San Francisco conjures up images of the glorious sun, the reddish orange bridge, cable cars and more recently the Salesforce tower. The quintessential city of Silicon Valley dreams: AI, bitcoin, autonomous vehicles and famous Indians; has so much to do and so many places to see. I have lived here for three years and still find new places to visit each day. What the city lacks in fashion, it makes up in the sunny outdoors and technology. Almost everyone knows someone who lives in the bay area or is studying at Stanford. Come summers, my Indian brethren descend on this part of the world to enjoy the fun city and to meet their loved ones.
San Francisco is a dream city for the active - there are tons of hikes, picnics and beaches to explore. The combination of the metro, bus lines, trams and cable cars offers decent connectivity within the city. And don’t forget that you are in the city of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB and Google! Get your smartphone and you are all set. Whilst the tourist hordes check out the typical spots, read on for the places an insider would go to.
I would start the tour of San Francisco by taking you to the historic Ferry Building located in Embarcadero at the foot of the market street. Apart from being the hub for ferries, here you will find an artisan collection of cafes and food stores. The farmers market on Saturdays is an absolute treat to the senses. While exploring the market, catch a coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee and take it by the waterfront to enjoy. The sight of an 8-ft tall statue of Gandhi displayed prominently in the complex always makes me happy. While there, make reservations for dinner at Slanted Door.
Ride the Cable Car to Nob Hill
The cable car is a city landmark. If you show up at the busiest spots to catch the cable car, you will be standing in serpentine queues for such a long time that you will start feeling that hard cash is being handed out to people. I would ride the California line Cable Car as it has the least crowds and the most thrills. A quick walk from the Ferry Building will get you to California and Market, board the cable car, make the steep ride up the Nob hill area and get off at California and Taylor. Nob hill is an affluent area and is sometimes derisively referred to as Snob Hill. The location accords gorgeous views of the bay. Whiz past Grace Cathedral and walk downhill to the bustling Union Square.
There is a festive air about Union Square irrespective of the month you visit. Surrounded by a mix of Couture and high-street brand stores, there is always something going on in the Union Square. It could be an art exhibition, flea market, an ice rink during winters or the tallest Christmas tree to be seen during Christmas. It truly places you in the center of things. You could shop here or at the Westfield Centre - the largest mall in San Francisco, located a block away. The fun vibe is heightened by street music and performers at every turn. Hop on hop off tours start from Union Square as well.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
While I think that this place is a big tourist trap but it makes for a fun walk. There are plenty of souvenir shops , restaurants and video arcades along with lot of hustle bustle that puts you into holiday mode right away. People with kids will especially like the noisy sea lions hauled out on the docks of the Marina. To add to the cheer - head off to Ghirardelli square to enjoy an Ice Cream sundae.
Biking the Golden Gate Bridge
The best way to enjoy the Golden Gate bridge is to bike across it. Hire a bike(s) or tandem bike from Blazzing Saddles, located next to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. The staff will equip you with bikes, maps and safety gear. While one could choose from guided to self guided tours - I would recommend taking a self guided tour. The route is very simple and tourist friendly and most importantly - FLAT! Cruise along the car-free National Park Bike Path through Aquatic Park, Fort Mason, the Marina, and Presidio National Park to the base of the bridge. This is quite a stunning ride by itself.You’ll cross the bridge on the sidewalk with stunning views of the city and bay, then just a 10 minute downhill ride will take you into the charming bay side town of Sausalito. Sausalito is an art afficando’s heaven. With a dozen art galleries and lovely cafes, this is a lovely place to unwind and relax. Reward yourself with a meal and ice cream at Lappert’s before catching a ferry back (with your bike) to San Francisco. You could also choose to continue along a gorgeous waterfront bike path to the quaint fishing town of Tiburon, where you’ll find more great bay side restaurants and shops. Catch a quick seafood fare at Sam’s and take a ferry back to San Francisco. The fog rolls in pretty quickly in this area. Dress up in layers.
Explore the Golden Gate Park
Pack a picnic and head over to expansive and gorgeous Golden Gate park. It is huge and there is tons to see, wear comfortable shoes. I would highly recommended the peaceful Japanese Tea Garden. It features the classic arched drum bridges, zen garden, lanterns, pagodas and the delightful cherry blossom trees. Enjoy the traditional tea in the irori - the farmhouse style family table in the tea house. Once done, head over to 12-acre Stow Lake area. It is a man-made lake with an island in the middle. Sail around the boats or just take a leisurely stroll on the wooded paths and watch the turtles and ducks.
