San Francisco Travel Guide

San Francisco Travel Guide

From moody mornings that morph into brilliant days and from the depths of Alcatraz’s mysteries to the flamboyant ‘Painted Ladies’ punctuating her streets; San Francisco is an enigmatic, progressive gem and a traveller’s dream in Northern California. This is a city that has evolved from being the heart and soul of the gold rush to the heart and home of the summer of love. She has witnessed some of America’s most influential moments from the dot-com revolution at the turn of the last century to today’s tech boom. She was the first city in the US to legalise gay marriage and was home to the country’s first openly gay elected official. This grand dame hosts more fetish events and ‘specialty’ bars than we could count, and even was the birthplace of the rainbow flag. Today, San Francisco has permanently granted each of us the right to be as outlandish and stunning as you’d like. And while the queer community is welcomed across the entire city, the epicentre of gay life here is undoubtedly the Castro; one of the US’s first gay neighbourhoods, and a landmark supporting LGBTQ activism and events the world over.

The best hotels in San Francisco

San Francisco is a city wears elegance as casually as a favourite cashmere cardigan.  And in this place that pays homage to living well, we give you the Proper Hotel in San Francisco’s ‘Mid-Market’ region.  A glorious flatiron, the hotel is a delicious mix Modernist, Cubist and Secessionist era design where old world glamour meets modern luxury.  And while it’s true that F. Scott Fitzgerald centred his epic tale in West Egg, there’s no place like The St. Regis for finding your inner Gatsby.  The epitome of elegance, The St. Regis San Francisco is one of the city’s most iconic hotels. Paying homage to the very concept of luxury, each room at the St. Regis is a feast for the senses. For the utmost in indulgence, a stay in one of the extravagantly appointed suites that come replete with the brand’s signature Butler service. And as if the subtle details, tailored gestures, and genuine warmth’ promised by the hotel weren’t enough, guests of the St. Regis can also make use of the posh Remède Spa where blissful treatments are delivered along with flutes of chilled champagne and a selection of hand-dipped truffles – all proffered in an opulent space with killer city views.

For a change of pace from the typical hotel, the Parker Guest House is a wonderfully unique 21 room bed and breakfast tucked within the vibrant Castro neighbourhood, near the Mission and Noe Valley and just steps away from the area’s endless restaurants, pubs, parks, and Muni Metro. An LGBT-popular choice, this distinctive hideaway offers all newly renovated accommodations (most with private baths), extended continental breakfast, complimentary wine social hour and free WIFI. Indulge your cravings for cosy in the guest house’s communal front parlor that boasts both a library and fireplace, stretch out with the Sunday paper in the sunroom, or explore the extensive outdoor decks and gardens.  Collectively it’s a picture-perfect place to enjoy with old friends – or to make some new ones.

If your idea of relishing San Francisco includes gazing at the Golden Gate while having breakfast in bed, look no further than Cavallo Point. The Sausalito sister to Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, you can expect divinely prepared, market fresh meals, a plethora of outdoorsy adventures, and the same brand of self-indulgent healing that has made Post so popular.  Sir, yes sir – this old military base has us standing at attention.

Another choice we consider delightfully edgy and thoroughly modern is San Francisco’s Hotel Zetta.  A downtown haven that puts guests at the epicentre of everything fabulous, the hotel is located in the hip SoMa District where it gives a nod to techie indulgence with amenities including an in-room butcher block desks, internet ready 46” smart flat screen televisions and G-LINK™ docking stations. When combined with complimentary toiletries by Neil George, Illy espresso machines, sumptuous down duvets and imported linens; the Hotel Zetta checks all the boxes savvy travellers need for a sweet stay.

San Francisco Proper Hotel | Photo: Manolo Yllera

San Francisco Proper Hotel | Photo: Manolo Yllera

San Francisco Proper Hotel | Photo: Manolo Yllera

San Francisco Proper Hotel | Photo: Manolo Yllera

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Recommended hotels in San Francisco
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Photo: Will Truettner

Photo: Will Truettner

Once a blue-collar neighbourhood dotted with industry, the reinvented area of Dogpatch is worthy of high praise

Things to do in San Francisco

While it may be on the ‘To Do’ list of every San Francisco tourist, a trip to The Rock might uncover a few surprises even seasoned Franciscophiles have yet to experience. A tour of the Gardens of Alcatraz takes guests through the restored grounds while also telling a fascinating about life on The Rock – not for the inmates, but for the prison staff and their families who called the ominous island home. It is not for nothing that this is one of the most famous San Francisco points of interest.

