San Francisco is steeped in history and culture. From the architecture on the streets to the art in the museums, to restaurants and bars that retain their vintage luster, it’s a city that offers more than a little of everything.
Where to Stay
The Royal Pacific Motor Inn is a big box of mid-century Googie in the center of Chinatown and provides that holy grail of San Francisco accommodations: free parking. The Hotel Bijou is centrally located near Union Square: Each room is named after a film shot in the city, from Vertigo to Harold and Maude to, um, Copycat. The Inn at the Presidio offers a more relaxed setting amid the forests of the Presidio National Park. There’s plenty of hiking, biking, restaurants and several museums onsite, but you may find it hard to roll out of your comfortable bed with the panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay….
Where to Eat
Historic John’s Grill is a throwback steakhouse and former hangout of Dashiell Hammett, whose favorite lamb chops are still on the menu—there’s a Maltese Falcon upstairs and, of course, a Thin Man-style martini at the bar. Le Colonial is located in what used to be Trader Vic’s—slip down an alley, enter a small, temple-like building, ascend the stairs and cross a skylit gallery to the high-ceilinged dining room. The menu gives a Vietnamese twist to French classics such as curry-broth bouillabaisse and kaffir lime crème brûlée. For something lighter, Molinari Delicatessen is an old world Italian deli that’s been serving fresh sandwiches with house-cured meats for over a century, while Naked Lunch is a bustling bar/restaurant with more modern options such as fried green tomato or foie gras—no, there isn’t a William S. Burroughs special with typewriter ribbon and shotgun shells on rye.
What to Do
The Civic Center hosts the San Francisco Symphony, SFJAZZ, the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet. The country’s oldest ballet company features world-class dancers and lavish staging—recent performances include a lighthearted Coppélia and a dramatic rendition of Onegin that had the audience in tears and on their feet. Another cluster of culture is Golden Gate Park, whose many attractions include the de Young Museum with its collection of American art and rotating special exhibitions on everyone from Andy Warhol to Oscar de la Renta to King Tut, as well as the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden and Shakespeare Garden. Downtown, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopens this month after a two-year, $300 million expansion near the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
San Francisco is also known for its connection to the Beats. Jack Kerouac’s hangout, the Vesuvio Cafe, is still pouring beers for floppy-haired poets. Down the block, the City Lights Booksellers & Publishers is jam-packed with books and open until midnight—whatever your obsession, you’re sure to find at least one volume about it that you must have. Also attached to a bookstore is The Beat Museum, which is tiny, but does feature a few treasures, such as a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando: “You play Dean and I’ll play Sal…”
Cable cars are delightful (get an empty one late at night and ride through the streets waving like the queen) but walking through Chinatown is a must. Admire the thematic vintage architecture and classic neon signs, perhaps score souvenirs like jade dragons or plastic Hello Kittys. Need a rest? The Li Po Cocktail Lounge is a dimly lit haven of decaying ’40s Orientalia—murals, lanterns, altars—with friendly bartenders and delicious mai tais. The Buddha Lounge across the street—look for the bottle-shaped doorway—is a slightly deeper dive, but likewise cheap and welcoming. If you prefer your exotica more upscale, the Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar has been serving tropical cocktails since 1945—along with an indoor “rainstorm” every half-hour.