Locals-only SF?
June 14, 2011 10:36 AM   Subscribe

What are some really cool non-touristy/half-touristy things to do in SF?

I'll be in SF next month and am looking for cool things to do that aren't necessarily "touristy" in the classic sense but maybe "half-touristy" if that makes any sense - things that are locals-popular rather than nationally popular. Yes, I'll probably see the Golden Gate Bridge just to say I did, but I really love getting an idea of a city and its culture by doing the fun things that the people who live there do.

SF natives - what are some of the things/shops/parks/food/sites that tourists always seem to miss even though it's actually totally awesome?

Reference point: In NY I don't care about the Statue of Liberty or the Met, I'd rather go to the Brooklyn Brewery, get pizza at Grimaldis in Williamsburg and see improv at the UCB Theatre or a summer series concert at the park. What is the SF equivelent of this? (This doesn't mean I'm specifically looking for improv and breweries but...you get the idea?)
posted by windbox to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (38 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
You should get Dim Sum in Chinatown. I like Great Eastern Restaurant, but I'm sure other places are great too.

Also, seeing the sea lions at pier 39 is pretty cool, despite being full-touristy.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:46 AM on June 14, 2011

Get an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista.
posted by AlliKat75 at 10:51 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

This may sound "touristy" at first blush, but give it a whirl --

There is a self-guided walking tour I did when I was there called the Barbary Coast trail. You can get a map at different local bookshops, or download an audio version from their web site.

This turned out to be a really decent San-Francisco-in-a-nutshell walk -- it took you through some obvious "tourist" spots, like Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown, but also some "the locals know more about this" kinds of things like Coit Tower (about which -- go up and see the view if you like, but DO NOT MISS the WPA murals in the ground floor elevator lobby, because they are incredible) and some smaller museums. (They gained a huge amount of respect by noting the site of Emperor Norton's former residence.) You go through about three different neighborhoods, and a couple of those neighborhoods are packed with restaurants and cafes so you have lots of opportunity to just sit and chill for a minute (I ended up stopping for coffee in North Beach.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:53 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go to the Giant Camera. It's way awesomer than it sounds.
Also, the Mission District is sort of famous as the birthplace of the giant burrito. I think it's kind of a Philly cheesesteak thing where nobody's sure which place actually did it first, but my memory is a little fuzzy.
posted by willpie at 11:06 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Walk down Valencia St in the Mission (you can go from the 16th to 24th St. BART stations and see most of the interesting stuff). If it's sunny out, detour to Zeitgeist from the 16th St. BART station to see the bikers and hipsters out for a drink. Other good beer bars in that area: Monk's Kettle (16th between Valencia and Mission) and Rosamundes (Mission between 24th and 25th).

21st amendment is a good brewpub. Toronado in the lower haight is another good beer bar.

Food in SF is very good. Yelp is pretty reliable if you're looking for good cheap food. Get a burrito in the Mission, or some Pupusas. Fancier places will often require reservations.

The Ferry Plaza Farmer's market is very touristy but love shopping there as a local. The restaurants in the building are pretty good too.
posted by pombe at 11:09 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was there, I had a great time down near the intersection of Castro and Market streets, at a joint named Harvey's (named in honor of Harvey Milk). It just seemed like everyone has happy to be there, and they had decent pub food and drinks.

There were some other happenin' joints around that area too.
posted by King Bee at 11:11 AM on June 14, 2011

If you're going to go out for dim sum, you should actually go to Daly City.

I'm pretty neutral on Irish coffee in general so I won't bag on it if that's your thing, but the Buena Vista is full-on touristy just FYI.

The latest local geek-ish craze is the Cal Academy of Sciences; it's a little pricey and the lines will be super long on the weekends, but it is really fun. Right next door is the DeYoung art museum, which allows you to go up to the observation deck for free (though the pay part of the museum is cool too).

If you like breweries you might enjoy Magnolia in the lower-upper Haight. If that's not your speed, walk down hill to Toronado (30-ish rotating taps) or up hill to Alembic (Magnolia beer + excellent cocktails).

You should spend a couple hours walking down Valencia street in the Mission, and just pop into 2 or 3 or 10 places that strike you along the way.

