I recently returned from a weekend get-away in San Francisco. This was my first time visiting the “city by the bay”.
And, I must say that my expectations were indeed exceeded.
I was marveled by the pastel painted Victorian homes with iron stair railings and balconies that I passed by on an early morning walk towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
My breath was literally taken away by the views from the tops of the steep hilled streets. Or, maybe it was because I was out of breath from what felt like a 90 degree angle hike?
To me, San Francisco felt very much like a European city. Maybe it was the compact nature of the city’s layout? Or perhaps the quaintness of the various neighborhoods that conjured up feelings of walking through a Parisian neighborhood.
In any case, I will most certainly be returning to this charmed city in California’s northern coast.
For those of you who have not been to San Francisco before, or it has been a while, perhaps you need a guide.
Here is a weekend itinerary that will show you what San Francisco is all about in just a short trip.
My husband and I both worked full days on Friday and took an evening flight. Leaving the rain in Portland was only a two hour flight to San Francisco.
When all was said and done, we wound up checking into our hotel around 11:00 PM at night. For us, Friday was mostly a wash. But, we were happy to check in Friday night, knowing that we would get up early for sightseeing on Saturday.
We stayed at The Marker hotel in San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood. The location is a central jumping off point to a myriad of things to do in San Francisco.
For instance, shopping, catching the start of the Powell & Hyde Street Cable Car line and much more.
On Saturday morning we had no trouble waking up. As soon as we opened our eyes and peered around the hotel room we were quickly reminded that we were on vacation in San Francisco and no time should be wasted. We approached the day with a carpe diem attitude.
We decided to walk to the Golden Gate Bridge from our hotel which was a four mile walk. But on the way I wanted to stop to eat breakfast at the Home Plate diner.
Before reaching our breakfast destination we climbed the steep hills of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. We past by beautiful victorian-style homes until we reached the Marina District where Home Plate stood.
Home Plate’s claim to fame is its signature house made complimentary scones and home made jams. The theme of the diner incase you had not already realized by its name is baseball.
Within the last few years a remodel took place and the diner now screams more sophisticated hip breakfast joint than baseball dugout.
However, if you look around you will notice nods to America’s favorite pastime. There are black and white pictures on the wall of famed baseball greats. You will see Babe Ruth up on the wall. You will also notice menu items such as “The Home Run Special”.
With our bellies filled and ready for more walking we made our way toward the waterfront park of Crissy Field.
But before continuing on the waterfront path towards the Golden Gate we first stopped by the Palace of Fine Arts . This is a landmark building and also gives a nice back drop for some pretty photos.
The Palace of Fine Arts was built back in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. And today the grounds can be enjoyed by the public for free.
We continued to walk towards the Golden Gate Bridge and took many photos as it got closer in view. The waterfront park was filled with joggers, bikers and families walking with dogs.
Along the way we passed by the Warming Hut Bookstore & Café which provided a nice opportunity for some Golden Gate Bridge souvenirs and a chance to grab a latte. Also, nearby there are some public bathrooms available.
We made it to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! The bridge was very busy with pedestrians and bicyclist, but we managed to set foot on the bridge and walk about ten yards before turning around. We wanted to say we had actually “set foot” on the bridge…mission accomplished.
If we were ever to go back to San Francisco, we would definitely have rented a bicycle to go over the bridge. It seemed like everyone was doing that and it saves a lot of time when you are trying to see a lot in a short time. I recommend renting from Golden Gate Bike Rentals on Lombard Street as this is one of the closer rental shops near the Golden Gate Bridge. However, there are many bike rental shops located throughout the city, which means plenty of opportunities to rent two wheels no matter what neighborhood you are staying in.
We walked east along the waterfront path, opposite the Golden Gate Bridge to head to lunch in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. Because we were tight on time we decided to catch an Uber which took about 10 minutes instead of an hour walk.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a seafood lovers paradise. You can buy fresh crabs straight from the tanks at cute shops nestled along the marina, as well as fresh oysters at a plethora of restaurants. But our destination was the local chain Boudin Bakery located on Pier 39.
Boudin Bakery is famous for its sourdough bread. In fact when you enter the restaurant you will soon find out that it’s way more than just a “restaurant”. It reminds me of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory…but instead of chocolate think sourdough bread.
