Heading to the brilliant, bawdy, brisk, beautiful and ballsy city by the bay (aka San Francisco) anytime soon? Here’s a little primer of 9 nuggets that a mid-summer visit turned up, full of ideas for both first-time visitors and seasoned San Fran fans. From where to sleep, where to nosh, where to get arty or where to rub up against a handsome hairy local, we’re here to help!
1. HOTEL HELP
When sleeping in San Francisco, you can’t go wrong with booking a room any of the city’s many Kimpton hotels. They’re sprinkled around town (Embarcadero, Soma, Union Square) and are reliably stylish and reasonable. Another handy spot is the fun and frisky Hotel Diva, a sleek little boutique number that’s part of the Personality Group. We stayed there two nights (no, we weren’t doing their special/naughty “Fifty Shades of Grey” package; maybe next time), and the experience was dandy.
A great bargain option is also the Good Hotel, a little motel on the edge of Soma’s seedy side, tucked just around the corner from some of Folsom Streets best new upscale bars and eateries. It’s stylish and really pleasant. And presiding over a slightly dodgy patch of Market Street you’ll find the Renoir Hotel. It’s a San Francisco classic, with big rooms, basic but nice furnishings and it’s right smack dab between the Castro, the Mission and Union Square. Yes, the street traffic outside is sketchy… But the place was recently bought by new owners and glam upgrades are coming. We stayed here two nights and were happy (and entertained by all the Euro families we met in the elevators; welcome to SF folks!).
2. GIN IS IN.
For a much more luxe place to sleep, splurge and hit up the Mandarin Oriental. It’s a SF classic (it’s been there 25 years) but they’re completing a massively fabulous and extensive refurbishment, and everything is new, new, new from top to bottom! From its rooms perched atop the 3rd-tallest building in the city, you can lounge in your gorgeous bed and watch the evening fog roll in as the sun sets behind the TransAmerica building. And then die happy. (Scroll to the bottom of this article for a peek at the insanely fab view.)
Or to sample the hotel’s pleasures on a smaller (but more potable) scale, just sail in to the Mandarin’s fabulous newly revamped Brasserie S&P bar, and go crazy over the stunning gin cocktails they’ve got on offer. Seriously, from jacked-up gin and tonics to more elaborate juniper-fueled concoctions, it’s the perfect way to kick off your evening amid some of the city’s sharpest locals and jet-settiest travelers. Among the gin cocktails we sampled, the “Indian Summer in Mt. Tam” and the “Garden Envy” were our favorites. Cheers!
3. MYSTIC MEAT
And just one more hotel mention (Hey… you gotta sleep!), consider the brand spanking new Mystic Hotel, tucked smartly on Stockton Street not far from Union Square and Chinatown. It’s another sleek and stylish yet friendly option that’s just been opened as the premiere hotel venture of Chef Charlie Palmer. And even if you don’t stay there, eat at the hotel’s killer Burritt Tavern, San Francisco’s first restaurant from uber-chef Palmer.
When we dined on a Tuesday, a jazz trio was playing the bar (which was actually cool and groovy – not cheesy at all) and from the craft cocktails (all hail the Poquito Piquante!) on through our entire meal (fresh oysters, a fried brussel sprouts salad, a Grilled Duroc pork chop that could save humanity) it was a very winning experience. Also, Mr. Palmer’s steaks are legendary. The menu changes seasonally so keep going back. Enjoy!
4. NO PLACE LIKE NOPA
My boyfriend Nicholas had eaten at Nopa a couple of years ago and loved it. The smart lads at Immaculate Infatuationhad gushed about it. So, there was no way I was gonna miss out on eating at this haven of organic, wood-fired, new American, urban-rustic cuisine.
Thank God, I didn’t. It was the best meal we ate in town, hands down. We started with killer cocktails (another Sunshine Fix, please), then came a melon salad, little fried fishes, houseemade papardelle with to-die-for fennel sausage, and then a pork chop that would make us see God (and yes, God was oinking,).
The room at Nopa is buzzing and service goes late, so keep it in mind for a swank late-night meal, too. But book ahead if you can!
BONUS: The servers at Nopa were fun, friendly and even kind of flirty, they know the menu up and down and enthusiastically sound off with recommendations if asked. Thanks, fellas! Love, love and love!
5. TAKE YOURSELF OUT
If you even slightly like baseball, or have just always meant to go to a baseball game and haven’t, then GO NOW to see the San Francisco Giants play at AT&T Park. The venue is one of the country’s best places to see a ball game; there’s not a bad seat in the place. The food on offer is killer (this is SF after all). We noshed on amazing gourmet nachos that were covered in perfectly spicy chicken and beans and cheese and salsa and… they rocked! Then later we snarfed down one of Johnson’s Sheboygan Bratwursts with fresh sauerkraut, sauteed onions and spicy mustard. Then came some peanuts and lots of good beer.
Also, the Giants fans rocked. We were seated in a happy sea of orange as the hometown boys beat the Houston Astros, and the jolly atmosphere throughout the game was infectious. And like some other fans (I’m looking at you Phillies and Dodgers folks), the Giants Nation were a largely respectable but still vociferous bunch. Good vibes all around! Oh, and bring a sweater or two. Even in July, it’s likely to be downright chilly. All the more reason for more beer… Or even a Ghirardelli hot chocolate.
