36 Hours in San Francisco
Don’t blink or you’ll miss the next “new” San Francisco. This is a city that’s reinventing itself with every refresh of your Twitter feed, with cranes rising all over downtown and an army of young tech workers pouring into neighborhoods across the city. In the ’60s, San Francisco was synonymous with the hippie counterculture; in the ’90s, it was the dot-com boom (and eventual bust, in the early 2000s); more recently, it was the ripening of the Bay Area food movement. Now it’s home to such new-establishment icons of the digital economy as Airbnb, Uber and, yes, Twitter. But don’t be fooled by the shiny patina: San Francisco is more than just the physical headquarters of our virtual world. There are some things that haven’t changed, and by themselves, are reason enough to revisit: the mind-boggling views along that glorious waterfront; the Mission’s still-feisty, freaky, welcome-all-comers character; the meandering natural pleasures of Golden Gate Park. Even when classic San Francisco rubs up against new San Francisco, the friction, though at times contentious (Google bus protests, the anti-eviction fight), is also where the community-conscious activist roots of this city are as vital and visible as ever.
1. City by the Bay | 4 p.m.
Make time for a stroll along the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s quintessential bayside pedestrian promenade. Your starting point is just south of the Bay Bridge, at Red’s Java House on Pier 30. A no-frills waterfront dive the San Francisco Chronicle once called “the Chartres Cathedral of cheap eats,” Red’s has been around in some form or another since 1912, when longshoremen came for the cheeseburger-and-beer breakfast special. Nowadays, it’s a favorite stop for Giants fans on their way to a ballgame at AT&T Park, home to the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series champs. Join the cheerfully egalitarian crowd for a sourdough cheeseburger ($5.52) and a beer on the outdoor patio — it has a view that goes for miles.
2. To Market | 5:30 p.m.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 12 years since the century-plus-old Ferry Building reopened as a grand marketplace and European-style food hall, after decades of blight and decay in the shadow of the former Embarcadero Freeway (which was taken down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake). Though the Ferry Building has come to represent all the modern trends in the Bay Area food world, it hews to tradition with a thrice-weekly outdoor farmers’ market, plus indoor food stalls in former ferry berths; the butcher, the baker and the cheesemonger are all on hand to talk to you. Just browsing is a pleasure: It’s all eye candy, from the ceramics to the chocolate. And whatever your age, watching the ferries come and go never gets old.
3. Two Piers | 7 p.m.
Charles Phan, of Slanted Door fame, has shifted gears with Hard Water, a tiny, New Orleans-inflected whiskey bar and restaurant that opened in 2013 on Pier 3. The kitchen turns out a mean fried chicken — the better to soak up the powerful cocktails. Whiskey flights start at $22, and are a gentle intro to a deep list. For a heartier meal, head two piers over to Michael Chiarello’s Spanish-meets-California Coqueta, where the extraordinary paella — bomba rice with clams, shrimp, chorizo and broccolini in fragrant broth made from shellfish and jamón serrano, $45 — is enough to feed three.
4. Nightcaps | 9 p.m.
A bar in the Mission is an appropriate place to end the night. At the divey, atmospheric Royal Cuckoo, great cocktails are the rule — try the Carnival Mule, with cachaça, ginger beer, Domaine de Canton, tangerine and lime — as is live music Wednesday through Sunday nights showcasing the house’s old-fashioned Hammond organ. Outdoor drinking is an option at Zeitgeist, a punk-spirited biergarten and neighborhood institution; its native population is heavy on the bikers and bike messengers. Don’t take selfies, or management might boot you out — service is gruff, and proud of it.
5. Break Bread | 10 a.m.
Along 24th Street in the Mission, Mexican bakeries are still where mornings begin. For just a dollar or two, pick up sugar-dusted pan dulce or custard-filled pastries with your coffee at La Mejor Bakery or Panaderia La Mexicana, and watch the neighborhood wake up. Then head south for a climb up over windswept Bernal Hill to the sprawling Alemany Farmers’ Market, said to be the oldest in the state of California, improbably situated near where Interstate 280 crosses Highway 101. The weekly market still offers the best cornucopia in the city: The greens alone regularly range from Chinese long beans, pea shoots and bok choy to dandelion, kale and mustard greens (about $5 for three bunches). Can’t fix what ain’t broke.
