Several times now, British friends who are coming to the Bay Area have asked me for my recommendations of places to go, places to eat and things to do. I LOVE helping people plan trips so I’m only too happy to write LONG emails listing things I think they’d like. Then it occurred to me that this would make a great blog post and then, in the future, I could just email them this link with a few modifications.
Bear in mind I wrote this in April 2017 – things change. Cafes and restaurants go out of business. New things open, some things close. But hopefully this is useful stuff if you’re coming to the Bay Area!
For running recommendations, click HERE.
My favourite thing to do with visitors is to rent bikes and cycle along the waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge, over the bridge, down to Sausalito and get the ferry back. It’s about 11 miles, it’s pretty flat (although there are a few hills, I can’t lie). But the views are amazing. DO take layers – the bridge is ALWAYS freezing but people NEVER realise it and so they have a miserable experience. Also be sure to check ferry times in advance and get there in plenty of time at weekends and on holidays. Half way round, just under the bridge is my favourite cafe, the Warming Hut. Amazing views, excellent coffee, good cake a wonderful gift shop and nice (hot) hipster guys. Rent bikes with ‘Bike the Bridge’.
Sausalito is lovely, I love to wander around and people-watch. There is excellent ice-cream (Lappert’s) and one of my fave restaurants (Salito’s) is on the waterfront there. It’s not too expensive and you can have a glass of wine on the water.
Golden Gate Park is good for a day. The California Academy of Sciences is excellent (good cafe) and worth the entrance fee. At Stow Lake you can rent rowing boats and pedalo boats which is nice on a sunny day. Also good pierogis at the cafe. Further down the park is a field of bison and where the park meets the ocean is a lovely cafe/restaurant called the Beach Chalet. In the park, the best playground is the Koret’s Children’s Corner which is a great play park if you have kids.
Ocean Beach is beautiful but LETHAL. DO NOT let your kids in the water there, people are killed all the time. I don’t let my son play in the ocean at all, the coastline is really dangerous. But the beach is pretty to play on. Further north, if you have a car, is Baker Beach which is also really lovely, it has amazing beach views of the bridge so it gives the best photo opps in the city, I think.
Alcatraz is good and kids should enjoy it. If you want to do it, book it NOW…it books up solidly the whole summer.
Th Exploratorium science museum is on the Embarcadero (waterfront) and it’s excellent. Not cheap but really good. I’m not even science-y and I like it.
There’s a parkrun on Crissy Field near the bridge at 9am on a Saturday. Coffee and doughnuts afterwards.
Get a car, drive over the bridge and head up Hawk Hill for the very best views of the bridge, they’re amazing! Come off at Alexander Ave, turn left back under the 101, take the first right and start climbing. That whole area, the Marin headlands is gorgeous and excellent for hiking and good views!
In the Marin Headlands is the Nike Missile Site! Check opening times before you go but it’s REALLY good! Gives you the cold war shivers!
Also north of the bridge, in Marin County, is Muir Woods where there’s a forest of redwood trees. Redwood trees are my obsession here, they’re the most amazing, tall, beautiful trees in the world. I love them. I recommend visiting and I recommend the cheese/onion scones at the cafe. If you have a car, I actually prefer the redwoods in Huddart Park, 20 miles south of the city in Woodside. MUCH quieter, you have them to yourselves, and you can eat at my favourite restaurant, Alice’s, at the junction of 84 and Skyline!!
There are some lovely parks in the city. I like Dolores Park in the Mission (the parking is a shocker, though). The views are amazing and the play park is the best in the city. There are some excellent cafes nearby…the Dolores Park Cafe on the bottom corner is really nice and just round the corner is Tartine, a bakery which does the best croissants/almond croissants/pastries in the city. Also nearby is Bi-Rite ice-cream which people love. My fave ice-cream place is Smitten – their ice-cream is some of the best I’ve ever had, they have four locations around the city so google which is the closest. You shouldn’t leave SF without having Smitten.
People love Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a total tourist trap (kind of like Leicester Square where no local actually goes) but people do love it. The Ghiradelli Chocolate factory is well worth a visit, their sundaes are enormous. Nearby is the Buena Vista Cafe and they do amazing Irish Coffees as well as good brunch food.
Teens will prob like the Go Car rental which I have always wanted to do, but it’s too grown up for my little one.
Also on the Embarcadero is the Ferry Building, which I love. It’s a lovely old building filled with nice food stores and cafes. You’ll like it!! There’s good coffee there (Blue Bottle coffee). The line takes FOREVER but the coffee is good.
The best hiking (and trail running) is on Mt Tamalpais (Mt Tam) in Marin County. You can drive to the top and the views are amazing. The best hikes (IMHO) start from Pantoll Ranger Station – Steep Ravine is my favourite trail but it’s called Steep for a reason.