The moment you walk in you see baskets moving along the ceiling carrying various shapes of sourdough breads. Upstairs you can walk through the museum that gives you the history of Boudin Bakery and look through the glass windows that overlook the bakery shop below.
We put our names on the list for a table for two and had fun walking through the museum before being seated. Once seated there was no question about what we were going to order: sourdough bread bowls filled with clam chowder!
After lunch we walked through the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood which has so many cute shops, street performers and opportunities to board one of the boats that takes you on tours of Alcatraz or around the Bay.
Nearby Pier 39 you can see the cute California sea lions that sun themselves on the docks. We unfortunately did not have time to see the sea lions or take a boat tour, but if your schedule allows I do recommend both of those activities.
Next door to Fisherman’s Wharf is Ghiradelli Square. which takes up an entire street block with a brewery, cute independent clothing and jewelry stores and of course the Ghiradelli chocolate shop. A must do is ordering one of the many hot fudge sundae options on the menu from the Ghiradelli Chocolate shop.
Next we walked our way to Lombard Street for a photo op of the famous crooked street.
We continued to walk south and made it to our next destination, Chinatown. San Francisco has the largest Chinatown in the entire United States. This is a “don’t miss” activity while in San Francisco, as you truly feel that you have been transported across the globe.
As we walked through the colorful streets adorned with hanging lanterns and lights we came across a Chinese parade with dancing dragons and beating drums. It was so fun to walk into that. You could easily spend hours walking through the various shops and markets.
Some things we would do if we went back would be to do a tea tasting in one of the handful of tea shops as well as visit the fortune cookie factory. Upon exiting the south entrance of Chinatown we made sure to get some nice shots of the famous Dragon’s Gate entrance.
Next we walked through the Union Square neighborhood and took in the beautiful Christmas decorations such as the tree in the center of Union Square adorned with sparkling lights and ornaments. Next to the Christmas tree was a popup ice skating rink where folks were getting into the Christmas spirit as they waltzed around the ice while holiday music played in the background.
We ate dinner at Tratto a modern-rustic Italian restaurant connected to our hotel. Most dishes served at Tratto are served family style, meant to be shared, except for the pasta dishes. My husband and I both ordered pasta dishes along with a local California IPA from Hen House Brewery. For desert it was an espresso and chocolate caramel cake along with a scoop of vanilla gelato.
The ambiance inside the restaurant was on point. Dim lighting, modern decor. A clear sight of the restaurant bar which had an old fashioned black and white movie being projected on the wall. The restaurant was packed that night filled with families, friends, couples and singles all partaking in some delectable Italian fare.
After dinner we took a walk through Union Square to marvel at the Christmas tree in the central square and listened to street musicians playing Christmas carols.
We had thoughts of an apres dinner drink at the Tonga Room or the Top of The Mark but atlas we were too tired from our busy day so we retreated back to the hotel. But I do recommend both. The Tonga room is a popular tiki style bar open only from 5:00 PM to midnight and boasts Polynesian decor, a floating stage atop an old swimming pool and it even rains periodically inside. But not to worry, the rain does not fall on the patrons.
The Top of the Mark is a bar and restaurant with stunning 360 views of the city and bay. Famed clientele such as Elvis and The Rolling Stones have eaten here.
We had to set are alarms for this early morning rise, as we wanted to get the most out of our last day in San Francisco. I knew that I wanted to see the famed “Painted Ladies” row of Victorian homes as well as the actual home that was depicted as the site for the show Full House.
The thing is that there is not a ton of stuff to do near either location so the best way to see both, we figured would be to go on an early morning run by these locations. So that’s just what we did.
With our sneakers laced up, athlesiure attire on and cell phones in hand we were off for our four mile run through the Filmore District to capture some photos of the iconic homes and get get our morning workout out of the way.
Lucky for us once we returned to the hotel free coffee and tea awaited us. We both got our caffeine fix and returned to the room to get ready for the day.
Blocks away from The Marker hotel put us at the infamous Pinecrest Diner. I love a good diner. But this spot has a sketchy past. Unfortunately a murder took place in the diner back in 1997, according to the San Francisco Gate news outlet.
The story goes that a line cook and a waitress who had been working together for over 20 years got into an argument over a poached egg. You see the poached egg was not on the menu, yet the waitress took the order from the patron anyways. Apparently a fight ensued and the next day the cook shot the waitress.
