Some of the most popular things to do in San Francisco – the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz – are worth your time and money. Others have become tired victims of over-tourism. This is how to discover more authentic, interesting and, well, fun things to do instead, as well as smarter ways to experience San Francisco’s most well-known attractions.
Don’t go to Fisherman’s Wharf. With its overpriced, often disappointing seafood eateries and tacky souvenir stores, the waterfront area is a no-go zone for locals.
Instead, go to Ferry Building Marketplace. In a landmark building at the foot of Market Street (you can’t miss the huge clock tower on the roof), it’s a world-class food hall and collection of independently owned small restaurants, regional produce purveyors and other artisan merchants. For fresher seafood than you’ll find at Fisherman’s Wharf, pull up a stool at the waterfront oyster bar at Hog Island Oyster Company. If you’ve not yet sated your hunger for fish, another far better alternative to Fisherman’s Wharf is to get off the Van Ness cable car at California Street and walk one block to Swan Oyster Co., a tiny seafood counter in a fish market. People don’t hang around long so the queue moves fast.
Don’t stick to Grant Avenue in Chinatown - it’s only the main drag. This is America’s oldest and biggest Chinatown and there’s so much more history and culture to see.
Instead, after stopping by the historic City Lights Booksellers & Publishers on Columbus and Broadway, walk along Grant Avenue for a few minutes, then turn right onto Pacific and then left onto Stockton. This stretch offers a more authentic Chinatown experience. Turn left onto Jackson Street, then right onto Ross Alley and visit Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a Chinese bakery where you can try many fresh-baked goods but especially the eponymous treats. Nearby Chinese restaurant Capital, at the intersection of Clay Street and Waverly Place, is a local’s favourite.
Don’t expect to find bohemian culture in Haight-Ashbury, the site of the Summer of Love social revolution in the late sixties. The neighbourhood has been thoroughly gentrified and while it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon after seeing the Painted Ladies (the famous row of pretty Victorian houses), it’s far from alternative.
Instead, explore Dogpatch. The Museum of Craft & Design moved to a new space in this former shipbuilding hub in 2013 and many other creative businesses have followed suit to make the most of cheap(er) rent in old warehouses and industrial buildings. Minnesota Street Project is a space offering affordable studios for artists. Spread across three warehouses, there are art galleries, rotating exhibitions, regular events and a modern-Indian restaurant, Besharam. Don’t miss microbrewery Harmonic Brewing or The Ramp, a down-to-earth, bay-front bar and restaurant serving clam chowder, crab and shrimp cakes, oysters, mussels and fish and chips.
Don’t go to Alcatraz during the day.
Instead, do the Alcatraz Night Tour. Far fewer people go to the old prison island at night, meaning it’s less crowded, quieter and therefore more atmospheric (read: spooky). You’ll also get to see the sunset over the city and it frees up a day to do another activity that doesn’t have an after-dark option. Alcatraz tours can sell out weeks, sometimes months, in advance so book early.
Don’t drive down Lombard Street, the Russian Hill road made up of eight hair-pin turns. You’ll only get stuck in traffic.
Instead, see the famously crooked spot between Leavenworth and Hyde streets on foot. It’s certainly picturesque, with colourful garden beds of flowers that line the winding road. Then walk two blocks up Hyde Street to Russian Hill Park, which offers beautiful, very Instagramable views over San Francisco.
Don’t go shopping in Union Square. San Francisco’s commercial hub is home to the kind of international chains you can find in almost any city in the world or online.
Instead, go to the Mission District. ‘The Mission’, as it’s called, is rapidly gentrifying, like much of San Francisco, but it’s still dominated by locally owned stores and boutiques. The stretch of Valencia Street from roughly 15th to 20th streets is especially good, lined with shops selling original and second-hand wares. Don’t miss Community Thrift, Dog-Eared Books, Gravel & Gold and the Pirate Store, an actual ‘pirate supply’ outlet. There’s much more to do in The Mission than shopping, though. See the Mission Murals (Balmy Alley is particularly dense with street art) or sit down at one of the many taquerias – the area has roots in Hispanic culture.
Don’t join the queue to get on a cable car at Hyde or Powell Streets with all the other out-of-towners. You’ll waste precious time standing in line.
Instead, get on a cable car half way through the route. Spots become free as people get off along the line. For example, if you’re taking the Powell-Hyde Line (Green) plan to get on at Chinatown or Russian Hill. Or take the even less crowded California Line (Red) uphill from near the Ferry Building for a steep, fun ride that ends in Chinatown or Union Square.