We can all agree on the obvious San Francisco highlights. For starters, there’s the bridge, so famous it’s got its own shade of color — International Orange.
From there, the list crowds quickly. Fog. Cable cars. Chinatown. In short, we all know that San Francisco is one of the most exhilarating, gorgeous cities in the world.
But what if it weren’t? What if there were no curviest street on earth? No Transamerica Pyramid. No unique amalgam of Gold Rush riches, Summer of Love ethos, and dot-com brilliance. Minus all those familiar icons, what would San Francisco be? The answer is a city that could still punish all comers in the cool department. And there’d still be nowhere to park.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t eat Italian in North Beach or take an Alcatraz tour or snap a few requisite pics of the Golden Gate. It’s just that for every traditional attraction in the City by the Bay, there’s a subtler choice to be made. Neither should be ignored.
Famous Great Hotel
The Westin St. Francis
335 Powell St.
You would expect to find the grande dame of hotels in a historic building in the heart of the city — in this case, overlooking Union Square. You wouldn’t expect the most comfortable beds you’ve ever spent a night on. Since they’re tougher to steal than a bathrobe, the hotel will gladly sell you one of its Heavenly-brand mattresses. You also wouldn’t expect modern twin showerheads in each bathroom (a bit alien at first, but you get used to them quickly). But if you think this landmark hotel has gotten carried away with the updating thing, there’s in-house historian (!) Howard P. Mutz to remind you of its legacy: “The corridors here were designed so wide to allow ladies in hoop skirts to pass each other.” Be nice and he’ll show you the rooms where Fatty Arbuckle fell into disgrace and Al Jolson died during a poker game.
Almost Famous Great Hotel
665 Bush St.
In some places, “boutique hotel” is code for “tiny rooms.” Not at the Orchard. Opened in November 2000, the stylish property has built a rabid following of business and leisure travelers by offering all deluxe rooms (minimum 250 square feet), affordable rates, and a location just off Union Square, on the Powell Street cable-car line, and within walking distance of Chinatown and North Beach. Each room comes with DVD and CD players (free selection of movies; bring your own music) and complimentary Aveda products in the roomy bathrooms. With furnishings made of Balinese nyatoh, a golden wood similar to teak, the arty rooms evoke a mellow Pan-Pacific theme. Downstairs, the V Restaurant and Wine Bar — California cuisine with French influences — is crowded nightly.
Famous Hip Restaurant
252 California St.
Aqua has long been the go-to dinner spot for a variety of seductions: romance a date, impress clients, wow out-of-towners looking for the most superbly prepared seafood on the West Coast. If you’ve never tried caviar, step up to the parfait of Russian Osetra caviar and crisp potato cake, a tower of gourmet inspiration. Another favorite is marinated loin of hamachi with soy and red chili-pepper vinaigrette. Actually, there are so many tantalizing selections on this diverse menu that you’re bound to look over at the next guy’s plate and wish you had room for two entrees. That’s why they invented the five-course tasting menu.
Almost Famous Hip Restaurant
2080 Van Ness Ave.
We’ve seen plenty of restaurants allegedly decked out in an Old Cuba theme. Most of the time, this amounts to a faded poster of Che Guevara on the wall and passable Cuba Libres at the bar. Opened last March, Habana has done Cuba proud, with an interior design that looks like it cost a dictator’s per diem ($250,000, actually). More importantly, the menu satisfies a cosmopolitan palate that, let’s face it, outside of Miami’s Little Havana, generally needs more than rice, black beans, and fried plantains to justify a dinner reservation. “I didn’t want to compete against anybody’s grandmother,” jokes chef-partner Joe Kohn about his nontraditional menu. “I wanted to show what’s possible with this type of food.” The rack of lamb is a house specialty. Grilled salmon in mango-mustard glaze runs a close second. Revolutionary details include 30 wines in the $20 range, Veuve Cliquot champagne for an almost-proletariat $48, and practically Socialist $5 validated parking across the street.
Famous Traditional Cocktail
Martini, Pied Piper Bar
2 New Montgomery St.
Whether invented in San Francisco or nearby Martinez (scholars disagree), nowhere is the martini more elegantly consumed than at the clubby Pied Piper Bar inside the historic Palace Hotel (which less impressively lays claim to being the birthplace of Green Goddess dressing). The Pied Piper draws its name from the massive wall mural done in 1908 by Maxfield Parrish, the early-20th-century painter of utopian fantasies. Who better to set the mood for the martini hour? The capper: The bar stocks Tanqueray No. Ten, the best martini gin yet invented.
Almost Famous Cocktail
2030 Union St.
San Francisco’s got a problem with hard booze. It costs a pile for a restaurant to get a license (on average, about $23,000 versus $700 for beer and wine). To get around the issue, a number of San Francisco bars have given birth to an interesting trend: sake cocktails, in which rice wine is used as a replacement for traditional clear alcohols. The result is a slew of inventive, lower-alcohol mixed drinks, which are easier on the organs and seemingly endless in their variations — saketinis, sakeritas, sake coladas, and sake cosmos being a few favorites. The results range from surprisingly smooth to who-wrung-out-the-dishcloth-in-this-martini-glass? Like Internet dating, you never quite know what you’re getting into, but the experience is unforgettable. In a neighborhood trendy among dot-commers, Betelnut (which has a full bar and an excellent Asian menu) is always lively and is the best place for an introduction to sake cocktails. If you really get hooked, here are a couple of other spots where you can get your sake cocktail fix: Sushi Groove South (1516 Folsom St.; 415-503-1950) mixes sake drinks in a fruity, colorful style, and the ultrapopular Blowfish Sushi to Die For (2170 Bryant St.; 415-285-3848) possibly invented the drinks about five years ago.
