T+L's Definitive Guide to San Francisco
A culinary scene to rival New York City’s, eye-popping design, and a laid-back, outdoorsy ethos are just three reasons to visit San Francisco right now.
Lay of the Land
Union Square: Big-name luxury boutiques border this central plaza downtown.
Mission District: The fast-gentrifying neighborhood is known for its Latino culture and standout restaurants and bars.
Hayes Valley: A stone’s throw from the opera and symphony hall, Hayes Street is chockablock with chic shops and cafés.
Pacific Heights: Come to this mansion-filled hilltop for postcard-worthy views of the city.
SoMa: This sprawling area includes a plethora of museums, destination restaurants, and the ballpark, all amid a sea of parking lots and highway ramps.
The city’s hottest tables dish up an enticing mix of fusion cuisines.
Benu: Chef Corey Lee has reinvigorated the city’s fine dining scene with the clean-lined Benu, in SoMa. Here, every detail is carefully considered, from the porcelain tableware to the Eastern-inspired chef’s tasting menu (a 1,000-year-old quail egg; salt-and-pepper squid; lobster-coral xiao long bao, or steamed buns). $$$$
Rich Table: You’ll want to come back again and again to this homey restaurant owned by husband-and-wife chefs Evan and Sarah Rich. Dishes perfectly balance acidity and texture, and highlight surprise ingredients—the addictive sardine-laced potato chips are served with horseradish sauce; the chicken lasagna is sprinkled with crunchy popped sorghum. $$$
Cotogna: At the lively Cotogna, most plates come from the open hearth, including succulent, spit-roasted meats and wood-fired pizzas. As is the case at its sister restaurant Quince, the pastas are a must—try the buttery raviolo di ricotta with farm egg. $$
State Bird Provisions: Waiters roam the room serving innovative small bites from dim-sum-style carts at this casual, buzzy spot. Luckily, the food stands up to the quirky concept: the seafood selections in particular are worth flagging down for delicacies such as black-garlic aioli on a fried nori chip. $$$
Saison: After its smaller, scrappier spot received two Michelin stars, the farm-to-table Saison, run by chef Joshua Skenes, moved to a grander space in a SoMa historic building. Choose from an 18-course or a seven-course tasting menu—both highlight local ingredients, sourced from foragers and farmers’ markets. $$$$
Mission Chinese Food: This raved-about restaurant may have a divey interior, slack service, and an hour-long wait—but the food is worth it. Founding chef Danny Bowien (who last year opened an outpost in New York) calls his cuisine “Americanized Chinese food”; think fiery kung pao pastrami and a cardamom-laced beef brisket soup. Can’t brave the line? They deliver. $$
Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150
Five stylish boutiques not to miss.
Rand & Statler: Co-owners Catherine Chow and Corina Nurimba have built a mini fashion empire in Hayes Valley, with the opening of Azalea in 2003 and Welcome Stranger in 2010. Their latest bid for retail domination is Rand & Statler, which is stocked with cutting-edge looks from the likes of Alexander Wang and Acme.
Wilkes Bashford: After a top-to-bottom refit, the town-house-style emporium in Union Square now has a men’s store featuring Brioni and Kiton boutiques and a made-to-measure bar for suits.
Heath Ceramics: The 65-year-old, Sausalito-based houseware company, renowned for its heirloom-quality tableware and tile, recently opened this 20,000-square-foot factory, shop, and café in the Mission District. Glass walls give visitors a peek at tile production while they browse the bowls, vases, and table linens.
Harputs: Proprietor Gus Harput turns out avant-garde pieces that look deceptively simple on the rack. Most can be worn a multitude of ways; the three-hole blazer and the swacket (sweater-jacket) are travel essentials.
March: This gallery-like space specializes in goods for the kitchen, home, and pantry. Owner Sam Hamilton has commissioned work by local artisans, including Carrara worktables, leather bags, and Japanese indigo-dyed clothing.
Want to know where to check in? Here, the hotels we’re excited about.
