Fresh $1 oysters, the best outdoor patios, rooftop lounges and food you won’t want to miss out on this summer.
Summers in San Francisco can be magical, a traveler’s dream dedicated to sensory overload. For those in the know, a few summer days spent in the City by the Bay can be so much more than twisty Lombard street, Cable Cars and Clam Chowder at Pier 39.
There’s so much to see, do and eat—you could fill up weeks just getting lost and finding yourself again in all that this beautiful city by the bay has to offer.
Since it’s July 4th and the long holiday weekend pulls double-duty as my birthday weekend, my goal for life and this story was to pack as much as possible into the long days of eating, drinking and luxuriating as reasonably as possible. But it doesn’t need to be your birthday or the 4th of July to live it up.
Whether traveling by flight, bus, train, bridge or tunnel, with a budget of $1 or $10,000—here’s a list of 30 things you don’t want to miss this summer in the City by the Bay.
1. Go Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge.
We used Get Your Guide to connect with Adventure Cat Sailing Charters, a five-star rated catamaran company. They run a great tour that avoids the huge cattle call of some of the larger group cruises. Departure takes place out of gate J at Pier 39 a few times a day. The crew was professional, friendly and knowledgeable about the history, local scene and even the whales we were lucky enough to see gliding to the surface. They even have lots of parkas on board in case you forget yours at home.
2. Bring a Tank Top, and a Parka.
“Go sweater shopping,” advises Persistent Systems Head of Global Communications, Ken Montgomery.
Locals know what many visitors may not realize about this California City by the Bay: in order to really enjoy the city, your best bet is to have a tank top and a parka available at all times.
“Karl the Fog” can roll in or disappear all within 15 minutes—or the crossing of a city block—and the weather changes quickly to windy, sunny, shady, hot, or cold again. What you think will be a beautiful, sunny summer day might turn into something foggy, blustery and damp. And right after you buy that tourist trap sweatshirt, it will be sunny again.
3. Pretend It’s Winter at Pier 39.
There’s an old quote often attributed to Mark Twain that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Whether Twain said this at all or was actually referring to Paris or Duluth is often debated, but what’s not up for debate is how cold you’ll be in the summer at Pier 39. From Pier 39, or Fisherman’s Wharf, you can sail on a catamaran, visit the sea lions, ride the carousel, get lost in a mirror maze, eat clam chowder, explore the Aquarium Of The Bay, shop or just people watch and enjoy the street performers. There are easily enough activities to fill a complete day at this stop alone, but to enjoy all that San Francisco has to offer, make this a quick stop if you only have a weekend for your San Francisco adventure.
4. Don’t Rent a Car.
Parking in San Francisco is expensive. Navigating around town can be stressful and it’s a rare occasion to leave the city without a parking ticket. From walking to public transportation, renting a bicycle, or even riding a Segway, there’s no shortage of great ways to get around. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) makes only a few stops in Downtown San Francisco, but if you’re looking to really explore inside city limits, use Uber, Lyft, or Muni bus or historic street cars—anything other than your own car to get around and enjoy all of the outdoor summer activities. If you really want to live like a local, use Uber and Muni. To embrace the tourist within, hop on any of the colorful hop-on-hop-off bus tours and learn about the city’s history while you’re taking in the sights.
5. Take In a Street Performance.
After traveling to so many international cities, I’ve come to appreciate the landscape of San Francisco, which has the unique ability to change everything about itself in only one block. With your belly full of food, you can’t stumble out of a high end restaurant in SoMa or Union Square, or even a tourist trap along Fisherman’s Wharf without coming face to face with a full sensory experience of music, dance and sometimes even a full-fledged Michael Jackson look-alike. Don’t write off the street performers—some of them are surprisingly good. Keep in mind that if you take a photo or linger and listen, there’s an unwritten rule that dictates you must pay to stay.
6. Eat Oysters and Dumplings for $1 at E&O Kitchen and Bar.
In my early 20’s, I lived in Hawaii and quickly became a fan of the Polynesian-inspired former E&O Trading Company on Oahu. I spent many birthdays, celebrations and going away parties there, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to indulge at the flagship E&O Kitchen & Bar location—a Union Square staple for nearly 20 years. Enjoy happy hour from 3 - 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. From $1 oysters to vanilla-infused rum, corn fritters, and Indonesian pickled vegetables, the flavors are layered and delicious. As a bonus, this place is far more affordable than you might expect in a city that ranks among the highest in the nation for cost of living.
