San Francisco is not a tourist town in the same way that, say, Las Vegas or Key West are tourist towns. But there are so many cool things to do in San Francisco, it has become one of the nation's top destinations for travelers. From the barking seals and seafood at Fisherman's Wharf to the cafes and bistros in North Beach to the gardens and museums of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco attractions have become brand names recognized the world over. Take a look at 7 gems we found including restaurants, hotels and nightlife that make a trip to the City by the Bay unforgettable.
- Half Moon Bay—On your way in from the airport, detour past the hauntingly beautiful Golden Gate National Cemetery, through fragrant eucalyptus trees and jaw-dropping ocean views into the seaside community of Half Moon Bay. The town’s cultural activities, seaside hiking trails, shopping and all-world golf courses bestow a feeling of seclusion before heading to City by the Bay. Also, if you do nothing else, go to Sam’s Chowder House (www.samschowderhouse.com) for a lobster roll sandwich. Taking a New England culinary classic and significantly upping the ante, Sam’s lobster roll puts its east coast originators to shame and even earned a Top-5 Sandwich in America distinction from the Today Show. This sandwich alone—I kid you not—is worth a trip to Half Moon Bay. www.halfmoonbaychamber.org
- The Cliff House—Proudly perched on a mass of rock hundreds of feet over the Pacific Ocean, the historic Cliff House serves up stirring views along with its terrific daily menus. Today’s Cliff House is actually version 3.0; the first being built in 1863, the second survived the great earth quake of 1906 only to ironically burn to the ground the following year. Two floors and 3 distinct areas serve excellent fare in the casual fine dining room (Sutros), the pub area (The Bistro), and the swinging side bar/appetizer room (The Zinc Bar). Sunday’s lavish champagne brunch buffet at Sutros is to die for. Just be aware that it might be difficult to eat: the views of the Pacific’s stretch of infinity make it almost impossible to concentrate on the food. Watch daring surfers and beachcombers to the south and hundreds of brown pelicans converge on “Seal Rock” one thousand feet from the shore. Unfortunately the seals themselves don’t visit there anymore—they left for the other side of the peninsula and Pier 39 after the 1989 earthquake. 415-386-3330 or www.thecliffhouse.com
- Pier 39— For almost 20 years now, the aforementioned Seal Rock sea lions—up to as many as 900 of them in the winter—make the Pier 39 docks their home. Their daily free show of barking, sunbathing and snacking on the herring might not sound like much to watch yet they have entertained millions who have come to see their honking symphony. The seals are just the beginning—Pier 39 acts as San Francisco’s “Disney on the Docks” with 110 specialty stores and 13 restaurants (12 with bay views) which service millions of visitors a year. It cops a retro-carnival atmosphere with street performers, an arcade, the San Francisco Carousel ride, the Aquarium By The Bay, ferry trips to Alcatraz and sea kayak rentals. A visit to Pier 39 alone could easily occupy an entire day. www.pier39.com
- Muir Woods National Monument—Just past the town of Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge (bonus site!), the mighty Coast Redwoods, nature’s tallest trees, populate Muir Woods. These organic skyscrapers can grow as high as a 37-story building and live up to 2,200 years. A stroll through the park’s cool air, babbling brooks and shaded trails conjure up a meditative fairytale experience, punctuated by moments of sheer awe when you come upon the trunk of a tree through which you could comfortably drive an Escalade. It will be the most liberating $5 (per person) you’ll ever spend (plus the $6 round trip over the Golden Gate Bridge). 415.388.2595 or www.nps.gov/muwo
- Fleur De Lys—Even the most sophisticated “foodie” will meet their match at this shrine to culinary ecstasy. Chef Hubert Keller is the benevolent mad scientist in the kitchen—his dishes start with basic ingredients that arrive tableside as if they came out of some taste bud particle accelerator, stimulating every sense and ultimately making you feel as if you are tumbling down a glorious multi-course rabbit hole. The menu is extensive but the staff and sommeliers are refreshingly unstuffy and happy to act as tour guides on your romantic 5-star epicurean odyssey. Three to five course prix fix menus range from $70 to $92 per person. If you were ever going to splurge, do it here. Jackets suggested, reservations a must. 415-673-7779 or www.fleurdelyssf.com
- Ghirardelli Square—Sprung from the original 1899 chocolate factory, this waterfront development now boasts high-end retailers, a spa, a winery and several killer restaurants like McCormick and Kuleto’s Seafood Restaurant which serves up each of their fresh seafood dishes with stunning views of Alcatraz. Ghirardelli Chocolate retail outposts are on site so whatever you do don’t skip the Ghirardelli White Chocolate Hot Chocolate! Inside the complex The Fairmont Heritage Place (www.fairmontheritageplace.com) has converted original chocolate-producing buildings into luxurious accommodations, making it one of the most unique hotel experiences anywhere. Fractional ownerships of these studios are also available so you can fulfill your Willy Wonka fantasies and actually live in a chocolate factory! www.ghirardellisq.com
- The California Academy of Sciences—Inside no other single building in the world can you travel over a living coral reef, then up through the canopy of a living rainforest, then underneath an ocean of fish and plant life, then across the universe in an all-digital planetarium and end up outside on the structure’s “living” rooftop—2.5 acres of rolling hills populated with indigenous California plants, local birds and butterflies. Designed by Renzo Piano (who did the recent add-on to our High Museum), this engineering marvel also earned LEED Platinum certification, the highest possible award given to a “green design” building. The structure generates 10% of its own energy and uses 35% less than a typical building of this size. Truly an ingenious creation, the Academy will instantly make anyone of any age a natural science buff. 415-379-8000 or www.calacademy.org