I wander around with my camera hunting for the most interesting shops I can find, occasionally looking at art along the way and sampling cheap food. The best small shops are usually near a lot of art, so I let the shopping lead me to more intellectual pursuits that I can be proud of. This is either very zen-like or extremely shallow and embarrassing. I’ve never figured out which it is, but it’s how I get around.
As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last month in the beautiful, inspiring, and wonderfully chilly city of San Francisco. While I miss it already, I’m excited to share some of my favorite discoveries with you.
This is definitely a day guide to San Francisco, because I was fairly preoccupied with my job keeping track of an unruly flock of Chinese and French teenagers (but that’s another story). I plan on returning someday to paint the town although as you can see above, it hardly needs it!
I’ve left out the obvious things, like “walk across the Golden Gate Bridge..you’ll never forget it!” and probably missed quite a few of the less obvious as well. For instance, I never made it to Japantown! There’s always next time….
Yeah, this is normally the boring part. Well, not here! One word: trolleys. Also, the BART is your friend! It is by far the easiest subway system I’ve ever used, but that’s because it’s so limited. You can use it to go long distances through the main artery of the city, and across the bay, but otherwise you need to use the MUNI busses and trams. Do you have a smartphone? Good, because it will tell you exactly which bus to take. Most of you probably already know that. I just got an iphone last year and am still wowed by this mindblowing new technology! I grew up with a landline (but only after the age of 8) and no tv so I am floored by our modern world on a regular basis.
I absolutely love the streetcars in SF; they’re one of my favorite things about the city. They are collected from all over the world, and most of them have little plaques inside that tell you all about the history of each car.
If you really, really love the SF transportation authority, pick up a handmade silkscreened shirt from local artist Marlon Beaver at the Ferry Plaza Craft Market. His stand is right near the Embarcadero BART stop (He has other non bus-themed designs too).
You can walk from the Ferry Plaza to Pier 39, but don’t expect to fall in love with the wharf or get notions of what life must have been like once upon a time down on the docks, though. It is a study in bland tourism, with boring shops and bad food as far as the eye can see.
However, it does happen to be home to the only In N Out Burger in SF (if you’ve never been to California, you just have to try it. I was skeptical because I don’t eat fast food, ever, but I’ve got to say, I’m a convert. It’s cheap, there are only about 5 things on the menu, and the employees wear 50’s paper hats! Oh, and it’s got a secret menu.)
If you happen to be there on the first Saturday of the month and you do want to get a taste of life on the old docks and high seas, you can attend a nighttime chantey sing aboard one of the two old sailing ships that’s anchored there, listening to songs about the wild Barbary Coast as the wind creaks about the old ships. It happens 8pm to Midnight. Reservations required, call 415-561-7171.
It’s also best to take one of the famed trolleys from Fisherman’s Wharf up the hill through North Beach and on to Market St. because the line is waaaay shorter. If you try to get on at Market/Powell St. (which is where it starts near the big mall downtown) you’ll be in line for at least 45 mins. Take it from one who knows. And who spend that 45 minutes with 50 annoyed Chinese kids, one of whom jumped on a trolley by himself and had to be rescued from parts unknown. But I digress.
There are two ways to go about this: you can either ride the trolley all the way to Powell St. and then walk to North Beach via Chinatown (a long walk, but fun) or get off in North Beach and walk through Chinatown on your way back to the main BART stop.
North Beach/Telegraph Hill
So, then you can head up the hill to one of my favorite neighborhoods, North Beach. It took me a little while to warm up to North Beach. You have to look past what is being shoved in your face to find the real soul of North Beach, which can still be found beside the garish Italian restaurants and bad cannolis, in the still-shabby little places where voices call out “bongiorno!” and “bella, bella!” as you walk by and eyes twinkle over worn countertops. I didn’t eat in any “real” restaurants there so I can’t recommend any, but I did find what is, in my humble opinion, the best Italian bakery and what most certainly had to be the best gelato in the city at Mara’s Italian Bakery (503 Columbus Avenue).
Stop by Cafe Trieste, famous Beat hangout and rumored to be the first real espresso coffeeshop on the West Coast. If you’re there on a Saturday around 1 pm, try to catch the Saturday Concert, the longest running show in the City of San Francisco (since 1971). It only happens once a month so check the schedule. I was also told by the Italian man who made my coffee that their cookies would make me feel something special, something “morrrrre (long pause) than cooooookie.” It may have been just a cookie placebo, but I did feel pretty satisfied as I walked out of that place with a smile on my face and a cookie in my hand.
From there, head up Grant Ave. toward Telegraph Hill and stop into the many shops along the way. I won’t list them all, just zigzag back and forth across the street like I did and you’ll hit ’em all. Don’t miss:
- the Chinese antique shop- I couldn’t afford anything in the place but it was all quite beautiful to look at (sorry, can’t remember the name but you’ll have to hunt for it which is more fun anyway, right? Hint: It’s on the left-hand side of the street).
