While it's certainly true that San Francisco is a city best savored slowly and not slurped down in one big gulp, it's also true that no amount of time spent in the City by the Bay is wasted time. The following itineraries will help you make the most of your stay, whether you've got a day, a weekend or a week to spare.
Your plane has landed, you've collected your bags, and you've got only 24 hours to soak up the sights. Ditch the luggage and hop a BART train from the airport straight to downtown. Get off at Powell Street and you can check off your first authentic San Francisco treat from the to-do list: the world-famous cable cars. Powell Street station is the terminus for the Fisherman's Wharf lines, but don't ride the running boards just yet.
If shopping's your thing, you're now at retail Ground Zero. Directly behind you is the Westfield San Francisco Centre, a fashionista's fantasy with Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lucky Brand Jeans, Juicy Couture, and more than 170 other retail outlets. Two blocks up the street is Union Square, home to Big Name designer boutiques and department stores ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's to Barney's, Neiman Marcus, Prada, and Marc Jacobs. Rest your feet and your credit cards at the historic plaza while you grab a panini and espresso and people-watch at the Emporio Rulli café.
On the West side of Union Square is the legendary Westin St. Francis Hotel, steeped in the cigar smoke and white gloves of the city's boom years. Built by the Charles Crocker family (of railroad fame) in 1904, it was the first hotel to be resurrected after the earthquake and fires of 1906. It's definitely worth a detour if not for a twirl around the grand lobby and a longing look at celeb chef Michael Mina's five-star restaurant, then for a ride to the top of the hotel in its outdoor glass elevators, where you can get a bird's-eye view of the downtown skyline (acrophobes need not apply).
From here, catch a cable car at any one of the stops along Powell Street and take it to the end of the line at Fisherman's Wharf. Fortify yourself with an original Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Café before exploring the waterfront. The frothy blend of hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream was not actually invented here, but it was the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane who brought the recipe back from Dublin in 1952, and a Buena Vista bartender who re-created it stateside for the first time. The legendary bar serves up some 2,000 Irish Coffees a day.
Afterward, go next door for some chocolate indulgence at Ghirardelli Square. The former chocolate factory is now a high-end shopping and dining center, but the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory and Soda Fountain is still the spot to get your one-pound chocolate bars, your Emperor Norton (a hot fudge banana split) or your Alcatraz Rock (rocky-road ice cream in a shell of hard chocolate). Don't miss the mini-production center at the back of the room where melted milk chocolate sloshes around in big vats.
Start your tour of the Wharf at Aquatic Park across the street. Walk through the Maritime Museum, for artifacts and exhibits about West Coast whaling, steamboating and perilous journeys 'around the Horn' and out to Municipal Pier for views of the harbor and the Golden Gate Bridge. Alongside the Hyde Street docks, Maritime National Historical Park is home to a small fleet of restored historic ships. Further down Jefferson Street you'll come to the honky-tonk heart of the Wharf. Stroll past the caricature artists, watch out for "Bush Man," who likes to jump out and scare unsuspecting passersby, and grab a walkaway Dungeness crab cocktail from a stand at Fisherman's Grotto, near Taylor Street.
Make a detour to Pier 39 to visit the resident sea-lebrities on the west-side docks. The barking, belching, herring-eating sea lions have been happily ensconced here since 1990, having shown up one bright January day with an attitude and an appetite that permanently drove out the fishing boats. If you have time, make your last stop the Boudin bakery on Jefferson Street. As iconic to San Francisco as earthquakes, cable cars and liberal politics, Boudin's sourdough bread is still made from a mother dough first cultivated here in 1849. You can watch the bread-making process from the railing overlooking their showcase kitchen, and stock up on a few loaves.
If your one-day tour must end at the airport, you can catch a vintage F Line streetcar back to BART from there.
If you can extend your stay, it's easy to expand the previous itinerary into a food and cultural extravaganza. Park yourself at a hotel near the Embarcadero, such as the Hotel Vitale, Harbor Court, or Hyatt Regency.
Fantastic restaurants abound here, many with long reservation lists, but a little planning and flexibility can usually nab you a seat, even on short notice. The newest "it" spot is Epic Roasthouse and Waterbar, two lavish sister restaurants that opened this winter on the Bay. Waterbar serves sustainable seafood from around the world and features 19-foot floor-to-ceiling circular aquariums. Epic Roasthouse is a modern take on a classic steak and chophouse, with an opulent industrial design and a custom-built wood-fired metal hearth.
