San Francisco is frequently cited as a favorite city by Americans, and while I hate to be cliché, it deserves it. It is the 12th most-populated city in the U.S., no doubt because of the way it tempts philistines, athletes, and fashionistas alike. Nearly everyone I know pines to live here, and if the time zone weren’t so horrid for global commerce I bet a lot more would.
To me, the City by the Bay defines urban pleasures at their finest. This is a destination in the truest sense; you come here to explore. The food is fresh, the wine incredible, the panoramas breathtaking, and you can be on the water or in the mountains within an hour. And culture? From orchestras to galleries, there’s enough to keep even the fussiest connoisseur spoilt for choice.
The scene here tends to change dramatically and often, as you’ll see with the expansion South of Market, the food explosion in the Mission, the new fashions and galleries taking over Union Square, and of course, the emergence of boutique hotels signalling an urban impasse.
San Francisco is one of the few cities I delight in for work or vacation, which is why it proves hard to write about—there is so much that I enjoy it becomes near impossible to stick to my own rules and offer just a few suggestions. I will endeavor.
My longtime must-visit hotel is The Ritz-Carlton. She is a grand dame occupying an historic neoclassical building that formerly housed an insurance company. This building was made for dramatic glamour, with amazing columns, a spectacular rooftop, and prime real estate occupying one city block in Nob Hill close to Union Square. I’ve stayed here for years and can report that this fine lady has just had a $12.5 million facelift and now, nothing sags. Ensure you get access to the Club level; it is the best GWS has experienced (probably more due to the warm cookies and milk before bed and less due to the computers). There are 336 rooms and suites, where every request—large and small—is handled with ease. Rooms start at $220.
The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco
600 Stockton Street
For a different hotel time zone altogether, consider Hotel Vitale on the Embarcadero. The vibe is earthy with a color palette to match at San Francisco’s only freestanding boutique hotel. The rooftop Spa Vitale has a bamboo garden and unbeatable views, while the 200 rooms boast yet more views of the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, and of course the Golden Gate. The location is a dream: close to Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, and all the spoils of the Ferry Building. Rooms from $189.
8 Mission Street
Where to even begin? I could die happy eating in San Francisco. My platonic ideal is the hole-in-the-wall seafood joint, Swan Oyster Depot. Open since 1912, it is a counter with 20 or so seats situated on a busy street in between Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Open daily from 9 to 5, it is jam-packed with tourists, locals, and workmen. The fare is all seafood, all the time, made fresh to order. In other words, you can get oysters, heavenly clam chowder, and fresh seafood cocktails and salads. Combine it with an Anchor Steam beer (which you can order while waiting on line) and a heaping portion of oyster crackers, and you have the makings of one of the most pleasurable meals of your life. It is family-run, a complete dive, they only accept cash, and you will always wait at least 45 minutes before being seated. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk Street
For breakfast, I adore Mama’s on Washington Square. Unfortunately, so does everyone else. No reservations means you have to get here early to avoid spending the day on line. Named for Mama and Papa Sanchez, this institution has been open half a century and offers some of the heartiest breakfast you can find. Try the banana French toast, the made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes, or a dreamy egg combination. Bring cash and expandable trousers. Afterward, stumble out into North Beach and walk it off on a stroll down to the Wharf.
Mama's (on Washington Square)
1701 Stockton St.
If you’ve managed to walk down to Fisherman’s Wharf, then it’s surely almost time for lunch. A trip to the Ferry Building, the foodie mecca of the Bay Area, is a must. Fresh baguettes, tortillas, chocolates, and seafood abound. You can snack yourself to death, but I prefer a seat at Boulette’s Larder for a leisurely lunch. Most days you’ll be greeted by the effervescent Chef Amaryll Schwertner, who can be seen in the open kitchen preparing your meal of fresh crab cakes or artichoke soup. There’s only one big communal table inside, so book early for a seat. Takeout options are great, too; morning yogurt is some of the best you’ll find. For those seeking a private dinner, you can occasionally request this as a private space if you ask nicely. I’d recommend it.
1 Ferry Building # 48
By dinnertime, you’ll be all fished out. Perhaps this is why I adore Farina Foods. They offer some of the freshest Italian outside of the boot. Begin with the foccacia calde—the combination of fresh cheese on homemade dough will remind you what food should taste like. Then move on to the Mandilli di seta al pesto, handmade handkerchief pasta with Genovese basil pesto. Without question, this is the best pesto dish I’ve ever tasted. Prices range from $12 to 18 for starters and $24 to 32 for mains. Reservations are a must.
3560 18th Street
Exploring San Francisco can take you in many directions. For views, try an ambitious stroll (or car ride) up to Coit Tower or on the Marin side to take in the views from the North Vista Point of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Everyone should take the cable car at least once in their life. Grab it from Union Square on either the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde lines; the latter drops you right in Ghiradelli Square, which is the perfect juncture for a hot fudge sundae and a stroll through touristy Fisherman’s Wharf.
44 Stockton Street
You have to stroll around Fisherman’s Wharf to see the entertaining, albeit offensively smelling seals on Pier 39 (check them out once and tick the box) and then onward to the Embarcadero.
For culture, I’d recommend a trip to the bedazzling Cartier and America Exhibition at the Legion of Honor Museum. It is quite extensive and the gasps from both women (for size) and men (for price) are bound to amuse.
Legion of Honor
34th Avenue & Clement Street
Spend some time in Sausalito—a more pleasant day you will not find. By bike, car, or foot, you can take in what feels like a picturesque village addendum to the sprawling metropolis across the Bay. Here you’ll find beautiful book shops, hidden bakeries, waterfront inns, and sports options aplenty. The Sausalito Chamber of Commerce hosts many community activities. For example, today is the First Annual Sausalito Bay to Barkers Cutest Dog Contest. Pack your pooch and head on over.
There’s not much worth avoiding in San Francisco except, perhaps, an actual trip to Alcatraz. Why we can be tempted as tourists into a literal jail cell is beyond me; my reaction to this anticlimactic tourist trap was to get out of there in a hurry. It’s creepy, isolated, and best viewed from afar.
Haight-Ashbury is the bohemian capital of the world, but I’m afraid the Summer of Love is no longer. Now it’s just a dated drug heaven with the odd needle in the park. There are certainly a few shops that are cool like the Booksmith and the now-defunct Forever After Books, but on the whole unless you’re looking for a bong or other psychedelic duds this area should be avoided.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.