After a few years in the Bay Area, Mike and I have had a chance to discover most of the tourist attractions, plus some lesser known local spots. 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 and here for a kid-friendly 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)
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 hand-held caramelized waffles for a breakfast treat.
• Miette Bakery. Darling bakery with cute cakes, cupcakes, macarons, and cookies. I recommend the graham crackers and chocolate wafers.
• 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.
Outside 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 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.
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 teeny breakfast place called Mama’s that always has a huge line. 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. The beat poets used to hang out here (Jack Kerouac Alley is next door), and you can see their photos on the walls. The owners are aging hippies, the bartenders are fun hipsters, and the drinks are great.
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 has carried my knit goods, Park and Pond. Not too far from there is one of the best pizza places in the country, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Get there as soon as they open before the line gets super long!
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.
Gotta love a name like Brandy Ho’s.
• 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.
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 (Therapy is a fave, Paxton Gate is bizarre and fun) 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.
Delores Park/The Castro
If you’re going to Bi-Rite, you might as well head over to Delores Park, which is a San Francisco institution. It has a big grassy field, which is great for people watching. There’s a good chance someone might pass you a joint. It’s all good.
Oysters from Anchor Oyster Bar.
A few blocks away is the Castro district, which became the center of gay activism back in the ’70s. It’s pretty upscale now, with lots of good shopping and restaurants. Ike’s Place is known for tasty sandwiches. We really loved Anchor Oyster Bar for clam chowder and other seafood (although you might want to go at an odd time because there are very few seats). The Woodhouse Fish Company has become a favorite place for date nights.
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. Or, you can just grab a blanket and head to the East Beach. You’ll get a great view of the bridge and Alcatraz, while you dip your feet in the ocean.
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. The park includes a Japanese tea garden and the California Academy of Sciences. I highly recommend spending a day at the de Young Museum. They have a nice cafe, where you can grab lunch, and a tower where you can get a panoramic view of the city.
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.
Sadie at the dog beach.
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…”
Twin Peaks: If you need a break from the city craziness, take a drive up to Twin Peaks. You’ll get a fantastic view in every direction.
Hayes Valley: This hip neighborhood has a lot of cool boutiques and restaurants, including Gather, where I sell my wares. My friend and I were talking about how Hayes Valley would be a great place to have a “mom date.” Stacks is a nice kid-friendly place to have pancakes and Smitten is good for ice cream.
The Ice Cream Bar is as good a reason as any to head to Cole Valley. It has an old-school soda fountain and HUGE sundaes.
Treasure Island Flea: There’s not much on Treasure Island, between Oakland and San Francisco, but they do have a fabulous flea market once a month. You can shop the vendors, then eat lunch at the food trucks. They have activities for kids, too.
The view from the Treasure Island Flea.
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.
Sausalito: This small Marin town is super touristy (known for its quirky houseboats and great bike trails). But I ended up going there a lot to drop off my knits at Studio 333 Downtown and I discovered that off the beaten path it was actually a nice, quiet place to relax. I like to pick up lunch at Driver’s Market (their quiche is amazing!) and take it over to the little park at the end of Caledonia Street, where Harper likes to play. This burger joint is also a gem, albeit a greasy one.
Angel Island: Starting in Tiburon, which has a nice boardwalk with some restaurants, you can take the ferry to Angel Island. It makes for a good day trip, although you can camp, too. It as some good picnic spots, a museum and hiking trails. The city views are really lovely.
Exploring Angel Island.
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!
Marin County is also home to the infamous San Quentin prison. But you don’t want to go there.
Cal campus: As surprising as it is to me, downtown Berkeley is not the most appealing place to hang out. The legendary Telegraph Avenue has some cool indie music stores, but it’s mostly pot smokers and aggressive panhandlers. 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 used to work, Center Street, 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.
• Cream. They specialize in ice cream sandwiches (you pick the flavor of cookie and ice cream). If there’s a line, don’t worry, just get in it!
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 to do in Tilden. One of our favorites is the steam train, a kid-friendly mini train that takes a short drive through the woods. We also like the Little Farm, where kids can pet the farm animals.
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. Just go up to the window and order sweet baguettes, walnut levain, croissants, or whatever you want for the day. Perfect picnic fare!
Vik’s Chaat. Vik’s is another go-to restaurant for us. There’s an Indian market in the front and a casual restaurant in back. They have phenomenal South Indian fare like dosas, cholle bhature (aka the “big puffy thing”), biryani and lamb samosas.
Gilman district. This little area sprung up around the time Whole Foods opened. It has a Farm Burger, Philz Coffee and Doughnut Dolly, all good and worth a visit. The Westbrae Biergarten is not too far away either. It’s a great meetup spot for a beer and Brazilian food.
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.
• Wood Tavern. If you want to splurge on a date night, this is a great place to do it.
• La Farine. A beautiful French bakery, where everything looks almost too pretty to eat. Almost. Try the ham and cheese pastries for breakfast.
• Ici ice cream. We always joke about putting on our coats to go get ice cream because, despite our cool climate, there are so many great spots to get it. The homemade cones here are awesome!
Ice cream from Tara’s.
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 scrumptious desserts like strawberry shortcake and cookies. 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.
• 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.
• Temescal Alleys: Tucked in behind Telegraph Ave. is a little alley full of locally owned stores. Actually there’s a second alley, where you’ll find the fabulous Doughnut Dolly. Walrus has a special place in my heart because they rehab old furniture.
Pizza from Pizzaiolo.
Lake Merritt. This is kind of like Oakland’s central meetup spot, and it is gorgeous. You can jog around the lake or just lay out a blanket and watch the ducks swim by. There’s a great kids’ playground near the nature center. And there’s also Children’s Fairyland, which is exactly what it sounds like — super fun for little kids. Nearby the Grand Lake farmers market runs Saturday mornings and the Oakland Museum of California (a great history museum) has food trucks on Friday nights.
Jack London Square. This waterfront shopping and dining area is a great place to take family when they’re in town. There’s a cool hangout called Plank, where you can rent a bocce court, and every second Saturday of the month they run the Jack of All Trades Market. Try the Home of Chicken and Waffles and Everett and Jones barbecue for meat eaters and Souley Vegan for veggies. Chop Bar is a great gastropub.
Homeroom. They specialize in mac ‘n cheese, and it’s SO good. Try the trailer mac with hot dogs and chips.
Fentons. Oh man, I love Fentons. It’s tucked into the Piedmont neighborhood, which has some great shopping. But this is one of those places you have to take your family when they visit, because they just won’t believe how enormous the sundaes really are. Definitely get one to share!
Sundaes as big as a baby at Fentons.
Brown Sugar Kitchen. Off the beaten path in West Oakland, this breakfast and lunch place has amazing chicken and waffles, beignets and other soul food.
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:
• Boss burgers. This little place has great gourmet burgers and fries.
• 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.
Mole from Talavera.
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 the Sheng Kee bakery for cream buns. 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.
Catahoula Coffee: Great coffee in a somewhat unexpected locale. Wish there were more places like this in our neighborhood.
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.
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.
Tiny Mendocino and Fort Bragg are about a three-hour winding drive from our house. You can stop along the way at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company for a tour or a game of bags in the courtyard. Then head up the coast, where you’ll find spectacular views of the crashing waves, and a really cool glass beach.
Glass from the beach in Mendocino.
If you want to see where they filmed “The Birds,” you can take a shorter drive to Bodega Bay. Our reason to go is the Spud Point Crab Company, which has amazing fresh crab rolls and clam chowder.
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.