San Francisco: A Guide to the City by the Bay

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By Mike DuBose, Debra DuBose, and Blake DuBose

San Francisco is home to many iconic sights, from the group of pastel-colored houses called “Painted Ladies” in Alamo Square Park to the graceful lines of the Golden Gate Bridge, both of which have been immortalized in countless TV shows, movies, and travel guides. “The City by the Bay” boasts many unique museums, attractions, shops, and restaurants, as well as a significant role in American history as the epicenter of “hippie” culture in the 1960s. To truly experience all that this fascinating city has to offer, you need to know what to eat, where to visit, and what to see and do. Read on to maximize your enjoyment when you visit!

Getting There

Those located in the southeastern United States (like we are) will need to fly to visit San Francisco. If you are lucky enough to find a nonstop flight from our area, the flight takes about 5 hours. (Of course, times will vary based on layovers and your actual location.) Note that you will cross multiple time zones on your journey—the East Coast is three hours ahead of San Francisco time!

San Francisco International Airport (code “SFO”) is located about 15 miles from downtown San Francisco. In our experience, traffic was reasonable coming into the city, but the trip to our hotel from the airport still took about 45 minutes. It costs about $50 for a cab for two people and their luggage. There are airport shuttles that are cheaper, but they take longer since they stop at multiple hotels along the way.

Where to Stay

The Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square areas are two of the most popular places to stay, with good reason: they offer access to popular sights, restaurants, and shopping. We began our stay in San Francisco at the Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/sfofw-san-francisco-marriott-fishermans-wharf) on 1250 Columbus Avenue, which is about 6-8 blocks from the wharf area. It is a good hotel with very friendly staff—just be sure not to get a room near the elevator, as it is very noisy. The breakfast buffet is pretty pricey, but good.

After a short trip to Napa (look for our next article about that experience soon), we stayed at the Hilton at 333 O’Farrell Street (www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/california/hilton-san-francisco-union-square-SFOFHHH/index.html) in San Francisco’s Union Square Area. If staying here, ask for a room on a high floor with a city view, which is breathtaking at night. There is a bar on the 46th floor that also has great views.

Both the Marriot and the Hilton had very helpful concierges, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need a recommendation for a good restaurant, help getting a reservation, or advice about which tours or events to consider.

The night before leaving town, we stayed at the airport Marriott hotel since it was nearby and there was a free shuttle to the airport. If you stay here, be sure to ask for a room opposite the airport, which will help cut down on the noise!

Getting Around

Traffic in San Francisco is horrible. In fact, the city has the second worst traffic in the US, according to USA Today! Nearly 850,000 people live in San Francisco, and 500,000 cars and 1.5 million individuals commute daily to the city. Parking spots are rare, and some hotels charge a whopping $50 per day for parking. (You may also have trouble finding a restroom—there are only five public bathrooms in the city of San Francisco, and each one costs $100,000 annually to operate! Even many restaurants do not allow the public to use their bathrooms.)

With that being said, we wouldn’t recommend even thinking about driving in San Francisco, especially between 8-10 AM and 3-6 PM. However, there are several other options, such as public transportation, Uber, taxis, and walking (be prepared for the hilly terrain if you choose this option!) that will help you get around the city. Two of our recommended methods are Big Bus Tours and cable cars.

Big Bus Tours

The double decker red buses operated by Big Bus Tours make 21 stops all over San Francisco every 15-20 minutes (except in rush hour traffic). The full route takes about 2.5 hours if you don’t get off the bus. The stops are all in popular areas that you will want to visit, and you can hop on and off as you wish. For $70 per person, we received three days of unlimited rides, and we feel it was an excellent investment considering the convenience and what transportation to those places would have cost individually. If you purchase a ticket at the local office, plan to use it soon thereafter—the 72-hour unlimited ride period begins as soon as you buy the ticket! 