Now we did not go to this diner because of that. We went because this spot has been a neighborhood staple since 1969, has great reviews, is open 24 hours and we thought it would be a great place to go early on a Sunday morning, since most places do a Sunday Brunch and would not be opened until later.
My review is a thumbs up for food quality and atmosphere. Good thing we got there early because a line did start to form and by the time we left it wrapped around the corner of the building.
Time to ride the famous cable cars. We headed over to the intersections of Powell and Hyde Streets just a few blocks away from the Pinecrest Diner to purchase our cable car tickets from the ticket booth. We decided to purchase a one time ride with no transfers for $7.
The line was incredibly long. I was actually surprised it was this long at 9:00 AM in the morning, but it was. After waiting about 10 minutes and moving at a snails pace, we decided to walk about six blocks north and then four blocks west to catch the California cable car line that runs west to east and vice versa.
We wanted to wind up at the Ferry Building Marketplace which was on the east end of the California line so this worked out better for us, and there was no line! The line that starts at Powell and Hyde Street runs south to north and drops you off near Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square. But since we had toured that area yesterday we felt the California line was a better option.
The Ferry Building Marketplace is not only a beautiful building but it is also home to an abundance of cafes, quaint shops selling spices, different olive oils, chocolates, breads, books and more.
The Ferry Building Marketplace is often listed as one of the top attractions in the city of San Francisco. Its easy to see why. The building opened its doors back in 1898 and served as the focal point for transportation whether that was by train or boat. The impeccable clock tower has been a beacon to travelers far and wide for over a century.
Once inside the Ferry Building we stopped by Blue Bottle Coffee to sample their coffee. We had heard that this Oakland based shop was one of the best spots in town. I will add that you can now find Blue Bottle Coffee in cities across the country, but it all began here in the bay area.
I give blue bottle an A+ on service and atmosphere but sadly and honestly I have to say that I did not like my coffee. I got a brew with earthy undertones thinking it was a good choice among the opposite which was a fruit noted blend. To me the coffee had notes of pepper that just didn’t do it for me.
The coffee is roasted in such a way that it is similar to the New Orleans chicory style. Now, I have lived in New Orleans, and I know chicory coffee. Cafe du Monde anyone? Well, in any case, the coffee snob that I am was not a fan of Blue Bottle, but I can say that the service and atmosphere was on point.
We walked north along the peer and strolled down one of the boardwalks embracing the salty bay air and sunshine on our faces before heading east towards Coit Tower. The walk to the Telegraph Hill neighborhood where Coit Tower stood nearly killed us. Just kidding, but it was quit the trek up the steep sidewalks. Because the walk was taking longer than expected and because of the jam packed itinerary we decided to skip touring Coit Tower and opted for an early lunch in Chinatown instead.
If you come to Chinatown, you will soon see that there are inviting smells around every corner from various Chinese restaurants. I’m sure all are delightful, but we had our hearts set on R & G Lounge. The late Anthony Bourdain came here while shooting an episode for his Travel Channel show No Reservations.
You can book reservations only by calling, no online reservations are available. Or you can just walk in and wait for a table, which is what we did. We only had to wait about 20 minutes before being seated in the upstairs dinning area. The wait staff is dressed to the nines in suits, and the tables are set with white table cloths and chopsticks laid out just waiting to be used. Our eyes went to the chopsticks and we immediately laughed at the thought of either of us getting through an entire meal with these foreign objects.
No water was provided, but instead something better – green tea. An adorable hot pot of tea was already on our table along with two tea cups. I normally don’t enjoy green tea too much. I force it down because I like the health benefits, but I am not kidding when I say this tea was amazing.
Dishes are meant to be shared here, and that’s just what we did. Veggie egg rolls for a starter, kung pao chicken and house specialty beef stir fry with secret house made sauce. All items were delicious. But if you really want to walk in Bourdain’s shoes, order as he did and get the salt & pepper crab, deep fried in batter.
After lunch we strolled through some shops in Chinatown, casually making our way towards Union Square.
Back in Union Square we browsed through some stores and stopped to get an ice cream sundae at Ghiradelli Chocolates. It was amazing! I had missed my chance at a sundae in Ghiradelli Square the day before because it was so packed, but luckily there are some Ghiradelli shops scattered throughout the city that offer those same magical sundaes.
Time to head to the San Francisco airport and head back to Portland. All in all San Francisco was a wonderful place to visit and I would immediately return at the next chance I get.