Herb Caen, San Francisco journalist once said “One day if I go to heaven… I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad. But it ain’t San Francisco.'” Whether a first visit or a 50th, this beautiful, exciting and diverse town knows just how to do it right. It somehow manages to magically blend its colorful history with cosmopolitan fanfare.
48 Hours in San Francisco
Built on 43 hills, covering only 49 square miles and surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco packs an incredible number of sights into a compact urban area. And the best way to view and experience these must-see sights is with a 2-day hop-on-hop-off city sightseeing tour with fun and informative tour guides. . Their numerous buses on various tours interweave the city and allow for easy transfer to get anywhere with very little wait.
Public transportation also makes it easy to navigate the city. Cable cars and street cars are a big part of San Francisco’s past and present. With their distinctive “ding, ding, ding”, cable cars rumble up and down the city’s infamous steep hills like mobile museum pieces. They tirelessly haul thousands of tourists every day. The beloved cable car arrived in San Francisco in 1873. Designated National Landmarks, they are the only vehicles of their kind still in operation.
San Francisco is best known for its distinctive neighborhoods, diverse, fascinating and each unique in its own right. Each visit to San Francisco brings a plethora of exciting new experiences. However, leave time for the iconic sights and restaurants, still worth your attention.
The Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf
Lined with elegant palm trees, historic pier structures and hip eateries, the Embarcadero on the waterfront includes the Ferry Building serving as a marker from which piers are sequentially numbered. It’s also the area from which cruise ships sail in and out of San Francisco Bay.
Fisherman’s Wharf of today rests on land created from the rubble of buildings destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. What could not be destroyed, however, was the love of the sea. Italian immigrant fisherman, many from Sicily answered the call when San Francisco’ s population exploded with the Gold Rush bringing the craft of their trade to the West Coast. Today, their fishing boats and eateries remain a vital element of the Wharf area’s charm.
Dungeness crab from steaming cauldrons and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl are tantalizing smells wafting from the vendors on the wharf. Both are signature San Francisco dishes. Since 1849, Boudin Bakery has been the home for the city’s famous flavorful sourdough bread.
PIER 39, a renovated bustling cargo pier is celebrating its 39th birthday this year. Home to street entertainers, restaurants, shops, the Aquarium of the Pacific and an incredible farmer’s market, it’s the boisterous crowd of sea lions that steal the show. Their famous bark’s been heard since droves of the marine mammals arrived in the pier after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Though scientists haven’t figured out why they came, it certainly appears they’re here to stay.
Another must-see is the world-famous Ghirardelli Square, once home to the famous chocolate factory. Though no longer at this location, the historic building hosts the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. Displays of its original chocolate-making machines cover the walls and free samples of its chocolates are still handed out.
Golden Gate Bridge and Presidio
The classic and symbolic icon of San Francisco is without a doubt, the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1937 this stunning landmark was widely considered unbuildable due to daunting challenges posed from the thick, shrouding fog, 60-mile-per-hour winds and strong ocean currents.
At a cost of $35 million and the lives of 11 construction workers, the 1.2 mile span took more than four years to complete. Pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the bridge are rewarded with sweeping views of the bay, city and the lush, green Marin Headlands. Even a foggy day in San Francisco, is met with clear, sunny skies on the Sausalito side.
Another way to see the bridge in all its glory is taking the Red and White Fleet’s 90-minute Bridge to Bridge Cruise that sails directly under both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, offering stunning water level views of each.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio served as a military station for more than 200 years. Union regiments trained here as far back as the Civil War. The park contains period homes and structures, hiking trails, spectacular overlooks, a visitor’s center and museum all rolled into one very historic place.
Every visitor to San Francisco needs to see Alcatraz, at least once in their lives. Located only 1.25 miles from shore this infamous prison is one of the city’s popular attractions. Best known for its reputation as a maximum-security federal penitentiary, Alcatraz housed some of the nation’s most unmanageable convicts. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were among the “invited” guests to the 12-acre island known as “The Rock.”
The island is accessible only by boats that depart from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Book these popular tours in advance. Visitors stroll past cell blocks of the abandoned and reportedly-haunted prison closed since 1963. Though there were 14 attempted escapes, most ending with inmates recaptured or killed, there’s no evidence to suggest those who weren’t recaptured ever made it across the icy bay with its treacherous currents.
Located on a steep slope of the Russian Hill district, Lombard Street is touted as “the crookedest street in the world” because of its eight sharp turns in a 40-degree descent allowing traffic to slowly meander down the steep incline at only five miles an hour. The street zigzags around colorful flora and fauna offering majestic views of the bay.
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” The history of the Haight is as colorful as the Victorian architecture that lines the streets of this eclectic neighborhood. Haight is widely regarded as the birthplace of the counter culture made famous by the hippie movement in the 60s. Home, to revolutionaries like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
Today the district still has bohemian magic with a fascinatingly unique vibe. Live guitar music still warbles from street corners, vendors hawk tie-dyed t-shirts, the smell of pot permanently wafts through the air and colorful peace signs adorn windows of its homes and businesses.
Known as the Little Italy of the West, it’s the restaurants and coffee bars that draw the crowds to this warm and friendly neighborhood. But it’s not just pasta and pizza that makes North Beach special. It’s the boutiques, bookstores and coffee houses like historic Caffe Trieste, the first espresso coffee house established on the West Coast in 1956.
Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta, an Italian immigrant founded the popular neighborhood hangout still owned and run by the family. Caffe Trieste remains busy every day.
