San Francisco is a destination that needs to be on everyone’s list of must-go places. After this trip, I realize it’s also a destination you could visit five times and have five completely different experiences.
It’s the perfect place to visit for a long weekend, get lost in the city’s romance, drink the best cocktails, eat the best food, and immerse yourself in the art, music, and architecture. It’s also a fantastic place to take a family trip, explore parks and museums and experience all the classic San Francisco spots that show up on postcards. Here, the classic touristy destinations somehow don’t feel touristy. Riding cable cars is endlessly charming, watching the sea lions howl and belch between naps is pure entertainment, and the Golden Gate Bridge is magical in a way that can’t be captured in photos. San Francisco is also the ideal jump point for other phenomenal destinations, including Yosemite National Park, the Napa and Sonoma wine countries, or a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Any of these excursions would be incomplete without an exploration of San Francisco.
We’ve been to San Francisco, but this trip felt like it was the first time. Every experience was a new one. If you are looking for inspiration for your trip, here are some recommendations from our excursion.
If you are a person who loves to wander through new places on foot, San Francisco will reward you. It is a city of distinct neighbourhoods, intriguing architecture, and dynamic landscapes, all best observed from two feet on the ground. Be warned; the hills are large and numerous! If you can handle a hike, it’s all part of the fun! It’s an excellent place to turn off Yelp, and Google Reviews, keep your eyes open and talk to locals, who are generally very friendly and happy to suggest their favourite spots. Perfectly crafted espresso drinks from The Coffee Movement, at a standing bar on the street watching the cable cars go by. Resting in the sunshine on the green grass of Lafayette Park, refreshed by the aromas of lavender and eucalyptus trees. Finding agave treasures at Tahona Mercado, a small corner shop specializing in hard-to-find mezcal, tequila, and raicilla. Treating tastebuds to hand-crafted flavours of Philmore Creamery. Standing in awe of the immense gothic interior of Grace Cathedral. These are all experiences we discovered just by walking and talking. I recommend you seek out all the places mentioned, but the point is to find your own adventure.
When San Francisco is mentioned, certain landmarks jump to mind: the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Warf, Coit Tower, etc. For some reason, The Presidio is not often mentioned in the “must-do” lists on big travel sites. Perhaps it’s because, for 219 years, The Presidio was a military base, not offering much to civilians. In 1994, all 1500 acres were transferred to the National Park Service, and the area quickly developed into a “must-do” attraction when visiting San Francisco. It has the feel of a park, with towering eucalyptus trees and, views of the Pacific stretching to the horizon, red-tailed hawks floating in the drafts above. But there is also a neighbourhood feel, as many of the 800 military buildings have been restored and made into residences and commercial spaces.
A good place to start is Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre park which opened in July 2022. For decades, the Presidio’s Main Post was cut off from the waterfront by the freeway to and from the Golden Gate Bridge. The newly constructed Presidio Parkway takes the freeway underground, making space for the Tunnel Tops park to sprawl down the ocean, filled with fun. You will find excellent views of the Golden Gate, inspiring walks, a playground that will enthrall kids, places to picnic and barbecue, a selection of food trucks, and many more details and delights.
THE WALT DISNEY FAMILY MUSEUM
This is a compelling, inspirational walk through the life and work of Walt Disney. The museum, located within The Presidio, is cleverly designed to allow visitors to move chronologically through Walt Disney’s life, from the migration of his family to the US to his early drawings, to the creation of Mickey Mouse, to the building of the Disney empire, and so much more. The exhibits are a nice mix of memorabilia, vintage equipment, images, multimedia, and interactive displays, providing a layered, dynamic experience. Get a close-up view of the paper bearing the earliest known sketches of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, watch videos on the development of the multiplane camera, and learn to operate an animatronic bird. There is ample use of audio and video interviews with Walt, sharing detailed stories of how a film was made or a project was developed. The effect is that Walt Disney is narrating his life’s journey.
The museum was founded by Walt’s daughter, Dianne Disney Miller, and operates outside the Walt Disney Company. It feels intimate and personal rather than a corporate showpiece. There is something for all ages, but grown-ups will have a particularly rich experience here. Getting to know Walt as a creative risk taker, an entrepreneur, a visionary, and a family man feels relevant to every generation.
WALKING TOUR OF CHINATOWN
San Francisco is home to North America’s oldest and largest Chinatown, which is still a vibrant hub of Chinese American life. Walking through the bustling streets and 41 historic alleys is the best way to enjoy. You can easily find tasty things, from handmade dumplings to braised pig’s feet. There are endless shops to peruse, from The Canton Bazaar to the Red Blossom Tea Company. Discovering Chinatown on your own is easy, but it can be worth having a tour guide to give you insights and point out details of the neighbourhood that you will miss otherwise. Gimmy from Wok Wiz was our guide. With a nice mix of humour and wisdom, she gave us background on historical sites, insights into Chinese medicine shops, explanations of murals, and a walk by the Chinese Hospital where she was born.
