Foggy mornings, the smell of fresh sourdough and the sound of seagulls are a few of the things that I love about the city by the Bay. The cultural and historical significance of San Francisco is massive and it's those roots that have made this city one of the World's most eclectic. I've had the privilege to visit the city more times than I can count and because of that, I finally feel like I can compile a definitive list of my San Fran MUSTS for all of you. Expect good food and impossibly awesome historic sites. Put on your raincoat folks, we're headed to the Bay.
*not all photos are mine, see captions for original location.
Historical Sites & Houses
If you asked me what my favorite thing in San Francisco was, I'd have to admit it's architecture. The endless rows of Victorian homes don't just excite me, they inspire me, literally paving the way for a novel I am in the middle of writing. The incredible architecture isn't limited to just the residential homes but spans the city in every way from parks to bridges. This city is the definition of architecturally gorgeous. Here are some of my MUST SEES.
The John Daly House
Built - 1895
Location - Mission District 21st & Guerrero
Once the private home of wealthy dairy farmer John Daly, this incredible Queen Anne Victorian survived both the devastating 1906 earthquake and near ruin by decay until a couple recently revived and restored the historic home. The vibrant colors and turret make this home a jewel in the neighborhood and a must see for any architecture lover.
The Sentinel Building
Built - 1906
Location - North Beach
There are few buildings in San Fran with as much history as this gorgeous flatiron Sentinel building. The impressive copper and iron building almost overshadowing the Transamerica Pyramid and dominating the North Beach neighborhood, one of my favorite spots in the city since its basically the unofficial Little Italy of the Bay. This work / play building has seen its fair share of crime and scandal. Infamous political boss and lawyer Abe Ruef worked out of an office in the building before being arrested for political corruption. At the time, the first floor was home to popular restaurant "Caesar's Grill" who claim to have invented the Caesar salad. During prohibition, the home basement was home to a popular speakeasy called "Neptunes Grotto." The building which was once home to lawyers became an artistic stronghold for musicians, poets and authors in the 1930s. Later, the building would be home to a recording studio and bands like the Grateful Dead would record there. Finally, after years of reinvention, criminal businesses and a few name changes, Francis Ford Coppola would buy the building in 1972. It became his production company, American Zoetrope's headquarters and then almost 30 years later he opened Cafe Zoetrope, an Italian restaurant on the first floor that he had a hand in every aspect of. Whether you just stop to admire the building or go to enjoy a decadent Italian feast in the cafe, the Sentinel Building is an absolute gem.
The Presidio of San Francisco
Built - 1776
The Presidio is the first and last place I always visit in San Francisco. My favorite thing to do is to park down by Fort Point, a military fort built in the 1850s to protect the harbor during both the California Gold Rush AND the Civil War, and just watch the waves splash on the rocks as the fog rolls around the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. To be honest, this section of land is probably the most historically significant in the area. Built in 1776 as the northern most point of the Spanish military stronghold and later an important location during the Mexican independence from the Spanish and then later the independence of California from Mexico....this site has seen it all. It was an active base all the way through the Vietnam war and up until the 1990s when the Army couldn't justify the cost of the land anymore and gave it to the National Park Service. What is left is part museum, part public park with my favorite views in the entire city. Many of the former military houses are now public residences, some of the barrack buildings have been retrofitted for museum exhibits including the Walt Disney Museum. The Presidio is ALSO home to two of the three cemeteries left in San Francisco, the military cemetery and the military pet cemetery. No matter what your hobbies are, the Presidio has something for everyone, even if it's just a picnic with some great food and a glass of wine as you watch the sun set over the bay.
Alcatraz Island & Federal Prison
Built - 1847
Theres no subtle way for me to say this, you HAVE to visit Alcatraz and I don't just say that because it's one of the most haunted locations in the world but because it is one of the most unique places in the entire country. Originally a part of the Spanish occupation and then many years later, it became a military prison that was built at Fort Alcatraz, the name given to the settlement on the island in the 1800s. That prison was then used as a federal high security prison for the WORST criminals from the 1940s-1960s and holy crap I love it. There is something about being on the rock in the middle fo the San Francisco Bay looking out to the skyline imagining what It would have been like for the criminals imprisoned there. One of those criminals was Al Capone, one of my favorite historical figures and getting to actually go inside his solitary confinement cell was...well, something I will never forget. The tickets aren't cheap, it can get busy and the outside area smells atrocious due to all the bird sh*t HOWEVER, if you want to experience something you will never get to experience again....GO. My biggest tip? Get the first tour of the day to avoid as many crowds as possible.
