The best thing about San Francisco is San Francisco
–Frank Lloyd Wright
Here are 8 tips from what I learned as I set out to change-up the typical city tourist experience, to grasp the warp and weft of San Francisco. Would it be weird, as a solo traveler? Not one bit as it turned out, and the freedom was priceless.
- Pick a neighborhood as a base. Each has its own identity and charm. On the recommendation from friends I chose trendy Hayes Valley, centrally located and a stone’s throw from San Francisco’s cultural heart. Trendy in a predictable way. Out of the rubble of the 1989 Loma Pieta Earthquake the residential-friendly restoration reinvigorated Hayes Valley. A warm “very San Francisco” vibe is palpable in the air. Exploring the tree-lined streets with hip restaurants and an array of upscale shopping opportunities – some surprising – can take the better part of an afternoon. True Sake claims to have the largest selection outside Japan. The very legit, if slightly kinky, custom corset boutique Dark Closet piqued my fashion curiosity. Of course I had to go in and try on, actually get “laced up.” Next door, the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk revived me and my ribcage.
2. Keep it short. Three to four full days is adequate to reacquaint with, or give a sense of, the city. Carmel and or Napa would be a great addition if you have the time. TIP: The Hotels Tonight app provides a list of lovely hotels for discounted last-minute booking.
3. Consider a B+B. I made a very conscious decision to avoid big hotels. Been there, done that. Same for boutique hotels. So I recommend The Parsonage, a lovely B+B in the middle of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. John Phillips and Joan Hull are the gracious hosts of this late nineteenth century beauty awash in original period detail. One family owned the mansion for nearly a century; it dodged two big earthquakes and has been the proprietors’ home for over thirty years. Fabulous full breakfasts with lighter options are served in Victorian-era splendor. Interesting fellow guests bring cheery camaraderie to start the day. You’ll never feel lonely.There was conversation/company in the evenings and sweets and/or a nightcap as part of the warm hospitality. There are trade-offs for sure but for a change, switch out in-room tv and in-room coffee for locally hand-made mattresses. You won’t be sorry. Complimentary Wi-Fi and an elevator add 21st century conveniences to the 5 en-suite bedrooms.
4. Work your network and embrace their suggestions. Seemingly everyone has a friend, sibling, etc., who would be delighted to meet for coffee, lunch, or a drink. I had drinks and dinner in Chinatown thanks to a friend who alerted her daughter-in-law that I’d be in town, so get the word out!
The best part of solo travel is the ability to pivot on a moment’s notice. An unexpected conversation could reveal a destination you’d never consider; a friend’s tip could lead to a missed gem. I would have skipped Grace Cathedral’s iconic doors, a beautiful replication of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, if not for a friend’s suggestion. On a whim, I took 5 minutes to walk the cathedral’s outside labyrinth, too.
5. Set the plan. I had two specific goals: deep-dive into neighborhoods/shops/restaurants and walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate National Park Welcome Center is the kick-off, and the 1.7 mile path is shared with cyclists, so it’s important to keep to the pedestrian lane. The views on either side are stunning. Golden Gate indeed.
I planned a loose Itinerary for each day, with neighborhood destinations/lunch/coffee spots and ample ‘wiggle room’.
I didn’t intend a self-guided architectural tour but was taken by the beautifully restored homes. A lot of walking famed cable cars/buses/streetcars; the routes are easy to follow and I quickly got the hang of it. Explored North Beach, Union Square, Pacific Heights and of course the “Hills” – in drought-busting rain, as it happened.
Two indispensable neighborhood-focused guide books are The Hunt and Little Black Book –
Went to City Lights Books because who can resist all that intellectual energy and the transcendent power of the printed word. Across the street is the Beat Museum, to pay homage to Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats. Jack is long gone and the museum is tired
Wandered through the grandeur of the Beaux Arts-era City Hall (world’s fifth largest dome) and the adjacent Farmers’ Market.
Admired the famed “Painted Ladies” facing Alamo Park at sunset.
Walked down the sublime hidden stairways behind Telegraph Hills, past exquisite private gardens.
Touristy as it is, I gave a nod to Fisherman’s Wharf and The Embarcadero.
Hayes Valley is next to the Haight-Ashbury area, so that in itself was a trip down memory lane.
On the last morning, I “discovered” hipster SoMa and the Mission District. Both deserve a deeper look. But I did get to Bi-Rite Creamery (can recommend the salted caramel ice cream), and the Mission Delores Park, en route to the Mission Delores Basilica and its delightful small museum. Mission Delores, the oldest intact building in the city, dates back to the settlement named for St. Francis of Assisi, founded by the Franciscan Order in 1776. With that, the neighborhood of the First Californians – native to the area – would never be the same.
