Fom Gold rush speculators to tech visionaries, far-out hippies to outdoorsy financiers, San Francisco has long lured dreamers of all stripes.
Whether you’re braving the roller-coaster streets or sailing on the spectacular bay, you’ll soon fall victim to the city’s romance. Endowed with a West Coast can-do mindset and a smart workforce produced by nearby Stanford and Berkeley universities, San Francisco has evolved from a railroad boom town full of entrepreneurial immigrants, such as jeans pioneer Levi Strauss, into the world’s tech capital where that twentysomething in a hoodie next to you might just be a social media billionaire.
The city has faced its share of challenges lately, with the soaring price of housing locking young people out of the market and a rising homeless population. But with the election of pro-business mayor London Breed, San Francisco is getting ready to shift gears again, promising new opportunities and more residential and commercial spaces, as well as development in and around the Mid-Market area, where Twitter’s headquarters is located.
Through it all, the city has retained its historic idiosyncrasies: 19th-century cable cars that race the latest electric vehicles on downtown’s Market Street and pastel Victorian homes set against a skyline full of skyscrapers. With a multicultural community and diverse landscapes stretching from the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate City, at 122 square kilometres, is more navigable than its sizeable reputation would suggest.
Coffee pit stop
Verve Coffee Roasters
This renowned caffeine purveyor fills demitasses with shots from a shiny Kees van der Westen espresso machine while extracting single-origin sips from futuristic Modbar Pour-Over units. Tuck into sourdough toast (from the acclaimed local Manresa Bread) topped with radish and avocado alongside mobile workers typing away on their laptops in this light-flooded space of natural timber and artful tiles.
2101 Market Street
Occupying the soaring lobby of a historic flatiron building on Market Street, this eatery would make filmmaker Wes Anderson’s set designer pastel-green with envy, thanks to its whimsical textures and Modernist detailing. The restaurant accepts reservations for breakfast, where you can look forward to classics such as ricotta pancakes or overnight oats with the not-so-classic Villon Breakfast of eggs, chicken-apple sausage, pork belly, crisp potatoes, grilled squash and sourdough toast.
1100 Market Street
Credited with jump-starting the epicurean frenzy in the edgy Mission district, Commonwealth stays on-trend with its hyper-seasonal tributes to Northern California’s produce, best seen in dishes such as kohlrabi paired with salted cod and amberjack tartare served light and fresh with fennel, lemongrass and finger lime. Walk in for a seat at the bar, where wine director Sarah Snyder offers an excellent range of drops from near and far.
2224 Mission Street
This white-glove establishment in Union Square may evoke a bygone era but its Michelin-starred cuisine, marrying chef Srijith Gopinathan’s Indian roots with local ingredients, is anything but old-fashioned. Impress your guest with the Spice Pot, a planter of edible buckwheat “soil” and tender sprouts, presented with milky smoke paying tribute to San Francisco’s fog. The restaurant’s tables are generously spaced – a rarity for the city’s eateries. Plush booths provide extra sound insulation, making them ideal for conversations as discreet as the service.
340 Stockton Street
Drinks with clients
Opened the day after Prohibition ended on 5 December 1933, the grand Redwood Room preserves its namesake timber panelling, all of it cut from the identical 2000-year-old tree, but the playful Philippe Starck touches, such as Art Deco-style sconces, and a rotating installation of digital artwork add 21st-century sophistication. Locally inspired cocktails, including Afternoon in Humboldt (with house-infused rosemary tequila, lime juice and grapefruit soda) and Haight Street Daiquiri (with chamomile-infused rum and lime juice) join classics like Old Fashioned and Negroni. Book a quiet table for a tête-à-tête, preferably in time for the happy hour menu of pizza, wings or hushpuppies (corn fritters) that lasts until 7pm.
495 Geary Street
Best co-working space
With a relaxed ethos and regular social events, Covo brings mobile workers together. The flexible spaces, including private nooks, shared desks, café and even a taproom after 5pm, mean you can work hard or play hard. From US$4 an hour.
Image credit: Paul Dyer
Housed in a renovated 1890s brick army barracks, Lodge at the Presidio offers 42 old-world-meets-modern-amenities rooms, some with glorious Golden Gate Bridge views. About six kilometres from the CBD, it feels a world away.
If you have a couple of hours…
Right in the heart of the city, the reimagined wing of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened two years ago, tripling the exhibition space, but you can still take in its highlights in just a few hours if you’re selective. Unwind on a terrace beside an Alexander Calder sculpture and a nine-metre-high living wall or lose yourself in contemplation inside Richard Serra’s labyrinthine sculpture, Sequence.
Image credit: Tim Griffith
If you have half a day…
Golden Gate Park, the city’s 4.8 kilometre-long green lung, embodies both nature and nurture with winding paths that cut through eucalyptus woods and hands-on museums such as the California Academy of Sciences. Survey the city from the observation tower of the de Young Museum and visit the nearby Japanese Tea Garden.
If you have a day…
Connected to the city by the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands offers the region’s bucolic best with gently rolling hills suddenly culminating in dramatic sea cliffs. After a stop on 280-metre Hawk Hill for a gander at the variety of bird species, including eagles and ospreys, set your compass for Bolinas, the coastal town of clapboard homes and bobbing fishing boats that, to protect its offbeat character, has famously refused road signs.
If you have a weekend…
In 2017, a landslide closed off a section of Highway 1 for more than a year but, thankfully, the coastal road from San Francisco to Big Sur reopened last July. This quintessential American road trip will take you right through the Monterey Bay region, a laid-back area hugging its namesake bay teeming with otters and seals. The non-profit Monterey Bay Aquarium not only leads sustainability initiatives but also offers stunning exhibits like its Open Sea window and Kelp Forest. The newly opened Spa at Sanctuary Beach Resort, meanwhile, pampers with natural treatments such as a sea-salt exfoliation. Further down the coast, thousands of colourful monarch butterflies spiral in Pacific Grove’s open-air sanctuary in wintertime. After a stop at Asilomar State Beach for its tide pools harbouring brilliant starfish and sea anemones, make your way to Carmel-by-the-Sea, an upscale resort village with a wealth of wine-tasting rooms – and no parking meters, street lights or even addresses.