Why go there?
Situated on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula and built on 43 rolling hills, San Francisco is the second-most densely populated city in the US, after NYC. Yet this glorious city feels far from busy or crowded. It’s the kind of city I could easily see myself living in, if it weren’t 5,351 miles from my home in London, friends and family. The diverse population makes this city a truly great place to live or visit.
As a photographer, San Francisco provided massive amounts of opportunities. From the fog rolling over the hills down into the bay, the copious amounts of street art, to the stunning Victorian townhouses around every corner – this city is a photographer’s dream.
What to do?
My top tip is to put on some comfortable shoes and explore everything San Francisco has to offer. The various districts each offer their own appealing and unique experiences; from the luxurious, cosmopolitan area of Union Square to the urban and vibrant streets of the Mission.
The Mission – this is the trendy area crammed full of independent shops and restaurants. Much like Shoreditch, London, this place is aimed towards the young fashion and food-conscious types. Key spots include Tartine (bakery), Urban Putt (mini golf), Paxton Gate (curiosity shop), Foreign Cinema (restaurant), Mission Chinese (restaurant) and more street art than you could shake a spray can at! This is a destination to spend some considerable time exploring. With strong Mexican roots, this area has some brilliant places to visit if authentic Mexican cuisine is what you’re after. Try Tacolicious and La Taqueria for a bite to eat, the Latin American Club for a drink – set amongst cuckoo clocks and Mexican artwork – and make sure you swing by Casa Bonampak for some fun decorative Mexican goods, where you can smash the hell out of Donald Trump piñatas!
The Castro – We headed down here in the evening to see the area in all its colourful glory. This area has a strong LGBT and politically significant community and is great to explore both during the day and night. Although the neighboring Mission district has significantly more going on in the evening, you can still find great restaurants and shops nearby.
Chinatown – The oldest and second-largest Chinatown in the US, this place is steeped in history. If you avoid the main streets full of bazaars selling the usual tourist gifts at discounted prices, you can find some real gems. Worthwhile places to visit include the rather unassuming Golden Gate Fortune Company, where you can see fortune cookies being made and sample fresh, warm ones straight off the line. Alternatively go to the Golden Gate Bakery for one of their acclaimed hot custard tarts. If you’re feeling somewhat adventurous though, just go off the beaten track and head down one of the many alleyways, some of which were once infamous for gambling and prostitution!
Fisherman’s Wharf – tourist heaven (or hell)! With attractions including the seals on Pier 39, the Ghirardelli chocolate factory, the Californian born and bred In-N-Out Burger, the nearby twisty Lombard Street and many an over-priced and mediocre restaurant, it’s hard to escape the crowds. However, if you time it right, you can still find a few worthwhile spots here. Check out the Museé Mécanique penny arcade museum, visit the Buena Vista Café or take a sunset sailing trip on a catamaran around the bay with Adventure Cat Sailing – a great way to get close to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz (if you don’t want to spend several hours visiting the island itself).
Union Square – this is the go-to place if you want high-end fashion and luxury hotels. This is a great shopping district to satisfy the most hardcore of shoppers but we found little else of note around here. We instead opted to visit the more interesting neighboring areas of Chinatown and the Ferry Terminal.
Ferry Terminal – with a great farmers’ market boasting over 100 vendors on Saturdays from 9am – 2pm and a smaller mid-week market on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am – 2pm, this is the place to take some time to sample some of the amazing local produce and fill your bellies with delicious grub. Get there early in the morning, grab a coffee and hit the market for breakfast.
Haight Street – crammed full of vintage and thrift shops, go here for endless rails of secondhand clothes. Highlights include intimate Relic Vintage and the impressive Decades of Fashion. For vintage aficionados check out Zam Zam bar for a cocktail.
Divisadero Street – Check out the shops and foodie spots around here including: The Mill for delicious bread and coffee; Bi-rite creamery for delicious flavours such as Basil, PB&J and Black Sesame with Honey; The Perish Trust, a modern day general store and the small farmers’ market on a Sunday.
Where to eat?
As mentioned above, an absolute must is to spend a morning strolling around the Farmers’ Market at the Ferry Terminal Plaza, sampling the tasty produce and locally made products. We drank Sightglass Coffee; ate the Rebel Within muffin from Craftsman and Wolves; stuffed our faces with a massive Pastrami Reuben from Wisesons; got our cheese fix from Cowgirl Creamery; tried hard apple cider from Hidden Orchards; admired flowering artichokes from Heirloom Organic Gardens; and sampled endless amounts of fresh produce from some of the 100+ sellers.
Tartine Manufactory – recently opened, this new café/bar/coffee shop from Tartine bakery is a big one. Occupying an industrial space used by Heath Ceramics, which still remains next door and also worth a visit, this vast building includes a new bakery, café/restaurant, bar, ice cream window and coffee shop. You also don’t need to queue for quite as long as you do at the original location on Guerrero Street.
Foreign Cinema – book ahead for this unique outdoor dining experience. Aside from the movie screening, the real draw here is the delicious food. Our dishes included the most incredible fresh seafood, duck and pork chop.
Presidio Picnic – take a trip towards the Golden Gate Bridge and to Presidio Park for an array of street food vendors at this weekly event in the beautiful surroundings of the old military barracks. If you have time, explore more of the park where you will find the Palace of Fine Arts and the Walt Disney Family Museum, along with some great views towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
Where to drink?
There are plenty of places in the Mission to quench your thirst (you might have guessed that this was our favorite area). Too many to list here and experience in one trip (guess we’ll have to go back!). My tip is to simply walk around the area and pop into wherever takes your fancy. Some personal recommendations though would include:
Urban Putt – boozing and mini golf? Why the hell not?!
Mission Bowling – if you’re in the sporty mood then why not go bowling as well? Book ahead for this one to guarantee a lane.
If eating at the ‘hard to get a table at’ Foreign Cinema, then swing by its sister bar Laszlo for a damn fine pre-dinner tipple.
If you’re a caffeine lover then SF is your city. Try some delicious brews from Blue Bottle Coffee, Sightglass, Four Barrel, Coffee Bar, Pinhole and Ritual. These guys helped us survive our jet lag!
Where to stay?
We stayed at The Buchannan in Japantown, which has undergone a recent makeover to bring it up to of the standards of the Kimpton Hotels brand. Situated in an area away from the typical tourist hotel hotspots of Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square, Japantown feels more like staying with the locals. It’s still only a walk, bus ride or a short taxi journey from wherever we wanted to go. If you fancy being a bit more active then you can take out one of the complimentary bikes in the hotel lobby and tackle those hills SF is so famous/infamous for! Another nice feature in the lobby is the wine hour which takes place each night, during which guests can interact and enjoy a complimentary glass of wine.
With local restaurants including: Ramen Yamadaya; Pizza Delfina; SPQR; State Bird Provisions; and The Progress on Fillmore Street, you don’t have to travel that far to get some great food.
We stayed in a King Spa room, which was generous in size and wonderfully appointed with a large easel mounted TV, super comfy kings sized bed, yoga mats in the wardrobe, kimono-style robes and a small fridge to fill with your own supplies.
The Buchannan suited us perfectly. Lovely staff, luxurious rooms and the ideal location for our explorations. A great base to delve into all the wonders San Francisco has to offer.
Would we go again?
In a heartbeat!