Sure, there’s a goldmine of things to see and do in San Francisco, and while no visit would be complete without experiencing the celebrated sights, we highly recommend taking some time to go off the beaten path. Here are just a few of our favorite ideas for a great day in the Bay Area.
Morning Outing – To Market, To Market
San Francisco and food go together the same way travel and food go together. In fact, one of our favorite ways to get a taste of the city’s foodie culture is to visit one of the many farmers markets. Our favorite: the farmers market at the S.F. Ferry Building. Held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., this market showcases some of the best local organic fare as well as gourmet artisan treats, from pastries and pizza to handcrafted honey and tamales, to specialty items like rosemary-scented sea salt.
Bring a tote and your appetite, and stop into the Ferry Building Marketplace, where you can buy prepared gourmet foods, dine at one of the restaurants (see our Fall Preview 2009 catalog for our insider tip on Boulette’s Larder or visit their website and browse at Book Passage, one of our favorite local bookstores.
Photo Credit: Sonny Abesamis
The Shortest Route to Asia
To get a taste of Asia without crossing the ocean, stroll Chinatown’s markets early in the morning when locals shop for hard-to-find items such as long beans, live fish, and more. Start at the gates at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Let yourself be jostled among the crowds of shoppers and pop into the balcony-clad alleyways that run between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. If you’re hungry, grab some dim sum or visit one of the fortune cookie bakeries. The oldest bakery is Golden Gate Fortune Cookies (56 Ross Alley), which started operation in 1962. Insider tip: fortune cookies are a Bay Area invention and were introduced in 1909 at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, which still operates in Golden Gate Park.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Macdonald
Early Afternoon Tour – Island Hopping
Most visitors to San Francisco think of Alcatraz when they think of famous Bay Area islands. It’s no wonder—this tiny rock has housed some big history inside its jailhouse walls, including famed gangster Al Capone, who was convicted—of all things—of tax evasion, and sentenced to five years there.
If you visit Alcatraz, be sure to take the award-winning audio tour narrated by former inmates. Rich with imagery, the tour tells the story of the prison as only those who experienced it could. Insider tip: book early through the official National Park Service-approved vendor. Tickets are available up to 60 days in advance and often sell out during the summer months and school vacations.
Photo Credit: David McSpadden
Angel Island is a little less well-known but equally rich in history, and offers one of the best ways to delve into the Bay Area’s past. Ferries to Angel Island run from Tiburon, San Francisco, and Alameda/Oakland. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes so you can explore the trails beyond the visitor center in Ayala Cove. Thirteen miles of trails lace through the island, including one that leads to Mt. Livermore, the island’s 788-foot summit, which offers a breathtaking view.
The island has many historic buildings, some of which are open to the public. Visit the Immigration Station where, from 1910 to 1940, roughly 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated. Chinese characters etched in the walls tell the story of the loneliness and alienation many of the immigrants faced. Japanese “picture brides” were also detained here and in 1941, the building became a prisoner-of-war processing station for German and Japanese prisoners.
Maps of Angel Island are available at the visitor center. Inside tip: Before you go, pick up sandwiches at La Boulange in Mill Valley and take them along for a picnic at Ayala Cove. La Boulange is a group of exquisite French eateries found only in the Bay Area.
Word to the wise for visitors: Dress in layers. Angel Island varies from cold and foggy to sunny and warm, often within the same day or even the same hour.
Afternoon Alternative – Take a Hike
San Francisco is a walking city, but don’t limit yourself to the city streets. Take a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoy the natural beauty of Marin County. One of our favorite hikes is the Tennessee Valley Trail, just a 15-minute drive from S.F. To get there, go north on Hwy 101 over the bridge and take the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit. Continue into Mill Valley and turn left on Tennessee Valley Road, which is across the street from the Dipsea Café, named after the famed Dipsea Trail, site of one of the country’s most famous trail races, and a great place for brunch or lunch. Tennessee Valley Road ends at the parking lot, which gives you a view of the trailhead. Wide and easy to navigate, the 1.7-mile trail leads to Tennessee Valley Beach. Look for egrets, deer, wild turkeys, and the occasional bobcat, and enjoy getting away from the crowds and into nature.
Photo Credit: David McSpadden
End of Day – Drinks with a View
Whether you’ve spent the day in Marin or in S.F., a great way to finish it is a drive to the Marin Headlands and a drink by the Golden Gate Bridge. Our two top choices: Cavallo Point and the Presidio Yacht Club.
Cavallo Point is a luxury lodge and restaurant situated in beautifully renovated buildings in Fort Baker, at the foot of the Golden Gate. If you go, make reservations for dinner at the highly acclaimed Murray Circle Restaurant or get drinks at the Farley Bar, where a fire roars when the fog comes in and the leather chairs are perfect for sinking into as you sip a hot toddy and rest your feet. One-plate meals are also served at the bar. Insider tip: the grass-fed beef burger with artisan cheddar cheese and hand-cut fries is particularly good (although a bit pricey at $17).
If you’re lucky, you can get a chair and table on the porch where you can gaze upon the bridge. The outdoor heaters are on year-round and the staff will even offer you a lap blanket if the chill sets in. Insider tip: Cavallo Point also offers high-end accommodations and is very dog-friendly.
For an equally great Golden Gate view and a decidedly more affordable experience, visit the Presidio Yacht Club. Located in Travis Marina at Horseshoe Cove, this red-roofed club has 70 berths for members’ and guest boats, and a clubhouse bar called Mike’s Place that’s open to the public. Mike’s offers a good selection of beers (draft and bottled), wine, and simple food like burgers and quesadillas. With décor from the ’60s (think wood-paneled walls and comfy, upholstered chairs), it’s a long way from the polished environs of Cavallo Point, yet the view is always amazing and the beer is always cold (and cheap at $3.50)
Photo Credit: Ann Laria Valentine