While riding the bus, you can also listen to different tour guides talk about the history of San Francisco, which is very interesting and provides you with an excellent overview of the city. One guide commented, “We are a city of freaks and we are proud of it!”

The company also offers a night tour that takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge so you can view the city from across the bay at no additional charge. We took the 7:00 PM bus from the main Big Bus office located near the wharf. If you are staying in Union Square, there is a courtesy shuttle back to the area from the wharf. One tip: sit inside when going over the Golden Gate Bridge—it is cold and windy if you sit on the open-air top level!

When booking your tour, confirm that you are working with the correct company. There are several different bus companies in town, and some do not allow you to get on and off (which you definitely want to do). You can obtain a 10% discount by going online to www.bigbustours.com and selecting “San Francisco.” We bought the 72-hour Ultimate Ticket, which included all the red bus tours, as well as admission to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the Aquarium of the Bay, which was really neat! We didn’t even end up using all of the amenities included, like some walking tours and a free bike rental.

Cable and Trolley Cars

San Francisco’s cable and trolley cars are not only picturesque (and useful!), they are also a symbol of the city itself. As other cities discontinued their cable cars, they were either purchased by or donated to the city of San Francisco, so you will the names of many different places on the various cable cars. We even saw one from Milan, Italy! Purchasing an all-day pass for $15 is your best bet, but be sure to study when and where the cars run. You can catch most of them on select street corners. If you only want to ride in a cable car once, a one-way ticket is $7, but we recommend the all-day pass if you plan to use it multiple times in a single day.  

In addition to the cable cars, the city also runs a trolley system that is operated on electricity. All-day tickets are $2.25 per person ($1 for seniors). This is an excellent way to travel around the city, and you can get on and off at stopping points. We’d recommend avoiding both the trolley and cable cars on the weekends or near 5 PM, when they become very crowded.

The main center for the cable cars is located at Beach and Hyde Streets, and you can buy tickets and get route information there. You can also learn more about the types of municipal transportation (trolleys, buses, and cable cars) that San Francisco offers online. See www.sfmta.com/getting-around/transit/fares-passes for detailed route and pricing information.

Weather

The temperature in San Francisco varies wildly, with large swings depending on the winds. In fact, Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco!” Therefore, you’ll want to carefully check the forecasted highs, lows, and wind speeds before going, and pack accordingly. U.S. News and World Reportrecommends September through November as the best time to visit, citing “warm temperatures and fewer crowds.”

Earthquakes are fairly common in this area—in fact, while visiting, we experienced one registering 2.9 on the Richter scale! Another unique fact is that the city had a huge fire in 1906 following a major earthquake. Unable to stop the fire, the Army declared martial law and blew up a two-mile square area of houses and businesses to stop the spread of flames, leaving 85,000 homeless.

Some people assert that San Francisco will fall into the ocean one day! This may be because a large section along the bay is built on the site of a past landfill (whereas other parts of the city are on a more solid foundation), and earthquakes are so common.

Areas and In-Town Sights

Chinatown

Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in San Francisco, with 90,000 people living on 10 square blocks. If you plan to visit Chinatown, be aware that many stores close at 6 PM.

Fisherman’s Wharf

This area is the most heavily saturated with tourists, but it’s definitely worth visiting. All of the piers run along this sector, and many musicians (some very talented and unique) busk for tips along the side streets. It’s a fun area, but it is heavily congested on the weekends.

The Financial District

We’d recommend staying away from this area, which is located on Market Street and is the end destination for some trolleys. There are few restaurants, no public bathrooms, and not many things to see. One interesting fact about the area, though: the Transamerica building located there was built on ball bearings, and during the 1989 major earthquake, not even a window shattered!

The Ferry Building

This is a busy tourist spot full of retail shops located at Pier #1 at the end of Market Street. It also hosts a farmer’s market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It is located near drop off point #18 if you take the Big Red Bus and is accessible by MUNI, BART, and ferry boat. The historic trolley cars (Line F Market) also stop directly in front of the Ferry Building.

