A wonderland that seems to be forever draped in fog drifting into its Bay, San Francisco is a thriving metropolis always in the throes of a counter-cultural renaissance, and arguably, America’s most picturesque city.
San Francisco is the land of pioneers. From the crazy, mid-19th century Gold Rush to the blissful hippie movement of the swinging sixties and now the startup base of the tech supergiants, this rather small city – only 121 square kilometres in area – Los Angeles is 1300 – encapsulates a bundle of contradictions. A radical revolutionary vibe is embedded in its layers and the city engineers changes in perspectives and perceptions - be it gay rights or veganism. At the same time, San Fran is America’s most expensive city, with astounding living and housing costs.
The preamble of the quintessential San Francisco experience is the Golden Gate Bridge. This 2.7-kilometre suspension span between the city and Marin counties is a work of art, an engineering marvel, and an American icon.
Learn about the history, science, and engineering of the Bridge's construction through interactive and stationery exhibits at the Welcome Center and wander through the plaza before following one of the picturesque trails to the vista points of the Golden Gate Park, which is one of the world’s largest national parks in an urban area with pristine lakes and bucolic meadows. The Park, sprawled over 1017 acres, supports 19 distinct ecosystems with over 2,000 plant and animal species and houses more than 30 scenic and historic sites that chronicle California’s indigenous history and San Francisco’s Spanish heritage.
And while you are there, do not miss Cavallo Point. Nestled at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge in historic Fort Baker, it offers stupendous views across the bridge.
A trail of the Spanish legacy can also be traced to Alcatraz, which was discovered in 1775 by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala when he arrived at San Francisco Bay Area. A complex saga of history and humanity is encapsulated in this small, beautiful island that was once a fort, a military prison, and a maximum security federal penitentiary that held some of America’s most notorious criminals, like Al “Scarface” Capone and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz". When you dock at the island, you can find graffiti and wall etchings, remnants of the 19-month American Indian Occupation (1969-1971) of Alcatraz, for freedom and Native American civil rights.
The slender, tapering Coit Tower elegantly rises from the summit of the historic Telegraph Hill. The ground floor lobby of the 64-metres column showcases exquisite murals by the squadron of onsite local artists, who had portrayed life in San Francisco in the 1930s, when the tower had been built and remains a powerful visual portrayal of the times of the Great Depression. A pioneering project in public art, Coit Tower is now better known for the sweeping 360 degree views of San Francisco from its top.
Another defining symbol of the city, the white quartz structure of Transamerica Pyramid stands tall at 260-metres - perched on the north boundary of the financial district of San Francisco. Walk right into the park at the base and look up the majestic skyscraper with more than 3000 windows – another engineering masterpiece designed to withstand tremors in a seismic zone. The tower sustained zero damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
For a completely different take on American architecture, head to Steiner Street across Alamo Square to marvel at The Painted Ladies. The row of Queen Anne styled homes date back to the 1860s and 1870s, when San Francisco's Victorian real estate boom skyrocketed after the 1849 gold rush. Cut to the 1960s, and the chalky whites of the gabled, asymmetrical facades were metamorphosed with explosive colours - from lime and vermilion, to gold and turquoise – by a band of the city’s artists and the ‘colourist’ movement spilled over to other streets and neighbourhoods. The organic and elemental appeal of the colour-splashed houses has long been stuff of urban legend, and now prime hotspots for social media hounds.
A pit stop at Lombard Street is a must when you are in San Fran. The east-west street is famed for a steep, one-block stretch featuring no less than eight hairpin bends. Be prepared to negotiate heavy crowds as well, thronging the eastern segment of Lombard Street at Russian Hill to experience "the crookedest street in the world".
Head to PIER 39 located along the waterfront. Discover 20,000 local sea creatures at Aquarium of the Bay, enjoy live music at the Entrance Plaza or the street performances by local artists at Smartwater Stage. Take an afternoon Bay cruise or set sail into the breathtaking sunset for picture-postcard views of the gleaming San Francisco skyline, the Bay with the picturesque Bridges, Alcatraz and Angel Islands to know why a visit to San Francisco starts, and ends, at The PIER.
