23 Cool things to do in San Francisco – an alternative guide

San Francisco is one of my favourite places in the whole world and I try to visit as much as I can.  Because of this, people are always asking me for recommendations, so I’ve collected 23 things  I enjoy, or have enjoyed doing here, as well as some cool places to stay. The below are a combination of cool and alternative tourist attractions / activities I think are actually cool, as well as some good shopping, eating, drinking , etc..

Contents

1. Have a burrito (or a taco or any other awesome Mexican street food)

San Francisco, and especially Mission District is full of taquerias (Mexican fast food places) serving some Very Nice Things. I usually head straight to the Taqueria Cancun near Mission & 19th and grab a massive veggie burrito or huevos rancheros (eggs with salsa and stuff, for the uninitiated). You also get a basket full of tortilla chips and some very hot salsas with every other, which is also great (basically all taquerias do this, as far as I can tell). Vegans, do not despair! Papaloto is another great taqueria nearby that offers plenty of vegan choices. Taquerias are often cash only, so get some money out. Also, they will serve you fresh, undiluted, unsweetened fruit juice (orange, carrot, etc.) at non-extortionate prices, which is a surprisingly rare thing in San Francisco.

Taqueria Cancun

* 2288 Mission St (between 18th & 19th) * 10:30 – 1:00  daily, closed Tuesdays – this is my favourite branch!
* 3211 Mission St  * Mon – Wed 11:00 – 23:35, Thu 11:00 – 1:45, Fri-Sat 11:00 – 2:45, Sun 11:00 – 23:45
* 1003 Market St * 9:00 – 22:30 daily

Portions are huge, prices are cheap and all branches are colourful and often very busy. It’s won countless awards for best veggie burrito in SF. Not sure what the count is now, but it’s still my favourite. The free salsa is really quite hot.

***

Papalote Mexican Grill

Website: http://www.papalote-sf.com/
* 3409 24th Street  (Mission) * 11:00 – 22:00 daily (Sun till 21:00)
* 1777 Fulton St (Haight) * Mon – Sat 11:00 – 22:00, Sun 11:00 – 21:00

Lots of vegan and (relatively) healthy options make this place super popular. Apparently this is the latest winner of best veggie burrito in SF? Maybe because it actually caters to vegans and not just vegetarians.

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Taqueria Los Coyotes

3036 16th St * Mon – Thu 9:30 – 22:30, Fri 9:30 – 3:30, Sat Sat 9:00 – 3:30 Sun 9:30 – 00:00

My friend took me to this big, cheap, no frills place with plenty of seating. It’s been around for years and years and still hugely popular. Vegan and vegetarian options available.


2. Enjoy Some Healthy Food

I always like to remind myself I’m in California by pretending I am actually a healthy person. I walk up and down SF’s crazy hills a lot, so if I top that off by eating something wholesome, I feel like I’m in some sort of boot camp or retreat.

California is full of vegans, vegetarians and health-conscious people who actually enjoy good food, so you’ll be spoiled for choice. There are vegetarian options in most places and vegan options are increasingly popular. Here are some places I liked.

Golden Era

Website: https://goldeneravegan.com/
395 Golden Gate Ave * 10:30 – 20:30 daily

Delicious pan-Asian vegan food in a friendly, cheerful setting. Some pretend seafood dishes alongside various veg and tofu things. Also: lovely desserts.

***

Little Gem

Website: http://www.littlegem.restaurant/
400 Grove St * 11:00 – 21:00 daily. Fri, Sat till 22:00

A pretty, health-conscious food place with a modern, upmarket hipster feel. Serves really nice food with plenty of vegetarian / vegan / gluten free options alongside stuff for health-conscious meat eaters.

***

Shizen

Website: https://www.shizensf.com/
370 14th St * 17:00 – 22:00 daily

Vegan sushi, ramen, salads and other Japanese stuff. Small and extremely popular. Get there early or book well in advance. Expect a long wait.


3. Enjoy Some Greasy American Food for Breakfast (or Lunch)

Al’s Super Cafe

I love everything about American diners, from the greasy food to the old-school decor. If you’re going to spend the day being a tourist, you’re going to want a big breakfast. May as well go native and go big. Being a vegetarian, I usually have omelettes or grilled cheese sandwiches or stuff like that, but there’s never any shortage of meat, obviously.

Al’s Super Cafe

Website: http://orderalssupercafe.com/
3286 Mission St * 7:00 – 15:00 daily

Established in 1942, this super old-school diner offers wonderfully sloppy food, walls covered in pictures of classic Hollywood movie stars and clientele who seem to have aged with the place. It’s basically a piece of history.

