When in America, how should I do what the locals do?
March 7, 2006 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be spending a weekend in America. Having never ever been there before, what should I do?

In the next couple of weeks I'm going to be spending one weekend in San Francisco. Having trawled through the archives I've found plenty of good suggestions for places to go and things to see.

However, what I have not seen is recommendations on things I really must do whilst i'm in America. For example, things which are deeply American or things which you simply cannot do elsewhere. Think of it as trying to get involved with the "American way of life" if you like.

So, for example, maybe I should go have pancakes for breakfast one morning or pick up a copy of a specific paper or visit a mall. These aren't great examples, so I'm looking for any recommendations.

Bonus points if you can tell me where I can do that in San Francisco, but don't worry if you can't as I'm sure I'll work it out!
posted by mr_silver to Travel & Transportation (91 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend Candlepin bowling, but you'll be on the wrong coast.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:29 AM on March 7, 2006

Have breakfast in a diner. Just do it. It's one of the things I miss most after having stayed there a fair bit and one of the things America does best... MMMMmmmmmmm
posted by merocet at 8:30 AM on March 7, 2006

Pay a lot of money for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Here is a link to their 74 stores in SF, just in case you can't find one.
posted by jerryg99 at 8:30 AM on March 7, 2006

International House of Pancakes. Not really quite international.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:32 AM on March 7, 2006

I grew up in Europe and played a lot of baseball, which is an almost non-existing sport over wher I live. Since I was a kid I wanted to go to a public batting cage. Whenever I have the opportunity when I am in the US I go there and slug it out.
posted by ouke at 8:36 AM on March 7, 2006

Maybe you could go to a shooting range? I'm not sure how uniquely American that is, but a big section of America loves their guns. And shooting ranges are pretty fun.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:40 AM on March 7, 2006

for the diner/pancake experience in sf, try dottie's true blue cafe.
posted by judith at 8:49 AM on March 7, 2006

If you have a driver's license you could go for a test drive in a massive SUV. You could even wear a cowboy hat while you do so, be sure to buy the hat at Wal Mart.

I second the diner and the shooting range too.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:49 AM on March 7, 2006

also, we voted to outlaw guns in november (currently under appeal, of course), so shooting ranges are right out.
posted by judith at 8:50 AM on March 7, 2006

Go to a range and shoot guns! I went to Jackson Arms but you should call first to arrange a time, also I just saw something on a website about them not being open due to renovations but I have no idea how out of date that may have been.

Also you could consider a trip to AT&T park to see the Giants, not too difficult to get to from downtown.

Also be sure to try some horrible American chocolate and iconic snack foods. Be sure to eat some proper Mexican food while you're there as well, after all you're in San Francisco.
posted by teleskiving at 8:52 AM on March 7, 2006

posted by cellphone at 8:56 AM on March 7, 2006

Starbucks in London tastes the same as Starbucks in the US (but it's cheaper). Try eating some street meat and grab a hot dog on the sidewalk. It's more North American, than American, but it's what I missed the most when I was living in London.
posted by meerkatty at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2006

Can you get a nice, nice convertible and hit out on Highway 1?

Also find a college dive bar, you know the kind that plays "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" -- the shots are served in plastic cups and everyone is wearing Abercrombie and Fitch. I'm pretty sure you can get a citizenship after visiting one of those.
posted by geoff. at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2006

A friend from the Netherlands (studying in Berkeley, right near SF) thought Denny's was the ultimate american dining experience. When his girlfriend came to visit he had to take her to one. He claimed you didn't actually have to know where one was, you just drove around, and there they were. They found a Denny's so I guess he was right. For some reason they were both very amused by the containers of ketchup/salt/pepper/napkins sitting out on every table. I didn't get it, but then again, I've lived in america my whole life.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2006

I would say driving a big SUV and shooting guns while wearing a big wal-mart-purchased hat aren't really representative American activities, but they definitely represent a caricture of a certain type of American. These things may leave you feeling foolish, but aren't really going to make you feel like you've experienced something distinctly American. I'm also guessing you can head to a firing range in your home country.

I would say look for some music to check out in San Francisco - can somebody suggest blues/jazz clubs?

I'd also check out City Lights books. It's a bit of a landmark for American literature and won't take long.

Second recommendations for mexican food and baseball.
posted by drobot at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2006

ludwig_van writes "Maybe you could go to a shooting range?"