Fans of Armistead Maupin will appreciate Tours of the Tales, an inspired way to bring Maupin’s books and films to life through a collection of curated San Francisco tours. Available in PDF format, the tours even come with Google Map hyperlinks to ensure you spend more time enjoying the destinations and less time navigating them.

Once a blue-collar neighbourhood dotted with industry, the reinvented area of Dogpatch is worthy of high praise. Try a beignet from Just For You – it’s been rumoured that just one bite can make a grown man cry. Then, wipe your tears and get ready to channel your inner Bear Grylls with a trip to the decidedly rugged Triple Aught Design where chic camping couture and accoutrement for the outdoorsman abounds.

Photo: Simon Zhu

Photo: Simon Zhu

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Recommended experiences in San Francisco
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Visitors to the LGTB Centre can find free services like career counselling, job fairs, computer labs, social activities, mentorships, youth meals, daycare, various workshops and much more

What to see in San Francisco

It’s not just the bright purple building that houses the LGBT Center that catches your attention, this nonprofit organization serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population of San Francisco is the focal point for the city’s entire LGBT community. The centre is where individuals who need resources, support, or a safe space to gather, can find comfort and celebration. Visitors to the centre can find free services like career counselling, job fairs, computer labs, social activities, mentorships, youth meals, daycare, various workshops and much more while they connect with other LGBT people and organize to secure our equal rights.

The heart of the ’60s hippie revolution, the Haight Ashbury is the go-to place to relive the Summer of Love all year round.  Just as it did back in the day, the Haight-Ashbury draws a lively, diverse crowd looking to soak up the historic hippie vibe. Upper Haight Street is a hodgepodge of vintage clothing boutiques, record shops, bookstores, dive bars and casual, eclectic restaurants while the neighbourhood itself features meticulously well-preserved Victorian homes – including the storied Grateful Dead House. North Beach, the buzzy neighbourhood steeped in Italian heritage, attracts tourists and locals to its trattorias, coffee shops and retro-flavoured bars like ‘falena’ to a flame. Be sure to check out the City Lights bookstore and the memorabilia-filled Vesuvio Cafe. In the Telegraph Hill area, climb the Filbert Steps for a scenic hike to the iconic Coit Tower where WPA-era murals and panoramic views abound.

Palace Of Fine Arts | Photo: Rich Hay

Palace Of Fine Arts | Photo: Rich Hay

In the 1970s local artists took to the streets, coating walls and fences down with works of art. Today, the streets and alleyways that weave themselves through San Francisco’s Mission District continue to salute their efforts through the vibrant murals that function as the area’s outdoor, ever-changing gallery. The Mission District boasts the largest concentration of myriad murals, ranging from social movement depictions and mosaics to artistic renditions, political statement interpretations, and even those with 3D elements. Continue your art foray with a visit to The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where you can feast your eyes on an internationally recognized collection of modern and contemporary art and explore seven floors of extraordinary, world-class exhibitions including Warhol lithographs, Jackson Pollock splatters and other modern masterpieces.

Take a trip to Ocean Beach and build a bonfire, fly a kite, or ride a wind-powered kite buggy through the sand – it’s all up to you.   The most-visited beach in the area with camera ready views of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Cliff House; San Francisco’s largest beach also offers Seal Rock and the Sutro Baths ruins.