***

Boogaloos

Website: https://boogaloossf.com/
3296 22nd St * 8:00 – 15:00 daily

Bang in the middle of Mission’s hipster area, this fun diner is set in an old drugstore (I’ll never get tired of seeing big signs announcing drugs) and draws a mixed crowd of cool-looking locals. The food is a good mix of classic American and local Mexican.


4. Indulge your sweet tooth

Climb up another hill to offset the calories! It will be worth it. Honest. SF has some amazing cake and dessert places and I always try to visit a bunch when I’m here. I’m on a (slow) quest to discover them all, but here are a few that I like.

Tartine Bakery

Website: https://www.tartinebakery.com/
600 Guerrero St * Mon 8:00 – 19:30, Tue, Wed 7:30 – 19:30, Thu, Fri 7:30 – 20:00, Sat, Sun 8:00 – 20:00

Posh(ish) hipster bakery / cafe of your dreams. Amazing cakes and pastries, specialty bread and decent coffee (for the US, anyway).  Yum! Gets very busy, but you can always get a takeaway and go sit in the park (when the weather isn’t sucky, anyway).

***

Bi-Rite Creamery

Website: http://biritecreamery.com/
3692 18th St * 11:00 – 22:00 daily
550 Divisadero 9:00 – 21:00 daily

Very lovely ice cream with all kinds of mad flavours, as well as yummy baked goods. Menu changes seasonally / daily, which is the perfect excuse for visiting it often.

***

Benkyodo

Website: http://www.benkyodocompany.com/
1747 Buchanan St  (Japan Town) * Tue – Fri 8:00 – 17:00, Sat 8:00 – 16:00

Traditional and original Japanese sweets. Supposedly brought fortune cookies to the US, but nowadays sell mochi.

***

Beard Papa

* 99 Yerba Buena Ln * Mon – Thu 9:00 – 19:00, Fri, Sat 10:00 – 19:00, Sun 11:00 – 18:00
* Westfield SF Center, 845 Market St * Mon – Sat 10:00 – 20:30, Sun 10:00 – 19:00

Two branches of a Japanese chain of cream puff stores. Not exactly endemic, but San Francisco is the only place I frequent that still has them. If you like cream puffs or are cream puff curious, go grab some. They’e everything you could want in a cream puff and more.


5. Do some Thrift  /  Vintage Shopping

San Francisco is a great place to pick up vintage or second hand clothes. You can find some real bargains in the local thrift stores (that’s charity stores if you’re British), some cheap – medium range clothes at Buffalo Exchange and some of the many many vintage stores on Haight St. (see below), as well as some really posh, expensive vintage stuff.

Mission Thrift

2330 Mission St * 11:00 – 19:00 daily

A big store full of retro and vintage stuff ranging from very cheap to mid-range and beyond. Lots and lots of racks of stuff ranging mostly from 50s-90s. I don’t think it’s a charity store.

***

Goodwill

1700 Haight St * Mon – Sat 9:00 – 20:00, Sun 10:00 – 19:00

Apart from the Salvation Army store (my favourite one of those in SF shut down a while back), this is the mother of all thrift store chains in the US. This nice big one on Haight has some decent finds and everything is pretty cheap. There’s a big homewares section, too, that occasionally has some really weird shit in it.

***

Buffalo Exchange

* 1555 Haight St * 11:00 – 20:00 daily
* 1210 Valencia St * 11:00 – 20:00 daily

A second hand store where people bring their old clothes to sell. Mostly current stuff with the occasional retro things. Very reasonably priced, though not as cheap as a thrift store. Because SF has some very cool residents, there are some very cool clothes and shoes for sale here on a regular basis.

***

Community Thrift

623 Valencia St * 10:00 – 18:30 daily

A big store with a whole section dedicated to fashion (men, women, children) with occasional cool finds and lots of cheap functional stuff. I actually prefer their weird and wonderful homewares section, though.

***

Decades of Fashion

Website: https://www.decadesoffashionsf.com/
1653 Haight St * 11:00 – 19:00 daily

Probably my favourite vintage / retro place (I think it’s 1890s – 90s) on Haight St. It has a wide choice of stuff and is not overly expensive. I’ve gotten some very good deals on stuff here.


6. Buy Some Awesome Alternative Fashion

There are some really cool stores in this city. Some are cheap, some…not so cheap. Haight St. has a whole bunch of places that do crazy alternative designer fashion, but there are some scattered in other places too. I’m usually too poor to buy the really nice stuff, so I just window shop and cry and then go buy a $5 dress from Goodwill. Maybe you’ve made better life choices, though?

