10 Things to Love About San Francisco

I’m always able to breathe deeply when I’m in San Francisco. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and also one of the most restful–a place where the breeze floats through the hills, bringing with it an invigorating sense of calm.

On a recent visit, I was fortunate to have Nat Geo photographer Catherine Karnow, a Bay Area resident, as a companion and guide. While we explored San Francisco in her zippy convertible, cruising top-down until the night air became too chilly, we made a point to venture across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, where Catherine makes her home.

Catherine lives in storybook Mill Valley, a town I fell for instantly. I was fascinated to hear about where and how this journalist–who spends much of her life working in far-flung corners of the world—spends her time when she returns to the familiar patterns of everyday life.

As I was compiling this list of our ten favorite places and experiences, I wanted to include a good mix from both sides of the Bay because I’m a firm believer that what is ordinary for a local can be extraordinary for a traveler.

Here are some of Catherine’s long-time favorites and a few new finds we discovered together along the way:

1. Red Dragon Yoga: I was needlessly nervous before class at Catherine’s favorite yoga studio. I knew she was a devoted yogini, but was heartened when she described Red Dragon as offering “super-high quality yoga without all the rules.”

The San Rafael studio (there’s a second location in Mill Valley) is no-frills, without any of the slick hype often associated with today’s fitness trends. We signed up for Power Yoga, where a padded room is heated to 95°F, creating a deep, comforting warmth and loose-limbed agility.

I felt immediately at ease with instructor Wendy Medieros—and empowered to conquer the toughest of poses. Attending class here was an inspiring way to delve into local, health-centered California living.

2. Heath Ceramics FactoryThe beautifully neutral tableware at Heath Ceramics, founded by Edith Heath, represents a distinctive Bay Area style.

While you can buy Heath ceramics all over the city, including at the Ferry Building Marketplace, the real secret is to visit the company’s original factory in Sausalito where you can browse a selection of irregular and overstock dinnerware and tiles.

These pieces may have been chipped in the creation process, or have a slight bubble from the kiln, but most are close-to-perfect—at great savings.

3. b. PatisserieVeteran pastry chef (and co-owner) Belinda Leong, who has an impressive resume, with stints at Noma in Copenhagen and Pierre Hermé in Paris, is now running this gorgeous bakery in the city.

One taste of b. Patisserie’s signature kouign amann

 (Celtic for butter cake, and pronounced queen amon), and you’ll forget there ever was a cronut craze.

But don’t overlook other treats—like chocolate-banana-almond croissants and divine purple wheat granola made with puffed kamut, oats, and Rice Krispies—at this San Francisco gem.

  • Tip: Take home some of the kouign amann end pieces for an addictive, crunchy bite.

4. Matt Davis Trail on Mount Tamalpais: A local favorite for Catherine, this trail starts near Stinson Beach in Marin County and leads up a gentle slope, criss-crossing gurgling streams and shaded by Douglas firs and live oaks.

Peeking through the trees are stunning views of the beach, and when you reach the top, the sky-blue Pacific and stretches of coastal grasses await.

If you’re driving up the mountain, its hairpin turns and golden light might seem familiar. “Once you’ve driven on ‘Mount Tam,’ you’ll recognize it from every car commercial you’ve ever seen,” Catherine said.

5. Lyon Street Steps: Connecting the Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights neighborhoods, these steps afford an only-in-San-Francisco view of the Palace of Fine Arts dome, quaint homes, and the bay.

“If you think we’re laid-back in San Francisco, come to these stairs and you’ll see that we are go-getters,” Catherine remarked as we watched fit men and women run up and down the 332 steps.

Coming upon young ballerinas celebrating the end of their school year by leaping into the air and snapping selfies was a highlight.

6. Rose’s Cafe: This place feels like a home away from home—upscale but not pretentious, with a soft, easy ambiance.

Catherine said she loves the Union Street café for an early dinner on a summer evening, and for meeting up with friends or professional contacts.

You can choose to sit inside near the wood oven under colorful chandeliers or outside on an idyllic city corner. The simplicity and convenience of this Cow Hollow staple make it one of those rare places that is appropriate for any occasion.

7. Tien Hau: “To me, Chinatown is about intrigue,” Catherine said as we ducked into a quiet alleyway in this densely populated area. “A door opens and you glimpse into another world.”

On Waverly Place, you will find the oldest Buddhist temple in America, Tien Hau. After climbing three flights of stairs, you’ll enter the circa-1852 temple, named for the Chinese goddess of the sea.

On the balcony is a view of the Transamerica Pyramid, but inside it’s about honoring the dead by giving a small donation to light incense, a scent that permeates the space. Visiting here reminded me of many of the ancient temples I have toured in Asia.

8. Yuet Lee: “I’ve been known to come straight here from the airport,” Catherine said as we sat down to order lunch in Chinatown. “They specialize in Cantonese cuisine, which touches my heart, because I grew up in Hong Kong.”

Catherine ordered beef with ginger and scallions, Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles, and salt and pepper squid. Each dish was expertly prepared, and simple yet flavorful. “This tastes exactly as it did in 1990,” she said. “It’s never hit or miss.”

9. Bar Bocce: Scenic Sausalito is a popular day trip for visitors, as it’s easy to take the ferry from San Francisco. But for Catherine, it’s close to home. “In Sausalito, it’s about getting on the water in some way,” she said.

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She took me to a restaurant that she frequently visits, Bar Bocce, where you are as close to the water as possible without being on it.

Diners crowd around the back patio fire pit taking in views of sailboats and houses stacked on the short green hills across the way. Just beyond the patio is the bocce court, where diners can play a few rounds while waiting for favorite dishes like kale pizza to arrive.

10. Boulettes Larder Hot Chocolate: With all there is to see at the Ferry Building, you might miss the tiny hot chocolate stand in the hallway next to Boulettes Larder.

Their Eastern European-style treat is made with Valrhona 70 percent dark chocolate and whole milk, with no added sugar. “The chocolate gives it enough sweetness,” staffer Molly said as she poured the thick, creamy concoction into small cups.

The result is dense, pure chocolaty decadence.

Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Facebook and on Instagram @catherinekarnow.

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