Anyone who’s been to this Northern California city can tell you it’s unique. In fact, that description might be a bit of an understatement. San Francisco is eclectic, quirky, and well, just plain weird. From the notoriously hilly streets, to the iconic red bridge that crowns its harbor, there really is nowhere else quite like it. With so many sights and sounds competing for attention, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. For first-time and long-time visitors alike, here are my favorite things to do in the city by the bay.
Like New York City, San Francisco’s Chinatown occupies a very distinct area. The most memorable way to begin your journey into this neighborhood is through the Dragon Gate off Grant Avenue. Donated in 1970 by the People’s Republic of China, it’s inscribed with a quote by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, a famous Chinese revolutionary. Don’t forget to snap a photo by one of the stone lions that flank either side of the gate. For a sweet taste of city history, stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been manufacturing the famous cookies by hand since 1962. Another site not to miss is Old St. Mary’s Church, California’s oldest cathedral. While the original 1854 building no longer exists, the current structure has stood proudly for over a century, even surviving the devastating 1906 earthquake.
Visit Lefty’s on Pier 39
Head down to San Francisco’s Pier 39, and you’ll be sure to find Lefty’s. Staying true to the city’s eccentric reputation, the store’s catered specifically to the left-handed population since it’s long-awaited reopening in 2008. Products range from can openers with the handles flipped, specialty kitchenware sets, and pens designed to avoid the dreaded ink smear while writing. Completely biased as a left-handed person, it’s always my first stop on the city’s waterfront. Even righty’s can enjoy the novelty of it all. If anything, pick up a gift for the lefty in your life. They’ll definitely appreciate it.
Bike the Golden Gate
One of the best ways to appreciate San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge is via a self-guided bike tour. (I’ve used this company in the past at their Pier 41 location.) After renting the necessary equipement, biking along the city waterfront is a pleasant way to take in the scenery, and stop for lots of pictures. Things only get moderately difficult when climbing a hill near the base of the bridge. I promise no one will judge you for walking your bike the entire way up. Otherwise, the journey is mostly flat or downhill. I recommend starting your ride around 11am so you arrive on the other side of the bridge in Sausalito, a small community famous for its houseboat enclaves, by early afternoon. Venice Gourmet, which offers a wide selection of ready-made sandwiches, is a great place to grab lunch. The “California Club,” which comes with avocado, of course, is excellent. Save your energy and take the ferry back across the bay. It offers excellent views of Alcatraz Island.
Sample Fresh Oysters at the Ferry Building
The first time I ever ate a fresh oyster was in 2011 at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Always an adventurous eater with the motto to try everything at least once, why it took me so long to have this experience, I have no idea. To describe it all in one word: Magical. For others looking to push their culinary boundaries, check out Hog Island Oyster Company’s oyster bar at the north end of the building. Described as the city’s “most famous landmark” by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, the Ferry Building opened in 1898 as a transportation hub. Today, it houses an “artisan food community” of shops and restaurants. If oysters sit a little outside your comfort zone, the marketplace offers everything from specialty coffee to handmade empanadas.
Visit the Cable Car Museum
Cable cars are synonymous with San Francisco. For those curious to learn more about their history, head over to the Cable Car Museum in the Nob Hill district. The museum is open every day, and completely free. Situated just off the Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason cable car stops, it’s the perfect conclusion to a wild ride along the city’s hilly terrain. (I recommend standing on the car’s running board during the ride for the biggest thrill, if you’re brave enough that is.) On the top floor of the museum you’ll find exhibits on cable car history, including the 1906 earthquake’s effect on business and infrastructure. Below, you can witness live cables pulling all cable cars through the city streets!