6. Arrange evenings. There’s lots to do that’s easy, safe, and entertaining. Cultural events galore during the Ballet, Symphony, Opera seasons. On one free night, I heard Melissa Aldana, a young Chilean saxophonist, at the cozy SF Jazz Center, walking distance from my B+B. (The annual jazz festival is in June.)
I spent another evening in the zany company of Beach Blanket Babylon. Located in North Beach, it is a 90 minute cabaret-like review that pokes fun at pop culture icons and political shenanigans with a charming dose of civic pride. See a quick promotional video here.
7. Managing Meals. This conundrum is definitely NOT a deal-breaker. Breakfast in your hotel or B+B. In a more public setting your smart phone is a most genial companion, bringing the day’s news to your table. For lunch or dinner, eating at the bar is the default for any solo, anywhere. It’s quite common in cities and often preferred as it’s quicker and sometimes a bit quieter. If the idea seems a bit intimidating, here are a few tips.
- Do a bit of reconnaissance. Ask to see the menu for your options.
- Go on the early side, if possible. The bartender will have more time to answer your questions and offer suggestions.
- Look for a long bar; it’s more likely to attract diners, not just drinkers. Sitting closer to the window/door affords better people watching and a less self-conscious entrance/exit.
- Engage the bartender as a conversation starter; as long as he/she has the time it’s part of the job and will give you an opener for conversation with a fellow diner.
- Searching for a topic to open the chat with the bartender? A wine/drink recommendation is a good start – believe me, it flows from there.
- Once in a while, you may need to cut the meal short to avoid or close an unwanted conversation. Ask for the check, pull out your phone to arrange a Uber/Lyft pick up, pay and exit.
Recommendations in Hayes Valley:
Lunch at Petit Crenn’s bar was lovely and quick –
and Absinthe for dinner. It’s a fancier affair but with a full bar menu.
Check out the buzzy Maven in Hayes Valley, where food is paired with inventive cocktails (along with wine). I dined at the bar, found the bartender pleasantly engaging and fell into conversations with fellow diners – young techies – I wouldn’t have thought possible.
One more entry into the HV food diary – a decidedly and proudly old-fashioned (c. 1935) lunch counter, It’s Tops, on Market Street. I went in on a whim and found the real McCoy, not a hipster re-enactment of the 20th century. I had a REAL cheeseburger/fries at the counter, a REAL Coke (I was tempted by the milkshakes; need to go back) at the counter.
Beyond the Hayes Valley neighborhood:
At the wonderful State Bird Provisions I tried a ‘communal table’ instead of the bar, buoyed by sense of adventure of trying something different. It was less of a success. Seated next to 2 women, clearly good friends, who were deep into a cozy catch-up. The bar would have been a better choice. Fortunately, I was very preoccupied with selecting inventive dim sum specialities from roving carts and savoring the wine list to worry about ‘feeling weird’.
I heartily recommend State Bird, but the bar is the better bet.
And for lunch in Pacific Heights, don’t overlook Tacolicious. In a cozy pub-like setting, I had an alcove to enjoy a selection of small tacos along with a restorative beer.
Late one afternoon, I slipped into Le Marais Bakery, a delightful reprieve from the rain.
“Teatime” on steroids.
Don’t let the meal dilemma derail, or worse – prevent – your trip. Bon Appetite and enjoy the bar.
8. Getting around. One of the very fun things about visiting San Francisco is its unique mass transit amalgam: cable cars, subway/bus lines, a collection of street cars garnered from municipal garages around the U.S. and the world, and the enviable light rail system, BART.
To test its ease of use (and as a covetous New Yorker) I tried the BART system to the airport. Can’t beat $8.75, but one needs to be mindful of the various trains. It’s not rocket science, but warrants attention if you’re not familiar with the system.
On the other hand…….
Enter Uber. Or Lyft. San Francisco isn’t a big place geographically and these reasonably priced car services are cost-effective. Download one or both apps pronto if you don’t have them. Just make sure you have the street address of your destination – not just the name of your hotel, such as – so you can be specific.
Bottom line? San Francisco is a city that both soothes and invigorates the soul. Answer its siren call and go it alone.
Let’s start this conversation. I look forward to hearing from you.
In a nutshell:
Photo Credits: Jane Trombley unless otherwise noted