by June Lin, community manager at Vayable, based in San Francisco.
Hey everyone! I’m kicking off a series of personal handbooks that anyone who knows their city well can contribute! In writing these handbooks, there are no rights and wrongs because everything is essentially a matter of opinion. If you want to write one for your city or a city that you know well, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
I moved to San Francisco a couple of years ago from Austin, Texas in a post-college, headed off to the real world type of move. Over the course of my time here, I grew to love not only the glistening bay and rolling hills that you can see around every street corner but also the people and relaxed vibe. Of course there are downsides like the agonizingly unreliable public transit system and wantrepreneurs present at every party, but overall this is quite a charming town.
San Francisco has very distinct districts, but (for better or for worse) most tourists never venture outside of Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and North Beach. Here’s a handy map to get you oriented.
Hayes Valley. This is where I’ve been fortunate enough to have a shoebox where I can store my stuff and my bed and occasionally stay at night. It’s a charming district filled with pretentious little boutiques, macaroon shops, and a store dedicated to only things you can bring on flights. Yeah, really. During the day, ladies that lunch and people with dogs come out in droves to Patricia’s Green so they can talk about which nearby coffee kiosk is better (Ritual or Blue Bottle) as they snack on their ice cream made in under a minute using some fancy liquid nitrogen machine. It’s a sunny paradise full of happy people and frolicking dogs that used to be shrouded under a highway until that huge earthquake in 1989.
The Mission. This is where I spend approximately 90% of my conscious time… when I’m working or playing. It’s actually kind of sad. All my tech nerd and hipster friends go here to gentrify the historically Hispanic hub with their cheese stores, pop up brunch restaurants, fixie-only bike shops, and establishments where bacon flows more freely than water. There are some outstanding eateries here and a park where grownups go to dance around in drum circles, play catch, and lick ice cream cones. The Mission is also the center for street art, vibrant street culture, and taquerias in San Francisco!
The others. Here is where I will attempt to personify the rest of the neighborhoods in San Francisco in a sentence or less.
- The Castro – This is the gay district of San Francisco, home to brunch and dance clubs.
- SoMa – Baseball fans, internet startups, expensive (yet soulless) condos, and some shady areas.
- The Tenderloin – The poorest district of San Francisco but also home to amazing ethnic food (if you know where to look) and a ton of social services organizations.
- Lower Haight – Great dive bars and good food without the pretentiousness of some places in The Mission and Hayes Valley.
- Upper Haight – Home to overly commercialized hippie stores and young people that may or may not have bohemian aspirations.
- The Marina – This is where the overgrown frat boys and sorority girls move after college.
San Francisco makes everyone a sissy when it comes to weather. Where I’m from, it gets to be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit for several months out of the year, but I get squeamish when it gets over 77 degrees these days. At night (no matter how warm it is during the day), it is cold, windy, and foggy, so be sure to bring a hoodie or a jacket and bundle up! During the summer, it’s actually colder and foggier than it is during September – November (Indian summer, San Francisco’s most glorious time), but a good thing is that it never rains!
I’m pretty convinced that the best way to get around San Francisco is by bike. If you have a car, parking and traffic will be a pain. You can rely on public transportation, but if you venture from the BART and underground Muni lines, you might be cursing the unpredictable bus as the cold wind nips at you (especially at night if you forgot to heed my warning to bring a jacket). Next Bus is the only remotely reliable timer for the bus system. The mobile version of the website is location based and pulls up the timer pretty quickly if you save it to your home screen.
You can’t use BART, Muni, and Caltrain passes interchangeably, so be sure to always carry around exact change ($2) for the bus or get a passport, but I truly don’t think it will be worth it for most people because the bus system truly sucks. You also can’t rely on cabs because they are far and few between. The most reliable and user friendly cab service you can use is Uber, but it’s pretty expensive. It’s so good, though, that I know locals that use it multiple times a day.
Talk the Talk
Do not call it “Frisco” or “San Fran.” “San Francisco” is only four syllables long, but if you must abbreviate it, “SF” or “the city” are acceptable.
Also, you should know what the following are: Twitter, TechCrunch, start-up, fixie, check in, crowd-source, the cloud (not the fluffy kind), Giants (even if you’re not into baseball). Check this out if you have a healthy sense of skepticism about the tech scene.