The Painted Ladies
Built - From 1849-1915
Location - Alamo Square
Where my 90s babies at? Ya'll will probably recognize this view from the late 80s / early 90s sitcom "Full House" and one of the best movies of all time, "Mrs. Doubtfire" and when I say a picnic in the park overlooking these architectural masterpieces and the skyline is magic, I'm telling the truth. To be honest, this is not the only spot in the city where you can see a line of Victorian an Edwardian homes, in fact about 48,000 of them where built over the span of about 60 years however many have been lost to fires and expansion. What makes Alamo Square so special is the amount of historical homes in the area and that is why it's one of my personal faves.
Built - 1886
Location - Pacific Heights, 2007 Franklin St.
Not only is this the only Victorian home in the city that is now a museum you can tour, it's also an important home for the history of Jewish people in San Francisco. Built for wealthy Jewish businessman William Haas and his wife Bertha Greenebaum who had come from Bavaria to San Francisco, the home was a Haas family residence for three full generations before being donated as a museum. The artifacts in the home are original which for fellow lovers of historical homes know, it's rare to tour a home where the family owned items are still in the residence. Even if history isn't your thing, the home is so gorgeous that I promise you won't regret going. The home is currently closed to tours due to Covid, but keep an eye on their website for reopening information.
The Bourn Mansion
Built - 1896
Location - Pacific Heights, 2550 Webster Street
Unfortunately, the Bourn mansion is a hard one to photograph to fully capture what is actually quite a beautiful and impressive structure due to a plethora of pesky power lines, always congested street and the ever encroaching new construction. However - the Bourn mansion is one of my personal faves. I love it partly because of the clinker brick, a very uncommon material used in Victorian architecture especially in San Francisco at the time but Willis Polk, famed architect who designed this home for William Bourn II, as well as many of his other homes, was a man who thought outside of the box. What we're left with is this intimidating brick structure that looks like something more akin to a London workhouse than a posh 27 room mansion and thats sort of fitting. Yes, the home had a luxurious beginning, the main home of William and his wife who tired of the constant noise of their family mine, the Empire Gold Mine in Grass Valley to be exact, one of my favorite historical sites in California and location of my most terrifying paranormal experience to date, so they spent as much time here as they could. After the 1906 fire and earthquake, they moved to San Mateo where they built a mega home called Fioli after the sadness of seeing practically their entire neighborhood destroyed around them got too much to bear. The home would become a haven of debauchery and crime and finally a squatting house for the homeless until it was purchased at auction in 2010 and fixed up. Because it's a private residence all you can do is drive or walk by it but I'm telling you, it's a worth a visit to see up close.
As we've established, the city has a lot of history so although the city has a multitude of beautiful modern hotels, why not aim for something more...spooky? Here are my picks for the most haunted stays in the Bay.
The Queen Anne Bed & Breakfast
Built - 1890
Location - 1590 Sutter Street
Does anyone else just assume all B&B's are haunted? Yea, me too and thats because they usually are. Thankfully for us, The Victorian Queen Anne B&B is no exception. Built originally as a girls boarding school (not creepy at all) in 1890 and although those days are long since past, it is said the Headmistress, a woman named Mary Lake still resides there, tucking people in at night in room 410, her former office. Everything from EVPs to apparitions have been seen at the B&B so if you're feeling brave and want to stay somewhere the feels of a different era, then book a stay at the Queen Anne but remember, be on your best behavior, it is a school after all.
Book Your Stay Here - https://www.queenanne.com/
The Westin St. Francis
Built - Stage 1 1904, Stage 2 1913, Stage 3 1972
Location - Union Square, 335 Powell St.
Hollywood Scandal, anyone? This pure luxury hotel right in the heart of shopping heaven Union Square, has been an integral part of high society San Francisco since its first wave of construction in 1904. It attracted anyone who was anyone including silent film star Fatty Arbuckle in 1921. Sadly, his stay at the St. Francis would not be a pleasant one. Like many of the stars of the age, Fatty liked to party and in September of 1921, he rented out 3 rooms at the hotel for a total rager. One of the party guests was a young actress named Virginia Rappe who fell ill one afternoon so Fatty summoned the house doctor. He would later find out that she'd been taken to the hospital and died, apparently bleeding to death....suspicious. What follows is a web of speculations. Another guest who'd been at the party was this woman named Maude Delmont, a 1920s name if I've ever heard one and she claimed that Fatty had raped and assaulted Virginia causing her to bleed out. This accusation got Fatty arrested for manslaughter and over the next year he would have 3 trials, the first two resulting in a hung jury and the third finding him not guilty but at that point his career was over. Touted as the first Hollywood scandal, Fatty Arbuckle, whether he committed the crime of not, would forever pay for the death of Virginia Rappe and that fateful party at the St. Francis. If you're looking for ghostly activity, look no further than the 12th floor that is supposedly home to three restless ghosts and if you want to experience a little of the Fatty scandal yourself, take your pick of the three rooms he rented out, 1219, 1220 and 1221. Happy Haunting!
