San Francisco is known for its iconic bridge, steep streets, and for being the backdrop to the family sitcom Full House. But this Northern California city (who we have to thank for blue jeans and fortune cookies) is so much more.
The home of Silicon Valley is America’s birthplace of liberal thinking, diversity, and inclusion, it’s decked with street art, some of the world's most beautiful hotels, and is bursting with Michelin-starred restaurants (28 to be exact), plus it has not just one, but two Chinatowns.
Here’s your ultimate guide to the Golden City - where to eat, sleep, and play, and some hidden gems straight from the locals…
Our comprehensive guide to San Francisco
When to visit San Francisco
The saying goes that San Francisco locals can spot a tourist a mile off - thanks to them being woefully unprepared for the weather. And they’re not wrong! Despite being in California the fog is such a part of San Francisco that residents even refer to it by name, and most mornings start by checking what Karl is planning to get up to. Some days he can cover the entirety of the Golden Gate Bridge!
The Bay Area is also known for its microclimates - varying temperatures that exist within just a few miles of each other. It's one of the best places to visit in September if you are hoping for some sun!
What to do and see in San Francisco
At the top of your list should be a visit to Alcatraz. Yes, it’s a tourist hotspot, but it’s for good reason and there’s no way you can visit without taking the boat out to the former prison and learning about its famous captives (Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly - no, not the singer). Walk through the cells on the indigenous land and listen to some of its shocking history. Make sure to book early as tickets get snapped up months in advance.
For a cute photo op, take a walk along the port towards the sea lions at Pier 39 and spot the Bay Bridge (my personal favourite) before stopping for a glass of ice-cold rose.
For yet more Instagrammable moments, head to Lombard Street - claimed to be the ‘most crooked street in the world’ - and walk right to the top to nab your zig-zagging photo. The best places to capture the landmark are at the intersections on Hyde Street, Coit Tower, Grant Street, and Leavenworth Street. The city is hilly so if you need a break from the steep climb, Ubers are cheap but don’t miss out on travelling on the city’s infamous cable cars, and hold on tight!
Movie buffs won’t want to miss out on Mrs Doubtfire’s house on Steiner Street, while the Painted Ladies - also known as the Seven Sisters - are one of the city’s most photographed landmarks. The pastel-coloured houses (which are all still lived in) have featured in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Woman in Red, and the sitcom Full House. They’re right across the road from Alamo Square Park, so for a cheap day out, take a picnic and enjoy the views. For more scenic hotspots take a walk through Golden Gate Park - it’s even bigger than its New York counterpart Central Park!
A San Francisco CityPASS® ($84 adult/$64 child) will save you almost 50% on four top attractions - giving you access to the California Academy of Sciences and a trip on the Blue & Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise, plus admission to two more of your choice - including the Aquarium of the Bay, Exploratorium, San Francisco Museum of Modern art, the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens and the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Fancy trying two wheels to get around? Unlimited Biking has you covered. Book in for a tour across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito - the place where Otis Redding wrote Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. Manager Taiwan made sure we were prepped and ready before we set off with our brilliant guide Jodi. We opted for electric bikes (like we said, it’s hilly!), but be warned - you need to be confident to ride on roads. When you get to Sausalito, marvel at the jaw-dropping multi-million dollar homes along the water and grab a sandwich at the Sausalito Gourmet Delicatessen to enjoy on a leisurely boat ride back to the city. Keep an eye out for dolphins!
For some more culture, see a band at the Shoreline Amphitheatre. The late great Tina Turner is just one of many legends to have graced the stage, along with the likes of the Spice Girls and the Jonas Brothers. Visit the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood for hippie history (think vintage shops and music stores) and learn about the 1967 Summer of Love. And no visit to the city is complete without stopping by the Castro District - which is considered San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ neighbourhood. It was home to Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man voted into public office. Learn all about the city’s history at the GLBT Historical Society Museum (admission $10).
Where to eat and drink
Fisherman’s Wharf is a must for visitors. The busy port is where you’ll find some of the best clam chowder - served in a sourdough bread bowl - both of which are synonymous with the city. We got ours at Fog Harbour Fish House for a steal at just $10. The restaurant has great views over the bay and serves a mean cocktail too.
Nearby eats include Californian staple In & Out Burger (don’t leave without trying the Animal Fries and nabbing a memento paper hat!) and just a little further along the port, you’ll find the Ferry Building, whose marketplace is home to pop-ups, restaurants and shops. Food-wise, you’re spoilt for choice. We loved the fish tacos at Cholita Linda (we went back for seconds), and the Pali Cali chicken flatbread at Reem’s. In the outside Farmer’s Market, Frog Hollow’s Farm is a standout - their peaches really are legendary - or try something meaty at Mark ‘n’ Mike’s. To sample as much as possible, take a food tour with Edible Excursions ($90 per person), and make sure to stop by Ghirardelli Square to tickle your sweet tooth.
