Tennessee Williams once mused, "America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans." And while NYC sparks with unwavering electricity, and New Orleans is all louche, languid sex appeal, San Francisco marches to the beat of its own drum, a singular tune. Over the years, this little city—only seven by seven miles—has fostered the Beat Generation, nurtured flowers-in-their-hair hippies, championed the gay rights movement, and birthed the tech revolution. Today, homegrown fashion brands are turning the industry on its head, game-changing restaurants are making everyone look west, renegade creatives are doing things their own way, and the "cruffin" does the "cronut" one better. We've rounded up a mix of can't-miss San Francisco attractions and activities, and had several in-the-know locals, including blogger SFGirlbyBay and The Forest Feast author Erin Gleeson, weigh in with their faves. This list ranges from high-brow to low, from obvious (but worth it) to little-known (and most definitely worth it). Below, the kind of low-down, insider-y itinerary you hope to get up to when you take a trip to the centerpiece of the Bay Area. *We created this list in collaboration with Harper's BAZAAR magazine, and the original lives on harpersbazaar.com.
DOLORES PARK The ultimate hipster hang, Dolores Park is a sloping swatch of green lawn, tennis courts and a children's playground. On weekends expect drum circles, cool-kid birthday parties and see-and-be-seen scenesters decked out in their festival best. Bring a bottle of wine (rosé if you want to make friends), and take in the incredible view from the southwest corner where the city stretches out in front of you in a fishbowl panorama–the vibe is invigorating, uplifting, and worth a soak.
DESIGN-FORWARD COFFEE SHOPS San Francisco gets a gold star for style-centric coffee spots, offering up intricate tilework, killer light fixtures and an impeccable shelfie game, in addition to a perfectly pulled shot of espresso. At Sightglass's expansive SOMA flagship, light pours in from the skylights and three-story-high windows, while baristas sling coffee from a brushed-zinc bar that seems to float like an island in the middle of the room. Mazarine has milky-blue-tiled alcoves backing the baristas that recall rows of library books (this shop was inspired by Paris's Bibliotheque Mazarine, the oldest public library in France). Blue Bottle's Sansome outpost is in a 1912 building that once held haberdashery and barbershop Cable Car Clothiers. Reveille's new Mission Bay location has an espresso bar with graphic tiles, gray-leather stools, and precisely stocked open shelving hung with Spanish moss. And Jane on Fillmore was inspired by a swinging '70s London coffee shop and is sexy as all get out.
MEL RICE CERAMICA Stuck in a nook no bigger than a closet on the front of Amnesia bar in the Mission, Mel Rice Ceramica is owned by Melissa "Mel" Rice who, in a former life, was a pastry chef at cult-bakery Tartine. Here, at her renegade, semi-permanent pop-up she sells her own hand-thrown ceramics sporting cool geometric motifs and tongue-in-cheek quotes.
CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS From the Victorian era, this glass atrium is the western hemisphere's oldest such greenhouse. Inside, exotic flora climbs the walls, brushes the ceiling and snakes across ponds in fairytale proportions–from orchids as tiny as postage stamps to lilypads as big as garbage-can lids. Our favored game plan starts with a picnic on the giant front lawn before you mosey inside.
SECRET BARS Some of San Francisco's best bars are hideouts preferring to fly under the radar. The Hideaway, at Leo's Oyster Bar, flirts with tiki style—palm-frond wallpaper, hanging ferns, cane furniture—as does Louie's Gen-Gen Room below the Liloliho Yacht Club. Marianne's at The Cavalier is "a nod to the '70's rock 'n' roll haunts frequented by Marianne Faithfull, style icon and Mick Jagger's former flame," says designer and stylist Stacie Flinner, who's a big fan of the hidden hotspot (and The Hideaway, for that matter). Upstairs from Asian-street-food eatery Hawker Fare in the Mission is new-ish drinking den, Holy Mountain. We can't mention secret bars without winking at the OG speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch, which holds, nesting-doll style, a second secret bar called Wilson & Wilson Detective Agency.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco. Sporting its signature "International Orange" paint job, it is the city's gleaming icon, bridging San Francisco with beautiful Marin County to the north. First opened to traffic in 1937, the bridge can be walked, biked, or driven, preferably with the windows down, music up, hair whipping in the wind.
ATELIER CRENN Culinary tour-de-force Dominique Crenn (just named the World's Best Female Chef on San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list), has not one but two superb restaurants in the city. First, there's Atelier Crenn, where the seafood-heavy tasting menu, written as a poem—"Unraveled, in dulcet dreams of falling leaves"—highlights the chef's French countryside upbringing (and two Michelin stars). Then there's Petit Crenn; soulful, more casual, with a chalkboard menu, rope lights and homey, grandmother-inspired dishes that range from a gratin of Brussels sprouts to a whole fire-roasted trout.
