Wonderful and Weird Things to do in San Francisco
I moved to San Francisco in August 2011 and have never looked back. This page is a list of some of the more interesting places and activities I've discovered in my time here. I only list places that I have personally tried out and liked and/or found weird or interesting.
- The Audium is a completely dark theatre where tens of speakers distributed all over the room create "sound sculptures" on Friday and Saturday evenings. It was probably mind-blowingly cutting-edge in the 70s, and still remains an interesting experience, even if it's slightly showing its age.
- Float Matrix has sensory deprivation tanks that you can rent by the hour. You float on a pool of saturated epsom salts in complete darkness and silence, meditating about your life and thinking about the fairness of the tax code. Currently $75 for a one-hour float, and reservations are required.
- City Rent-a-car is a local car rental agency where you can rent a Porsche Boxster, Corvette, BMW 328i, or similarly fun car for a non-insignificant amount of money. It costs somewhere between maxing out the upgrades at Hertz and the absurdly-priced "supercar clubs". Unfortunately, renting on weekends requires a 2-day minimum rental, which runs somewhere in the $500 range.
- Harbin Hot Springs is about 2 hours from San Francisco, and is a natural hot spring community deep in the mountains of Lake County. It's full of hippies, natural foods that are actually quite delicious, and parts of it are clothing-optional. If you can stay overnight, they have campgrounds. If you don't mind spending a little, you can rent out one of their dome structured room up in the hills -- these are literally giant domes with psychedelic artwork on the outside, and come with a private hot spring pool that you can use at night.
- Phipps Country Store & Farm is about an hour south of San Francisco along the Pacific Highway (Rt. 1), which is a beautiful drive. Depending on the season, you can go berry-picking in their fields. They are a farm, with your usual range of farm animals and a selection of exotic birds (including peacocks). It's also usually much warmer down in Pescadero than it is in San Francisco, and much less foggy, which can be a nice change. If you do drive down here, ditch the shortest route found by Google Maps and drive down Rt. 1 instead.
- Sundance Kabuki Theatres has about four movie theatres with a full attached bar, and you can take your drinks in to the movie theatre with you. According to my sources, one (and only one) of the bars is supplied by Francis Ford Coppola's eponymous winery.
- Loved to Death is a taxidermy store near Haight and Ashbury. They have shrunken heads, animals skeletons, and earrings with embedded scorpions. Definitely an interesting place to check out.
- Peoples Barber is just your regular mid-range barbershop, with one exception: free beer. Drink while you wait, and drink while your hair is skillfully cut. It's all skillfully rolled into the price of the $40 haircut.
- Isis Oasis is an animal sanctuary and nature retreat about 90 minutes north of San Francisco. They have ocelots, emus and dozens of exotic birds on the premises. However, it might be a bit more hippie than average, and some of the staff can come off a bit strange (to say the least), even by local standards. The saving grace is that it's largely empty and at $100 a night, is a pretty good deal for a pool and jacuzzi. Although it says "pet friendly", I would avoid taking your dog there. E-mail if you'd like to know why.
- Jackson Arms is a shooting range near the SFO airport. You don't need a license to shoot, but must already know how to load and handle a firearm (there is a brief test before they will rent to you). Given its proximity to San Francisco, this is excellent for lovers of irony.
- The USS Pampanito is a World War II submarine moored at Fisherman's Wharf. Lots of people come to the Wharf for the touristy trinkets, but completely overlook this gem. It's a self-guided tour inside the extremely tight quarters of an actual WWII submarine.
- Cars Dawydiak is a consignment shop for used luxury and sports cars. They have a nice showroom that you can stroll into and check out everything from relatively recent Porsche 911s to the occassional vintage Aston Martin.
- If you're in Golden Gate Park, you can see buffalo and bison and rent a boat without leaving the park.
- The California Academy of Sciences is a museum and aquarium inside Golden Gark Park, which is interesting in its own right. However, every Thursday night, they kick out the kids and open up a dance floor and bars inside the museum. It's called Nightlife at the Academy, and is highly recommended. Drink a beer while staring an albino alligator in the eye.
- Tomales Bay Oyster Company sells freshly harvested, unshucked oysters for cheap, and has an outdoor picnic area where you can bring your own food to supplement the oysters. Prior reservations would be an excellent idea.
- AsiaSF has average-tasting, slightly-overpriced food, but quite an interesting dinner show.
- Go-kart racing gets quite serious at GoKart Racer in Burlingame, by SFO airport. The track is interesting, the karts are gas-powered, and they provide full racing suits and electronic lap timing. The K-1 Speed location that recently opened nearby has electric karts and a less exciting track. Warning: your arms will hurt if you haven't done this before.
- Golden Gate Bridge: Ignore everything else people tell you about the best place to take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. The best places to see the bridge are from the Marin Headlands (lat: 37.82961, lon: -122.4833) to see it from the top, and from Marine Drive (lat: 37.809205, lon: -122.475212) in San Francisco for a unique view from the bottom. If you're driving out to Muir Woods and like twisty roads, there's an absolutely stunning view from this little-known point off Ridgecrest Blvd on Mt. Tamalpais.
- The Pacific Ocean: If you don't mind a drive, the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay has a coffee-shop open to the public with a spectacular view. Inside the city, the Land's End Lookout near the Cliff House is nice. There is a parking lot at the start of Land's End trail here -- walking up the trail gives you amazing views of the sunset and huge cargo ships entering the bay.
- Indian: For delicious but slightly pricey cuisine, the only two options are Amber and Dosa. Both have branches in the Mission, but the original locations linked above are far better. For food that's equally good, far cheaper, and with a Goan twist (including very friendly service), Viva Goa is a true hidden gem. Cheaper options are Cafe Chaat and Kasa (which has a limited menu). If you like kebabs, one of the best places in the city is Mela.
