Experiencing San Francisco means visiting its neighborhoods to savor the city’s myriad cultural identities. Pluralism is the life of this city, and after a weeklong visit, you’ll surely agree. Here’s a touring strategy for taking to the streets of San Francisco.
Day 1: Chinatown, North Beach. Start off the day with an espresso and pastry at an outdoor café in North Beach. Wander this charming quarter of tempting delis, bakeries, and pasta houses, and hit City Lights Bookstore for a glimpse of the city’s Beat-era legacy. Take in sweeping views of the bay at Coit Tower, then head to labyrinthine Chinatown for dim sum, and peer into mysterious herb apothecaries, live-seafood stores, and sweet-smelling tea shops. Hit the stores near the Chinatown Gate for good values on souvenirs, then head back to North Beach for pasta, followed by a drink at celebrity favorite Tosca.
Day 2: Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39. With your prereserved ticket in hand, set out for a tour of the Rock. When the ferry docks back at the wharf, take a step back in time to early 20th-century San Francisco at delightful Musee Mechanique. If you absolutely must dine on the water, the restaurants here have spectacular views and less-spectacular food. Otherwise hop the Hyde Street or Mason Street cable car lines for better dining in Russian Hill and North Beach.
Day 3: SOMA, Union Square. Beat the crowds in the morning at SFMOMA, then take a break across the street in the expansive Yerba Buena Gardens. Head up 4th Street and join stylish locals browsing the tony stores around Union Square. This area isn’t known for great restaurants, so when you get peckish, head to Belden Place. This bistro-lined alley is one of the few places around Union Square where locals dine. To top off the evening, gaze down on the city lights from one of the square’s sky-view lounges.
Day 4: Golden Gate Park. Start your day at the glorious Conservatory of Flowers. Make your way to the Japanese Tea Garden and amble across wooden bridges and along stone pathways over ponds filled with carp. Just across the street, egrets perch and kids frolic at the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Move on to Stow Lake, where you can rent a surrey or paddleboat. Make your way to the western edge of the park and top off the day with a bite and view the sunset over the Pacific at the WPA mural-covered Beach Chalet.
Day 5: The Castro, The Mission. Here’s your chance to ride the charming antique trolleys of the F-line—the Castro is the end of the line. Stroll down Castro Street, past the art deco Castro Theatre, stopping at any café that attracts you. Head east on 16th Street to Dolores Street and unimposing Mission Dolores, and wander rows of centuries-old gravestones in its tiny cemetery. Discover the offbeat Mission District around 16th and Valencia streets, wandering past hipster cafés and quirky shops.
Day 6: Ferry Building, Marina, Presidio. Gather breakfast at the bustling Ferry Building and watch sailboats and ferries on the bay as you dine outside. If you gather supplies here, you’ll be well equipped for a picnic later on the northern shoreline. Head to the Marina and the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts; if you’re traveling with kids, be sure to visit the Exploratorium next door. Continue west into the Presidio and make for Crissy Field, the marshland along the northern shore. Stake out your picnic spot and watch the sun set beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.
Day 7: Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Lombard Street. See what really makes the cable cars go at the free, very cool Cable Car Museum on Nob Hill, then climb up to manicured Ina Coolbrith Park on Russian Hill for broad vistas of the bay. Ascend the Vallejo Steps and you’re within easy reach of many of Russian Hill’s hidden lanes. Explore famous Macondray Lane, then head around the corner to Leavenworth Street just north of Union Street and look for the steps to equally lovely but virtually unknown Havens Place.
An Alternative: On Day 2, skip Fisherman’s Wharf. Instead, take a walk onto—or over—the Golden Gate Bridge, or head back to North Beach for a mellow afternoon.
Instead of shopping at Union Square on Day 3, head to Kabuki Springs and Spa and relax in the communal baths, or go to Lands End on the western shoreline.
If you have more time, drive up to Marin to see the redwoods, or head down the coast to the beaches of San Mateo.