Famous Ethnic Neighborhood
main gate at intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue
In San Francisco, like Europe, there are so many distinctive cultures jammed together, you feel like you’re actually visiting five or six different places at once. No neighborhood is as storied or picturesque as Chinatown. Get past the sidewalk trinket shops and you’ll find that for quality art, sturdy kitchenware, and other household items, it’s a place for bargains. Old Shanghai (645 Grant St.; 415-986-1222) and Asian Renaissance (662 Grant St.; 415-397-1897) specialize in home décor and art. The Wok Shop (718 Grant St.; 415-989-3797) is good for cookery. Ten Ren’s Tea (949 Grant Ave.; 415-362-0656) has better-than-a-key-chain souvenirs. Mostly, though, Chinatown is a place to wander amid the din and atmosphere of one of the country’s most historic and, as a hub of West Coast immigration from across the Pacific, important areas.
Almost Famous Ethnic Neighborhood
The Mission District
epicenter at intersection of Mission and 24th streets
The predominately Latino Mission District has boomed into a haven for trendy restaurants covering many genres. “There haven’t been a lot of huge restaurant openings in the city over the last year or two,” says San Francisco food critic Rob Farmer. “But business at neighborhood cafes has picked up, especially in the Mission.” Farmer likes the Italian-California cuisine at The Last Supper Club (1199 Valencia St.; 415-695-1199), recently opened by the owners of area legend Luna Park (694 Valencia St.; 415-553-8584). But as a counterbalance for all the chefs in town who create dishes with a French whisk in one hand and a thesaurus in the other, there are Mission taquerias that serve the best Mexican food this side of Tijuana. If you haven’t had a chorizo taco, you won’t be disappointed at any of the neighborhood’s cheap, order-at-the-counter places. La Taqueria (2889 Mission St.; 415-285-7117) is among many packed at lunchtime. The district is also a showcase for Hispanic art. In the 1970s, a community mural movement was born around such groups as Mujeres Muralistas. There are nearly 600 murals in San Francisco, with the richest concentration now found in the Mission District.
Famous Literary Hangout
City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave.
Jack Kerouac could be philosophical (“All things are like visions beyond the reach of the human mind”) or practical (“Houses are full of things that gather dust”), but to the Beat Generation of the 1950s, he was simply the epicenter. That’s why next to City Lights bookstore there’s Jack Kerouac Street, with a likeness of the On the Road writer painted onto the side of the building. Founded in 1953, City Lights was a national stronghold of anti-establishment thought and art during the glory days of Beat. Teeming with literature for the hard-to-please subversive on your list, and with the distant echo of bongos all-but-audible in its poetry room, the three-story shop remains one of the country’s most stimulating independ-ent bookstores.
Almost Famous Literary Hangout
Café Niebaum-Coppola, 916 Kearny St.
Francis Ford Coppola is known as the director of great films and the producer of excellent wines. Souvenirs from the former and bottles of the latter can be purchased at Café Niebaum-Coppola, “a dynamic combination wine bar, cafe, and retail store” that’s a lot hipper than the usual Hollywood spin-off. In the green, flatiron-style Sentinal Building — just down the street from City Lights — the Coppola operation is also home to Zoetrope: All-Story, the well-regarded literary publication Coppola co-founded in 1997 to “explore the intersection of story and art, fiction, and film.” Copies are available at the bar for espresso and wine drinkers. Even better are the acclaimed and highly attended readings and one-act plays regularly staged in the small cafe. A schedule of events can be found at www.cafecoppola.com.
just plain famous
there are, of course, too many to mention here, but san francisco wouldn't be the same without these.
tourists snap photos of the bridge and city at the vista point turnoff on the north end of the golden gate bridge. pros go the extra quarter-mile (past the north end of the bridge) to the alexander avenue exit off 101. from here, follow signs uphill to “golden gate vista points” at golden gate national recreation area for even more staggering views. at alamo square (intersection of fulton and steiner streets) you can get the famous shot of victorian houses with the city skyline towering in the background.
bounded roughly by the transamerica pyramid, chinatown, and telegraph hill
this old italian neighborhood offers a square mile of street cafes, romantic restaurants, and crowded bars. cafe viva (318 columbus ave.; 415-392-5700) is one of many choices for an intimate italian meal. moose’s (1652 stockton st.; 415-989-7800) is among the city’s most popular for modern american.
bounded by post, stockton, geary, and powell streets
after an 18-month overhaul, the landmark park in the heart of the city was reopened in the summer of 2002. transformed from a grassy hill (named after pro-union civil war demonstrations that took place here), it’s now a huge granite plaza with a terraced stage, cafe, and signature palms spread throughout.
muir woods national monument
reached by u.s. 101 north, then california highway 1, 12 miles north of the golden gate bridge; (415) 388-2595
one of the biggest surprises in this sprawling city is how close it is to tracts of untouched nature. how untouched? at muir woods, some of the giant redwoods are at least 1,000 years old. one is 14 feet wide. a level, one-mile loop trail takes you through the largest (bohemian grove) and oldest (cathedral grove) of these spectacular creatures. open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; $3 admission for those over 17.