My bay area travel guide

Mike and I are still San Francisco newbies, but we dove in headfirst to exploring our new home, and we came up with a big list of places we like to go and things we like to eat here. (Go here for a shorter, top 10 list). I will keep adding to this post as we discover even more, but for now, here is our guide to the bay area — come visit!

SAN FRANCISCO (sorted by neighborhood)

Embarcadero/Fisherman’s Wharf

Ferry Building: Just a short walk from the Embarcadero BART stop is the Ferry Building. It’s a foodie heaven with upscale shops selling local products. A great place to pick up souvenirs, use the (actually nice) bathrooms, and sample the farmers market on Saturday mornings. Inside you’ll find:
Blue Bottle Coffee: A coffee snob’s dream. Coffees are small and pricey, but worth the wait in line. Drip coffees are individually perked with care. And you must try the caramelized waffles for a breakfast treat.
Miette Bakery. Darling bakery with cute cakes, cupcakes, macarons, and cookies. I recommend the graham crackers.
The Slanted Door. Highly recommended restaurant for Vietnamese. You will probably need a reservation unless you order from the to-go restaurant around the corner.
There’s also the Cowgirl Creamery (fancy cheeses), Boccalone (tasty salted pig parts), Il Cane Rosso (yummy sandwiches) and a Heath Ceramics shop (handmade in Sausalito), among others. Outside, the RoliRoti stand is famous for its porchetta sandwich, and you can pick up some Rancho Gordo heirloom beans.


Inside the Ferry Building.

Alcatraz: If you keep walking north from the Ferry Building you’ll get to the departure spot for cruises to Alcatraz. Tours of the island/prison leave about every half hour and cost about $25 per person. You’ll probably need to buy tickets in advance online, especially in the summertime. Not only is the history of the place incredible, but it provides (ironically) the best views of the city.

Fisherman’s Wharf: This is a certified tourist trap, but it’s a good place to walk out on to the piers and get photos of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Some of the street performers are pretty cool. Watch out for the guy who pretends to jump out of a bush. There are lots of mall-type shops, and places to get your name on a license plate and San Fran magnets. Places worth stopping:
Pier 39. This is where you’ll find sea lions sunbathing and barking. They disappeared in 2010, but thankfully are back now.
Boudin Bakery. There’s always someone making San Francisco sourdough bread creatures in the window. Inside you can get the best clam chowder in a bread bowl at the cafe.
Musee Mechanique. This museum of coin-operated machines is free, and filled with historical treasures.


Soup in a bread bowl at Boudin Bakery.

North Beach/Telegraph Hill

Coit Tower: I hope you wore comfy shoes because it’s quite an uphill walk to get to Coit Tower. But it’s only a few bucks to ride up to the top and get a great view of the city. This area is called Telegraph Hill, and you may have heard of it from a movie about the flock of wild parrots that made its home here. Sometimes we see (but mostly just hear) the parrots around town.

Washington Square Park: This is a great neighborhood park for dog and people watching. There’s a beautiful church on one end. There’s also a breakfast place called Mama’s that always has a huge line (though Mike says it’s overrated). If you walk down Stockton, you’ll come to the Goorin Bros. hat shop — one of our favorite places to shop. If you head east on Union Street you’ll come to one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Don Pistos. It’s great for a date night! The food is sort of like an upscale taco truck.

Lombard Street: While you’re in this area you might also want to visit the iconic crooked section of Lombard Street. Again, it’s a heck of a hill to walk up, but you don’t want to miss this photo op. Also, the neighborhood nearby is a great place just to wander the streets and admire the classic row houses with bay windows. It’s surprisingly quiet back there, and feels like a nice break.

Columbus Ave.: This diagonal street runs right up to Chinatown, and is kind of like San Francisco’s Little Italy. There are cafes and restaurants all over. We love stopping at one of the bakeries for chocolate-dipped cannolis. Some other notables:
The Stinking Rose. This restaurant is decorated with cute fringe-y lamps, and known for garlic-based dishes.
• City Lights Bookstore. This indie bookstore is famous for publishing “Howl,” and winning an obscenity lawsuit because of it. They published many works by beat poets, and you can see them all in the storefront windows.
Vesuvio. Our favorite bar in San Francisco. The beat poets used to hang out here, and you can see their photos on the walls. The owners are aging hippies, the bartenders are fun hipsters, including the two that put together the A Fair to Remember craft show in Jack Kerouac Alley next door.

North Beach shopping: If you turn north on Grant Ave. (opposite from Chinatown) you’ll come to a fun shopping district full of local boutiques, including the one that carries my poufs, Park and Pond. Not too far from there is one of the best pizza places in the country, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.


