There’s way more to San Francisco than expensive apartments and coffee shops that take Bitcoin. Exploring the City by the Bay reveals an intricate patchwork of cultures and communities. Read on for 10 reasons why San Francisco should be on your list of must-visit destinations.
Generations of fishermen have hauled their daily catch from the murky waters that surround San Francisco. This bounty has made the identity of the city and its inhabitants inseparable from the crab, mussels and halibut that feature on menus all over town. Oysters, however, are treasured by many of the area’s seafood aficionados far beyond any other bivalve and, perhaps, all ocean dwellers. This is largely because oysters are a local product, with some of the best farms directly north of the city, in the waters around Marin County. The best place to try this local staple is Swan Oyster Depot on Polk – a no-frills, 18-seat joint that Anthony Bourdain adored and the S.F. Chronicle has called “this holy church of fresh seafood.” The thing to order, of course, is fresh oysters, but they make a mean louie salad if you like your succulent crab or shrimp served dressed.
After almost becoming extinct in the ’90s, Tiki culture is back in a big way. Numerous conventions celebrate the lifestyle and many books explore the history of what has slowly become known as Polynesian Pop. San Francisco, however, was the capital of this international craze. Tiki culture in mainland US has its beginnings in a bar called Don The Beachcomber that opened in LA in the 1930s, appealing to those who longed for a far-flung tropical escape. However, it was perfected in the Bay Area by Trader Vic’s locations in East Bay and San Francisco. Based on the dozen or so prominent Tiki bars that have opened in the city over the last decade, there’s a strong case to be made that San Francisco remains the heart of Tiki culture. If you want to see some retro Tiki fare, including a barge that floats in the middle of the dining area, head over to Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar. If you’re looking for something a little more contemporary, perhaps a mix of classic drinks and new concoctions, then Smuggler’s Cove is where you want to be. There are tons of Tiki bars across the city, and chances are if you find one, you’re going to find a good time.
The Chinatown area is almost as old as the city of San Francisco itself. As the 1849 Gold Rush encouraged a flourish of American migration from the East, Chinese migrants arrived from across the Pacific and saw an opportunity. The Chinese-owned restaurants, sundry stores and laundries helped establish a cultural enclave in the middle of San Francisco that was vibrant and permanent, despite numerous schemes by city leaders over the years to dislodge and relocate the community. San Francisco’s Chinatown is a place that everyone should visit at least once. Despite the crowds and shops brimming over with tchotchkes, the area is packed with art and culture waiting to be experienced. And, of course, there’s the food. Just make sure to head over to Golden Gate Bakery on Grant – it’s renowned for making the best silky-sweet egg custard tarts this side of the Pacific.
It’s easy to forget you were ever in a major urban center when you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park. The lush woodland is home to an array of sights and activities to please visitors of any age. There’s archery in a field near the ocean, a buffalo reserve located along the northern drag, the De Young Museum lounging next to the Japanese Tea Garden – and all situated within walking distance of some great bars and restaurants. It’s the perfect spot for everything from a first date to a tranquil solo afternoon on a grassy bank sketching the bucolic splendor. There are also markets and events occurring regularly throughout the week, so be sure to check online for the latest goings-on.
The San Francisco Bay Area has one of the largest populations of Burmese people outside of South Asia. As such, Burmese restaurants abound and should be on every traveler’s itinerary of San Francisco eateries. Burma Superstar is the most famous establishment: a hugely popular spot with block-wrapping lines that’s frequently recommended by celebrity chefs. Don’t be put off by the crowds, though as the hearty and fragrant dishes are well worth the wait. For a twist on a traditional caesar, try the loaded tea leaf salad. A good pairing is the tangy samusa soup, flavoured with black mustard seeds and golden turmeric. Refresh your palette between flavorfuls with a cup of the Thai iced tea.
There was once a facility on the northwestern-most cliffs of San Francisco that contained 500 feet of saltwater and freshwater pools. This complex, called the Sutro Baths, was open from 1896 until it burnt down in 1966 in what was suspected to be arson. Today, the area is occupied by a nature park known as Land’s End. Hikers and day-trippers can follow a slightly precarious path down to the foundations of the derelict pools, where the tide washes over and fills the hollows in the ruins. A trail follows the coast until it reaches the Presidio national park and offers selfie-worthy vistas of the Golden Gate.
Sourdough bread has become ubiquitous in San Francisco, but the locals here have now given their hearts to a new loaf called dutch crunch. The bread is generally sold as small loaves and is used almost exclusively as a sandwich vessel. The soft, dense inside is slightly sweet, while the buttery, crisp parts of the mottled crust are like little croutons that add a satisfying crunch to every bite. The distinctive giraffe-print topping is caused by a coating of rice flour, butter, sugar and yeast applied prior to baking. The loaves are now arguably as synonymous with San Francisco as black-and-white cookies are with New York or cheesesteaks are with Philly.
San Francisco is a proper museum city. There’s always a quality show going on somewhere nearby, whether it’s at the De Young, the Legion of Honor, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, or the Museum of the African Diaspora. But, if you want to see art that tells the story of San Francisco, the best place to start is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA is pricy by museum standards, with a single entry ticket costing $25. The price seems proportionate, though, as you ascend the staircase in the lobby and head into the galleries. The museum offers an unrivaled collection of mid-century San Francisco masters such as William Wiley, Bob Arneson and Joan Brown, to name a few.
It’s a little-known fact, but San Francisco County stretches thirty miles out to sea, encompassing the Farallon Islands. The islands were once inhabited by researchers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but are now abandoned except for flocks of birds that perch on the rocky shores. Boats leave San Francisco wharves in droves to take curious onlookers out to the Farallones. Some go to learn about the island’s history, others to whale watch. The most intrepid travelers go to dive with great white sharks that circle the shores. The islands are a Shark Week staple, as the Pacific’s great whites are known for breaching the waves with full fury and flying a dozen or more feet in the air as they snatch a seal from the surface.
There’s no view of the Bay like the one seen from the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. Churning water, Alcatraz, the downtown skyline – all of it looks so much more magical when seen from the bridge, as the briny air blows through your hair and the sun shines on your back. The Golden Gate is nearly 9,000 feet long and takes up two two hours for a leisurely stroll across and back, taking advantage of the many photo opportunities. The time goes by fast, however, and the one universal truth about the walk is that if you look around, everyone is having a blast. Bring a camera, bring a snack, and get ready to join in that good time.