The beating heart of San Francisco, Union Square packs everything you need in luxury retail within a few blocks, from the iconic merchandise of Carolina Herrera to the heritage apparel with a style twist from Brooks Brothers and craft leather goods from Louis Vuitton. The pedestrian-friendly district brims with gorgeous historic architecture.
For a feel of hip, happening and hyperlocal clothing boutiques such as RVCA and Gypsy Streetwear, head to Haight Street, a sprightly neighbourhood where 1960s flower power had blossomed. The flamboyant street retains the bohemian vibe and houses a curiously quirky collection of novelty shops and the city’s top vintage outlets such as Wasteland.
San Francisco’s eclectic counter-culture vibe is in full swing in Mission District, a delightful intersection of craft and creativity, with its curated collection of avant-garde, niche designer brands from across the globe in standout stores like Le Point.
A refined blend of transnational culinary traditions, Benu on Hawthorne Street in Downtown San Francisco, epitomizes friendly fine dining. A stroll through the tranquil courtyard leads into the meticulously-designed interiors – an artfully aesthetic confluence of Asian austerity and American opulence. A nuanced menu with Korean and Cantonese overtones has been curated by globetrotting chef Corey Lee, where local produce and homegrown ferments put elevated takes on delightful classics. The extensive sake list is noteworthy.
In San Francisco’s historic Jackson Square the eclectic Quince features contemporary Californian cuisine with Italian influences. The stunningly designed dining room, the highlight of which is a massive Murano chandelier, infuses conviviality with sophistication. From the delightful entrees to the deliciously high-brow main course tailed by dazzling dessert treats, Chef Michael Tusk has designed a canvas of delicacy in his Michelin-starred outpost that partners exclusively with a certified organic farm nearby.
The three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn embodies elegance. Nestled on a ridge in Cow Hollow, Atelier has been conceptualized by celebrity French chef Dominique Crenn, as homage to her artist father. The twelve-course fish-focused tasting menu with superb wine pairings is a connoisseur’s delight.
An Oakland restaurant by Chef James Syhabout, Commis is another Michelin-starrer and a flagbearer of modern American fine dining - a multicultural melting pot of different cuisine traditions. The eight-course menu is packed with stellar and sublime dishes, savoured in a banquette space that is relaxed and cosy, but never casual.
Deliciously designed cocktails laced with unusual liquors like gooseberry brandy are the highlights of True Laurel. The custom-designed interiors with a distinctive sculpture wall of this cocktail-focused bar in Mission District feature lounge seating and drink rails to enjoy a carefully crafted beverage with small plates of stylish comfort food.
Trick Dog is another destination bar in Mission District with a robust reputation of whipping up some of the finest cocktails in San Francisco. The cool watering hole is known for its varying tipples and a rotating themed-drinking menu.
Museums & the Arts
Founded in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first museum on the West Coast dedicated to cutting-edge, contemporary artworks. It has continued its tradition of highlighting the most compelling and challenging in the art world and showcases works of both modern masters and emerging talents. A three-year expansion project, designed by Sno’hetta, has tripled the gallery space. With its huge collection of more than 33,000 artworks, 45,000 sq. ft. of art-filled, free public spaces, two museum stores and plenty of dining options, SFMOMA is a global art destination.
A playhouse of an eccentric scientist, an eye-popping learning laboratory and a fun home for global participatory exhibits, Exploratorium is a museum of science, arts and technology, all at once. Founded in 1969 by celebrated physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the museum relocated its base to Pier 15 in 2013 but faithfully retained its tradition of igniting imagination and curiosity of its visitors through interactive science exhibits, riveting art installations and interactive technology demonstrations. The museum is dotted with social-media-friendly spots and the views of the Bay Area from the outdoor spaces are exhilarating.
A fine arts museum located in Golden Gate Park, De Young Museum showcases art, photography, and costume from across five centuries. Spread across three levels, the museum is dedicated to illuminate the past to understand the present and shape the future: and an incredible repository of Native American Art and collections from Africa, New Guinea and Oceania. The Herbst Special Exhibition Galleries at the Exhibition level are unmissable.
