Choose your own adventure in six neighborhoods packed with old favorites and new twists.
History on Telegraph Hill
Rising 284 feet at the city’s northeast corner, Telegraph Hill was named in the Gold Rush era for a semaphore on the summit that signaled ship arrivals. Since 1933, the site has been commanded by 210-foot Coit Tower, a fluted concrete cylinder in streamlined art deco style that was a bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy patron of San Francisco’s volunteer firefighting companies. A true character, she was known for smoking cigars, gambling, and wearing trousers.
Inside, stunning fresco murals—created in 1934 and painstakingly restored in 2013–14—portray California life during the Great Depression. Workers pick oranges in one scene, while a well-dressed gentleman gets robbed in another. The depiction of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in a library is just one clue that some of the painters had radical leanings. “The murals are both historic documents and fine art,” says Rory O’Connor, who leads free City Guides mural tours.
More treasures line the Filbert Steps, a hillside staircase that passes Victorian cottages and a jungle of rosebushes, ferns, hydrangeas, and other plants that fill a public garden started by former resident Grace Marchant in 1949. A jagged cliff is all that remains of a quarry that until 1914 supplied rock for pavement, landfill, and ship ballast, leading some to call this neighborhood “the hill that’s been around the world.” About a block from the steps, at 1254–1256 Montgomery Street, you’ll find one of the area’s buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. Picture the drama here just after the temblor when quick thinkers saved the wooden structure from approaching flames by covering its walls with burlap soaked in cool wine from basement casks.
Several blocks away, as Telegraph Hill blends into neighboring North Beach, 15 Romolo offers more history. The premises of this outpost of artisan cocktails once housed a brothel and later a boardinghouse for Basque immigrants. You can order a Picon Punch—an old-time Basque American concoction of brandy, soda water, and a house-made version of the French aperitif Amer Picon—and enjoy a taste of the past.
Fun on the Embarcadero
San Francisco's unofficial boulevard of fun, the Embarcadero, became even more engaging in 2013 when it welcomed the Exploratorium. The popular hands-on science museum moved from across town to a soaring space at Pier 15, where you can have a blast interacting with tornadoes of water vapor or mugging in front of a giant mirror that appears to turn you upside down. Even walking as quietly as possible along a gravel path is an entertaining challenge.
“Adults get into the exhibits as much as the kids,” says Whitaker Martin, who works there as an “explainer.” On Thursday evenings it’s grown-ups only, with libations and special events that have included a spine-tingling bed-of-nails demonstration.
Much of the 2.9-mile Embarcadero’s charm springs from its bayfront location, and on-the-water diversions abound. You can book a relaxed sail on the 90-foot Bay Lady, splurge on an adrenaline-laced trip aboard the 84-foot USA 76—a former America’s Cup racing yacht with an 11-story mast—or paddle your own kayak during a guided trip.
Landlubbers get a kick out of riding the historic streetcars on Muni’s E Embarcadero Historic Streetcar line, which travel from the Embarcadero’s southern end near AT&T Park—where Giants fans whoop it up—to classic tourist attractions up north. Case in point: Pier 39 is a mini amusement park featuring a carousel from Italy with 1,800 lights and 32 finely painted animals; a bungee trampoline that shoots you some 20 feet in the air; and a truly trippy 2,000-square-foot infinite mirror maze.
Locals favor the Musée Mécanique, home to antique arcade games and other coin-operated delights at old-fashioned prices—5 cents to $5. Admission is free.
Food in the Mission
It’s Saturday night in the Mission District, and Al’s Place is jumping. A roar of conversation and waves of delicious aromas fill the packed 42-seat restaurant, where vegetables rule and meat and seafood mostly appear as sides. Servers dart from the kitchen bearing plates of yellow-eye bean stew or servings of black lime–crusted cod in an English pea puree spiked with the curry paste that chef Aaron London learned to make in Bangkok. This foodie destination is one of 10 Mission eateries that the San Francisco Chronicle placed on its 2015 list of top 100 restaurants.
Al’s Place is an example of how the 1.5-square-mile Mission District—historically home to Irish, Italian, and Latino immigrants and now to young urban professionals—has become the epicenter of inventive Bay Area dining. “There’s an eclectic, funky energy here that’s attracting loads of chefs and restaurants,” says chef Jesse Koide of Pink Zebra, a restaurant that pops up at temporary locations. “And what does well are smaller places dishing up creative food.”
For many recently arrived chefs, creative means a culinary mashup, combining ingredients and techniques from different cultures to craft distinctive fare. At Namu Gaji, chef Dennis Lee’s Asian-inspired California cuisine routinely mixes it up. A mushroom-tofu dish, for example, features ricotta, pine nuts, and nori; french fries are served with kimchi relish and bulgogi beef.
