There’s a reason why San Francisco often appears at the top of the list of the most expensive cities in the nation. It’s because so many people want to be there.
It has some of world’s best chefs, city parks, sports teams, iconic views and landmarks, shopping districts and waterfronts. It has a modern transportation system coupled with its world-famous cable cars. And its residents have a live-and-let-live attitude about quirky interests, alternative lifestyles and unabashed eccentricities. In other words, it’s fun as hell.
Having visited San Francisco frequently for as long as I can recall, with each trip I wrestle between seeking new experiences, and going back to old favorites. With that, let’s have a drumroll of my top things to do (as of this writing).
First, we’d better get some chocolate: Dandelion Chocolate, which operates out of a small factory in the Mission District, is one the few small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate makers in America. That means they make chocolate from the bean, rather than working with already-finished chocolate. They offer free, 30-minute tours that can be booked in advance, and even a chocolate school. San Franciscans are pretty serious about their eats, so why should their chocolate be any different?
Discover amazing mural art: While you’re in the Mission District, take a tour of the most amazing collection of street art and murals in America. Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley resemble an open-air street-art museum with about 40 murals each. Precita Eyes offers low-cost walking tours if you wish to dig deeper. Also, Diego Rivera fans should head inside the Pacific Stock Exchange in the Financial District to view his masterwork Allegory of California (between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily).
Foodies to the Ferry Building: Inspired by the world’s iconic markets — from Harrods in London and the street markets of Paris, to Pike Place Market in Seattle — the resurrection of the Ferry Building brings together the greater Bay Area's specialty food purveyors under one massive roof. There are cafés, restaurants, a farmer’s market, and the Cow Girl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop. You already blew the diet with the chocolate, so you might as well indulge in some of the most mouth-watering cheese in the world. Another highlight is the celebrated Slanted Door, a nationally acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant listed by many reviewers as a do-not-miss experience.
Take in the SF Jazz Festival: There’s always a musical or theatrical happening in the city. This summer’s SF Jazz Festival promises to get your toes tapping and your glutes grinding, with an eclectic mix of shows lined up to satisfy all musical tastes. But if you’re in town earlier, Branford Marsalis appears on April 29 and 30.
Get a window view: Go to the Top of the Mark for cocktails and one of the best views in the city. Go right when it opens to get a window seat. The InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel is quite the swanky property, so you may even decide to stay over at this classic, historic landmark, especially if you lose track of time loving the city’s lights over vodka martoonies.
See the Exploratorium’s new digs: The Exploratorium, a San Francisco CityPASS attraction, recently moved from its lush location at the Palace of Fine Arts to a new, more accessible location on the Embarcadero. Famed physicist Frank Oppenheimer founded this interactive museum dedicated to experimentation. Its galleries include artwork and installations, displays about the bay’s ecosystems, seeing and listening exhibits, hands-on activities, and another full section for experiments on thoughts, feelings and social behavior.
Watch the Bay Lights: On display through March 2015, The Bay Lights sculpture consists of 25,000 individually programmed LED lights covering the western span of the Bay Bridge. Designed and configured by artist Leo Villareal, it shimmers with moving patterns that evoke raindrops, shooting stars, waves and whatever else may come into a viewer’s imagination. The best place to enjoy them is to dine at the Waterbar on the Embarcadero. Outside, the best views are at the end of Pier 14, which is the closest location to the Bay Bridge, or at the end of Pier 7 on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
Wander the park: Golden Gate Park is a wonderful respite from the crowds and the concrete, but it’s far from boring. Visitors can take a row in a boat, enjoy the walking and biking paths, and meditate in the Japanese Tea Garden. Plus, for some artistic inspiration this summer, stop in at the de Young Fine Arts Museum (another San Francisco CityPASS attraction), which is located in the park. Between June 7–October 12, 2014, it will host a special exhibition: Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection, which brings paintings by the great masters of the post-war world to San Francisco. It features 50 works by Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella.