IN my four years of living in San Francisco, I joined over a dozen free walking tours in what they call “The Paris of The West” - known as a world-class city with diverse, courteous people and an eclectic mix of cuisines, beautiful neighborhoods, parks, museums, and architecture.
Over those years, I developed a deeper understanding of why so many have fallen in love with this City by the Bay. Tourist travel guides like Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor might rattle off common must-see landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, or Alcatraz. My suggestions are mostly based on local knowledge formed from my college years, residing in the city from 2009 to 2013. Some may point to uncommon quirky little places, but are true gems that are uniquely San Francisco.
Foodie’s dream: Little Italy
Little Italy, located at the north beach district, is my favorite neighborhood and one of the city’s most charming areas. You can spend an entire day there eating and strolling as you browse through the multitude of restaurants, pastries, and coffee shops.
Tommaso’s (1042 Kearny Street) may be fancy, but every pizza is traditionally-made with the freshest ingredients. Over at Stella’s Pastries (446 Columbus Avenue), you must order their famous cannoli, a tube-shaped shell of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling and ricotta. Another dessert place is Victoria Pastry Company (700 Filbert Street), famous for their authentic Sicilian recipe of the Saint Honoré Cake – a classic French dessert in a circle of puff pastry at its base with a ring of pâte à choux. A few yards away, you’ll find XOX Truffles (754 Columbus Avenue) where French co-owner and chef Jean-Marc Gorce makes 27 different flavors of chocolate truffles by hand every day. For $1.75 you can get one truffle and a cup of Graffeo Coffee, a local coffee that has made a name with high-end suppliers all over the world.
A few blocks down, and not quite Italian, walk over to Chinatown’s Wing Sing Dimsum (1125 Stockton Street) if you find yourself craving for cheap and fantastic siomai and siopao. For a little history, you can visit City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Avenue), the oldest and most revered bookstore in the city, where the poets of the ‘69 Summer of Love started the movement.
Gems at Fisherman’s Wharf
From Little Italy, you can take a 20-minute walk to the Fisherman’s Wharf. Amidst overpriced T-shirts and keychains, there are true gems there that you must try for an authentic SF experience. Boudin Bakery and Cafe (160 Jefferson Street) is famous for their chowder bowl served in a sourdough bread boule. As a historic San Francisco attraction, you must not miss Ghirardelli Chocolate’s (900 Northpoint Street) world-famous sundaes, hot cocoa or free chocolate squares. In-N-Out-Burger (333 Jefferson Street), just a few steps away, is the chain’s only branch in town.
Union Square is the hub for shopping – its main feature being the second largest Macy’s in the US. During Christmas, they put out an outdoor ice-skating rink and 65-foot tall Christmas tree. Everything comes out sparkling, alive and absolutely beautiful at night. Off on Mission Street, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is an off-the-wall modern museum and garden worth visiting. For croissants and bread, nearby La Boulangerie is a famous San Francisco-based French restaurant and bakery.
Arts and culture at Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive) consists of over 1,000 hectares of public grounds. It houses several of the best museums in the country like the California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Drive). I can best describe it as a zoo with an iMax Globe Theater, giant underground aquarium, and a living plant life rooftop. Entrance costs $30 each during the day. But a wiser alternative would be to visit on a Thursday night, when there is a special event with cocktails for only $12 per person. Called Nightlife at the California Academy of Sciences, it’s a weekly themed event open only to adults over 21 years old, so expect to see everything you can see in the day, for half the price, and without children.
De Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive) is right across California Academy of Science. It is the city’s largest public arts institution and one of the five largest art museums in the US. For $10, you can get access to the Hamon Observation Tower for a 360-degree view of the entire city. The Japanese Tea Garden, (75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive) also in the vicinity, is the largest public Japanese garden in the US. I loved the little tea place where you can sip a hot beverage while staring at hand-carved greenery.
There’s more to San Francisco than one article can cover, but rest assured that these places – with a mix of touristy spots and hidden gems– are enough to give you a good picture of what it’s like to live in SF as a local. Crystal Neri