The hills of San Francisco are legendary and those who climb their peaks are rewarded with amazing vistas. That said, you can safely navigate most of downtown SF on foot without needing to bring any climbing gear, save a light jacket to keep off an evening chill. These sights and secrets should mostly be within an easy walk or a short ride.
Fans of noir fiction and the famous mystery novels starring detective Sam Spade, will love the Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, which is the longest running literary tour in the nation. It’s led by Don Herron, author of The Literary World of San Francisco and editor of selected letters of Philip K. Dick – a guy who clearly knows his stuff and has been praised not just for dressing in a snap-brim hat and trench coat, but for leading a tour that, according to The Wall Street Journal, “moved like a drunken cat through the streets and back alleys of the Tenderloin. It passed Southeast Asian diners, tawdry hotels, bars without windows, and places where a twenty will buy you more than the weekend’s groceries.” If you find yourself in town early, the tour will be offered on Sunday, May 11, starting at noon, leaving from NW corner outside the San Francisco Main Library (Fulton & Larkin).
Neighborhood to Know: Chinatown
If you’d rather amble around under your own recognizance, consider a self-guided walking tour through San Francisco’s Chinatown. Start just north of Union Square at the Dragon Gate (Grant & Bush) and then venture down the bustling, shop-lined streets of the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. You’ll find everything from dim sum palaces to herbal apothecaries, scores of churches and temples, as well as a non-stop visual smorgasbord of architecture and antiquities.
If you still have some steam left once you’ve lost yourself in Chinatown, you can continue on to North Beach and another of San Francisco’s most treasured stomping grounds.
There’s no dearth of great hotel bars in downtown San Francisco: There are classics that actually tower over the rest, including Top of the Mark and the Starlight Room (not to mention the aptly named View Lounge at the Marriott Marquis), but here are are few that stand out no matter what floor you find them on.
Beautifully designed and decked out in wood panels and Art Deco details, The Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel (495 Geary) exudes class and a chic sense of humor. The real action is at the back of the lobby where the paintings slide and shift and a DJ keeps the night crowd lively with subdued house music. The bar itself, with its towering mirrored display, is breathtaking.
The Clift’s Redwood Room
Parallel 37 at The Ritz-Carlton (Stockton at California) might best be described as Mad Men set in the woods, with tables and counters fashioned from gorgeous slabs of trees surrounded by low-slung Danish modern furniture. For a more cosmopolitan setting, enjoy the handcrafted cocktails in The Lounge with the skyline for company.
The Clock Bar at the Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St., off Union Square) offers a lovely and easily accessible respite from the crowds in the Square -— as well as a great stiff drink. On your way to this cozy, comfortable spot, make sure to peek at the impressive Viennese grandfather clock that has served as a local meeting spot for over a century.
For those with a sense of humor and a yearning for balmier climes, the Tonga Room at the Fairmount Hotel (950 Mason) offers the full tiki bar experience -— really, who can resist drinks served in coconut shells with umbrellas?
Craft beer is hot right now, and we know where you can find some of the craftiest folks in the world offering to quench your thirst.
Mikkeller Bar SF (34 Mason) opened just under a year ago, but it’s already found a dedicated following. Its 42 taps are flowing with a selection of rare, delectable beers from notable local breweries and around the world.
SF’s Cable Cars
Ding ding! What a cliché! Ding ding! And priced to gouge out-of-towners ($6 for a one-way ride, except early in the morning and late at night). But you know, San Francisco’s hand-crafted, steel-wood-and-glass transit antiques really are unique. There’s nothing quite like hanging on to the side (or hanging out on the rear platform) as that little car crawls up or clatters down San Francisco’s steep, steep streets. From the Powell Street turntable (Powell at Market St.), you can ride from one pole of the city’s retail wonderland–the greater Union Square/San Francisco Centre/Bloomingdale’s sector—to the other—Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (via the Powell-Mason line) and Ghirardelli Square (via the Powell-Hyde line). If you want to delve into cable car lore, then you need to alight at Muni’s Cable Car Museum, at Washington and Mason streets (both Powell Street routes pass the museum.)
Here are a couple of tips: Take the short California Street line (starts at Market Street outside the Hyatt Regency, goes west up over Nob Hill, turns around at Van Ness Avenue). Or ride after 9 p.m., when the fare falls to $3 and the crowds thin out. The cars run until nearly 1 a.m. every night of the week.
Museums for Everyone
The Bay Area offers myriad great museums and galleries, and you’ll find them in almost every part of town.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is currently closed due to construction, although you can find events and exhibits from that institution scattered around the city as part of their SFMOMA On the Go initiative.
Another great downtown museum to explore is the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St.), just steps away from the Marquis — the most current exhibition looks at Jewish contributions to Mid-Century Modern design. Browse the rotating exhibits, the permanent collection, and make sure to grab a smoked pastrami sandwich at the museum’s deli.
The world renown Exploratorium recently moved to a new, state-of-the-art building on Pier 15 (on the Embarcadero) and is definitely worth a visit for all ages.
More art to check out downtown:
The Cartoon Art Museum (655 Mission), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission), and just a bit farther afield — the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin, across from City Hall).
Next Stop: Foodie Heaven
Head on down to the edge of the Bay to find another kind of gallery, this one dedicated to sweet and savory treasures from the city’s finest culinary curators. The historic Ferry Building (Market & Embarcadero) hosts Farmer’s Markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but their permanent marketplace boasts a delicious array of artisanal foodstuffs — from hand-roasted coffee to heirloom beans, local cheese to luscious pastries. Easily accessible via BART, Muni, or on foot, the Ferry Building is a stop no self-respecting foodie would want to miss.
If you happen to be at the Ferry Building close to sundown, stick around and you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of the Bay Lights, a stunning installation of LEDs on the Western span of the Bay Bridge. The thousands of tiny white lights are computer-controlled and cycle through a hypnotic dance of ever-changing designs. Grab a bite at one of the waterside restaurants in the area and enjoy the show.
Also in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, boasting its own array of tasty bites and dazzling lights, AT&T Park (King St., between 2nd & 3rd) is home to the two-time World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. If you are in the mood to take in some National League action with a heaping helping of garlic fries, you are in luck, as the Giants are in town all week, taking on the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins. Check the website for the game schedule and information on ticket. Home games are always sold out, but good seats are usually available through the team’s own ticket resale system. You’re transportation options from Ferry Building include Muni, pedi-cab, or a leisurely stroll along the Embarcadero.
Locations within a single mile of the Marriott Marquis.
Venture further afield within the city limits.
A quick overview of some great vistas.
Union Square Checklist from Check, Please! Bay Area
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