Across the street, Boulevard is consistently rated among the best in the city. Chef Nancy Oakes, a James Beard Award winner, takes New American comfort food to a higher plane. A few doors down, Mexico DF serves fresh, offbeat Mexican fare—made with local and organic ingredients. Chef David Rosales offers inspiring and unusual takes on standards like ceviche and guacamole, and his carnitas—sold by the pound—is worth saving up an appetite for.
Any Saturday morning in this neck of the woods should be spent perusing the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market—San Francisco's homage to all-things green and gourmet. While it's worth a visit at any time of day, Saturday mornings are when the real foodies find their bliss. A positively decadent array of fresh-from-the-vine edibles, artisanal cheeses, hot-from-the-oven breads, still-flopping fish, and gourmet goodies ranging from olive oils to handcrafted chocolates spread out on stands and stalls inside the market hall, as ferryboats dance on the bay and the old clock tower beckons travelers into port. For breakfast, try the beignets at Boulette's Larder or if you're feeling bold, a half-dozen Tomales Bay Sweetwater oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co.
Afterwards, walk down the Embarcadero to Pier 7, an old fishing pier that was restored a decade back with vintage-style streetlamps and a wooden-plank promenade. Stroll to the end, find a comfortable bench, and watch the fishermen cast into the swell as the barges roll by.
From here you can almost hear the cry of "Play ball!" drifting over the docks from AT&T Park. An easy amble down the picturesque Embarcadero promenade, past Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's enormous Cupid's Span sculpture, puts you at the home that Bonds built, and with the homerun king now gone, tickets have become a whole lot easier to come by. The park is a great place to spend an afternoon, with baseball augmented by a charming waterfront park, a kid's playground sporting enormous curlicue slides and a mini-baseball diamond, and dining options that include Acme Chop House, a top-rated steak and chop supper club that specializes in sustainable, organic meats.
Later, explore San Francisco's newest neighborhoods, South Beach and Mission Bay, before walking up Third Street to the Yerba Buena arts district. The transformation of this area, which 30 years ago moldered in the rubble of abandoned industry, has been nothing short of miraculous. Sparked by the construction of the Moscone Convention Center in 1981, it is today a magnificent example of urban redevelopment, with soaring modern towers abutting 19th-century churches. First stop should be the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Mario Botta. Along with a permanent collection that includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, René Magritte and Piet Mondrian, the Museum is fun to explore for its architectural surprises – including a transparent pedestrian bridge high above the atrium on the fifth floor.
Across the street, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is part museum, part performing arts complex, park, and indoor/outdoor shopping and dining mecca. Walk around the Revelations waterfall, constructed in 1993 in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Kick off your shoes and soak up sun during one of the free lunchtime performances, or sit at the Samovar Tea Lounge and gaze out to the city skyline. The buildings on either side house Metreon, a multimedia entertainment center with shops, a virtual-game arcade and a multiplex cinema. Connected to the gardens via an elevated walkway is the Rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens, which features an array of children's attractions, including Zeum, a high-tech youth arts center, a bowling alley, ice skating rink, and a unique interactive playground.
For more cultural fare, visit the Museum of the African Diaspora in the St. Regis Museum Tower on Third Street, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum just off Mission Street. Designed by New York architect Daniel Libeskind the über-modern CJM features a blue-steel cube emerging from a 1907 brick Willis Polk-designed power substation. It's flanked by the 1851 St. Patrick's Church, and lies opposite the newly relocated Museum of Craft and Folk Art. If you have time for one more offbeat museum, make it the Cartoon Art Museum, which houses some 5,000 pieces of cartoon and animation art, including rare political cartoons, animation cels and comic books.
Day 4-5Now that you've covered some of the biggies, it's time to get a little more adventurous. Start out early Saturday morning in Chinatown, when the merchants are setting up shop. The streets fill with the smell of simmering soups and barbecue pork buns; in the windows are hanging roast ducks (heads still attached) and bizarre delicacies like armadillo, turtle, and pigs' noses; on the sidewalks are bins of embroidered slippers, wooden toys, and rice-paper candies. At about 10:30 a.m., scope out a dim sum parlor. Try the enormous, three-story Gold Mountain, where steaming carts whiz by faster than traffic moves on Broadway, and where it's occasionally hard to hear yourself over the roar of the chattering crowd. Dol Ho is a dive and the service is nonexistent, but it's where dim sum connoisseurs go for chicken feet and other specialties. Location is the prime reason to try the Hang Ah Tea Room, billed as the oldest dim sum place in Chinatown (established in 1920). Located below street level on a tiny back alley called Pagoda Place, it's the kind of place you half expect to see people sitting cross-legged on pillows smoking opium pipes. For those who don't like weird food surprises, you can get traditional sweet-and-sour dishes here, as well as items like shrimp toast, foil-wrapped chicken, and steamed barbecue pork buns.
