There is no one perfect day in San Francisco—and that’s the beauty of the City by the Bay. With so many pieces of the Northern California city to pick through—from the well-tread to the locally loved, from world-famous museums to community-created street art—there’s no creative limit on your trip’s eventual mosaic. Because of its diversity, San Francisco’s 49 square miles hold virtually limitless wonders to stumble upon.
A 1,500-acre expanse where urban forests and massive lawns meet the beach, the Presidio is a relatively new addition to the National Park Service, having been retired in 1994 after serving as a military base for Spanish, Mexican, and American armies for more than 200 years.
Today, it’s a curious mix of modern and historic. Start along the Main Post in the 18th century guardhouse that serves as the new Visitor Center, which acts as gateway to the park and offers iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. There, interactive displays detail daily events around the Presidio as well as the history that shaped it. Likewise, the Presidio Officer’s Club has been transformed into a museum, and there’s a lauded brunch at Presidio Social Club (a 1903-constructed military barracks turned casual eatery), while James Beard Award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins helms the kitchen at the Commissary. An indoor rock climbing gym rounds out the park’s 24 miles of trails, and a free shuttle that runs between the Presidio and downtown connects you seamlessly. From spring to early fall, Off the Grid hosts the weekly Presidio Picnic on the great lawn, which draws thousands to sample fare from more than 30 local chefs, bakers, and mixologists. For a real adventure, reserve a spot at Rob Hill Campground, the only overnight campsite in the city, positioned above Baker Beach in a eucalyptus grove at the highest point in the Presidio.
Golden Gate Park
Yes, Golden Gate Park is one of the most-visited spots in San Francisco, and for good reason. One of the largest urban parks in the world, its thousand-plus acres span three miles and encompass famed museums like the de Young and the immaculate Japanese Tea and San Francisco Botanical gardens.
But the park also has a wild side: In the late 19th century, the first two bison of a herd that would grow to nearly 30 were brought from the Midwest to roam here, joined at various times by bear, elk, and goats before the city’s zoo opened. Today you can spot the bison grazing in a dedicated paddock on the park’s western front.
On the eastern end, step into the California Academy of Sciences, an all-in-one aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum with a living rainforest and vibrant coral reef ecosystem. Check in Thursdays, when the Academy hosts its adults-only NightLife parties after dark, with a new theme (robots, anyone?) each week.
An ambush on the senses, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinese-American community in the nation, drawing hordes of visitors to Grant Ave., the tourist throughway. Enter here but be prepared to sidestep the main drag to experience the true wonder of Chinatown.
The sweet smell of vanilla leads you down Ross Alley to the tiny Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which opened in 1962 and, between the couple of women who hand-fold each one, churns out 20,000 cookies daily. Look for the free samples that are so fresh they’re still warm, and pick up a bag for just a few bucks. Find your way to Stockton St., where the produce markets teem with local shoppers haggling over eggplant, bok choy, and the occasional live turtle.
Follow your nose farther still to the incense wafting from any number of temples. If it’s the second or fourth Sunday of the month, Buddha’s Universal Church (one of the largest in the country) offers a lecture followed by a light lunch and tour of the five-story serenely minimalist space, with great city views from the rooftop garden.
Also known as South of Market, SoMa hits on downtown SF’s sweet spots, like the gloriously renovated and newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But the entire area is a cultural hotbed: Just right next door, the Museum of the African Diaspora surveys the diverse history, art, and traditions of African-descended cultures and communities, while the Yerba Buena Gardens tempt passersby to take it easy outdoors on nice days or find refuge in its museums and tea shops.
Regardless of weather, a quick peek inside the PacBell Building at 140 New Montgomery is worth straying from the urban park. Every ornate surface inside the high-ceilinged lobby reflects off the other, making architect Timothy Pflueger’s Art Deco masterpiece feel like an early–20th century hall of mirrors for design nerds.
By night, look up for views of art as big as it comes. Renowned artist Leo Villareal’s The Bay Lights—which transformed the Bay Bridge into a permanent light show—connects downtown San Francisco to Oakland. It sparked the creation of the city’s Illuminate SF Festival of Light, a celebration of light art around the city that runs Thanksgiving through New Year’s and has produced a number of pieces so popular that they too have become permanent San Francisco installations.
