By Nora Heston Tarte
If you’ve lived in San Joaquin County for long, chances are you’ve made your way to the city by the bay a time or two. You’re somewhere between a tourist and a local, and your San Francisco excursions should meet this special status. Don’t get caught in the same tourist traps you’ve frequented for years, instead experience San Francisco the way only the experienced novice can—half must-see attractions, half local-worthy hotspots.
Where to Stay:
Just because you’ve seen Downtown San Francisco before doesn’t mean it’s lost all appeal. There are plenty of reasons tourists clamor to this Northern California escape. Embrace the hustle and bustle of the city’s famed downtown at The Westin St. Francis in Union Square (335 Powell St.) where old world opulence abounds. The upscale establishment proffers silver coin cleaning (since 1938 the hotel has cleaned coins as a favor to its guests, a staple of the past since the practice started to keep ladies’ white gloves from becoming dirty), concierge service, and a juicery. Not to mention the Michael Mina-created Clock Bar (an advanced cocktail lounge) and contemporary Bourbon Steak restaurant. The Westin is the ideal home base for your weekend away. The renowned hotel (built in 1904) was good enough for Queen Elizabeth II, after all.
A variety of stylish rooms make customizing your getaway both possible and financially plausible. Whether you go all out on a high-level suite, or cozy up in a classic one-bedroom, the choice is yours. Even the quaintest accommodations are gorgeously adorned with crystal chandeliers hanging from high ceilings and large windows that boast striking views of the city, perfect for cuddling close during sunrise and sunset.
From San Joaquin County, the drive should take roughly two hours or less, depending on your starting location. Before check-in stop off at the Boudin Bakery (251 Geary St.) for a light lunch. The croissant sandwich piled with crisp produce and fresh avocado is a can’t miss—or warm up in the chilly San Francisco summer with a bowl of Boudin soup (in a bread bowl, of course). Don’t forget to stock up on loaves of San Francisco’s signature bread while you’re there. Several tasty varieties are sold in the shop.
Grade A Sourdough: Sure, bakeries scattered throughout Northern California offer this treat, but there’s a reason grabbing a loaf of sourdough bread (or at least a sandwich made with the San Francisco staple) is better in the city. The sour taste likened to this bread is actually derived from the wild yeast used to make it. But not all wild yeast is identical. The bacteria in San Francisco interact with the bread to create a distinct taste.
Once you’ve fueled up for the weekend ahead, take a drive through the city. Leisurely driving is not often associated with the traffic-packed streets of San Francisco, but don’t worry, you have a specific destination in mind.
As a local-adjacent, you’ve surely seen the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory, but have you identified the best lookout spot? Ironically, it’s not in the city at all. Head north (over the bridge) to Marin County. Take the exit toward Battery Spencer (Conzelman Rd., Sausalito), a former military installation that existed to protect the bridge and surrounding bay from invaders during World War II. Here you’ll get the shot reminiscent of postcards sold in Fisherman Wharf gift shops.
For the best view, continue on the steep and winding road to Hawk Hill (Conzelman Rd.). Whip out your smart phone (or the best camera you’ve got!) and snap a panoramic of the golden gate bridge with the sparkling city as its backdrop.
Once you’ve soaked it all in, head back. One more worthy trip over the Golden Gate Bridge and (finally) to your weekend headquarters for check in. Stop in the lobby coffee shop for a signature Starbucks beverage before heading up to your room to settle in. Unpack, unwind, and get ready for the evening. Start early so you’ll have time to do it all.
Saunter downstairs to the aforementioned Clock Bar where expansive wine lists make selecting a single glass seem impractical. Off the main lobby, the swanky, cool bar matches the luxurious air of the rest of the hotel so you can feel like royalty while you sip wines from across the globe. Don’t stay too long or you’ll miss the boat—a Hornblower cruise is your next stop.
All aboard! Catch your vessel at Pier 3 (Embarcadero and Washington streets) at 7 PM and enjoy a three-hour cruise across the bay (7:30-10:30 PM). Here you’ll be served a five-course dinner complete with wine, beer, and cocktails of choice. After your stomach is satisfied, head to the dance floor where a DJ takes requests to keep crowds engaged. Trips to the bar to stay hydrated—water, soda, hot tea, and coffee are also available—will break up the evening, but the best place to spend your time off the dance floor is on one of three outdoor decks where breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay are aplenty.
There’s no shortage of space on the 183-foot California Hornblower for cruisers to marvel at the scenery while sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz, and through bay waters, even catching stunning views of the new Bay Bridge (which was completed in 2013). On July 4, the Hornblower is an ideal place to see the fireworks over the water.
