San Francisco Travel Guide

San Francisco Travel Guide

Curation by Yasmina Rodríguez, words by Gina Samarotto

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

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Escape from the city for a day trip to Angel Island, the second largest island on the bay after Alcatraz

Things to do in San Francisco

The home place of both Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Alcatraz, a visit to San Francisco can be a contrasting affair even for seasoned Franciscophiles. While walking tours and trips to The Rock cover the most famous San Francisco points of interest, our guide to San Francisco sightseeing focuses on the less touristy side of SF culture. We’ll start at a down-to-earth farmer’s market based out of Ferry Building Marketplace, the largest market of its type and permanent home of local artisan producers. Inside you’ll discover vendors such as Cowgirl Creamery, Fort Point Beer Company and Dandelion Chocolate, but, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the action moves outside when regional farmers and fresh produce traders descend on the streets. If you get peckish, thankfully there are also prepped food and restaurant options.

Mission Dolores Park | Photo: Koushik Howdavarapu

Mission Dolores Park | Photo: Koushik Howdavarapu

On the site of a one-time Jewish cemetery, you may be surprised to find one of San Francisco’s favourite city retreats. Despite being miles from the coast, Mission Dolores Park is the city’s most popular beach area, allowing for barbeques, group lounging and various outdoor activities such as slacklining. For views of the downtown skyline as well as the ‘Fruit Shelf’ of men in varying stages of undress, hurry over to the southwest slope. Another notable park in the city is AT&T Park, where on certain dates you can watch The San Francisco Giants play on their home turf. This stadium on the bay fills up whenever there’s a game, uniting fans and spreading camaraderie across the city. For a performance of a different tack, Castro Theatre is one of the city’s best-loved repertory cinemas, built in 1922 and now a protected landmark. Its walls are lined with rare film posters and classical murals while the gilded ceiling and Wurlitzer organ are showpieces. Come for a singalong session of one of the biggest movies from the past century, from Grease to Frozen.

Escape from the city for a day trip to Angel Island, the second largest island on the bay after Alcatraz, home to a population of around 60 people and accessible by ferry. Once there, take an open-air tram or Segway tour around the whole island, stopping off at some the great cafés and restaurants along the way or for a picnic at a site around the Perimeter Trail. As well as hiking to the summit of Mt. Livermore, history buffs also have the option of visiting the U.S. Immigration Station where over a million Chinese immigrants were processed between 1910 and 1940. Surrounded by nature and hosting some spectacular views of the bay, Angel Island is also known to present live music and events on summer evenings. To continue the festival vibe, you should know about Off The Grid, a food truck extravaganza happening across the bay area, at the Presidio on Thursday evening and Fort Mason on Friday evening in particular. Here you’ll find firepits, cabanas and live music as well as a tear-inducing selection of food trucks serving up eclectic street eats. Sunday is also a good day to visit the Presidio, when family and dog-friendly picnics and entertainment take over the lawn, kicking off with a free yoga class at 11am.

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

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Much more than matcha and cronuts, San Francisco’s food scene celebrates all that is wonderful in northern California

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. Once having set the gold standard for Wild West saloons until drinking was driven underground during the 1920s Prohibition era, San Francisco now sets a different standard, as home to the most restaurants and farmers markets per capita in North America – all supplied by pioneering local organic farms. Begin your day with a carb-loading breakfast at the Tartine Manufactory.  This urban hot spot housed in an airy warehouse offers freshly baked pastries, coffee and ice cream as well as lunch and dinner menus and an ever-changing collection of wines and crafted cocktails.  After breakfast has gone down, a spot of all-American lunch is in order at Cassava, a casual modern eatery with a friendly neighbourhood atmosphere in outer Richmond. Run by a husband-and-wife team, Cassava is open for weekend brunch as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Their menu is out of this world; featuring Californian flavours such as Spanish octopus and buttermilk fried chicken, with a four-course tasting menu for $48.

If you crave a laid back, casual dinner head for the Liholiho Yacht Club. This Sutter Street bistro serves up a menu as eclectic as its customers – a mix of Hawaiian and Chinese delights to keep guests guessing.  Adventurous eaters can tuck into duck liver toast with jalapeño and pickled pineapple, or, for the more timid, there’s also a full menu of traditional eastern flavours to choose from. One more for the books is Lazy Bear, a decidedly American pop-up turned permanent fine-dining concept. An experience as much as a meal, a visit to Lazy Bear’s 1950s-era space will lead you to trying 15 courses of theatrically presented dishes, such as egg yolk fudge in a wild porcini broth, among a diverse crowd of hip, young foodies. Alternatively, San Francisco also has a whole host of Mexican restaurants to choose from. At Cala, Mexico-city born chef Gabriela Cámara whips up various classic dishes, uniquely prepared, with artful presentation. Our favourite of hers is the fire-roasted sweet potato served with bone marrow salsa negra and warm tortillas!

Tartine Manufactory

Tartine Manufactory

There’s more hearty Mexican fare to be had at Californios, a sleek Michelin-starred restaurant, filled with art-centric décor, low lighting and leather banquettes. The food matches the interiors, surprising and indulgent. If you’re feeling up to it, opt for the 16-course seasonal tasting menu, which presents dishes such as lobster tacos, wagyu steak and fois gras-garnished churros. Another Michelin award winner in the city is Mourad, famed for its blend of old-world Moroccan cuisine with modern methods and design. The interiors of Mourad lean towards the glamorous, reminiscent of a grand Moroccan home with its intricate tiling, traditional rugs and glinting lights. On the menu, you’ll find La’acha family-style dishes such as lamb shoulder tagines and European reds.

For more international cuisine while in the city, try Italian restaurant Cotogna, based in a bright brick-and-wood space that feels like a very modern yet authentic Italian pizza kitchen. The classic dishes on offer range from antipasti and ricotta-heavy pizza, to handmade pappardelle with venison accompanied by fine Italian wine. For an Asian experience try Japanese restaurant Ju-Ni, a 12-seater omakase bar with its own Michelin star. Sit at the bar and watch the expert sushi chefs work meticulously on the 18-course Chef’s Menu (costing $165), with ingredients such as sake-cured albacore and golden eye snapper all flown in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. If fish and meat are not for you however, don’t worry because elegant vegetarian restaurant Greens will ensure you won’t go hungry. Located at Fort Mason and featuring incredible waterside views all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, Greens serves up delectable veg-based dishes with great service for breakfast and dinner.

Californios | Photo: Val Cantu

Californios | Photo: Val Cantu

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

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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

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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