San Francisco: Insider Travel Guide

(CNN) — San Francisco, California, is small by urban standards, a compact swath of rambunctious hills, windswept bays and rainbow-colored Victorian homes. But it’s seen enough upheaval for a town twice its size.

It’s a city born of opportunity and reborn of disaster. It’s seen booms and busts both analog and digital. And it’s been the adopted home of numerous seismic social — and geological — movements.

A view of San Francisco from one of the city's most elegant hotels, the Fairmont.

A view of San Francisco from one of the city’s most elegant hotels, the Fairmont.

Courtesy Fairmont San Francisco

As a result, San Francisco is a crossroads of commerce and counterculture, suffused with noir moodiness as well as Gold Rush bravado.

Just remember that San Francisco’s weather has mood swings that are as complex. To avoid becoming one of those sullen travel types shivering in shorts and a T-shirt as the fog crawls around your ankles, bring a sweater — as well as these suggestions for experiencing the best of San Francisco’s hotels, restaurants, shopping and attractions:


Boutique: The Proper Hotel

Downtown San Francisco is home to some pretty snazzy tech HQs: Twitter, Uber, Spotify, but sadly the boutique hotel scene wasn’t really matching up until very recently.

Proper Hospitality opened the first Proper Hotel in 2017 (several more are in the works) and finally delivered the kind of high-design / casual chic that really makes this town a magnet for Patagonia-wearing, Tesla-driving billionaires.

The flatiron building in which the Proper is housed is over a century old, has 131 room and suites, with eclectic furnishings from designer Kelly Wearstler and a decidedly modern feel. Rooftop bar Charmaine’s, perched above Market Street, is worthy of a visit even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Be prepared for a wait.

Grand dame: The Fairmont

Fairmont San Francisco sits atop Nob Hill, which means, of course, stellar views.

Fairmont San Francisco sits atop Nob Hill, which means, of course, stellar views.

Courtesy Fairmont San Francisco

Situated in Nob Hill on the top of a hill, the Fairmont is classic luxury within walking distance to bustling Union Square, eclectic Chinatown and laid-back North Beach.

Most rooms come with a spectacular view of the city, and around Christmastime, the hotel’s lobby is a sight in and of itself. A giant gingerbread house takes over the space, and it’s easy to get lost in the romance of the twinkling lights — especially with a flute of bubbles purchased from the lobby’s Champagne bar in hand.

The knowledgeable and helpful staff, along with rooms featuring spacious bathrooms with Le Labo products and plush bedding, make this a worthy institution in a city where new seems to be the word of the day, every day.

Fairmont, 950 Mason St., San Francisco, CA 94108; +1 415 772-5000

Skyscraper: Loews Regency San Francisco

In a town that was the setting for the 1974 disaster film “The Towering Inferno,” staying at the highest hotel in town is not for the acrophobic. The Loews occupies the top 11 floors of the fourth-tallest skyscraper in the city, offering the highest rooms and rooftop bar.

The views here are unmatched, and inside you’ll find a modern-yet-comfortable aesthetic, an attentive staff who are helpful without being overzealous, and a downtown location that’s a short walk to the Embarcadero, Ferry Building and Union Square. The hotel is also pet-friendly, so bring along the pup (they do charge for the privilege)!

Loews Regency, 222 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104; +1 415 276-9888

National park: Inn at the Presidio and Lodge at the Presidio

Lodge at Presidio

Lodge at Presidio

Kentyn Reynolds

Both of these extraordinary historic lodgings are in the Presidio, San Francisco’s National Park. The natural grandeur of the park is an ideal setting for outdoor-enthusiasts who prefer a trail-run to an indoor gym, and for golfers with a penchant for American military history.

The Inn is housed a Georgian Revival-style, three-story building, erected in 1903. It was formerly the Pershing Hall Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. Its intimate, historic setting makes it feel like an historic private home, with only 26 rooms, mostly king suites with fireplaces. The outdoor patio features rocking chairs, and there is also an outdoor fire pit. It was the first hotel in the Presidio when it opened in 2012

The Lodge, the second hotel that opened in 2018, was formerly an Army barracks built in the 1890s.

