by Andrea Hanstein
Tony Bennett put it best when he crooned, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” While I have lived in southern California for nearly 15 years, northern California will always be my home. I grew up in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, and when the wheels of my plane touch down at SFO, I breathe a little easier.
I am excited that so many of you will have a chance to experience San Francisco this March. It is unlike any other city in the world. With so much to see and do, it is difficult to know where to begin.
Famed chef and television host Anthony Bourdain recently visited San Francisco as part of his new show, Layover. In each episode, Bourdain spends a short 48 hours in a city showing you the best of the best. In homage to Tony (yes, we’re on a first-name basis), I present you with my own Layover: San Francisco Edition.
First and foremost, San Francisco is a walking town. Luckily, our conference hotel, the Fairmont San Francisco, is centrally located to many of the city’s best attractions so put on your shoes and walk the few blocks from the hotel to Chinatown. Many think of Chinatown as a cluster of trinket-selling shops, which it is, but it is also so much more. Dim sum houses, tea shops and bazaars line the many streets of this vibrant neighborhood.
Adjacent to Chinatown is Union Square, a shopping mecca. High-end department stores and hip fashion retailers line the Square, anchored by a multistory mall, the Westfield Centre San Francisco. Union Square is also home to the Powell Street Cable Car line, and while the $5 one-way price tag is a bit steep for locals, you have to do it once and recreate the Rice-a-Roni commercial (ding, ding). Insider’s tip: Top Chef host Tom Collichio’s wichcraft restaurant is located next to Bloomingdale’s in the mall and has numerous sandwiches and soups for a reasonable price.
If you’re looking for something to do after the conference ends, Union Square is home to the classic Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Perched on the 36th floor is Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. While a hotspot on the weekends, the club is tame on weeknights and has some of the best views and classic cocktails in the city.
For those of you looking for a more authentic shopping experience, hail a cab and head to the Union and Chestnut Street shopping areas (tell your cab driver to drop you off at the corner of Chestnut and Lombard). Both streets are lined with small, locally-owned businesses and fabulous restaurants and cafes. Be sure to stop in to Chronicle Books (Union Street) for great gift ideas. Only a few blocks away is the Palace of the Fine Arts, the only remaining building from the 1915 World’s Fair. This is hands-down my favorite spot in all of San Francisco.
Closer to the Fairmont is North Beach, aka Little Italy. It was here that Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg helped start the Beat Generation. It’s true that many of the restaurants with hosts on the sidewalk beckoning you to join them are tourist traps, but for an authentic meal, try Rose Pistola or Tommasos.
Adjacent to North Beach is the famed Fisherman’s Wharf. For the most, I steer clear of this area, not because it is dangerous, but because it is filled with souvenir shops and chain restaurants. However, the views of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular, and the clam chowder from the street vendors is the best you’ll find in the city. To maximize your time, get a bowl of chowder from Alioto’s and walk the short distance to the Musee Mecanique, a free museum featuring over 200 vintage arcade games, many from San Francisco’s Playland.
Up the street from Fisherman’s Wharf is Ghiradelli Square, which is worth a visit if for nothing more than the free samples that greet you upon entrance. When you’re done, head to the Buena Vista near the cable car turnaround and try one of their world-famous Irish Coffees. You will be amazed at how many the bartenders can make in only 60 short seconds.
For a more authentic waterfront experience, head down Embarcadero to the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building has been in operation since 1898 and in 2003 was refurbished to include a variety of shops and restaurants. Foodies will drool over the many gourmet offerings! On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays a local farmer’s market takes up residency in front of the building from 10 a.m. 2 p.m.
Sports enthusiasts may wish to continue down the Embarcadero to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Even if you aren’t a fan, the ballpark is one of the nation’s most beautiful with unobstructed views of the Bay. Tours are offered daily.
Lastly, I realize many of you are experiencing our city for the first time and are looking for that one tourist experience that will knock your socks off Alcatraz. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s crowded. But yes, it’s so worth the time and money, and the ferry ride over more than makes up for the price.
Alas, there is so much more I could tell you about our city, but I’ve only got 48 hours. If any of you would like more recommendations, please feel free to email me. And if you’re curious, you can compare my recommendations with Chef Bourdain at this link.
Look forward to seeing you in March!
Andrea Hanstein is NCMPR President and director of marketing at Fullerton College in California.