San Francisco, California
San Francisco makes it wonderfully easy to tap into the Good Life. Between the hot arts scene, the tempting boutiques, the awesome bay views, and all those stellar, locally focused restaurants and wine bars, it's the perfect place to indulge.
You can find just about any food in San Francisco, a place where trends are set and culinary diversity rules. Since the 1849 gold rush flooded the city with foreign flavors, residents' appetites for exotic eats haven't diminished by even one bite.
Today San Francisco remains a vital culinary crossroads, with nearly every ethnic cuisine represented, from Afghan to Vietnamese. You don't just go out for Chinese here: regional offerings range from the classic Cantonese to the obscure Hakka cuisine of southern China. And although locals have long headed to the Mission District for Latin food, Chinatown for Asian food, and North Beach for Italian food, they also know that every part of the city offers dining experiences. One of the biggest trends to hit San Francisco is pizza—from obsessive pizzaiolos making authentic Neapolitan pies in imported Italian ovens, to chefs doing their own California spin—you'll be able to find quality pizzas in practically every neighborhood. And with the recent explosion of food trucks, renegade street-food stands, and pop-up restaurants, the local dining scene has become even more varied, creative, and exciting.
Diners also have grown increasingly serious about what they're sipping. In response, restaurateurs are offering more sophisticated wine lists, emphasizing new vintners, lesser-known varietals, and emerging wine-making regions, in addition to more environmental choices like biodynamic and organic wines. And cocktail lovers have been treated to an explosion of innovative drinks that are keeping the city's much-admired bartenders busy pouring, stirring, and shaking from one end of town to the other. Last but not least, beer is also gaining a foothold around the city, from new brewpubs brewing their own beer, to quality beers showing up on beverage lists.
San Francisco serves up a dizzying array of lodging choices: cozy inns, kitschy motels, chic boutiques, dependable chain properties, and true grande dames. It's not difficult to find the perfect fit for any budget.
Many city stalwarts have been spruced up recently. It seems as though everyone wants a new look, including the Ritz Carlton, Monaco, Mandarin, Argonaut, and the Palace. Nearly every accommodation listed below features fresh bedding, carpet, TVs, or paint.
If you're searching for a centrally located, classy hotel, check out Union Square's dramatic Clift, a property with surrealistic flavor, conjured by maverick star-designer Philippe Starck, or, perched atop Nob Hill, the historic Huntington Hotel, which discreetly hosts celebrities and royalty.
Now is a great time to go: hotel deals are easy to come by, and both new and established properties are trending toward the eco-friendly—SF hotels are "going green" in a big way. Although the Orchard Garden boasts San Francisco's first all-new green construction, many other local properties are installing ecological upgrades. Most of the city's hotels are non-smoking.
Wherever you stay, be sure to ask what's included in your room rate. And when you settle into your perfect room, remember this tip: When in doubt, ask the concierge. This holds true for almost any request, whether you have special needs or burning desires (if anyone can get you tickets to a sold-out show or reservations at a fully booked restaurant, it's the concierge). You'll likely be impressed by the lengths hoteliers are willing to go to please their guests.
Finally, consider timing: If you're flexible on dates, ask the reservationist if there's a cheaper time to stay in your preferred travel window.
After hours, business folk and the working class give way to costume-clad partygoers, hippies and hipsters, downtown divas, frat boys, and those who prefer something a little more clothing-optional. Downtown and the Financial District remain pretty serious even after dark, and Nob Hill is staid, though you can't beat views from penthouse lounges, the most famous being the Top of the Mark. Nearby North Beach is an even better starting point for an evening out.
Always lively, the areas of options include family-friendly dining spots, historic bars from the city's bohemian past (among them Jack Kerouac's old haunts), and even comedy clubs where stars such as Bill Cosby and Jay Leno cut their teeth. In SoMa there are many options for catching a drink before a Giants game, and plenty of brewpubs to celebrate in afterward. SoMa also hosts some of the hottest dance clubs, along with some saucy gay bars. While Union Square can be a bit trendy, even the swanky establishments have loosened things up in recent years.
Heading west to Hayes Valley, a more sophisticated crowd dabbles in the burgeoning "culinary cocktail movement." Singles gravitate north of here to Cow Hollow and the Marina. Polk Street was a gay mecca before the Castro and still hosts some wild bars, but things get downright outlandish in the Castro District. Indie hipsters of all persuasions populate the Mission and Haight districts by night. Keep in mind, though, that some of the best times San Francisco has to offer will be found off the beaten path, in neighborhoods such as Bernal Heights and Dogpatch, the latter home to Yield, one of the city's premier wine bars.
From its grand department stores to its funky secondhand boutiques, San Francisco summons a full range of shopping experiences. Deep-pocketed buyers and window-shoppers alike mob the dozens of pricey shops packed into the blocks bordering Union Square, while bargain hunters dig through record shops and thrift stores in the Mission District and the Haight. From the anarchist bookstore to the mouthwatering specialty-food purveyors at the gleaming Ferry Building, the local shopping opportunities reflect the city's various personalities.
Visitors with limited time often focus their energies on the high-density Union Square area, where several major department stores tower over big-name boutiques. But if you're keen to find unique local shops, you should definitely move beyond the square's radius. Each neighborhood has its own distinctive finds, whether it's ‘60s housewares, cheeky stationery, or vintage Levi's.
If shopping in San Francisco has a downside, it's that real bargains can be few and far between. Sure, neighborhoods such as the Lower Haight and the Mission have thrift shops and other inexpensive stores, but you won't find many discount outlets in the city, where rents are sky high and space is at a premium.
Seasonal sales, usually in late January and late July or August, are good opportunities for finding deep discounts on clothing. The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner advertise sales. For smaller shops, check the two free weeklies the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SF Weekly, which can be found on street corners every Wednesday. Sample sales are usually held by individual manufacturers, so check your favorite company's site before visiting. Splendora (www.splendora.com/cityguide/san_francisco) is a good site to check for upcoming sales and promotions around the city.
Sophisticated, offbeat, and often ahead of the curve, San Francisco's performing-arts scene supports world-class opera, ballet, and theater productions, along with alternative dance events, avant-garde plays, groundbreaking documentaries, and a slew of spoken-word and other literary happenings.
The heart of the mainstream theater district lies on or near Geary Street, mostly west of Union Square, though touring Broadway shows land a little farther afield at big houses like the Orpheum and Golden Gate. But theater can be found all over town. For a bit of culture shock, slip out to eclectic districts like the Mission or Haight, where smaller theater companies reside and short-run and one-night-only performances happen on a regular basis.
The city's opera house and symphony hall present the musical classics, and venues like the Masonic Auditorium and the Warfield host major rock and jazz talents, but the city's extensive festival circuit broadens the possibilities considerably. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a beloved celebration of bluegrass, country, and roots music; Noise Pop is the nation's premier alt-rock showcase; and Power to the Peaceful is an acid-trip back to the Summer of Love.
The range of offerings is just as eclectic on the film front. San Francisco moviegoers love blockbuster hits like everyone else, but they also champion little-known indie and art-house flicks and flock to the interactive sing-along musicals presented at Castro Theatre. Nearly every month an important film festival takes place.
If you don't feel like dancing, there are plenty who do, from classical dancers to jugglers. And it doesn't take stadium seating to make a performance space. Cafés, clubs, and bookstores often host poetry readings or author lectures.