Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
A sense of mystery drifts along the San Francisco Bay as the fog rolls in; adrenaline pumps through your veins as the rolling hills take your breath away; and beauty surrounds you from atop every summit as the skyscrapers glimmer and the majestic Golden Gate Bridge peers over the clouds. There is something about San Francisco that draws tourists in and makes them want to call it home. But before you jump right into the San Francisco real estate market, here’s how to spend a weekend in the beloved City by the Bay.
Driving from the towering trees of Yosemite Valley to the endless skylines of San Francisco feels like traveling between worlds, so it is nearly unfathomable that these two distinct regions lie within just a few hours of each other. While San Francisco's Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and the Golden Gate Bridge garner a lot of attention—enter images of riding cable cars, chowing down on clam chowder, and crossing the bridge over to Sausalito on a tour bus—there are so many more things to do in San Francisco than the tourist destinations let on.
Cruising past Treasure Island on the Bay Bridge as you travel from Oakland to San Francisco, it all starts to feel real. The city’s massive buildings rise up along the shores as the open waters are replaced by densely packed architectural wonders. The traffic begins to back up, slowing to a halt and giving the excitement ample time to bubble up within you.
Past South Beach and SoMa (South of Market) and endless billboards, a right turn onto 7th Street takes you into the thick of city life as you find yourself somewhere between San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods. Nestled amongst some of the Bay Area’s incredible music venues—such as the Great American Music Hall, The Warfield, and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium—the Phoenix Hotel embraces the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of these two areas with its 1950s-era motor court hotel ambience that will make you crave a staycation.
After settling into your room at the Phoenix, lunch is in order. A nine-minute walk leads you to the Civic Center BART station, and a quick ride toward the San Francisco International Airport takes you into the Mission District, where unbelievably good vegan Mexican food awaits. Walking into Gracias Madre feels a bit like coming home; warm, inviting interiors meet the mouthwatering scents of home cooking for an overwhelmingly sensory experience. And then the food arrives full of color and texture, solidifying its place in your memory as you taste the savory tempeh chorizo, creamy guacamole, and rich cashew nacho cheese. The liveliness of the Mission District can be felt in every bite and in every step as you walk outside.
A stroll down 18th Street takes you past the scent of freshly baked sourdough bread at Tartine Bakery and around the line that forms outside of Bi-Rite Creamery before leading you to Mission Dolores Park. The grassy fields are covered with picnic blankets and play dates as everyone soaks up the sunshine. After lounging for a bit, take a walk down Church Street to see the famed Golden Fire Hydrant that saved the neighborhood during the 1906 fires, and then hook a left onto 20th Street. A few blocks down, you’ll run across Dog Eared Books—where you can find unusual used books and local titles—which makes for an interesting stop.
Next, make the 10-minute walk over to Urban Putt to put your mini-golf skills to the test at the city’s first and only indoor miniature golf course. The 14-hole course comes complete with models of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies—hello Full House house—and Transamerica Pyramid, making it a uniquely Bay Area destination.
Spending the day away from the traditional tourist destinations feels refreshing and shows off an entirely different side of San Francisco. Continue the good vibes by heading to one of the city’s amazing rooftop restaurants, El Techo, for dinner. While there are plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants nearby, there is something about sitting high above the streets, eating Latin American–inspired plates, and looking over the city that just makes you feel closer to the essence of San Francisco. Indulge in the cotija cheese–topped guacamole, savory empanadas, and spicy grilled shrimp for dinner, and round out the experience with flan for dessert.
As the sun sets, the city comes alive in a new way as the lights shimmer from the skyscrapers, the faint glow of the moon makes itself seen, and the rushing traffic flashes red and white. Walking back to the BART station, a surprised satisfaction settles in; the city is known for so many things, so it's a shame that the deeply rooted cultural center of the Mission District is often left off vacation itineraries.
While the day could easily end here, there is one more unique destination that can only be fully witnessed at high tide: The Wave Organ. This interesting sculpture lies in the Marina District of San Francisco, just past the lighthouse and yacht club. The granite and marble sculpture plays music with the tides, relying on the waves to create sounds through its series of 25 organ pipes.
After listening to the soothing, subtle sounds of this quirky acoustic landmark, return to the hotel, where a quick dip in the heated pool completes the day’s events—though it takes more than one evening for the experience to fully soak in.
Waking up, it’s hard to believe a full day has already passed in this bustling city, but your slightly sore legs make it easier to believe that it’s true. But rather than taking it easy, today is the day to explore new neighborhoods, so after a quick cup of in-room coffee, it’s time to start the 1.5-mile journey into the China Basin. Along with being home to one of California’s most iconic baseball stadiums, Oracle Park, this area also boasts one of the best brunch locations in the Bay Area: Marlowe.
Start the experience with the fresh flavors of the West Bay Sparrow. This refreshing combination of pineapple juice, lemonade, and hibiscus is sure to transport you into a vacation state of mind. Continue on with the warmed deviled eggs featuring aged provolone, pickled jalapeño, and crispy bacon as you decide where this culinary adventure will take you next. The fried grit cakes make for an excellent transition: Poached eggs complement the roasted baby carrots and sautéed kale as country gravy brings it all together in a sumptuous medley of flavors. While this may be plenty to leave you satisfied, you simply can’t leave without trying the house-made donuts paired with lemon, ricotta, and house-made jam.
After such a decadent meal, a leisurely walk is in order, so stroll over to Chase Center, located only one mile away from Marlowe. This rejuvenating jaunt takes you across the Mission Creek Channel before leading you to Mission Bay Commons Park and opening into Thrive City, the center’s extended complex full of restaurants, retailers, and community-gathering spaces. Once you explore the newest sports stadium and events venue in the region, grab a ride—or commit to the two-mile walk—to the Ferry Building of San Francisco.