Bonnie Tsui of The New York Times says of the Ferry Building in a recent article (“36 Hours in San Francisco”): “Though the Ferry Building has come to represent all the modern trends in the Bay Area food world, it hews to tradition with a thrice-weekly outdoor farmers’ market, plus indoor food stalls in former ferry berths; the butcher, the baker and the cheesemonger are all on hand to talk to you. Just browsing is a pleasure: It’s all eye candy, from the ceramics to the chocolate. And whatever your age, watching the ferries come and go never gets old.”

Important: Right across the street from the Ferry Building is the best shopping in San Francisco! There are about 50 white tents hosting vendors with handmade items like jewelry, art, woodwork, and crafts for sale. It’s a great place to buy presents, and we visited several times. You can actually watch as some vendors make their products!

Sausalito

This is a small town located across the Golden Gate Bridge where the ultra-wealthy live. An 800 sq. ft. condo there recently sold for $800,000! Sausalito is one of the Big Red Bus drop off points. They also have a direct shot to from the wharf to Sausalito around 10:00 AM where you can bypass all the stops and be there in about 30 minutes. If you ride the Big Bus tour to Sausalito and temperatures permit, you might want to take the ferry back ($15 per person) and you will end up at the Ferry Building.

This area contains some neat shops and restaurants. One retail outlet that Debra liked was called Images. Be sure to go to Scoma’s Restaurant while in Sausalito. A popular lunch special while we were there was halibut with a crab cake topping, which was outstanding! Ask for a seat near the window or outside (if temperatures are good). There is a Scoma’s at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco as well.

Nearby Attractions

Alcatraz

According to TripAdvisor.com, Alcatraz is the number one spot for visitors to the San Francisco area; however, we were underwhelmed. As history enthusiasts, we appreciated the connection with the past and heard some interesting tales while at the site, and we saw some rare birds and flowers there. However, it’s simply a prison. You also must climb 13 stories to reach the cell blocks (including D-Block, where Al Capone, The Birdman, and Machine Gun Kelly were once housed).

If you decide to go, note that tickets sell out fast, so go online and get them at least several weeks before your trip (www.alcatrazcruises.com). Be sure to take the tram on ground level to the top. The ride on the ferry over there and back was interesting and scenic, and you may want to consider a late afternoon visit to catch a sunset or night view of the city. The ferry that takes you to Alcatraz holds 700 people, so there is no need to stand in line for hours as in some other places. You will have to choose a specific departure time when buying your ticket, but can come back on any of the return ferries you’d like.

Crissy Field

Situated between the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco, this small public beach has some of the best views of the San Francisco Bay (www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/crissy-field.html).

Muir Woods

Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast or more of a couch surfer, Muir Woods is a must-see. This national park is only 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco and features some of the largest and oldest trees in the United States. See www.nps.gov/muwo/index.htm for directions and more information.

Silicon Valley

Some of the biggest and most successful tech companies in the world are situated about 30-60 minutes south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Dropbox got their start in this booming area, which is made up of Mountain View, Cupertino, Palo Alto, and other surrounding towns. Most campuses, however, are closed to the public. The only way to make it inside is to know someone who works there; otherwise, you'll be limited to seeing just the outsides of the buildings.

Big Sur

Located to the south of San Francisco, the drive along America’s western coast boasts some beautiful beaches and cliffs. Highway 1 in Big Sur is a beautiful hidden jewel about 2.5 hours away from San Francisco’s city center.  If you head this way, be sure to stay or stop at the Post Ranch Inn, a luxurious hotel that overlooks Big Sur and has a very nice restaurant called Sierra Mar (www.postranchinn.com/dining). Visit www.bigsurcalifornia.org for more information about the area.

Yosemite

If you have plenty of time, consider visiting Yosemite National Park (www.yosemite.com). It’s four hours east of San Francisco, so this is not a day trip; instead, plan on finding a place to stay so you can enjoy the park, hike, and relax. 