Not just any range though, someplace where they'll let you fire a fully automatic weapon.
posted by Mitheral at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2006

Eat a burrito in the Mission district.
posted by zonkout at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2006

Oh, and definitely do go to a pizza place named after someone's first name, like:


The smaller the sign advertising it, the better. It should have a neon, or lit sign that simply says PIZZA. Preferably a place that cuts them into squares as opposed to radians.
posted by cellphone at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2006

A good breakfast at a genuine diner. Then invade someplace.
posted by unSane at 8:59 AM on March 7, 2006

aside from the diner recommendations, the other American culinary specialty is barbecue -- states in the American south argue over the place of pulled pork or ribs in the definition 'cue in the same manner that Frenchmen argue over the use of butter, olive oil or lard as a cooking medium.

not sure what restaurants in SF are good for that, though.

also - rent a car, identify a day trip destination (maybe Monterey? Big Sur?) and just drive away from the cities. Though the trait of road-tripping is one that is shared amongst both Canadians and Americans, the single most common comment I've heard from Britons visiting North America is awe at the sheer amount of unsettled space on the continent and the vast gaps of emptiness between the cities.
posted by bl1nk at 9:01 AM on March 7, 2006

Check out the birthplace of american hippies around Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park.
posted by zonkout at 9:01 AM on March 7, 2006

In Connecticut to be quintessentially American means getting Indian take-out, renting a DVD, and watching it in your underwear.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:02 AM on March 7, 2006

Chuck E Cheese
posted by mullacc at 9:02 AM on March 7, 2006

if you're there as late as april 2, the oakland a's are playing the san francisco giants in san francisco

if that's too late, look around for a baseball game somewhere ... someone's going to be playing one

truth is, san francisco is not a typically american city and you shouldn't form your impressions of our country from what you see there ... if you can get to a smaller city away from the coast, like bakersfield or fresno, you might get a better picture ... drive if you can
posted by pyramid termite at 9:04 AM on March 7, 2006

I would say driving a big SUV and shooting guns while wearing a big wal-mart-purchased hat aren't really representative American activities

That is if you consider the middle part of America as insignificant. They are part of the caricature, though they are things that you really aren't going to be able to do back home. Blues and jazz clubs are available in the UK, as are great bookstores of great literary significance.

Also, if you want a more authentic American experience, go to an Oakland A's game. San Francisco is not particularly "American" (if there is such a thing) and gourmet fish tacos are not generally considered traditional ball park fare.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:07 AM on March 7, 2006

Go see the Giants play in SBC or Pac Bell or whatever corporation paid for the rights Park.

Though baseball's sadly sold out a bit in the last decade it's still a great time and that's a beautiful park and you can boo Barry Bonds.
posted by xmutex at 9:07 AM on March 7, 2006

I would spend one day doing all the things people are suggesting, eating at a diner, maybe grab a hot dog somewhere, etc.

The second day, I would rent a car and take a drive up the coast, exploring small towns along the way. This would take you over the Golden Gate bridge (very American) and you would see some of the most amazing views. Drive to Jenner (about 78 miles, but around 2 hours, because of the winding road and small towns).

Near Jenner, you would take Highway 116 inland to Guerneville. This is another beautiful drive along the Russian River. It's about 13 miles.

At Guerneville, take the Armstrong Woods Road north about 2 miles, where you will enter the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Here is the guidebook description: "Armstrong Redwoods is a 700 acre tall tree preserve, a cool, dark forest. The best hike through the woods is the self-guided nature trail. As you wander among the virgin trees past ointerpretive displays, you'll visit the 310 foot Parson Jones tree and the old (1400 plus years) Colonel Armstrong tree." Majestic redwoods = very American.

Then, get back in your car and head back to Guerneville and highway 116. This time, take it west/south to Forestville. Along 116 here, there will be a few wineries. Stop in, go to their tasting rooms, taste some uniquely American wines: cabernets, pinot noirs. Just keep travelling south on the 116 until you hook up to highway 101 near Cotati. (Approximately 27 miles). Take the 101 South back into San Francisco.

That's it. A day packed with some of the best our country has to offer. If you need more info, or if you'd like recommendations on wineries, email me, I can give all that to you. Right now, I'm late for work, so I have to go. Good luck, have fun.
posted by generic230 at 9:09 AM on March 7, 2006

I have an Australian friend who is absolutely nuts about grits, believe it or not. Apparently that's a very American food. You might have to buy them in a supermarket in SF... in the South, every streetcorner diner has them, but they're not as common on the West coast.

Pizza is apparently fairly American... it's considered Italian, but friends who've gone to Italy say it's very different there. And American Chinese food is quite unique... it has nothing whatsoever to do with actual Chinese food. There are some very good "Chinese" restaurants in SF.

A visit to the beach would be pretty Californian, but it's fairly cold this time of year, so be sure to bring a jacket. You might get lucky and catch a warm day, they do happen occasionally this early.

There are some great used music stores in SF; you might be able to find things that you don't have locally.. and, being used, it's cheap.

Oh, be sure to have at least one Krispy Kreme donut. They're even worse than regular donuts for routine consumption (I don't trust their ingredients...some of their offerings have a very strange chemical aftertaste), but they are extremely good.
posted by Malor at 9:10 AM on March 7, 2006

My suggestions: since you'll be there two different mornings, I would suggest doing both a DENNY'S and a no-name diner for breakfast. I second the road trip idea, and would specifically recommend driving the coast... you'll see plenty of little shops along the way.

Since it's a week-end, I would also suggest going to church.

We're still a very religious country, and it's what a lot of people are doing Sunday... I'm mormon, and would encourage you to visit one of ours... but you can do that where you're from. So I'd try and find a good old fashioned baptist church — specifically one that caters to the African Americans in the area — to witness a trully American church service.

Going to a rifle range would be really fun, too ...

