A Day in San Francisco: Ocean, Hills (Many) and Parks

I recently got to visit San Francisco for the fourth time and had my best visit so far. I spent an entire week there visiting with friends and family and tried to avoid public transportation (and relied on my feet) to the extent possible to get a better feeling of the hilly San Francisco.

Foggy sky and bird in San Francisco

I this time also had the benefit of an alternative “guide book” to San Francisco – Meanwhile in San Francisco by a San Francisco born and based illustrator Wendy Macnaughton. It is an illustration book taking you through different neighborhoods in San Francisco and I really wished that there was a similar book for every city that I visit. Having the book Meanwhile in San Francisco as my guide this time really helped me to better appreciate the different cultures and stories that make San Francisco the amazing city that it is. How to not love a book when the author takes the muni whole day one day and takes note of how many times passengers said hello or thank you to the driver!

Morning in San Francisco: hike to Tank Hill

I stayed at Cole Valley with friends and it turned out to be a great neighborhood to stay in as it is very close to many other great neighborhoods such as Haight Street. It is also so high up that you pass through almost all major neighborhoods during your walk down to the downtown San Francisco, which takes around one hour with no stops.

It was nice to start the day by first visiting one of the few cafe shops in the neighbourhood opening as early as 6am, get my caffeine fix and then hike up to the Tank Hill with pretty amazing views of not only the city but the bay area in general and yes also of that red beautiful bridge, Golden Gate. If you want the hill and the bank all to yourself, it is better to get up there before 7am. Most days the sky will be foggy but I really enjoyed the famous San Francisco fog this time, it makes the city look so mysterious and definitely more interesting photographic wise. 

Once you are back to Cole Street, getting a croissant or a breakfast sandwich at Boulangerie de San Francisco is a good way to take care of your early morning food needs (and watch the young parents rushing to feed their kids before walking/biking/scootering them to school). But if you prefer to have your coffee at a more tranquil place, like I do, I recommend the Cole Valley Cafe. It does not necessarily have the best food but it is a very airy space with giant windows overlooking the street with mellow music in the background (in USA, they love to play their music loud even in the mornings so this was a nice exception). If you are looking for somewhere even cozier, Cole Café is another great option and you can eavesdrop on some heart warming dialogue between the café staff and the locals. Out of all three, Cole Café seemed to have the most local vibe.

Morning to noon: Green Apple Books and Burma Superstar

If you are fond of your morning coffee and reading, it is probably already 9am. So a good time to start your walk to Clement Street to visit Green Apple Books, which opens at 10am.

Clement Street has many interesting stores to check out (like giant stores carrying used Chinese ceramics and a grocery store with lanterns in it – just walk into one and you will be amazed by the dynamism in there) and dining venues.

Assuming that you spent more than an hour at Green Apple Books (do not forget to check out the annex dedicated to the travel books), it is now almost lunch time now and you can walk to Burma Superstar in just few minutes. This Asian restaurant is famous with its tea leaf salad but its noodles are also equally tasty. I had the “fiery beef with vegetables” but the meals enjoyed by other members of my party looked more inviting – “tea leaf salad” and “nan pia dok” (chicken noodle but a quite fancy looking one).

Afternoon in San Francisco: beach or a museum?

Now that the lunch is over, you can either head down to Sutro Baths located right by Ocean Beach (my favorite San Francisco location during this latest trip) or go the opposite way and aim for the amazing Museum of Modern Art of San Francisco (SFMOMA in short).

A Day in San Francisco
Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Sutro Baths are actually now in ruins but still worthy of a visit with the great ocean views that it offers. You can read more about the amazing story behind Sutro Baths here – Matthew Roberts has been photographing the ruins since 1990s. It always amazes me to come across such wild ocean scenery right in the middle of a major city (also saluting Sydney, Australia).

The famous Haight-Ashbury

If you skipped the beach entirely and instead chose to head downtown after lunch, even though the Geary Boulevard will take you faster to SFMOMA, I highly recommend that you cut through Golden Gate Park again and aim for Haight Street, which is one of the most interesting streets in San Francisco. And yes – that is the Haight of famous Haight-Ashbury. You will quickly notice that everything looks more colorful and lively on Haight Street, which is also an ideal place to head out for a night out. For that I highly recommend the Club Deluxe – a very casual jazz bar open seven days as week – amazing way to spend a night in San Francisco, so atmospheric and vintage looking!

Since it is still day time and reading is probably a better alternative then drinking. The Booksmith on Haight Street is a great book store if you this time want to check out new books as opposed to used ones. They also have an alternative space called the Bindery on the same street with much smaller selection of books but a very nice looking event space hosting many author events and also a bar.

A walk down to SFMOMA from Bruma Superstar will take you around one hour with no stops. So if the walk recommendations here sound a little to ambitious for you, you can always catch one of the buses or trams (need to pay USD 2.75 to ride for 2.5 hours and have the exact change as no change is given by the drivers/conductors).

SFMOMA, one of the finest museums in California

SFMOMA went under a major renovation and expansion work, which was finalized in May 2016 and is now home to a even greater collection than before. The entry fee is quite expensive just like any other major museum in USA – USD 25 per person but the collection is really worth it. In addition to a very strong permanent collection including works from Andy Warhol (well of-course), Man Ray, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andreas Gursky, I this time got to see a very interesting photography project by Carolyn Drake titled Wild Pigeon (which is also in the permanent collection and her photography work focusing on Uygur people banned from traveling outside of China touched  me deeply) as well as a video production titled “Sublime Seas”. Sublime Seas, three channel video project (amazing cinematography) is a great video work exploring the various forms of cruelty attached to seas (immigrant crisis, slavery and whale industry).

End of a Day in Francisco: Dolores Park

Once you are done at SFMOMA and ready to hike up a little, you can take Mission Street and Valencia (one of the hip neighborhoods in San Francisco with nice stores and cool cafés and restaurants) and make your way up to Dolores Park. I have been to Dolores Park at least three times during my visit as it is one of the best places to get a feeling of San Francisco.

You can do people watching (I really enjoyed spending hours watching the people trying to highline), enjoy a book and a picnic (there is a Whole Foods nearby so it is very common to see people with those brown bags carrying their picnic) in the presence of an amazing city view. 

If you did not already take care of your dinner needs in Dolores Park (highly recommended), you may want to check out the nearby Mexican Restaurant for a dinner – Gracias Marde. It is a vegan restaurant and their kale based entrée was amazing. If you are willing to head up or better to say “hike up” to Cole Valley again, Padrecito (update: closed permanently) is a great alternative for Mexican food and you have to try their Padrecito cocktail based on mezcal if you like smoky drinks. Zazie which is within a minute walking distant from Padrecito is a french restaurant with a really cozy back garden.

These are just some suggestions among the millions of things San Francisco has to offer. I also got to try out one of the electric bikes this time and the experience is worth a separate blog post but let me say that it is an amazing way to enjoy the city, the hills of which make it otherwise very hard to bike around. As my friend who effortlessly kept up with us all on his non-electric bike said – “electric bikes still make you feel like you are riding a bike but as the best biker in the world”.