It is the closest hotel to the Golden Gate bridge and is a stone’s throw from the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is housed in an identical building next door. With 42-rooms (many of which have views of the San Francisco Bay), it is almost double the size of its sister Inn, but either location offers a singular San Francisco experience.

Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and are LEED certified.


Che Fico

Che Fico's margherita pizza is finished with fresh basil, sweet as can be.

Che Fico’s margherita pizza is finished with fresh basil, sweet as can be.

Courtesy Krescent Carasso

When Che Fico opened in 2018, frenzy is the best word to describe its effect on the culinary world. First came the local reviews, then Bon Appetit named it one of the best restaurants in America, then The New York Times and The Washington Post.

CNN’s own Anderson Cooper posted an Instagram of the restaurant’s TK pizza.

Before long, there were no reservations, and the lines for walk-ins started forming hours before opening.

We are here to tell you: Do believe the hype.

This Italian-American restaurant has it all: An open kitchen in a converted loft above an old autobody shop, a delightful salumeria, menu items that nod to Jewish-Italian culinary history (the grilled chopped duck liver still happily haunts us) and the aforementioned pizzas.

Building on their success, Che Fico Alimentari is about to open, serving a vast selection of Italian wines and much more to come this summer.

Che Fico, 838 Divisadero St., San Francisco, CA 94117; +1 415 416 6959

Bar Crenn

Bar Crenn's egg and bone marrow custard is topped with caviar and is a couple of teaspoons of perfection.

Bar Crenn’s egg and bone marrow custard is topped with caviar and is a couple of teaspoons of perfection.

Courtesy Bar Crenn

The name is a bit of a misnomer, for the food at Bar Crenn is classy and upscale (you may experience some sticker shock when the bill arrives) and hard to forget.

While there is some bar seating (solo patrons would do well to show up early and try to snag a spot), the rest of the dining room proffers atypical seating in the form of individual living room-like setups that may remind you of Paris.

Settle in with your crew and order a bottle of bubbles while you peruse the short but carefully crafted menu. Expect radio silence from your group once the food arrives; indeed, each dish is something to marvel at.

Bar Crenn, 3131 Fillmore St., San Francisco, CA 94123, +1 415 440 0460

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse's light, airy space turns out some of the city's best baked goods.

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse’s light, airy space turns out some of the city’s best baked goods.

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse

It’s hard to walk by Mr. Holmes, a bright pink space in the Tenderloin that’s known for its cruffins (croissant + muffin), and not stop in for a look. Indeed, it’s almost as if the bakery were made for Instagrammable opportunities, and yet, the pastries deserve every bit as much attention as the shop’s design.

Opt for the aforementioned cruffin or the show-stopping matcha croissant. The doughnuts are stellar, too. Just don’t sleep in too late — showing up around lunchtime may mean you have to go with your second-choice pastry.

West Coast Wine and Cheese

Tuck into West Coast Wine and Cheese and enjoy perfect-temperature wines — and cheese.

Tuck into West Coast Wine and Cheese and enjoy perfect-temperature wines — and cheese.

Krescent Carasso

A visit to Northern California isn’t complete without trying the region’s specialty juice. While you can find a reliable New World glass or bottle at practically any San Francisco dining establishment you choose, if it’s a true wine bar you’re after, West Coast Wine and Cheese is a fine choice.

The cozy but polished spot is careful about the temperatures of their wines, but visitors won’t notice any pretension. Servers are knowledgeable, not pushy, and they’re just as adept at helping guests select a cheese as they are a wine.


There are many of its kind in this city, but NOPA is San Francisco’s best at serving familiar, hearty and thoughtful versions of what it calls “urban rustic food”: wood-roasted salmon, grass-fed hamburgers and rotisserie chicken.

The small bowls of spiced chickpeas are seasoned to perfection and make a wonderful snack. Cocktails are also expertly prepared, and like the food, not overworked.

NOPA is consistently busy and while they accept reservations up to one month in advance, they always leave room for walk-in guests as well. The vibe encourages patrons to pull up a seat at its expansive bar and sample the snack menu while waiting for a table.

