Explore, eat your fill, enjoy a dose of history, and indulge in the arts and some premium shopping all in one city by the bay.
Find the gastronomic gems and other hot spots in some of San Francisco’s main districts.
The hippy subculture is said to have originated in Haight-Ashbury, probably the most interesting (and my favourite) district in San Francisco. This place was made famous by the hippy movement in the 1960s, and the subculture is still very much alive there today.
Haight Street, with its slew of boutiques selling everything from fabrics and vintage clothing to vinyl records, is proof that the spirit of the revolutionary movement is going strong in this neighbourhood. A must-visit: hippy couture tie-dye boutique Jammin’ on Haight, which produces handcrafted apparel (harem pants, tees, dresses, baby onesies) as well as dog leashes, blankets and more. But what makes this 34-year-old art business even more fascinating is that it has made numerous tie-dyes for rock bands like the Grateful Dead to wear on tour.
A recommendation from the locals: Walk through any neighbourhood along Haight-Ashbury and admire the unique architecture of the upslope houses in vibrant hues, the trees that were planted by residents, and the street art that ranges from graffiti and murals to stencils. Then take a break and munch on a Pernil Asado – succulent roasted pork marinated in garlic, oregano and base sofrito – for US$12 (S$16.90) from Puerto Rican restaurant Parada 22.
While you’re there: Take a short walk to Third and Howard Street to visit the first and only certified organic brewery in San Francisco, Thirsty Bear. The brewpub educates customers on its brews and pairings, and also allows you to choose beer samplers (US$15 for nine 3oz samplers) from a massive selection of organic house brews.
2. UNION SQUARE, FINANCIAL DISTRICT
Referred to as the heart of San Francisco, Union Square is the centre for premium shopping and the arts. Be prepared to spend at least a full day here exploring the endless array of shops, art galleries, theatres, spas and restaurants.
Have an Iced Caramel Macchiato and Applewood Bacon & Cheddar Egg Bagel (US$9.13) at Noah’s New York Bagels just off Market Street on Bush Street. Don’t miss hidden alleys such as Maiden Lane, a short street with luxury boutiques such as Allsaints, Paul Smith and Hermes.
Also check out the French Quarter on Belden Place. Naturally, this is where you should get your fill of French fare. You’ll want to visit Cafe Claude, a charming old-world bistro that’s packed every day (best to make a reservation), especially from Thursday to Saturday when a live jazz band takes guests back to the 1930s. Try the Escargots en Croute (US$11), an appetiser of seared escargot with garlic butter, Pernod, shallots and anchovy, covered with fl uff y puff pastry. Another must-try is the Confit de Canard (US$22), a perfectly crispy and moist duck leg dressed with frisee, chopped egg and lentils. If you’re not a fan of lentils, be sure to give the servers a heads-up – it’s possible to change the side.
While you’re there: Head for 251 Post Street Art Galleries and lose yourself in a building housing contemporary galleries like the Sandra Lee Gallery, Meyerovich Gallery and Scott Richards Contemporary Art.
Just a few streets from Union Square is the largest Chinatown outside Asia, complete with temples, herbal shops, mahjong houses, antique shops and, of course, traditional Chinese bakeries. The area’s hilly streets mean that it’s absolutely necessary for you to wear your most comfortable pair of walking shoes.
For starters, make a pit stop at the Good Mong Kok Bakery at 1039 Stockton Street, a traditional Cantonese bakery with Hong Kong owners, where you can find affordable puff pastries, dim sum and to-die-for pork buns (US$6 for 12).
To go where the locals go for a quick bite and drink, head for Far East Cafe at 631 Grant Avenue. The restaurant looks exactly like a typical Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, with its old chequerboard flooring, lantern chandeliers, carved screens, private booths and even a banquet hall meant for weddings and reunion dinners. Order the Shrimp Noodle Won Ton Soup (US$11.50) and the Beef with Ginger and Scallion (US$14.95). End your meal with a cup of hot Chinese tea. Try not to over-order, as the portions are rather big.
While you’re there: Spot all 180 bronze medallions set into the pavements of the Barbary Coast Trail. The 6.1 km trail takes you to 20 historic sites connected by the cable car line, so you can easily make your way back to where you started.
A trip to the Presidio district is mandatory if you want to visit the famed Golden Gate Bridge. Besides offering a great photo op, Presidio, which used to be a military compound with countless hiking trails and coastal points, is also the perfect district in which to lose yourself on scenic treks along routes such as the California Coastal Trail, Bay Area Ridge Trail, Lovers’ Lane and Ecology Trail. You can find out more about trekking events and download the trail maps at www.presidio.gov.
If all that trekking works up your appetite like it did mine, brunch at the former military barracks, Presidio Social Club on Ruger Street, is in order. The historic building, erected in 1903, is one of the few military landmarks to be preserved in Presidio, and has been converted into a contemporary eatery with artfully crafted cocktails. Kick off with brunch cocktails: Bubbles (US$11), a blend of mimosa, bellini and champagne; and Painkiller (US$11), a pineapple, coconut, orange and rum mixture that tastes more pleasant than it sounds. Pair the cocktails with the delectable PSC Gruyere Cheese Toast with tomato fondue dip (US$8), then go on to main brunch items Huevos Rotos (US$15) and the oh-so-satisfying
Mission-style Chilaquiles (US$14).
While you’re there: If you’re not on a tight budget, take a 30 min Golden Gate tour on a plane (US$179). This will give you glorious bird’s-eye views of famous landmarks like Crissy Field, AT&T Park, Angel Island, Golden Gate National Reserve and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.
5. FISHERMAN’S WHARF
You haven’t fully experienced San Francisco until you’ve visited Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s the Number One destination in this city, and was once the main port of entry to the local bay area. The wharf now showcases San Francisco’s maritime history and houses exciting attractions, a range of shopping options and the freshest seafood served up at world-class restaurants.
If adventure and history pique your interest, join an educational three-hour day tour to Alcatraz Island (from US$30) that leaves from Pier 33. You’ll learn more about America’s most notorious prison, which housed almost 1,600 of the most ruthless prisoners, including big names like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Relive what became known as the Battle of Alcatraz, the infamous prison-break attempt of May 1946, through the walking tour and audio tape recordings.
When you’ve soaked up enough history, visit the wharf’s main attraction, Pier 39, a waterfront complex with more than 90 shops and attractions, a 300-berth marina, and 14 restaurants serving the freshest seafood you could hope to find. The area is always buzzing with tourists, but it’s still a mustvisit, if only for a piping hot Sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder, fi lled with a generous serving of clams, potatoes and crispy bacon (US$8.79) at Chowders; or Steamed Clams (US$12.95) and half a dozen richly textured, flavourful oysters (US$12.95) at Pier Market Seafood Restaurant.
While you’re there: Get your adrenalin pumping at 7D Experience, an all-indoor state-of-the-art arcade offering laser blasting games on a 4-D roller-coaster ride (US$12 for 15 min). With actual roller-coaster dips, the games are definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Deidre Ling, Her World, October 2015