San Francisco, the City by the Bay. If there’s a city anywhere in the world that makes you feel warmer and fuzzier than this one, we’ve yet to visit it.
This place truly has it all: a spectacular setting, quirky neighbourhoods, offbeat culture, internationally-renowned museums, thriving galleries and restaurants, diverse shopping, beautiful open spaces, easy access to (arguably) the world’s greatest coastline, excellent public transport, a welcoming and tolerant populace and a climate that’s anything but dull!
More than all of this, though, is something altogether more elusive; a certain indomitable spirit, characterized by a century-and-a-half’s worth of progressive, sometimes radical movements and the visionary pioneers who inspired them.
Blazing an emphatic trail since the early Gold Rush days, entrepreneurs, idealists and dreamers in their thousands have felt the gravitational pull of San Francisco. From the 1950s Beat generation, via the late ’60s Summer of Love, the ’70s struggle for gay rights and equality, to millennial dot.com boom, bust and re-burgeoning – the city’s streets are paved not with gold, but with ideas.
Our San Francisco Insider
Today, San Francisco is one of the world’s top tourist destinations and for all the reasons above, it’s easy to see why. But as we’ve written about before on this blog, scratching below the surface of a well-known place can yield so much more.
On our most recent visit to the city, we stayed at the landmark Clift hotel and were lucky enough to spend some time with David Rice, concierge extraordinaire – seriously. If you want to see more than flopped-out seals and a golden (but admittedly beautiful) bridge, talk to David. Not only will you be armed with top tips, you’ll undoubtedly have learned something new and insightful from a man who genuinely loves his city, and you’ll look at things in a whole new way.
We bombarded him with questions and have enough great recommendations for many year’s worth of future visits, but here are the highlights of what he had to share with us:
David, first things first. Where’s the best place to head for a relaxed San Francisco breakfast?
Café de la Presse at Grant and Bush, right outside the gates to Chinatown. Michelin starred chef Laurent Manrique has turned this San Francisco gem into an outstanding French style bistro – and breakfast is fantastic. You can sit outside, sip on a bowl of Café Au Lait while enjoying one of the several newspapers delivered daily from all over the world.
We’re hip, design-conscious young urbanites. Which neighbourhoods will we love?
You should go to Hayes Valley which is really the hot spot for designers and restaurateurs. Check out Edun, the Organic Clothing/Green Fashion boutique owned by Ali Hewson and her husband, U2’s Bono. Other highlights include sushi at Sebo, deep dish pizza at Patxi’s, Ver Unica for vintage fashion, Gimme Shoes for shoes, Propeller for furniture and housewares, and for anything travel related, don’t miss Flight 001 where the inside of the store looks like a 747 fuselage.
What about us? We’re older art and nature lovers, taking it easy. Where should we stroll?
I’d definitely head out to Golden Gate Park. Visit the Conservatory of Flowers, a beautiful Victorian Greenhouse where there are always interesting exhibits as well as their full time gardens. Then just follow JFK Drive further into the park and you’ll find the DeYoung Museum which houses some of the most exciting touring art exhibits, as well as a wonderful permanent collection. The Japanese Tea Garden is next door to the DeYoung, and you can enjoy tea served in the traditional Japanese way. And just a few steps away is the immense San Francisco Botanical Gardens.
We’ve only got time for one out-of-the-city experience during our stay. Muir Woods, Sausalito or both?
Absolutely, do them both. They’re so close to each other. Head over the Golden Gate Bridge (if you have time, take a quick detour to the Marin Headlands for an amazing view of the bridge and the city), then head into Marin and follow the signs for Hwy 1 and Muir Woods. Nothing can quite describe the majesty of standing in a forest of redwoods, especially if you’ve never done it before. The National Park has a few options for hiking, each a little longer than the next. Just check the signs at the entrance, and choose the “loop” you’d like to do.
Afterwards, head back over the hill to Sausalito. Park the car and walk around enjoying the art galleries, restaurants and shopping. If you’re ready for lunch I’d suggest Scoma’s (authentic seafood) at the south end of Bridgeway, or Poggio (inventive Italian), right in the centre of town at the Casa Madrona hotel. By the way, if you don’t have a car, you can still enjoy Sausalito by taking the ferry from the Ferry Building or Fisherman’s Wharf.
Where can we find the best views of the city?
My favourite view in the city is from Twin Peaks. Just look for Sutro Tower, the huge radio antennae to the southwest of downtown. But my favourite view of the city is from the Marin Headlands on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
We want to watch the sun go down. Where should we take our picnic?
Head out to Lands End, the small park just behind the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. But remember, when the sun goes down in San Francisco, the fog isn’t far behind (if not already there!) so bring something warm to wear. No matter what time of year it is.
We really want to dine in a friendly, local neighbourhood restaurant with a buzzy atmosphere. Any suggestions?
I have a few suggestions: Starbelly, in the Castro: fresh, seasonal ingredients ingeniously combined. The pizzas are all outstanding and the caramel pot de crme is unbelievable. The restaurant’s interior was created from all reused, reclaimed materials. Check out the old bowling lane that now serves as the bar and communal table.
Another favourite is SPQR in the Fillmore neighbourhood which specializes in Romanesque Italian. Their “make your own antipasti” choices are stellar; each one is better than the last (but my favourite is their fried brussel sprouts!)
And the last one is Umami, in the city’s Marina District. This urban and hip Japanese restaurant is always abuzz with the city’s young single crowd who can’t get enough of the sushi, sake and other Japanese delicacies available.
Finally, what about some authentic, kitschy San Francisco dive bars with interesting characters and cheap cocktails to finish off our stay?
Well, you’ll have to swing by the Owl Tree bar, just up the street from the hotel. San Francisco kitsch at its best. Another city classic, and definitely a dive, in the very best way, is Aunt Charlie’s, featuring some of the best veteran and up and coming drag performers in the city. You’ll get plenty of stiff drinks and big hair and don’t forget to bring enough dollar bills, cause these ladies do expect to be tipped when they’re performing.
Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow. You will always find the very best deals on fares on our website.
The Clift hotel in San Francisco is part of the Morgans Hotel Group, one of Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club partners. Flying Club members can earn miles with every stay. For more information on Flying Club, visit the website to learn more about our seriously rewarding loyalty programme.
What do you think of these recommendations – have you ever been to any of the places mentioned here, or do you have any tips to share with us? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.