Nopa, 560 Divisidero St., San Francisco, CA 94108; +1 415 864 8643


This local Greek chain (four locations so far) is pretty much a go-to for any visitor or local in search of something quick, delicious and healthy.

Former first lady Michelle Obama once ordered Souvla take-out for a flight to Washington, causing great excitement among the Souvla team.

Hungry patrons construct their order from three proteins, including spit-fired Superior Farms lamb leg, as well as a veggie option, then get it served either in a warm, thick pita or over greens.

Souvla keeps it real serving Greek wines and beer and an inspired dessert of Greek yogurt with baklava and honey.

Souvla, 517 Hayes St., San Francisco, CA 94102; +1 415 400 5458

Humphry Slocombe

Humphry Slocombe ice cream isn’t afraid to shock, either with the names of its ice creams or their flavors.

Take Peanut Butter Curry, for instance: peanut butter ice cream spiked with curry flavor, with Vadouvan spiced peanut butter cookies. Or the shop’s most popular flavor, Secret Breakfast: caramelized corn flakes in a cloud of whiskey ice cream.

They’ve also served up scoops of foie gras ice cream, prosciutto ice cream and salt and pepper ice cream. Humphry Slocombe has earned the right to these quirky flavors because they’re actually good.

Really good. Like, kill-the-guy-before-you-in-line good.

Off the Grid

Perhaps the only thing that has multiplied faster in San Francisco than artisanal pizzerias is food trucks.

There are Southern trucks, cupcake trucks, taco trucks, rib trucks, Thai trucks, noodle trucks, pizza trucks — there’s even a truck devoted solely to the food meme bacon.

While most trucks alert fans to their whereabouts via Facebook and Twitter, the easiest way to sample several at once is at events organized by Off the Grid, which assembles numerous vendors in one spot for weekly markets throughout the city.

Often accompanied by live music, these gatherings take on a festive vibe. It’s hard to resist sampling more than one truck, so it’s best to arrive hungry.

El Farolito

Super shrimp and carnitas burrito from El Farolito. Overstuffed, rolled tight and wrapped in a sheath of tin foil, the massive burritos served at this Mission taqueria are cheap, delicious and filling.

While excellent at any time of day or level of sobriety, El Farolito’s dependably delicious hunger bullets are particularly satisfying after a night of drinking.

Good thing it’s open late.

El Farolito serves up all the usual meats such as carne asada and al pastor, but you can also get cabeza (beef brain) and lengua (beef tongue). The squeamish shy away, but they are impossibly tender and juicy.

El Farolito, 2950 24th St., San Francisco, CA 94110-4133; +1 415 824 7877

One family-run shop is turning out 10,000 sweet prophecies a day. But, it’s not as easy as it looks. Richard Quest tries his hand at making the cookie that San Francisco claims it invented.


Comstock Saloon

Named for Henry T. “Pancake” Comstock, the man whose fortunes lured thousands of miners to San Francisco in the 19th century, this North Beach saloon is a refined tribute to those rough Barbary Coast times: dim lights, tin ceilings, classic cocktails and ostentatious wallpaper.

The bar also serves period-inspired food, such as beef shank and bone marrow potpie.

On Fridays, Comstock revives a Gold Rush tradition of serving a free lunch with the purchase of two drinks. The deal almost makes more sense for travelers than locals, who may have to return to work with a brace of stiff cocktails in their system.

Comstock Saloon, 155 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133-5114; +1 415 617 0071

Balboa Cafe

Walk through these doors after 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and you’ll wonder if everyone in San Francisco and their best friend isn’t inside. It gets crowded, yes, but the bartenders remain on point, taking orders for martinis and Manhattans even when you’re three deep.

In-the-know locals arrive when there’s still daylight, better to to lay claim to one of the outdoor tables. It can be a bit of a scene in Cow Hollow, but with that comes excellent people-watching.

Balboa Cafe, 3199 Fillmore St., San Francisco, CA 94123; +1 415 921 3944

Beach Blanket Babylon

10 magical San Francisco travel

Beach Blanket Babylon is a musical revue that incorporates the latest in pop culture into each night’s two performances.