If you're renting a car (or just REALLY like walking), maybe take a hike in Bernal Heights - the city views from the park there are amazing.
posted by rkent at 11:14 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since one of your tags is "hipster tourism," I would recommend hanging out in the SF's hipster enclave, the Mission. Their are a multitude of independent coffee shops, book stores, restaurants and boutiques along Valencia Street, chill out at Dolores Park on a nice day and maybe check out the Dolores Mission for which the neighborhood was named, grab a pizza at Denfina's, an ice cream cone at Bi-Rite Creamery or breakfast at Tartine. And some will argue that these places are mentioned every time someone asks about SF and plenty of tourists go there because of the reviews, but most of my friends who live in SF (and one who until recently lived right on Valencia) patronize these places pretty regularly. And the Mission is not just Valencia and the tony restaurants and boutiques. It is also a gritty urban neighborhood and all of the good and bad things that come with that. There are burrito joints, botanicas, as well as litter and muggings.
posted by kaybdc at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Semi-touristy: The Musee Mechanique (warning: autoplay sound) is actually a good reason to go to the Pier 39 area. Arcade games from the era before video games. Really.
posted by straw at 11:22 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Plenty of my faves (Tartine, Harvey's, Monk's Kettle) have been covered, and Cal Academy has been mentioned, but not Cal Academy's Nightlife, which is a fun way to see the museum while drinking and listening to live bands. I go periodically with a bunch of friends, and all of us are locals. Buy a ticket online ahead of time to be safe.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 11:25 AM on June 14, 2011

Porn studio kink.com has free monthly tours of The Armory, its unbelievable over the top bdsm dungeon that it films in. If you're interested in that sort of thing might be worth a visit.
posted by By The Grace of God at 11:29 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of great information in the answers to previous similar questions.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:29 AM on June 14, 2011

SF City Guides, which is affiliated with the SF Public Library, offers cheap ($5 suggested donation) walking tours. The guides are of varying quality but generally are a pleasant way to spend 2 hours in the city.

Renting a bike from Blazing Saddles and riding over the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Sausalito and taking the ferry back is a hella touristy thing to do but will let you see a lot of interesting parts of the city (especially if you diverge from the Embarcadero -> GGB -> Sausalito path and check out Golden Gate Park via The Wiggle). Do this on a weekday and take it easy on the bridge. It's worthwhile.

As to hipster things to do: the Lower Haight and Duboce Park are very cool; drink a beer at Toronado along with a sausage from Rosamunde's next door. As others have said, Valencia Street in the Mission is awesome. Go to Tacqueria Can Cun at 19th and Mission and get a taco or a burrito. They are nothing like what you've had on the east coast. Grab a beer at Zeitgeist on a nice day and eat one of the Tamale Lady's tamales. Have dinner and cocktails at Beretta; make sure you call 45 minutes in advance to put your name on the wait list or you'll be looking at a long wait for a table.

Nitpick: Grimaldi's is not in Williamsburg. It's much closer to DUMBO/Brooklyn Heights.
posted by kdar at 11:31 AM on June 14, 2011

Exploratorium! Audium! Oddball Film! Baseball game, even if you don't like sports, cause the stadium is breathtakingly gorgeous and the food is amazing! Tonga Room! Castro Theater! Get drunk in a park!
posted by kelseyq at 11:37 AM on June 14, 2011

oh, drag show!
posted by kelseyq at 11:38 AM on June 14, 2011

I'm not sure where this falls in the tourist spectrum, but I really enjoyed my walk up the public stairways in Bernal Heights and the views from the top of the hill are lovely.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:39 AM on June 14, 2011

Oy preview fail, rkent already mentioned Bernal Heights.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:40 AM on June 14, 2011

Hit the Green Apple Bookstore on Clement, and then go around the corner to Thai Time, which is my favorite SF Thai place (although I have yet to try all of the Thai places in that city).

One of the features of Thai Time is the squeeze through the kitchen, to get to the restroom.

Green Apple is a better bookstore than City Lights, in my opinion, and way off the beaten tourist path.
posted by Danf at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: nthing a lot of what other folks said.

other ideas:

sing karaoke at the mint (super supportive audience).
get sushi at wayo sushi.
watch the water pound the rocks at the sutro baths after you watch the sunset on the beach (walk through the tunnel to the other side).
posted by anya32 at 11:46 AM on June 14, 2011

oh, and if you go to the sutro baths, walk in the cliff house (some folks like to buy fancy drinks there) and look at the old time photos/art of what the baths looked like when they were in use.
posted by anya32 at 11:49 AM on June 14, 2011

LaborFest will be happening in July - its walking tours will get you off the beaten path physically and culturally, and immerse you in SF history.