This historic ferry terminal is now a marketplace full of beloved Bay Area favorites such as Dandelion Chocolate, Humphry Slocombe, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Hog Island Oyster Co., which are sure to keep you entertained (and drooling) for an hour or two. After you’ve finished perusing the shops and eateries of the Ferry Building, head back outside and make your way to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to check out one of S.F.’s best art galleries and grab a cup of Sightglass coffee to fuel your explorations.
Following an eventful afternoon, a bit of rest is in order before the evening’s activities commence. A seven-minute walk takes you from the SFMOMA to the Montgomery Street BART station, where a short ride and another quick walk gets you back to the Phoenix.
Lounging by the pool and relaxing in bed are the prefect preparations for tonight’s plans: dinner and a comedy show. San Francisco is such a large city, so there’s always something to do—the challenge is finding the best things to do—but grabbing a bite to eat should always make the list.
Kick off the night at Brenda’s French Soul Food, located right down the street from the Phoenix. The warm surroundings and maze of mirrors on the wall set the stage for a surprising punch of flavor as soon as you bite into the Creole-French fusion cuisine. With an incredibly comforting essence, Brenda’s packs in the flavor and transports you to faraway places. You’ll be hooked after a single round of crawfish beignets stuffed with cheddar, scallions, and cayenne. And once you put in an order of the hushpuppies with chipotle rémoulade, there’s no going back.
Get the chicken, sausage, and okra gumbo next, and you’ll swear you’re in New Orleans rather than San Francisco. Finish off the savory selections with the classic chicken etouffée—a decadent combination of Creole spices, tomato gravy, and succulent chicken served with rice—and add a side of collard greens with bacon to satisfy all of your Southern food cravings.
But make sure to save room for the sweet beignet flight, which is anything but optional. The plain beignet is generously dusted with powdered sugar, the chocolate beignet is filled with gooey Ghirardelli chocolate, and the Granny Smith apple beignet completes the trio with a cinnamon-honey butter that tastes almost too good to be true.
Though it may be difficult to pull yourself away from Brenda’s after such a satisfying meal, the comedy show awaits, so grab a ride over to The Punch Line, which seems to rise up out of nowhere from its perch along the Financial District’s Maritime Plaza. A mural of San Francisco lines the stage, providing a great reference point and bringing a sense of hominess into the space. No matter who performs at this beloved venue—where so many comedy greats, including Dave Chappelle and Ellen Degeneres, have performed before—so much joy and laughter fills the room with nothing but good vibes.
As your third and final day in San Francisco arrives, a sense of melancholy begins to set in. While you have discovered so many places over the weekend, there is much more still to see in this densely packed city. But a relaxing brunch at the hotel’s on-site restaurant, Chambers, helps to ease the pain.
Share the eggs Benedict and the pork belly for a delectable dining experience, and make sure to put in your order for the soufflé pancake early—it takes about 40 minutes to prepare. The Benedict arrives with perfectly toasted slices of an English muffin topped with savory ham, poached eggs, and a creamy hollandaise that just begs to be eaten. Meanwhile, the pork belly and the accompanying soft-boiled eggs, spiced potatoes, caramelized onions, and fresh baby kale take a subtler approach—until the red chile paste touches the tongue. These classically delicious creations prepare you to take on the world, but the sweet pairing of ice cream, apple chutney, and brilliantly souffléd pancake remind you to appreciate the small things along the way.
Full from this gastronomic adventure, it’s time to hit the pavement and begin the day’s outings. First up are the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps; nestled in the Sunset District of San Francisco, these 163 mosaic steps depict everything from the sea to the sun. The 20-minute drive there takes you past the real Painted Ladies, right by the Panhandle, and through Golden Gate Park near the Conservatory of Flowers.
Once you arrive at the famous staircase, start at the intersection of 16th Avenue and Moraga Street to see the artwork right from the beginning—and to get the hardest part over with first—but don’t let the tiled steps get all of the attention. The drought-resistant and native gardens change as you ascend the stairs, so take the time to admire your surroundings; the sweeping views of the city at the top shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
After getting some exercise, it’s time to head into Golden Gate Park to see all of the oddities it holds. Along with being home to museums, botanical gardens, a giant safety-pin statue, a golf course, and a Dutch windmill, this 1,017-acre expanse also holds one of the world’s largest collections of model yachts at the San Francisco Model Yacht Club (SFMYC) boathouse near Spreckels Lake. If that’s not enough to keep you entertained, visit one of the most popular San Francisco beaches: Ocean Beach.
Meander along the soft stretch of sand until you reach the northern edge of Ocean Beach and see the Cliff House, one of the most stunning restaurants in the city with panoramic ocean views. While this is pretty enough to be your only destination in the area, the oddities of the oldest camera obscura in the country (located just behind the eatery) and the remnants of the Sutro Baths are equally worth seeing. A few photos later, you’re ready to hit the nearby Lands End to see the famous labyrinth and the incredible vistas.
Then, mosey on over to the Presidio of San Francisco. Crissy Field, Fort Point National Historic Site—which offers some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge—The Palace of Fine Arts, and The Walt Disney Family Museum all call this waterside region home, making the Presidio the perfect place to spend the rest of the afternoon.
After a full day of sightseeing, it’s time to channel your inner child with a trip to Free Gold Watch. This screen-printing shop in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is an ultra-cool destination with an unexpected surprise: a pinball arcade containing the most pinball machines—which rotate on a regular basis—in all of San Francisco.
Though it feels like it has only just begun, the weekend’s journey is coming to a close, and the time has come to start packing and preparing for the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite. But with so many surfing spots, local attractions, and day trips nearby, this is surely not the last time you’ll be seeing San Francisco.
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