6. CREATURES & COUTURE
Two fantastic museums sit grandly facing each other smack dab in the middle of SF’s lush and stately Golden Gate Park. For science geeks, nature buffs, and folks with kids, make a beeline to the excellent and entertaining California Academy of Sciences. Yep, it’s the sprawling structure with the totally rad furturistic/farmy rooftop garden (think Barbarella meets a co-op garden in Berkeley), but inside is an amazing and vast rainforest experience (don’t take home any butterflies), gorgeous tidal pools, friendly staffers and then… down in the hull of the vast museum is one of the best aquariums you’ll ever visit.
Across the way is the deYoung Museum, home to cool art and fierce contemporary exhibits. Right now, you can catch the big Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit, complete with freaky talking mannequins, rock-and-roll couture for the generations, Madonna’s Blonde Ambition corsets, fun videos and a zillion jawdropping gowns. And yes, you can take home your own cute signature French naval sweater. Make Pierre et Gilles proud! And be sure to get to the deYoung by 4pm, so you can get to the top of museum’s big helipad-looking tower for a stellar view of the park (unless the whole thing is engulfed in fog, which can happen – a lot.).
7. SHOP HAYES VALLEY
Hayes Valley (along Hayes Street from around Gough to Webster streets) is crammed full of cutesy shops and boutiques full of stylish ladies’ togs, clothes for kids and nifty home furnishings. And along the way you’ll find Marine Layer, which is like a homemade SF-version of American Apparel crossed with J. Crew preppiness, but with a little California granola blended in. I got a super-soft nautical stripey T-shirt for $32.
If you want to make a Saturday of it, go for brunch first at Stacks, a deliriously good huge cafe that teems with eaters on weekends. Get there by noon, and when you get seated, order the mimosa. They’ll bring a mini-bottle of champagne and a little carafe of fresh OJ to you and let you do the rest. It’s perfect!
8. HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR TUBESTEAK?
San Francisco is still the homeland of kooky, twisted gay fun. Especially if your brand of gayness veers towards smart, beardy, hipster/hippie guys who favor old-school beats, love Burning Man and sport wicked senses of humor. (I’m in!!!) Safe bets for NSFW-nights out are Truck, a fab dirty/silly bar which hosts drag shows, gets sleazy late on Tuesday nights, and always has something freaky and delightful going on.
For old-school disco lovers, join the bearded skinny boys at Tubesteak Connection, a weekly Thursday party at the tacky/brilliant Tenderloin shoebox, Aunt Charlie’s. DJ Bus Station John serves up some serious obscure disco musical nuggets here. (Here’s NYC’s own DJ Josh Sparber’s take on Tubesteak.) Another recommended dance party is Something at The Stud on Fridays (think manly men twirling and some draggy, arty types) and on Tuesday to make it really simple, 440 Castro packs in a friendly furry fun crowd.
If you want cocktails in SoMa without the gay smut attached, here are two fantastic options: Head to the Bloodhound for a vibe that’s cheery in a hunting lodge/upscale rec-room way, buzzing with smart-looking 20/30-something men and women, and featuring a funny wise-cracking staff who serve up excellent cocktails and really good beer. Or consider popping just across the street about a block away to Terroir, a heavenly wine bar with great food on offer, too.
9. EVERY DAY IS HUMP(HRY) DAY
Last week in San Francisco the temperatures on some days were in the brisk, high 50’s with that classic fog and a chill blanketing everything. But one day was super-sunny, with temps around 80 — serious ice cream cone weather! So we worked up a little sweat strolling through the Mission, popping into bookstores (they still exist) and gorging on some fantastic gourmet ice cream at Humphry Slocombe on Harrison (at 24th St.). The flavors change often and are always a kooky mix of unexpected delights, like Cayenne Cantaloupe or Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee. I had their legendary “Secret Breakfast,” a blend of bourbon and corn flakes flavors. It was amazing.
A FEW FINAL QUICK TIPS…
Like food? And lots of really, really good food of all sorts? Head to the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero and just roam around eating everything from uber-gourmet empanadas, burgers, gelato, Vietnamese takeout and… Oysters! Yep, I’m a sucker for the friendly servers, gorgeous waterside views and yummy fresh mollusks at Hog Island Oyster Company. Knock some of those rawboys back with a glass of Muscadet and call it a day…
If you’re gonna see lots of museums and sights, consider snatching the CityPass. It’s $69 but gets you into a bunch of the major museums (SF MoMA, the deYoung, Legion of Honor, California Academy of Sciences, etc) and gets you rides on all the city’s MUNI transit. Plus other discounts, too.
And about taxis… SF has pretty good taxi service, provided by about 40 different companies with cabs coming in all shapes and colors. But here’s a note: Always pay attention to which company’s taxi you’re getting into, and get a receipt from your driver. If you leave something behind, unless you remember the name of the company you rode with, you’re screwed. (To paraphrase Tony Bennett, “I left my iPhone in San Francisco…” in the back of a cab. Urgh.)
If you wanna use a gay-owned and rootsy cab company while in SF, call Homombiles. It’s a pay-by-donation serve by and for queer folks. They’re great. And trivia tidbit: Lynn Breedlove, a local queer icon and lead singer of Tribe 8, started the company!
That said, have a blast, eat and drink everything, and meet some foxy locals. The city is one of the world’s best. And don’t forget your sweater. Miss San Fran can be a chilly date any time of the year.
STILL NEED MORE GOOD SAN FRANCISCO TRAVEL TIPS?
Just zip over to the official San Francisco Travel Association site and the good folks there can overwhelm you with handy info.