Cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Lombard Street — iconic, San Francisco landmarks that are a given on the must-see lists of first-time visitors. A few days of exploring those gorgeous sights are bound to have you hankering for more that the city has to offer, especially to places that fewer tourists know about. Here are my suggestions on how to discover the charming and offbeat side of San Francisco.
1 | Admire the street art
The street art scene here is one of the best in the world, boasting murals from street art legends like Banksy and Apex. And it isn’t concentrated in one area alone, giving (street) art fans a good reason to explore San Francisco’s culturally diverse districts and snap those selfies in front of your favourite murals. There are walking tour services for those who want to enjoy some street murals but don’t know where to look. If you just want a quick preview, head to Balmy Alley in the Mission District, where you’ll find the largest cluster of colourful murals in town. In fact, mural spotting in the Mission isn’t difficult at all; there’s practically one on every block, each one as fascinating as the last.
Another noteworthy location to visit is the intersection of 16th Avenue and Moraga Street. The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project is a neighbourhood-led project to create beautiful mosaic images on 163 steps. An ocean theme begins your ascent of the Tiled Steps, and gradually merges into a greener landscape with birds and flowers towards the middle. The upper half of the steps feature a crescent moon in starlit night and ends with a fiery sun just as you hit the final 20 steps. Before turning around and heading downwards again, take a few moments to enjoy the sweeping view of San Francisco’s suburbs. Also pay attention to the hillside plants beyond the banisters. The neighbourhood clearly takes pride in that too, as the flowers and shrubbery are brimming with as much colour as the tiled steps themselves.
2 | Bike or walk along the Lands End trails
Surging and crashing waves greet you as you approach the walking trails at Land’s End Lookout in the northwest point of the city. It’s wildly scenic out there, the perfect backdrop to explore the ruins of the Sutro Baths, historic shipwreck sites, a memorial to a World War II cruiser, or just sit out and picnic on a sunny day. I’m no health buff, but at Land’s End, it pays to be one. Fitness fans will love biking, hiking or jogging along the many trails, lit by the multi-coloured glow from evening sunsets. Start your trek from the trails beginning at the Land’s End Lookout visitor center, go all the way up towards the Golden Gate Bridge and you’ll be rewarded with stunning, alternate views of San Francisco’s most famous landmark. Land’s End is managed by the National Park Service, which means it’s free to enter and explore. Just be sure to mind your step on the trails — one false move and it won’t be a pretty fall.
3 | Visit ethnic neighbourhoods
San Francisco wouldn’t be quite s vibrant without the diverse neighbourhoods. Some are modern, trendy and upscale, whilst others are historically significant. The rest are heritage-rich, like the neighbourhoods of North Beach and Telegraph Hill, which are generally known as Chinatown. Established in the 1800s, it boasts the largest Chinese population outside of Asia that proudly retain many traditions from the homeland. Once past the imperial gate on Grant Avenue, visitors get to experience a taste and a feel of China. Browse clothes, toys and DVDs at mini malls, stroll through the food markets, worship at a temple or even attend a tai-chi class while you’re there. Chinatown is actually so popular, the number of visitors rivals that of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are other ethnic enclaves also worth checking out. You’re know you’re in Japantown once you can spot the Peace Pagoda, and the added bonus of going there is that you’re within walking distance to Fillmore, aka “Harlem of the West,” a neighbourhood that’s making a return to its jazz roots. Russian immigrants live in an area nicknamed Little Russia for its proximity to the Russian Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, and a Latino influence characterizes the Mission District, so make it a twofer by visiting the street murals and sampling popular offerings from Mission taquerias.
4 | Sample Asian cuisines
While you’re in the neighbourhoods, be sure to check out a few good Asian restaurants. With approximately 33 percent of the Bay Area population being Asian, tasty eats of all Asian varieties abound. Even the ones amongst us that are picky about “authenticity” will find the selection here very pleasing. The best part is, you get to enjoy mouthwatering, regional Asian cuisines within drivable distance of each other. All you need is a good city guide app like Yelp! to help you identify how and where to hunt down the best ramen, roast pork buns, satay or pho — any Asian dish that tickles your fancy really.
Because I’m partial to dim sum, I’ll recommend my personal favourite: Hong Kong Lounge on Geary Boulevard in Inner Richmond. All the quintessential Cantonese dim sum dishes — a good time to dip into some chicken feet delicacy — can be ordered here, and then some. Turnip cake (Taiwan,) xiao long bao (Shanghai) and a “coffee pork ribs” item, also make an appearance on Hong Kong Lounge’s menu. Dishes are made to order, rather than pushed around in carts, and while this may disappoint pushcart fans, the former is preferable to me. Food appears fresher when it comes from the kitchen.
Not to be missed: If there was such a thing as manna from heaven, HK Lounge’s baked roast pork buns must be it. A slightly crispy outer layer of the bun encases soft white bread that contains a warm and meaty roast pork middle. The textures of minced meat and bread combined — simply divine. The mango pudding — subtly sweet and melts in your mouth — is also worth a try.
5 | Escape the city with a road trip to Half Moon Bay.
Half Moon Bay provides a quick escape from the bustle of San Francisco if you have time for a short road trip. A 40-minute drive southwards on Route 1 will bring you to the quaint coastal town known for its year-round mild temperatures — perfect for horseback riding, birdwatching, fishing, camping and surfing. Charming little seaside inns and beach resorts dot the town if you choose to spend a night or two enjoying everything that Half Moon Bay has to offer. At Francis Beach, where visitors can go camping, sea foam from waves rushing up the beach resembles the flat white in your morning latte, and on wet, cloudy days, a fog hangs over the sand, creating the perfect setting for a murder mystery story. If that’s not your thing, then head towards Pillar Point Harbor for some whale watching instead.