New & Noteworthy
Hotel Zetta: The Viceroy Hotel Group’s latest property attracts a high-tech crowd thanks to its sleek interiors (a curved wooden wall above the bed; butcher-block desks), a game room off the lobby, and a floor-to-ceiling Plinko installation that you can actually play. $$
St. Regis San Francisco: With its luxe rooms—cream-colored leather and Mozambican wood on the walls; acres of marble in the bathrooms—the St. Regis brings a dose of glamour to the SoMa district. The Japanese-themed restaurant Ame only adds to the appeal. $$$$
Inn at the Presidio: Set within the 1,491-acre Presidio park, this intimate, 26-room inn was carved out of two historic buildings—a 1903 brick structure and a neighboring clapboard house. What we love best: the hiking trails out the back door. $$
Mystic Hotel: Star chef Charlie Palmer recently took over the Victorian-era Mystic, exposing brick and adding vintage mirrors to the rooms and opening a speakeasy-inspired tavern that has quickly become a local favorite. $$
Mandarin Oriental: The just-renovated Mandarin has some of the best views of the city, especially from the Bridge to Bridge rooms (binoculars included). $$$$
Ritz-Carlton San Francisco: Fresh from a makeover (good-bye chintz, hello earth-toned geometric patterns), today’s Ritz, near Nob Hill, still has doting service. $$$$
Hotel Drisco: Expect a residential feel, turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, and plenty of complimentary perks (including bicycles) at this hilltop property in Pacific Heights. $$
Hotel Pricing Key
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
See + Do
Ferry Building: This is what foodie heaven looks like: dozens of local purveyors, hawking everything from cheese and chocolate to cupcakes, line the arcades of this historic waterfront building. Two standouts are Miette Patisserie and Acme Bread. Three days a week, the city’s most seductive farmers’ market—perfectly piled heirloom carrots; a full spectrum of peppers—sets up out front.
SF Jazz Center: The new $64 million, 35,000-square-foot SF Jazz Center is America’s first stand-alone space for jazz, with a 700-seat auditorium designed to evoke both a club and concert hall. The adventurous programming encompasses both emerging talent and established stars including Ahmad Jamal.
Golden Gate Park: A green jewel in the city’s crown, Golden Gate Park is a must-visit not only for its Herzog & de Meuron–designed de Young Museum but also for lesser-known gems such as the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers, paddleboating on Stow Lake, and a paddock where rare American bison roam.
Crissy Field: Sun-seekers, runners, dog-walkers, and kiteboarders come to this scenic bay-front beach and promenade. Pass through the restored tidal marsh en route to the Warming Hut, a cozy stop for lunch. Visit in the morning if you can; the wind picks up in the afternoon.
Proxy Project: A once-vacant lot in Hayes Valley has been transformed into the popular Proxy Project: a collection of converted shipping containers now houses pop-up businesses, including a beer garden, a sportswear shop, and a futuristic ice creamery that uses liquid nitrogen to create scoops in 60 seconds.
Three insiders share their favorite spots.
I have lived in the city for more than 20 years, and its spirit for innovation influences every aspect of the city. My go-to spots for great architecture: Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and Thom Mayne’s Federal Building in SoMa. For cool contemporary furniture, don’t miss Dzine and Arkitektura. Another boutique worth checking out is Propeller, which sells beautiful decorative objects.
Executive chef, Michael Mina San Francisco
For me, the “real” San Francisco is all about food. My ideal culinary tour would include Swan Oyster Depot ($$), the Slanted Door ($$), and La Taqueria (2889 Mission St.; 415/285-7117; $$). Another favorite is the Moroccan restaurant Aziza ($$$). Chef Mourad Lahlou blows me away with his bold and vibrant dishes such as duck-confit bastilla. And the pastries (banana-cream tarts; éclairs) at Tartine Bakery & Cafe are second to none.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Women’s activist and documentary producer
I was born here and have lived all over the world but returned when my husband became mayor in 2003. I like to take my kids to the California Academy of Sciences, then walk around North Beach—aside from the strip of gentleman’s clubs—and take in the view of the bay from the 210-foot Coit Tower. The vista is breathtaking and reminds me of Italy. For breakfast, I’m a huge fan of Mama’s ($$), on Washington Square Park; try the cranberry-orange French toast.