Hitch a ride with San Francisco Love Tour onboard beautifully restored vintage Volkswagens - replete with hand painted mural-splashed exteriors, neon-blue seats, orange shag carpets and vivacious beaded curtains in the doorway – to dive deep into San Fran’s hipster vibe and hippie past. The 2-hour trip winds through Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, North Beach and Downtown and you have fleeting glimpses of homes once owned by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead along the way while listening to the cult classics of the 60s.
A 2-hour drive north of San Francisco, Napa Valley is home to over 400 wineries, of which 95% are family-run, dating back to the latter half of the 19th century. The 48-km. long valley is an emerald stretch of rolling vineyards, where the dry, sunny climate makes it a perfect spot for brewing some of the world’s most sublime wines – from the rich and robust Cabernet Sauvignon to the bold and buttery Chardonnay.
A guided tour in a winery is a wonderful way to learn about sustainable winemaking practices for small batch productions and delightful tasting sessions of award-winning samples. Napa Valley’s culinary scene is equally delectable that ranges from Michelin-starred outposts – The French Laundry for instance - to retro-styled, classic roadside joints.
For a leisurely and luxurious experience, take the three-hour, thirty-six mile round-trip journey from the historic town of Napa to the quaint village of St. Helena, either on a 1917 Pullman Dining Car or 1952 two-story Vista Dome, spruced up with elegantly-furnished booths and Honduran mahogany paneling. Pair your wine with exquisite California cuisine and gorgeous views of the wine country from the dining car of the fully-restored vintage train.
San Francisco is strewn with world-class spas, but the Japanese-inspired Kabuki Springs & Spa in the Bay Area is the most respected. A favourite with well-heeled local patrons, this luxurious space is the perfect place to reboot and rejuvenate with its range of oriental features that include shiatsu and Ayurvedic massage, Indonesian rice scrubs and matcha body wraps, but the highlight is the Japanese-inspired communal bath.
If you are a sports buff, San Francisco Bay Area holds something for your adrenaline rush. Home to the three-time World Series Champion San Francisco Giants baseball franchise, the beautiful Oracle Park is more of a cultural intersection of sports, entertainment and hospitality where public concerts and exclusive private dinners are regular features. A tourism program operates daily.
American football fans now have a new venue to cheer San Francisco 49ers from the state-of-the-art Levi’s stadium. The billion dollar stadium seats nearly 70,000 and with its 165 luxury suites and 8,500 club seats it is the next generation in stadium design.
San Francisco has a thriving ice hockey culture and tradition, where the regular season runs from early October to April. The home team, San Jose Sharks, has a formidable local fan base following them at SAP Center an imposing indoor arena that also hosts mega concert events, Olympic and sporting championships, and is affectionately nicknamed as the "Shark Tank".
From the uber cool to the snug and splurgy, there are choices galore in the ultraluxe hotel scene of this city, fueled by tech money and jet setting business travel. Boutique hotels with a manor house feel, opulent spots with Oriental overtones, eco-friendly spaces designed like contemporary art museums – the Golden City packs quite a punch that is as varied as it gets in terms of aesthetics and amenities.
Read the BusinessClass.com guide to The Best Luxury Hotels in San Francisco
Must Buy Souvenir
Local handmade chocolates resonate strongly with San Francisco’s inherent cultural vibe, be it in the obscure flavourings (such as Ceylon tea, cardamom and tarragon) or the minimalist design elements in the packaging. San Francisco Chocolatiers include Ghiradelli, Scharffen Berger and the celebrated Michael Recchiuti dubbed as “the Picasso of San Francisco Chocolatiers.”
Three major airports connect San Francisco with the world - San Francisco International, Oakland International and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International. Taxis and private shuttles operate 24/7 from San Francisco airport to the city centre and if you prefer avoiding the Bay Area traffic, hopping aboard a BART train can be a good option. You are only a Muni (municipal transport system operating bus and streetcar lines) ride away from everywhere in San Francisco, which is also one of the most bike-friendly cities of America.
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