San Francisco

Follow our insider's guide to exploring cafes, coffeehouses, and Chinatown.
Text By Allison Serrell / Photography by Thayer Allyson Gowdy

If ever there was a city made for walking, San Francisco is it. Whether up, down, or around its hills, you can hardly go wrong with any direction you choose. And all that exercise makes indulging in everyday pleasures a pastime of choice. Think custom lattes at the corner java joint, catching fly balls at Pacific Bell Park, and ferry rides across the sparkling bay. Top it off with a memorable meal and wine at a neighborhood cafe, and you'll be ready to go native.

Best Alfresco Act
A beloved Bay Area tradition since 1938, the Stern Grove Festival (19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard, 415-252-6252) draws thousands of fans for free classical, jazz, and ethnic music concerts every Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., mid-June through August. Performances, which range from the San Francisco Ballet to the sizzling Latin sounds of Los Lobos, take place in a lush meadow surrounded by eucalyptus, redwood, and fir trees which serves as a natural amphitheater. Bring lunch and a blanket or reserve one of the shaded picnic tables. And to make a day of it, enjoy a pre- or postconcert hike through the park's wooded trails.

Best Reason to Get Wet
Sailboats dominate San Francisco's stunning harbor, but one of the best ways to get out on the water is in a kayak. For a gentle ride around the Golden Gate Bridge, catch up with Sea Trek (Schoonmaker Point, Sausalito, 415-488-1000; $65 for a half-day ride). You'll paddle the five-mile-long waterfront of Richardson Bay. Watch harbor seals, cormorants, pelicans, and herons play as you check out Sausalito's houseboats, which flaunt a funky hodgepodge of architectural styles.

Best Farmers' Market
The Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market (Embarcadero and Green streets, Saturdays 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m.) holds near-religious status among the San Francisco food cognoscenti. Diehards show up just after dawn to buy fresh produce and meats. How to begin a morning visit? Wrap your hands around a steaming cup of café au lait and then stroll among the stalls, which overflow with edible delights. Bundles of fresh herbs and flowers perfume the air; flats of berries glimmer in the sunlight. Sampling is encouraged, so try some of the artisanal cheeses or just-baked breads.

Best Sweet Spot
Linger over lunch or dinner at the modern industrial - styled Citizen Cake Cafe (399 Grove St., 415-861-2228) in Hayes Valley. While pizzas and salads make for tasty noontime options and dinnertime brings heartier fare, the cafe's real draw comes at the end of the meal, when diners can enjoy splurges like individual molten chocolate cakes, freshly made granitas, or mojito parfaits.

Best Japanese Day Spa
After trekking the formidable San Francisco hills, find relief for aching muscles at Kabuki Springs and Spa (1750 Geary Blvd., 415-922-6000), an Asian-inspired day spa with a calming Zen atmosphere. A typical visit starts with a soak in the Japanese-style hot pool followed by a steam, sauna, cold plunge, or shower. Follow that with a shiatsu massage or a facial or body treatment. Kabuki provides bath products, chilled cucumber face cloths, and freshly brewed tea.


A popular neighborhood restaurant and wine bar, Eos (901 Cole St., 415-566-3063) is celebrated among locals as much for its wine list as for its sparkling Asian fusion cooking. Eos offers wines from around the world, with a special emphasis on little-known Californian and Alsatian vintages, which complement dishes like Thai-spiced grilled bread salad and tea-smoked Peking duck breast. Diners can choose from among 400 bottles, or taste up to 40 selections by the glass. Wine flights, priced at $18 - $50, offer special tastings from a particular region, winery, or importer.

Best Wine Bar

Best Taqueria
The food at La Taqueria (2889 Mission St., 415-285-7117) in the city's Latino Mission District is as fresh and authentic as it gets north of the border. This no-nonsense, homey eatery features simple wooden tables with leather benches and tile floors surrounded by walls of painted murals. Locals line up for homemade tortillas filled with grilled steak or chicken, marinated and simmered with tomatoes and chiles and topped off with fresh zesty salsas. Wash it all down with one of their agua frescas -- fresh fruit drinks that marry well with the piquant food.

Best Day Trip
Head out on a breezy ferry ride (Blue and Gold Fleet, Pier 41 and 41 1?2, 415-773-1188; $10.50 round-trip) across the bay to Angel Island, a federal and state wildlife refuge that is the largest of San Francisco Bay's islands. Cars are not permitted on this hilly grass- and forest-covered island, which served as an immigration station from 1910 to 1940. Miles of hiking trails lead to the peak of Mount Caroline Livermore, from which you can look back across the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. This is also a wonderful spot for wildlife viewing: Deer graze on the island, and an abundance of waterfowl feed offshore.

Best-Kept Secret
Most visitors to Chinatown come to eat or shop. Too bad they bypass the area's historic temples, which are well worth a trip for their architecture and serene ambience. Founded in 1853, the Tin Hou Temple (125 Waverly Place; no phone) houses an incense-infused sanctuary decorated in traditional black, red, and gold lacquered woods. Dedicated to the goddess of heaven, the temple is open to the public for prayer and meditation. Just around the corner, the Kong Chow Temple (855 Stockton St.; no phone) offers a balcony from which to observe bustling Stockton Street and the bay. To learn even more about Chinatown's history or culinary traditions, join local Shirley Fong-Torres on a guided Wok Wiz walking tour ( www.wokwiz.com; 415-981-8989). Book in advance, though; the tours fill up fast.

Best Java Joint
Famous for its full-bodied Italian coffee, Caffe Trieste (601 Vallejo St., 415-392-6739) is a cozy spot to linger over a cappuccino in North Beach, the city's lively Italian neighborhood. Open for nearly 50 years, Trieste still embodies the bohemian spirit of the beatnik generation that took root here in the 1950s. Today, opera music wafts from the jukebox, and patrons can sit for hours with a book and a cup of coffee. Trieste also sells its aromatic beans by the bag -- a great souvenir or gift.

Best Urban Trek
San Francisco is a city of hills and neighborhoods, the most scenic of which can be conquered on a challenging urban trek. For a picturesque climb within the city, hike up the famed 377 Filbert Street steps. (Begin at Filbert and Sansome streets.) You'll wend your way through historic Telegraph Hill, a residential area with lush gardens and 19th-century cottages. The climb leads to a panoramic summit at Coit Tower, a monument decorated with richly colored murals created in the 1930s. Allison Serrell is a San Francisco - based writer whose articles have appeared in Health, Country Home, and Modern Bride.