If you fancy a splurge, book dinner at renowned celebrity chef Tyler Florence’s glamorous steakhouse Miller & Lux. A steak will set you back at least $78 but you won’t regret it. Make sure to order the mash (or rather the Yukon gold potato puree), and the Caesar salad (made tableside)!
Barwise you can’t go wrong with a pre or post-dinner cocktail at Wildhawk in the Mission District, while in Pacific Heights (Pac Heights to the locals) we fell in love with Harry’s Bar - sports play on every screen but if that’s not your thing it doesn’t matter, the music is great, the staff are friendly and it stays open until 2am. If you’re hungry, try the crispy chicken bites, but remember portions are big! Across the road, Palmer’s Tavern hits the right notes too.
In the Marina district, stop by Delarosa for pizza and wine. Sit at the bar and catch up with Travis as he whips you up a Salty Dog cocktail.
Where to sleep
Walking into The Fairmont will take your breath away, and that’s no exaggeration. This hotel at the top of Nob Hill is pure luxe and offers incredible views - it’s also where Tony Bennett first sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco in 1961 - spot the huge statue of him outside! Doubles start at £265.
Across the road at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins doubles start at £156. Not only are there incredible views of the city’s skyline, but on the 19th floor of this vast building is The Top of the Mark - a bar and restaurant that was also the birthplace of ‘The Squadron Bottle’ - a touching military tradition dating back to World War II that sees visiting service members to leave a bottle with the bartender so the next member of their squadron can have a dram.
Downtown in Union Square, it’s not just the Japanese-inspired deco that will win you over at Hotel Nikko but the staff too - nothing is too much of an ask, even honey and lemon at 2am when room service is closed but you’ve got a sore throat. Have fun playing with the heated toilet - and there’s a pool! Doubles start at £160.
Don't miss a night in Napa Valley...
Just an hour’s drive from the city sits Napa Valley. To say this is the jewel in Northern California’s crown would be an understatement. There’s a different pace here to the city, and with its small-town feel it ticks every box. Wine, of course (in fact, there are more than 400 wineries). Blazing sun, yes. Friendly locals, definitely. Great nightlife - our sore heads can attest to that. And the food - wow.
We wasted no time getting down to business and headed straight to Hall in St. Helena. Walking into the vineyard is like something out of a movie (in fact, Napa was the setting for the 1998 film The Parent Trap starring Lindsay Lohan). At the private Platinum Tasting Experience ($250 per person) our host Nick taught us how to sniff and sloosh the wine and didn’t mind the amateurs among us (me!) using all the wrong phrases to describe the taste. We enjoyed (and I mean really enjoyed!) the seven wines (some of which would cost over $300 a bottle) along with the food pairings which included duck rillette, leek tart, and beef tartare. We happily accepted yet more top-ups before spending time wandering around the 33-acre property, admiring the beautiful buildings and the sculptures dotted about while the sun beamed down.
It’s not unheard of to do a couple of tastings in a day, so later we headed into town and stopped off at Gamling & McDuck - voted the ‘best hidden gem winery’ by their peers. The bar in the centre of town is popular with locals and it has a fun, laid-back feel to it the minute you step inside. The tasting of five of their current releases costs $35 per person and the staff are on hand to answer any questions you could possibly have from fermentation to where they get the inspiration for some of the wine names.
It’s not just about lubrication though. I’m still thinking about my meal at Mother’s Tacos. Their tacos de pescado, mushroom mulita and al pastor dirty fries were drool-worthy, and the grilled elote? Well, I didn’t know corn could taste so good. For dinner, visit Scala Osteria, the seafood-focussed Italian restaurant was a hit - as were the fried olives and the shrimp spaghetti. Our waiter Ben was full of recommendations for where else to go in Napa and ask for Deon advice on what to drink - this man knows his wine!
For a bucket list moment, book a hot air balloon ride over the valley. It means an early start (we were picked up from our hotel at 5am) in order to get the best weather possible, but over 2,000ft in the air, the tiredness melts away with the unbeatable views. To book the three-hour adventure which includes pre-flight coffee and pastries, visit Balloons Above The Valley (from $269 per person).
Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa has everything you could want - there’s yoga each morning, one-hour eBike rental, wine hour from 5pm-6pm, smores from 6.30pm-7pm, and a state-of-the-art fitness centre along with 11 treatment rooms. Round your stay off with a lounge around the pool. Doubles start from £292 (plus the Destination Amenity fee).
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Kira has been the Editor of Woman's Own magazine since September 2020 and is a woman&home's Assistant Editor. A two-time BSME Rising Star nominee, Kira began her career in local news before going freelance and has written for Grazia, Glamour, Essentials, The Sun, and The Daily Express.
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