Piedmont Boutique

Website: https://www.piedmontboutique.com/
1452 Haight St * 11:00 – 19:00 daily

Crazy burner / carnival / burlesque / stripper / clubber / raver fashion. Lots of sequins, fishnets, wigs, boas, 80s style earrings, short shorts, corsets…You get the gist.

***

Nooworks

Website: https://www.nooworks.com/
395 Valencia St * Mon 11:00 – 17:00, Tue – Sun 11:00 – 19:00

Classy cuts with mad, often loud prints. Last time I visited they also had all kinds of original, funky T-shirts, including souvenir ones.

***

Dolls Kill

1475 Haight St * 11:00 – 19:00 daily

My favourite alternative fashion website has an actual shop on Haight. Alternative / goth / fetish (ish) / rave / etc.

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Dark Garden

Website: https://www.darkgarden.com/
5109, 321 Linden St * 11:00 17:00 daily, Fri, Sat till 18:00

Beautiful, handmade corsetry that’s well out of my price range, but sometimes they have a sale and then it might be slightly less out of my price range. If you’re into posh lingerie and corsetry and have the cash to spend on something really special, this is where you should go.


7. Visit the world’s best sex shop (Probably) – Good Vibrations

Website: https://www.goodvibes.com
603 Valencia St * Mon – Thu, Sun 11:00 – 22:00, Fri, Sat 11:00 – 23:00 (other locations and a vibrator museum, but I’ve not been)

Bright, sexy and totally not sleazy, this place has a great choice of toys and helpful, knowledgeable  staff to help you find what you want (and get advice on how to use it). It’s a San Francisco institution and has been around since 1977 (!), so if you’re going to visit one sex store on this trip, it should probably be this one.

You can read more about its amazing founder (now sadly gone) here.

 


8. Visit this awesome cooperative health food store – Rainbow Grocery

Website: https://www.rainbow.coop/
1745 Folsom St * 9:00 – 21:00 daily

Love health food but hate Whole Foods? Rainbow Grocery will save the day! It’s huge, local, vegetarian and run by a cool local coop. It’s also stocked with some really great stuff from organic food to supplements and even imported British tea (handy for me). You can also buy ready meals, coffee to take away and cakes and things. I love discovering all the crazy hippie stuff for sale in the US and this is the perfect place to do this.


9. Smoke (or Vape, or Eat) Some Weed

Weed is legal (sort of) in California now! It’s not quite as festive as Amsterdam, so you can’t go to a coffee shop and get stoned, but you can go to a dispensary and buy a whole range of stuff from grass to edibles, CBD oils and various other cool things. So far I’ve failed miserably to visit a dispensary, but I’m putting this here anyway, because this is something cool you can definitely do while you’re in town. Here’s  a handy list of popular places you can try.


10. Get your nails done

There are nail places everywhere in San Francisco and I usually wait till I get here to do my nails as it’s relatively cheap and the quality is high.

Mani-pedi

Website: http://manipedisanfrancisco.com/
1035 Guerrero * 10:00 – 19:30 Mon – Sat, Sun 10:00 – 19:00

Cheap, cheerful and popular, this place does a good job at rock bottom prices. My gel manicure lasted almost a month! No need to book, but be ready to wait a bit if you don’t. This place was busy during working hours on a Monday so it’s probably always busy.

***

Le Petite Nail Shop

Website: http://www.lapetitenailshop.com/
601 Kansas St * 10:00 – 19:00 daily (Wed 11:00 – 19:00)

A lovely, posh place and totally worth it. I came here especially for the CBD pedicure they offer (it’s the only place in town that does it, as far as I know) and it was absolutely amazing. You get a little chocolate edible to start you off, soak your feet in water with a CBD bath bomb and get a CBD scrub and CBD oil massage before getting a really thorough pedicure. And yes, you do get a little bit high off it (well, I did, anyway). They make you sign a release form at the beginning saying you realise you might get high, so you know it’s good!


11. Visit the World’s Best Music Store (Probably) – Amoeba Music

Website: https://www.amoeba.com

1855 Haight St * 11:00 – 20:00 daily

This is every hipster’s and music lover’s wet dream. It’s a huge store with used and new vinyl and CDs that has somehow managed to weather the digital revolution and come out the other side.  I guess now that vinyl sales are officially up, this SF institution is more likely to stick around. All flavours of alternative and beyond are catered for. Get ready to spend hours in here and you may as well sell a kidney in advance. Sometimes there’s live music and DJs here too.

 


12. Visit an Independent Bookstore

Because you should always support independent book stores wherever you happen to be. Luckily, there are a bunch to explore.

