You’re Not A Tourist: San Francisco
San Francisco is small—it's only 47 square miles with a population under 900,000—but it holds a deceptive number of overlooked hidden gems. From secret beaches to underrated literary events, here are 17 local haunts San Franciscans love.
San Franciscans are always looking to unplug and relax—the more out-of-the-ordinary, the better. During the annual Flower Piano series (July 11–22), pianos are hidden throughout the San Francisco Botanical Garden that anyone is invited to play, transforming its 55 acres into an outdoor concert hall. You never know what you're going to hear—Mozart echoing through the Rhododendron Garden, perhaps, or Alicia Keys covers in the Succulent Garden (in between official performances scheduled throughout the day and night). Even more relaxing is Sound Mediation San Francisco, which has gained a cult following for their harmonious sound bath meditation sessions (often sold out; book ahead) led in beautiful places like the Grace Cathedral and The Conservatory of Flowers. Attendees come with yoga mats and blankets and spend the concert lying down, savasana-style, as they listen to singing bowls, gongs, harps, and Native American flutes. Not offbeat enough for you? Audium SF, which uses 176 speakers to explore the relationship between space and music, is the first theater of its kind: visitors listen in total darkness. (Catch a performance every Thursday through Saturday.)
San Francisco's Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in the U.S., and the recent addition of China Live has helped refresh it as a dining destination. Think of it as the Chinese equivalent of Eataly—a multi-level Chinese food emporium with several restaurants, bars, and a marketplace. On the first floor, you'll find eight specialized food stations each serving a unique spin on various Chinese dishes. Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are a San Francisco obsession and Market Restaurant does them right, though the Sichuan “working hands” wonton in mala chili broth is equally good. Feeling inspired to whip up your own dish? Stop by the boutique marketplace for high-end Chinese spices, herbs, and teas to take home. Otherwise, head upstairs, where tuxedoed bartenders shake up impressive craft cocktails at the swanky, speakeasy-style Cold Drinks Bar. Hanging out here doesn't come cheap—drinks average a cool $20 each—but the unique atmosphere and memorable concoctions like The Kenny (gin, lemongrass syrup, coconut, basil, and Glen Grant 12 year) make it worthy of a special night out.
While the masses love to lighten their wallets in Union Square and the Mission District, Divisadero Street offers a treasure trove of unique independent shops without the lines. The Perish Trust, one of our favorites, displays a highly curated selection of vintage goods, quirky curiosities, and handmade items that would be right at home in your Kinfolk-loving friend's living room or apothecary. The shelves at Rare Device are filled with equally Pinterest-perfect gifts—think of it as the local artist alternative to a souvenir shop, stocked with San Francisco-themed prints, artwork, textiles, and stationery. If it's your wardrobe that is in need of a pick-me-up, head down the street to Onyx for modern clothing pieces by Bay Area fashion labels.
Who knew an island oasis was just a 10-minute Uber ride from downtown SF? Treasure Island is undergoing a massive revitalization, and at the center is its first restaurant, MerSea. In a nod to the island's naval history, the dining room is housed in shipping containers featuring large open windows and curtains that give it a cabana-esque vibe. Outside, sand, a lawn, and palm trees frame what is now, quite possibly, the best view of the city skyline of any restaurant in the Bay Area. The food is casual but made to match the view—we're talking ceviche in coconut milk with serrano peppers and Dungeness crab and slow cooked eggs for brunch. Since you've come all this way, make it a full-day excursion and pop into other neighboring newcomers like Woods Island Club, a craft brewery with a beach, and Sol Rouge, a picturesque winery with a bocce court.
When San Franciscans hit the beach on a rare hot summer day, many people book it to Baker Beach or Ocean Beach. However, between those two well-known stretches of sand is a small charming cove called China Beach, where mostly locals go. The beach's sheltered environment helps block it from gusting Pacific winds, making it better for sunbathing and picnicking (the designated area is an ideal spot for lunch alongside panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge). Afterwards, pack up and walk a short distance to the Lands End Trailhead, one of the most picture-perfect and serene places in San Francisco to catch the sunset over the Pacific.
In the Bay Area, literary events are to locals what concerts are to, say, Seattle. (This is the home of Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, and Daniel Handler, after all.) San Francisco's independent bookstore scene continues to grow and thrive. Back in 1953, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Bookstore, putting the city on the literary map. More recently, additional locations by Green Apple Books on the Park, Book Passage, and Dog Eared Books have opened in the last few years, offering not only a finely-curated selection of books but also frequent literary events. It's worth timing your trip to one of Pop Up Magazine's sold-out shows—a live magazine that utilizes performance, music, on-stage storytelling, and film.
The Phoenix Hotel
The storied history surrounding The Phoenix Hotel stretches back to the 1950s, when it was the lodging of choice for rock stars. Today, you'll find both travelers and locals hanging around this reinvented motor lodge, whose freewheeling artsy vibe is still very much alive with its pops of color and plenty of nods to street art and music. The interior courtyard is full of midcentury furniture and cabanas, which set the scene for infamous pool parties during the summer. For something a little more low-key, have a meal at Chambers Eat + Drink, which is lined with red tufted booths and vinyl records and gets reliably packed on weekends.
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