Ocean Beach | Photo: Edgar Chaparro

Ocean Beach | Photo: Edgar Chaparro

Embarcadero Center | Photo: Nick Jio

Embarcadero Center | Photo: Nick Jio

Today San Francisco celebrates its historic saloons and speakeasies – and with Wine Country and local distillers providing a steady supply of America’s finest hooch, the West still gets wild nightly

Where to eat in San Francisco

Much more than matcha and cronuts, San Francisco’s food scene celebrates all that is wonderful in northern California with heady wines, savoury sensations and good, old fashioned comfort food abounding. With the most restaurants and farmers markets per capita in North America – all supplied by pioneering local organic farms. San Francisco set the gold standard for Wild West saloons until drinking was driven underground in the 1920s with Prohibition. Today San Francisco celebrates its historic saloons and speakeasies – and with Wine Country and local distillers providing a steady supply of America’s finest hooch, the West still gets wild nightly.

Begin your day with a yeasty breakfast at the Tartine Manufactory a venue lauded as ‘magical’ by the most discerning foodies.  Featuring a ‘Grab & Go’ menu, the urban hot spot offers freshly baked pastry as well as lunch and dinner menus and an ever-changing collection of wines and crafted cocktails.   If breakfast doesn’t leave you well enough caffeinated, wander over to Sightglass.  With four locations plus a bi-weekly presence at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, Sightglass is an upscale coffee roaster that chooses the world’s best beans, roasts them with care and brews them with love.

For lunch, we favour Zuni Café on Market Street.  Imagine French and Italian cuisine colliding together in thunderbolts of flavour and specialities that include mesquite-grilled Maryland striped bass with saffron butter sauce and a to die for sliced Stemple Creek Ranch beef served with grilled Piracicaba broccoli, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and black trumpet mushrooms… now you’re getting it.  In addition to lunch, Zuni is open for Sunday Brunch Sunday as well afternoon bites and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

Photo: Bruna Branco

Photo: Bruna Branco

If you crave a laid back, casual dinner head for the Liholiho Yacht Club. Named for the pop-up parties thrown to raise money for Hobie Cat racers in Hawaii, the Sutter Street icon serves up a menu as eclectic as its customers – a mix of Hawaiian, Indian and Chinese delights that keep guests divinely sated.  Adventurous eaters can tuck into a plate of shaved pig head or, for the somewhat timid; there’s a full menu with favourites including whole, Maine lobster and more traditional eastern flavours.  Feel free to bring your own bottle to Liholiho, too – there’s a corkage fee, but they’re happy to say ‘welina’ to the BYOB set.

Not quite casual but certainly casually elegant is Nopa’s. The frenetic atmosphere is fueled by the simple, yet a heady combination of seasonal food crafted with passion.  The menu changes each week as local ingredients come into season, so guests can count on a culinary surprise regardless if they’re neighbourhood regulars or weekend warriors.  The menu reads like a food lovers romance novel where Early Girl tomatoes say hello to Big Boys and warm goat cheese melts languidly.  The eatery is open for dinner every night with brunch served on Saturday and Sundays.

Photo: Brooke Lark

Photo: Brooke Lark

Photo: Carl Solder

Photo: Carl Solder

Shopping in San Francisco

A local independent streetwear brand, Benny Gold pays homage to cutting-edge style inspired by San Francisco and the youth culture. The brand is stocked in stores around the world, but the Mission district is where you’ll find the flagship boutique. Drop in to explore the shop, and even if you don’t end up purchasing anything you’ll walk away with a few free stickers.

An institution for over 75 years, Cable Car Clothiers with its high ceilings and blazing hot style is a ‘must go’ for the dapper devotees.  The traditional clothier has more than a whisper of a British accent; it’s you’ll find everything from handmade Loake wingtips to iconic Stetsons. And to ensure you look just as good once you take your bowler off, there’s on-site barber shop and even an old school shoe shine service. Finish off your look by heading to one of Taylor Stitch’s two San Francisco locations. The bespoke, ‘no appointment required’ atelier offers custom shirting as well as off the rack options produced in small quantities – all the better to make your one of a kind fashion statement with ease.

Photo: Ayton Diament

Photo: Ayton Diament

In a city where sneakers hold firm footing in the daily dress code, the oft-updated selection found at The Darkside Initiative is heaven sent. Showcasing a jazzy collection of sneakers, streetwear and limited-run accessories, including hard-to-find pieces by Japanese street labels Neighborhood and WTAPS (they are the exclusive distributor of WTAPS in SF), the brand is a direct route to well-dressed.

