Hiroyuki Matsumoto

Only in town for a few days? Here are the attractions you can skip.

Jenna Scatena
November 23, 2015

Life—and especially vacation—is too short to spend on time-wasters. San Francisco, though known for its creative culture, is not immune to having its own tourist traps, and while savvy travelers may know the obvious places to avoid, like Fisherman’s Wharf, there are some surprises, too. Read on for what you can skip on your next visit to SF (along with some alternatives that can take its place).

1. Visiting Haight-Ashbury

No one has worn flowers in their hair in this neighborhood since the early 1970s. Yet somehow its reputation as a free-love hippie haven refuses to die. Every year thousands of tie-dye-wearing tourists fall victim to this tragic tourist trap. Instead of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” visionaries who once lived here, stoned teenage runaways now crowd this intersection, and little remains of its colorful past.

Better option: Venture to Lower Haight Street, where a more contemporary bohemian vibe draws urbanites for artsy dive bars, yoga studios, and funky restaurants. 

2. Dim Sum at House of Nanking

Sadly, the quirky neon sign above this Chinese restaurant immortalized in many guidebooks and blogs no longer lives up to its hype. The silver lining? The city’s high Chinese population has kept the dim-sum competition going strong, so there are plenty of other alternatives for getting your fix.

Better option: Find top-notch dim-sum at Shanghai Dumpling King on Balboa Street in the fringe Outer Richmond neighborhood, where xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) are served family-style in bamboo steaming baskets.

3. Sightseeing by Segway

San Francisco constantly ranks as one of the most walk able cities in the US, so why cheat yourself and see it from the helmet tunnel-vision on a Segway? There is likely not a single resident who has stepped foot on a Segway in the city limits, so you're not exactly experiencing the city through the eyes of a local.

Better option: Join one of the city’s dynamic walking tours. Groups like Wild SF employ local artists and activists to lead their tours, for true insider insight.

4. Attending Bay to Breakers

The lighthearted footrace that began as a spirited rebound from the disastrous 1906 earthquake has, in more recent years, devolved into a cesspool of early morning bacchanalia and people puking in skimpy costumes—most of whom pass out at Alta Vista or Golden Gate Park way before the finish line.

Better option: While San Francisco has no shortage of great festivals, the Fillmore Jazz Festival in July is one of the best, and is often overlooked by visitors.

5. Driving Down Lombard Street

This is a great option if your idea of a good time is being stuck in gridlock traffic. Everyday of the week this street is a cluster, yet somehow this glorified parking lot still gets touted as a must-do when visiting San Francisco. 

Better option: Walk it. It is a beautiful street with great views of North Beach and Coit Tower, and on foot you can pass the flower-strewn walkways that flank each side for a more immersive experience.

6. Shopping in Union Square

There’s nothing local about the clothes at H&M or Macy’s, so why spend your diminutive time in big-box retail stores you can visit anywhere?

Better option: Shop at neighborhood stores in the Mission and Hayes Valley, where city designers create natty West Coast urban clothes and accessories.

7. Riding the Powell Cable Car Lines

San Francisco’s rustic cable cars rocking up and down steep hills and past pastel Victorian homes is such an iconic image that it cannot be completely dismissed as a worthwhile activity. There is, after all, something thrillingly death-defying about standing on its tiny ledge with only your grip to keep you from flying into oncoming traffic. But for some reason, everyone seems to take the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car lines, which amass unreasonably long queues, during which you will be subjected to soapbox evangelists and aggressive Market Street panhandlers.

Better option: Take the California Street line, nearly void of tourists, and get off at Polk Street, where you can explore the up-and-coming neighborhood of Polk Gulch.

8. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

At least a few times every week, a band of lost tourists stops to ask me the way to Fisherman’s Wharf or Pier 39. Anyone who has ever been hostage to the rank smell of sea lions knows to avoid this area at all costs. Instead of pointing them in the right direction, I tell them not to bother and send them to a landmark that is not full of overpriced Disney-esque rides and souvenir shops.

Better option: Just south of Pier 39 on the Embarcadero is the relatively new Exploratorium—a wonderland of scientific interactive exhibits and installations, still with an amazing bayside view.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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