I recommend picking up a copy of Stairway Walks in San Francisco - its self-guided tours will help you to start seeing the side streets and back alleys of the neighborhoods. The SF Bay chapter of the Sierra Club's hikes are free, and also a great way to explore SF and the East Bay with locals.

If you have time, get a beer at either Spec's or the Li Po Lounge. No matter what anyone tells you, don't waste any time at Fisherman's Wharf (the stunning Aquatic Park Bathhouse nearby is worth seeing, though.)

A few other suggestions:
  • If anything interesting is playing at the Castro Theater, it's one of the best places in the country to see a movie (they're nowhere near as majestic, but the Roxie Theater in the Mission and the Red Vic in the Haight are also gems.)
  • SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum are both well worth checking out (and are basically across the street from one another.)
  • Check out the SF Friends of the Library bookshop at Fort Mason and get coffee in their cafe (much better than Green Apple, which is choked with so-so remainders these days.)
  • Go for a bracing swim in the Bay at China Beach.
  • Angel Island - is a great day trip from SF by ferry, and will get you out onto the Bay. You can get some top notch picnic food before you leave at the Ferry Building Marketplace (Blue Bottle Coffee there has the best coffee I've had in SF.)

posted by ryanshepard at 12:03 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pop in to the pirate supply store that is the face of 826 Valencia, then grab some avocado ice cream at Mitchell's.
posted by thejoshu at 12:07 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

- Check out the food truck scene at Off the Grid.
- Rent a bike or skates at Sunday Streets.
- Get some drinks at a speakeasy, a pirate bar, or a mixology bar.
- Check out the shops in Japantown, which is right next to all the restaurants and shops on Fillmore. Visit my personal favorite store in the entire city - Aqua Forest.
- Hang out in Hayes Valley. Drink a boot of beer at Suppenküche.
- Take a tour at Anchor Brewing. Use that as an excuse to hang out in Potrero Hill and check out the real crookedest street in the city.
- Take a walk to the Winfield Street Slides in Bernal Heights or the Seward Street Slides in the Castro. If you go with the latter, hike up to Corona Heights Park afterwards for some great views.
- Pick at least one trendy restaurant, since you'll have to make a reservation right now.
- (My recent obsession) Eat at Mr. Pollo in the Mission. It's a "secret" restaurant in a former rotisserie chicken place. Completely unrenovated dive, seats ~10. The chef, an Argentinean guy who absolutely loves cooking, serves up a $15 4-course tasting menu, meticulously crafted and garnished like something you'd see in a very fancy restaurant. No alcohol on the menu, but also no corkage, so bring some wine or beer (maybe from Bi-Rite). Also, show up at ~5:50 to make sure you get a seat.
posted by mshrike at 12:44 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Pick at least one trendy restaurant, since you'll have to make a reservation right now.

If you're interested in pricier restaurants, I recommend Greens at Fort Mason - it's more high quality than high hype, and the view from the dining room on a clear day is beautiful.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:56 PM on June 14, 2011

Best answer: There's always tourists walking past outside, on Haight Street; nevertheless I consider Amoeba Records to be totally awesome, one of the gems of San Francisco.
posted by Rash at 1:12 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would totally recommend walking up Bernal Hill. Then, head down into Bernal Heights and stop by Wild Side West, a bar with a fantastic garden. You can also just wander along Cortland: nice bookstore, yummy Peruvian place, sushi ...

I would actually recommend going up the Mission side of the hill then down the Bernal side.
posted by dame at 1:15 PM on June 14, 2011

Response by poster: This is just an amazing list. Thanks so much everyone - things like Amoeba Records and the Sutro Baths are totally along those lines, and I'll be sure to mark more best answers when I get back from my trip.

Keep them coming!
posted by windbox at 1:18 PM on June 14, 2011

What follows is what I drag visitors to when they visit.

Will you have a car? Drive up to the top of twin peaks. Doesn't matter when, but sunset and evenings are especially good.

Like summer concert series? Then you want to go to stern grove.

In addition to Sunday Streets, there's a road closure in Golden Gate Park on Sundays that will let you ride/skate all the way to the ocean and back without worrying about cars. Cycling around the city in general is a grand old time. Golden Gate Park in general is a grand old time.