- The infinitely one-of-a-kind Aria Antiques (1522 Grant Avenue) shouldn’t be missed (nor should this article about it). Hopefully you can catch it at a time when the owner, Bill, hasn’t hung his hand-scrawled sign stating that he’s off on one of his buying trips/adventures.
- Pop into tiny little record store 101 Music (1414 Grant Avenue). It’s crammed to the ceiling with old records and musical instruments and just makes me happy to be inside.
- Therapy (1445 Grant Ave) has some novelty home stuff and a good clothing/accessory selection. It didn’t blow me away with its uniqueness but it was a pretty solid find. Fun to poke around in, and full of clothing brands that are pretty standard to the small mid-priced boutique, like Alternative Apparel, Tulle, Hobo Int’l and the like.
From there, head up the hill to Coit Tower, which is well worth the climb just for the WPA murals inside. Also, venture into the woods and visit the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. They may be hard to spot at first but if you’re patient you’ll see them. Look at the top of this site, two of them are actually sitting on my banner!
After your trip to the tower, stop by City Lights Bookshop and try to catch a glimpse of owner and last living Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He’s 93 and still quite prolific. I did indeed manage to see him while I was there but decided not to add to the steady stream of acolytes who’ve no doubt been hounding him since 1953. Instead, I stood by and listened to the heartbreakingly sincere cries of a middle-aged woman who called after him “Mr. Ferlinghetti, Mr. Ferlinghetti….please…I’ve been waiting since I was a teenager to tell you how your writing changed my life” as he wearily trekked through the store, his back turned to her. In his defense, however, I later observed him exchanging pleasantries with a couple of bums outside that he’s probably been saying a genial hello to since, well, 1953.
Next door is Vesuvios, where I was instantly transported back in time to the days when Jack Kerouac got thrown out nightly only to puke in the alley next door that now bears his name and head back in to drink himself toward the oblivion that later claimed him. Just ignore the newspaper articles about Kerouac that are now displayed on the walls, and soak up the jazz-filled ambience of the place. It really is a great bar, and probably has been since well before Kerouac began to haunt it. I came out utterly relaxed and happy. Of course, I was there in the middle of the day so it wasn’t very crowded. I was drinking coffee, I swear…
Not much to say here. Wander around, eat some Dim Sum, buy some cheap crap, and marvel at the weird roots for sale in the grocery stores. Stop in for a mooncake at Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Avenue) which claims to be “the oldest bakery in Chinatown. The buns and egg rolls were very good, but skip the dumplings because I assume you’re going to a real dim sum place for dinner at least once while you’re in San Francisco.
Haight St. is crammed with vintage shops, and while some may say that this is the last place to find a deal on vintage clothing, it’s still one of the best places to browse. A few standouts for me were:
- Wasteland (the most wearable stuff, a mix of new, vintage and used designer labels)
- Decades of Fashion (the best collection of vintage and meticulously curated) at 1653 Haight St
- Static (1764 Haight St) which was small but impressive and had actual vintage sunglasses, which seem to be difficult to find in shops for some reason.
- I am also a big fan of euro brand Skunkfunk (1475 Haight Street) and local label RVCA (1485 Haight) which is sort of a mix of skate/surf wear and sophistication, if that makes sense. It’s housed in a big, cavernous, artsy space.
- Aptly-named curiosity shop Loved To Death (1681 Haight St) shouldn’t be missed, if only for the chance to peer into the velvet-lined coffin for sale upstairs although they won’t let you climb in!
- Kid Robot ( 1512 Haight St) Independent and Japanese toy makers. Who is Gloomy Bear? What is a Dunny? Now you know. Amazing pieces by Japanese wunderkinds Nara and Murikami.
In the mid-’60s, the Grateful Dead lived together (with many other transients) in a purple 1890’s house at 710 Ashbury St. You can also traipse past Hunter S. Thompson’s still bullet-ridden house at 318 Parnassus St. Or, you can just follow this map of famous addresses in the Haight, if you’re so inclined.
Another one of my favorite little shops is in the lower Haight.
I fell in love, in lerrrrrrve, with Xapno (678 Haight St.) the “Brick and Mortar Treasure Garden Emporium” where I bought a pair of watch-part earrings from local designer Brown Banana and wanted to buy typewriter key bracelets and some of the coolest wrapping paper I’ve ever seen, as well as lots of botanical/medically-themed items and pretty jewelry.
Prairie Collective (262 Divisadero St.) Sorta near Haight. A group of local designers that share a space. This location is half floral shop (arrangements are made to look like they’re just been plucked from a garden) and half vintage items, handmade jewelry and accessories. The Cloak and Cabinet Society provides beautiful paper.
I could go on about the Mission district for pages, but here’s a list of few of my favorite places that I discovered there.
One of the standout places to eat in the Mission that I found was Gracias Madre (2211 Mission St
(between 19th St & 18th St). It’s a pretty nice sit-down place that’s vegan, but so delicious you won’t even realize it was vegan until later and commend them on their healthful trickery.
I’m also a fan of burrito shop El Farolito (2779 Mission St between 23rd St & 24th St). Not at all healthy. So very delicious.
