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I traveled to the Bay Area recently for a Thursday/Friday work conference, and I stayed in a hotel very close to the conference in Burlingame. I was disappointed to be far from the center of San Francisco, but I was determined to not let this stop me from visiting the city in the evenings and on Saturday morning before returning home to San Diego. I hadn’t been to the area since I was 15, so I was really motivated to get back and discover how different the experience would be from when I was younger.
Check out these five tips that helped me maximize the little free time I had during my trip!
Take in the city on foot
Friday night, I hurried to the BART station (here are some tips for conquering an unfamiliar metro) as soon as my conference wrapped up and got out at 16th & Mission. My first objective was to make it to scenic Dolores Park to get a glimpse of the city. After several food-related detours (more to follow), I decided to walk up to Alamo Square Park to see the famous “painted ladies” before sunset on my way to meeting a new friend and colleague from the conference for dinner on Divisadero.
The walk from Dolores to Alamo square was over 1.5 miles and gained a few hundred feet in elevation, yet it was the highlight of the entire trip. Taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds of the several neighborhoods I walked through as dusk settled in on the city was a special experience. I accidentally stumbled upon the U.S. Mint, opened in 1854(!), a tiny, cool record store under a brownstone home, and a small neighborhood bar with a cool speakeasy vibe where the bartenders were friendly and knowledgeable.
Saturday morning had more of this as I walked through Chinatown, up to Lombard Street and eventually down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Walking by all the Chinatown markets, just opening with fresh fish, strange fruits and vegetables and hearing people haggling in what I am assuming was Cantonese was such a cool experience.
If you see a line, it’s probably worth waiting in
I am definitely not the world’s most patient man, but I found that the several times I waited in long lines for trendy treats it was well worth it. On my way down from Dolores Park I stopped in Bi-Rite for one of the most delicious ice cream cones I’ve ever had! They had many interesting flavors that I sampled, but I’m a sucker for anything with chocolate, cookies or peanut butter so I stuck with the ever-classic cookies and cream. Saturday morning before leaving the city, I waited in a line that wrapped around the block at Tartine Bakery. I have to admit, I almost bailed several times, but friendly conversation with strangers and the smell of the freshly baked croissants and other treats kept me hanging on. I ended up bringing back Staci a tart and enjoyed some incredible bread pudding myself.
Forget the traditional 3 meals; eat small throughout the day
I tried to channel Anthony Bourdain here by eating small meals often in order to maximize how many different things I could try on such a short trip. Saturday morning started with a small, early breakfast near my hotel, delicious steamed bbq pork bun and shrimp dumpling dim sum at Good Mong Kok in Chinatown, and the bread pudding from Tartine as a sort of long drawn out breakfast. The line at Good Mong Kok was another telltale sign that I was in for a treat.
Take locals up on their recommendations
Whether it’s from coworkers who are from the Bay Area, a good friend who lived there for several years, or the cool bartender who just introduced you to Fernet Branca, listening to those who are in the know is a great way to really learn a city. Who better to learn from than those who love their home city? If I hadn’t been correctly guided to order the bread pudding at Tartine, I wouldn’t’ve known to select it from the multitude of delicious treasures. Also, the friendly bartender from Bar 821 recommended that I check out the free concert that was going on in Golden Gate Park, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Although I missed the last concert of the night, it led me through the famous corner of Haight-Ashbury where I geeked out for a moment over the neighborhood that help inspire the hippie subculture of the famous Summer of Love in 1967.
Pick at least one “can’t miss” item that you have to see
One of our friends is a huge Frida Kahlo fan, so when in Mexico City last winter, we saw some of her artwork in addition to her contemporaries Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. I found out that there are several Diego murals in San Francisco and I knew that I had to visit at least one. One of them resides at an exclusive club, another at a local college with strict hours and not remotely close to a BART stop, and finally, the last (which I visited) was at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was conveniently located a half-block from the foot of Lombard Street, so I stopped in for a visit. Diego has become one of my favorite artists and the large mural did not disappoint.
If you find yourself in a cool city during a short, busy work-related trip, you don’t have to sacrifice your love of travel and exploration. I hope this post inspires you to explore the city on foot and don’t be afraid of getting lost or taking detours. Look around, listen and enjoy yourself!
Anything I missed? Add your tips in the comments.
Guest post written by Doug Jackson. All photos by Doug Jackson for The Voyageer.