Borderlands Books

Website:  https://borderlands-books.com/
866 Valencia St * 12:00 – 20:00 daily

Will be moving to Haight sometime, but for now you can still visit their Mission store and browse lots of sci fi books and things.

***

Isotope Comics

Website: http://www.isotopecomics.com/
326 Fell st * Tues – Fri 11:00 – 19:00

Sit on one of the comfy sofas in this comics lounge and leaf through the latest indie comics. I’m pretty sure the helpful staff can help you find your new favourites to take home with you.

***

Bound Together

1369 Haight St. 11:30 – 19:30 daily

An anarchist collective-run bookstore with a good collection of subversive books for poisoning young (and old) minds.


13. Enjoy Some Park life

The view from Dolores Park

Sometimes the weather is nice and you can chill out in the park.  Golden Gate park is the big, famous one and is definitely worth exploring. You can walk all the way to the beach from the entrance at the top of Haight St. Allow a few hours for the walk and for exploring the park.

Some cool things inside include:

Botanical Garden: https://www.sfbotanicalgarden.org/

Has all kinds of cool events, a greenhouse (or more?) and lots of exotic plants.

Japanese Garden / Tea House: http://japaneseteagardensf.com/

Has a sad history rooted in America’s racist past (you can read the story on the site) but is beautiful and peaceful nonetheless. The tea house is a nice place to visit and enjoy some traditional (and less so) treats.

Nowadays lots of people hang out in the park and smoke weed, too, so it’s important to point out that it’s not actually legal to smoke it here. Use your judgement.

***

Dolores Park in the Mission is basically a big stretch of hilly grass so is mostly good for hanging out, people watching and chilling. Nowadays it always smells of weed, but I’m pretty sure it always has (it’s also not legal to smoke here,  in case you’re wondering). On a nice day it’s full of locals and there’s always some sort of wacky interaction just waiting to happen. Last time I was hanging out here with a friend we had some stoner come up to us and do some pretty good magic tricks for money. If you want a picnic in the area, this is where you go.


14. Visit Chinatown and the fortune cookie “factory”

I paid for this shitty photo

 

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

56 Ross Alley * Mon – Fri 9:00 – 18:30, Sat, Sun 9:00 – 19:00

If you want to do the tourist thing properly, head to Chinatown and explorer the shops and restaurants. There’s even a little temple. For full tourist points you can take the cable car from Powell, which you might want to do anyway if you don’t like climbing up massive hills. Supposedly fortune cookies are actually an American invention and are not actually Chinese. In fact, they may have actually been invented in San Francisco, adapted from a Japanese version which is bigger and savoury.  Either way, the “factory” is more or less an open fronted shop where Chinese ladies sit and roll fortune cookies. You can visit for free but they charge for photos. You can get cookies made with your own message inside, which is pretty neat.


15. Catch a movie at the Castro Theater

Website: http://www.castrotheatre.com/
429 Castro St

This beautiful, historic repertory cinema is a piece of San Francisco history.  Beautiful inside and out, it was built in 1922 and has an actual organ inside (still in use!) and the last remaining leatherette ceiling in the US (or anywhere?) which is apparently a big deal because making such things is a lost art.  There are 1400 seats in the cinema and the screen is plenty big enough. If you want a classic cinema experience with a modern twist then this is the place. They have some really cool film festivals and events here all the time and there are pre-show organ concerts too, for the full experience.

 


16. Cycle the Golden Gate Bridge

This was my tourist goal on one of my visits and it was definitely worth it. If the weather is nice, it’s a beautiful trip and not difficult (I’m a lightweight). You can rent a bike and cycle over to the bridge from any number of reasonably flat locations, then cycle across to the very pleasant Sausalito and take the ferry back (or cycle back if you are psychotic and like cycling up steep hills). Here are a few places you can rent bikes from.

 

 

 

 


 

17. See Charles Manson’s House

There’s not much to do here apart from to stand outside, look at the house and maybe take a selfie, but you can say you saw Charles Manson’s house. There’s no museum or anything, but it’s still cool if you’re into serial killers and history. It’s on 636 Cole at the Haight. Here’s some more info about it.


18. Visit Baker Beach (birthplace of Burning Man)

Website: https://www.presidio.gov/places/baker-beach

The first ever Burning Man event happened here many years ago But apart from that little piece of history, it’s also a very pretty beach with stunning views of Golden Gate Bridge.  The 29 bus goes there, but you can also do a whole scenic walk thing to get there. It’s all very pretty.

