One of the greatest quotes that Mark Twain actually never uttered is the ever-so-famous quip, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." And while the delightful cynicism of that remark might seem quite clever, with our southern summer temperatures soaring into the mid-90's, San Francisco's low 70's summer temps actually sound quite lovely right about now.
What Twain did say, however, about Fog City is that "I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union." Indeed, San Francisco continually welcomes visitors with an embarrassment of riches of sights, eats and atmosphere.
Stay on Top
First order of business: stay somewhere both strategic and interesting. Towering atop Nob Hill overlooking the city and the bay, The InterContinental Mark Hopkins offers a stately address with first-rate amenities within walking distance of Chinatown and Union Square. The property sits upon the hallowed ground of the original Mark Hopkins mansion, one of the all-time great properties ever built in the city. And while the mansion survived the great earth quake of 1906, it succumbed to the subsequent fire that raged three days after the quake. The property was sold and the hotel of today opened in 1926 and just celebrated its 85th birthday last December. Rooms are 5-star plush and many have unparalleled views of the downtown skyline and bay.
Push the top button on the elevator and soar to the 19th floor and the Top of the Mark, the sky lounge atop the structure for some jaw-dropping vistas. In World War II servicemen would ascend to the summit where they would toast the Golden Gate bridge for good luck before departing for battle in the South Pacific. As they set sail under the bridge, their wives and sweethearts would gather in the northwest corner of the restaurant to weep, thereby dubbing it "Weepers Corner." The Mark has drawn notables throughout the years including Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Prince Charles and Brad Pitt so your martini will certainly be enjoyed in good company. If you prefer a less steep gradient with a much more modern twist, the Hopkins' sister property, The Intercontinental San Francisco, will appease the luxury traveler also within walking distance of the shopping district. Even if you are not a guest of the hotel you can soak in the hotel's hospitality in two spacious terraces on the fourth and sixth floors that are open to the public as part of a 1980's city policy requiring new buildings to provide publicly accessible open space. From the place that spawned free love--why not?
Out and About
Think about it: most major US cities have several "must-see" sights. Some of the larger ones might even boast 5 or 6 things to cross off a bucket list. But San Francisco easily possesses more than a dozen world-class sites within driving distance of downtown. And all elements are on display--nature, architecture, science--with a depth and diversity unlike anywhere on the planet. The question is how many can you tackle in one visit?
A good place to start is at The California Academy of Sciences, arguably the most remarkable indoor exhibit coast to coast. Part museum, part aquarium, part zoo, part planetarium, part rain forest and quite simply, one of the most amazing examples of sustainable architecture ever built, the Academy of Sciences will shock and awe guests of all ages. Spend hours immersed in each of the experiences--the heat of the rainforest, the below-water aquarium, the 75-foot-tall theater in the planetarium. Atop the building walk on the "Living Roof," 2.5 acres of manmade rolling hills covered with native plants. This engineering masterpiece mimics the city's famed seven hills and also helps make it one of the most enviro-friendly buildings on the planet.
Out in the center of the bay, like one of those spooky portraits where the eyes follow you around the room, Alcatraz beckons. Alcatraz Cruises can take you across the waters to the notorious island prison which housed many of history's worst criminals including Al Capone and "Birdman" Robert Stroud. Board a ferry at Pier 33 and the journey begins. After a short ride over to the island climb the hill to the prison, pick up your complimentary audio tour headset and experience the prison come to life through the narration of former inmates and guards. Nothing quite shatters this surrealistic scene like entering into one of the cells and hearing the iron bars clang shut. Be sure to tour other notable buildings and ruins including the morgue, the officers' social hall and the warden's house. Stay as long as you like on the island but the average tour lasts 2.5 hours roundtrip. To really amp up the eeriness, take a night tour.
While down by the water, stroll over to Pier 39 and take in The Aquarium of the Bay, a pint-sized exhibit starring the undersea players from the waters just yards away. Sharks, jellyfish, eels and octopi patrol the tanks at a diver's-eye view. You can even get touchy-feely at the tidal pool with star-fish, anemone, and baby sharks.
Also at Pier 39 you can take in the symphonic sea lions which should be out honking and howling with a cacophony so tuneless, one can only marvel at its dissonance. Seeing these massive burly bodies piled upon the docks is a must if you've never done it.
For a little more peaceful experience of nature, rent a car and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Muir Woods National Monument. In about 30 minutes you will find yourself standing beneath trees that germinated around the time that Columbus set sail. These Coast Redwoods are relative of the Giant Sequoia and grow as tall as a 25-story building. Amble along natural paths beneath nature's skyscrapers and find a soul-stirring perspective on your place in the natural order.
Dine Your Heart Out
San Francisco's position in the pantheon of world cuisine remains untouched. For eons the city's magnetic pulse has drawn chefs from around the globe to create and design menus and concepts much of the world could only hope to emulate.
One of the perennial leaders of the pack resides just steps away from the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero at One Market (not coincidentally also the restaurant's street address). Since 1993 this airy and comfortable space has been breaking epicurean ground while drawing a hobnobbing kinetic crowd throughout the week. Out of its exhibition kitchen churns creative seasonal menus consisting of sustainable seafood, meats and other locally produced goodies. Combinations like beef carpaccio with marinated rock shrimp or seared day boat scallops with sweetbreads or bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin demonstrate the kind of boldness that's at play here. Stake out a table with a view of the Ferry Building, Bay Bridge or watch the trolleys rumble by while you dine on Chef Mark Dommen's Michelin Star offerings. If you are really feeling daring, go for "The Weekly Beast" whole animal menu which changes every Friday and Saturday night.
Down closer to AT&T Park, SOMA newcomer Alexander's Steakhouse's gives the traditional steakhouse a much needed kick in the wasabi. Executive Chef Jeffery Stout fuses Texas with Japan and the results are refreshingly stunning. Everything from the menu to the build out sings with eastern and western delights, often times colliding with spectacular results. The restaurant's tasting menu masterfully alternates between surf and turf, east and west: hamachi tuna, beef tar tar, day boat scallops, short ribs, and the super-marbleized Japanese Wagyu beef all appeared in concert on a recent tasting menu. Everything feels fresh--the ambiance, the presentations of the dishes as well as the service. Alexander's is something that just feels right in San Francisco.
Across the peninsula away from the central tourism havens boldly sits The Cliff House, where one of the most memorable meals coast-to-coast awaits you. In one form or another, the Cliff House has retained its perch itself on a dramatic cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean since 1863 so the warm ambiance of historic nostalgia resonates throughout. Three concepts intermingle here; the casual/fine dining room (Sutro's), the pub area (The Bistro) and the swinging bar/appetizer room (The Zinc Bar). Sutro's features 2-story floor-to-ceiling windows which offer panoramic views of the ocean making it delightfully hard to concentrate on your "Two Crab" sandwich or pistachio-crusted scallops with such distracting scenery. Gaze down the beach at kamikaze surfers and at "Seal Rock" which alas is no longer home to seals--they all moved over to Pier 39 after the earthquake. Other bucket-list experiences include Sutro's lavish Sunday Champagne Brunch and if you luck out on a fog-less afternoon, a helluva sunset.
This article originally appeared in Season Magazine.