Quirky Vesuvio.

Chinatown

Grant Ave.: If you walk down Grant, you’ll get a good taste of Chinatown. If you want the full-on cultural immersion, take the bus. Of course a lot of the stores are tourist traps, but there are also lovely tea rooms and places to buy Chinese herbs. The secret we learned was to find a bakery and get a sweet bun. Some of them are filled with custard or buttercream, and they are yummy!

In San Francisco you don’t just get Chinese food, you get a certain type of Chinese food. Some restaurants to try:

Brandy Ho’s: Just down Columbus from Vesuvio is one of our favorite Chinese restaurants, Brandy Ho’s. We like it because it’s pretty laid back, the menu is not too complicated, and the food is always good. The style is Hunan, which is pretty spicy, and not very saucy. We love the salt and pepper calimari.

• An authentic dim sum experience is a must-do in San Francisco. Servers come around with carts offering you different dishes. If you say yes to everything, you’ll be sorry and overfull, so choose carefully. Go with a group and share dishes, if you can. One place to try is City View Restaurant, which is a little nicer, pricier, and caters to the financial district crowd or the Hang Ah Tea Room, a little hidden gem.


Mmmm, dim sum.

The Mission

Taquerias: As you can imagine, the Mission is known as the place to get tacos and burritos. This neighborhood can be a little sketchy, but it has become one of our favorite places to eat and explore. You can basically wander into any of the taquerias and try them out. We tried Pancho Villa, and really liked it. I recommend the carnitas in just about anything.

Esperpento: This Spanish tapas restaurant reminded us so much of the casual places we ate at in Spain. The wine is the most affordable I’ve seen in the bay area, and the fried peppers and chorizo were totally authentic.


Pimientos de padron from Esperpento.

Valencia St.: A walk down Valencia Street always makes me happy — it’s full of the restaurants, bars, and shops that make San Francisco such a vibrant and quirky city. You can walk there easily from either of the Mission BART stops.

Tartine Bakery: Tartine is a magical place where the bread is fresh, the tarts are perfect, and you can drink a giant latte out of a bowl.

Pizzeria Delfina: This restaurant is right by Tartine, and is a great place to try pizzas made with local ingredients. You just walk in and write your name on the chalkboard, and they call you when they have a table open. It’s the perfect blend of high-quality food and a laid-back vibe.

Bi-Rite Creamery: Bi-Rite is probably the best ice cream you will ever have. They’re known for their salted caramel flavor, but they have lots of other seasonal flavors to try. We always get a sundae so we can split it. Don’t be discouraged if there is a line wrapping around the block. It moves quickly. If you don’t want to wait in line you can always go down to the Bi-Rite market down the street and grab a pint from the freezer.


Lemon tartlette from Tartine.

Golden Gate Bridge

You can walk, bike, or drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, or you can stop at one of the vista points to take some photos. If you need to rent a bike, you can go to one of the Blazing Saddles locations. If you enjoy walking you can start at the Crissy Field area and follow the path toward the bridge for great photo ops. The roof at Fort Point is right underneath the bridge.

Golden Gate Park: This is a huge park right in the city where you can picnic, bike, lay out and read, or toss around a Frisbee. You can also take a bus all the way to the end of the park, where you can see the ocean.

Ocean Beach: The water is usually pretty freezing here, but you can dip your toes in or just watch the waves crash up against the shore. Be sure to visit the Cliff House for dinner with an amazing view.

Fort Funston: There’s a great dog beach here, and you can watch hang gliders as they take off from a cliff over the ocean.

Other places of note:

San Francisco has tons of neighborhoods, more than I could possibly describe in this already-too-long post. Here’s a nice overview of them. And some other spots I can recommend:

Union Street shopping: If you don’t mind joining the yuppies, there is some great shopping (especially midcentury funiture, boutique clothing, and such) in the Cow Hollow neighborhood. And one of our favorite places to eat is Umami Burger. Get the sweet potato fries and an ice cream sandwich for dessert.

Alamo Square Park: OK, you know you want to see the place that’s in the opening credits of “Full House.” That would be Alamo Square, and the row of “painted ladies,” the Victorian houses that line the street.


“Everywhere you look…”

Ike’s Place: This is a great sandwich stop in the Castro neighborhood. It’s been featured on a lot of Travel Channel and Food Network shows. What’s cool is that they offer vegan, vegetarian, and meaty menus.

Dosa: We’ve been to the Japantown location of this South Indian restaurant, and we loved it. Dosas are huge lentil crepes stuffed with seasoned potato (or other) fillings and dipped in various sauces. This restaurant is a little more upscale, a great place to meet friends for drinks in addition to the good food.

