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Our Favorite Places to Eat, Sleep, and Explore in San Francisco

Including—and certainly not limited to—the best Chinatown eats and where to snap the best Golden Gate Bridge photo.

<p>Alexander Spatari / Getty Images</p>

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

As American cities go, San Francisco, CA might be on the smaller side, but it packs more than most into its 49 square miles. From the shores of the Bay to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean, there is no shortage of restaurants, hotels, and activities to explore.

The many reasons people come to San Francisco include seeing the famous Golden Gate Bridge, attending important business and tech conventions, and sampling some of the finest food in the country. Some are architecture buffs, while others want to explore the breathtaking nature in and around the City. San Francisco is filled with distinct neighborhoods to explore and is utterly walkable—for those who can handle the hills. Grab a Clipper Card—the city’s all-in-one transit card—instead of a rental car, and The Golden City will be yours to explore.

San Francisco can be enjoyed on a whim, though a bit of planning means snagging coveted restaurant reservations and (hopefully) remembering to pack a jacket. Despite its California status, San Francisco typically runs at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and in summer, the coastal fog keeps everything cool.

With that in mind, here’s where to head on your next trip.

Where to stay

What San Francisco’s foggy weather lacks in warmth, its hotels make up for in abundance. Most of the city’s hotels are congregated in the visitor-friendly neighborhoods of Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, making sightseeing a cinch. The Argonaut Hotel is perfectly situated for visiting the sea lions at Pier 39, grabbing an Irish coffee at The Buena Vista, or hopping on a cable car. This blue-and-brick hotel captures the nautical surroundings, immersing guests in the rich history of this seaside city.

For outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge, check into the Lodge at the Presidio, an upscale boutique nestled at the edge of the Presidio forest, where salt air meets eucalyptus. Although relatively far from downtown, the Presidio Go Shuttle makes crossing the city a breeze, and must-dos like Tunnel Tops and Crissy Field are mere steps away.

Perched atop Nob Hill sits the grande dame herself: the Fairmont San Francisco. This iconic hotel is as elegant as it is storied, with tales of presidents and pop stars, Hollywood films, and the country’s first-ever hotel concierge barely scratching the surface of this Beaux Arts beauty’s rich history.

In the heart of downtown, luxury is found at the St. Regis, ideally situated for convention-goers and museum-lovers alike. Directly adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art, the St. Regis is within walking distance of several other must-visit museums, as well as the famous Moscone Center.

Where to eat

The hardest part about deciding where to eat in San Francisco is narrowing down the options. Starting with the classics, no visit to the City is complete without a meal at John’s Grill, a 115-year-old Union Square restaurant that makes an appearance in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Original Joe’s, famous for its spicy rigatoni, and the international-award-winning Tony’s Pizza Napoletana are a power couple in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy. Right across the street from each other, both are always busy, and both are well worth the wait.

As a coastal city, enjoying at least one meal packed full of seafood is a must. Swan Oyster Depot has occupied the same Polk Street location since 1912, serving up local delicacies like Dungeness crab and West Coast oysters. With only 18 seats, lining up early is the key. San Francisco is also an underrated sandwich city, and according to some, the best hot pastrami sandwich in the world can be found at Submarine Center in the West Portal neighborhood.

Michelin-starred restaurants abound in San Francisco, and Birdsong is among the most notable. Pacific Northwest cuisine largely cooked over a wood fire sets the scene for the tasting menu served here, and the food is as decadent as the ambiance. It’s cozy and intimate, and you might even catch a hint of birdsong piped through the speakers.

Asian cuisines are well represented in San Francisco, offering a culinary adventure all its own. Head to Japantown for Marufuku Ramen, where it’s as authentic as it gets inside the beautiful Japan Center setting. Although excellent Chinese food can be found throughout San Francisco, Chinatown restaurants should not be missed, including the R&G Lounge, which is known for its salt and pepper crab. And for Burmese food, look no further than Burma Superstar—it’s a modern classic in the making.

Things to do

Every visit to San Francisco should include some version of enjoying the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The ultimate Bridge experience is crossing the span, be that on an open-top Big Bus Tour or making the 1.7-mile trek (one-way) on foot. To uplevel the experience and find the best photo spot, head up to Battery Spencer on the Marin County side and take in the incredible sight of the Bridge in front of the San Francisco skyline.

There’s a reason why Union Square is where so many hotels are found—this is the heartbeat of the city from which the rest of the City’s energy emanates. Incredible shopping and activities are always found here, such as ice skating in winter and beautiful blooms in spring. Union Square is also a great place to hop aboard a cable car, the country’s only moving national monument.

San Francisco is bursting with creativity, and local artistry is always on display at museums and on stage. One of the best ways to take it in? Dress up for a night out with the San Francisco Ballet. On the north side of San Francisco, meet the sea lions and marvel at antique oddities at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 before taking a boat out to tour Alcatraz, the island prison. For something a bit spookier, go at night to truly experience what makes Alcatraz such a notable place.

There is a surprising amount of nature in San Francisco, from tiny wooded parks to expansive national land. Golden Gate Park is filled with attractions, from the vintage Conservatory of Flowers to the perfectly coiffed Japanese Tea Garden. At Land’s End, scramble over what remains of a seaside bathhouse, now ruins jutting into the ocean.

One of San Francisco’s draws is its proximity to so many other great destinations. Nearby wine country has even more to offer, so rent a Turo—the electric vehicle selection in San Francisco is unmatched—and head north to go wine tasting or see the great Redwood forests.

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