Take an extra day or two before and after your business trip and explore San Francisco, referred to by locals as ‘The City’ as though there were no other. And there isn’t, at least, not another city like San Francisco. Here’s a collection of (mostly) free stuff to do that you really shouldn’t miss.
• The Wave Organ, a natural acoustic experience listening to the sound of San Francisco Bay, is located at the east end of the Marina jetty at San Francisco Marina behind the St.Francis Yacht Club. Built like a hobbit house with benches, the Wave Organ has quirky little nooks and crannies for listening to the sound of the water swirling in and out of variously shaped pipes, pianissimo or allegro, echoed or amplified. Rhythmic, soothing, it’s a lovely place to just sit in the sun and let the seagulls provide the counter-point. It’s best at high tide, but barring that, try for sunset and watch the sun disappear into the Pacific Ocean behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
• South Park is a little piece of Paris tucked between Second and Third Streets, not far from AT&T Park. The entire park is currently undergoing a major renovation that includes new trees, new turf, shiny new architecturally innovative play equipment , as well as new benches and picnic tables. Word on the street is that the beautifully redesigned space will open to the public at the end of February, 2017.
Once the chain link fencing comes down, you can channel Cate Blanchett in ’Blue Jasmine’ by sitting on the bench where Jasmine quietly divorced reality at the end of the film. You’ll find that bench at the end of the park closest to Second Street, across from the Mexican restaurant.
A small urban island of spreading trees, bright flowers, green grass, and sunny benches, filled with children playing and people walking dogs of every shape and size, it is reminiscent of the jewel-like parks that contribute so much of the charm of Parisian neighborhoods.
The seriously Parisian part is at the hyper-trendy The Butler and The Chef bistro at the opposite end of the park, open only for breakfast and lunch. The French toast is made with brioche and the ham quiche has huge chunks of Parisian ham. Try not to swoon.
• Budget time for great budget shopping at San Francisco’s best insider shopping destinations: The best consignment shop ever is Goodbyes (actually two shops across the street from each other) at 3464 Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights. Goodbyes carries popular brands (Gap, J.Jill, Chico), American designers (Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors), and the serious stuff: Chanel, Dior, and Armani as well as a wild variety of boots and shoes. The vintage selections include designer purses, capes, coats, and furs. Meander down Sacramento Street wherever you will. The shops are uniformly wonderful, offering everything from custom bathing suits to hand-embroidered baby clothes to raincoats and warm sweaters for dogs.
• Want more shopping? Designer shops featuring everything from clothes to home furnishings, from antiques to boutiques, from sidewalk cafes to busy restaurants are found on Fillmore Street. Walk either direction from Sacramento and Fillmore. Union Street between Gough and Divisidero Streets is chock-full of art galleries, interior design shops, luxury day spas, and great local hangouts like Perry’s (1944 Union Street; 415/922-9022) or the Balboa Café (3199 Fillmore at Greenwich; 415/921-3944). Do a bit of time travel at the 1861 Octagon House at 2645 Gough Street at Union Street (415/441-7512). It’s only open on second Sundays, and second and third Thursdays of the month, from 12:noon to 3:pm, and the house is furnished in period antiques. Don’t miss the charming park-like garden just behind the Octagon House; It’s a great place to spot hummingbirds when the fuchsias are in bloom.
• So far, you haven’t hit a single chain or department store. For those, try Union Square, on Post and Geary Streets between Powell and Mason. Make it an authentically San Francisco experience by wandering down Maiden Lane on the east side of Union Square. Check out the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in San Francisco at 140 Maiden Lane for a uniquely dramatic take on how commercial space should be designed.
• Just a couple of blocks off Union Square is a treasure house of rare books: Antiquarian book dealer Richard Haines’ bookshop, Argonaut (876 Sutter Street between Bush and Jones). Argonaut houses a superb collection rare books, maps, and ephemera of San Francisco and early California. Neat note: Argonaut was the inspiration for the bookstore in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’; as Hitchcock himself put it, “This is what a bookshop should be.” Give yourself ample time to browse; once you’re there, it’s hard to tear yourself away.
• The hottest spot in town is Valencia Street in the Mission District. It’s a wild and wonderful mix of hot new eateries, pop-up stores, funky second-hand shops (one of which shares space with a bike rental shop called Public), traditional Hispanic markets with outdoor produce displays featuring tropical fruits and vegetables , and the best hot chocolate place on the planet. Go to Dandelion (740 Valencia;415/349-0942), on Valencia between 18th and 19th Streets, and order the European hot chocolate.
It’s a mouthful of ecstasy. Serious chocolate occurs in other forms as well, but the European hot chocolate qualifies as an epicurean epiphany. (Photo credit: M. DeCoudreaux)
• At the opposite end of Valencia is STUFF (up toward Market Street, at 150 Valencia Street; 415/864-2988), a huge antiques collective with three stories of, well, stuff, from mid-century furniture to name designer costume jewelry to Japanese fishing net floats to stainless steel plated custom office furniture to architectural artifacts, and this description barely scratches the surface. They always have coffee, and often have cookies or cake free for the nibbling.
• Speaking of eating, San Francisco has some of this country’s best food, bar none. The James Beard Foundation recently named Chef Charles Phan’s Slanted Door Restaurant at the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street the best restaurant in America.
Use OpenTable.com (http://www.OpenTable.com) to book your table well in advance of arrival; reservations are notoriously hard to score.
For a local neighborhood feel, hit the 102-year-old landmark Swan Oyster Depot at 1517 Polk Street (Open 8:am – 5:30pm; 415/673 – 2757) on Russian Hill. Swan’s offers every type of oyster known to man as well as San Francisco’s native Dungeness crab, shrimp, and a superb clam chowder. Go early: There are only 20 stools at the bar. Lunchtime almost always has a line out the door, but it moves quickly.
• After decades at the corner of Valencia and Market Street, the immense art supplies shop called Flax (415/552-2355) has moved into space at Fort Mason. If you love paper, notebooks, journals, diaries, Filofax, Moleskine, sketch books, water colors, fountain pens, great pencils, and all the other tools and accoutrements of putting your heart on paper, you will fall hopelessly, helplessly in love at Flax. Click on the link for their website at www.flaxart.com to see the scale of their offerings. If you’re smart, you’ll take along two friends: One to hold your wallet, and the other to carry a crow bar to pry you out of there at closing time.
The visitors bonus they never even mention? The Fort Mason location offers glorious views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, Angel Island, and a very good chance to spot sea lions and harbor seals, not to mention seagulls and pelicans. Just steps away from Flax, dine at Greens, the nationally recognized vegetarian restaurant. With a seat by the window, you can watch yachts maneuver in and out of the San Francisco Marina, and container ships putting out to sea.
You are going to love discovering San Francisco!