Nopalito: We love this neighborhood Mexican restaurant. They take a lot of care sourcing their ingredients, and the food and drinks are excellent. You may want to call ahead to get on the waiting list at busy times.

MARIN COUNTY

Muir Beach and Muir Woods: If you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll be in Marin County, which is where a lot of wealthy people live, and a lot of city people vacation. Outdoorsy opportunities abound, and the beaches are amazing. Both Muir Beach and Muir Woods are great places to explore without having to go too far.


Sunset on Muir Beach.

Point Reyes National Seashore: If you’re interested in a longer hike, a relaxing day at the beach, or a place to spot wildlife with your camera, you might consider a trip to Point Reyes. There are lovely places to camp in the woods. There are longer trails where you can hike all day. Or you can drive to one of the many beaches. This is where we saw whales!


Limantour Beach.

Marin County is also home to the infamous San Quentin prison. But you don’t want to go there.


EAST BAY

Berkeley

Cal campus: As surprising as it is to me, downtown Berkeley is not the most appealing place to hang out. It’s kind of dirty. There are lots of homeless people and aggressive panhandlers. It seems like it could be a great neighborhood, but it’s not really. However, the University of California Berkeley campus is right next to downtown, and it’s a lovely place to wander in the woods, nap in the grass, or join a protest. :) The block where Mike works (Center St.) has a lot of good restaurants, and there are a few places bordering campus worth visiting:
Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen. Great place to get gumbo, fried chicken, and our favorite mac ‘n cheese. Get there early — there’s always a wait.
Cinnaholic. Fresh baked vegan cinnamon rolls — you pick the icing flavor and a topping. This is a very good idea.
Top Dog. Sometimes you just want a $5 hot dog lunch. Top Dog offers all kinds of meaty or vegetarian variations in a no-frills environment.
Phil’s Sliders. They specialize in tiny burgers, square tater tots and shakes. What’s not to love?
Chocolatier Blue. They make the prettiest chocolates you’ve ever seen in various seasonal flavors. Ask for tastes! There is also a second location on 4th Street.
Gather. This place is always packed. It’s a trendy restaurant that focuses on sustainability.


Beautiful trees on the Cal campus.

Berkeley Bowl. Honestly, the Berkeley Bowl is one of my favorite things about living here. Once a bowling alley, it got turned into a grocery store, and now there’s a second bigger location. When you walk in you are just completely blown away by the selection of local, organic, sustainably raised selections. It’s like Whole Foods on steroids. The secret is definitely out, and it becomes a cart-crashing madhouse on the weekends. But you have to go!

Tilden Regional Park/Grizzly Peak: A drive up Grizzly Peak Blvd. will take you into the Berkeley Hills where you can get some amazing views of the East Bay (and see how the other half lives). There are also lots of outdoorsy things (hiking, biking, picnics, kids activities) to do in Tilden.

4th Street shopping district. This is kind of the upscale shopping neighborhood. There’s an Anthropologie, a cb2, a MAC store, a Paper Source, and on and on. But our favorite reason to go is…
Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Strangely, there is not actually an ocean view at Bette’s. But who cares? The breakfasts here are incredible. It’s much better than your typical diner food. They’re known for big souffle pancakes, but we like to go there on Mondays for their special sourdough pancakes.


Sourdough pancakes from Bette’s.

The Gourmet Ghetto. This is the area around Chez Panisse. I actually don’t know it as well as I should. There is clearly more food exploration needed! But here are some good places to check out:
Chez Panisse. The legendary restaurant started by Alice Waters in the 1970s. Multi-course dinners are very pricey, but you should be able to get reservations for weekday lunches in the cafe pretty easily.
Cheese Board Pizza Collective. This food co-op has a pizza restaurant that serves one type of pie a day. You can get a slice, or half or a whole pizza. This is another place with a line worth standing in.
Barney’s burgers. They have several locations in the area serving GREAT gourmet burgers and fries. They’re veggie-friendly, too, of course.
Twig and Fig. Check out the old letterpress machines in the window of this paper store. They have lots of cute cards, and they do all kinds of custom work.
• Wednesday nights you can find a bunch of food trucks gathering near Saul’s deli (a great place to get a pastrami sandwich) — it’s an offshoot of San Francisco’s Off the Grid event. The fivetenburger truck is super popular.


Pesto pasta from Chez Panisse.