After brunch, wander through Ross Alley, making a requisite stop to watch the little old ladies carefully fold bits of wisdom into wing-shaped cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and up to Waverly Place, where incense wafts from the ornate painted balconies and colorful Chinese paper lanterns swing in the breeze. Brave the four flights of stairs up to Tien Hou Temple, dedicated to the Queen of the Heavens and allegedly the oldest Chinese temple in San Francisco. The ceiling is festooned with dozens of lanterns hung with red prayer papers and gilded miniature dioramas of villages. Make a traditional offering by stuffing a dollar or two inside one of the small red envelopes at the front table.
Next, amble north along Grant Avenue until you hit the corner of Columbus and the entrance to Italian North Beach. From this corner turn around for a great photo op of patina-green Sentinel Tower (where filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola's has his American Zoetrope production company) juxtaposed against the famous TransAmerica Pyramid, making it seem as if they're right next to each other.
As you walk up Columbus into North Beach, take a quick dip in City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio. City Lights is where Beat bard/publisher/artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti has kept the candle dripping over the chianti bottle for 50 years, and where you can find nearly everything ever written by and about Kerouac, Corso, McClure, Rexroth, Ginsberg, et al. The poetry section is outstanding, and the bookshop is a whirlwind education for anyone even remotely curious about San Francisco's predilection towards waywardness and unconventional thinking.
Vesuvio is the famous bar and literary hangout that was once the favorite watering hole of Beat icon Jack Kerouac. Knock back a beer and continue your North Beach tour up to Molinari's Deli. Opened in 1896, the deli is a must-stop if only to admire the sheer volume of anchovies, artichokes, olive oils, pasta, sauces, coppa, mozzarella, and other goodies. Grab a hard roll from the box, hand it to the man behind the counter, and get him to make you a pepper-salami sandwich with all the trimmings. Carry your cargo to Washington Square Park for a picnic in the shadow of the spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church. Picture Joe and Marilyn (Di Maggio/Monroe) taking their wedding photos on the steps. Then blow your diet some more with a quick jaunt to Liguria bakery on the northeast corner of the park, where fresh, steaming focaccia, still made by members of the same family who founded it in 1911, make three or four kinds of the Italian bread every day. Locals line up around the block for it, and when the shop runs out, they close.
At this point, you may be ready for a nap, but if you still have energy, climb the hill up to Coit Tower for spectacular views of the Golden Gate. Built in 1933, the 210-foot fluted column was the gift of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, and is home to a fascinating series of frescoes inside its lobby. Created under the supervision of Diego Rivera, the murals were part of Roosevelt's public works projects and depict socialist-realist images.
Dinner in North Beach is a must. For old school Italian fare, head to Sodini's, Capp's Corner, or Joe DiMaggio's Italian Chop House. For something a little more authentic, try L'Osteria del Forno, Rose Pistola, or Da Flora. Two of the best of the new wave of North Beach restaurants are Iluna Basque and El Raigon, an Argentinian steakhouse.
Day 6-7Spend a day devoted to Golden Gate Park, the city's communal backyard. Designed by William Hammond Hall, and nurtured for 50 years by gardener John McLaren, the greenbelt stretches for three miles between the Haight-Ashbury and the Pacific Ocean and encompasses 1,017 acres of gardens, groves, and lakes. Ground Zero is the de Young Museum, housed in a striking copper-clad building designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Next to the de Young is the Japanese Tea Garden, where you can partake of traditional Japanese tea and cookies and wander manicured paths past bonsai and cherry trees, pagodas, and an enormous Buddha. Across the tree-lined concourse is the bandshell, where the park band plays on Sundays, and the new home for the California Academy of Sciences. Re-opening in the fall of 2008, the natural science museum, aquarium, and planetarium, designed by Italian Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, will be housed in what is to be the world's 'greenest' museum—an environmentally sustainable building that contains a rainforest, a coral reef, and a living roof supporting some 1.7 million plants.