- Sandwiches are taken very, very seriously in this city. One of the most famous sandwich shops, which very often has a line winding around the block, is Ike's Sandwiches. Ike is a pretty nice guy who I've run into randomly at bars. In the Marina, Pluto's has a pretty good steak sandwich. There's Two Sons Sandwiches in Portrero Hill. All of them offer Dutch Crunch bread, which is a thing here. The Rosamunde Sausage Grill makes their own sausages and serves excellent beer to go with them.
- East Asian: My favorite Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant is in the Tenderloin: Kim Thanh is strangely only open for dinner, however. There are also no end to the number of mediocre, indistinguishable Thai restaurants in the city, but a few aim much, much higher. Lers Ros Thai has two branches, and sometimes features exotic dishes like alligator. There's a higher-end chain throughout the city called Osha Thai, which is slightly more expensive. For a quick bite, try the banh-mi Vietnamese sandwich at Saigon Sandwich. Dungeness crab is a San Francisco specialty, but don't bother with Fisherman's Wharf (unless you like your crabs small, expensive, and seasoned with disappointment). It's a bit of a trek across the city, but PPQ Dungeness Island has the best dungeness crabs in the city.
- Ethiopian: The Sheba Piano Lounge is cozy and generally has a live pianist at night. It's close to Japantown, and has a couple of other jazz bars nearby.
- Latin American: Limon Rotisserie has a rotisserie chicken that will make you love rotisserie chicken, if you don't already.
- Burgers: Gourmet burgers can be an art form in California. In the Marina district, Umami Burger is fantastic. A bit further down, Roam has larger burgers with a lot more options. And of course, if you're in Fisherman's Wharf, you should probably give In-n-Out Burger a try.
- Ice Cream: If you fancy waiting in a long line to get some excellent ice cream, Bi-Rite Creamery by Dolores Park has some fantastic ice cream (a lesser known fact is that you can skip the line, walk down the street away from Dolores Park to the Bi-Rite grocery store, where you can get the exact same ice cream without waiting in line). For unusual tropical flavors and an unmatched price/taste ratio, Mitchell's has been around since 1953. Toy Boat Dessert Cafe has good ice cream and a somewhat bizarre collection of toys for sale. Finally, Smitten uses a liquid-nitrogen process to make your ice-cream to order in under a minute, if their machines are working.
- Coffee: The local favorites are Philz, Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and Ritual Roasters.
- The Revolution Cafe has live music 7 nights a week and a semi-outdoor patio. It's small, down-to-earth, and smells downright...earthy. Beer, wine, coffee, and sandwiches only. No credit cards.
- At the other end of the down-to-earth spectrum, Bourbon & Branch is a high-end, "secret" speakeasy that features some of the best cocktails in the country. You need a reservation to get in, after which they e-mail you a password. The outside is intentionally low-key, with a giant sign that reads "Anti-Saloon League". There's also a high-end bar within B&B called Wilson & Wilson, and other establishments around the city by the same owners. Right across the street from Bourbon & Branch is Tradition, another speakeasy-type, ultra-hip San Francisco bar. Make sure to make a reservation well in advance and they'll seat you in neat little enclosed wooden booths.
- Radio Habana Social Club in the Mission feels like an actual Cuban social club. It's tiny and decorated in an interesting way, often with live music.
- If you're near Haight-Ashbury, Alembic is a nice bar to check out. A similar experience in the Mission District is Beretta, which also has food till late.
- People love going to Napa, but in my opinion, the city of Sonoma, CA is much prettier and less traveled. If you do go up to Napa, keep driving up route 29 for about half an hour until you reach St. Helena, which is a picturesque small town with excellent dining and wine. For something truly out of the way on Rt. 101, try the towns of Healdsburg, CA and Geyserville, CA.
- Napa wineries: I like to start with the ultra-small Judd's Hill winery on Silverado trail (reservations required, dog-friendly), and then drive up north along the trail, stopping at Reynold's Family Winery (a bit on the expensive side at $20, but a very picturesque property), the Stag's Leap winery, and Signorello Estate (dog-friendly).
- Geyserville: The Francis Coppola Winery is excellent if you can make a reservation for the pool. Some of their higher-end wines are pretty good too. If you do manage to come out this far, the Locals Tasting Room will entice you to buy lots of bottles with their generous (and free) pours.
- St. Helena: Long Meadow Ranch is a favorite of mine for excellent food and wine. Castello di Amorosa is, quite literally, a castle with a winery inside.
San Francisco is a very technology-forward city, so if you're visiting or just moved here, it pays to bring a smartphone with a data plan. For international visitors, a number of cellphone companies (including AT&T and T-mobile) offer prepaid SIM cards with a data allowance that work with any GSM-capable phone.
- Uber is a sort of private taxi that you summon with your cellphone. Once a driver is assigned to you, you can track their progress on a map, get driven to your destination, and then have the payment automatically charged to a credit card. UberX is now actually cheaper than a cab! If you're somewhere inaccessible like the parks or the Presidio, or in a busy area, you can forget about trying to hail a regular taxi. As a cab driver recently told me: "only tourists use taxi."
- PayByPhone is the city's designated parking meter payment app. All parking meters have a PayByPhone number printed on their side. Load up the app, enter the meter number, and pay for parking with your credit card. No coins required, and you can extend your parking from your smartphone.
- Yelp is the de-facto app for checking restaurants and bars out for reviews and general ratings.
- Almost all restaurants that deliver food can be found on either Grubhub, Eat24, or Seamless.