Hometown Traveler: Your Indie Guide to San Francisco
By Joy Suthigoseeya
San Francisco is a city where residents have historically lived by their own set of rules and is brimming with an unflinching independent spirit. Where else can you find zombie flash mobs, public pillow fights, an enthusiastic bike and skate culture, a great music and arts scene, more hipsters and gays than you can shake a stick at, and limitless options for amazing food on any budget. Oh yeah, did I mention hippies? Lots and lots o’ smelly hippies.*
San Francisco is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, its hills, the summer of love, the zodiac killer, the Beatniks, and that brilliant car chase scene in that movie “Bullitt” starring Steve McQueen.
But it should be famous for its endless taquerias and its mucho quirkiness. San Francisco is like that weird girl you were afraid to make friends with but was always secretly attracted to and would probably make your girlfriend if you didn’t go to the same school. But as it were, you’ve gots a rep to protect.
All the tourists rush to Fisherman’s wharf and Pier 39. And they take a cable car to get there.
But you shouldn’t leave without seeing…Any self-respecting “tourist” would NOT skip the Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square, North Beach, China Town, Baker Beach, Golden Gate Park or the museums and gardens–notably the Japanese Tea Gardens, or Laughing Sally, who currently lives amongst the relics that make up the oldest penny arcade in the city.
Its original location was by the Cliff House close to the Sutro baths ruins, but in recent years has moved to Pier 45. If you are an early riser you’ll probably enjoy the farmer’s market at the Ferry building where you can get an eclectic sampling of California cuisine at its finest. Finally, if you’re gay you’d be a fool to miss out on SF’s vibrant gay nightlife in the Castro. See moms? There’s something for everyone!
For those with inclinations toward the offbeat, no trip is complete without a stroll down Upper Haight towards hippie hill in Golden Gate Park where you will run into all manners of colorful (smelly) people and shops. Don’t worry though, even though the area has been historically sketch it is nowhere near the sketchiness of the Tenderloin, where crack addicts and street hoes adorn many a corner. Upper Haight just plays host to your standard run-of-the-mill runaways who are in reality harmless, albeit moochy suburban kids.
The Upper Haight could aptly be described as a retail district. There are specialty clothing boutiques, vintage clothing stores, great shoe stores, plenty of smoke shops, tattoo shops, resale shops, and quite a few restaurants and cafes. Not to mention it’s where you’ll find the Haight-Ashbury corner: the epi-center of the 60’s free love revolution. Pick up your Grateful Dead tie-dyes here and put the fear of god in your grandmamma with all the free-wheeling liberal ideas you picked up during your visit to SF. If you are into music, make sure you find your way to the end of the Haight Street for Amoeba music, the quintessential music nerd’s wet dream. Sometimes they even have free shows, so be sure to check the local music listings for bands that might be playing there.
If you crave the nitty-gritty and want to see where all the “cool” kids live, go to the Mission. The mission is known for its divey bars, street art (notably Clarion Alley, a side street full of murals from the Valencia end to the Mission end), cheap tasty morsels and shopping in specialty boutiques, indie shops, and thrift stores. Two key stores on Valencia and 19th are the Pirate Store, founded by Dave Eggers, which serves as a front for a children’s writing workshop and Paxton’s Gate, a taxidermy shop and art gallery right next door.
Museums anyone…Check out SFMOMA for modern art, the De Young for contemporary art, and the newly renovated California Academy of Sciences. For a cheaper visit to the academy, try going to Nightlife on Thursdays when they feature prominent SF DJs playing for partygoers from 6-10 pm. The music changes weekly so check their calendar for more details.
Best park… Definitely Golden Gate Park, with Dolores Park in a close second for people watching and Alamo Square Park in 3rd for city views. Unfortunately, they are currently remodeling Dolores Park and it will be closed until Sept 2011. So stop by Alamo Square Park for a snapshot of the Painted Ladies, made famous in the opening credits of “Full House”. The fourth runner-up is Buena Vista Park which has great views of the city as well and can be a lovely, but semi-strenuous jaunt to the top. If you are taking your aging mother, it may be a little too much for her to climb, so keep to the lower paths.
Most visitors don’t know that there are bison in Golden Gate Park and hidden slides called the Castro slides in duh, where else, the Castro! They also don’t know that during the summer there are lots of activities such as free street festivals, free music every weekend at Stern Grove or GG park, or that they show free movies in Dolores park once a month.
Best bar in town…A grungy neighborhood staple, Zeitgeist in the Mission is perfect if you want to enjoy a beer garden atmosphere while chumming it up with the locals. The beers are reasonable, they have pitchers and decent bloody marys and you can get some of the best damn cheeseburgers and potatoes in town for only six bucks. The downside is that they only have two bathroom stalls and three portapotties serving peak crowds of 200+ on a busy night. I’ve witnessed those fill up fast with all the beer-a-flowing, so if you’re a girl, beware because that can spell trouble if you’ve broken the seal.