But after all that crappy stuff, you should really try the best we have to offer, too: there are many WORLD CLASS restaurants in the area.

Moosewood, French Laundry, et cetera...
posted by silusGROK at 9:13 AM on March 7, 2006

San Francisco isn't a city that does American stereotypes well. For your first weekend in America, you'd be better off in either New York, which is the country's cultural hub; in New England, the country's historical heart; or in the desert West (Arizona or New Mexico) which are the places that, to me at least, best capture the American 'Spirit' (stunning vistas, don't fence me in, and all that).

But do not despair. If you're in the US and wanted to have a great 'American' weekend in San Fran, you might want to try this:

Day One:

1. Pick up a local paper and the New York Times and hit up a greasy-spoon diner in one of the city's more residential neighborhoods for a lazy breakfast.

2. If you're there in the Spring or Summer, catch a Giants baseball game.

3. If you're there during the Autumn, catch a *college* football game (Berkeley, maybe?). Show up early to experience "tailgating".

4. Wander down to the Mission and have a burrito the size of your head.

5. Take in some live music at a jazz, blues or rock club.

The next day:

1. Same as #1 above.

2. Rent a car and drive somewhere. Down the coast to Big Sur is nice and just 3 hours from San Francisco by car. East to one of the cow-towns in the Central Valley for lunch and then up to Tahoe (3-4 hours away in good weather) might be more interesting from an 'Americana' perspective.

3. Alternatively, attend a monster truck rally.

4. Burrito in the Mission.
posted by nyterrant at 9:15 AM on March 7, 2006

Riffing off generic's suggestion.... f you have long enough, a rental car, and like to drive... if you go further north, it's even lovelier. It will take you several hours in a car to get up there, but the drive between Navarro and Fort Bragg is one of the loveliest anywhere. It's deep in the redwoods, and you'll be passing within a few miles of the tallest trees in the world. (they're in a specific park nearby, but the rangers there won't tell you which is the tallest tree, because they fear vandals... so it's not such a great actual visit.)

There is nowhere on the planet quite like the deep redwoods of Northern California, and if you have the wherewithal to get up there, I think the memories would be better/more meaningful than what you get from ordinary tourism.
posted by Malor at 9:15 AM on March 7, 2006

Go to a sporting event (baseball, basketball, football, hockey or whatever grabs your fancy) and enjoy a hot dog and what passes for beer in America.

And yeah, I don't know what SF has to offer but do enjoy the local cuisine whatever it may be.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:17 AM on March 7, 2006

It's a bit tricky to square the circle and do 'American' things in a city like SF, which is still considered by many residents a refuge from stereotypical America. But you have In-N-Out Burger, which is a kind of quintessence of fast food, and diners and coffeeshops. Just remember that in some ways, trying to do those things in SF means you miss out on the things that are unique to the city.

I'd rent a Mustang or Corvette and head out on the 101. You might have read Jeremy Clarkson on how American muscle cars don't make sense on twisty, narrow British roads.
You see, I’m running through all this car’s bad points but I’m afraid my mind is consumed by the bit where I was doing 65mph on the 101, listening to some Eagles on 104.3.

And then by the subsequent memory of grumbling along the waterfront in San Francisco itself, the city setting for Bullitt, the film that etched the Mustang for all time on the petrolhead’s radar.

You see, I kept thinking I’m in a Mustang in San Francisco on a glorious September afternoon. And I liked that a lot. I liked it so much that I became consumed with the notion of maybe taking a small part of the experience home with me...

The only worry is that if I did buy a Mustang, I’d get the car over here and on a wet November night realise that, actually, what I wanted to bring home was San Francisco.
Try one on its home territory. And stop in at Trader Joe's on the way back.
posted by holgate at 9:20 AM on March 7, 2006

I'm trying to think of the things I really missed while away from the US. I'll strongly echo getting a hotdog from a street vendor (kosher if that's an option--are most hot dog stands kosher on the west coast?), mexican food, live jazz and baseball. I am not a sports person, but it was always fun to go to the local minor league games, eat hot dogs and ice cream and sit in the sun. It's one of those things that makes even an American feel extra American. You might just be missing the beginning of the season, though...not sure.

This goes along with the diner things, but...pie? Feels funny even suggesting it. But when I was in Europe, I had some "apple pie" that just was not what I know as pie. Diners generally have good pie.

I personally wouldn't go to a shooting range. But you could go to batting cages! If there are no baseball games yet, that might be a good substitute.

Here in New York we have places that have live jazz and soul food. BBQ, you know--pulled pork, corn on the cob, mac and cheese. One of the few styles of cooking I can convince my Indian foodie boyfriend is authentically American. Anyway maybe they have some place like that in SF.
posted by lampoil at 9:23 AM on March 7, 2006

Go to Spundae.
posted by empath at 9:26 AM on March 7, 2006

Just a couple more thoughts: I would echo lampoli's barbeque suggestion. Try to find a crazy bbq shack somewhere and have some ribs. Also, DEFINITELY have pie: Apple, pecan and pumpkin. You can't go to America and not eat pie.
posted by nyterrant at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2006

I have an Australian friend who is absolutely nuts about grits, believe it or not. Apparently that's a very American food. You might have to buy them in a supermarket in SF... in the South, every streetcorner diner has them, but they're not as common on the West coast.

