First things first, the city is called San Francisco, SF, or the City by the Bay. Don’t call it San Fran. Don’t call it Frisco. The equivalent would be calling Washington, D.C. “Disco.” Cool? Great.
Now, here are my favorite things to do while visiting the City by the Bay:
Muir Woods - Journeying into the Redwoods is a west coast rite of passage. Muir woods cannot be missed, but you’ll need to drive to get there. I suggest taking advantage of a car sharing app like Getaround and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge in style. Arrive early and hike inwards. The beginning of the national park is filled with kids and grannies, but if you walk a half hour in, you'll find yourself alone amongst gargantuan sized trees. If you can help it, go on a weekday to avoid the crowd.
Baker Beach - San Francisco really isn't known for its beaches, but if you come during the SF summer (late August - early October) theres a decent chance that you'll be able to lay out on the Pacific coast sand. I encourage you to really enjoy the sand, because I wouldn't recommend getting in the water.
Land's End/Sutro Baths - If you don't have much time in the city, and you want something quick and easy, look no further than Land's End. The path runs right along the cliff and features impressive views and foliage with a muted prehistoric feel. If you see an opening, veer off the path and climb down to the beach to catch an alternate view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sunset at Ocean Beach - Have you ever seen the sun abandon the continental United States? Few places rival Ocean Beach. The beach itself is wide, so it's easy to be left alone, and if you go on a Friday or Saturday night, the warm smell of bonfires near Beach Chalet will ignite your senses. Be sure to bring something to drink. If not, there's a supermarket a block away to wet your palate.
Beach Chalet - A fun family friendly afternoon treat. If the weather is clear (not likely), head over to this landmark right on the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1). Most people think that Beach Chalet is only a restaurant, but theres a beautiful little backyard where families bring umbrellas and blankets while enjoying the food and beverage service. Beach Chalet also brews their own beer.
Upper Haight - The once capital of the beat generation’s pilgrimage west is now occupied by neohippies and excellent thrift stores. There are palm readers, shops selling crystals, people selling drugs, and Amoeba, the famous record store by the corner of Stanyan and Haight. Just go up here, and wander around. Be a little bit more open than you usually would and I’m sure the city will take care of you.
California Academy of Sciences - A science museum for San Francisco’s hip young transplants. The building is beautiful, and the botanical roof offers a wild setting and impressive hint at the construction's complexity. If you’re in the city on a Thursday evening, go during “Nightlife,” for a trendy date night with food and alcohol and science. Science.
The Castro Theatre - This beautiful Spanish baroque building sits at number 100 on the list of San Francisco's Designated Landmarks. Smack dab in the middle of arguably the gayest place on earth, the theatre often plays critically acclaimed 20th century films and sells popcorn sprinkled with delicious yeast.
Art Attack SF - If you’re traveling with someone who has never been to San Francisco, they will undoubtably drag you onto the Powell-Mason cable car to Pier 39. I get it; you have to do it, but after your tour of Ghirardelli Square, and purchase average tasting chocolates that you can literally buy anywhere else in the country, check out Art Attack SF. This modern art gallery/cafe/studio is closed on Mondays, but is by far the most San Francisco thing about Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39. There’s also a patio in the back with a few chairs if you feel like relaxing while your friend tries In-N-Out for the first time. Oh, you want In-N-Out too? It’s only a block away.
Events & Activities
Archimedes Banya - This little bathhouse in Bayview (aka Hunter’s Point) is slightly out of the way, but definitely worth the trip for an afternoon at the spa. It’s open from noon until midnight, seven days a week, and there always seems to be a bit of sexual energy wafting around the place. Go at night for a unique view of downtown SF and the Bay Bridge. I strongly recommended this place to the casual exhibitionist, pretend Russian mobster, and seeker of cheap luxury. Three hours at Archimedes Banya will run you $42.
Showdown @ Folsom Street Foundry (Every Tuesday 6-12) - This Tuesday game night is made up of console and computer games and the occasional craft beer. It’s nerdy as hell and everyone there is friendly and inviting.
Tourettes without Regrets (Oakland) - First Thursday of the month - It’s not technically in San Francisco, but this event takes the cake as the best event in the Bay Area. It’s hosted by Oakland comedian Jamie DeWolf, and anything and everything can and will happen. I’m talking chainsaw juggling, Jesus burlesque shows, rap battles, you name it. Seriously, this is not for the faint of heart because I’ve literally seen them throw pig hearts across the room. You’ve been warned.