Walls, covered with old family photos and memorabilia, display mementos of famous actors and entertainers who’ve frequented the coffee house. An antique juke box plays old familiar tunes. Every crack in the floor and every chip in the wall seems to have a story to tell. As one patron puts it “I’ve been coming here for 20 years. Nothing changes here. In a world of constant change, this just feels right.”
Just a few blocks away, the opulent and majestic spires of Saints Peter and Paul’s Church tower over the grassy piazza of Washington Square Park. Made famous when baseball great Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had photos taken on the steps, contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church did not host their famous wedding. They instead married in a civil ceremony earlier that day. Due to DiMaggio’s previous divorce his second union could not be sanctified by the church.
Walk only one block outside of North Beach and you’re in an entirely different world and seemingly a different continent altogether. The well-known ethnic neighborhood known as Chinatown is as famously San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars.
At the heart of Chinatown is Portsmouth Square, where the city’s first Chinese immigrants settled in the 1850s. Today, the neighborhood is home to more than 10,000 Chinese residents and known to locals and visitors as the place to get authentic, delectable Chinese delights and interesting herbs. Most businesses, restaurants and outdoor markets still post signs and prices in both Chinese and English.
Dining in the City by the Bay
San Francisco’s love affair with food dates back to the Gold Rush days when exotic flavors sailed into the city from around the world to satisfy the hungry needs of the prospectors, many of whom were cash-rich. Italian fishermen made a seafood stew called Cioppino.
Miners lined up early to purchase a tangy bread known as “sourdough” and the recipe for Irish Coffee originated here. The city’s culinary offerings explode with ethnic diversity. One can’t come here and not find a good restaurant on nearly every corner.
Our two favorites this trip just happened to both be on the waterfront. One the perfect melding between the old and the new. The other bringing back more of Nonna’s timeless recipes to share with its happy patrons.
Scoma’s Fresh Seafood
Scoma’s Fresh Seafood has been serving local fisherman’s fare in Fisherman’s Wharf since 1965. Serious in its “Pier to Plate” motto, daily catches travel directly from their receiving station across the pier to the restaurant to be cooked then served. It’s as fresh as you can get.
Waiters with names embroidered on white jackets with black bow ties transport us back to coastal Italy. A place where all fine dining servers are likewise attired. Their new menu is extensive.
According to Nick McGreevy, general manager, after working closely with the family, they’ve managed to find a way to “keep some of Scoma’s classic-featured traditional items that have been on the menu for over 50 years with newer dishes that tempt the more modern adventurous palate.” Hence Scoma’s offers a perfect balance of Sicilian-inspired and California-esque sustainable cuisine to diners on the San Francisco waterfront.
What this means for their hungry clientele is one amazing dining experience. Yes, they still have that famous meaty creamy Clam Chowder we all drool for. But prepare for new twists to seafood items such as Calamari alla Planca, seared, then tossed in a spicy Mariana with a touch of mint and crispy polenta crouton. We’ve never had calamari this way and we’re sold!
Another “have to have” favorite while in San Francisco is the Lazy Man’s Cioppino. This Fisherman’s Wharf original arrives packed with crab, prawns, sea scallops, mussels, fresh fish and calamari served in “Mama” Scoma’s rich tomato broth. As my spouse commented after sampling this savory bountiful stew, “if it lives in the ocean, it’s probably in here.”
Our gracious waiter, Nick, a thirty-year veteran of Scoma’s delivered our dessert. “This you are going to love” he says with a big smile and twinkle in his eye “Our 7-layer torta”. Our bellies so full, we are certain we can’t eat another bite. Yet, we find the torta criminally delicious. If desserts are made in heaven, this must be on the list.
Reminiscent of their Sicilian heritage, only the freshest locally caught seafood is served at Cappuro’s San Francisco Fish House. Established on the wharf in 1946, Cappuro’s is now in its fourth generation of being a family-run eatery.
The colorful painted carts of Sicily (Caretti) are incorporated into the restaurant’s décor. The carts provide a tribute to their “Nonna” who loved these Caretti as a girl growing up in Sicily. On any given day, you’ll find anyone from politicians to local swimming record holders laughing, chatting and dining here. All are on a first-name basis with owner, Paul Cappuro. And after sampling some of Cappuro’s best offerings, we can understand why they come.
Fresh-caught Dungeness crab is a mainstay of the restaurant. Boats bring the seafood to the dock daily. From there it goes in the pot then to the table.
The crab so delicately sweet and luscious it needed nothing else to enhance its flavor.
Paul joins us at the table with a big smile carrying yet another of Cappuro’s specialties. He proudly proclaims “It’s not Rice-a-Roni that’s the San Francisco treat, it’s actually our Sand Dabs.”
This Pacific winner is a flat, delicate, buttery fish, grilled to perfection with light seasoned breadcrumbs, then placed in a melted butter vino bianco sauce with capers. This delectably prepared fish literally melts in your mouth.
A special side dish is Nonna’s original recipe of homemade Gnocchi Della Casa, potato dumpling pasta with pesto sauce. Guaranteed we’ve never had gnocchi this good. We pass on dessert only to be presented with a to-go box of Nonna’s famous almond and chocolate chip biscotti.
Until Next Time
With its myriad of hills and spectacular bay, San Francisco beguiles with natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods, and contagious energy.
Its diverse, eclectic people, iconic sights, phenomenal restaurants, and fascinating history are world famous. This unique, appealing city makes it wonderfully easy to tap into the good life. 48 hours in San Francisco leaves you wishing for a little more time.
As our plane departs from the airport at sunset, we glance down toward the twinkling lights of the city below. It’s like a sendoff wink with this comforting message “Don’t worry, you’ll be back.”