First, never call it Frisco; that’s the semantic equivalent of wearing a fanny pack. Second, make sure to bring plenty of money: San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the country. Third, since you probably already know about some of the usual tourist haunts—Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Chinatown—we’ll skip those here, but we will mention that it’s important to plan ahead for a tour of one of the world’s most popular attractions, since tickets sell out quickly. We refer, of course, to Alcatraz, the notoriously bleak federal prison that once housed felons ranging from Al Capone to Whitey Bulger.
For more luxurious digs, check in to the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, which has epitomized San Francisco hospitality since it opened its elegant doors in 1926. In the morning, there’s an exceptional breakfast buffet, including ethereal shrimp dim sum dumplings; at night, the Top of the Mark restaurant offers unrivaled panoramic views of the city, as well as an extensive cocktail list. It’s also convenient. Located atop Nob Hill at the crossing of three cable car lines, the hotel is a six-minute walk to Union Square and just a block from the Grace Cathedral, a landmark famous for its Ghiberti doors, stained glass, AIDS interfaith chapel and labyrinths. Cast from molds of the original Renaissance bronze doors, the massive “Doors of Paradise” depict scenes from the Bible. Inside, the chapel incorporates symbols of many of the world’s religions, from Jainism to Judaism, and features a triptych altarpiece by artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS just weeks after completing the work. As for the labyrinths, there are two: one inside, with a path of more than 700 feet, and one outside, made of granite and open 24 hours a day for meditative walks.
A 20-minute walk in the other direction will take you to the Ferry Building Marketplace. Here you’ll find shops selling everything from Argentinian empanadas to specialty cookware, and three days a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays and especially Saturdays—farmers and purveyors of all things artisanal converge to create one of the most impressive farmers markets anywhere. The Ferry Building is home to a number of well-regarded eateries, including the Slanted Door and Boulette’s Larder, as well as bakeries, cafes and food markets. Mijita is a great choice for tasty, well-priced Mexican fare. For dessert, ice cream at Humphry Slocombe is a must. The signature flavor is Secret Breakfast—bourbon ice cream laced with crystallized cornflake clusters—but if spiked ice cream isn’t for you, try the XXX Chocolate (“rippled for her pleasure”).
The Ferry Building Marketplace is located on the Embarcadero, the eastern waterfront and roadway along San Francisco Bay that’s perfect for a long walk or run. It’s also where you’ll find Waterbar, an exception to the rule that waterfront restaurants—especially seafood restaurants—with great views serve not-so-great food. Order the grilled Monterey squid with butter beans, pancetta, broccolini and basil pesto, and you may be too captivated by your meal to notice the stellar views of the bay, Bay Bridge and city skyline. And the kitchen values sustainability as much as sheer deliciousness: Petrale is trawl-caught off the coast of British Columbia, tuna is troll-caught in Hawaii, and halibut is demersal longline-caught in Alaska.
Since the road back to the hotel is all uphill, you and your quads will want to take a cable car. And unless you want to shell out $7 every time you hop on one of these icons with wheels, it makes sense to buy a passport card that offers unlimited rides for a day ($20), three days ($31) or a week ($40). Speaking of icons, want to see some “Painted Ladies”? Some of the best-known exemplars—including the Victorians featured in Mrs. Doubtfire and Full House—are on Steiner Street, which runs through the picturesque and lively Marina District. Whether you crave a Vietnamese iced coffee, a light snack or a full meal, make sure you stop at Saiwalks, a casual Vietnamese “street food” cafe. The menu runs the gamut from a list of “beer foods” like taro chips, tofu fries and grilled corn on the cob with scallion oil to bánh mì, salads, vermicelli bowls and rice plates. Best of all are the bánh xèo, huge half-moon coconut crepes colored bright yellow by turmeric, filled with juicy sauteed shrimp and pork, crispy jicama and bean sprouts, and presented with fresh lettuce leaves and mint.
When the famed fog lifts and the sun comes out, head to the spectacular 1,000-plus acres of Golden Gate Park. There’s plenty of room for walkers, runners, horse riders and cyclists, as well as a plethora of attractions: 10 lakes, an aquarium, botanical gardens, a Japanese tea garden and a Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers with more than 200 plants mentioned by the Bard. It’s also home to the de Young Museum, where works range from paintings by well-known artists such as Frederic Edwin Church and Diego Rivera to the more offbeat, like San Francisco artist Ray Beldner’s portrait of George Washington created from sewn-together one-dollar bills. Your ticket to the de Young also grants you admission to the Legion of Honor Museum, as both are part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. You’ll need to take a cab or Uber, but it’s worth it to take in works by Rodin, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and El Greco—not to mention the gorgeous views from the museum’s hilltop perch that capture the full beauty of the City by the Bay.
-Whether you call them bison or buffalo, you can see them near Spreckels Lake at Golden Gate Park, where they’ve roamed since 1890.
Alcatraz, alcatrazcruises.com; Ferry Building Marketplace, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, famsf.org; Golden Gate Park, goldengatepark.com; Grace Cathedral, gracecathedral.org; InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com; Saiwalks, saiwalks.com; Waterbar, waterbarsf.com