Courtesy of Beau Molloy

Housed in a theater in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, not far from the city’s Little Italy district, the outlandish, hilarious and confident musical revue is known for its creative costumes.

Huge and heavy headpieces, including one of San Francisco’s skyline, are one of the show’s defining, if frivolous, characteristics. That and the fact that the performance can change on a dime — or, rather, on the quick turn of a breaking news cycle.

“If there’s something in the news, and I think the audience will care about it, and it’s relevant,” Schuman Silver says she will add it to the show immediately — that night.

Beach Blanket Babylon, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard (Green Street), San Francisco CA 94133; +1 415 421 4222

DJ Purple Karaoke

Many flinch at the word “karaoke,” which can conjure visions of poorly warbled Journey and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

But DJ Purple (aka Steve Hays) is a Bay Area treasure, and he serves up a karaoke dance-party that reinvents the maligned medium.

DJ Purple favors upbeat songs and loud music, putting the focus on the crowd rather than the individual, inspiring group sing-alongs and nonstop dancing.

Oh, and he also plays the saxophone — often the highlight of the evening.

DJ Purple Karaoke, multiple nights, locations; budget (free to sing, but tip your karaoke jay).

Louie’s Gen-Gen Room

The basement bar affiliated with Liholiho Yacht Club, Louie’s is the place to go for cocktails with witty names (try the Step into Liquid made with pineapple rum and Campari) and New American bites that satisfy both comfort-food cravings (pigs in a blanket) and healthier ambitions (poke bowl).

Large parties can reserve in advance.


Valencia Street between 14th and 26th

This trendy corridor of small boutiques embraces everything from clothing and letter-pressed cards to taxidermy and books, much of it locally made. Carefully curated used clothing stores such as No Shop and Painted Bird are extraordinarily well-priced.

Paxton Gate conjures oddities such as carnivorous plants, while its children’s store provides lovely toys of the non-plastic variety.

The Curiosity Shop sells jewelry and trinkets as well as local art. Dog Eared Books is the kind of store that’s fun to get lost in for an hour or so. 826 Valencia sells a gallimaufry of goods dubbed “pirate supplies.”

Coffee shops such as Four Barrel and Ritual Roasters plus plentiful eateries supply ample shopping respite.

Valencia Street between 14th Street and 26th Street

Green Apple Books

Can any city really be great without a really great bookstore?

A rambling, multistory shop with a winding staircase and secluded corners, Green Apple Books is the kind of experience that unfolds as you make your way from front to back.

Browsing and hanging out are encouraged, with chairs tucked away in remote spots, where patrons can leisurely thumb through a book on the occult, a massive photo compendium, a young-adult hit or a biography.

With books both new and old, there doesn’t seem to be a subgenre — or price point — unrepresented.

Green Apple Books, 506 Clement St. at Sixth Ave. Richmond District, San Francisco, CA; +1 415 387 2272

Japan Center

Chinatown isn’t SF’s only Asian community.

The Japantown mall is a series of buildings connected by courtyards and bridges filled with small shops and eateries that peddle Japanese wares.

PIKA PIKA specializes in whimsical Japanese photo booths where users can snap pictures of themselves then print the results as stickers. Ichibahn Kahn and Daiso are Japanese dollar stores that sell a dizzying array of adorable, affordable items.

Bookstores stock manga and Japanese editions of magazines like Vogue.

Several variations of the pillow candy mochi can be purchased at Nippon Ya, and meticulously crafted fake foods adorning the windows of sushi and noodle spots rank as bonus sightseeing.

Japan Center, bordered by Geary Boulevard and Fillmore Post, and Laguna Streets, San Francisco, CA; +1 415 922 7764


California Academy of Science

The California Academy of Science has mastered the modern museum experience: immersive and interactive without being gimmicky. There’s not an animatronic statue to be found.

Located in Golden Gate Park, the museum is easily identified by its massive, undulating living roof.