You can get grits in San Francisco. Mission District. Boogaloo's has them and they're tasty.

Aforementioned In-N-Out is yummy, but honestly, if I was in San Francisco for a one week, the first place I would head would be to Magnolia Brewpub. Just grab the 6, 7, 71, or 43 and get off at Haight and Masonic. It's on the corner. Can't miss it. Best beer brewed in the city. Not to mention great food and a damn fine burger. If you want a SF feel to the burger, ask them for it on toasted sourdough. *gurgle* Seriously, if you like beer, this is the place to go in San Francisco for one of a kind stuff.
posted by smallerdemon at 9:28 AM on March 7, 2006

Also (sorry about the multiple comments): Make sure you try some good American microbrews. True, the mass-market beers here are terrible. But a lot of the local Microbrews are excellent. Just ask around.
posted by nyterrant at 9:28 AM on March 7, 2006

Also, something obvious that I haven't really seen mentioned:
talk to people. That's what has made my 5 trips to America in the last 2 decades memorable.

It's ridiculously easy striking up conversation in America, my introverted self was practically dragged into jovial chats with people all over the place (mainly 'cause of my odd accent).

Don't be shy, I guess. And if you know somebody in the area, even better.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:32 AM on March 7, 2006

I think most of the suggestions, renting a car for a drive, going to a sporting event, etc, are all great. What you will be having a chance to do is experience one part of America. Driving up to Big Sur is beautiful experience, but its totally unlike gazing over the Grand Canyon or simply driving through the prairie. So ultimately, what I'm saying, don't push yourself to the edge trying to "experience America." I've travelled and lived in various parts of the country, and I still don't feel like I've experienced all there is about my country. Just leave any preconceived ideas of what you think you'll be expecting and have a good time.
posted by Atreides at 9:33 AM on March 7, 2006

Also, ensure your hotel room has a tv. Bring a pint of ice cream back to your hotel room at night and enjoy the best that American cable has to offer.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:33 AM on March 7, 2006

Pollomacho - I'm sorry, suggesting somebody drive an SUV in a cowboy hat is not a good suggestion to somebody trying to experience America in a weekend. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting the question, but that advice is just silly.

Jazz is distinctly American, and City Lights is particularly important to American literature, and is a San Francisco landmark. Maybe not the best suggestions, but at least I'm trying.
posted by drobot at 9:34 AM on March 7, 2006

I'd literally walk around San Francisco. As many people haev said, it's an a-typical American city - but literally, just walking around, having the odd coffee in a cafe somewhere, looking around you and soaking up the atmos does it for me every time.

Alternatively, go for a Starbucks in the UK and you can *almost* approximate the experience.

And spend some time in a shopping mall. Marvel at the variety of Americans before you.

Seriously though - if you have any friends in the area, use them. They'll show you a side of americana you just couldn't get by yourself - just by being themselves, and leaving you to marvel at the side.

And I third Denny's.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 9:37 AM on March 7, 2006

You don't have enough time, but the most American thing in the world to me is the open road. Rent a car, drive east over the Sierras, and explore the vastness of the Great Basin.

Also, what Slimepuppy said. Most Americans, especially outside the big cities, are really insecure when they realize they are talking to a foreigner. They want to be sure their country is making a good impression. Expect to be invited into people's homes, shown pictures of their grandchildren, etc.
posted by LarryC at 9:38 AM on March 7, 2006

Try wandering around an American Supermarket. In SF, any Safeway will do but I particularly recommend the one at Church and Market for optimal people-watching.
posted by vacapinta at 9:40 AM on March 7, 2006

Rent a car. At midnight drive as far away as you can from the city. Get to the top of a hill. See the sunrise. Drive back
posted by A189Nut at 9:40 AM on March 7, 2006

It's ridiculously easy striking up conversation in America,

Since when?
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:41 AM on March 7, 2006

Since when?

If you are a foreigner, it really is. All my european friends visiting get constantly asked where they're from, how they like SF etc. - surprising friendliness!
Its just that we dont talk to each other.
posted by vacapinta at 9:44 AM on March 7, 2006

If I tried to strike up a conversation with a random stranger on the street I'm quite sure they'd either ignore me completely or freak out and call the cops.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:47 AM on March 7, 2006

Mel's Drive-In, the drive-in that appeared in the film American Graffiti. You don't really get much more American than that, although it's a nostalgia thing for the 1950s. Be sure you go to one that is actually a drive-in and get served in your car (the one next to the Metreon is more of a diner, no car service -- good food still, but not the full experience).
posted by kindall at 9:48 AM on March 7, 2006

Your Denny's must be much better than the Denny's in the south I've been to. My two cents: Skip Denny's and look for a traditional mom and pop diner.
posted by lyam at 9:48 AM on March 7, 2006

