San Francisco: off the tourist trail
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range
If you want to avoid the tourist hordes in San Francisco, check out these suggestions for some more unusual activities to try and off-the-beaten-track locations to explore
The secret to avoiding the tourist hordes of San Francisco starts with your hotel. Most guides and travel agents push you to either Union Square (loud and can get rough at night) or Fisherman's Wharf (touristy, bland chain hotels and expensive). However, outside the tourist zones is the fabulous area known as Pacific Heights, which fades into Japantown along Sutter Street.
Where to stay
Although there are many places to stay in this area, two mid-range hotels that deserve a particular mention are the Queen Anne Hotel and Hotel Tomo. The Queen Anne is a period hotel, formerly a school, but now restored in a Victorian style. It is also reputed to be haunted - if you ask for the haunted room, on the fourth floor, they are happy to oblige. Hotel Tomo has been decorated in a Japanese pop-culture style, and has free Internet access and large comfortable rooms. Both hotels are on Sutter Street, within two blocks of each other, and are conveniently located close to the shops and restaurants of Japantown, and the more western businesses of Van Ness. They are also conveniently close to major bus routes to the Union Square area, the Marina district and Presidio, and the Lower Haight and Castro. Public transport in San Francisco is excellent, so it is a good idea to use it!
Off the tourist trail
Each of the following activities takes approximately half a day. When we went, in late April (one of the most popular times with tourists, owing to the weather), we sometimes found ourselves totally on our own, and free to enjoy the scenery. At other times there were small groups of people around, but it was still well worth the effort.
in late April, Japantown hosts the Cherry Blossom Festival, a Japanese cultural event. Stalls fill the streets and there are shows, exhibits and all kinds of activities. It is well worth spending half a day there, possibly combined with a general exploration of Japantown. Unlikely Chinatown, it has little history to it, but the shopping mall there has largely Asian-themed shops and, at least on our visit, no chain stores. It's also a much safer, more welcoming place to do your gift shopping than Chinatown. There is a large, comfortable cinema, and simply walking along Sutter Street and Post Street you'll find many interesting sights to look at. One recommendation: at the deli where the shopping street opens onto Sutter, you can get a hot pastrami sandwich for $2.50 - useful to know if funds are low!
Every night, at 7pm, an organised ghost tour leaves from the Queen Anne Hotel. For $20, a local storyteller, who (depending on your beliefs) is either psychic or an excellent stage magician, shows a group (about 10 on our night) around the Pacific Heights district, telling ghost stories along the way, as well as filling you in on local history. Just remember to take a coat, as, regardless of how warm it was in the day, it gets freezing at night. The tour lasts about three hours, and is well worth the money.
The Wave Organ
West along the bay from Fisherman's Wharf lies the Presidio and Marina district. Along the coast in this district, you get one of San Francisco's few beaches. Walk to the yacht club and follow the jetty out to sea, however, and you find one of the most peaceful spots in the city: the Wave Organ. A small headland has been fitted with tubes and sculptures, to create eerie music from the lapping of the waves. It's very clever, and few people make the (admittedly long, and poorly signposted) trek out there, so you can sit in peace to enjoy the unbelievable views and listen to the sea, surrounded by wild fennel and rosemary bushes. Afterwards, walk back to the Marina, which has many great coffee shops.
Finally, if you are up to the (serious) slopes, spend a day wandering around Russian Hill. The steep climbing will put off most casual explorers, but Ina Coolbrith Park provides glorious views of the city, surrounded by fabulous trees and (if you are lucky) wild parrots. Macondray Lane is possibly the most picturesque place I have ever visited, and supposedly inspired Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. The tourists briefly appear at Lombard Street, but then vanish again when you come to the Diego Rivera Gallery, a small art-space, hidden in an art college (which is itself a work of art), showing both the work of students and a large mural.
Golden Gate Park
You may think suggesting this as a less common tourist location is insane, as it will be packed with tourists. However, if you explore, there are many small groves, and less frequently visited attractions, such as the Japanese Tea Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers.
Shops and cafes
Union Square is chain-store hell. You are better concentrating on the quirky shops in each district. As well as Japantown, Pacific Heights has Filmore Street. Heading north from the junction of Filmore and Sutter you'll find a wide mixture of great local, independent shops, selling both clothing and homes goods.
Need to know
The vast majority of the city is safe, even the areas people will tell you are rough. However, we felt a little uncomfortable when passing through the Lower Haight. Passing south along Filmore was also a little questionable, as was the area along Market Street, passing west, until you get to the Castro. For LGBT travelers, the vast majority of places present no problem (again, with those few exceptions). Finally, although we only passed through it in a taxi, the area known as the Tenderloin was very rough-looking, and I would suggest avoiding it, save to visit specific attractions, such as some of the museums there.
One final thing: compared to New York, the locals are shockingly friendly. If you look lost and confused, people will come and offer directions.