Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco’s Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Morning Fog and Coffee at the Ferry Building
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the iconic Ferry Building. This landmark along the Embarcadero waterfront is a must for breakfast and people-watching as the city wakes up. Early risers are rewarded with a front-row seat to the morning fog rolling in over the bay, obscuring the Bay Bridge with its misty tendrils. Grab an artisanal coffee from Blue Bottle or Equator and find a spot on the pier to take in this quintessential San Francisco scene.
The Ferry Building opened in 1898 as a busy transit hub where ferries transported people across the bay before the famous bridges linked San Francisco to the East Bay. After falling into disrepair mid-century, the building was restored and reopened in 2003 with a market hall and plaza that has become a beloved community gathering place and foodie heaven.
Inside you'll find merchants and restaurants showcasing the region's incredible culinary bounty. Slurp down a bowl of clam chowder served in a hollowed-out sourdough loaf bowl from Boulette's Larder. The tang of the sourdough against the creaminess of the chowder is a taste revelation. Acme Bread Company draws long lines for their legendary loaves baked fresh daily using organic California wheat. Breakfast doesn't get more local than picking up fixings for avocado toast from Ciao Bella gelato, Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, and Martin's Pretzels.
Of course, the omnipresent San Francisco fog has inspired poets and crooners alike. Grab your coffee, find a sunny bench, and watch the mist glide over the water and engulf the bridge. There's no better spot to meditate on Mark Twain's famous quote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Afterwards, wander through the spacious Saturday farmers market joining locals stocking up on organic greens, seasonal fruits, fresh-baked pies, and fragrant bouquets of lavender and wildflowers.
What else is in this post?
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Morning Fog and Coffee at the Ferry Building
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Biking Across the Golden Gate Bridge
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Exploring Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Riding the Cable Cars Through Nob Hill
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Wandering Through Chinatown's Markets and Eateries
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Seafood and Sourdough at the Wharf's Best Restaurants
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Hiking and Views in Golden Gate Park
- Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Ending the Night at Alcatraz Island
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Biking Across the Golden Gate Bridge
Aquiver with exhilaration, you pedal your bike over the Golden Gate Bridge’s signature art deco towers, the wind tousling your hair. Below you, San Francisco Bay glimmers while sailboats skim across its surface. Around you, the iconic vermilion bridge stretches 1.7 miles long, its suspension cables forming graceful arcs overhead. There may be no better way to soak up panoramic San Francisco views than experiencing the Golden Gate Bridge under your own steam.
Biking the Golden Gate Bridge tops many San Francisco bucket lists for good reason. The vistas of the bay, Alcatraz Island shrouded in fog, and the city skyline glimmering in the distance are positively cinematic. Locals love biking the bridge for commuting or exercise, knowing they’ll be rewarded with world-class scenery. Visitors often eschew clichéd tour buses to bike the bridge and take selfies with the city spread out photogenically behind them.
Just walking the bridge means braving its notorious winds, which can gust over 70 miles per hour. But biking allows you to generate your own momentum to battle the headwinds. Thankfully, the new protected bike lane added in 2015 makes passage safer and less nerve-wracking. Pedaling beside the hustling traffic feels secure with the lane’s clearly marked boundaries.
Weekday mornings are optimal times for crossing the bridge when bike commuters are whizzing past but crowds are thinner. Weekends draw bigger hordes of tourists. Locals advise starting on the San Francisco side where you can take in the views of the bay unfurling before dipping down to exit before reaching the parking lot and Vista Point on the Marin side.
While a simple out-and-back ride over the bridge makes for a memorable outing, many opt to continue their adventure beyond with longer loops. Popular routes include crossing back to San Francisco via the Sausalito ferry with its close-up perspective of Alcatraz. Stronger riders can continue around the Marin Headlands or all the way to quaint Sausalito to refuel with seaside bites before looping back. Guided bike tours are another hassle-free option, with guides versed in the bridge’s history and happy to snap photos.
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Exploring Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39
Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 have anchored San Francisco tourism for generations, but their appeal endures for good reason. Wandering their bustling boardwalks transports you back to the city's historic roots as a thriving fishing port and seaside escape.
At Fisherman's Wharf, travelers flock to classic attractions like the WWII submarine USS Pampanito and Musée Mécanique's antique penny arcade games. Yet the Wharf's old-school ambiance mingles with modern culinary flavors at eateries like Alioto's, serving Sicilian seafood since 1925, and fancy food trucks dishing lobster rolls and crab cakes curbside.