Standup at the Shelton Theater -This spot has multiple shows a night and is close to Powell and Union Square. There’s a bar upstairs and
Boom Boom Room - Funk, soul, jazz, and the signature San Francisco dive bar lighting. This bar on Fillmore is easy to get to and always a lot of fun. It’s quiet enough to have a drink and a chat, but live enough to bust a move or two on the dance floor. The majority of the crowd is in their forties or fifties, but everyone is young at heart.
House of Air - Have you ever commanded an army of 12-year-olds in aerial dodgeball? Have you ever flipped across a trampoline park? Have you ever asked your mom for the perfect birthday party, but never got it? Well, this place is all of that and more. There’s coffee, and a foam pit, and if you’re someone who has to exercise while on vacation, this can count as your work out. Be warned, it’s a real pain to get there, but after your mid air assault, take a stroll through Crissy Field and marvel at Fort Point and the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
El Rio - If you’re in the Mission and you got cash in your pocket, this place might just be the perfect bar. Traditionally a LGBT spot, this place is completely open and welcoming to everyone. There's shuffleboard and pool in the front, pingpong in the middle of the best back patio in the city, and a concert venue in a side room. The crowd is older before sunset and full of real San Franciscans, but turns into a young hangout in the evenings. And did I mention that a Tecate with a little lime only runs you $1 on Mondays? Drinks are on me.
Make-out Room (Mission) - I've never made-out with anyone in this place, but I feel like everyone else I know has. This dancey dive bar is hipster heaven. Girls with died black hair and septum rings, boys with grossly groomed beards, and a live band or DJ spinning vinyl. The only downside is that there is usually a cover, few places to sit. This is a spot to groove and be grooved on. Ya dig?
Bissap Baobab - Senegalese food and dancing. I actually went on a terrible date here one time with a woman who was way too old for me and only talked about her salsa classes. She didn't drink the delicious cocktails, she seemed to ignore the afro beats that vibrated through the packed dance floor, and she laughed at all my jokes. Something had to be wrong. Check out Baobab on a Saturday when the place fills up and the music is bumping.
Bottom of the Hill - Located in Potrero Hill, you will not casually stumble into this bar. It’s a great midweek bar for local up and coming acts. The music is always eclectic and the space is comfortably spread out so you can shake it like you own the place (or stare awkwardly at those who are shaking it like they own the place).
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar - It’s a tiki bar in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel with fairly expensive drinks and an artificial lagoon with a real boat floating in the middle of it. It makes no sense at all. Grab a Mai-Thai and male kalikimaka or whatever.
Ok, I get it. You really read this because you're a big foodie and keep hearing that San Francisco is the spot for great food. You're right, but unlike many other cities, you're gonna have to pay. Full disclosure, I’m not a foodie, but please enjoy the following cheap eats from around the Mission in no particular order:
Zante's Indian Pizza - I was walking home from the super market with a frozen pizza when I was nearly run over by four women in a white Subaru. They apologized and then asked me to join them for Indian pizza. I was confused too, but I had to know what this place was all about. It's a decent walk south of 24th Street BART station, but this place is worth the trek. The dough is like naan, the chicken is tandoori, and I'm pretty sure there's no tomato sauce, but it's definitely pizza. Every other Friday I would buy an extra large Indian pizza and pick at it over the weekend. Oh! And make sure you're a little cheeky with the skinny guy with glasses. He likes to play silly games to get you to drink, and he beat me. What to order: "One Haywards 5000 Super Strong Beer and an extra large Indian Pizza!"
Yamo (Mission) - I'll miss Yamo almost as much as I'll miss Sutro Tower. This eight person restaurant is squeezed on the corner of 18th and Mission and is tirelessly operated by three Burmese women. Don't forget, Yamo is their restaurant, so it's their rules. If you get to Yamo, but your party isn't complete, too bad! There's no wait list. Ideally, eat here alone or if you have to, with one friend.. If you come with any more, you will never be seated. The women might seem a little cold, but they're really just having a bit of fun at your expense. If you feel like you need to storm out, good! Someone else will happily take your place at one of the very few seats. What to order: No one seems to order anything other than the house noodle. You can get it with a variety of meats, but I prefer it with chicken.
Ken Ken Ramen - Just across the street from Yamo, is a decent ramen shop. The seaweed salad is delicious, and the noodles are a bit too salty, but it has the best bathroom in San Francisco. I'm not kidding. If you're in the Mission, go to Ken Ken to see the bathroom. I'm not shitting you.