SF is by far the most European American city there is, and everyone is pretty much on about that, as well as the fact that you HAVE TO GO TO IN N OUT. Every European I know either rolls their eyes or raves about American burgers, dripping with condiments, fat, and great, and In N Out is .. the best. There's one in Fisherman's Wharf, I know, if you end up in the touristy bits. Also, an IHOP across the street. :)

Other than that, you can ride the mass transit to see healthy people doing outdoor activities in the North Bay, or go to cultural events in Berkeley, or even come down to the south bay and see the diverse cross-sections of ethnicities from Palo Alto white college kids to the asians in Cupertino to the Mexicantown that is Sunnyvale. Then realize this is exactly what Nebraska is not.
posted by kcm at 9:48 AM on March 7, 2006

Find some girlscout cookies
posted by thirteenkiller at 9:50 AM on March 7, 2006

Oh, and in SF, touring Alcatraz island is surprisingly fun. Get tickets online in advance though, they sell out fast. It's cool to take a ferry ride on the bay and see all 3 sides of the bay from the water.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:56 AM on March 7, 2006

It's possible you'll be jet-lagged so you might want to factor that in, coming from the UK it's hard, at least for a couple of days and you'll be exhausted by seven pm.

Here's the standard tourist guide.

If you can, take a radio and try and catch some broadcast TV. Flipping the dials on both of these devices is an interesting experience for a brit. Marvel the zillion stations and the endless complex legalese that frames each advertisment, all in the same high-speed breathless voice.

Try one newspaper. Buy a copy of the LA or New York Times from a machine on the sidewalk. Heave it onto a coffee table and marvel at how huge, how boring and how old-fashioned it is. Feel guilty slinging the whole damn thing into the trash.

Already mentioned, but shop for candy. America is the worlds candy superpower. They have *almond* snickers, and that's just the start. Hundereds of flavours of Lifesavers. Check out a drug store for candy, there's loads on Market Street. See if you can figure out what the other items they stock have in common. Beats me.

In Central SF explore Union Square and make sure you visit the Emporio Armani store. It redefines the concept of overheads.

Check out the Castro. You don't have to be gay. Take the very fun Muni and just wander around, it's the soul of San Francisco and scattered with great restaruants and most amazing sex shops - go and stare at the toys.

If you can hire a car then that's great, but don't be too ambitious, SF traffic can be nasty and handling the freeways takes a bit of practice, getting used to undertaking for example and the four-way stops. Big Sur is awesome though and well worth the trip.

If you want to 'do' the suburbs, here's how. Take the BART to Walnut Creek (the Concorde line) and then you can get a bus called the County Connection to the Plaza. It's suburban America at its most attractive and affluent. On the way you'll ride the train along the middle of the freeway, the closest you can get to driving without actually doing it.

Any Supermarket will do but for extra points, try and check out Whole Foods. It blew my mind. Coming to England soon.

Smile and talk to people. They won't mind. It's very strange. If you have an English accent, you're away.

If you do take advice and go to In-N-Out, be aware that there's a complicated secret code for ordering - the menu tells you nothing and they won't help you out - you have to know. Try just saying "Animal" and you'll get a better burger. Very strange.
posted by grahamwell at 9:58 AM on March 7, 2006

Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are the anti-American shopping experience. I'd recommend Safeway or Albertson's or whatever that sketch-ass one is at the end of Haight across from Amoeba (also another good stop, but not "American" per se).
posted by kcm at 10:03 AM on March 7, 2006

"Not just any range though, someplace where they'll let you fire a fully automatic weapon.
posted by Mitheral at 8:58 AM PST on March 7 [!]"

Except in this stupid state. California is kind of anti-American in many ways, especially San Francisco.

And you people are suggesting farking IN & OUT? That's ridiculous. Don't subject the guy to fast food. In & Out is so overrated. He needs HOOTERS! - there's a location on Fisherman's Wharf in SF. Doesn't even need to go very far at all.
A few other ideas:
* Watch the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge.
* Eat at Big Nate's BBQ
* Take Caltrain to Millbrae and then take BART back up into downtown SF. Trains are a great piece of American history, and BART is (literally) an award winning transit system. Also feel free to hop on one of the MUNI trains that runs along the Embarcadero.

I lived in Japan for many years. When people would ask me what "American" things were, I would often think of food. BBQ, bacon cheeseburgers, hot dogs, steaks. I'd also think of quieter things, like farm life. Rivers. Fishing with your children. Taking a drive in the country on a warm summer day. Going to a baseball game. Shooting a few beer cans. Putting in a full days work and being proud of your accomplishments.
Just be sure to take lots of photos and make a web page for the rest of us to see. ;)
posted by drstein at 10:08 AM on March 7, 2006

Tip lots and lots. Add about 30% to every price you see advertised: they don't tell you about taxes and they expect you to tip their waiting staff about 20%.

Prepare neutral but diplomatic statements about the Iraq War, the War on Terror, the American Civil War and all of Irish history. Americans are lovely, lovely friendly people but they're patriotic like we haven't been for a century and they all seem to be descended from Irishmen and have a better knowledge of various massacres than you.

