Now I know why Tony Bennett sang about leaving his heart here.
72 Hours in San Francisco
Until recently my knowledge of San Francisco was admittedly quite limited – it’s the home of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, the opening sequence of ‘Full House’ was filmed there, and the city was rescued from annihilation by The Rock in the campy disaster flick ‘San Andreas’ (Kylie Minogue also made a brief cameo before an earthquake-inflicted demise….great movie, but that’s a different story altogether). As it turns out, San Francisco is one of those cities that you instantly fall in love with as I discovered on a quick long weekend getaway last month. I went into this trip with an open mind, not really knowing what to expect and to be honest spent very little time planning, which goes against every fiber of my being. I’m usually the type to map out a detailed colour-coded itinerary combined with a tour book peppered in a rainbow of Post-It flags.
After spending a few days in San Francisco, I would describe it as sort of a happy West Coast medium between the mild-mannered sleepiness of San Diego and the intensity of L.A. with a welcoming ease, interesting food scene and stand-out architecture. It’s a city of diverse neighbourhoods each with a distinct flavour and for a long weekend, makes a fab alternative getaway.
With 72 hours on your side, here’s my take on what, where and how to take it in.
What little planning that did happen for this trip was focused on where to eat. Thanks to a few recommendations I was fully prepared to indulge and throw caution to the wind. And I’m so glad I did! Here’s a short-list of must-visits and a few honourable mentions.
Tartine Bakery was suggested by a few friends and written up in several San Fran food guides, which explains the line that formed halfway around the block with tourists and locals alike patiently salivating. With a small but inviting menu of hot pressed sandwiches, it was the perfect lunch stop on our first day to fight back the jet lag. The co-owners are past winners of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef and it shows, with rustic breads baked on the premises along with a rich assortment of cakes and pastries.
Freshly baked bread at Tartine
Spicy Turkey sandwich with peppered turkey breast, provolone and broccoli rabe pesto at Tartine
The portion sizes are enormous so you could easily share one sandwich between two people for lunch. My partner and I realized that hours later when we were still in a carb coma and decided to cancel dinner plans at Flores. Flores was on my hit list with what looks like a spectacular authentic Mexican menu. But alas, the thought of sitting down for a big dinner was too much to handle….maybe next time. The California Pizza Kitchen across the street from our hotel was all we could muster for a small salad. After a long day, it was just perfect.
Gitane stood out for me with its gypsy boudoir vibe and menu featuring a hybrid of southern Spanish and French flavours. While the service was a bit overbearing and tables placed VERY close to each other (I felt like I was the 3rd wheel on a date going on at the next table), the food was quite delicious and they make a mean Negroni. Appetizers of roasted artichokes and grilled octopus with preserved lemon were followed by mains of more grilled octopus – it was that good – and pan seared red trout.
L-R: crispy baked artichokes, grilled octopus with preserved lemon, seared red trout at Gitane
But my favourite by far, was Commonwealth. This is a restaurant where you go to dine, not merely eat a meal. Commonwealth may be located in an area of town that’s a little rough around the edges, sharing a block with The House of Jeans, a pawnbroker and several laundromats, but it’s lightyears from common – Chef Jason Fox delivers inventive world class plates with an understated confidence, and a portion of each month’s revenue is donated to local non-profits. With 10 tables at most, the minimalist space is equal parts elegant and effortless. The service is exceptional as well, attentive but not overly so.
The menu is innovative, with portions carefully crafted so you can comfortably enjoy three courses with dessert. Dinner opened with potato chips dusted with toasted nori and black pepper, with a malt vinegar foam for dipping. Foam died a while ago but if this is the second coming, sign me up. Next up: a salad with charred peaches and buttermilk sorbet, charred Chinese eggplant with gooseberries and habañero pepper (this one was so deliciously distracting I forgot to snap a pic for this post).
L-R: nori and black pepper dusted potato chips with malt vinegar foam, charred peach salad with buttermilk sorbet at Commonwealth
The main course was grilled swordfish wrapped in horseradish leaf, served with plums, turnips and wild fennel. Dessert was a frozen mousse with poached cherries. Topped off with a delicious Spanish rosé, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday date night.