6. Picnic in the Park | 12 p.m.
Bring your provisions for a picnic at the newly spiffed-up Dolores Park, where an $8 million renovation made over the northern half of the park with new tennis courts; six acres of fresh, grassy splendor; and expanded restrooms (this last is critical to a comfortable afternoon). The other half of the park will get similar treatment in the coming year. What hasn’t changed: the diverse crush of humanity, and the excellent vistas of the San Francisco skyline.
7. The People’s Art | 1:30 p.m.
Take stock of the Mission’s murals with Precita Eyes, a neighborhood arts organization that has been sponsoring local and international mural projects and offering classes for nearly four decades. Docents lead weekly mural walks ($20, with discounts for students and seniors) through alleys and streets dense with color, and add stories and context to ever-shifting images that comment on everything from human rights to Hurricane Katrina.
8. Two Ways to Taste | 7 p.m.
Put yourself in the expert hands of some of the Mission’s best neighborhood chefs. At Ichi Sushi & Ni Bar’s airy new space, request a seat at the bar for omakase, or chef’s choice, and be entertained by the jewel-toned march of seafood across your plate — perhaps wild salmon, sweet shrimp heads and lightly seared saba (about $65 for 12 pieces). Or try the three-course menu and wine pairing at Heirloom Cafe ($65), an elegant neighborhood spot that might smartly present a bavette steak and maitake mushrooms with a malbec. At both establishments, fresh, simple dishes and friendly service are standouts, and the price is right.
9. One for the Team | 9 p.m.
Bring friends for a game or two at the Mission Bowling Club, the city’s first new bowling alley in 40 years when it opened in 2012. The owners, Sommer Peterson and Molly Bradshaw, wanted to conjure the intimate, friendly neighborhood alley of their youth — but with really good food (and sans fluorescent lighting). They’ve succeeded. Two of the six lanes are held for drop-ins most nights, but you’ll probably want to make a reservation (reservations can be made a week ahead, $35 to $55 per lane per hour).
10. Bookworms Welcome | 10 a.m.
First there was Green Apple Books: Opened in 1967, it’s a literary institution. Now there’s Green Apple Books on the Park, perfectly situated for a morning browse along the Inner Sunset’s Ninth Avenue, just south of Golden Gate Park. Don’t be fooled by the narrow storefront — the shop reaches far into the interior space, and is big enough to be anchored by a dedicated children’s area. Like its sister store, it also hosts events featuring an impressive lineup of writers, including such recent guests as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Maggie Nelson, Aleksandar Hemon and Molly Antopol. Afterward, stroll down the street and into Urban Bazaar to browse fair-trade and quirky, locally made gifts — belts made from old bike tires, screen-printed owl tea towels — and admire the boutique’s charming little air plant and succulent nursery.
11. Seasonal Tastes | 11:30 a.m.
For a leisurely brunch, head to the sun-warmed back patio of Nopalito, a branch of Divisadero’s beloved Nopa, for brightly flavored, vibrant Mexican: squash-blossom quesadilla, pork-shoulder pozole, and peach, avocado and lettuce salad with pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese (brunch for two about $45). Or for on-the-go noshing, stop at the worker-owned-and–run Arizmendi Bakery for the excellent daily pizza: always vegetarian, always changing, always available by the slice ($2.50, and it comes with a little bonus sliver) or pie.
12. In Residence | 1 p.m.
Every month, the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park invites a new artist-in-residence to install art and work with the public during set hours at the museum’s Kimball Education Gallery (free, 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, plus Friday evenings until 8:45 p.m.). Recent artists have included Shawn Feeney, an artist and musician whose “Musical Anatomy” series featured an inventive tuning-fork helmet that visitors could wear — while he was playing it. In October, the San Francisco artist Carlo Abruzzese transformed census data into meticulous architectural paintings.