San Francisco ended up on our A-list in the 1990s and barely a year goes by without another trip to the City by the Bay. The ambiance of the city, its many distinct neighborhoods and seaside location make for an unbeatable combination of urban energy with the lure of sea breezes.
Any time is right for San Francisco, though the winter months tend to be a little more overcast. This stable climate is what makes the area north of the city one of the most important winemaking regions in the world today.
Hosting around half the number of people who visit the Las Vegas Strip each year, San Francisco lands somewhere between Disney World and Niagara Falls in popularity as a North American tourist destination. With a population of a little more than 800,000 and a land area of around 46 square miles, it’s one of the most densely populated cities in North America.
An important aspect of San Francisco’s appeal is its diversity. While the city’s tolerance toward gays and its position at the epicenter of 1960s counterculture are well known, San Francisco’s wide-ranging population makeup doesn’t end there. Around 32% of the city’s residents are Asian and more than a third of San Francisco’s residents are foreign-born. More than 45% speak a language other than English in their homes.
You’d need to visit Asia itself to find a larger Chinese community than that of San Francisco’s Chinatown. While it was born of discrimination and various exclusion laws directed against Chinese, it thrives today as one the most interesting parts of the city. It truly is a trip into another culture, with more than 100,000 people of Chinese descent living in a relatively compact neighborhood.
Everything from live fish and frogs to medicinal herbs are found in the packed-to-the-rafters shops. Windows are filled with prepared ducks, statues of Buddha and other deities, dishes, Chinese art and everything else needed to live a good Chinese life. On the streets, in the stores and in restaurants, you’ll hear Chinese being spoken and Chinese music playing. Depending on where you go, your dim sum bill may even be in Chinese.
At Chinese Cultural Center directly across the street from the Hilton Financial Distict, we saw groups of men huddled around games of Chinese checkers — something that perhaps you wouldn’t think of as a spectator sport. On a terrace separated from the men, young children play and Chinese women visit with each other while these serious matches take place. Walking across that short bridge was almost like walking across the Pacific.
One hidden gem — before you leave the edge of the Financial District and its iconic Transamerica pyramid tower — is Belden Alley, which is inconspicuously located in the block bounded by Pine, Bush, Kearny and Montgomery streets. Several restaurants there feature both indoor and outdoor dining. If you crave fresh mussels like I do, put Plouf on your list. It’s a little French bistro that will remind you of Paris, with a menu and wine to match to match the ambiance.
North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf
Walking through Chinatown down Stockton Street, you’ll see a change that takes you across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean to Italy. Your first hints might be seeing the colors of the Italian flag painted on the lampposts of Columbus Avenue, the smell of garlic, coffee shops serving espresso and people dining al fresco.
Italian cooking isn’t the same without garlic, but an extra measure comes from an establishment that’s a monument to the stuff. It’s known as The Stinking Rose: A Garlic Restaurant, and it serves more than 3,000 pounds of garlic per month in conjunction with their menu. The world’s longest garlic braid winds its way through one of the dining rooms. Their motto: "We season our garlic with food."
There are plenty of choices for Italian food along Columbus Avenue. One mandatory stop for us on every visit is Molinari Delicatessen. More than a century in business, this Italian grocery store deli has all the ambiance and authenticity of the Old World. Every square inch of the place is filled with delicious food items and we never fail to pick up some specialty items to take home. You can also choose ingredients and bread to have them make you an unforgettable sandwich on the spot.
A walk down Columbus toward the wharf brings you to the North Beach district, home to the beatnik neighborhood epitomized in writer Jack Kerouac’s 1960s hangout, the renowned Vesuvio Saloon. A few blocks up is Washington Square Park and Saints Peter and Paul Church. The visitors who stop there range from homeless street people to well-groomed dogs with their owners, families, businesspeople and everyone in between.
You should be able to hear, even before you see or smell, the California Sea Lions that lounge on rafts off Pier 39 of Fisherman’s Wharf. The herd began building in the early 1990s and at first, boat owners weren’t too happy about working around the beasts, which can grow to 1,000 pounds. Of course, people love them and it was the boat owners who ended up relocating. This past November, nearly all of them left. Speculation is that they followed a food source. They have migrated out for periods of time in the past, so chances are good they’ll be back in the spring.
Fisherman’s Wharf has a long history as a place where the boats came in with their catches and people could buy fresh seafood prepared on the spot or wrapped to take home. Some of that charm and history is still around, like Irish coffee at the Buena Vista on Hyde Street, across from the wharf’s closest cable care terminus — a tradition that began in 1952. (A quick tip: Don’t wait in line at a terminus for your mandatory cable car ride; rather, catch it along its route. You can pay on board and since the cable cars truly are part of San Francisco’s mass transit system, they leave space for riders on the way. Also, the California Street line is dependably less congested than the Hyde or Powell Street lines.)
Feeling active? Rent a bike from Blazing Saddles on the wharf, bike across the Golden Gate to Sausalito and take the ferry back across the bay.
The mandatory stop that attracts tons of tourists yet offers an authentic San Francisco experience is the Boudin Bakery, which occupies a spiffy and fairly new facility along Jefferson Street in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. In addition to all that great breads that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, Boudin’s has a full menu and dining areas so you can enjoy their famous sourdough bread on site. The bakery itself started in 1849 and they claim that a bit of the original mother dough — dating back to the California Gold Rush days — is present in every loaf. It’s a tradition well worth keeping alive, since the stuff is addictive.
We’ve enjoyed fresh Dungeness crab and shrimp on the wharf at a number of different places that are worth a stop. Our current favorite is the Crab House at Pier 39. But Fisherman’s Wharf is also known as a kitschy tinsel strip of tourist traps and crowds poring over souvenirs. The nice thing about Fisherman’s Wharf is that it’s dependably active and animated with street performers, shopping and things to do. By all means, take a boat tour of the Bay for a good look at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, the famous penitentiary that housed such notables as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
But if you want to mix in more with the locals, keep walking up the Embarcadero to the Ferry Terminal building on Pier 2 and one of North America’s best farmers markets. It includes many permanent shops inside, as well as a busy outdoor market filled with local favorites grown and produced in the area. It’s also a place to enjoy a cut-rate boat tour, since ferries are cheaper than tourist boats. You won’t get an audio narration, but you will get a nice ride on the Bay at a mass transit fare.
Another hidden gem: the best seafood in San Francisco that we’ve found isn’t at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a skinny little place with one row of maybe two dozen seats along on old marble serving bar located on Polk Street in the Nob Hill neighborhood called the Swan Oyster Depot. There’s always a line and it’s always worth standing in. Swan Oyster Depot opened in 1912 and it’s the place to go for crab, chowder, fish, seafood and, of course, raw oysters on the half shell.