If you’ve ever wondered where to shop for your bourbon loving Uncle, it’s Cask to the rescue. The perfect place to look for unique or hard-to-find spirits and cocktails supplies; Cask also serves up all the basics needed to keep your home bar stocked. Also for the home is Acacia, where you will find a collection of thoughtful objects designed to effortlessly balance form and function.  Acacia showcases the work of both emerging and established designers and craftspeople while presenting useful, beautiful, and well- crafted objects for the home.  And if that wasn’t quite enough to entice you, there is also a personal accessories collection that adheres to the same principles.

Acacia

Acacia

Sutro Baths | Photo: Saksham Gangwar

Sutro Baths | Photo: Saksham Gangwar

Twin Peaks Tavern’s big glass windows are perfectly matched with vintage décor to make it the ideal place to watch the world go by. Especially perfect for solo travellers

San Francisco nightlife

Elegance abounds at Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel.  Having opened in 1934, this art deco gem has been renovated over the years but still maintains a unique feel despite the more modern accoutrement. According to legend, the long bar was carved from a single, massive redwood trunk – and while it may be just a legend, we do appreciate the tongue in cheek irony.

A modern-cocktail bar infused with sophisticated décor, rustic details, and beautiful people?  What’s not to love. Blackbird is our go-to choice for craft cocktails in the Castro that are as sexy as the crowd the bar pulls. Head down for a happy hour but remember, Blackbird is so cool it can sometimes be a bit overcrowded.  Starting there early to enjoy the vibe before the crunch.

For a grand view, an intimate vibe, and artisanal drinks head to the Proper Hotel’s rooftop bar Charmaine’s.  The chic, indoor/outdoor space has European charm that’s underscored by floral patterns juxtaposed against bold geometrics. Brick walls and native plants border the terrace, firepits surrounded by cosy chairs keep things chic, and every seat is a good one when you’re peering from 120 feet above Market Street.

Twin Peaks Tavern is a classic gay bar that tempts with timeless cocktails, affordable beers and the best view of the Castro. Seriously at any time on any day, the bar’s big glass windows are perfectly matched with vintage décor to make it the ideal place to watch the world go by. Especially perfect for solo travellers.

The Charmaines | Photo: Manolo Yllera

The Charmaines | Photo: Manolo Yllera

Oasis Club

Oasis Club

Formerly the Pendulum, Toad Hall is a dancing queen’s dream with disco balls, fruity drinks, and upbeat music. Live DJ’s are spinning seven days a week plus you can soak in the music videos, dance like no one is watching (but you KNOW they are…), or step outside to the patio where you can smoke and mingle.  Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Toad Hall’s regular drag events, karaoke, dance contests and more.

A popular neighbour gay bar in the heart of the Castro is the Edge where go-go dancers appear on the weekends or enjoy the Castro’s longest running Drag Show – The Monster Show – every Thursday night.  What’s more, the Edge hits a bullseye when it comes to drawing in the boys via themed events and street-facing windows. (In case you haven’t figured it out yet, people-watching in the Castro is next level).  Combine that with friendly bartenders, stiff cocktails, new friends and a happy hour that is nothing if not ecstatic and you’ve got yourself a new favourite.  

When you call yourself The Stud, you better be able to back it up.  And they do!  Having made their debut in 1966, this celebrated gay bar offers one-of-a-kind parties, killer cocktails, eye-popping drag, burlesque shows, and a treasure trove of welcoming community events. If you don’t want to take our word for it, ask Bjork, Lady Gaga, Ana Matronic, Justin Vivian Bond, Michael Stipe, Lady Miss Kier, RuPaul, or Charo – all of whom have crossed the stage there. Warm and welcoming, this bar is the polar opposite of boring while doing its part to make the SF queer scene inclusive by welcoming all sexualities and genders from across the spectrum.

Oasis is a former gay bathhouse now transformed into a sprawling gay club where half-naked men still gather for some of the best drag SF, the best in pop DJs, and white-hot dance parties.

Oasis

Oasis Club

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