L-R: swordfish wrapped in horseradish leaf, frozen mousse with poached cherries at Commonwealth
A few other honourable mentions worth checking out: Octavia (an international menu like Commonwealth), Bar Bocce (located across the bay in Sausalito, a great spot for a glass of rosé and pizza at sunset), and Little Giant Ice Cream (a mix of classic and creative gelato flavours, some inspired by cocktails)
SEE and DO
San Francisco is known for its hills and the best way to appreciate the panoramic perspective is to get high…I mean, climb high. There is no shortage of points to peer up, down and sideways for a great view. Starting with Twin Peaks: about a 20-minute drive from downtown, the early morning views are quite magical with thick fog covering most of the Bay area except for the tall orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking through in the distance. Give yourself an hour to hike around the peaks and snap a few photos before Uber-ing your way back into the city.
View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Twin Peaks
View of downtown San Francisco from Twin Peaks
For a close-up urban view, head to the corner of California and Stockton streets. The perspective of streetcar tracks heading down a steep hill is impressive, with a glimpse of the Bay Bridge in the distance. Caution: dodging traffic for this shot was a bit dicey so you might want to have a friend let you know when the traffic lights are changing!
The Financial District and Embarcadero are also full of photo-worthy views. The iconic Transamerica Pyramid cuts impressive angles both up close and from afar, and along the Embarcadero you can head out into the water along several piers. For the best of both worlds, head out to Pier 27. At the very end of the pier you’ll find locals casting fishing lines hoping for a catch with Alcatraz faintly off to the left. Turn around for the most incredible view of the Transamerica Pyramid piercing the skyline along the trail of the pier’s wooden planks.
View of the Transamerica Pyramid from Pier 27
Marina views from the Embarcadero
The Castro and Mission districts in comparison are a kaleidoscope of colour and whimsy with brightly painted homes, small independent shops and restaurants.
While it may be super touristy, taking a hop-on hop-off bus tour is a great option to see the major sites when touring time is limited. I would recommend the Gray Line Bus Tour as a first choice. I booked a bus tour through Open City which was an instant disaster – poor customer service, infrequent stops leading to long wait times, and all buses were vinyl wrapped with advertising so anyone sitting on the bottom level had impaired views – far from ideal on a city tour. I really should have look into the reviews and take full responsibility for leading us into this fiasco! Opt for an operation like Gray Line with its modern coaches and frequent stops.
For a touch of art and culture, the De Young Fine Art Museum features an expansive collection of American and European art both classical and contemporary. Most museum restaurants don’t offer much to write home about, but here I was pleasantly surprised. The De Young Café serves both pre-prepared snacks, sandwiches and salads, and an à la carte menu with lunch and weekend brunch options including a fab poke salad. TIP: a bottle of wine is the same price as two glasses. Go ahead…order a bottle with lunch before touring the museum for a truly delightful afternoon.
I usually like to make the first day of a trip my shopping day to get it out of the way, leaving some time to circle back on any missed opportunities after the fact. I was staying near the SoMa neighbourhood, which was close to shopping, restaurants and within walking distance or a short Uber ride to many of the major sites.
Union Square is a high-density shopping mecca surrounding a 2.6 acre plaza dotted with all of the major anchor stores you could imagine. Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Barneys etc. The area is great for people watching too, when you need to let your credit card simmer down.
Flatiron views in Union Square
Men’s boutique Welcome Stranger is more my pace, with cool casual apparel, bags and accessories including a line of footwear called Sutro that’s designed locally in San Francisco and handmade in a small family operated factory in Mexico. The last thing I need now is more shoes, and it took a considerable amount of willpower to walk away from the sale shelf. Another shop I fell in love with is Union Made, located just west of the Mission. Lots of eye candy including vintage Levi’s, classic American sportswear, Japanese selvage denim, an extensive men’s apothecary and accessories from of-the-moment Shinola and Giles & Brother.
A trip to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Chinatown. A bit of a tourist trap with a capital T, but I stumbled across a few solid kitchen finds looking for a sake serving set. After an unsuccessful search in a hole-in-the-wall store, the lovely owner directed me to The Wok Shop for the win, bursting at the seams with contemporary and traditional Asian servingware, tea and sake sets and kitchen gadgety things galore. Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for something special for your kitchen, or for a cute gift.
I could go on, but Mr. Tony Bennett said it best:
“The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gray
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
I’m going home to my city by the Bay
I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care
My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco
Your golden sun will shine for me”