the day & I happily tooled around the hotspots by myself; it’s really a small city & much of the popular stuff is close together. One note: A short walk on the map can become a grueling climb up a steep slope. Great exercise for this flatlander.

Yup. They do a cocktails and party thing… I think it’s Thursday nights, and the museum is open as usual, but it’s more of a scene with a bar and 20-30-somethings than a family space.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you can find whales (both greys and humpbacks this time of year.) Either watching from Pt. Reyes or going on a boat offshore (I do whale watching trips as my 2nd job.) :wink:

Was only in Northern California - including San Francisco, once, 8 years ago, but loved it.

Took the Alcatraz tour, it was great. Walked along Fisherman’s Wharf to get to where we could get on a cable car, which is certainly a unique San Francisco experience, back to our hotel. For parking, we found a hotel with a parking lot, they let us leave our car in the lot until the afternoon after we checked out.

Outside San Francisco, we went to the Winchester Mystery House and the Tech Museum in San Jose.

North of the city, we went to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, the drive-through Chandelier Tree in Leggett (these are part of Redwood Country), the “Little Old Faithful” geyser in Calistoga, which will be in the Napa area, and the Jelly Belly Jelly Bean factory in Fairfax, which is close to the city.

We also went to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park on that trip.

I don’t know if you’ve already booked your flight, but I found (at the time, things could be different now) that flying to the San Jose airport was significantly cheaper than flying to SFO.

Happy anniversary! Enjoy everything you can squeeze in!