These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Where big tech meets bohemian life
From the first days of the Gold Rush, to the hippie movement and then the startups of mass disruption today, San Francisco is the land of pioneers. There’s something about that enigmatic fog and those endless panoramas of ocean and green hills, that keeps drawing dreamers and radicals. SF (never ‘San Fran’) is always changing the way the world thinks, be that about gay rights, the sharing economy, or a ‘locavore’ diet.
Though a tiny city – only seven miles by seven miles – its influence is as wide as its appeal is diverse. Within 24 hours, you could hike a coastal path with Silicon Valley billionaires; bargain in Chinatown’s lantern-strung streets; and chow down on cheap tacos in the Latin-flavoured Mission District, where palms sway outside Art Deco movie palaces. Throw in a surplus of major landmarks – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz island, cable cars, Lombard Street – and you’ve got a solid argument that this isn’t just the States’ best-looking city. It’s simply the best.
Hot right now . . .
Laura Chubb, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Jungle-strangled skulls and a back bar built from an old aeroplane fuselage pioneer a darker spin on tiki at Duboce Triangle’s new drinkery, Last Rites (718 14th St.). Cannibal vibes match the cocktails’ biting twists on the tiki playbook, featuring ingredients such as curry stout syrup or green chile liqueur.
The long-awaited Lodge at the Presidio (105 Montgomery St.; 00 1 415 561 1234) has opened inside The Presidio National Park, making it the closest hotel to the Golden Gate Bridge. Now’s the time to soak in this smart boutique’s views, before the summer fog settles in. Double rooms from $314 (£241).
Cairo-born celebrity chef Michael Mina‘s (252 California St.; 00 1 415 397 9222) eponymous, Michelin-starred Financial District restaurant has ripped up its contemporary American menu in favour of Middle Eastern flavours. The highlight of this new six-course feast? A peerless foie gras – invented by the Egyptians – with glazed mango and ginger.
48 hours in . . . San Francisco
Start your day with bay views at the Ferry Building (1 The Embarcadero; 00 1 415 983 8030): the terminal doubles as a marketplace for the Bay Area’s culinary heroes. Grab a locally roasted Blue Bottle Coffee, and stock up on picnic items (Acme‘s olive bread, Cowgirl Creamery cheese).
Outside, catch the vintage F tram along the palm-lined Embarcadero boulevard to Pier 33, where cruises leave for Alcatraz Island (00 1 415 981 7625); note that you should book a month in advance. Once docked, pick up the excellent free audio tour inside the prison. Don’t miss the graffiti on the water tower, left by Native American protesters who occupied Alcatraz in the 1970s. A thorough poke around should take three hours.
Enjoy your picnic finds at tables by the docking area (no food or drink is sold on the island) and wrap up against that whipping wind.
A short stroll from Pier 33, search out the wooden staircase climbing through residents’ tumbling cliffside gardens. Filbert Street Steps are a steep slog, but keep pausing to glance behind for phenomenal views of bobbing sailboats and the Bay Bridge. At the top, continue along Filbert to Hyde, and hop aboard the next cable car. Enjoy a hair-raising ride down precipitous hills, until the end of the line at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Resist turning east to the tourist-trap wharf and rent a bike at nearby Blazing Saddles (2715 Hyde; 00 1 415 202 8888). Now pedal west along Marina Boulevard to Crissy Field in The Presidio National Park (00 1 415 561 5300). The promenade gives front-row views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. The clearest days are in autumn and winter: summer fog often obscures the vista.
For a colourful evening, dip into Chinatown. Li Po Lounge (916 Grant Av.; 00 1 415 982 0072) is a classic dive, once frequented by Beat hero Jack Kerouac. Be warned: the signature Chinese Mai Tai contains potent Chinese liquor. Sober up in the queue for House of Nanking (919 Kearny St.; 00 1 415 421 1429), a cheap institution with celebrity fans (regulars include Francis Ford Coppola). Staff bully you into what to order, but go with it – the ‘famous’ sesame chicken, sweet and sticky atop thinly sliced sweet potatoes, is outstanding.
After dark, the Bay Bridge is illuminated by a permanent art installation, ‘The Bay Lights‘. Watch 25,000 LEDs streak across the cables in dramatic patterns with a cocktail at bayside Waterbar (399 The Embarcadero; 00 1 415 284 9922). The Sappho – a sort-of negroni with Cointreau and Sipsmith gin – is a good, stiff nightcap.
You can’t come to San Francisco and miss Golden Gate Park. As the city is all-too-fond of pointing out, this green escape is larger than Manhattan’s Central Park. Start at the eastern tip, in Haight-Ashbury: over the road, find fortifying caffeine and cake at industrial-cool, local roasters Flywheel Coffee (672 Stanyan St.; 00 1 415 682 4023). While it might sound naff, an easy way to see the best of 1,000 acres in a single morning is the official segway tour (book at goldengatepark.com).
Don’t miss the free views from the Hamon Observation Tower at the De Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.; 00 1 415 750 3600), sweeping over from boxy, low-rise homes to the Pacific.
