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Discover: San Francisco

By Michelle Sieling

Though not as large as international cities like New York or London, San Francisco is known the world over for its mix of urban and natural beauty, as well as world class cuisine and access to fine wines.  Turn a corner and be wowed by a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the vast Pacific Ocean.  Or follow the Twitter stream to the latest innovative restaurant in the Mission. As a visitor to San Francisco, the problem is not what to do and see, but what not to do. Here’s a sample of a few things to try and to avoid.

Where to Drink

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant (Michael Taffet)It seems like there’s a new spot to sip wine every week—these are just a few. Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in the Ferry Building offers seating for your sipping, as well as a retail section of domestic wines (mainly Californian), and wines from Europe.  Greek style Paréa Wine Bar & Café in the Mission offers Mediterranean, as well as wines from all corners of the globe, served with home-style stews, soups, and salads. SOMA workers drop into District for post work wine. District’s global wine selection comes by taste, glass, bottle, or flights. The menu features small plate items like cheeses, charcuterie and pizzettas for sharing.

For a unique perspective of the city, head to Treasure Island for wine tasting and views (no boat necessary).  Treasure Island boasts four wineries, including Winery SF, located in a 20,000 square foot naval clipper hanger, which until recently housed a film studio. Everything is done here in house, except for the growing of the grapes. The focus is on sustainably produced Rhone varietals such as Roussane, Mourvèdre, Syrah, but also Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and “Gypsy,” a proprietary rouge blend.

Make an afternoon of it and visit Winery SF’s neighbors Treasure Island Wines, Fat Grape and Bodega Wine.  Most tasting rooms are only open on the weekend or by appointment, so call or visit their websites for details.

Where to Eat

In San Francisco you can eat yourself silly.  From the one Michelin star fine dining of Quince to $1.75 tacos from the El Tonayense truck on Harrison Street in the Mission, it’s hard to go hungry.

Fort Mason which houses Greens Restaurant (Michael Taffet)To combine gorgeous views with delicious delights, visit the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building.  Its dining room offers waterfront bay views. Local and organic produce and meats provide the ingredients for meals at this modern Vietnamese restaurant.  Ask the sommelier about one of their hard to find Rieslings, a perfect foil to the spicy cuisine. 

Another world class restaurant with a dramatic maritime vista, including the Golden Gate Bridge, is Greens in Fort Mason. It’s a creative vegetarian restaurant even a meat-eater could love, with flavors inspired by the Mediterranean, Mexico and the American Southwest. Their wine list emphasizes small, high quality producers using sustainable vineyard practices from the west coast of the United States and Europe.  

A collection of handmade gourmet food trucks can be found at San Francisco’s Off The Grid (Michael Taffet)For a more adventurous eater, look for the Off the Grid trucks. It’s a roaming mobile food extravaganza that travels to different locations daily, including the Civic Center on Fridays for lunch and all day Saturday on McCoppin Street in the Mission. Vendors vary every day, but may include Indian street food from Curry Up Now, the modern organic Filipino cuisine of Hapa SF and Asian inspired Kung Fu Tacos. Check the website for times, trucks and locations.

What to Do

If kitschy tchotchkes and overpriced fried food are what you like, this is the place for you, but otherwise skipping Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 is advised.  A fun freebie, though, is the view of the sea lions at Pier 39.  Every year hundreds of these barking pinnipeds propel their almost half ton bodies up onto the docks.  Their playful antics provide an amusing show.

(Michael Taffet)Skip past the street urchins and retail shops of the Haight (there’s no more love there) and go directly to Golden Gate Park.  What was once a vast sand dune is now 1,017 acres of outdoor activities and museums (that’s 20 percent larger than New York’s Central Park).  Stowe Lake offers boating, de Young museum houses works of art, and California Academy of Sciences has an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest under one roof. If you find yourself visiting in the beginning of a  month, check museum schedules as many offer free admission in the first week. Bring some supplies for an al fresco lunch in the park, but keep in mind beer and wine (no hard alcohol), are only allowed in picnic areas.

The Conservatory of Flowers (Michael Taffet)In Golden Gate Park every Sunday, and every Saturday from April through September, a large stretch of John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to cars, meaning you can bike, run, stroll, or rollerblade without cars zipping past you. 

If you want to roll down the city’s curviest street, pass on Lombard and seek out Vermont Street in the city’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.  Besides having the curviest street, the neighborhood holds little gems like the French cuisine of Chez Papa, tastings at Ruby Wine and panoramic views of downtown.

Should you tire of wine (why would you?), Potrero Hill is also home to

The California Academy of Science (Michael TafAnchor Brewing Company. The brewery offers two free public tours of the facility followed by tastings each weekday, by reservation only. Tours book up fast, so call far in advance if you want to go.

Where to Stay

When you need to recharge at night, consider one of nine Kimpton hotels spread throughout the city, including the Argonaut near Ghirardelli Square, the Harbor Court near the Embarcadero, and the Sir Francis Drake on Union Square. Each unique hotel is pet and environmentally friendly, and all provide a hosted evening wine hour where you can unwind at the end of a long day sightseeing.

Japanese Tea Garden (Michael Taffet)Getting Around

If you’re just planning to stay in town, driving a car is not ideal. Parking is hard to come by, especially downtown, and prices can range wildly from $2-$10 an hour.  If you have to drive, download the comparative parking rate mobile application Best Parking at Select a neighborhood and it shows you the available lots, rates, hours of operation, etc.

Cabs are fairly easy to come by, but it’s usually best to call for service if you are in an outer neighborhood.  Other options include Muni’s system of street cars and buses, which are $2 a ride. Fares come with transfers that are good for 90 minutes after purchase.

(Michael Taffet)Muni also oversees the quintessential symbol of San Francisco, the Cable Car.  Take it from Market Street and Powell up to Ghirardelli as well as the less crowded California Street line that runs from near the Embarcadero to Van Ness Avenue.  Fares are $5 and include great views while you climb up and down the city’s steep hills.

A less expensive and fun way to travel is the Market Street Railway. Also known as the F-Market, the line features historic streetcars from all over the world, including cars from early 1900s San Francisco and New Orleans, as well more recent ones from Milan, Melbourne and even a 1934 open-air model from Blackpool, England for warm, sunny days.

Of course this is just a snapshot but you can see there are options outside of clam chowder in a bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf.  You can do things that are classic San Francisco, like visiting Golden Gate Bridge, but build on them with the new things that are making San Francisco what it is today.

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