From here, walk east to the Conservatory of Flowers — the oldest building in the park and the oldest Victorian glass greenhouse in the Western Hemisphere. If you're feeling energetic, make a detour into the Haight-Ashbury for a Flower Power flashback and then rent bikes at one of the shops along Stanyan or Haight streets. On Sundays, the park is closed to car traffic along its main drags, and you can ride all the way from the Panhandle to the shores of the Pacific. Following John F. Kennedy Drive you'll wander past the Children's Playground and Hippie Hill, the rhododendron dell, charming Stow Lake, the rose garden, the buffalo paddock, and the Dutch windmill and tulip garden.
At the western edge of the park, where it meets the Pacific, the popular Park and Beach Chalet restaurants provide an idyllic spot to rest and resuscitate. On sunny afternoons, the grassy area facing the park is filled with locals sipping margaritas and house-brewed beers, and kicking back in Adirondack chairs. Upstairs, diners get uninterrupted views of the horizon while they munch on Dungeness crab cakes and big, juicy burgers.
If you still have a craving for art and ocean vistas, head up from Ocean Beach along the Great Highway to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. San Francisco's most seductively situated museum, it's set on ocean cliffs boasting spectacular views. A three-quarter-scale adaptation of the 18th-century Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris, the building was refurbished in 1995 to showcase its outstanding collection of masterworks by El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse and Picasso, and its large holdings of Rodin sculpture.
If you've got a day or two left and have hit all the major city sights, catch a ferry from Pier 41 or the Ferry Building to Sausalito or head up to Wine Country.
Sausalito is a picturesque European-style village with a maze of tiny streets that stretch from the shoreline up the steep hillside. Originally a fishing village, the town is now a bastion for the well-heeled, and a wonderful place to while away a day shopping, gallery hopping, admiring views, and dining or drinking on an outdoor deck. Off North Bridgeway is the San Francisco Bay Model Visitor Center, where you can watch a hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay and delta complete a full tide cycle in under 15 minutes.
At Sausalito harbor, the elaborately tricked-out houseboats docked at the end of Gate 5 and Gate 6 roads haven't budged in decades, but they're lovely to look at and they provide a snapshot of how this seaside community has changed over the years. Once the arty crash pads of hippies, the houseboats were considered a blight by rich hill dwellers back in the '60s. Nowadays, those same homeowners would have to pay up to a million dollars for the privilege of living on the water.
Finish off the day with a romantic dinner at Poggio, an Italian trattoria overlooking the harbor, adjacent to the Casa Madrona Hotel. The daily changing menu features classics of Northern Italy made with local ingredients and organic herbs and vegetables from the restaurant's own garden.
Napa and Sonoma valleys can be destinations all by themselves, but if you've only got one day, don't try to cram both in. Sonoma's the more low-key choice, and it's brimming with early California history. Napa's the place for big label wines, lavish resorts, and world-famous restaurants, including Thomas Keller's renowned French Laundry.
Essential stops in Sonoma include the town plaza ringed by restaurants, bookshops, wine tasting rooms, food shops, and two wonderful cheese boutiques (Vella is a must). Founded in 1823, the town hall and Bear Flag Monument on the plaza mark the site where the California Bear Flag first flew. For 25 days in 1846, this was the capital of the independent Republic of California. Around the plaza, Mission San Francisco Solano and various adobe houses and barracks fill out the rich history of this place.
Wineries in the area to see include Buena Vista, considered the father of the California wine industry, where some of the first grapes were planted; Bartholomew Park Winery, which has a fascinating wine museum and lovely picnic area; and Ravenswood, where zinfandel is king and the motto is Nullum Vinum Flaccidum (No Wimpy Wines).
In Napa, a drive up Highway 29 or Silverado Trail will yield more winery stops than you could possibly do in a week. Consider grouping by your favorite varietal, or by places such as Clos Pegase, Hess Collection, or Sterling Vineyards that offer additional distractions such as a beautiful sculpture garden, a premier art collection, or a museum and aerial tram from which you can overlook the valley.
For dinner, if you can't get a reservation at French Laundry (it books up two months in advance), consider Thomas Keller's other Yountville restaurants, Bouchon and Ad Hoc. Bistro Jeanty is another good bet for authentic, country French cuisine.
For something a bit more casual, try Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena for 1950s-style burgers and shakes or Mustards Grill in Napa, a perennial favorite for grilled fish, chops, ribs, steaks, and specialties such as seared ahi tuna, crispy Calamari with curried slaw, and BBQ baby back ribs.