Kimpton Alton Hotel – Fisherman’s Wharf
Kimpton dramatically transformed a building that formerly housed a Holiday Inn into The Alton, a fun, inspiring hotel steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf. The hotel is named after Alton Kelley, whose elaborate, psychedelic album and poster art helped define the sixties. Kimpton uses Alton as a name but also as a muse. Their approach is to ask, “what would the muse do?” when designing the hotel’s experience. While The Alton is far from an acid trip, it has a vibe that puts you in a groovy mood—starting with the social hour, packing the lobby with guests, and getting conversations bubbling with complimentary wine. And then, so many details come together to give The Alton an inviting hipness. Each room is fitted with a Victrola record player and a selection of vinyl which you can swap out from a bin at the front desk. More wine, and a complimentary bottle, are waiting in your room when you check-in. The beds are luxuriously comfortable. The staff are delightful. It’s pet-friendly, so we met several lovely pooches in the elevator. The restaurant is reason enough to stay here. Abacà is a Filipino-Californian restaurant by Chef Francis Ang. The food draws from heritage family recipes and flavours and incorporates the best ingredients found in California. In addition to the food, their cocktail menu is unique and delicious, including the oh-so-instagramable Ube Colada. If you want the convenience of being close to Fisherman’s Wharf but want a place with energy and sophistication, The Alton is your choice.
St. Regis is a destination for luxury amid the bustling SoMa District. The property has recently been renovated, and the updates give a fresh and inspiring feel. The rooms are large and stylish, many with fantastic views of the cityscape and the Twin Peaks rising in the background. The service, comfort, and elegant design all live up to the five-star rating.
Our day started with breakfast in Astra, a bright, beautiful, open space providing a vibe of comfortable luxe. In the lobby, the St. Regis Bar is the spot for craft cocktails or, if you are feeling like a billionaire, a shot of The Macallan MMXVIII. Gold metalwork stretches above the bar, across the ceiling and down the other side of the room, giving the stylized impression of a San Francisco cable car. The food is elevated American fare, focusing on seasonal California ingredients.
The Empress by Boon.
Woah, this place is incredible. Just entering Empress by Boon, you feel transported to a different realm, coming off the street into the ornate elevator and emerging into the expansive, highly-designed space. Everywhere you look is a well thought detail. Many of the tables are situated to take advantage of views of the city below, stretching out and up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower.
From Michelin-star-status Chef Ho Chee Boon, the menu is prix fixe, seasonal, modern Cantonese fare. Each elegantly plated dish was a delight in taste and texture. The wine and spirits lists are extensive, with ample choices to please connoisseurs. A considered wine pairing is available to accompany the meal. The cocktails are inventive and unique. Go here.
Located in the eco-chic 1 Hotel, Terrene emphasizes sourcing ingredients within a 100-mile radius, getting as close as the hotel’s rooftop garden, which provides ingredients for cocktails and dishes, including honey from the beehives. Chef Scott Koranda has built relationships with local organic and sustainable food purveyors to take advantage of the abundance of California. From finding innovative ways to use every little piece of the ingredients to diligent composting practices, Terrene strives for a zero-waste, eco-conscious kitchen. So, they check all the sustainability boxes, but is the food good? YES. It’s fantastic. Like, really good. There is a Mediterranean bent to the seasonal menu, with a selection of dips and ingredients like harissa, labneh, and halloumi. When read off the menu, items like Steak Skewer or Hummus seem plain enough. But it takes one bite to realize there is elevated attention to detail, making the flavours sing your tastebuds a beautiful song. Our party of six ordered nearly everything on the menu, and there were no duds. The za’atar fries are a must.
The meticulous attention to detail is also present in Terrene’s creative, original cocktail list. They lean into agave spirits with dynamic cocktail creations and a thoughtfully curated selection of tequila and mezcal. Even if agave isn’t your thing, there is sure to be a cocktail you will enjoy.
Greens is a celebration of vegetables. This restaurant is a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement and, for over four decades, has been delighting locals and visitors with exquisite, vegetarian culinary delights. There is no attempt to emulate meat dishes here; vegetables are given the stage and spotlighted with deft preparation and scrumptious ingredients. The menu relies on seasonal ingredients, and many dishes are vegan and gluten-free. Even if vegetarian food isn’t your bag, don’t be deterred from trying Greens. Even the most voracious carnivore will leave with a satisfied belly. The restaurant is laid out through a voluminous Fort Mason warehouse space with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the Marina to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. The setting alone is reason enough to come. If you can time your meal for sunset, you are in for a treat (if the weather cooperates).
Colibri Mexican Bistro
After two decades of success in Union Square, Colibri Mexican Bistro has a new home in the Presidio Officer’s Club, which may be San Francisco’s oldest building. The extensive menu focuses on central Mexican fare and is elevated by top-quality ingredients, creative presentation, and outstanding service. Whether sitting inside the comfort of the thick adobe walls or in the sunshine on the sprawling patio, the atmosphere is relaxed and inspiring; the perfect place to take a nourishing break from a day exploring the Presidio. Make sure to look at the tortilla station off the patio, where all of Colibri’s tortillas and antojitos are handmade in the traditional way.