Nothing caps off an afternoon like a steaming bowl of chowder served in a hollowed-out sourdough bread bowl, the Wharf's iconic portable feast. Grab one to-go and meander the sea lion-strewn piers, snapping photos of Alcatraz Island and the Bay Bridge bookending the horizon.
Pier 39 likewise blends kitschy attractions with million-dollar views. Ascend two stories in the Bay Carousel's colorful gondolas for a spin overlooking docked sailboats. At the Aquarium of the Bay's underwater tunnels, marvel at sharks gliding overhead and jellyfish balletically pulsing through the water.
Between attractions, Pier 39's bustling shops and restaurants beckon. Browse two floors of treats at the San Francisco Candy Factory or nab souvenirs from the sprawling Pier 39 Gifts. Refuel with a heaping plate of Dungeness crab pasta at Fog Harbor Fish House, taking in the bay panorama through floor-to-ceiling windows.
You won't want to miss Pier 39's most boisterous residents - hundreds of noisy, pungent sea lions. These enormous marine mammals flop onto floating docks, jostling for premium spots to sunbathe and vocalize for mates. Sea lions have congregated here ever since an errant individual nicknamed Hershel arrived in 1990.
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Riding the Cable Cars Through Nob Hill
Clanging bells announce the cable car's arrival as it rattles up the steep incline, finally cresting Nob Hill's summit. You hop aboard, joining fellow riders perched on polished wooden benches. As the car lurches forward, the city unfurls below with breathtaking views of downtown and the bay beyond. Riding a cable car is quintessential San Francisco, providing an unforgettable moving tour through iconic neighborhoods and history.
Nob Hill has long been inhabited by San Francisco's upper crust, ever since the city's earliest Gold Rush millionaires erected lavish mansions here, far from the gritty chaos down below. Their splendid Victorian homes earned it the nickname Snob Hill which persists today. Traces of bygone Gilded Age opulence remain at landmark hotels like the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins.
Yet cable cars have continually transported San Franciscans of all stripes up and over Nob Hill's precipitous slopes since 1873. These National Historic Landmarks are the world's last manually operated cable car system, now strictly powered by human gripmen and underground cables. For navigating San Francisco's punishing hills, cable cars reign supreme over traditional streetcars.
As your vintage car ascends Nob Hill's grades up to a 30 degree incline, you'll gain a new appreciation for cable technology's ingenuity. The gripman control lever allows adjusting speed with remarkable precision, using grip strength alone to steady the massive car. The views pay off the effort in spades, each turn unveiling new vistas of downtown's gleaming skyscrapers.
Reaching the crest of Nob Hill feels like breaching the very top of the city. Look eastward to glimpse Alcatraz Island floating on the bay, with the colossal Bay Bridge marching across the water. Peer downward to watch cars and pedestrians scuttling about like ants on Market Street, San Francisco's main artery slicing the city in two. Gaze south to admire the Mission's rainbow-hued Victorian homes dubbed the "Painted Ladies" and the verdant green expanse of Golden Gate Park.
Eventually you'll begin the descent, feeling your eardrums pop as you drop nearly 500 feet in elevation. You'll whizz past imposing Grace Cathedral and posh hotels and restaurants frequented by politicians and celebrities. Though cable cars once plied eight routes throughout San Francisco, only three lines remain, all converging here on Nob Hill.
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Wandering Through Chinatown's Markets and Eateries
Venturing into the bustling heart of Chinatown feels instantly transportive. As you stroll lively Stockton Street, the sights, sounds, and smells overwhelm the senses in the best possible way. Fiery roast ducks hang in shop windows amid crates bursting with lush produce like bok choy and fragrant ginger. Bakeries stack steaming barbecue pork buns destined for dim sum carts. Chinese signage and red lanterns suspended overhead leave no doubt you've entered a vibrant ethnic enclave.
San Francisco's Chinatown stands as the oldest and largest Chinese settlement outside Asia. Chinese immigrants began settling here in the Gold Rush era, facing racial discrimination that led to self-reliance rooted in tight-knit community. That enduring culture permeates Chinatown's packed streets today. Just walking these blocks provides an immersive crash course in Chinese cuisine and culture.