The city’s hottest neighbourhood is also its oldest – The Mission is where Spanish settlers founded San Francisco in 1776. Buy lunch at renowned Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St.; 00 1 415 487 2600), which starts serving sandwiches (sample filling: smoked sheep cheese and quince jam) after 11.30am. Picnic at palm-dotted Dolores Park (19th & Dolores St.), with fabulous vistas of downtown skyscrapers.
Two blocks east, Valencia Street offers two miles of independent boutiques. Find artist-designed threads at Nooworks (395 Valencia St.; 00 1 415 829 7623) and weird taxidermy in Paxton Gate (824 Valencia St.; 00 1 415 824 1872), before turning down Clarion Alley. When Latino immigrants first moved here in the 1960s, activist-artists painted intricate political murals, and the tradition stuck. Some of the best are here, and in Balmy Alley, a brisk 20-minute walk away.
Flour + Water (2401 Harrison St.; 00 1 415 826 7000), a 10-minute amble from Balmy, pairs handmade pastas with Bay Area produce, and is one of the city’s most-celebrated restaurants. Reservations are impossible. However, they keep 40 of their 60 seats open for walk-ins every night, so put your name down and while away the one- to two-hour wait at True Laurel (753 Alabama Street; 001 415 341 0020) across the street. You might call this ‘farm-to-glass’ drinking, as every cocktail ingredient here is painstakingly — and often regionally — sourced. Sip on an A Dilla Pt. 2 for the most extraordinary blend of passionfruit, coconut cream and dill.
Once at the dinner table, plump for the seasonal, seven-course pasta tasting menu; previous dishes include kale cavatelli with lamb sugo, chanterelles and sierra fig mostarda.
Where to stay . . .
The Battery is simply the best hotel in San Francisco. It’s situated within a private members’ club, where guests get an all-access pass to exclusive facilities and events. It also benefits from super-stylish interiors by designer-to-the-tech-stars Ken Fulk, and everything from the food to the tea is world-class. Service is superlative.
Doubles from $575 (£425). 717 Battery St.; 00 1 415 230 8000
Located in the heart of San Francisco’s spectacular national park is the Inn at The Presidio, a unique boutique hotel converted from historic lodgings. Though only five miles from downtown, it offers a peaceful retreat among forest, with partial views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Doubles from $350 (£250). 42 Moraga Ave.; 00 1 415 800 7356
Immerse yourself in the San Francisco lifestyle at The Parsonage B&B, a landmark Victorian townhouse, ideally situated in upscale Hayes Valley. Antique interiors and delicious homemade breakfasts are only half the appeal – warm hosts and a wealth of attractions on the doorstep seal the deal.
Doubles from $220 (£158). 198 Haight St.; 00 1 415 863 3699
What to bring home . . .
San Francisco has more coffee shops than any other city in the United States, and is partial to local roasters. Find a pack of small-batch beans by hometown heroes such as Sightglass, Blue Bottle and Ritual Coffee Roasters in any Wholefoods, or head to their standalone shops scattered throughout the city (see websites).
The fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco. And you can invent your own fortune at Chinatown’s Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley; 00 1 415 781 3956), where custom fortunes can be tucked into freshly-made treats.
When to go . . .
As the apocryphal Mark Twain saying goes, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” It is a common tourist faux pas to think June, July and August are going to be warm in San Francisco. It is usually the season of fog, strong winds, unexpected chills and tourists shivering in shorts and T-shirts. Highs for these months only reach the mid-60s Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celcius).
September and October are the choice times to visit San Francisco, with highs in the low 70s (Fahrenheit) and mostly bright, sunny days with clear skies. Winter temperatures are only 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than summer, although it can be considerably rainier between November and March, and fog blankets the city skyline on many mornings.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate-General, San Francisco: 00 1 415 617 1300; 1 Sansome St, suite 850, San Francisco
Emergency services (ambulance, fire, police): Dial 911
Directory inquiries: Dial 411
San Francisco Visitor Information Center: 00 1 415 391 2000; sftravel.com; 900 Market St., San Francisco
Local laws and etiquette
Always have your passport and driver’s license with you when driving in the US, in case you get stopped by police.
You can turn right at a red traffic light (provided you come to a complete stop first, and there is no oncoming traffic and no contradictory sign saying “no turn on red”).
In most American cities, you have to park with your car pointing in the direction of the traffic on the correct side of the road; otherwise you will be ticketed and fined.
Also, avoid parking within 15ft of a fire hydrant.
Visitor passes and discount cards
The San Francisco CityPass offers discounts on a few major attractions and museums and includes a Muni bus and cable-car passport and a bay cruise.
Currency: US dollar
Telephone code: Dial 00 1 415, then the seven-digit number, if calling San Francisco from the UK. From within San Francisco, dial 1 415 followed by the seven-digit number
Time difference: -8 hours
Flight time: London to San Francisco is approximately 11 hours; the return leg averages 10 hours, 30 minutes
Laura left London for San Francisco seeking lighter vibes and brighter skies and has never looked back. Find her at the bayshore – taking yet another picture of the Golden Gate Bridge – or fretting over a deadline with a Nitro coffee in a third-wave café.
Experience San Francisco with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels and tours in San Francisco, tried, tested and recommended by our San Francisco experts.