Golden City by the Bay

By: Kate Nerenberg

San Francisco owes its feisty nature to the gold-rushers of the 1850s, who laid the foundation for free-spirited lifestyles. A politically liberal city—Harvey Milk was elected the city’s first openly gay public official more than 30 years ago—it often draws comparisons to European cities, with its slower pace and work-less, play-more culture.

In summer, the climate—cool, foggy mornings with afternoon temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees—is a break from Washington’s humidity.

Summer is when California’s bountiful produce supply swells to its peak, much to the delight of local-ingredient-obsessed chefs. Neighborhoods block traffic for street fairs and parades, and morning exercisers jump into the bay for a swim.

San Francisco’s many attractions fill hundreds of books. Here are highlights of the city, culled from personal experience and input from San Franciscans.

Golden Hours
You could devote a day to the gardens, museums, and ocean views in 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park (golden-gate-park.com). Active travelers may want to climb to the top of Strawberry Hill, with its sightline to Golden Gate Bridge, or rent roller skates or bikes. The San Francisco Parks Trust (415-263-0991) offers free walking tours, but if you’re looking for a quiet spot, nestle among the pagodas of the Japanese Tea Garden ($7).

At the park’s east end is the copper-wrapped de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.; 415-750-3600), an impressive collection of 17th-to-20th-century American art, and the California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Dr.; 415-379-8000), home to a planetarium, an aquarium, a natural-history museum, a four-story rainforest, and a walkable grass-covered roof.

History buffs can take a short walk north of the park to the Presidio, a chunk of land peppered with old military forts. The best of the bunch is three-tiered Fort Point, an imposing 1860s brick structure built to protect the city from Gold Rush looters.

The southwestern corner of the Presidio is the start of a string of beaches that hug the city’s western edge. The sand and surf end at Fort Funston, a craggy collection of dunes that’s popular with hang gliders and sand-dollar-seeking hikers.

To Market, to Market
A popular food stop for locals is Ferry Building Marketplace (415-983-8000), an airy dockside warehouse. You’ll find renowned baker Steve Sullivan’s sourdough at Acme Bread, house-cured salami at Boccalone, and artisanal cheese at Cowgirl Creamery. Outside, a Saturday farmers market draws up to 15,000 shoppers.

For a calmer experience, hop the BART train to the 16th Street/Mission stop and visit Bi-Rite Market (3639 18th St.; 415-241-9760), which has all the nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell painting. Shelves hold high-end pantry items, and a deli has made-to-order sandwiches.

Across the street is the Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop (3692 18th St., 415-626-5600), which churns out seasonally flavored ice creams and popsicles.

Soak Up Some Culture
To understand San Francisco’s history as a hotbed of change, you might seek out the Latin American–themed murals in the Mission District, especially Balmy Alley (between 24th and 25th streets, near Harrison Street), whose walls were painted in the 1970s, and Clarion Alley (between Valencia and Mission streets, near 17th Street), with artwork from the early 1990s. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center (415-285-2287)  offers daily walking tours.

For a nighttime look at the city’s political character, take a cable car along Market Street until you hit the lively Castro neighborhood, where Harvey Milk rallied residents to fight for gay rights in the 1970s. Follow the neon lights to the grand Castro Theatre (429 Castro St., 415-621-6120), a movie house built in 1922 with a comical mash-up of styles—from the Mexican-cathedral-inspired front to the Art Deco and Asian designs inside—that’s as much of a draw as the offbeat films onscreen.

Take a Hike
Walk anywhere in San Francisco and you’re likely to encounter an uphill climb—the undulating cityscape features 43 hills.

For a hike with a dose of art, walk up Telegraph Hill to its apex, where you’ll find the 210-foot Coit Tower (415-362-0808). From the top—the elevator ride ranges from $5 for adults to $1.50 for children—you can see the whole city. As part of a New Deal public-artworks project, California School of Fine Arts students painted frescoes of the city inside the tower on its completion in 1933.

Eat to Your Heart’s Content
One of the hardest decisions in San Francisco is where to eat. Should you go to the country’s oldest Chinatown—and the largest outside Asia—to line up with other tourists at House of Nanking (919 Kearny St.; 415-421-1429) or tuck into dirt-cheap burritos at 35-year-old La Taqueria (2889 Mission St.; 415-285-7117)? What about the much-buzzed-about puffy-crusted pizzas at Pizzeria Delfina (2406 California St.; 415-440-1189) or the thinner versions at Flour & Water (2401 Harrison St.; 415-826-7000)?

Then there’s the nearly century-old, 18-seat Swan Oyster Depot (1517 Polk St.; 415-673-1101), a cash-only, family-run seafood institution.

But you couldn’t possibly ignore sexy Jardinière (300 Grove St.; 415-861-5555), where chef/owner Traci Des Jardins has been abiding by the principles of local and sustainable since 1997, long before they were in vogue.

If you need a cocktail to mull it all over, order one at rum-happy Beretta (1199 Valencia St., 415-695-1199), but you might end up staying for a plate of spicy broccolini or artichoke bruschetta.

Rest Your Head
If you’re tired of generic hotel decor, you’ll enjoy waking up at the Hotel Des Arts (447 Bush St., 415-956-3232), where up-and-coming artists dress the rooms with 360-degree murals, often with a graffiti aesthetic. The sleeping quarters are tight, but where else can you brush your teeth while studying the work of a Keith Haring contemporary? Plus, a continental breakfast is included, and there’s even more art in a first-floor gallery. Check the Web site for specials. Rooms start at $89 for a shared bathroom and $129 for one with a private bath.

Nearby is the urbane Hotel Adagio (550 Geary St.; 415-775-5000), a property whose draws—a dramatic Spanish Colonial entrance, Egyptian-cotton linens, a complimentary two-hour walking tour—are unusual for its modest rates. Nearly half of the earth-tone rooms have views over the city. Rates start at around $169.

If designer Philippe Starck had collaborated with artist Salvador Dali, the result might look like the sumptuous, hip Clift Hotel (495 Geary St.; 415-775-4700). In fact, the luxurious but edgy lobby holds a Dali-designed coffee table, and much of the furniture is Starck’s handiwork. Some of the largest rooms—there’s even a private apartment—would put a DC one-bedroom rental to shame, but even the smallest have English-sycamore beds, flat-screen TVs, and funky design. Rates start at $255.

Art lovers looking for an equally plush but more subdued experience should try the Four Seasons Hotel (757 Market St.; 415-633-3000), where a podcast—on iPods that guests can get from the concierge—leads you through a large contemporary-art collection, and less than half a mile away are the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The hotel’s smallest room is a spacious 460 square feet. Rates start at $345.