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An Insider’s Guide to San Francisco

San Francisco pulsates at the meeting point of some of the country’s most innovative food, wine, technology and arts scenes. Surrounded by awe-inspiring natural landscapes, visitors can experience the city’s idiosyncratic culture and also savor top-notch cuisine.

Where to Eat

A meal at the restaurant City View
City View, Photo by Meg Baggott

San Francisco is home to some of the world’s most dynamic restaurants. Celebrating California’s bounty, the farm-to-table movement dominates the Bay Area culinary outlook. Establishments like Al’s Place, Octavia and Spruce focus on sustainable cuisine. At Bar Agricole, sit on the patio among the herbs featured in its ever-changing menu. Douglas fir is a favored ingredient of Evan and Sarah Rich at Rich Table, where it pops up in everything from pierogi to whimsical cocktails. Commonwealth brings a touch of molecular gastronomy to its New American dishes in an elegant, minimalist setting.

Restaurants reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Chef Mourad Lahlou’s Aziza was the first Moroccan restaurant to earn a Michelin star, an achievement matched by his second endeavor, Mourad. Cala marks the first venture of Mexico City star chef Gabriela Cámara outside of her home country. The restaurant showcases Mexican seafood dishes made with California ingredients. Try tacos served in the back alley for lunch on weekdays. Dim sum is a favorite indulgence for San Franciscans, and City View never disappointments, especially with its pan-fried noodles with XO sauce.

Urban Wineries

Bluxome Street Winery
Bluxome Street Winery, Photo by Todd Tankersley

While grapes aren’t grown in the urban environs, San Francisco has trucked in fruit from surrounding counties to make wine since the 19th century. Successful urban wineries like Bluxome Street Winery and Dogpatch WineWorks lend a city-slicker feel to the tasting-room experience. Some Napa-based wineries like Jax and Chateau Montelena also offer tasting salons in San Francisco.

Raising the (Wine) Bar

Union Larder in San Francisco, CA
Photo Courtesy of 8 INC.

Vibrant wine bars run can transport your palate to the Jura, Mendoza, Tokaj or anywhere else in the world. Union Larder in Russian Hill and High Treason in the Richmond present high-caliber wine lists in unpretentious settings, accompanied by mounds of cheese and charcuterie. For a swankier vibe, Press Club, a few blocks south of Union Square, resembles an A-list lounge more than your quiet neighborhood wine bar. The list of wines offered via Coravin is fabulous, but the cheese plates, with atypical accoutrements like Gewürztraminer jelly and sesame nougatine, deserve equal attention.

Those in pursuit of bubbles can seek refuge at The Riddler, a new wine bar by PR maven Jen Pelka. The Hayes Valley joint opened in January and pours sparklers from around the world, along with dollops of caviar and self-serve popcorn. For Burgundophiles, Mark Bright at Les Clos fields an extensive list by the glass, and also offers a weekly tasting menu of regional French cuisine.

Cocktail Time

Pagan Idol located in San Francisco, CA
Photo courtesy of Pagan Idol

San Francisco’s cocktail traditions are as old as the city itself. Following the California Gold Rush, a raucous time was to be found on the Barbary Coast, a neighborhood of dance halls, jazz clubs and brothels. The Devil’s Acre, in North Beach, captures a bit of that Wild West saloon feel, and it mixes some of the best craft cocktails in the city.

The city also has a fondness for tiki bars. Campy is cool at establishments like Pagan Idol and The Tonga Room. The latter occupies a pool area at the Fairmont Hotel, where a band plays atop a barge in the middle of the water, interrupted by the occasional “tropical storm.” Smuggler’s Cove in Hayes Valley has an exhaustive rum selection, and it even offers a rum certification program. The final assignment involves a private distillery trip with owner Martin Cate.

Craft Beer & Spirits

Anchor Brewing located in San Francisco, CA
Photo by Meg Baggott

At Anchor Brewing, you can explore where its iconic beers are made. A visit to sister company Anchor Distilling includes a stop at the penthouse garden, where you can smell the botanicals that go into its spirits. Smaller operations like Magnolia Brewing and Southern Pacific Brewing welcome guests to their gastropubs for a pint and a bite. Seven Stills offers a glimpse into how it makes whiskeys from the largest copper pot still in San Francisco. Seven Stills has also teamed up with Hard Frescos Brewing Co. to create a line of shandies, served at The Lawton Taproom.

For Arts Lovers

On Stage, Page & Canvas

The Castro Theater
The Castro Theater / Shutterstock

The San Francisco Opera, Ballet and Symphony count among the most prestigious in the nation, and the American Conservatory Theater stages thought-provoking classical and contemporary productions. For casual entertainment, the Art Deco-era Castro Theatre schedules everything from indie films and Disney sing-alongs to drag show versions of your favorite rom-coms.

The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park presents outstanding temporary exhibitions, as does the Legion of Honor. The recently reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showcases permanent collections of 20th- and 21st-century art. Its restaurant, In Situ, recreates recipes from the world’s most treasured restaurants on a rotating basis.

Literary enthusiasts should stop by City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in North Beach. Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and professor Peter D. Martin, City Lights published defining works of the Beat Generation like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Urban Hikes

People watching the sunset at Twin Peaks in San Francisco, CA
Photo by Alanna Hale/ Image Brief

You don’t have to leave the city to enjoy a hike. Twin Peaks is one of the most beautiful places to watch sunsets in San Francisco. A focal point of the city, Golden Gate Park offers diverse attractions that include a paddock filled with bison, the California Academy of Sciences with live penguins and a Japanese tea garden. The park also holds the Conservatory of Flowers, an ornate, Victorian-era structure that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

In San Francisco’s northwest corner, it’s hard to imagine you’re still in the city when you hike Lands End. Seaside trails offer sublime views of ocean waves as they break against the rocky shoreline. Of course, you can’t leave San Francisco without visiting the famous sea lions at Pier 39. From there, stroll along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where you can sample the best cheese, produce, tofu and more from the Bay Area.

Where To Stay

Vertigo Hotel
Photo Courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

Several quirkier options befit the spirit of the city. Movie lovers will enjoy Hotel Vertigo, which appeared in the namesake Alfred Hitchcock film. Watch the movie in the lobby before you check into one of the modern baroque-styled rooms. Inn at the Presidio provides a romantic escape at one of San Francisco’s most beautiful parks. The Presidio used to be a military fort, and what were officers’ quarters have been converted into 22 pet-friendly, luxury rooms with flat-screen TVs, gas fireplaces and available in-suite massages.