Beer Bar – Toronado in the Lower Haight, which by the way, is a neighborhood worth visiting if just for a few of the art galleries and cafes within its three-block radius.
Cocktail Bar – Want tasty drinks? 15 Romolo in North Beach is a great bar that serves some of the best drinks I’ve had. If you are looking for swank, try Bourbon and Branch. Modeled on the concept of the speakeasy, this is your bartender’s bar, the one where they go to when they aren’t serving you. The drinks are expensive, but what do you expect from one of the best bars in America. You need a password to get in, which you can retrieve through their website. They even have a secret library room that requires a password as well.
Wine Bar – I’ve only been to a handful of wine bars in the city since I didn’t really get into wine until recently. Be forewarned that if you are wine snob you best skip my recommendations and do a yelp for the closest wine bar in the neighborhood you are staying in. Bar 821 is the only real wine bar I’ve frequented out of a few in the city and would say I like it for the ambiance and not so much for its wine. Not to say they don’t have an adequate wine selection, I’m just not comfortable recommending the wines having never looked at their menu. They do serve well-made Soju drinks, but the ambiance is really the key winner for me at this bar.
Dive Bar – Delerium for rockin’ out. It’s close enough to other bars in the neighborhood if you get tired of hanging in one place for too long. Head over to Casanova for a change of scenery or bounce between Kilowatt and Gestalt. But stay away from this area on the weekends. It seems all the bridge and tunnel folk like to hang out in the mission then, so you won’t get as an authentic experience if you come during the week. Other great divey bars that are worth mentioning are the Beauty Bar, The Attic, The Knock Out, Uptown, and the Phone Booth. If you’re lucky you might run into the tamale lady at one of these joints and when you do you HAVE to order a tamale. I don’t care what it is. Just get one. If you do miss her, don’t worry, you’ll get a second chance at the late-night drunken food game. When you walk out that door let your nose direct you immediately towards the exquisite smell of bacon and grilled onions. Listen for that sizzling sound and feast your senses upon the bacon-wrapped hot dog cart that will soon become the saving grace of your night. Try it with mayo, grilled onions, and jalapeños. It may very well give you a tonguegasm or a stomachache if you are lame.
Clubs – There is a club scene for everyone in SF. Keep in mind that the best way to chase down a good party is to know your promoters. Obviously, in this case, it is hard if you are a visitor so the next best thing is go to the nearest music shop, look for flyers according to names you recognize and see who is throwing that party. More than likely they will be throwing other parties you might like and if you end up going to one you will find flyers for other parties probably within the same musical vein. If you are just looking for any old club to dance in, head to Soma (11th and Folsom) where quite a few late-night clubs are concentrated.
Note on SF nightlife: all bars stop serving alcohol at 2 am so most people start their evening relatively early compared to cities like NY or Chicago, which very often don’t start until after midnight. Once the bars/clubs close there are almost always after-parties that serve alcohol in secret locations or not-so-secret locations around the city. But you have to know who to ask or where to look.
And the best coffee/coffee shop… Nestled between buildings on a hidden side street in Hayes Valley you’ll find Blue Bottle Café, which serves up some of the best coffee in the city. But if you’re looking for a place to sit, you won’t find it here as it’s only a coffee stand. For excellent coffee and ambiance visit Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission. Bring a laptop and don your Urban Outfitters best and you’ll blend right in with the Mission hipsters that keep this place hoppin’.
Best place to see live music… Bottom of the hill, The Independent, Café Du Nord, The Great American Music Hall, Bimbo’s, Slim’s, and for bigger acts The Fillmore, and the Warfield. For local bands, the Makeout Room and Thee Parkside or Bottom of the Hill are a safe bet. The best way to find out who’s playing where and when is to pick up a free SFweekly at one of the numerous red newspaper boxes. You can also pick a SF Bay Guardian which has a more political bent rather than entertainment. If you are fan of the interweb go to sfstation.com or going.com to find out what is happening on any given night. laughingsquid.com is good for burning man and anarchist-type activities and if you are way into art, fecalface.com is a the guide to the bay area arts scene.
Best place for cheap grub… Rosamunde in Lower Haight for the best sausages in the city. Five bucks gets you their homemade specialty sausage (think wild boar, duck, and fig, or the old standby beer sausage) with any two toppings. Head next door to Toronado to wash down your sausage with a beer from a selection of the over 100 microbrews on site. If you’re hankering for Mexican, go down to Mission and take your pick from one of any of the great taquerias that line 16th and Mission. For cheap Vietnamese, Tu Lan in the Tenderloin is a rite of passage. Their claim to fame is that it was Julia Childs favorite place. Yes that’s right, Julia Childs loved this little hole-in-the-wall and as proof, they’ve got a fairly close facsimile of her face on the menu.
