This Spring Break we headed south for a few jam-packed days in San Francisco, armed with a long list of recommendations from our Californian friends. If you've got a layover there, or just want to know the best things to do over a long weekend, here are our personally tested insider tips to make the most of your stay in the City by the Bay.
What to Explore
The cable cars are a San Francisco institution and a hugely fun but also practical way of getting from the Union Square area down to the waterfront, particularly if you get to ride on the running boards. From Fisherman's Wharf, you can jump onto one of the city's heritage streetcars, which run along the Embarcadero and up Market Street and are another cool way to travel round the city.
The open-top sightseeing buses run several itineraries and will let you jump on and off, making them an excellent way to get your bearings and see a lot of sights in a short space of time. Our tour with Gray Line took us to the Golden Gate Bridge, through Golden Gate Park and back through some of the city's most iconic neighborhoods.
The Exploratorium has now moved to the Waterfront and our daughter couldn't get enough of its many different hands-on science demonstrations. It's perfect for older kids, and these parents loved it too. Other great things to visit with kids are the Aquarium down on the waterfront and the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
If you are going to be in San Francisco before May 30th, make sure you check out the incredible Oscar De La Renta retrospective at the De Young museum. Whatever the date the museum is well worth visiting if you're into the arts and there are great views out over the city to be had from the museum's Hamon tower (no museum entrance necessary).
If the weather is fine, head west of the Golden Gate Bridge to Baker Beach in the Presidio, for golden sands, ocean waves and spectacular views of the bridge. Boat tours are another great way of enjoying the Bay. Cruise under the Bridge, visit Alcatraz or spend the afternoon in Sausalito.
Where to Eat
Your first stop should be the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. This stunningly remodeled ferry terminal building is a food-lover's paradise, featuring both amazing restaurants and artisanal food producers. The Slanted Door is world-renowned for its mouth-watering Asian food and sublime cocktails and now has a takeaway window Out the Door which is great for lunch. Boulette's Larder is our other favorite Ferry Building restaurant, known for its eclectic and imaginative use of locally-sourced ingredients, but in truth you won't eat badly wherever you go in the market. Close to the Ferry Building on the waterfront, we enjoyed the beautiful cocktails, tapas and views at Coqueta.
When we visited Zuni Café its unusual triangular building was hopping with patrons feasting on stellar Italian fare. We also adored celebrity chef Chris Cosentino's Cockscomb, where we had a gigantic hunk of melt-in-the-mouth lamb, slowly-cooked in the wood-fired oven, which will linger long in my memory.
On Chestnut Street in the trendy Marina/Cow Hollow district, there are lots of little restaurants with open air seating. We headed to Spaghetti Bros for upscale Italian food and great cocktails, but there were plenty of other enticing options. On previous trips we have eaten well at La Mediterranee in the Fillmore district and had sublime paella at Contigo in the Noe Valley and I was sad not to be able to try the Greek food at Kokkari Estiatorio, which came highly recommended.
We stayed at the Sir Francis Drake, and I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the hotel restaurant Scala's Bistro by Executive Chef Larry Finn where everything - from bread through ice cream and pastries - is made from scratch in house using ingredients from local producers. Scala's is a great option at all times of day if you're staying in the Union Square area.
Where to Shop
The area around Union Square is where you'll find all the big department stores and luxury boutiques. If you're looking for smaller, more eclectic shops, charming Fillmore Street has interiors and clothing boutiques a-plenty. While you're there stop for great coffees and snacks at Jane's. Cozy Chestnut Street in the Marina neighborhood is a great place for shopping as well as dining and a special shout out goes to the small but surprisingly well-stocked Fireside Camera for helping this photographer in her hour of need.
Foodies will want to shop at the Ferry Building - featuring artisans such as Miette bakery, Cowgirl Creamery and Frog Hollow Farm - while theHeath Ceramics shop and The Gardener carry beautiful pieces for interiors junkies. The adjacent and amazing Farmer's Market takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. At the weekends head out to Sausalito for the Heath Ceramics Factory Tour and pick up seconds at the showroom. Japantown and Chinatown are also worth exploring for cultural cuisine and shopping.
Where to Stay
The olde-world splendor of the Sir Francis Drake, perfectly located near Union Square has been been brought bang up to date by Kimpton Hotels and the beefeater style costumes of the doormen warmed this English girl's heart. On a previous visit we enjoyed our stay at Kimpton's Triton with its psychedelic lobby and great location near Chinatown. We also enjoyed the ultra-modern comfort of The Clift, also near Union Square, while the Hotel Vitale is perfect if you want to be near the Ferry Building.