Saturday morning? Ferry Building farmer's market.

If you're in town for a Giants game, go - even if you hate baseball. The stadium is near perfect and is right on the water.

If you really want to just get lost and see how the locals live, walk down the main drags in the canonical neighborhoods: the Mission (Valencia and 16th for hipsters, 24th for Hispanics), the Castro (gay men), Bernal Heights (lesbians), Noe Valley (affluent parents), Clement St. in the Richmond for great Asian food.

If you want to avoid the full on tourist thing, then skip Union Square, North Beach, Chinatown, and the Marina. You may or may not want to skip the Haight.

Twin Peaks and the farmer's market are the two things that my out of towners almost always don't know/rave about. Have fun - it's a great town.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:52 PM on June 14, 2011

Clement St. in the Richmond for great Asian food.

Yes indeed! This area is now known as the New Chinatown. Parking's a hassle, though.
posted by Rash at 2:46 PM on June 14, 2011

I believe no one may have mentioned the sculpture garden at Recology on a nice hill overlooking the bay. The catch: it's at a garbage company and everything is made of recycled waste stream stuff. They also have an Artist in Residence program. You used to be able to wander around, now it looks like you may need to go in for a tour, but I'd suggest trying to make it. It's quirky and fun.
posted by jessamyn at 3:18 PM on June 14, 2011

When we had out of town guests in San Francisco, we'd always build it to end up at Empress Of China around cocktail time/sunset, before heading back out into the wild.

It's quiet, dark, the cocktails are silly but tasty, and the view is superb. It's a wonderful place to regroup after, or in the middle of, a noisy, hill-climbing day in The City--we'd often go even if we didn't have guests to show around. And it's been around forever; I've got a fifty-plus-year-old book called "A Cook's Tour Of San Francisco" that describes Empress of China as having opened "in the past few years".
posted by padraigin at 6:19 PM on June 14, 2011

Agree to hang out on Valencia between about 16th and 20th - lots of fun shops, especially Pirate Supply. Also of course Good Vibrations.

You really do need to go to Haight Street especially Amoeba.

The California Academy of Sciences is amazing! I loved it as a kid and went last summer with my family. It's been completely redone - there is a really tall biodome where you walk up and get to see all the different flora and fauna at different levels. And the penguin exhibit is so cute too.

I'm not really a museum person but the SFMOMA is a nice museum and very accessible for normal people.

North Beach is a fun little neighborhood, and City Lights bookstore has some good stuff in addition to being historically important.
posted by radioamy at 6:39 PM on June 14, 2011

Whatever you do, listen to mshrike and bring WARM CLOTHES.
posted by MattMangels at 10:30 PM on June 14, 2011

Do an Ice Cream Walking Tour of the Mission if it's nice out, and you are ok collapsing bloated in a park at the end.
posted by benzenedream at 12:44 AM on June 15, 2011

If it's a nice, sunny day, I'll second Dolores Park. Locals hang out there. You can just chill out for an hour or two people watching. A great food truck just opened up so you can grab lunch. Afterward, just walk down 17th street toward the Mission and you'll find tons of cool shops and bars. The Monks Kettle is but one example – if you like beer.
posted by quadog at 1:39 PM on June 15, 2011

The Wave Organ out past the yacht club in the Marina is worth visiting. Try to get there at high tide, if you can.
posted by Lexica at 6:13 PM on June 15, 2011

How has the 21 Club not been mentioned? Dear lord, tell me it hasn't closed. Of all the wonderful things in the Tenderloin it was probably the best.

Also Taqueria Farolito in the Mission. Or Cancun or Pancho Villa's (this is a religious war). Regardless they're the best Mexican in SF. IMO.
Nthing zeitgeist and 826 valencia. I used to live at Guerrero and 17th and drank at zeitgeist all the time. Also Ti Couz on 16th if it's still around. More good bartenders.

Come to think of it, the dive at Sutter and Market wasnt bad either. But no dive on Earth can touch the 21 Club. Frank was tending bar there back when Hunter S Thomas used to drink there, writing Hell's Angels. It better not have closed!
posted by apathy at 12:10 PM on June 19, 2011

Ti Couz is closed. There's no shortage of bars on that block, though.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:30 PM on June 20, 2011

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