Dress the Part
Everyone in San Francisco errs towards the casual side, so unless you’re going to the opera, the ballet, or the symphony, dress comfortably and in layers. For men, a common outfit comprises of a combination of a t-shirt, jeans, and a blazer, but I personally think that guys should throw in a little flair, ditch the blazer, and add a vest or scarf. Most women run around the city in skinny jeans, a nice top, and boots. No one really judges you unless you wear something that says “I ❤ SF” or some other thing you found in one of those tourist trap shops in Chinatown.
Culture and Arts
San Francisco has a great street art scene. I keep an outdated blog about street art here, but if you want the real expert on this, book my friend Russell’s tour! Most of the street art is in the Mission with Clarion Alley (more modern) and Balmy Alley (more ethnic and historic) as concentrated areas that are sponsored by the Precita Eyes Mural Center. One of my other favorite murals is at Haight and Laguna, where there is a huge pink bunny statue and a bunch of other great work.
Food and Drink
There’s so much good food in San Francisco! Here are my favorite places categorized by type.
- Tu Lan. This is the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in San Francisco so far. It’s a hole-in-the-wall in a somewhat seedy part of town, but the imperial rolls, vermicelli, and fried rice are to die for. Just bring an extra person because you won’t be able to eat it all!
- Burmese Kitchen. The food here has distinct flavor, is complex and diverse in texture, and cheap! These are three of my favorite qualities in food. Try the tea leaf salad, eggplant, garlic noodles, and tamarind fish.
- Primo Patio Cafe. I was on a two-week burrito challenge, and this was by far the best burrito I had. It’s flavorful, bold, and filling Caribbean food! This place is one of the few reasons to go to SoMa, in my opinion.
Other great eats.
- Foreign Cinema. This is perhaps my favorite brunch place in the city, and going here for other meals is great too! They show foreign films in the restaurant as you are eating and serve amazing food.
- Source. Right next to Airbnb HQ, this is by far my favorite vegetarian restaurant in the city, where they serve delicious juices, pizzas, and mac and cheese.
- Tataki. You can find yummy, innovative, and sustainable sushi here!
- Sightglass Coffee. Divine drip craft coffee.
- Blue Bottle. Need I say more? This is the coffee place you must go to when you come to San Francisco. My loyalty belongs to the kiosk in Hayes Valley if you want to skip out on the farmer’s market or tourist crowd.
- Coffee Bar. The perfect place to read, drink coffee, and work on your Mac. It’s also a couple of blocks away from the Vayable office!
Hangout Spots and Nightlife
Dolores Park. This is where you’ll get cultural immersion of youth in San Francisco. On any nice day, there will be hundreds of people hanging out here. Playing Frisbee, picnicking, listening to music, playing music, reading, doing yoga, and voting for hunky Jesus on Easter.
- Rickhouse. The clientele here maybe the uppity Financial District happy hour crowd, but the western accents, wood panels, cute suspenders that the waitresses wear, and great cocktails warm my heart every time I come here with good company.
- 15 Romolo. Some of the best cocktails in the city are served here in this pretty much unlabled bar tucked away in a little alley next to some strip clubs.
- Hotel Biron. This is my favorite neighborhood wine bar around the corner from where I live. It’s cozy, romantic (so much so that my friends think that I’m trying to take them on dates when I go there), and full of great wine. I would tell most tourists to get out, but I love Vayable users too much to do so :).
Even though there are a ton of street festivals in San Francisco, I think that a lot of them end up being the same old thing. Merchants selling handcrafted something or another along with the same, tired food stands. Maybe it’s nice to go to one of them, but any more than that is way more than enough.
One of my favorite festivals is the Stern Grove Festival, where there are various bands, the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet, amongst others playing free concerts in the park during the summer. You’ll get your culture and groove on without having to watch some hipster dance around in, say, Dolores Park. Another really cool annual event is a DIY event called Maker Faire!
Even though San Francisco is a well-known travel destination, it’s actually a pretty small town that is easy to get to know. Just stay away from Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, wander around the hills to see the beauty of the city, and drink some pretentious coffee!