And for a sit-down meal at a good value… Little Star Pizza in Nopa and the Mission has great pizza and has been a favorite among locals for the last half-decade. For authentic Chicago-style pizza, you can’t beat Paxti’s in Hayes Valley. After lunch, take a stroll down the block for some great boutiques and designy type shops including Huf shoe store and Timbuk 2 bags or get a delectable cupcake at Miette and enjoy it in newly built Octavia Park.
For vegans/vegetarians or hippies, Café Gratitude is one of the best raw/vegan restaurants in the city. If you’re less concerned about health and more about taste, Golden Era Chinese also serves up a vegetarian-only menu. As a meat eater, I’ve never been much for vegan or vegetarian fare, but this place is amazing, especially with their meat substitute dishes! A word of advice though, if you are prone to being easily brainwashed and like to join cults you might do well to avoid this place since it’s been said that the people that run the place are a cult.
And a meal to spend some money…San Francisco is known as a foodie town so it’s extremely difficult to narrow it down to just one restaurant. If I were to mention one, I would recommend Delphina, where you can get amazing pizza in the pizzeria or Italian cuisine in the restaurant section. This is place is the buzz of trendy locals, so more often than not you’ll find the dining room bustling on any given night. Forget about ordering “authentic” Italian in North Beach. Locals know that North Beach is for tourists. For other cuisines go to Dosa for Indian, Sushi Bistro for sushi, Nopa for new American, Bar Crudo for raw seafood, and for the ultimate foodie experience, French Laundry in Yountville for French (reservations recommended).
Best specialty dish of your city is…The white clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl or Cioppino which is an Italian seafood stew. If you want to really get a sense of SF cuisine go for the taquerias, any of the food carts, or Asian cuisine in the Inner Richmond.
I know it’s a cliché…but you can’t leave without hanging out in Dolores Park for a day to soak up some sun and people watch, buy some pot truffles or beer and then head to bi-rite creamery on the corner for a delicious scoop. They make homemade ice-cream and I promise you it will be the one ice cream experience you’ll be telling your great-great-grandkids about.
And if you’ve got kids… Regrettably, I don’t have many friends with kids, being the consummate single I am, but if I were to suggest some places to take them I would say Golden Gate Park is a great place to start. There are plenty of things to see and do in the park that are low-cost to free. Not free is the California Academy of Sciences, but it has great hands-on exhibits with 3D shows and a giant indoor atrium filled with butterflies as well as the Exploratorium by the Palace Fine arts.
Pier 39 has great entertainment options such as a Carousel, Magawan’s mirror maze, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the wax museum, street performers, and your choice of bay cruises. Up until this winter we had a population of sea lions that live at the pier but they’ve since disappeared and no one knows if they are coming back. I’d say don’t bother with the zoo, you’d be better off going to the botanical gardens or Ghirardelli Square for the ice cream sundaes and free chocolate samples.
Best nearby attraction or city for a day trip… Marin headlands on the other side of the bridge. Mount Tamalpais for a beautiful drive through redwoods and gorgeous views of the bay area. Muir woods for easy hiking and up close and personal encounters with California Redwood trees.
Berkeley and Oakland have a culture onto themselves, so if you want to get a feel for what it’s like over there, it’s an easy 20-minute Bart ride over. You don’t need a car and it’s fairly easy to get around. If you are into wine, of course, no visit would be complete without a trip to Napa or Sonoma.
How to sound like a local…Don’t ever call San Francisco: Frisco or San Fran. Locals refer to San Francisco as “SF” or “The City”.
Hella – Use hella in place of “really” or “very” when describing something.
This city guide is taking a hella long time to write.
NorCal – a way to refer to northern California.
SoCal – a way to refer to southern California
San Francisco Festival & Events – list of festivals and events throughout the year
Yelp.com – business reviews site that is popular with bay area residents
SFstation – city guide to entertainment and the arts
Fun & Cheap SF – listings for free or cheap events in and around the city
Fecalface.com – comprehensive bay area arts guide
Laughingsquid.com – coverage of lesser-known alternative events in the bay area.
Craigslist.org – free classified ad listings for the bay area and beyond.
*I was actually kidding about the hippies. They have all retreated into the woodlands of NorCal and Oregon after being chased out by yuppies and replaced by hipsters.
Joy Suthigoseeya is a freelance graphic designer living in San Francisco. She attributes her love for travel to her parents who towed her and her sisters around on dozens of family roadtrips across the US as kids. She just recently completed a 6-month around-the-world trip in 2008. When she’s not traveling she can be found blogging at designchick.tumblr.com or creating artwork for her online portfolio at designchick.net.