On the proper Things To Do front: go to Walmart, they have guns! In cases! You can just buy them! They also stack groceries differently: admire all the different types of milk and the strange names they have. Check out the cleaning products and basic foods like bread and cheese: the slightly different smells and designs on familiar products make everything foreign. Try their chalk-like chocolate. Memorise where to get unsweetened wholemeal bread for when you get sick of the corn syrup taste everything has. I second hiring a car and drive to a national park or scenic area: gives you an idea of how enormous the place is. Their museums and art galleries are excellent. Wonder at the proliferation of Stars and Stripes. Go to a casino, if California has them like they do in the South: the Government is keen on having one here, and they're quite fun.
posted by alasdair at 10:12 AM on March 7, 2006

Go to a baseball game. Try to stay awake.
posted by filmgeek at 10:38 AM on March 7, 2006

drink like eighty 2 liters of coca-cola in an attempt to gain as much weight as possible.
posted by soma lkzx at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2006

On the proper Things To Do front: go to Walmart, they have guns! In cases! You can just buy them!...

alasdair, I dont where you are from but this is anti-walmart territory. They are scarce in Northern California. I think there is one in Fremont which is sort of South Bay. Again, as others have said, San Francisco is usually pointed out to be among the most European of american cities.

A drive out to Nevada and possibly Las Vegas would be cool if you had more time. People from Europe are blown away by the drive through Nevada since its just endless expanses, enormous valleys, hundreds of miles of just you, your car and the road.
posted by vacapinta at 10:48 AM on March 7, 2006

Jazz is distinctly American, and City Lights is particularly important to American literature, and is a San Francisco landmark. Maybe not the best suggestions, but at least I'm trying.

You are trying, and I'm not poopooing your suggestion as generally bad, I just think that if you want to "get involved with the 'American way of life'" as the petitioner states, one should head for Americana. Ask yourself, what percentage of Americans even know who Lawrence Ferlinghetti is? Now ask, what percentage of Americans know the difference in a Tahoe and a Suburban and know what it means to have your hash browns smothered and chunked?

I believe Lawrence Ferlinghetti et al. would advise our young British friend here to head for Wal Mart post haste if he wants a real sense of America. That tiny (historical) sliver of the American experience he's going to find in City Lights, famous and important that may be will pale in comparison to thumbing through the Weekly World News while on line behind a 300 pound woman in stretch pants and her six kids. Wasn't that the whole point of beat literature, breaking out of the Ivory towers of sheltered academia and getting into the meat of real experiences now?

Jazz was distinctly American, now I'd imagine you'd find just as good a jazz scene in London as San Francisco. He needs to find a "country" music place where they serve Budweiser.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:51 AM on March 7, 2006

Pollomacho - Good points, and great suggestions all - country music, hash browns, visit wal-mart. I grew up in rural America and might disagree with that that's a fair assessment of 'America', but it's definitely one slice of it. Probably the challenge with the question. I still think it's silly to suggest that he test drive an SUV wearing a cowboy hat.
posted by drobot at 11:02 AM on March 7, 2006

What's the place on Union Square... the "Gold Dust Lounge". Go there. I always got a kick out of it and I'd say it's pretty American.
posted by GuyZero at 11:07 AM on March 7, 2006

I still think it's silly to suggest that he test drive an SUV wearing a cowboy hat.

Name another country where you could do it.
(OK, but Alberta isn't a country)
posted by GuyZero at 11:08 AM on March 7, 2006

I still think it's silly to suggest that he test drive an SUV wearing a cowboy hat.

Well, OK, it was a bit over the top, but I was trying to come up with some things that are definitely things he could/would not do in Britain. Even just riding in a fully loaded Suburban or other monster SUV, just to see them and realize how ubiquitous (and ridiculous) they are in America would definitely give you some distinctly American (and somewhat Canadian) experience. A cowboy hat would be a nice/humorous souvenir and very American (yeah, I know, they wear them in Calgary too, and they originate with Spanish/Mexican vaqueros...), then again maybe a ball cap with a snappy slogan would be great too!
posted by Pollomacho at 11:18 AM on March 7, 2006

Talk to people about how they really feel about the world.
posted by omidius at 11:28 AM on March 7, 2006

Flea markets, antiquing, craft fairs, swap meets... some flea markets have stalls that sell food, and there's nothing like a corn dog. :) You will be amazed at the stuff people buy and sell.
posted by cass at 11:38 AM on March 7, 2006

Frankly, other than food (Denny's, In-N-Out) you are not going to have much of a quintessential American experience in San Francisco.

If I were you I would punt (sorry, had to toss an Americanism in there) and go down to Big Sur or up to the Redwoods. The Redwoods in particular are like nothing else on earth. Muir Woods is close by and worth the trip, rain or shine.