7. Find a Festival.
During the summer in San Francisco, there’s no shortage of music, food or beer festivals. This weekend it was the 18th Annual San Francisco Oysterfest held in Golden Gate Park. With more than 10,000 anticipated, events like this are a San Francisco Summer staple—with music, great food, and lots of dogs. Sitting high atop a hill and enjoying great music is a relaxing way to spend a Saturday or Sunday in San Francisco and live like a local.
8. Get Lost in a Park.
There are so many beautiful parks and open public spaces to enjoy in San Francisco. From the The Presidio and Crissy Field to Lake Merced, Stern Grove, Delores or the 1017 acre Golden Gate Park, there are tons of options for finding your zen and soaking up the greenery. Golden Gate Park is always hosting a festival of some sort, like the Oysterfest, but each weekend there’s a long list you can choose from in the summer. From yoga on the lawn to sunbathing, running, bicycling, or picnicking in the park, there are so many ways to bask in the sun in beautiful open spaces.
9. Get Inspired, Read, Write and Relax.
With so many sweeping views of the city and the bay, it’s easy to find inspiration. So fire up your laptop, or curl up with a good book in the intervals between all of the eating, drinking, and exploring.
10. Bring the Kids. Or not.
San Francisco is one of those cities that has a universal appeal no matter who you are or how old you are—as long as you appreciate great food. It’s a great place for family friendly adventures, or an “adults only” vacation.
11. Splurge on a View.
The views in San Francisco will delight your eyes. From the 33rd floor of the Marriott Marquis, the eagle-eye vista of San Francisco doesn’t get much better.
“The Marquis and The View Lounge offer guests panoramic, breathtaking and unparalleled views not available anywhere else in San Francisco,” said Chuck Pacioni, General Manager, San Francisco Marriott Marquis.
For Marriott’s Elite loyalty program members, the M Club Lounge here rivals some of the best in the nation, with delicious complimentary fresh fruit and buffet for breakfast and full meals served up daily included in your stay. It’s a great dining option when your wallet is ready for a break from all of the often expensive chef-inspired cuisine.
12. Sip with Sophistication.
The iconic View Lounge on the 39th floor at the top of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis is one of the nation’s most famous sky lounges. You’ll need reservations if you want to sit and sip in style, but even if you stumble out of the summer cold and into this gem you’ll enjoy delicious, freshly infused hand-crafted cocktails and an assorted option of small plates like Hawaiian-style yellowfin tuna poke with avocado, shiso and crispy wontons. Their Mission Margarita has a hint of jalapeño and the fresh lemon in their Sidecar was refreshing.
13. Go Boutique by The Bay.
In most cities, I like to pick a hotel and stay put, but each of San Francisco’s neighborhoods is so unique and offers such a distinctive experience that it’s fun to move around. Hotel Griffon is a Boutique Hotel along The Embarcadero. Originally built in 1901, it has a European elegance and charm, and offers sweeping views of the waterfront and Bay Bridge.
At the front desk, Nick, Natalie and Olivia offer travelers a warm welcome and rooms without a view are available on summer specials for as little as $145 per night. This luxurious boutique is so nice you may not want to leave the room. Room service is prepared by the San Francisco institution Perry’s. We stayed in room 505. It’s a splurge, but so worth the view.
14. Be a Tourist.
While exploring a new city, most want to “live like a local.” That’s fine, but don’t miss out on the iconic experiences San Francisco has to offer because you were too busy pretending to be a hipster in the mission. In my late 20’s, I worked in downtown San Francisco, and although I draw the line at a tour to Alcatraz, even I have to admit there's a certain allure to the hop-on hop-off bus, the sea lions at Pier 39 and sailing under the Bay Bridge on a catamaran. Check out Get Your Guide for a list of some of the most popular attractions and book in advance to be sure you don’t miss out. A few of the most popular tours during the summer? Check out the Golden Gate Bay Cruise, an Alcatraz Ticket with 3-Hour Bicycle Tour at Sunset and Muir Woods Tour of California Coastal Redwoods.
15. Decide on Sunday Brunch.
From bottomless mimosas to Bloody Mary’s, there’s no shortage of brunch options in San Francisco. Brunch is such a popular San Francisco event, Alex Willen created a website dedicated entirely to Sunday Brunching in San Francisco, the San Francisco Brunch Club. He considered himself a local authority on the subject.