Acme Bread. This is a great local bakery (you can find their bread in a lot of grocery stores). Just go up to the window and order sweet baguettes, walnut levain, croissants, or whatever you want for the day. Perfect picnic fare! Next door is Alice Waters’ petite Cafe Fanny and next to that the acclaimed Kermit Lynch wine merchant.

Casa Latina. This is technically a bakery, and their pastries are amazing. But they also have the best carnitas I’ve had anywhere in the bay area.

The Albatross. This quirky pub allows dogs before 8 p.m.! They have a great drink menu, darts, $1 popcorn, and trivia night on Sundays, when it is absolutely packed.

Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses. If you want a souvenir that says Berkeley, this is a great one. To shop, you go to this guy’s house, which used to double as a jazz club. Pick out one of the adorable birdhouses made of driftwood and salvaged parts, and engage in some weird conversation.


Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses.

College Avenue and Rockridge. This shopping district starts south of campus in Berkeley and eventually turns into Oakland. I recommend exploring the whole thing. There are some great bars, restaurants, and shops along the way. These are some of our favorites:
Tara’s Organic Ice Cream. In addition to be organic, the ice creams here come in all kinds of unique flavors like coriander and bay laurel. But I like to stick to ordinary flavors like chocolate and peanut butter. Either way you get two little scoops for like $3, and it’s so, so good.
Marica. This seafood restaurant is fantastic. The drinks are amazing, the food is creative and delicious. The service is some of the best we’ve come across. And you must try the life-changing chocolate souffle for dessert.
Flavors of India. This is our favorite little Indian restaurant for saag paneer and chicken tikka masala.
La Farine. This is a beautiful French bakery, where everything looks almost too pretty to eat. Almost. Try the ham and cheese pastries for breakfast.
Crossroads Trading Co. A great place to shop for gently used clothing.


The life-changing chocolate souffle at Marica.

Oakland

Temescal. I still have a lot of exploring to do in Oakland, but a good place to start your explorations is the Temescal neighborhood. Like Rockridge, it has a lot of great shops, bars, and restaurants. But where Rockridge is a lot of wealthy housewives, Temescal is for the tragically hip.
Bakesale Betty. The menu is short and sweet here: fried chicken sandwiches (or egg salad), lemon freezes, and lots of scrumptious desserts. The line is always long, but it moves fast. You eat al fresco on a vintage ironing board. It is awesome.
Dona Tomas. This restaurant is on the fancier side of Mexican food, but it lives up to the long descriptions and pricey cocktails. It’s some of the best Mexican I’ve ever had.
• Article Pract. This is probably the most well-stocked knitting store I’ve ever been to. The people are friendly and helpful, and they offer knitting classes, too.
Lanesplitter Pizza. Lanesplitter has several locations, but I like this one especially because of the decor (vintage motorcycles). The pizza here is more floppy, like New York pizza, and really good.
Pizzaiolo. Two of us managed to spend something like $88 eating here (ouch!) but the atmosphere is ultra hip, the drinks are great, and the pizza is the bubbly oven-fired variety.
Scream Sorbet. They have a changing menu of seasonal flavors. If you feel like something a little lighter than ice cream, try sorbet.
Aunt Mary’s Cafe. Southern comfort breakfast and brunch. Everything on the menu is a little unique — try the pain perdu or chicken and waffles.


Pizza from Pizzaiolo.

Shan Dong. Nothing fancy here. Just a really good family-run Chinese restaurant. When you walk in you see rows of giant buns just waiting to be eaten. Try the onion pancake, a soup with homemade noodles, and sauteed eggplant.

Old Oakland. This is a really lovely restaurant and shopping district. We have yet to explore most of it, but we can highly recommend The Trappist for Belgian beers and gastropub fare.

Taco trucks. They’re all over Oakland, and they serve open-face tacos in a variety of meats for about $1 each. I can’t remember the name of the one we liked, but it was parked in front of the Goodwill on International Blvd.

Bay street mall. Technically this is in Emeryville, but I’m mashing it in with Oakland. In addition to the mall, which has J.Crew, Gap, H&M, Aldo, and lot of my other favorite stores, the area around it has an IKEA, a West Elm, and a bunch of other big box stores. If you need just about anything, you will probably find it here.

Solano Ave.

