The stores on Fisherman’s Wharf filled with shot glasses declare, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Sadly, what many people see in the City by the Bay is little more than the trappings of tour buses and t-shirt vendors. But it doesn’t take much to venture away from the hawkers and to discover the beauty that is San Francisco.
Vagabondish is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Read our disclosure.
A bustling city rich in ethnic diversity, San Francisco calls to the adventurous traveler. Generations of immigrants from Asian and European countries settled in San Francisco creating neighborhoods renowned for their food and shopping experiences: Japantown, Chinatown, North Beach, and the infamous Haight-Ashbury. 36 hours in San Francisco can be a mini-trip around the world.
San Francisco is beautiful year-round, but especially in the winter. While inland California is rainy and cloudy, San Francisco has clear and sunny winters. Those gorgeous days are balanced by the city’s famous fog, though, which is ubiquitous in the summer. But for travelers coming from hotter climes, a cool foggy respite can be quite welcome in the middle of August.
There are several airports serving the San Francisco Bay area including San Francisco International (SFO), Oakland International (OAK), and San Jose International (SJC). All three are serviced by red-eye flights from the East Coast and a wide range of international flights as well.
From the airport take a taxi, the subway, or a shuttle to the center of the city. Accommodations in San Francisco range from the absurdly luxurious to the more-than-slightly scary. But there are several nice hostels in the city as well as reasonably priced hotels found with a little pre-trip legwork.
Start your day with flaky cream puffs at Beard Papa’s. When it opened this Japanese imported sensation attracted lines of people around the block. The lines move quickly, however, and the freshly made and custom-filled cream puffs make the perfect complement to a cup of fresh coffee.
Sufficiently full and well-caffeinated? Then begin meandering through San Francisco’s busy shopping and financial district. Make your way up California Street either on foot or by Cable Car. The Cable Cars can be pricy for one trip, but if you buy a Passport you can take unlimited trips in a one or three-day period for under $20.
At the top of Nob Hill, disembark. Grace Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in California, was built in the twentieth century, but it looks like a French Gothic cathedral. The cathedral is particularly known for its two labyrinths: one outside and one inside. Walking the labyrinth is an ancient form of meditation and pilgrimage found in many cultures around the world.
Lunch at the Fairmont Hotel, a San Francisco landmark at the top of Nob Hill, will not be cheap. But the atmosphere in the hotel’s Laurel Court Restaurant and Bar is quintessential turn-of-the-century San Francisco.
Beyond your budget? Walk down Mason Street to Washington Street. There on the corner sits the charming Gallery Café (1200 Mason St San Francisco, CA 94108 415. 296.9932). With coffee and sandwiches, the little café makes for a nice place for lunch and a little time to read the local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.
Across the street from the Gallery Café is San Francisco’s Cable Car Museum. It’s free. It’s small. And it is interesting. Take a few minutes and poke around inside.
From the museum, make your way east on Washington Street. You will soon find yourself in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wander the streets. Peruse the vendors selling all types of fish and fowl — living and dead. Stop in to a herbalist for a pungent experience. The bakeries proffer buns and pastries filled with delicious flavors both savory and sweet. Be adventurous! Far from a tourist attraction, Chinatown is a rich and varied neighborhood where Mandarin, Cantonese, and any number of other Chinese dialects outpace English.
Towering over the San Francisco skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid marks more than the center of San Francisco’s financial district. At the corner of Montgomery Street and Columbus Avenue it also presides over the transition from Chinatown and the financial centers north to North Beach and the heart of San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood.
Italian cuisine varies from region to region, and San Francisco boasts stellar restaurants from most regions. Neapolitan dishes tend to be earthy and hearty and delicious. After a day of walking Caffe Macaroni is the perfect place for a plate of penne alla diavolo and a glass of red wine. Linger in the tiny café. Enjoy the sounds of children speaking Italian as the busy little restaurant fills with families, squeezed in around tiny tables.
And when you have finished your homemade tiramisu and espresso, stumble out the door and onto bustling Columbus Avenue home to bars and nightclubs of every ilk. Or make your way back to Union Square where coffee shops and trendy stores are open late into the evening. Farallon, an underwater fantasy of an oyster bar, has a lovely bar perfect for an after-dinner drink. They pour absinthe (now that it is legal) complete with sugar cubes and the special spoons. The “green fairy” makes for an interesting night cap — and even more interesting dreams.
The Sunday Chronicle calls — as does the great outdoors. Stop for a cup of coffee and a bagel to hold you over as you make your way to A.G. Ferrari Foods. This Italian deli offers a range of antipasti, cheeses, meats, and breads — the makings of a perfect picnic.
Once your have your picnic lunch and your newspaper, head out to Golden Gate Park. Easily reachable by mass transit, bicycle, or on foot, Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s premier green space. Home to museums, an arboretum, gardens, and 1000 acres of verdant vegetation, Golden Gate Park is the perfect place to enjoy a Sunday in San Francisco.
Each Sunday morning a group of people gather at the bandshell in Golden Gate Park to enjoy that fantastically romantic pursuit: swing dancing! Lindy in the Park, a free organization, offers free Swing Dancing each Sunday (weather permitting) from 11 am to 2 pm. Join in or just watch while enjoying your picnic!
Across the street from the bandshell you will find one of North America’s finest Japanese gardens. The Japanese Tea Garden is a delicate and intimate space with winding walkways and carefully groomed trees and shrubs. On weekends brides, sometimes in traditional Japanese kimono, trip along the paths followed by photographers and family for formal portraits. On a foggy day the teahouse makes a lovely stop with fragrant tea and small snacks available inexpensively.
Walk just down the road to the imposing and bizarre M.H. de Young Museum. The building, opened in 2005, replaced an older structure damaged in one of San Francisco’s famous earthquakes. The collection inside the twisted and dimpled metal building is as varied and unique as the city of San Francisco itself.
The American Painting collection is one of the best in the United States, and it features images both familiar and beautiful. Additionally, the collection of American Sculpture and Decorative Arts is also notable. Wandering the smooth, warm galleries is both pleasant and educational. Other wings feature art from sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, Central and South America and Oceania, as well as very contemporary graphic art.
But be sure to make your way into the Hamon Tower and up to the Observation Floor. Over the park’s trees, you have a fantastic view of the city. The tower, the café, the store, and the sculpture garden are all free, too, if you are on a tight budget.
Walk or take a bus west down Fulton Street to the end of the Golden Gate Park and the Pacific Ocean. The entire stretch of beach is part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and there are a number of beautiful places to watch the sun set over the ocean. Ocean Beach, Cliff House and Seal Rocks, Lands End ”¦ their names are as poetic as the scenery.
And to watch the sun slip into the ocean from the edge of the continent: well, it is a perfect way to end a global San Francisco experience.