This was not my first time in San Francisco. In 2010, I took a Princess Cruise up the western coastline. As with all cruise stops, our time there was brief. We drove the winding road of Lombard Street, walked Fisherman’s Wharf, ate at the Boudin Bakery, and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. We decided it was time to take a real trip to this Northern California city and see what San Francisco was really about.
My husband and I stayed at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins located on Nob Hill. This luxury hotel was everything I could have hoped for – great room, great service, and great views of the city. Every time we walked through those glass front doors, we were greeted by a variety of staff members ready to assist us. Our room was $189/night, which initially seemed quite reasonable for a high-end hotel. Then we found out how much parking our rental car would be – around $58/night – and quickly realized that this weekend would not be as affordable as we thought. San Francisco is not known to be inexpensive and this trip would be no different. I did hear about $30 parking, but we never found it. Money grumbling aside, we were still excited to be there.
Our first excursion was a downhill hike to Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia, comprised of 24 blocks. So expect several streets of shops and restaurants all decorated with culture. You will find Fu Dogs, Lucky Cats, Jade jewelry, and traditional Asian garb. I couldn’t help but think of my grandparents who honeymooned in San Francisco. They later traveled to the Orient and considered it their favorite destination. Their home was sprinkled with amazing pieces.
The main gateway to Chinatown is located at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. This ornate southern entrance was built in 1970 and the sign above it translate to “All under heaven is for the good of the people”. Grant Avenue is where you will find the more touristy souvenir shops. The shops and eateries that are more authentic and geared towards the Chinese community can be found on Stockton Street. If you wish to avoid tourists, come early in the morning. I have heard that the Golden Gate Bakery is worth a stop. Some visitors find portions of Chinatown to be dirty and smelly. Yes, there are areas in which the landscape is not so appealing. Yet, don’t let that stop you from visiting this interesting locale. The first Chinese immigrants came in the 1840’s and built a whole new life here. It’s worth your time.
Not far from Chinatown is Union Square. This is where all the high end shopping awaits. Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s, Burberry, and the list goes on. You can grab a bite and lounge in the center of the square or dive into the pricey shops and be dazzled. I opted to pass on any big splurges. Besides, I have all these stores back home.
After walking downhill, it was time to head back up California Street to our hotel. Word to the wise, walk down but take the trolley up. The San Francisco trolley is a must, just once. If you are like me, visions of the opening scenes for Full House are running through your mind. The trolley is primarily for tourists and costs $6 one way. If you are bouncing around all day, just pay the flat fee of $14 for all day use. Because the trolley is in the middle of the street, be mindful of traffic as you get on and off.
One very cool location we checked out was The Presidio. This quiet community began its life as a fort established by Spanish colonists in 1776. The fort protected local missions, pueblos, and ranchos. El Presidio de San Francisco is considered the birthplace of San Francisco since the first official civil government election was held here. When the Spanish opted to move on to newer frontiers, the U.S. Army took over in the 1840’s and expanded the fort into a military base. The site is no longer an Army base, but stands as a National Historic Landmark with a lot to offer. The Presidio includes an inn, several restaurants, housing available for lease, and various business offices. The view is lovely from here. The Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge are crystal clear. Plus, it’s unusually quiet. There is no fee to enter the property and it is open 24 hours a day. We had lunch at the country club just on the outskirts, then headed to the Disney Family Museum towards the middle of the Presidio.
The Disney Family Museum was a total treat. I would love to go back. While the museum tour begins with the history of the family, the focus is mostly on our pal Walt and the evolution of his amazing career. The most intriguing parts to me about Walt Disney’s life were not his triumphs in animation, but his early failures. He said that everyone has to experience at least one big failure in their careers. That’s exactly how Walt “found” Mickey. And a whole Disneyland empire was born. By the way, you are allowed to take photos throughout the gallery. The very back of the gallery has a glass wall, perfect for panoramic shots of the Bay. The museum is open 10am to 6pm everyday except Tuesdays. Admission is $20 per person. Be sure to hit up the museum gift shop and the cute coffee shop. Because the museum is not affiliated with The Walt Disney Company and is more of a family-driven venture, you will not find these products elsewhere.
A classic dinner in San Francisco usually means one thing: seafood. For a dining experience fit for locals and celebrities alike, hit up Tadich Grill. The grill is located on California Street in the Finance District. Traffic was a mess during dinnertime and with all the one-way streets in this downtown area, I finally gave in and did valet. That said, there is a parking structure a couple of blocks away. Tadich is a bustling restaurant that is fast-paced, noisy, and filled with regulars. They don’t take reservations and if you happen to “be somebody” that’s nice and all, but no one cares. It’s first come, first serve for everyone. We waited for about 30 minutes for a table and it was standing room only near the main counter. While every server was on the go, someone still took our drink order right away and we sipped wine while we waited. The service was all around very efficient. I had the Seafood Cioppino which is their signature dish. With a mix of local fish in a tomato broth, this seafood stew did not disappoint. Wear a bib ’cause the broth splashes with every bite. The menu also includes non-swimming fare, but I suggest trying the cioppino and getting into the San Francisco spirit.
The nightlife here can be a lot of fun. The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar is located at The Fairmont on Nob Hill. This tiki-inspired bar and restaurant includes a large lagoon with a live band floating on a barge. People come here more for the ambiance than the food, but beware: visitors are often surprised with a cover charge – which is not always disclosed – when they get the tab. The food is considered okay and the decor (to some) is considered kitschy. Yet, if you are looking for a light-hearted atmosphere to cut loose, this tropical spot could still be for you. I went for a more upscale experience at the Top of the Mark. The Top of the Mark is conveniently located where I stayed and as the name implies, it is at the top of the Mark Hopkins. The view of the city is breathtaking. Get there before sunset if you can. Because I was a hotel guest, there was no cover charge and each night there was a different live band. Our first night included a swing band and the second (’cause I had to go back) was a contemporary band covering the latest radio hits. The dress code is classy, the appetizers are delicious, and the martinis are decadent. One can easily spend over $100 for two people to sip and nibble. Quick tip, check Yelp and Foursquare for drink specials. My hubby got his martinis at half price just for ‘checking in’ while we were there. Be sure to hit the dance floor. The music is great and you will bump into fun regulars showing their mad footwork. This high-end but lively location was a perfect way to cap off our days of wandering. Also, don’t be surprised if you see young couples getting engaged here. Happens all the time, happened while we were there, and that just reinforces that the Top of the Mark is a stylish venue.
My second trip to San Francisco was a true tour of all the things that make this city on the Bay exciting. I loved exploring the coastal history, tasting the fine fish dishes, and dancing in the classy nightlife. My experience there was refreshing like the cool breeze that rushes up from the wharf. So wrap yourself in a stylish scarf and see what makes San Francisco such a northern treat.