 

 

 

 

 


19. Geek out at the Exploratorium

Website: https://www.exploratorium.edu/

This place manages to be cool, strange and geeky at once, which is basically San Francisco’s image all rolled into one bite sized piece. It’s a funky interactive science museum type thing that’s mostly aimed at nerdy (and cool) kids, but their Thursday night events are pretty awesome and very much fun for adults too.


20. Spend some change at the Musee Mechanique

Website: http://www.museemechanique.org/

A huge private collection of coin-operated antique arcade machines that you can visit for free.  You only pay if you want to actually operate the things. There are all  kinds of fun and creepy things here, as well as vintage peep-show machines with sepia-coloured pin-ups. If you’re an arcade nerd like me, you’ll be spending quite a lot of time (and change) here.

 

 


21. See Some Amazing Street Art in the Mission

There’s lots of awesome street art and plenty of great murals to be found all around the Mission if you go for a walk along side streets, but the most famous stretch is the one on Clarion Alley that starts by Community Thrift (see above). It’s basically now an open air museum with political murals. It’s obviously very busy right now, because there are a lot of politics. Website: http://clarionalleymuralproject.org/

The Women’s building on 3543 18th St is also pretty nice.

 

 


22. Go to a Dive Bar

My friends in SF are very much into dive bars, so I always end up going to at least one per trip. Remember to bring your ID, even if you look like you’re 50.

Zeitgeist

199 Valencia St * 9:00 – 2:00 daily

It’s got a big outdoors bit, a mid-sized indoor bit and a crowd of hipsters and cool tech people. Usually busy and mildly rowdy.

***

Benders

Website: https://www.bendersbar.com/
806 S Van Ness Ave * Mon – Fri 16:00 – 2:00, Sat, Sun, 14:00 – 2:00

A biggish place with good bar food and pool tables. The crowd appears to be slightly less techy and more outright alternative, but you never know who’s in tech in SF.

***

The Wooden Nickel

1900 Folsom St * 14:00 – 2:00 daily

A long, narrow space with a retro feel. Has the obligatory pool table and jukebox. Serves good Mexican food and a good choice of booze (cocktails!) but refers to itself as a pub.  Apparently female run, which is rare.


23. Bonus round: Visit the SFO Yoga Room (there are actually two now?)

Because of course SFO has a yoga room (or two if you believe their website). It’s usually pretty quiet and is well stock with mats and props. I try to visit every time I fly out of SFO, though I failed miserably to access it from the international terminal (which seems pretty sucky anyway).

 

 

 

 


Where to Stay

El Capitan Hotel (Mission)

2361 Mission St

Book through Booking.com

One of the cheapest places I’ve found in SF (if you want a private room). I love it and have never felt unsafe there even as a woman on my own, but some people hate it (check the reviews). Although the rooms are clean, it does feel sort of like a cross between a homeless shelter and the hotel out of The Shining sometimes, but that’s just part of its charm. The shared bathrooms are generally OK, if old, but not exactly 5*.  I’ve never stayed in a room with a private bathrooms, but apparently they do have some. The shared bathroom rooms do have a sink, a fridge and cable TV, but not air conditioning. The place can be noisy, being right on Mission St, but as I love the neighbourhood, it’s perfect for me (and for you, if you love being where the hipsters are and can handle some noise). There’s a (paid) car park right next door, which is handy.

***

Adelaide Hostel (Nob Hill)

Book through Booking.com

5 Isadora Duncan Ln

A very pleasant hostel with small privates and dorms, a friendly atmosphere, beautiful shared areas and a good kitchen to cook in. Well located for the centre of town and transport.

***

Phoenix Hotel (Tenderloin)

Book through Booking.com

601 Eddy St

This is where posh burners and rock bands stay when they come to San Francisco. If you want to splash out on a cool boutique with famous (and almost famous) neighbours and lots of nice touches, go here.

***

The Red Victorian (Haight)

Website: https://redvic.com/

This place takes booking through Airbnb and is built around a local community of cool hippies with money. There are always cool events happening here and interesting people to meet and it feels more like a home than a hotel / hostel.

 

Or search for more hotels and get some really good deals:



Booking.com


Photo Credits

Taqueria Cancun photo is by Anita Hart on Flickr with a creative commons license.

Shizen photo is by Ella Olsson off Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

Benkyodo photo is by Kennejima on Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

Piedmont Boutique photo is by Thomas Hawk off Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

Good Vibrations photo is by Mélanie on Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

Amoeba Records photo is by George Gorgo off Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

Castro Theater photo is by Gio Dam off Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

Golden Gate bridge photo is off the Pexels stock photo site.

Baker Beach photo by Harvey Yau on Flickr with a creative commons license. I modified it a bit.

All other photos by me (© all rights reserved and everything).

 

 

 

 

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