At 10:30 PM as you slip back into Pier 3, head toward your hotel—but not to bed. Lefty O’Doul’s Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge (333 Geary St.) is overflowing with excitement. A steep staircase will lead you underground to a casual bar with dueling pianos for entertainment. Make a request, dance on stage, and finish your night strong.
When the bar closes out at 2 AM, it’s time to call it a night. As you stroll the busy streets back to the Westin, grab a slice of pizza at Bella Luca (418 Geary St.)—the best place to pick up quality midnight snacks well after midnight.
Cozy up in your Heavenly® bed and catch some Z’s. Another day of adventure waits.
Rub the sleep from your eyes and head downstairs for day two of your big city escape. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and you’ll need your energy. Stop into Mymy (150 California St.), a cozy (yet insanely popular) breakfast stop downtown. The colorful café specializes in morning fare like eggs Benedict, pancakes, and French toast. The lemon ricotta pancake blends house made ricotta with macerated strawberry coulis for a delectable breakfast plate you can top with Vermont maple syrup. For a more traditional dish, grab one of their famed Benedicts (from Norwegian to Perma Flavor, there’s an array to choose from). Fancy a mimosa? They’ve got those, too. Cheers!
Now, hop in the car and head to the beach. Baker Beach is another top spot for grabbing photos of the Golden Gate, but parts of it are known for being a nude beach so the bridge is likely not the only spectacle you’ll see. For dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean, try Ocean Beach near Golden Gate Park. Long sandy stretches are a wonderful place to partake in a romantic morning stroll.
SIDEBAR: San Francisco has a coffee shop on every corner (and only half of them are Starbucks!) Try something different. Locals love Philz Coffee—handcrafted, drip coffee made one cup at a time. There’s several in the city, where the company got its start (PhilzCoffee.com).
Fill your day with lesser-known attractions. The Seward Street Slides (30 Seward St.) is a set of concrete slides loved by adults and children alike. Bring a piece of cardboard—frequent sliders say that’s the best way to go! For more speed, wax your “board.”
Next up, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps (16th Ave.). Looking for a workout? Locals run up and down for a grueling cardio session. Or just marvel at how pretty they are—and snap some shots for your Instagram.
Last up on your picturesque picture tour, the Painted Ladies (Steiner St.). Known for their appearance in the opening credits of popular sitcom Full House (also seen in Bicentennial Man and Invasion of the Body Snatchers), tourists love to visit these vibrantly colored houses dubbed “postcard row.” For the best photo op, head to Alamo Square Park and snap away. Inside tours are available if you plan ahead.
Stop-off for lunch during your busy day of sightseeing. Worthwhile spots include: Pluto’s (3258 Scott St. or 627 Irving St.) a mini-chain boasting out-of-this-world food; Pasquale’s Pizzeria Restaurant (700 Irving St.) an Italian eatery in Inner Sunset featuring hand-tossed pizzas to share and other traditional Italian cuisine; and Calzone’s (430 Columbus Ave.) in North Beach where you should honestly just get a calzone.
After you’ve had a chance to get ready for your second night on the town, head to the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar (950 Mason St.), a tiki-themed longue in the Fairmont Hotel where Pacific Rim cuisine and tropical drinks (complete with tiny umbrellas) reign supreme. If you still have the energy to carry on, there are loads of nighttime activities. Ruby Skye (420 Mason St.) is just down the street, complete with VIP booths and live music. If nightclubs tickle your fancy, continue to Slide (430 Mason St.) where a ride down a giant slide is a whimsical entrance to this upbeat hotspot with an impressive roster of DJs.
If you choose to skip the club scene all together, opt for a (slightly) low-key night. Beach Blanket Babylon (678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd.) is a city show with a twist. Forgo the Broadway musicals and instead get lost in this insanely funny, hilariously campy, and slightly inappropriate musical revue with a focus on current events.
Before heading out of town, there’s just enough time to grab another hearty breakfast. Squat & Gobble Café & Creperie (with three locations in the city) is a worthy last stop. The Chestnut Street location (2263 Chestnut St.) is closest to the Westin. Go traditional with a plate full of Belgian waffles, pancakes, or French toast, or try one of the café’s specialties like the Breakfast Burrito (filled to the brim with eggs, peppers, cheese, ranchero, and more) or the Crab Cake Florentine (two crab cakes, two poached eggs, and sautéed spinach on an English muffin).
That’s it! Time’s up! Head back to reality. But don’t forget to come back soon—before you know it you’ll be upgraded from experienced novice to city connoisseur.