Willen recommends checking out one of the bottomless mimosa brunch options. “It's an SF tradition and a fun way to start the day, plus there are some great outdoor options like Mission Rock, Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem, when the weather is good.”
16. Eat under the Bay Bridge.
This summer OpenTable released a report The Top 10 Dreamy Dining Destinations cited by american diners, with San Francisco ranking next to Paris, Toyko, New Orleans, Bankgok and other cities travelers are eager to book for their next dream foodie trip.
“Americans are redefining their travel bucket lists not by where they want to go, but by what they want to eat,” said Caroline Potter, Chief Dining Officer with OpenTable.
One of my new favorite San Francisco restaurants discovered this weekend is Palomino Restaurant and Bar. Located along the Embarcadero in San Francisco’s South Beach neighborhood, Palomino’s offers al fresco dining on its patio with unique, breath-taking views of the Bay Bridge. The Italian and Mediterranean-inspired bar and restaurant serves up an impressive menu and drink list. Since they offer a stunning patio view and it’s not immediately along the waterfront, I actually took my jacket off to enjoy soaking up the sun while indulging on delicious creme brulee-crusted french toast, a delicious assortment of cheeses, and fresh lavender-infused cocktails. From bottomless mimosas, to three courses for $25, Palomino is offering up chef-quality cuisine at an affordable price.
17. Take a Streetcar or Stroll along The Embarcadero.
Whether you’re heading to or from a Giant’s game at AT&T Park, Pier 39 or the Ferry building, The Embarcadero itself is part of the journey. Speckled with restaurants, colorful characters, stores and activities, The Embarcadero is proof that sometimes the journey and the destination are one and the same. Stop to take a selfie at Pier 14, then hail a pedicab.
18. Cross to Walk on the Sunny Side.
San Francisco locals know that there's nearly always a sunny and shady side of the street. All the buildings cast shadows, and if you want to experience summer, you're going to have to do some zigging and zagging. The temperature difference can feel dramatic, so ditch the shade and cross the street often to soak up the San Francisco sun.
19. Fall in Love with Outdoor Art.
San Francisco is home to many beautiful and unique outdoor art installations. The San Francisco Heat Project in Union Quare is one of my favorites. For indoor art, the deYoung Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and legion of honor are three city favorites.
20. Stop at the Ferry Building Marketplace.
Far more than a departure hub for travelers, the San Francisco Ferry building has become a shopping and dining Mecca for locals and tourists alike. From organic produce to ice cream, ceramics, tasty salted pig parts, marinated mushrooms, crispy insects, hand blown glass, fresh butchered meat and everything in between, the Ferry Marketplace serves up some of the best of San Francisco in a vibrant indoor shopping and dining experience. Popular San Francisco chains like Blue Bottle Coffee, or even ice cream eatery Humphry Slocombe, ranked by the food network as one of the top five ice creams to eat in America, are just a few of the gems you'll find in this busy bustling marketplace that has become more of a destination that a departure point.
21. Eat at Gott’s Roadside.
We managed to hit Gott’s Roadside just before noon and grab a sunny spot on the patio.
As green as a burger joint gets, Gott’s is San Francisco all the way.
“Summers are our busiest season far and away,” said Dani DiAngelo, Assistant General Manager at the Gott’s Ferry Building Marketplace location. “A lot of people come in and think this is your average burger joint, but everything is sustainably sourced, and we use a proprietary grind for our beef developed specifically for our grills.”
From sushi grade sustainable fish to organic produce, Gott’s offers fresh never-frozen chicken, turkey and fish. Even down to their hot dogs and entirely compostable packaging, this place is truly a San Francisco summertime staple. During the summer, Gott’s also offers many great specials and even some unexpected options like poke tacos. It has one of the biggest outdoor patios in the area, giving off a 50s diner vibe, and with no reservations needed or taken, it's an idea spot to stumble upon this summer.
Gott’s serves upwards of 5,000 people and thousands of hamburgers each day. In addition to the Ferry building there are Gotts in Napa, St. Helena, and Palo Alto with plans to expand to Marin, Walnut Creek by the Fall.
22. Take the Ferry to Sausalito.
Sparking water and sunshine make this often windy trip a must-do during San Francisco summers. Sausalito is a short ride away and worth exploring as a full or half-day trip.