San Francisco’s historic Latino neighborhood, the Mission is home to the ever-popular (and populated) Dolores Park, vibrant street art, excellent food, and a host of watering holes. An ever-changing landscape of murals decorate Clarion and Balmy Alleys, with an eye toward social inclusivity and community along the former and human rights down the latter. Meanwhile, the entire facade of the Women’s Building has been covered since the mid-’90s by the MaestraPeace Mural, a two-story effort by seven prominent Bay Area female artists.
Indulge in a pick-me-up from Dandelion Chocolate, where all your anxiety about skipping Ghirardelli Square melts away. A bean-to-bar chocolate factory right in the heart of the Mission District, Dandelion makes every bit of chocolate in house, whether sippable (the foamy, spicy hot chocolate inspired by the Mission’s heritage) or edible (the single-origin brownie bite flight showcasing beans from around the world). Book well in advance for a $5 behind-the-scenes educational tour of the factory.
Eating in the Mission is an adventure in itself. Hip newcomers like pâtisserie Craftsman and Wolves and Argentinian steakhouse Lolinda turn critics’ heads, while the standbys that line 24th St. will forever cause locals to argue over which supplies the neighborhood’s best burrito. (You can’t go wrong at Taqueria San Francisco or, for a later bite, El Farolito.) If you can wrangle a table at Flour + Water, the pasta tasting menu is food-coma worthy. But the spot for dinner and a show remains Foreign Cinema, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in an old theater that’s garnered James Beard nods (and still projects films).
Built on pride, the Castro District continues to espouse the LGBTQ identity that made it famous in the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond. The neighborhood of Victorians lights up for wild special events throughout the year, and particularly at night, when the bars and clubs call to all manner of characters.
Whether day or night, the views from Twin Peaks are unparalleled–the tavern, not the popular 922-foot-tall viewpoint at the edge of the Castro. Twin Peaks Tavern stands at Castro and Market Streets as a veritable gateway to the neighborhood. The classic venue opened in 1935 and is one of the oldest in the area (second only to Cafe du Nord), but the first gay bar to rep floor-to-ceiling windows so that patrons could be loud and proud about their identities.
Night owl or not, rest your hill-worn feet for a couple hours at the Castro Theatre. It doesn’t matter what’s showing, just sitting in the theater is an experience. The interior is nothing short of grandiose, just as magnificent (and maybe even more so) than its intricate exterior, reminiscent of a Mexican cathedral. Nearly a century old, the theater shows an array of films, with special events throughout the month.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It isn’t easy to beat the crowds in Fisherman’s Wharf, given the popularity of PIER 39’s lazing sea lions and pups, but there are a few hideaways in this iconic neighborhood. The Cartoon Art Museum reopened in its new location here in the fall of 2017 after shuttering two years earlier. Founded in 1984, the museum has grown its beautiful permanent collection to some 7,000 pieces, with everything from comic strips, books, and graphic novels to political cartoons and anime.
With your inner child activated, wander down Pier 45 with a pocket full of coins to discover Musée Mécanique, a unique private collection up for public play, with some 200 antique slot machines, 20th century penny arcade games, orchestrions, coin-operated pianos, and more at your disposal.
Childhood wonder turns to wander as you cross into adjacent North Beach, the Italian neighborhood where the Beat Generation took root in the 1940s. Brush up on your history of the movement at the Beat Museum, a labor of love dedicated to Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other important figures. Through artifacts from the time–including more than a thousand photos, records, paintings, and even clothing–the museum explores the Generation’s beginnings, art and music’s role, and the philosophy that resulted.
Pay homage across the street at City Lights Bookstore, founded by the above-mentioned Ferlinghetti in 1953 as an all-paperback peddler that’s since expanded. The historic store was a haven for beatniks, creating community around its selected titles and banned books and encouraging the Generation’s anti-authoritarianism and insurgent philosophy–a position still evident in the store’s modern-day selection.
Grab a drink next door at Vesuvio, where the Beats imbibed and the jazz, poetry, and art so central to the Generation unfolded. Alternately, travel a block to Caffé Trieste to sip a cappuccino among the walls that once gave beatnik writers and poets refuge as they refueled. It’s also where Francis Ford Coppola spent months writing the screenplay for The Godfather.