Here’s my list of places to shop in the Mission, but honestly, just head to the heart of the Mission (16th-20th streets along Mission and Valencia Streets) for more vintage, thrift and indie finds than your bursting heart can handle.
- Nooworks (395 Valencia Street) has some of my favorite t-shirts. Ever.
- Ellie Olson 3266 21st St., 415-642-9453. Some dead stock items, a house-made line of hooded capes, and a good selection of mid-priced items.
- Candystore Collective 3153 16th St., 415-863-8143, candystorecollective.com. A mix of local designers and girly labels from all over.
- Paxton Gate (824 Valencia St). Not a clothing store but sort of an emporium of the natural and the bizarre. They do have some jewelry, like pendants cast from bird bones and the like.
- Painted Bird (1360 Valencia Street). This place is good. So, so good.They have a blog, too! Buy, sell, or trade clothes.
- Mira Mira (3292 22nd street) Neighborhood boutique offering “elusive, independent designers.” They also have monthly “girls nights” featuring trunk shows, clothing swaps, fashion shows, food & wine tastings, and movie nights.
- Bell Jar (3187 16th Street) Great store. ‘Nuff said.
- Wonderland Gallery and Boutique (2929 24th Street). Features local designers/artists and hosts events like this month’s upcoming Haute Pool Party at the Phoenix Hotel (shop over 30 local designers, listen to music, eat and lay by the pool).
Don’t miss Mission Indie Mart if you happen to be in town when the next one happens. Schedule seems to be sporadic though so check first.
There is so much more to do and see in the Mission, but this should get you started wandering around.
Make sure that you find the ever-changing street art canvas that is Clarion Alley while you’re in the Mission.
A mish-mash of other places I discovered around town:
Fillmore St. is a great neighborhood to walk around in. I definitely recommend checking it out. From there, you can walk to Lombard St. (the famous “crookedest street”) and stop by the San Francisco Art Institute to see the Diego Rivera mural “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” one of four murals in the Bay area painted by Rivera. To get to Fillmore St. (from Powell and Market, the big “downtown” area) walk to Geary Blvd. and Powell St and take the 38 bus toward 48th Ave.
- Nest (2300 Fillmore Street) turns out this is “one of the 50 hottest interior design shops in the world” according to Living, etc. I can see why. Anthropologie dreams of this place at night. If I could have taken the entire store home with me, I would have.
- Picnic (1808 Polk Street)
- Past Perfect (2230 Union St bt Fillmore & Steiner Sts) Vintage consignment shop. Mid-century modern antiques, furniture, and more.
- Mrs. Dewson’s Hats (2050 Fillmore) Whimsical hat shop. Unfortunately, you won’t run into the eccentric Mrs. Dewson herself, who was apparently suffering from dementia for many years. Her family now runs the shop and provides excellent, extremely knowledgable service. They are muuuuch friendlier than the original Mrs. Dewson, but according to Yelp reviews, shopping there in the past sounds like a hilarious (if somewhat off-putting) experience.
- Hats of the Fillmore (1539 Fillmore St between Ofarrell St & Geary Blvd) Another little hat shop near the 38 bus stop. Carries both men’s and women’s hats. Porkpies, fedoras, bucket hats…they’ve got ’em all. They love it if you play dress-up. Closed Sundays.
There are a few other places on this street like John Fluevog shoes and Marc by Marc Jacobs, if you’ve got more cash to burn than I do.
Somehow I got on a hat shop kick. Seriously, I don’t even wear hats.
Don’t be alarmed by the fact that no one here seems to wear pants. It’s ok, you can take yours off, too.
- 5th Stitch Collective (2352 Market St (between Noe St & Castro St) ) Come here for local designers, inexpensive jewelry, and staff that are a hoot and a holler to chat with while you’re shopping. Surprisingly cheap!
If you’re in the Castro, be sure to stop by Dolores Park for a great view of the city! Alas, the nudity seems to be confined to the Castro proper, so that’s about the only view you’re going to get.
The Castro also has a beautiful old art deco movie theater that’s worth checking out. It was built in 1922 and they mostly show classic films http://www.castrotheatre.com/
And One Last Best Thing…
If you happen to be in SF on the last weekend of the month then you absolutely, truly, completely must go to the Treasure Island Flea Market, hands down my favorite shopping experience in the city. The bus ride there alone (108 bus from the transit station, 10 minutes from downtown SF) will probably be one of the most beautiful public transit experiences of your life as it sails across the Bay Bridge and onto Treasure Island, where you will find views of the city skyline, delicious food trucks, and live music. The market itself is an array of local designers, thrift, antiques, handmade jewelry and home goods, books, prints….admission is $3. It’s not overwhelmingly huge, but it’s all quality. Open 9-4.
Also um, check out Oakland. It probably warrants its own guide. Especially on the first Friday of the month for the Art Murmur. It’s pretty crazy, and amazing. There are a ton of art galleries right near the 12th St. BART stop.
Well, that about does it for my SF guide. I couldn’t get everywhere (even in a month) so you fill in the gaps! I’d love to hear about your own experiences in this amazing city. What are some of your favorite spots?
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