And lest you think Mexican and Central American food are lost in the shuffle, there’s colorful, folk art–filled Loló. The menu here leans toward Mexico, in particular the state of Jalisco, with a big assist from local ingredients. The chef and co-owner, Jorge Martínez, pairs ravioli stuffed with huitlacoche (corn fungus) with a basil-arugula sauce. Tacos are made with grass-fed Angus beef. It’s a bit of Mexico, a bit of California, and a whole lot of Mission.
Culture in Yerba Buena
A heady mix of past and present fills the Museum of the African Diaspora, which reopened in Yerba Buena in 2014 after considerable renovations and a new affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution. “We give a historical perspective to the original migrations out of Africa,” says Executive Director Linda Harrison, “and an important part of our mission is using art as a lens to see how the diaspora continues to evolve.”
The museum mainly showcases exhibits culled from other collections. Previous displays have examined such diverse topics as Afro-Cuban art of the 1970s and ’80s, and patchwork quilts by Siddis, an Indian people of African descent.
In addition to the beloved SFMOMA, there's also the Contemporary Jewish Museum presents viewpoints on Jewish history, culture, and art. Housed in architect Daniel Libeskind’s surreal creation—a luminous blue-steel cube jutting from a 1907 brick building—the museum has no permanent exhibits but mounts innovative, changing shows. The personal effects of the late English singersongwriter Amy Winehouse and works of art responding to her meteoric rise and fall are on view until November 1.
At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts you can see films and peruse visual arts, often in the form of contemporary installations. The center also presents live performances, which may feature Balinese music or top modern dance troupes such as the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Elegance on Nob Hill
Posh style came early to Nob Hill. Favored by the city’s first barons of commerce, the 376-foot rise near Chinatown and the Financial District boasted so many 19th-century mansions that visitor Robert Louis Stevenson dubbed it “the hill of palaces.” Most of those homes perished in the earthquake of 1906, and now the palaces take the form of grand hotels such as the Fairmont San Francisco.
No public space on Nob Hill exudes more splendor and bygone-era elegance than the Fairmont’s lobby. Though originally designed by Reid & Reid, the foyer was created anew by architect Julia Morgan (the designer of Hearst Castle), who oversaw the hotel’s major post-1906 repairs.
A 1940s remodel—part Venetian palazzo, part Wild West bordello—departed from Morgan’s vision, which reemerged during extensive restorations completed in 2000. The marble floor shines again, dotted with plush sofas, potted orchids, and leafy palms. Only one of the 11 Corinthian columns is solid marble, but the exquisite faux-marble finish painted on the others—a Morgan repair—makes it nearly impossible to tell them apart.
The Fairmont’s neighbor, the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco, is no slouch in the luxury department either, with two dazzling crystal chandeliers illuminating its neoclassical lobby. Crowning the 1926 building, the Top of the Mark has been a chic lounge since 1939, offering drop-dead views of the bay, city, and Bay Bridge.
A block away, a bench near the splashing fountain of Huntington Park makes a fine spot to view the soaring neo-Gothic facade of Nob Hill’s ecclesiastical landmark, Grace Cathedral. Be sure to cross the street and check out the cathedral’s indoor and outdoor labyrinths. Stop at the ceremonial main entrance and gaze upon the bronze copies of what might be the world’s most impressive doors: the famed Gates of Paradise, sculpted by 15th-century artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistery in Italy.
Outdoors in the Marina
Ron Young is crazy for kites and for Marina Green, the heart of the Marina District. “I can’t think of a more spectacular place to be outside in the city,” says the organizer of the annual Family Day Kite Festival, which is expected to draw 10,000 folks to the green this year on October 3. “Your lungs are filled with fresh air, your kite is soaring against a blue sky, and the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin, and beyond are just amazing.”
Kite fliers gravitate to Marina Green all year long, especially from March to October when westerly winds are most reliable. But they’re not the only outdoor enthusiasts who love this 74-acre expanse of grass on the northern waterfront. People also flock here to toss a football or fling a Frisbee, or simply to hang out. Spread a picnic blanket and watch the passing parade of boats on the bay and the joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers on land. The crowds are epic during Fleet Week, an annual event honoring the U.S. military that this year runs October 6–12.
The Bay Trail makes it a snap to stroll the entire district’s shoreline. Beginning at Aquatic Park in the east, where swimmers often brave the chilly waters, you can wind through Fort Mason, the decommissioned army base turned multicultural center. Look for sculptor Benny Bufano’s Peace,a concrete-and-mosaic statue of a mother and child gazing across the Great Meadow. The trail continues past bobbing boats at Gashouse Cove and along Marina Green to the neighborhood’s western edge at the Presidio, a former army post turned park.
Nearby, at the tip of the San Francisco Marina Small Craft Harbor jetty, the 25 pipes of the Wave Organ, an acoustic sculpture, transmit the sounds of water. High tide is the time to enjoy this concert. No ticket needed.
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This article was first published in Fall 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.