Considering that I live about an hour’s drive (on a good day, with no traffic, mildly speeding) from San Francisco, I don’t actually head up there that often. San Jose is a bigger city — not that you would know it from the blank stares I get when I leave the state and tell some unsuspecting Lyft driver where I’m from — and it’s home. San Francisco feels like another planet, and I’m sure they feel the same about us down here in the South Bay.
When I make the trek up the peninsula, it’s often because I have a friend staying with me that wants to visit. As much as I love San Jose, it’s a far better place to live (if you can afford it) while San Francisco is a more fun place to visit. My home is the Jan Brady to San Francisco’s Marcia when it comes to things to visit, see, and do.
So when I do head up into San Francisco’s foggy embrace, I don’t want to hit up the usual touristy places my out-of-state friends may have seen before. I want to look like the knowledgeable San Francisco hipster local that my friends outside of the Bay Area seem to think I am. This is the general itinerary I use to do it.
Step 0: The Drive
When I go to SF by myself, I like taking Caltrain or BART. I have a soft spot for trains, parking in the city is a beast, traffic is even worse, oh my God why do I even leave my sweet South Bay? However, if I’m taking a friend, we’re going to drive. Warning: this not-quite-touristy itinerary is not transit friendly.
Anyway, I want them to see that the Bay Area isn’t just suburbs and office parks as far as the eye can see. (Even if that’s a completely fair assessment.) That means driving up 101, even if it’s slightly faster, is out. We take 280 instead and we leave long after the rush hour commute is over. 10-11 am is about right.
And yes, this is is a weekday itinerary. I take the day off so I can feel like I’m on vacation along with whoever’s staying with me.
Step 1: Brunch
Could there be a better way of starting a day off than brunch? I’m happy to hear alternatives but I doubt I’ll be convinced. Downtown San Jose has a lot of things going on lately, but brunch options are not one of those things. (The suburbs have some solid options, but sometimes I just want to walk instead of drive, y’know?) So, this itinerary was born a bit out of necessity.
It is sweet, because it’s glazed in maple syrup. It is spicy, thanks to the perfect sprinkling of cayenne and peppers. And it is smoky, because it’s still bacon. No matter what else you get when you go, you must get this. A regular order comes with two pieces, perfect to split with a friend who’s come to visit. They also have a Millionaire’s Bacon sampler platter, which I haven’t gotten but will get around to one of these days if I head up there with a bigger group of friends.
Or just one friend who really loves bacon. No judgement.
The rest of the weekday menu is pretty damn excellent. Drinkswise, there’s bottomless mimosas seven days a week if your guest is feeling up to it, though I usually go with the lavender latte or raspberry lemonade. As for food, there’s a bit of everything, which is key when you’re taking someone out and you’re not sure of their preferences.
If I’m feeling like something savory, I usually go for one of their breakfast pizzas. My favorite is the Swine, which is topped with bacon, pork-lime sausage, Canadian bacon, mozzarella, potato, arugula, marinara, and my favorite sauce: cutting into the runny yolk of a perfectly fried egg. On the sweet side, the Crunch Flakes French toast is my favorite. All the creamy richness of french toast, with a bit of a crunch on the outside to remind me of waffles, my other sweet breakfast favorite.
Street parking is metered but pretty easy to find on a weekday. I’ve never needed more than two hours to park, walk, wait, eat, chat, and make it back to the car without feeling too rushed.
Step 2: Walking it off
This part of the journey is why it’s so key to have a car. After all that gluttony, it’s time to get to walk it off and take in some sea air. Lands End is just the place to do it, especially since parking is free.
The nice thing about this part of my itinerary is that it’s customizable to whoever you’re with. With an avid outdoorsy type? You can wander for hours, taking in all the stops from the Sutro Baths to the Legion of Honor museum and beyond. Or, you can take your time, walk around a bit, have a seat, take in a gorgeous view, and repeat as desired.
This is a great way of checking off “going to go see the Golden Gate Bridge” from your guest’s checklist without actually dealing with all the tourists at the Golden Gate Bridge. If Karl the Fog isn’t around, you can turn a corner and see that International Orange beauty stretched out before you.
It’s also a nice spot for a picnic or a chat, if you go during a quiet weekday like I prefer.
Even if you don’t stray far from the parking lot, the Sutro Baths are a nicely Instagrammable spot that most out-of-towners don’t know about. Do a little reading up on it (I love California history so it was hardly a sacrifice for me) and you can sound like a knowledgable local, too.
Step 3: Hayes Valley wanderings
Hayes Valley has a special place in my heart. Before my friend Sarang moved up to the city and became a fully fledged San Franciscan, this was the neighborhood we drove up to and wandered around, talking about what it would be like to live there.
It also has a lot of options within walking distance once you park your car. On that subject, I highly recommend springing for the extra expense of parking in a garage instead of trying to chance it with street parking.
One, street parking is harder to come by around here. Two, I’ve been a part of multiple horror stories of friends having their cars broken into in the area. The Performing Arts Center garage is never more than $5 an hour. If you get there in the afternoon like I usually do, $2 an hour is more than worth it for your peace of mind.
By now, I could probably use some coffee. (But really, when couldn’t I use some coffee?) If it’s a nice day out — it’s San Francisco so you never know — then Ritual Coffee is my choice. The coffee is top notch, they always have some kind of rotating specialty drink going if you want to try something new.
However, Ritual’s Hayes Valley location is in a tiny space, meaning that you’ll likely have to sit in the park outside. If that’s not an option because the weather isn’t cooperating, then La Boulangerie de Hayes is my choice. If you’re lucky enough to grab a window seat, it makes for a prime people-watching spot. The coffee is solid, but what I really come for are the pastries, which also makes this a good stop if you’re feeling like an afternoon snack.
By now, it should be close enough to 5 o’clock to hit up one of the hidden gems of the area: Smuggler’s Cove. It’s tiki time, baby.
I’ve taken my time getting here and I’ve gotten in line before opening, and let me tell you: even on a quiet weekday, the latter option is always better. This place isn’t just cozy; it’s tiny. Or intimidate, if you prefer. The lighting is dark, moody, and nothing I can do justice to with my camera. There’s tropical music, obviously, but sometimes you’ll hear a familiar tune set to an island beat.
The big draw of first in the door means that, instead of fighting for an open spot and then elbowing your way up to the bar to order, you can snag a seat at the bar and watch some of the top tiki bartenders in the country at work. Or have them put together something just for you or your guests, if you can’t quite choose something off of their menu.
Seriously, this isn’t just one of the best bars in San Francisco — it’s one of the best in the country. Prepare to earn all the brownie points from your visiting friends.
Step 4: Knowing the way back to San Jose
Truth be told, I usually only nurse one drink and focus on sobering up so we can head home. Sometimes we’ll grab a quick bite nearby, but I’m just as likely to indulge a visitor in a pitstop and In-and-Out on the way back home. This is when I take the straight shot down 101. Even if there’s some residual rush hour traffic, the carpool lane mitigates the worst of it.
While this isn’t what every visit I make to the city looks like, it is the people pleaser I rely on. Am I ruining one of your favorite places by making it not-so-secret? Or did I miss a spot you think I should add. (Don’t you dare say Pier 39.) Let me know!