Let's Eat & Drink
Move over LA, San Francisco is home of the brunch, ok not officially but I have yet to stumble upon a bad breakfast in this city. I will say, the restaurants close early in the evenings which means if you're like me and are used to eating dinner late, this could be a problem so plan accordingly and always make sure to check times before planning your dinner out. With that said, here are my favorite places to eat & drink and yes most of them are breakfast spots because well...I love them.
The Buena Vista
What To Get - the Irish Coffee
Instagram - @thebuenavistasf
I love a pub, true story. I mean whats better than some fish & chips and an Irish coffee on a cold and foggy day? Nothing, that's the truth and the Buena Vista is THE place to get both of those in San Francisco. Located in the historic Fishermans Wharf, the Buena Vista has been making their signature Irish Coffee since they opened in 1952 and the owner set out to recreate the Irish coffee he'd had in Ireland. After months of experiments, the right Irish Whiskey was discovered and the recipe perfected for all us creeps to enjoy. If you need a warm up? Theres no better place.
Daily Driver Bagels
What To Get - Everything Bagel with flavored Cream Cheese and Avocado
Instagram - @dailydriversf
I really love bagels guys even though my stomach hates them and my ass immediately decides to double in size but when I say Daily Driver bagels are worth the pains and weight gain, I'm serious. One of THE best bagels I've ever had and with so many choices to choose from they really have something for everyone. They're located in Dogpatch, a trendy new area of town in a former warehouse district AND the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. Most important tip? Get there EARLY, like before they open because everyone else will already be in line if you get there after opening. Again, totally worth it.
What to Get - Fresh Bread & Croissants
Instagram - @tartinebakery
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 20 years, you've heard of the magical bakery that is Tartine. I know, this isn't a hidden gem and they've expanded to outside of SF but I feel like we can't talk about places to eat in the city without mentioning a great place to get fresh bread and although the Boudin Factory may have the crown on Sourdough, it's so touristy it's hard to enjoy (much like the Ghirardelli Factory despite how beautiful it is.) That is why if I am looking for fresh bread and pastry, Tartine and it's line are worth it ESPECIALLY if you find yourself to be a particular snob when it comes to croissants....like myself. If you go, expect a line, bring a coffee and a friend and just be patient.
What To Get - Veggie Pho (extra garlic chili paste)
Instagram - @saiwalks
San Francisco may be known for their incredible Chinese food but when I'm cold I always reach for a huge hot bowl of Pho, my favorite Vietnamese dish and Saiwalks has THE BEST veggie pho I have ever had. Pair that with a hot sake and you are literally on your way to absolute comfort. When I was in SF last, it was the height of the pandemic and most places were closed but thankfully Saiwalks patio was open and despite the drizzle, the whole experience was amazing from the friendly staff who didn't judge me when I kept asking for more garlic chili paste, to the delicious food, I honestly couldn't recommend it more.
Brenda's French Soul Food
What To Get - Fried Chicken Benedict, Chicory Coffee, Beignets
Instagram - @brendasfrenchsf
Do you ever just feel like, f*ck it, I'm gonna go balls to the wall and eat all the yummy food today? Well that's exactly how I felt after spending 2 hrs grave hunting at Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery and Brenda's fit the bill like a glove. I WENT NUTS and got the fried chicken benny with cheesy grits because HELL YES, I also ordered the original beignets and chicory coffee so I could have some major NOLA vibes and I learned a valuable lesson that I could NOT eat that much and also beignets are delish cold and straight from a hotel fridge so if you're looking for perhaps THE PERFECT southern brunch spot in SF, Brenda's is your joint.
In conclusion, these are just SOME of the places that make San Francisco so unique, delicious and appealing. Being mere hours away from the city means this list will evolve and grow as I continue to travel to SF and explore and eat in new places. If there is somewhere you guys know of that I MUST see or experience next time i'm in the Bay, please tell me in the comments below OR if you've been to any of these places, also let me know! Until our next adventure, Cin Cin Creeps!
Lost and Found
Fairmont San Francisco
Timeless Coffee (Piedmont)