ONSEN A lush oasis in a transformed auto-body garage, this brand-new urban bathhouse comes to San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin District by way of Japan. Come for a massage or to relax in the communal bath, redwood-cedar sauna and steam room, then snack on light bites including skewered veggies and meats, rice porridges and sashimi in the restaurant and tea house.
MR. HOLMES BAKEHOUSE "We've all heard of the cronut," says photographer Erin Fong, one half of letterpress-shop Western Editions, "but Mr. Holmes has created the cooler younger brother of the cronut: the cruffin. It's a combo of a croissant and muffin filled with cream with flavors that change daily. If sweets aren't your thing, choose from savory pastries including the California croissant (a salmon sushi roll inside a croissant served with a packet of soy sauce). You can also feed your Instagram feed with their glowing neon-pink 'I got baked in San Francisco' sign. (How very SF...) Get there early as lines snake well outside of this tiny establishment and the cruffins sell out quicker than hotcakes."
PHOENIX HOTEL This mid-century motor lodge turned hipster haunt in the Tenderloin has long been the choice of visiting rockers (including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the late, great David Bowie). The heart of the hotel is its central egg-shaped pool sporting a cheeky mural of 6s and 9s by Francis Forlenza. And while you need a room key to pool it up here, the hotel restaurant, a vibey spot called Chambers Eat + Drink does host the occasional poolside party.
CHINATOWN Though Chinatown is a tourist-circuit stop, there's something magically transporting about passing through the Dragon Gate at Bush Street and Grant Avenue. Wander the streets under red lanterns, taking in the jade shops, fish markets, and dim-sum joints–its century-ago heyday hovering like some thinly veiled time warp. Dine at the new high-profile Mister Jiu's, reviving a stretch of Chinatown with its chic design and modern Cantonese menu (dutch crunch pork buns, tea-smoked duck). Then dip into glamorously gritty Li Po Cocktail Lounge, an Anthony Bourdain favorite, for one of their famous mai tais (don't even bother with the menu).
AMPERSAND A former wood garage down an alleyway in the Mission is where you'll find this pint-size flower shop, a favorite of style-setters of all stripes including YouTube star Ally Chen of Fashion by Ally. "From the bright teal doorway to the beautiful flowers to the overwhelming floral aroma, this dreamy flower shop and design studio is San Francisco's best-kept secret," she says. Picture a vintage carpet on the floor, strung lights twinkling above, shelves holding vintage vessels, and flowers, herbs, and foliage spilling out of dozens of silver buckets lining all walls.
COIT TOWER Crowning Telegraph Hill, this 210-foot tower was built using a bequest from cigar-smoking, pants-wearing, gambling socialite and all-around early #girlboss, Lillie Hitchcock Coit. It's a favorite for locals and visitors alike—before Victoria Smith of SF Girl by Bay traded her City by the Bay for Shangri L.A., it was her go-to with guests for the views and provocative 1930s political murals. One more fun fact: Telegraph Hill is the roosting spot of choice for SF's famous flock of wild parrots.
FREDA SALVADOR This would be San Francisco's resident cool-girl shoe brand designed by resident cool girls Cristina Palomo-Nelson and Megan Papay. Loafers, booties, oxfords and mules with just the right amount of adornment—a perfectly placed tassel, stud, or cutout—handmade in a tiny Spanish factory. They're the shoes of the girl you want to be. Pro tip: The shop hosts a killer sample sale every year.
THE MIDWAY On a street crossing that feels like the middle of nowhere, this revamped warehouse is now a 40,000-square-foot creative complex envisioned by party legend Jeff Whitmore (the NYC native that brought us The San Francisco Mint and Public Works). His vision: a collision of creative communities dedicated to arts, music, gastronomy and emerging tech under one collaborative roof. The center of the complex is the contemporary-art-focused Midway Gallery, while outlying spaces range from artist studios to an experimental 3D sound space to an open-floor music venue to Madame Zola's Fortune, an in-house cafe that will open its doors as a culinary school in 2017.
CAMERA OBSCURA A little-known San Francisco novelty, this 1950s throwback in the shadow of the Cliff House draws on Leonardo da Vinci's 15-century camera-obscura design—only it's lifesize. Step inside the working "camera" for a 360-degree view of the surrounding area—waves crashing on rocks, birds in flight—projected from a lens on the roof onto a 6-foot parabolic focusing table. Quirky doesn't begin to cover it.
LEGION OF HONOR A near replica of Paris's Palais de la Légion d'Honneur plunked down in the forested Presidio, this museum holds masterworks from European greats—sculptures by Rodin, Impressionist works by Monet—and a revolving roster of special exhibits, currently a goodie on Mummies and Medicine.