The Presidio area
Presidio is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has forested areas, miles of trails and even a golf course. It also has some of the fanciest houses in the city and some of the best scenic overlooks. You could walk it, bike it, run it or even drive around. The easy hikes that I enjoy the most are Lovers Lane trail and Andy Goldsworth’s Woodline hike.On the day when fog and wind have both called it quits and are letting the sun be - head out to the Baker’s beach. It offers great views of the bridge and marin headlands. If one is lucky, in the early hours of morning, you could catch the sight of sea lions and porpoises too. Do remember that water is cold and rip currents are strong so do not head out for a swim! We like flying kites and having a picnic in Crissy field area too.
Palace of Fine Arts
If you have had your fill of hikes and walking, head over to Palace of Fine Arts. There is no actual Palace though. It is a man-made structure in the middle of the city that hosts some classic art exhibitions and is occasionally a wedding venue as well. Children love running around in the greens and feeding the ducks. For the people seeking utmost relaxation - grab a book and spread out on the grass.
SF Bay Cruise in the night
The best way to explore unobstructed views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, the sunsets and Alcatraz is to go for a night or sunset cruise. There are multiple dinner options available both on and off the cruise boat. Dress warmly as the wind will pick up in the night.
Check out the local events
There are tons of events and fun activities lined up in San Francisco throughout the year. Do check out the local listing of events -Summers in particular are full of colourful carnivals, parades and marathons. Most of these events are free so reach early and grab your spot! The most famous of all is the legendary Stern Grove festival that runs each year. They run FREE summer concerts each year and have an excellent line up of top artists from around the world. SF ballet and SF Symphony groups perform quite often. The dates for this year are June 17- August 19, 2018. The concerts are held in this natural amphitheatre with tons of picnic spots that people line up for, from wee hours in the morning or you could reserve a picnic table. Open your bottle of wine and picnic hamper and listen to wonderful music surrounded by lush greenery. There is really no better way to enjoy the summers. The fall time of October is marked by the San Francisco Fleet Week in the honour of men and women serving in armed forces. For three consecutive days, the skies above the city’s waterfront turn into the playground for US Navy Blue Angels and Canadian Snowbirds. They put up a spectacular show of skill and power.
There are variety of activities for kids depending on the age: I would highly recommend the Exploratorium and California Academy of Sciences as an ode to all things science. For the more artistically inclined, there is the Children’s Creativity Museum. The San Francisco Zoo with its expansive exhibits and variety and mini train are fun experiences for the kids.
There are deals and more deals to be discovered during shopping. For the known brands: head over to the Union Square and Westfield centre for shopping your hearts out. I love walking past the chic boutiques and quaint stores in the Hayes Valley. While there, do check out the ice cream at Smitten, it is made in front of you and is the best ice cream I have had. They do limited flavours. Watch out for long queues though! For high end cafes and boutiques, do check out the Fillmore street as well. The bargain hunters may find peace in the suburbs and should plan a whole day at Livermore Outlet Malls or at the Great Mall in Milpitas.
Getting here: San Francisco Bay area has three airports: San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. There are multiple airlines, from low cost to regular, that connect the bay area with the rest of the world. While in SF, I would recommend using 511.org to maximise use of public transport or one could Uber rides. I do not recommend driving as the area is hilly and finding a parking can be tough.
Places to Stay: AirBnb is headquartered in SFO - there is no shortage of places to rent depending on the budget. All major hotel chains as well as boutique hotels can be found in SF. I would recommend staying near Union Square. All bus lines, tram lines as well as BART (metro) have a stop here so it is very easy to access.
Places to Eat: SF caters to all types of tastebuds. You will find a variety of Michelin-starred multiple cuisine dining options. Most are kid friendly. But reserve ahead of time. Check out Tartine Bakery for excellent breakfast options and desserts. I absolutely love the Greek food at Kokkari, dimsums at Yank Sing and Burmese food especially the tea leaf salad at Burma Superstar . Then you have Nobu, Kinjo, Californios, Rich Table and many other Michelin Starred restaurants.