The Perfect Day in San Francisco

As our joyful adventures in Dublin drew to a close, it was good to know that there were more adventures ahead. Catherine and I would be flying back over the Atlantic to explore the city Catherine calls home: San Francisco.

The city is a transcendent beauty, a place that makes your throat catch when seen from the Marin Headlands on a nice day. The gleaming Golden Gate Bridge is so grand it seems to have a swagger (“Yes, I know I’m beautiful; I’ve been told that all my life.”) and the famous houses that adorn San Francisco’s sun-dappled hills look so small it seems like you could pick them up and move them like game pieces.

When we were on the ground, Catherine took a moment to reflect on being home. “After we shot in Dublin, I went to the Dingle Peninsula to experience [Ireland’s] rugged west coast. It was absolutely stunning,” she said. “But when I got home, I realized I have all of that beauty right here. There is a spectacular coastline, fresh air, big nature, and a culture of healthiness that I love.”

Here is our perfect, admittedly ambitious (hitting up two ice cream shops in a period of 24 hours is perfectly acceptable to us) day in San Francisco–a mix of Catherine’s favorite haunts and a few new spots we discovered together.

> Morning

Start early at Zazie, an adorable French bistro in San Francisco’s amiable, tourist-free Cole Valley neighborhood, because it fills up quickly with locals indulging in signature brunch dishes like gingerbread pancakes (they’re giant!) or “Eggs divorcé,” poached eggs served with bacon, avocados, and hollandaise. Arriving at 8 a.m. will ensure a coveted outdoor table, either on the sidewalk or in their lovely garden patio.

After breakfast, make your way (try Uber or Lyft for a quick commute a la the locals) to the Embarcadero and the Exploratorium, a hands-on playground that will remind you of what the thrill of learning feels like through interactive exhibits on light, sound, food, plants, and play.

Don’t miss Scott Weaver’s “Rolling Through the Bay,” a delicate sculptural mash-up of classic San Francisco landmarks made of toothpicks and glue that took the artist 38 years to create. Half the crowd might be kids, but Catherine and I were both captivated by the epic undertaking, along with the rest of the adults in the room, and can’t wait to go back.

A short walk away is the Ferry Building, where the farmers market continues to be that rare tourist attraction that is also beloved by locals like Catherine. “This is hands-down my favorite thing to do in San Francisco,” she told me as we wandered the stalls. “The Ferry Building itself is lovely and saturated with history. The market sellers are real farmers and producers with their own great stories.” It’s hard not to nibble as you weave through the vendors and heaping piles of California produce.

We passed by intoxicating lavender arrangements at the Eatwell Farm stand, gobbled up entire pints of blueberries, and visited some of Catherine’s favorite vendors, like Marin Roots for greens, and Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoked Salmon, a family-owned business that sources its fish from Bodega Bay in Sonoma County all the way up to Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and smokes it on alderwood, which they claim to be the best.

Inside, peruse the permanent Ferry Building denizens, including The Gardener, Cowgirl Creamery, Hog Island Oyster Co., Acme Bread, and Blue Bottle Coffee. Don’t forget to stop by Book Passage, an outpost of the literary landmark in Corte Madera, to snap up a new read. If you need a late-morning pick-me-up, head to Out the Door and follow the advice of Catherine, a veritable expert on Vietnam, having photographed there for 20 years, by trying the raw spring rolls and iced coffee made with condensed milk.

> Afternoon

After you’ve had your fill of samples at the market, find your way to the Filbert Street steps and climb up to Telegraph Hill for the incredible view and some exercise. On the way, take time to delight in the quaint only-in-San-Francisco homes, the scent of honeysuckle and trumpet flowers, the communal gardens filled with bright lemon trees, and the quiet.

“It’s not pure nature but an urban nature, and when you’re in it, you’re completely enveloped by it,” Catherine said as we walked up the steps. “I’m an urban person who needs nature in small doses frequently.”

When you reach the top of Telegraph Hill, you are greeted by a panoramic vista of the city below. You can climb even higher by riding the elevator to the top of Coit Tower, but even if you decide to opt out, pop in to see the recently restored Depression-Era murals covering the walls inside.

Make your way down the other side of the Hill, to Caffe Trieste in North Beach. Because of its location, the coffee shop has the potential to be a tourist trap–but look around. Two inscrutable mustached men work on crosswords near the door (“That’s the locals’ table,” Catherine pointed out during our visit) while a group plays accordions and guitars in the corner and a cast of characters sporting outlandish fashions waits in line.

It feels like a time capsule of a place–and it is. For proof, check out the haphazardly hung photos crowding the walls. They include charming shots of the Italian family who started the cafe–the first espresso house to be established on America’s West Coast, in 1956–and who still own it to this day. Allen Ginsberg came and Lawrence Ferlinghetti still comes. Palpable evidence of the creative forces keeping the North Beach Beat Era alive in this modern age is everywhere.

Hayes Valley

Zuni Café

Marine Layer

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If you find yourself with extra time, other neighborhoods to explore are Presidio Heights and NoPa (North of the Panhandle). In swanky Presidio Heights, Sue Fisher King, which has fed fierce demand for beautifully sourced decor for nearly four decades, indulged my fantasy of living in a Nora Ephron movie. At The Ribbonerie, one of Catherine’s favorite places, you can add flair to extra-special gifts, and just down the street at Dottie Doolittle you’ll find a darling selection of children’s clothing.

A more relaxed complement to upscale Presidio Heights is NoPa, where two of the San Francisco’s hottest restaurants reside, “urban rustic” Nopa and its Mexican little sister Nopalito. But if you’re looking to get back to basics, the hearty Josey Baker “adventure bread”–filled with nuts, seeds, oats, flax, and more–you’ll find at The Mill is one of the most deliciously healthy bites you’re likely to find in the city.

> Evening

Dessert before dinner is appropriate when it comes to Bi-Rite Creamery. The original local food market, established in 1940, is in the Mission District, and the creamery (there are now two locations in San Francisco) shares the same brand objective: to create community through food.

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“The bonds of knowing where your food is coming from have been destroyed over the last two generations,” co-owner Calvin Tsay told me. “We’re bringing that back by calling out as much information on the farms as possible through our own two organic farms and by working with producers that are preserving ancient methods of raising their animals.”

After a long day of walking (and eating ice cream), you’ll still have room for dinner. You’ll want to call ahead for reservations at Cotogna, which specializes in Italian fare and excellent seasonal pastas such as their burrata fagotelli set off by English peas and pea shoots. The cozy, simple dining room feels as though you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the city because you have found its happy, energetic center, complete with a copper-plated bar and chefs expertly producing crispy pizzas around a wood-fired oven.

Michael Tusk, Cotogna’s award-winning chef and owner, also runs the fine dining restaurant, Quince, next door. On the cusp of the Financial District, the brick-lined Jackson Square neighborhood feels warm and historical–a touch of New England in a distinctly relaxed West Coast city. Walking the streets at sunset is the perfect ending to the perfect day.

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 Instagram@catherinekarnow and Facebook.

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