23. Shop like a Local.
Outdoor markets and street vendors abound in San Francisco. From outlet stores to Bloomingdales, Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and even Timbuk2—there's no shortage of stores where you can save, spend and splurge.
24. Sip Bubbly by the Bridge.
Enough said—this one speaks for itself.
25. Tour the Neighborhoods.
Each unique area in San Francisco has it’s own vibe, flavor and flair. From the Castro to Hayes Valley, Twin Peaks, the Haight or the Mission, there are a surprising variety of different neighborhoods in this city of less than 50 square miles. Pick one or all to enjoy exploring this summer, but here are some ideas you might like.
Noe Valley has posh shopping and coffee shops. There’s more great shopping in Hayes Valley where you can shop at Lavish then get an amazing Patxi deep dish pizza.
Catch a classic movie at the Castro Theater or nightlife/clubs, tons of food, fun shops and sweet treats at Hot Cookie. Enjoy Jazz in The Fillmore at Sheba Piano Lounge.
The Mission? It’s vibrant, with delicious cantinas on every corner, outdoor murals, music, Mexican corn Elote style and bacon-wrapped street hot dogs.
North Beach has beautiful Washington Square Park and St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married.
Hang with the tourists on Columbus and enjoy the best fresh Italian-style Caprese pizza at Tony’s or deep dish pizza at Golden Boy.
Also check out South of Market (SOMA so you don’t sound like a tourist), sip tea at Samovar and don’t forget to check Chinatown, Japantown, and Baker Beach off your list.
26. Stage a Photo Shoot.
Whether you’re getting photo bombed by a seagull or taking a selfie in San Francisco, there’s literally a worthy backdrop for a photo shoot around every corner. Use natural lighting to achieve some stunning images. Load up your Instagram with these drool-worthy photo ops offered up in abundance in the City by the Bay.
27. Hop Over to Treasure Island.
Take the Bay Bridge about half-way across to this awesome island with a winery, churro stand, and one of the best places to capture images with the San Francisco skyline as a backdrop.
28. Share your Food with a Stranger.
Four months ago, Rick McKinsey said he wouldn't have felt comfortable sharing his full name with me. That's because he says the statute of limitations hadn't run out on all of the crimes he committed, including robbing people at the ATM. McKinsey was homeless and addicted to drugs, like many living on the streets of San Francisco. Known for its outreach and social programs, San Francisco serves a large homeless population.
McKinsey says he found peace, and Jesus, at the San Francisco Homeless Church. He credits that with completely turning his life around—away from drugs, addiction and an attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge to one where he now serves others.
I met McKinsey on the sunny streets of San Francisco where he was collecting food and donations for the San Francisco Homeless Church. He says the outreach is part of a larger effort led by Pastor Evan Prosser at 3230 San Bruno Avenue.
The disparity in living conditions for travelers, tourists and San Francisco’s shadow homeless population isn't lost on McKinsey. He says when someone stops to give money or food, it makes a difference.
“It just shows people that we’re not total outcasts. That someone cares, and it’s a good feeling, said McKinsey.”
29. Make a New Friend.
Summer in San Francisco brings out the best in the locals and tourists. With all of the food and beer flowing freely, strangers quickly become friends. Along the way, I met a group traveling from London and Australia who quickly fell in love with the city, McKinsey who freely shared his story with me, and Angelina Schneider, a world-class server at Palomino’s who said she “works really hard, but plays really hard too.”
In addition to welcoming guests at San Francisco Google campus-adjacent Palomino’s, Schneider doubles as a tour guide and friendly concierge and makes new friends each day, who she helps to get the most out of all that San Francisco has to offer.
30. Take a Nap.
After overindulging in cuisine, hand-crafted cocktails, artistic eye candy, delicious pastries and so many unique shopping experiences, I'm ready for a nap.
Still left on my SF bucket list?
Roast chicken with bread salad at Zuni Cafe. Dinner at One Market, Perbacco, ROOH, and M.Y. China. Brunch at Finn Town in the Castro. Late night drinks at the Alembic, a stay at the Alise, or Loews Regency. Loews Hotel recently unveiled a brand new outdoor cocktail bar on the 40th floor Sky Deck.
There's still so much to do in this city, it's impossible to experience it all in one weekend. What are your favorite summertime, uniquely SF experiences? I'd love to know in the comments below.
Note: While some of the activities, events and experiences listed were hosted as part of our travel review, all views and opinions expressed are my own.
Until next time,
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