Chinatown's open-air markets testify to an enduring community identity. Bins brim with hairy rambutan, juicy lychee and spiky durian at produce stalls like A Ji Tofu on Stockton Street. Chinese sausage and tea eggs simmer at the decades-old Eastern Bakery. Wing Lee Market stacks its shelves with Chinatown's largest selection of Asian cooking ingredients like shrimp paste and Sichuan peppercorns.
Beyond essential groceries, intriguing curios cram gift shops lining Grant Street. The famed Chinatown Kite Shop displays handmade kites resembling soaring dragons or butterflies. Venerable artisanal bakery Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory still hand-folds fortune cookies, inviting visitors to watch the age-old process behind a viewing window. Don't miss browsing the mesmerizing stone statuary at Jade Champagne Gallery or snapping selfies with the Eagle God mural at Clarion Alley.
Yet Chinatown's biggest draw remains its mouthwatering eats. Dim sum teahouses flourish, where diners indulge in dumplings, shumai, and other petite plates perfect for sharing. Load up your table with savory bites wheeled around on carts at Hong Kong Lounge II or Good Mong Kok Bakery. Alternatively, dive into Chinatown's best noodle dishes at Z & Y Restaurant or Mister Jiu's, known for hand-pulled noodles. Of course, no Chinatown feast would be complete without fortune cookies for dessert, an iconic treat invented right here.
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Seafood and Sourdough at the Wharf's Best Restaurants
The salty tang of the bay pervades Fisherman's Wharf, imbuing its very air. From sidewalk chowder stands to dockside institutions, this waterfront neighborhood showcases San Francisco's abiding passion for superlative seafood. Yet Fisherman's Wharf also claims sourdough bread as another iconic local specialty. The hearty, tangy loaves owe their distinctive flavor to natural fermentation from the city's legendary starter yeast. At the Wharf's beloved eateries, sourdough and seafood come together in perfect harmony.
No dish epitomizes this marriage more than the time-honored Dungeness crab sourdough bread bowl. Crack the crab's sweet succulent meat directly into the hollowed-out loaf, letting juices soak into the tangy sourdough. Alternately scoop the meat onto bites of bread to savor each element in ideal proportion. For this signature San Francisco snack, Boudin Bakery reigns supreme. Watch the acclaimed artisans shape sourdough loaves through viewing windows before digging into your own steaming bowlful.
Beyond beloved street food, Fisherman's Wharf offers elevated dining destinations putting creative spins on surf and turf. Alioto's Restaurant has been an institution since 1925, when Sicilian fisherman Nunzio Alioto opened a humble stall on the docks. Today, Alioto's occupies a cavernous waterfront space dishing boat-to-table fare like sand dabs and petrale sole. Their award-winning Cioppino seafood stew overflows with crab, mussels, calamari and more in a zesty tomato-herb broth.
Those craving Pacific Northwest flavors flock to Fog Harbor Fish House for alderwood-grilled salmon, Dungeness crab cakes, and other sustainable seafood. Floor-to-ceiling bay views complement the oceanic fare. Their signature dish - macaroni and cheese studded with chunks of tender crab - cleverly combines comfort and crab flavors. Pair it with a regional brew or local wine while soaking up the scenery.
For a high-end twist on Wharf classics, Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina helms seafood hotspot The Stinking Rose. Garlic perfumes every dish, from silky crab risotto to whole roasted branzino. While famous for pasta drenched in buttery clam sauce, their sourdough also shines. The spicy crab sandwich layers chunks of fresh crab salad between slices of house-baked garlic cheese sourdough.
Beyond established spots, new dining concepts reimagine San Francisco specialties. The Codmother Fish and Chips food truck puts "frose" frozen rose wine slushies and boozy lobster rolls alongside golden fried fish in batter. The Japan Centre mall's Nippon Express stall serves seafood donburi bowls capped with quail egg alongside cured fish handrolls and sushi burritos fusing Californian and Japanese flavors.
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Hiking and Views in Golden Gate Park
Beyond the wharf, another San Francisco icon beckons nature lovers – the sprawling green expanse of Golden Gate Park. San Francisco's beloved "backyard" sprawls over 1,000 acres, offering wooded trails, lush gardens, museums, and more. Hiking through this urban oasis rewards with panoramic views, fresh air, and a welcome dose of peace.