Solano starts in Berkeley and ends in Albany. The street is lined with really good restaurants and a few stores. These are some of our faves:
Zachary’s Pizza. They do Chicago deep dish surprisingly well here. The pizzas are huge! It’s always busy, so you can put your pizza order in while you wait for a table, which usually works out so it comes right after you sit down.
Cactus Taqueria. For affordable Mexican food you can’t do much better than Cactus. The crunchy tacos are the best I’ve had. The salsas are all really good. It usually costs about $15 for us to eat.
Little Star Pizza. Little Star has become our go-to restaurant. They also have deep-dish pizza, but it’s a little more reasonably sized and a little more gourmet than Zachary’s. The interior is nicely decorated, and they also let you put in your order before you sit down. I highly recommend this place.
Taqueria Talavera. This is another go-to place for us. We really love the pork mole guajillo, which you can get in a giant burrito.
Nizza la Bella. This place is too cute. It’s actually a little French restaurant that serves things like steak frites for dinner. I’d like to try it another time for brunch. They even have slunch!
Pegasus Books. I could spend hours in this bookstore. The way things are arranged I just seem to find dozens of books I want to read. The bargain section actually has a lot of newer stuff on it. And I love looking through their selection of letterpress cards.


More pizza! From Little Star.

More East Bay

Albany dive bars. Not too far from our house is a stretch of random dive bars that are worth a little crawl. There’s the The Ivy Room, where we discovered a bartender who had also moved from Des Moines, lodge-y Club Mallard, and the Hotsy Totsy Club, which has a bar dog, a taco truck parked outside, and old burlesque movies playing all the time.

Pacific East Mall. This pan-Asian mall pretty close to our house has Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and hot pot restaurants, plus a grocery store, bakery, and other stores. We really like the Szechuan place and want to try the restaurant where you grill your own food. There’s a Ranch 99 grocery store inside.

El Cerrito Hillside Natural Area. Just a hop-skip from our house is a great hiking area in the hills of El Cerrito. Once you get up a ways you can turn around and get a spectacular view of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. It’s a pretty vigorous hike, but once you get back in the eucalyptus trees, it’s cool and quiet.

Point Isabel dog park. Also not too far from our house is the dog park at Point Isabel. It’s right on the bay, and the views are gorgeous. You see every breed of dog imaginable and get in a nice walk while your dog gets nice and tired. Reggie and Sadie love it!


Our girls at the dog park.


BEYOND

Napa/Sonoma

We are about a 45-minute drive from wine country, so it makes a good little day trip or long weekend, if you have some extra time. You can find guidebooks to the area at any winery, and they map out routes where you can drive or bike to different wineries for tastings. I can recommend a tour of Francis Ford Coppola’s winery and museum.

We also enjoyed walking around Sonoma’s small town square, where there are a bunch of shops and restaurants. Or, you can drive up to Jack London State Park and see the writer’s old cottage.


Vineyards near Sonoma.

Monterey/Big Sur

I highly recommend a day trip to Monterey, if you can swing it. It takes us about three hours to drive down there, and then on to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Monterey has a great shoreline where you can see all kinds of seals, otters, and other animals. The aquarium is one of the best in the world. As you drive on Highway 1 to Big Sur, you’ll get to see giant waves crashing up against the shore and steep cliffs. Then inside the state park you can hike through the giant redwoods. It’s really indescribable — you just have to see it for yourself.


The view from Highway 1.

Half Moon Bay/Pescadero

About half an hour south of San Francisco you can follow the coastline to beaches in Pacifica and Half Moon Bay. Pacifica’s Rockaway Beach is small, quiet, and free — a great place to relax and watch surfers in the water.

If you keep going south you will come to some nice country roads for biking in Pescadero. We found that you can get a day parking pass for any of the state run beaches and hop around until you find one you like.


Flying kites at the beach in Half Moon Bay.

Some bonus travel tips:
• Pack layers, and go with the theory that it’s usually colder than you think it will be. Weather is normally clear or foggy with temps in the low ’60s, but it can be hot and sunny, cold and rainy, or something in between.
• The worst times of year to come here are probably January/February, when it’s often rainy, or July, when it’s foggy daily and colder than usual. Best times? October/November have surprisingly great weather.
• When you get here, stop at a Walgreens and pick up a Clipper card for the BART. You can put money on it to use like a debit card, and it works on trains, street cars, and MUNI buses.


One of the antique street cars by Fisherman’s Wharf.

Comments

  1. 1

    Brianne says

    AKA “the post that makes our friends really, really want to visit us even more.”

  2. 2

    Mary Jo (Erin's aunt Jo) says

    Hi Cara,

    Great blog! Trish and Joe are out here and we spent a large part of yesterday exploring Marin. Our trip included (of course) ice cream in downtown Fairfax. We accidentally introduced our puppy to ice cream when he slurped up a puddle of melted chocolate from the sidewalk.

    Trish forwarded Erin’s email containing a link to this blog entry. Jim and I would love to get in touch with you, have you over, etc., We’re in Point Richmond, on the hill just above the yacht club. Come on over for some wine and a sail.