It happens every year: 16 million eager, wide-eyed tourists arrive at the Golden Gate—Tony Bennett crooning on their iPods, visions of Rice-a-Roni dancing in their heads, asking things like, “Which exit do I take to get to Alcatraz?” Never fear — the following tips will help you navigate Bay Area waters like a sourdough-eating, 38 Geary-riding pro.
1. Whither the weather. Yes, you’re in California. No, you’re not in Los Angeles—a lesson many a hapless tourist has learned the hard way, after arriving in town wearing tennis shorts in July and freezing his heinie off when the fog blows in. The city’s famously finicky microclimates change from hour to hour and neighborhood to neighborhood, so the rule of thumb is: wear layers. Bring a t-shirt for lunch on sunny Potrero Hill; bring your down parka for sunset at Ocean Beach. And remember, if you’re really dying for that balmy summer weather, just head over the Golden Gate Bridge, where the fog dares not go, and temperatures are easily 10-15 degrees warmer.
2. Where parking is an Olympic event. Depending on your frame of mind, downtown San Francisco’s labyrinth of one-way streets can either be a Bullitt-style thrill ride, or a motorized Sisyphean hell. But there’s only one way to look at the parking situation: She stinks. Street parking anywhere in town can be challenging, but in tourist-heavy areas such as Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s an Olympic event. If you have the stamina to find a legal parking meter, it will cost you a quarter every 10 minutes, with limits enforced by meter maids who prey on the unsuspecting like starving seagulls at a corndog stand (tip within a tip: we’re not kidding about the seagulls; guard your snack food with your life anywhere within eyeshot of the ocean).
Your best bet is a parking lot: The Stockton-Sutter Garage is a good value in the downtown area; the Pier 39 garage offers discounted validated parking near Fisherman’s Wharf. Another option—don’t drive. There is nary a crevice of this city that can’t be reached by efficient public transit (bus, streetcar, cable car) at any time of day or night. One-, three-, and seven-day municipal transit passes offer unlimited rides on buses and streetcars (an additional $1 to ride cable cars). You can also buy an all-day passport ($11), which offers unlimited rides on cable cars until midnight. Both are available at the Visitor Information Center at Powell and Market streets and at the cable car termini.
3. Thank you for not smoking. You can hook up to the Internet everywhere from the ballpark to your hotel bathroom, but if you’re looking for a legal place to light up a cigarette in San Francisco, good luck. Flick your Bic in the wrong spot and you’re likely to get slapped with a $100 fine. For those who haven’t kicked the habit, be forewarned that smoking is not allowed in restaurants, shops, bars, and in the seats at baseball or football stadiums. It is not allowed in parks, public squares, city-owned outdoor spaces, or within 25 feet of many office buildings. And as of January 1, it is not allowed in your car anywhere in California if you have passengers under the age of 18.
4. Scoring a top table. San Francisco’s hopping restaurant scene draws foodies from around the world, but all that adoration can mean long waiting lists for dinner at current “it” spots such as Spruce, SPQR, and The Slanted Door. If you’re on a tight schedule and you want to do more than feast your eyes at one of the city’s hot properties, think about lunch. Many top restaurants are open during the week for lunch (including those mentioned above), when reservations are much easier to come by. Another option is bar seating. Restaurants such as Postrio, Absinthe, and Citizen Cake keep seats at the bar open for walk-ins, and you’ll find many of the same offerings as the dinner menu.
5. Cable cars, no crowds. Most newcomers (and even many locals) think that the only way to ride a cable car is to stand in an epic line at Ghirardelli Square or on Powell Street. Insiders know that if you walk a few blocks, you’ll usually find yourself standing solo at any one of the cable car stops further up the route. The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines both start at Market Street near Union Square and end at Fisherman’s Wharf. But if your goal is just to hear the clang, clang, clang of the bell as you hang off the running boards, Doris Day-style, catch a ride on the California Street line, where you’ll rarely encounter a wait—even at rush hour.
6. Alcatraz is worth the trip. America’s most infamous penitentiary is also one of the most visited attractions in California, and a must-see for any first-time visitor. Even though tours are offered regularly throughout the day, ferries fill up fast, so make a reservation ahead of time (you can do it online through www.alcatrazcruises.com, or go to Pier 33 first thing in the morning). For extra creepiness, consider the night tour, which leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf at 4:30 p.m.; and make sure to spring for the cellhouse audio tour ($8), a fascinating narration that features tales of “The Rock” told by former guards and inmates.
7. Don’t call it Frisco, and other helpful hints. Tempting though it might be, resist the urge to call it “Frisco” or “San Fran” or basically any cutesy abbreviated moniker. There’s really only one acceptable shorthand name for San Francisco and that’s “The City” – a title that never fails to get under the skin of Los Angelenos.
Here’s some more local language and knowledge to help you navigate:
• There is no beach in North Beach – that part of the bay was filled in long ago with soil and the hulls of Gold Rush ships.
• Monster Park is not a scary theme park for kiddies or a place where they hold truck rallies, but the name of the city’s football stadium.
• Cioppino (chu-peen-o) is a brothy seafood stew made with Dungeness crab and other shellfish purportedly invented at Fisherman’s Wharf.
• SoMa is an acronym for the area South of Market Street.
• Junipero Serra is pronounced Hoo-nip-a-ro Serra; it’s Gough Street, as in cough; and Ghirardelli is said with a hard “g,” as in go.
And if you really want to fit in with the locals, don’t:
• Toss your water bottle in the trash (not only has the city banned single-serving bottled water at local government offices and agencies, but recycling is practically a religion in these parts).
• Drink Starbucks (Peet’s is the original hometown coffeehouse).
• Buy your crab from a stand at Fisherman’s Wharf (you can get it cheaper and fresher by bellying up to the counter at Swan’s Oyster Depot on Polk Street).
8. F Line Streetcars. You can shell out the big bucks for a Grayline bus, or you can hop on one of San Francisco’s vintage F-Line streetcars, and for $1.50 take a grand tour of downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf by rail. The historic and colorful fleet that toddles up and down Market Street originally hailed from places like Hamburg, Blackpool, Milan, Philly, and Paris. The cars have been lovingly restored and each still bears the markings and design details of its native city. It’s like a rolling lesson in mass-transit history.
9. In search of the best views. There are many fabulous vantage points from which to take in the San Francisco skyline, but if you head to the right ones, you get the views without the camera-toting hordes. Just north of Twin Peaks, Tank Hill is a secret spot for panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown and the Bay. Start at the top of Stanyan Street, go left at Belgrave Park, and hike up the dirt path. Then be prepared to gasp.
On the western side of town, Grand View Park is a spectacular windswept knob that is rarely visited, save for the errant triathlete in training. Tucked at the top of a set of steep stairs at 14th Avenue and Noriega Street, the park boasts show-stopping vistas of both the Pacific and the Bay.
10. Easy-access wine country. The world-renowned Napa and Sonoma wine regions lie just an hour north of San Francisco, but if you’re planning an afternoon of wine tasting—and you can only remember the first four of the five S’s in “See, Smell, Sip, Swirl, and Spit”—you might want to think about a designated driver. A number of local operators (Beau Wine Tours; SFO Limousine; California Wine Tours) offer limousine tours of wine country; most will pick you up from your San Francisco hotel, or the ferry terminal in nearby Vallejo.
For guilt-free indulging, consider a walking tour with Wine Country Trekking, which offers multi-day inn-to-inn and winery-to-winery hiking tours in Sonoma. Treks include stops along the way for sightseeing, private wine and cheese tastings, and gourmet lunches and dinners.