Even the most quintessentially touristy things are worth doing in San Francisco. For me, hanging out in Union Square, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf never gets old. But the City by the Bay, with its colorful history, trend-setting attitude and eclectic vibe is a treasure trove of many more things to do. Here are some of our favorites, including a few recommendations from people in the business of making any San Francisco visit especially memorable. And we’re merely scratching the surface.
Skip the Car, Rent a Bike
Parking rates at San Francisco hotels are notoriously high -- $50, $60 or more a night! So rent a bike instead. Mother Nature will thank you, and you’ve seen those San Francisco hills – it can be a great workout, too! Options abound, but we like Blazing Saddles, with multiple locations; your 24-hour rental includes a helmet and bike lock. Once on your two-wheeler, what to do? Jessica DeBolt, senior sales manager in Travelzoo’s San Francisco office, likes to “ride from the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge and over to Sausalito for lunch and ice cream.” And her tips for visitors on the go: “When heading north over the bridge, bike on the left side to avoid pedestrians; just use the tunnel under the bridge to find this less-traveled path. And due to the hills on the road back, I suggest taking the Sausalito ferry to the Embarcadero (they have bike parking on the ferry) for $10.75 one way.” And one more biking tip: guests at any of the eight Kimpton hotels in San Francisco have free use of boutique PUBLIC bikes on a first-come, first-served basis.
Skip the Hills, Hike Point Bonita
True, the dozens of hills that define this city’s landscape can be the ultimate pedestrian workout. But Chris McGinnis, longtime San Francisco-based travel journalist and founder of the popular TravelSkills blog, prefers Point Bonita. Located in the ruggedly beautiful Marin Headlands and home to a still-active lighthouse, this area is “very cool and relatively unknown to most people,” he says. “It’s only about a 20-minute drive from downtown San Francisco and it’s free.” Explore on your own or sign up for a guided tour through the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
Skip the Theater, Do the Pier
Pier 39 is already on your radar. The 45-acre waterfront complex draws millions with its dozens of shops, restaurants and attractions, not to mention its spectacular views of the Bay. “But this is also a haven for hugely talented street performers,” says San Francisco native and Travelzoo associate producer Allie Paver. “World-class magicians, comedians and jugglers gather here daily to wow visitors.” Check them out at the Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water Stage, and be sure to pause for a performance by the local musicians who set up at the Entrance Plaza. The schedule for these shows changes daily, and they are free to the public. One more tip: when you visit the Aquarium of the Bay, check out the new 270-seat theater, which runs a full lineup of marine-inspired films, documentaries and animated shorts.
Cruise JFK, But on Weekends
John F. Kennedy Drive is a major thoroughfare that cuts through Golden Gate Park, so expect plenty of cars during the week. But locals will tell you that JFK is closed off to cars on Sundays, drawing a vibrant blend of joggers, walkers and bikers. “There is no better way to spend a sunny Sunday,” says Eric Hankinson, Regional Director for Travelzoo Local Deals and a 10-year San Francisco resident who loves to bring his kids here. “Don't miss the roller-skaters who put on a fantastic demonstration at 6th Avenue, or the Golden Gate Band, or people-watching in the plaza between the de Young Museum and Academy of Sciences. And make sure you grab a hotdog from one of the street vendors!”
Skip the Bakery, Bake Your Own
Sour Flour was founded in 2008 to help spread the appreciation for sourdough bread throughout the San Francisco community, and to teach neighbors how to best bake their own. Like bread? Consider attending one of their two-hour, totally hands-on workshops, where you’ll learn dough development techniques used by artisan bakers. You’ll get to mix, shape, top and bake sourdough flatbread and even get to take your own starter home, ideal for making rustic loaves and pizza. Sour Flour uses only organic, Type 85 flour and holds classes at La Victoria Bakery in the Mission District. By the way, they offer free bagels every Monday.
Skip the Restaurant, Grill Your Own
If bread alone won’t cut it, how about learning to grill to perfection? The classes at Bay Area BBQ and Grilling School will teach you the basics of cooking on charcoal and gas grills, as well as smoking meats using two types of pellet smokers. You’ll prep your cuts while learning how to make and use dry rubs, brines and injections. And when the hands-on lesson is over, you’ll indulge in a feast of pulled pork, pork tenderloin, beef brisket, chicken, turkey, buffalo wings, sweet potatoes, stuffed peppers and even grilled pizza. You can bring your own beverages to enjoy during the six-hour lesson. The school is located on Treasure Island and classes are usually held Friday through Sunday.
Skip the Selfie, Take a Class
The sweeping sights of San Francisco will have you reaching for your camera a lot. So take some time to hone your skills. We like the workshops at Isla Studios, where you can take a three-hour beginner’s photography class that offers a crash course in all things digital. Limited to about 20 students and usually help on weekend mornings, it covers the features of your own camera and concepts like exposure, aperture, depth of field and shutter speed. You’ll never want to use automatic mode again! To put your new skills to the test, tack on their Golden Gate photo walk, a two-hour stroll to Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, when natural lighting can be at its most sublime.
Pick a ‘Hood, Any ‘Hood San Francisco is, really, a tapestry of neighborhoods each one offering something unique and wonderful. If you’re limited on time and can pick just one to visit, lifetime Bay Area resident Melissa Stroud, votes for what locals call The Mission. “One of my favorite things to do in the city is walk to the Mission District and hang out in Dolores Park for the day -- the Mission boasts some of the most sunshine in the city!” says the Travelzoo associate producer. “I like to pick up some champagne at the local Bi-Rite Market across the street from the park (they also have an amazing cheese selection) or grab a scoop from their ice cream parlor (my favorite is the honey lavender or salted caramel) before laying my blanket out. Some of the best views of the city can be seen from the top of the park – you can see the Transamerica Building and all the way out to the Bay. The Mission District is also becoming a foodie destination, as it's home to a lot of up-and-coming restaurants. So after a day in the park, it's always fun to head down to Valencia Street and try a new spot.”
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of San Francisco hotel specials, as well as local deals.