The nearest bus stop is 1.8 miles away from the park, giving you a reason to rent a car, and a good chance to bitch about the lack of a decent public transportation system in America. (The latter is not strictly an American passtime, it is more of a foreigner-visiting-America passtime).
posted by tkolar at 11:43 AM on March 7, 2006

Things you can do in America you can't in the UK:

definitely shoot guns. you can rent one at most shooting ranges. drive out of town if you have to, it's awesome. owning guns is one of the big nya-nya things about living in the US vs. the UK.

barbecue ("BBQ") cannot be stressed enough. barbecue means something different in the US than it does in the UK. find some and eat the shit out of it. "memphis style" is best. try a chopped brisket sandwich.

fresh-mex style fast food. go to Chipotle and order a carnitas burrito with corn salsa. here is a map of Chipotles near you.

go through fast food drive-thrus and eat in your car. do not try this with barbecue.

get into an accident, go to the hospital and get a $50,000 hospital bill since you don't have insurance and there is no health care system in the US. when you have to find a lawyer to sue someone so you don't have to declare bankruptcy, you will stop laughing at jokes about Americans suing everyone.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:53 AM on March 7, 2006

I'm seconding Alcatraz, a solid walking tour of the city, flea markets, diners and clubs. You didn't say who you're there with, but if you have friends locally they'll have more suggestions. And to repeat what's already been said, San Francisco is not the most American of cities (no chance, I suppose, of going to LA for a day..?)
posted by Count Ziggurat at 12:39 PM on March 7, 2006

The best BBQ in SF is across the bay in Oakland at Chef Edwards. Inside, it feels like Alabama but you can take BART over there, eat, and get back to the city in about an hour and a half. Just take BART to 19th street and walk 2 blocks north.
posted by prambutan at 12:45 PM on March 7, 2006

Welcome to the United States of America, the land without a culture. As you've seen from the posts, there's a lot of differences over what are the defining characteristics of "America". That's because we're a big, big place, and different areas have different histories. We're more like three or four cultures with common roots, but developing independently. When people talk about hot-dog stands and pizza, that's north eastern culture. When they talk grits and bbq, that's southern culture. When they talk of Walmart and Nascar, that's mid-western culture. The individual elements pervade the whole, but they are very geographically rooted. You have to kind of expect that when your country runs the gamut from the Appalachian backwoods to Death Valley.

Here on the west coast, the newest in the game, our culture is rooted mainly in freeways. Drive-ins, fast-food, malls, and SUVs all got their start in California (southern California, but California none-the-less. If you've looked through the archives, you may notice that even northern and southern California claim different cultures). So if you're looking for the western American experience, you're looking for Mel's and In-and-Out. You can find some of the other things people have mentioned, but they won't be the authentic experience. San Francisco has perfected "Mexican" food, but it's far from authentic. You are lucky that the San Francisco area is among the most diverse places you could go (New York is as well), so you will most likely be able to experience many of America's cultural traits, but do understand that SF is not America. No single place is.
posted by team lowkey at 2:26 PM on March 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

One word...
posted by ramix at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2006

Baseball. Paintball. TV. TV dinners. Chinatown. Hyphee. Black barbershops. Pie. Fireworks. Xiu Xiu. !!!. Barbara Manning. Budweiser. PBR. Anchor Steam. Rice-a-roni. Game shows. Drag kings. Burlesque. Chicanos. Drive on the right. Cut people off. Flick 'em off (one finger, not two). Spit. Eagles. John Mellencamp. NPR. Classic rock radio. Crystal meth. Ghettos. Vegas. Time travel. The Great San Fran fire. Earthquakes. Belt buckles. Comic books.

Plenty of these things you can find elsewhere, but we do 'em best.
posted by klangklangston at 2:51 PM on March 7, 2006

Oh, and eat the shit out of real Mexican food.
posted by klangklangston at 2:52 PM on March 7, 2006

Rent the largest SUV you can find and drive. When you get hungry, pull off at the cheapest looking restaurant you see and eat something greasy. Pie is good. BBQ is good, but California BBQ? I'd go with Mexican. Skip Chipotle, find the cheapest place you can. When I visited the UK a year or so ago, people were amazed that my family had loaded up the van and driven 24 hours (or so) to Cleveland. The sheer size of our country seemed to fascinate people I talked to. You really need to experience that to understand the country.
posted by MadamM at 3:45 PM on March 7, 2006

Every suggestion for pancakes in this thread is terrible. Go to Sears Fine Food. Denny's sucks. IHOP sucks. Don't waste your time at those places.

The best BBQ in SF is Brother In Law's BBQ #2. There's supposedly a joint up in Richmond that's OK, too, but I've never been. Big Nate's is OK, but not what I would call "good."

The suggestion to eat at Chipotle (McDonalds' mexi-fast-food restaurants) is absurd. San Francisco has hundreds, probably thousands of decent taquerias. In fact, go ahead and pick a crappy taqueria, it'll still be better than McDondalds tacos.
posted by majick at 3:52 PM on March 7, 2006

Don't know from S.F., but surely there are many good dive bars to sit in and chat with folks. Preferably with as diverse a clientele as possible. People will probably enjoy an accent if you've got one. Get a free drink, maybe! [Some say that on the East coast we say "Fuck you" but we mean "Have a nice day", while on the West Coast they say "Have a nice day" but they mean "Fuck you."]
posted by zoinks at 4:05 PM on March 7, 2006