My favourite beach is Stinson Beach which is also up on Mt Tam. It’s a long drive but totally worth it. The beach is lovely, the ocean is FAIRLY safe as long as you’re careful and we’ve had great days out there.
Teens might like Dogpatch Boulders to do some rock climbing. There’s good ice cream next door at Mr & Mrs Miscellaneous.
We really like Half Moon Bay, about 20 miles down the coast from SF. Just north, at Moss Beach Harbor, is a fantastic locals-only beach off West Point Ave which is totally safe for the kids as it’s on the harbor so there are no waves. You can kayak there or SUP and there are plenty of places to eat nearby. Downtown HMB is lovely – very sweet. DO NOT go to the British pub – it’s rubbish and they do bangers & mash with packeted potato! Sam’s Chowder House, near the harbor, is wonderful – it’s a little pricey and there are super-long queues at the weekend but it’s great.
My favourite museum is in Oakland – the Oakland Museum of California. It’s wonderful!
In terms of sports, it’s worth seeing a baseball or football game if you’ve not done that before. We really loved watching the San Jose Sharks ice-hockey too.
Things to bear in mind:
- I think SF is very safe but be careful as ever. One particularly dodgy area is the junction of 6th and Market and around there, plus the whole Tenderloin area. Steer clear.
- Bring all the layers. You NEVER know what it will be like and the climate changes dramatically around the city.
- This sounds petty but don’t call it San Fran. It really bugs locals. Call it San Francisco, SF or ‘the city’ Don’t call it Frisco.
- Download Uber or Lyft and use them a lot. But you’ll need a car seat for your little one! The law is tight on this one. Or rent a car.
- Parking is a shocker but driving is easy. I think drivers are more generous than in the UK.
- I’ve mentioned a lot of my favourite cafes and restaurants. They’re all kid friendly. I’d recommend downloading the YELP app – people basically yelp anything they’re looking for, and I’d trust their cafe recommendations etc. A few more places I love are:
– the Stable Cafe in the Mission. Excellent brunch. EXCELLENT cafe au lait.
– I like Absinthe Bistro in Hayes Valley (basically downtown). It’s a little fancy (date night?) but lovely and there’s a Smitten ice-cream opposite for dessert.
– There’s an amazing second-hand book shop in the top left corner of the city, called Green Apple Books. If you like books, it’s worth the drive out there and there are excellent eateries around the shop!
– We love Live Sushi in Potrero Hill – great sushi, reasonable prices. Follow this up with cocktails at Epic Steakhouse or Waterfront Bar on the Embarcadero for great Bay Bridge views.
– There are some great shopping/cafe/people-watching areas I’d recommend. 1) Union St between Octavia & Pierce, 2) Fillmore St between Clay and Bush and 3) Hayes St between Gough and Webster. Fantastic parts of the city!
Away from the city…
Personally I’d always recommend Lake Tahoe, which is my favourite place! 4-5 hours away from SF, it’s the most gorgeous place. Skiing in winter, hiking or cycling in the summer plus kayaking, SUP-ing, hanging out..it’s wonderful. I prefer the north shore – I love Tahoe City and Rosie’s Cafe! My favourite town in the whole of California is Truckee, just north of the lake. I’d move there forever if I could.
Santa Barbara is wonderful. It’s a good 5 hour drive without stops but it’s a lovely lovely city. If you go there, I can recommend a very good airbnb with a cat.
Yosemite is also wonderful but in a different way. If you go and can’t get lodging in the valley, stay in Groveland or Mariposa.
People rave about Monterey, it doesn’t rock my world but I may be wrong. It’s about 2 hours away. There’s an excellent aquarium (one of the best) and the coast road is pretty but I’m more a mountain girl than an ocean girl so I’m biased. South of Monterey is Big Sur which is a wonderful coast road – do stop at Nepenthe restaurant. There’s an expensive part but also a very reasonable cafe part with a terrace with the best view!
Also consider the Russian River – about 2 hour north of SF. Drive up the 101 to Santa Rosa then turn left and stay in Guerneville. We discovered this area last year and we love it. Kayaking, hiking in redwoods (running!), gorgeous coastline (Bodega Bay, Point Reyes) and nice wineries. We went back about 5 times in one year.
Wine Country is lovely but not ideal with kids. My favourite wineries are in Napa – we love Artesa to start with – buy a glass of sparkles to drink on the terrace. We like Frog’s Leap for the lovely garden and the lazy cat, and Sterling for the cable-car ride up to the winery and the incredible views from the terrace.
So there you go…our favourite things after 7 happy years of living here!!! Hope this is helpful.