Where to Eat

When visiting a new city, we often visit Tripadvisor.com and select the top ten most highly ranked restaurants relevant to our interests (seafood, steaks, etc.). These recommendations are usually reliable, especially if hundreds or thousands of people have rated them! Then, we cross check the recommendations with hotel concierges to see if they are worth visiting. The following are the top-rated restaurants for San Francisco, along with some notes from personal experience, online reviews, and/or concierges:

Restaurant

Type/Specialty

Notes/Recommendations

Sotto Mare

Italian Seafood/Pasta

Small, family-owned place. Ask to sit downstairs, where it is cooler and quieter. Expect an hour wait. Get the cioppino, a mixture of seafood in sauce, which costs $38 for two.

La Ciccia

Italian Seafood/Pasta

Zagat restaurant guide says that this “exceptional Sardinian gem” in Noe Valley has “amazing pastas” and a great selection of well-priced regional wines, but it’s a small place, so be sure to make reservations.

Ristorante Milano

Italian Seafood/Pasta

“Simple, robust meals in neighborhood surroundings. You'll warm to the hearty food and simple décor,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

House of Prime Rib

Steak

They serve only prime rib (in a variety of sizes) and sides to accompany it.

Hog Island Oyster Company

Oysters only

They have their own oyster farm. The restaurant is located in the rear of the Ferry Building.

Anchor Oyster Bar

Seafood

This restaurant, which is located in the Castro district, has been open since 1977. A reviewer for SFGate.com (the sister site to the San Francisco Chronicle) says that the seafood salads are “where Anchor really shines.”

Fino Bar and Restaurant

Italian Seafood/Pasta

One reviewer at Fodors.com said, “amazing service, prices are unbelievably low, [and the] food is perfection.” The restaurant is housed in The Andrews Hotel in the Union Square area.

Alioto’s Restaurant

Italian Seafood

Located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, it has been open for 70 years. Try the lunch specials—the $15 trout was excellent! Serves Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay (our favorite). Sit upstairs and ask for a window overlooking the dock.

Harris Steakhouse

Steak/Seafood

Expensive, but the best steak we have ever eaten. Cabs are a little difficult to catch when leaving, so ask your waiter for help calling one.

The Franciscan

Seafood

This seafood restaurant was simply average, and we would not recommend eating there. However, the view is great, so you might consider having a drink near the bar that overlooks the bay.

Farm Table

Breakfast

Although this quaint little breakfast spot only has 3 tables, you might not find a better to-go breakfast than this. Featuring less than 10 menu items, this unique hole-in-the-wall is worth your while.

Kokkari Estiatorio

Mediterranean

Located in the Mission District; a first-class, authentic Mediterranean spot.

Sodini's

Italian

This Little Italy restaurant offers authentic Italian food in a friendly atmosphere and is moderately priced.

Flour and Water

Mediterranean/American

Eclectic and modern. Located in the Mission District.

The bottom line: San Francisco is a dynamic, interesting city where there are many interesting things to see and do. As Tsui said in The New York Times: “Don’t blink or you’ll miss the next ‘new’ San Francisco. This is a city that’s reinventing itself with every refresh of your Twitter feed, with cranes rising all over downtown and an army of young tech workers pouring into neighborhoods across the city. In the ’60s, San Francisco was synonymous with the hippie counterculture; in the ’90s, it was the dot-com boom (and eventual bust, in the early 2000s); more recently, it was the ripening of the Bay Area food movement.” But although it is ever-changing, the city blends this spirit of innovation with its deep history, offering a wide range of dining, sightseeing, and shopping opportunities to suit every visitor. If you are going to San Francisco, you’re sure to find plenty of fun, exciting things to do!

About the Authors: Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 44 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds college and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University. She is a former elementary and middle school teacher.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2015 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com.

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