One of the greatest cities on the planet (next to Portland, of course) is San Francisco. In less than two flying hours you can be in the center of amazing natural, architectural and cultural sights, funky eclectic neighborhoods, some of the best restaurants you’ll ever try and a never-ending range of activities for families. San Francisco is an active town. It’s best seen by foot, walking the steep streets, or by cable car. Whether you travel alone, with your kids, a girlfriend or your honey, San Francisco will most certainly steal your heart. Here’s only a small sample of top picks:
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia, as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. This area, roughly one mile long by nearly two miles wide has over 300 authentic shops, bakeries and restaurants. Walking through Chinatown is a true cultural experience. You’ll see red lanterns strewn across the street like canopies, dozens of restaurants with all kinds of authentic treats, and lots of older Chinese people walking around and picking through fruits from the many stands. A morning or afternoon in Chinatown will be spent taking in the splendid sights, smells and souvenirs of the city. www.oldchinatown.org
For a fantastic vantage point of the city skyline and a totally quaint feel for the bay’s beauty, Sausalito, about a 15-minute drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge or accessible by ferry, is a must-do. This little town has houseboats, beautiful homes tucked all along the hillside behind it, and perfect places to hang out to take in the view of the sparkling water and city. There are some fantastic places to eat including bakeries with fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, pizzerias, and lunch and dinner establishments for hearty soups, salads and seafood. Along the main boulevard you’ll find cute jewelry shops, art galleries and souvenir gift stores. Taking the extra time to leave San Francisco and visit Sausalito is worth it! www.sausalito.org
Muir Woods National Monument:
Muir Woods, a unit of the National Park Service in Marin County, is only 12 short miles north of San Francisco. Here, 554 acres are protected, of which 240 acres are old growth Coast Redwood. These ancient giants are breathtaking in their scope and beauty. Walking through the park is extraordinary. Coast Redwoods are relatives of the Giant Sequoia, which grow to nearly 380 feet; the tallest tree in Muir Woods is 258 feet. The average age of the redwoods here is between 500 and 800 years old, with the oldest at least 1,200 years old. Walking and hiking paths are well maintained, easily accessible and suitable for most everyone. There is a fee to get into the park and arriving first thing in the morning is recommended to avoid serious crowds. www.nps.gov/muwo
Golden Gate Park:
Golden Gate Park is the exquisite jewel in San Francisco’s crown. Over 1,000 acres hold wildlife (a buffalo field), flowers (Conservatory of Flowers), six official gardens (including the Japanese, rose and botanical gardens) museums (the de Young art museum and the very family-friendly California Academy of Sciences), playgrounds and even a carousel. There are many ways to explore Golden Gate Park including by foot, car, pedal and public transportation. Plan on spending at least a day getting to know the many facets of this beautiful attraction. It’s filled with history, always has unique art, music and cultural events going on, and you can choose to take in the many attractions and museums or opt to do nothing at all but walk and picnic. Golden Gate Park is a San Francisco essential. www.golden-gate-park.com
It’s estimated there are close to 7,000 restaurants in the city of San Francisco. And to make matters more complicated, many of them are exquisite. Next to New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco could be considered one of THE top international foodie destinations. When you plan a trip to this city, you could spend hours researching the many choices or you could be completely spontaneous and just adventure out. In either case, three dinner places should be on your list: Sutro’s at The Cliff House, John’s Grill and Roy’s.
Sutro’s at The Cliff House and the Sutro Bath ruins are part of the Ocean Beach community, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) — the largest urban national park in the United States. Nestled on a cliff overlooking the waves of the Pacific Ocean, the views of the coastline and setting sun are spectacular. You will also get views of seals on the nearby rocks. While all of this makes for a fantastic coastal experience, the food and service at Sutro’s are the stars of the show. Dine from a seasonal menu that features local organic ingredients.
Menu highlights? Appetizers: Dungeness crab cakes; shrimp tempura; braised Penn Cove mussels. Main course: bacon crusted Loch Duart salmon with apple, chard and whole grain mustard sauce; pistachio crusted scallops and orange-glazed pork belly with parsnip puree, butternut squash and red wine syrup; petite beef fillet and braised short rib duo with mushroom Worcestershire and caramelized onion-bacon compote. For dessert, save room for the Sutro’s S’mores, a milk chocolate fondue with candy cane marshmallows and homemade graham crackers. www.cliffhouse.com
John’s Grill is a San Francisco classic tradition, and has served hundreds of A-list celebrities, athletes, presidents and dignitaries. Famous for being part of the setting in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” the interior of wood, dim lighting and cozy ambience pays nostalgic tribute to San Francisco history. Situated in the center of the city, John’s Grill is a guidepost for traditional and classic when it comes to food. The waitstaff are all seasoned veterans and have a deep knowledge of wine selections.
Menu highlights? Appetizers: Maine lobster ravioli with herbed tomato cream; steamed clams in wine, garlic and lemon broth. Main course: chicken Jerusalem with artichokes, mushrooms and creamy white wine sauce; John’s tender prime and certified black angus steaks including porterhouse, rib eye and filet mignon with peppercorn or béarnaise sauce on the side. Dessert: chocolate mousse torte with seasonal berry sauce. www.johnsgrill.com
Even though one of the best places in San Francisco has 30 other locations around the world, Roy’s is a restaurant experience unlike any other. Based on the fusion concept of European cooking techniques, Asian cuisine and the Aloha spirit of Hawaii, Roy’s puts them all together to create the amazing. Its elegant, contemporary ambience and views of the open kitchen set the tone for a sophisticated atmosphere. There are only two things that top it: the top-notch service and mouthwatering food.