Once inside, visitors can tour a living rain forest, fly through space in the planetarium or descend to the darkened aquarium with its hypnotic displays of jellyfish, alien-like sea dragons, an octopus, electric eels, an anaconda and piranhas.

CAS is a functioning research facility, so employees can often be spotted performing taxidermy on a number of specimens.

The Presidio

Near Golden Gate Park lies a former military base called the Presidio.

Near Golden Gate Park lies a former military base called the Presidio.

Channon Hodge/CNN

A former military base near Golden Gate Park, the Presidio is filled with distinctive low-slung, white buildings that served as army barracks. he tree-filled park packs in wonderful hiking and biking opportunities, sweeping vistas, beaches and marshes.

It’s also home to a military cemetery — including a pet cemetery where the army buried beloved animal companions. Homemade tombstones and memorable epitaphs abound.

George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic is headquartered here, its Yoda fountain having become a favorite stop for “Star Wars” fans.

Post-hiking cocktails can be enjoyed at the charming Presidio Social Club, which boasts a historically themed drink menu.

Filbert Steps

San Francisco’s famously hilly geography is crisscrossed with hidden, meandering staircases whose seeming impracticality is part of the appeal. The Filbert Steps are the most magnificent.

They begin in a plain alleyway flanked by office buildings.

Surrounded by lush greenery, concrete steps give way to wooden ones, climbing up, up and up through a hillside neighborhood dotted with beautiful and quirky homes, statues and gardens. Discoveries abound: the green and red parrots of Telegraph Hill overhead, a mural celebrating miniature poodles and fantastic views.

Finally, the stairs spit you out at Coit Tower, a monument to firefighters with Depression-era murals inside.

Filbert Steps, at Sansome and Filbert streets


San Francisco became the unique enclave it is because of the people and cultural movements that shaped its character. Here are a few places where you can experience them:

The Audium

Visitors seeking vestiges of San Francisco’s bohemian heyday should skip Haight Street, unless they want to battle crowds for bongs and tie-dyed shirts.

Attendees of this half-century-old sound experiment sit in a dark, domed theater, surrounded by 176 speakers and listen to creator Stan Shaff’s mind-bending arrangement — a mixture of electronic music, giggling children, galloping horses and other sounds — while a light show plays overhead.

The performance can tread into kitschy territory, but Shaff’s ingenuity and dedication somehow elevate it. Shaff might not call the experience “psychedelic,” but upon exiting, many an audience member will deploy the word “trippy.”

It’s certainly representative of the city’s permissive, experimental spirit.

Audium, 1616 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; +1 415 771 1616

GLBT History Museum

The GLBT History Museum is the first of its kind in the United States and only the second in the world (after Berlin).

Opened in 2011, the GLBT Museum (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender) was decades in the making and was the first of its kind in the United States.

A project of the 25-year-old GLBT Historical Society, the 148-square-meter space provides an intimate, handcrafted experience located in San Francisco’s historically gay neighborhood, The Castro.

Drawing on the society’s vast archives, the museum displays a wide-ranging menu of artifacts from matchbooks and manuscripts to Harvey Milk’s kitchen table.

Knitted together, the objects tell a larger story.

You can download the free museum tour to enhance your experience and check out the roster of events for author talks and panels.

City Lights bookstory and Vesuvio Café


Vesuvio Café is famous as a hangout of the Beat writers.

Luis Villa Del Campo

In North Beach, you’ll find these two paeans to Beat culture on opposite sides of Jack Kerouac Alley, named for the literary movement’s iconic pioneer.

City Lights bookstore will forever retain an air of daring and notoriety for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and weathering the storm that followed, including a high-profile obscenity trial. The bookstore remains a cultural hub and favored destination for bibliophiles.

Down the street, you can grab a drink at Vesuvio, a bar famed for serving the literati of the Beat Generation. Despite its tourist appeal, it’s a neighborhood saloon where drinks are strong.

On the mezzanine you can claim a private corner where you can drink and spy on the patrons below.

Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave. at Broadway North Beach, San Francisco, CA; +1 415 362 3370

Andy Wright contributed initial reporting to this story.

This article originally appeared here