All Hail the Mixologist
Bartenders citywide are elevating the cocktail with fresh ingredients and creative techniques. At Trick Dog, drinks are named for Pantone colors and employ unusual spices and even the odd beet. Try Grandma’s Sweater, made with gin, blood orange, and a rhubarb liqueur.
Call ahead to reserve a table at Wilson & Wilson, a detective-agency-themed bar with a three-drink tasting menu.
Rum fanatic Martin Cate opened the new-wave tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove to spotlight the 400-odd rums he’s sourced from around the globe.
Proprietor Gus Harput turns out avant-garde pieces that look deceptively simple on the rack. Most can be worn a multitude of ways; the three-hole blazer and the swacket (sweater-jacket) are travel essentials. Look for Yohji Yamamoto clothing and several eras of Adida's kicks.
San Francisco Federal Building
The dramatic new building is situated on a stubbornly bleak stretch of Mission Street. Designed by Thom Mayne, of the L.A. firm Morphosis, this is probably the most visible symbol of the new San Francisco. The Federal Building is only 18 stories tall, but is located in an otherwise low-rise part of town, so you can see its asymmetrical silhouette, and the sunshade that looks like an insect's exoskeleton, from all over town. At night the Federal Building is illuminated by a James Turrell sculpture, a line of LED's that starts on the plaza level and traces the contours of its "sky garden." Like many LEED-certified buildings, this one features natural ventilation and has windows that open automatically according to climate conditions. The hallways and most surfaces are coll gray concrete made with 50 percent recycled slag. A series of Ed Ruscha murals was commissioned for the elevator lobbies. The building gives the impression that our federal government is an immensely chic organization.
Situated on a 130-acre salt marsh, this former military airfield is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The waterfront extends from the marina to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, drawing runners, dog walkers, and bikers. The park also includes a sand beach, picnic tables, and panoramic views of Alcatraz and the bridge. The visitors’ center showcases local sea life, while the Crissy Field Center features exhibitions and programs that teach children about urban environmental issues. The Warming Hut, housed in an old army shed, is a great place to grab coffee and a snack.
California Academy of Sciences
The Museum, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, extends green, sustainable architecture in unprecedented ways. Pritzker laureate Renzo Piano's airy, luminous building replaces the original 150-year-old San Francisco institution, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, but preserves an original Neoclassical limestone façade from the beloved African Hall (where South African penguins now cavort) within a sleek glass-and-concrete building. The innovative plan combines energy-efficient technology - a "living roof" of native California plants provides the building with natural insulation and prevents 3 million gallons of rainwater runoff annually - with state-of-the-art exhibitions. The largest of the seven undulating "hills" on the roof form the skylight-studded tops of two 90-food domes. One houses the biggest all-digital planetarium in the world, which employs real-time data from NASA to show spectators cosmic events as they take place in space. Under the other, visitors explore rain-forest habitats, from the canoby (butterflies, macaws, and fruit bats) down to ponds filled with fish (piranhas and electric eels) from the Amazon. The watery world is a centerpiece of the Academy's Steinhart Aquarium, whihc now contains a wave-shaped tank wall filled with exotic sea creatures. Piano has also recast other elements of the original Academy, including coffered ceilings and the former aquarium's Doric colonnade - seamlessly integrating the museum's past and its earth-friendly future.
Golden Gate Park
This 1,017-acre landmark might be world famous, but it’s still full of hidden gems. Visit the bison paddocks on the park’s west end, where urban buffalo graze the fields (seriously), stroll a traditional Japanese tea garden, row across Stow Lake, or just get lost walking the many trails that wind through the botanical garden and beyond.