Menu highlights? Appetizers: Roy’s canoe appetizer for two, which includes a great selection to nibble on, such as grilled Szechuan pork ribs, lobster pot stickers, Kahlua pork lumpia, blackened ahi and tempura tuna roll. Main course: Roy’s Trio, consisting of hibachi salmon, macadamia nut mahi mahi and misoyaki butterfish served with bok choy and steamed rice. A savory meat option is the perfectly seasoned tender braised beef short ribs, served with creamy mashed potatoes. Dessert is a tough choice between the delectable and amazing pineapple upside down cake (which melts in your mouth) and Roy’s melting hot chocolate soufflé with Belgian chocolate, raspberry coulis and vanilla bean ice cream. Note: there is a substantial gluten-free menu available as well. www.roysrestaurants.com
As a true international destination for travelers, San Francisco offers the total spectrum of lodging, from first class top-of-the-line accommodations to leisure business class hotel chains, bed and breakfasts and hostels. For a city of this size and stature, lodging is relatively affordable. What add up are all the extra expenses, such as parking (if you drive or rent a car) which can cost around $50 per day. However, San Francisco is a very cab- and city transportation-friendly city, so once you park your car, you may not need it again until you venture to the outskirts of the city or take a side trip.
Many of the hotels are in beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings, ornately decorated with marbles and woods, high ceilings and elegance. One localized company has taken the preservation of San Francisco architecture and style to a whole new level: Personality Hotels. We appreciate that in a sea of corporate conglomerates, Personality Hotels is owned by a woman — mother of two daughters, entrepreneur and interior design superstar Yvonne Lembi-Detert. Her five distinct properties (four in the city and one in Monterey) ensure guests will have a memorable stay. The four city hotels are centrally and conveniently located and each offers a unique, aesthetically sensory experience.
Noteworthy are the Kensington Park, Hotel Diva and Hotel Union Square. The Kensington Park is the original home of the San Francisco Elks Club (which still resides in several floors of the building). Built in 1923, this 93-guestroom hotel is a complement of luxurious antiques, art and modern amenities. You’ll also appreciate relatively spacious rooms with city views and a comfortable lobby area for soft piano music, complimentary afternoon tea and sherry. This hotel is dog friendly.
Hotel Diva and Hotel Union Square are also artfully designed and have a special program designed just for traveling families. The “Kids With Personality” program offers special city attraction discounts and goodies for kids. In addition to the added family-friendly extras, Hotel Diva has a two-room Little Diva Suite allowing kids their own room with a door connecting to the parents’ room. The kids’ room is designed just for them and has modern bunk beds, a karaoke machine and lots of toys. Hotel Union Square has the Ring in the Kids Suite, complete with colorful mixed-media collages of famous family-friendly San Francisco landmarks, a trundle bed, a computer filled with history-related games and a desk for writing or drawing. For parents that wish to stay in the same room with kids but still need their own space, this suite comes with two queen beds. Both of these hotels are next to shops, restaurants and attractions all walking or cable car distance away. www.personalityhotels.com
When you’re ready, able and willing to spring for the ultimate San Francisco hotel experience, make sure you book a stay at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel. The Mark Hopkins is considered one of San Francisco’s finest properties. Situated on top of desirable Nob Hill within walking distance of Chinatown, financial and theater districts and Union Square, this landmark is steeped in class, elegance, beauty and unrivaled hospitality. Everything about this hotel is focused on creating a memorable stay. With over 380 well-appointed rooms, there are literally over a dozen room types and sizes to choose from, ranging from 312-square-foot standard rooms to the over-1,500-square-foot penthouse and California suites on the 18th floor. All rooms are spacious and offer incredible city views. One of San Francisco’s greatest assets is its gorgeous cityscape, which the Mark Hopkins showcases perfectly.
Whether you stay at the hotel or not, make sure you plan a visit to the Top of the Mark for a meal or cocktail. The 19th floor offers 360-degree panoramic views of the bay, the city, Golden Gate Bridge and the hills. The Top of the Mark is also known for its 100-martini menu, excellent service, hosted parties and tasty Sunday brunch.
Equally impressive about the Mark Hopkins is their commitment to sustainability. At a daily-operations level, this hotel incorporates eco-friendly practices such as compact fluorescent lighting throughout the hotel; concierges who recommend “green” restaurants; only china and silverware use with no black plastic or Styrofoam products; biodegradable corn or potato items when possible; low-flow 2.0 gpm showerheads, faucets and toilets; restaurants and food services which provide local/in-season and organic fruits and vegetables, free range meats and fishes, and fair trade, shade-grown, organic coffees. Also, 90 percent of hotel food waste is composted. All of these exceptional attributes add up to a fantastically sustainable and luxurious stay. www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com
With its vast selection of places to stay, eat and explore, San Francisco delivers beauty, accessibility, culture, food and art on so many levels. This is a place you can never really see all of — but you can try, and in the process be dazzled by the charm, warmth, friendliness and spirit of a city where you’ll surely leave your heart.