Locals flock here to hit the trails, from easy jaunts to hilltop vistas to long treks across multiple ecosystems. Start at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, strolling amid a tranquil forest of oak, redwood, maple and bays trees – rare old-growth vestiges that preceded the park. Signage shares poignant quotes from those lost to the epidemic. Emerge uplifted into the Music Concourse to admire the elegant Rodin sculptures near the academy of Sciences' from massive glass dome.
The park’s northeast corner delivers quicker gratification with a hike up to Strawberry Hill. Just 400 feet delivers you to sweeping views of Stow Lake below and landmarks peeking above the trees. Locals come here daily to decompress, gazing downhill as ducks drift across the lake below. Venture onto one of the island’s stone bridges for idyllic views of mist rising off the water, which inspired its name “Rustic Bridge.”
From here, amble downhill through the meadows of Stow Lake or around its perimeter along paved paths frequented by joggers. Pass a Chinese pavilion and the centuries-old Huntington Falls waterfall. Glimpse exotic water birds like black swans imported from Australia and self-important white egrets nearly as tall as children.
For a longer trek, tackle the park’s western end, climbing 640 feet to the Prayer Book Cross summit. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping panoramas of Ocean Beach and the Pacific beyond. Look due north to glimpse the distant Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands across the channel. This peaceful hilltop has long drawn those seeking inspiration – it’s known that Maya Angelou penned verse here.
Descend through forested Glen Canyon Park with its 10-foot-high Coast Live Oak trees and creek carving through rocky ravines. Pass a community garden bursting with flowers before emerging onto turquoise-tiled Christopher’s Park. This urban refuge honors the original “ Castro Camera” that was Harvey Milk’s influential gathering place. Stroll the LGBTQ Castro district’s lively street for a bite and brew to refuel after your urban hike.
Bay Area Bites: Savoring San Francisco's Best Eats and Sights in Just 3 Days - Ending the Night at Alcatraz Island
As dusk enshrouds San Francisco Bay in moody fog, you board the ferry out to the Rock for a night tour of Alcatraz. A National Park ranger recounts tales of the island's notorious prison days on the 15-minute cruise over. Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, its graceful span lit up against the night sky, you suddenly comprehend Alcatraz's isolation and imposing aura. Disembarking, you enter a cell house lit only by stray beams of moonlight and your guide's flashlight bouncing eerily off cold steel bars.
Night tours reveal Alcatraz's imposing and forgotten facets. Many day-trippers experience just the cell block and audio tour. But after-hours, you're immersed in the island's ghosts and secrets via special programs like the 4.5-hour behind-the-scenes tour. Rangers regale you with chilling insights from guards and prisoners while you explore scrubbed-from-memory sites like solitary confinement. Moving through the inky darkness of long-abandoned guard towers and tunnels, you gain perspective on the true harshness endured by inmates and guards alike. The creepy ambiance only amplifies the tales.
As visitor Jeff N. described, "taking the night tour gives you a completely different experience and appreciation for what the prison was like. With the dark and shadows, you get more of a creepy and depressing feel, which you miss during daylight."
Beyond the cell house, the island itself grows eerie after sunset. Park rangers lead you to landmarks most never see, like the crumbling warden's house and officers' quarters. Vandals' graffiti scrawled across the ruins pays homage to the Indian Occupation and other protests spotlighting indigenous peoples' plights. Though a mere 1.25 miles offshore, Alcatraz at night feels thrillingly far removed from glittering San Francisco. Gazing at the city's skyline glimmering across the indigo water, you comprehend the pang of near-yet-so-far freedom that tortured inmates.
Ranger-led programs offer fresh perspectives on the island's earlier incarnations too, like the Civil War-era military fortress and notorious federal penitentiary. Night tours evoke these phases hauntingly as you inspect decaying tunnels, chambers, and relics illuminated solely by flashlight. Rangers vividly portray the lives and trials of guards, famed prisoners like Al Capone, and lesser-known inmates who left their marks.
New facets of Alcatraz's indigenous history also emerge after dark. Local Ohlone people recognized the island's strategic position long before Europeans arrived, incorporating it into oral narratives. Rangers illuminate connections between the prison and painful federal policies like tribal relocations and forced assimilation at boarding schools. Nighttime adds impact when viewing once-forbidden native artwork and hearing about the 19-month Occupation's goals. As Sierrena N. shared, "Learning about the Indian Occupation was fascinating - I'm glad I did the night tour to fully appreciate all the history."