America is a really large and diverse place- you're much better off seeking uniquely San Francisco experiences in San Francisco. Get locally brewed beer at Magnolia or Anchor Brewing companies. Get a burrito in the Mission District at a taqueria (DO NOT go to Chipotle, the Starbucks of Mexican Food) DO NOT get coffee at Starbuck's- you can do that in a million places, including Vienna. Peet's is a Bay Area coffeee chain, and their coffee is good, but for local color and history, go to Caffe Trieste, in North Beach, the first espresso joint on the West Coast. Take a ferry ride to Alcatraz. stroll through Golden Gate Park. Visit the new De Young Museum. Visit the Ferry Building. Check out the Embarcadero Shopping Center, if American malls interest you. Eat as many different kinds of Asian food as you possibly can, including Chinese, Thai, Viet Namese, and Japanese. Ask people you meet what they would recommend- people here are friendly, and will happily give you suggestions. Drive somewhere if you can; preferably up the coast to see some redwoods, with a sandwich from Bi Rite Deli.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:06 PM on March 7, 2006

Chipotle isn't fake real-Mexican-food, it's real fake-Mexican-food. It's a totally different thing. Sure you should eat at a taqueria when you're in SF, but that doesn't make Chipotle any less awesome.
posted by crabintheocean at 4:12 PM on March 7, 2006

I think the point is that something truly American (not found in most other parts of the world) is great Mexican food. And if you are in San Francisco, everybody knows where that is: Not in the one little Chipotles outlet on New Montgomery st. but in the hundreds of taquerias across the city, many run and owned by mexicans, with homemade tortillas, and salsas like no other. And home of that uniquely american invention: The San Francisco Burrito

I dont know if you're familiar with SF, crabintheocean. San Franciscans take their Mexican food seriously (as an aside, this is also a city for great Peruvian, Guatemalan and Salvadorean food!) and so trying to push Chipotles here will get you as far as trying to push Pizza hut to someone going to New York city :)
posted by vacapinta at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2006

I second all the recommendations for Denny's. If you want an honest-to-god slice of americana, get a solid buzz on and go to Denny's at 2am when the bars start letting out and stay until dawn, talking to random strangers. If you have an accident you'll be the most popular guy in the joint.

The food sucks, the people are trash, but it's a look at the real america you're unlikely to get any other way.
posted by empath at 5:21 PM on March 7, 2006

lol-- ACCENT
posted by empath at 5:21 PM on March 7, 2006

"San Franciscans take their Mexican food seriously....trying to push Chipotles here...."

Good thing I wasn't telling any San Franciscans to eat it!
posted by crabintheocean at 9:13 PM on March 7, 2006

Also, don't buy into the hype about midwestern BBQ being the best. In fact, there are many different families of barbecue in the US and they vary by region. Pulled/Chopped Pork BBQ in the South-Eastern US, Chopped Beef BBQ in Texas and the midwest, and Whole BBQ which includes Chicken, Beef, and Pork found all over, to name a few.

Anyway, there's enough evidence too recommend each as being delicious, but everyone knows, Lexington, NC style BBQ is the best.

Which brings me to my point, it's going to be hard to find a quintessential American experience by just visiting a small geographic region because America is so huge. Your best bet is to determine first which kind of American experience you want. Classic or Modern.

Classic consists of all of those things typifying the mid 20th century American myth. This was before the age of franchising. Mom and Pop stores, Diners, Baseball, the call of the open road and unspoiled wilderness, etc..

Modern Americana consists of driving SUVs, Shopping at Wal-Mart, watching reality TV, and eating at McDonalds, visiting museums, IMAX movies, Arcades, etc...

You can find both in San Francisco plus a whole lot more. Shame about the Barbecue, though.
posted by lyam at 6:47 AM on March 8, 2006

Hey CrayDrygu: Arinell's Pizza on Valencia at 16th. Awesome NY-style, by the slice.
posted by aneel at 9:36 AM on March 8, 2006

crabintheocean- I would probably be more than happy to eat in a Chipotle's anytime I wasn't in the Bay Area, or SoCal., or anywhere there was an actual taqueria or taco truck. But there are much better, more authentic places with their own particular specialties in SF.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:49 AM on March 8, 2006

When are you going to be here? I'd be happy to meet you an Magnolia and buy you a beer. :)
posted by smallerdemon at 11:29 AM on March 8, 2006

Good SF-Based Americana:
Japanese Tea Gardens
Kite Flying At The Marina Drop in at the nearby Safeway -- groceries are always weird away from home
Fog City Diner
The Exploratorium
Market Street
BART + Flea Market = Ashby Ave
The Cliff House
California Academy of Sciences + Steinhart Aquarium

(Plus, as any stranger in a strange land you should immerse yourself in it by eavesdropping, traffic-watching, clothes shopping, beer drinking, getting lost on public transport and grocery shopping. And oh yes, Chuck)
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:51 PM on March 9, 2006

"On the proper Things To Do front: go to Walmart, they have guns! In cases! You can just buy them!.."

Not in California you can't. Wal-Mart doesn't sell firearms in California any longer. And even if they did, there's still the stupid 10 day waiting period.

Just in case the original poster was actually thinking of it.. ;)
posted by drstein at 3:00 PM on March 13, 2006

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