Ferry Building Marketplace
Even if you miss the famed farmers’ market held here every Saturday, there are plenty of other reasons to swing by the beautifully refurbished 1898 Ferry Building. The waterfront complex contains more than 40 gourmet shops and snack counters. Among the offerings are divine chocolate sablées at Miette Patisserie, fresh-baked sourdough levain from Acme Bread, Mt. Tam triple-cream cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, and harvest-time Olio Nuovo at McEvoy Ranch (or buy an olive sapling and grow your own). If you’re weighed down, a handwoven basket from The Gardener should help you carry it all.
Only in San Francisco would you find a Moroccan restaurant that touts the sustainable pedigree of its ingredients: the lamb and beef (grass-fed, of course), the poultry, and most of the vegetables come from small farms in the immediate area (like Green Gulch Farm, run by the Zen Center in Marin County). When it opened in 2001, chef/owner Mourad Lahlou stuck to the traditional dishes and presentations; there was even a belly dancer. Since then, he’s replaced the “entertainment” with a more adventurous menu, including a creamy sunchoke soup with truffles, and braised lamb shank with Earl Grey-infused prunes and cranberry barley. The restaurant itself is still oddly cavelike, with white stucco walls, a midnight-blue ceiling, and arcaded alcoves, but those alcoves are now hung with arty black-and-white photos and the belly dancer is long gone.
St. Regis San Francisco
Generously sized, contemporary rooms have marble accents, chaise lounges, soaking tubs open to the room, and partial views of downtown San Francisco. Located in San Francisco’s cultural hub, next to the Museum of Modern Art and near many other SoMa galleries. The posh lobby bar is a hotspot for the local business crowd, and where live jazz nights occasionally take place.
Selling high-end clothing in Union Square since 1966, Wilkes Bashford is one of the most renowned fashion icons in the nation. He was the first to introduce Italian designers such as Armani to the United States, and he continues to offer the best in classic couture, from Oscar de la Renta to Kiton and Brioni. Bashford’s seven-story townhouse shop also carries an extensive collection of handmade men’s shoes by Bontoni and Gravati. The Wilkes Bashford shopping experience includes on-site custom fittings, complimentary coffee and wine, and personalized styling suggestions from the knowledgeable staff. In 2012, it kicked off a top-to-bottom renovation.
Swan Oyster Depot
In business since 1912, this Nob Hill neighborhood joint is essentially a seafood diner. Just over a dozen can squeeze onto the stools of its old school, marble, fish bar, so there's often a line out the door at lunch. Once seated, expect the freshest seafood, from crab, clam chowder, and seafood salad to the restaurant's signature oysters. Need help choosing between miyagi, kumamoto, and Olympias? Feel free to ask the knowledgeable and friendly staff for advice.
They say the third time’s the charm, and so it is for the third branch of this top-notch local temple to neo-Vietnamese cuisine. The location is superb: the vast, stylishly industrial space, filled with varnished cypress tables, sits at the back of the restored Ferry Building (window-side diners can watch ships going by). And chef Charles Phan’s menu more than lives up to the view; his fresh, clean flavors infuse dishes ranging from a perfect (if familiar) green papaya salad with chopped peanuts and herbs to creative concoctions like a chicken clay pot with caramel sauce, chiles, and fresh ginger.
Loews Regency (formerly the Mandarin Oriental)
San Franciscans are obsessed with views, and the Loews Regency indulges them: its 158 guest rooms occupy the 38th to 48th floors of a downtown tower that’s the third tallest, at present, in the city (the lobby and restaurant are down at ground level). This means top-of-the-world views, and the rooms are ranked in price accordingly. With all the eye candy outside, the management could skimp on the décor, but everything in the hotel has been done up in warm reds and golds, making the rooms feel like cozy aeries. And the windows open—only about six inches, but if you need fresh air, that’s enough.
Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco
A neoclassical landmark in an ideal location—perched on a quiet street near Union Square, and next to the California Street cable car line. All 336 rooms and suites have recently been updated with a modern blue, grey, and silver palette. Afternoon tea takes place daily in the baroque lounge and is not to be missed.