BRENDA'S FRENCH SOUL FOOD Every city has those places that locals moon over and tourists stumble into—if they're lucky. Sandwiched between a Taco Bell and a car tune-up shop in the Tenderloin, Brenda's Soul Food is one such spot. "Brenda's is a total hidden gem," says fashion blogger and girl around town, Jennifer Henry-Novich of Just Add Glam. "They do amazing variations on traditional eggs benedict—think fried chicken and crawfish. And you can purchase their peach-cinnamon jam, which makes your typical Monday-morning toast so much better."
SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART After a three-year closure and ambitious expansion, SFMOMA has reopened. Bigger even than its New York cousin, the building, reminiscent of rolling white fog, holds works by a who's who roster of modern superstars—there are the suspended Calder mobiles, the Diane Arbus photos, the abstract Picassos and the iconic Warhols. Terraces provide views where the city becomes art, and an immense living plant wall is selfie central for visiting Instagrammers. If you're looking for a convenient stay, the excellent St. Regis with its plush rooms, famous Bloody Marys, and 50-foot indoor infinity pool is right next door.
CAVALLO POINT Technically it's not San Francisco proper, but this historic hotel (built within a collection of former military officers' quarters) is just over the Golden Gate Bridge. Stately red-roofed buildings ring a broad green lawn, and the top-notch Murray Circle restaurant serves up black-garlic tamales, seafood stew, and braised shortribs, which taste even more delicious if you're able to snag one of the tables on the gracious Southern-style front porch, oriented oceanward. It feels like a find, with the seats occupied by as many locals as guests.
FOLSOM STREET FAIR Every September, this infamous, show-em-whatcha-got "granddaddy of leather events" stretches more than a dozen blocks in all its sex-positive, subculture-embracing glory. It's an exhibitionists' free-for-all that will titillate wide-eyed first-timers. Come with an open mind—and a whip.
MISSION DISTRICT MURALS Gritty, artful, soulful and provocative, the Mission District is known for its rich Latino heritage, restaurants thrumming with energy, and the city's best street art—on fences, sidewalks, the sides of businesses and even the front of houses. Turn any corner in the Mission and you're likely to lay eyes on some fantastically intricate mural, but a handful of alleyways serve as permanent alfresco galleries. Look for Balmy Alley off 24th, Clarion Alley between 17th and 18th, and two-block-long Orange Alley between 24th and 26th.
MUSEE MECHANIQUE One of touristy Fisherman's Wharf's more obscure attractions, this gem of a museum could be a shoo-in for the opening scene of a magic-tinged romcom. It holds a rare collection of more than 200 vintage arcade games from mystical fortune-telling wizards to racy peep shows to all-American ball games—all playable with a quarter or two.
GENERAL STORE This shop is one of those brick-and-mortar treasures that's aesthetically on-point, champions independent designers and is bonkers for all things artisanal–from hand-tooled leather goods to woven wall hangings. Celebrated local photographer Madeline Lu goes for the "carefully curated clothes, books, magazines, food, and objects made by local California artists," she says. "And I love their little garden, too."
FOOD-TRUCK SQUADS Throughout the city you've got your regularly scheduled food-truck-park pop-ups and your permanent, marketplace-style powwows. On the pop-up side, check Off the Grid to see where their coalition will be turning up—generally for lunch, special Friday-night gatherings and summer-weekend shindigs. On the permanent side, the SOMA Streat Food Park has a covered metal barn for sampling those honey-sriracha chicken wings and flaky empanadas, and the new Spark Social, with a vintage double-decker bus and fire pits, still feels undiscovered (read: fewer crowds).
JAPANESE TEA GARDEN At this tranquil oasis of ponds, bridges and winding paths within Golden Gate Park you can take a break with matcha and rice cakes at a custom irori (farmhouse-style family table) within a traditional tea house. The cherry blossoms bloom in March and April, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, admission is free if you're in by 10a.m.
ALAMO SQUARE'S PAINTED LADIES When you think of quintessential San Francisco architecture, these six Victorians come to mind thanks partially to their pastel uniformity, but mostly to their starring role in the opening sequence of Full House. Built from 1892-1896 across the street from Alamo Square Park, they're a popular photo-op and a several-block stroll from Hayes Valley, a tree-lined neighborhood of solid restaurants and serious shopping.
MISSION ROCK RESORT This is your no-wait, brunch-on-the-water spot. Though it does feel like a getaway from the pavement-pounding bustle of the city, Mission Rock is not a resort, but a two-story restaurant. And while its location—a bayfront former industrial park—is unfamiliar to many San Franciscans, its seafood-leaning menu swings effortlessly from raw bar to fish and chips. Here, the cocktails are clever, and the service is cheerful and charming. Hit it now before the new Warriors stadium is built nearby.
PALACE OF FINE ARTS Originally opened as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition world fair and never meant to be permanent, the Palace of Fine Arts is a dusky ochre structure of Greek-Roman influence deemed too beautiful to destroy—so it wasn't. Today it holds a theater, adjacent to a colonnaded rotunda, and is fronted by a tranquil swan lagoon. All in all, the stuff postcards are made of.