Over sixteen million tourists flock to San Francisco each year to take in its majestic scenery, rich history, world-renowned food scene, and diverse cultural offerings. But what do San Francisco locals do when it’s time for us to take a vacation? We leave. As a result, many of us never take time to see some of the most popular tourist haunts that are actually worth visiting, let alone those hidden gems we always dream of getting to.
But with our country’s current economic woes and the skyrocketing cost of airfare, I’ve decided there’s no better way to use my vacation days than to vacation—or staycation—in my own city. I’ve put together my dream staycation itinerary that I’d proudly recommend to any local, not to mention all sixteen million of those tourists (or at least those on a budget). It’s relatively inexpensive (with a few splurges here and there) and if you hit everything on the list, you’ll have an amazing and well-rounded San Francisco experience.
Tour of Staircases
For a city that’s only seven miles long by seven miles wide, San Francisco has a lot of hills—forty-three to be exact. I love all the tucked away staircases that wind their way up and around those hills, revealing amazing views. I’ve often thought that if I had enough time, I’d tackle the city neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, so I could climb every staircase and enjoy every single view. Since there are over 300 staircases in the city, climbing all of them might take longer than a staycation allows, but there are a few that can’t be missed, all with incredible views: the Filbert Street and Green Street stairs, both in North Beach, the Lyon Street stairs in Presidio Heights, and the 20th Street stairs in Noe Valley. For a full list of stairs and locations, check out Sister Betty’s Stairways of San Francisco.
Tour of Burritos
San Franciscans have strong opinions on pretty much everything, from our favorite neighborhood, to the Giants vs. the As, to—and many would argue that this is the most important debate of all—our favorite burrito (Taqueria Cancun). If you’ve always wondered whether one taqueria’s burrito really is better than another’s, there’s no better time to find out than by trying a different burrito every day of your staycation. (No one ever said staycation had to be healthy.) Finding enough to sample won’t be a problem—there are 181 taquerias listed on burritoeater.com, a Web site devoted entirely to the decadent pursuit of finding San Francisco’s most delicious burrito. Check out the site for their recommendations, but aside from Taqueria Cancun (Mission at 19th), I also recommend Papalote (24th at Guerrero) for a healthier burrito (although block off some time—they are inexcusably slow) and El Farolito (Mission at 24th). If you’re closer to the Cow Hollow/Marina area, try La Canasta (Buchanan at Union). There’s something about burritos in the Mission that taste better to me, but these will still hit the spot, and owners Alberto and Lili are quite possibly the nicest people ever.
Alcatraz at Night
Every San Franciscan has probably done more than a few obligatory visits to The Rock when friends and family are in town. But considering that roughly 4,000 visitors make their way to Alcatraz each day, and only 600 visit each night, odds are that you’re in the category of folks who’s never made the nocturnal journey to visit the ghost of the Birdman. The tour feels especially sinister in the evening , but perhaps the best reason to visit Alcatraz at night is to watch the San Francisco skyline light up building by building; it will reconfirm your decision to pay the equivalent of roughly six car payments each month to continue living here. Buy tickets well in advance because of the limited space.
Re-live Your Childhood
Staycations are the perfect time to recapture that fantastic childhood feeling of playground euphoria. Though the playground swings aren’t really big enough for me anymore, the Seward Street slides (Seward and Douglass St.) are. Bring a piece of cardboard, leave your skirt at home, and don’t forget to tuck in your arms and squeal like a little girl. When you’re done sliding, take a walk to Bi-Rite Creamery (18th at Dolores) for perhaps the best salted caramel ice cream cone you’ll ever have, and then relax in Dolores Park with a nap or a book. Or if it’s the first Thursday of the month (April through October), bring a blanket and check out Dolores Park Movie night (free).
Golden Gate Park
At over three miles long and a half mile wide, there’s plenty of ground to cover in Golden Gate Park if you want to walk, ride a bike, rollerblade, or run off any of those burritos you’ve been sampling. Once you tire of burning calories, you can slip into any number of attractions. Start with the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden ($4 admission), a wet garden (though it also has a dry garden area known as the Zen Garden) with over five acres of sub-gardens and interesting artifacts, like a bronze Buddha and a five-story red pagoda. From there, take in another beauty, the Conservatory of Flowers ($5 admission), which according to the Web site has “seventeen hundred species of plants” that “represent unusual and often endangered flora from the tropical forests of more than fifty countries around the world.” For your last stop on the visual stimulation tour, see what’s on exhibit at the de Young museum ($15 admission) and enjoy a glass of wine on the patio café afterwards. (An especially decadent treat since this may be the only place on any park property in the city where you’re allowed to consume alcohol.)
Did you know that Frank Chu used to be a truck driver? Or that there’s a shoe cemetery at the top of Alamo Square Park? Neither did I, but San Francisco is full of interesting stories no matter where you turn. Every building, house, park, and street in the city seems to have a rich history that many of us locals have never heard. Never fear, though, city walks can remedy any lack of information and many are free. Walks on my staycation to-do list: the San Francisco Ghost Hunt through Pacific Heights ($20), Hobnobbing with Gobs of Snobs in Nob Hill ($45), and the Mission Dolores neighborhood tour (free).
Play on the Bay
Many times I’ve plotted how I could meet and become best friends with a billionaire, just to have a go-to buddy to call on those rare warm, sunny days when I want to sail or yacht around the Bay. I’ve not met my billionaire yet, but I have discovered some affordable ways to spend some time on the water. For $45 per adult, you can enjoy an hour and a half sunset or afternoon sail courtesy of Adventure Cat. Slightly less expensive and a little less glamorous (but no less enjoyable) is the Blue and Gold Fleet’s Bay Cruise Adventure for $20. Or you could use a Blue and Gold Fleet ferry merely as transport to your own private island—Angel Island to be exact ($18 round trip ferry ride), which isn’t really private, but thanks to the high from your staycation, it won’t really matter. There you can spend the day hiking, biking, picnicking, and taking in great views of the Bay Area.
Walk or Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
Yes, it’s touristy, but I’ve lived here for eight years and have only done it three times. Each time I crossed, I wondered why I hadn’t done it more often. Besides, hanging out with all those tourists ooh-ing and ahh-ing over your city will help you appreciate the fact that you can make this trek any time you want. If you don’t own a bike, rent one and after crossing the bridge, ride into Sausalito, have a bite to eat or get some ice cream and then ride back. Or if you’re too tired, you can take the ferry back for $11 one way.
It’s fun to play tourist here, especially when you don’t have to sweat things like figuring out which bus to get on, or resort to buying overpriced fleeces that say “San Francisco” just to stay warm. But perhaps the best part of all these staycation activities is that they help us locals remember our good fortune; we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And that helps make those hefty rent or mortgage payments worth every penny.