Home #WHERETONEXT USA California dreaming in San Francisco

California dreaming in San Francisco

Widely considered the most beautiful city in the U.S, San Francisco has long been offering visitors a picture-perfect getaway. Throw in some buzzy cultural attractions and a first-class hospitality scene, and you have all the ingredients needed for a truly epic minibreak, says Zoey Goto as she checks into California’s Golden City.

Grant Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown

Overlooking the magnificence of the misty Golden Gate Bridge, from the vantage point of San Francisco’s newest park, it’s easy to see why the city was recently voted one of the best places in the world to visit by National Geographic. The freshly unveiled Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre expansion of natural wonderland designed by the team behind New York’s High Line, is just one of many scenic pitstops on my small group driving tour led by Fogcutter Tours. At the helm of his customized jeep, owner and guide Eric Schaefer’s tour offers the perfect jumping off point for newcomers to discover San Francisco’s unique character and neighborhoods.

Cruising through the call-and-holler bustle of Chinatown, the largest of its kind outside Asia, we pass the grandeur of the Palace of Fine Arts, ascending to the top of the hilltop Twin Peaks to gaze down at the jumble of districts below. But it’s driving through the heart of the groovy Haight-Ashbury district, lined with psychedelic hippy stores with incense wafting out through the door, vintage clothing emporiums and Jimi Hendrix’s former apartment, now commemorated with a sky-high mural, that acts as a gentle reminder that long before the shiny tech giants settled here, San Francisco was a nexus of counter-culture.

Stepping down from the surf-inspired Fogcutter van and bidding Schaefer farewell, I stroll the palm-lined sidewalks and discover that this seven-by-seven-mile city is surprisingly easy to navigate without a car. Many of its big hitter attractions are situated within walking distance, or for lengthier journeys simply hop on the retro streetcars and iconic cable cars that weave through the Golden City, bells ringing out. Just be sure to pack flat shoes, as the hills can be eye-wateringly steep!

Alcatraz Island

You’ll need to hop on a ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf to visit nearby Alcatraz Island, the former prison that’s transformed into a National Park and one of the city’s most visited attractions. It was here that notorious inmates including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly resided, in a cell house that’s now open for tours. The island has also featured in a number of movies, including Escape from Alcatraz and The Rock.

Back on dry land, Fisherman’s Wharf is heaving with water fronted eateries and independent boutiques, and if you’re lucky, the chance to spot a sealion basking in the midday sunshine. Be sure to also make time to head to the eastern side of Alamo Square Park to admire the Painted Ladies; a row of gorgeous, pastel-hued homes that have become one of San Francisco’s most photographed sights.

InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco

Thanks to a boom in business travel and tech pioneers, the city now boasts an enviable hotel scene, particularly at the upscale end of the market. For a quintessentially San Francisco experience, head to the InterContinental Mark Hopkins to check into the marble columned lobby, crowned with twinkling chandeliers. Head up to the 19th floor to the Top of the Mark cocktail lounge, a beloved landmark since opening in 1939, due to its sensational 360-degree views and storied history. It was during WW2 that servicemen started to buy and leave a bottle behind the bar, so that the next visiting soldier could enjoy a drink for free. This long running tradition is still upheld and celebrated with exhibition cabinets filled with dusty bottles, dotted throughout the hotel.

For the best seat in the house, ask to be directed to the Top of the Mark’s ‘weeper’s corner’, where sweethearts of yesteryear would catch a final glimpse of departing soldiers as they sailed off under the Golden Gate Bridge. Nowadays, there’s not a tear in sight; just a ringside seat for the finest views of the city and a great selection of small plates and sliders, complimented with a martini list that runs to a staggering 100 variations. For a more formal dining option, downstairs the Nob Hill Club offers a full-service restaurant in an elegant setting.

Those looking for a touch of modern luxury will find much to love at the Four Seasons, just a couple of blocks away in the downtown area. Tucked away from the main street, this 12-floored hotel feels like stepping into a little sanctuary. Inside, the communal style lobby is filled with friends catching up and workers on laptops, against a backdrop of warm wood paneling and handsome brown leather booths. Even the lowest tier rooms here are spacious, featuring floor to ceiling windows and white marble bathrooms. Guests also get free access to the stylish Equinox Sports club, which has a lap pool, yoga rooms and a basketball court.

At the nearby St Regis San Francisco, the lobby takes center stage, as home to the recently revamped fine dining restaurant Astra, which puts a big emphasis on sourcing ingredients from the nearby Californian countryside.

St Regis San Francisco

Alongside generously sized rooms with city views and heavenly beds, St Regis’ ticks the box for its cultural location. Just to the side of the lobby, you’ll find a side entrance to the Museum of the African Diaspora, while next door the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is located, the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art.  And if you didn’t feel like venturing beyond the hotel’s doors, the walls are also lined with an extensive collection of local artworks.

Just be sure to round off your visit by stopping by the St. Regis cocktail bar for some unforgettable people-watching, as everyone from Lady Gaga to Joaquin Phoenix has been seen indulging in their legendary crafted cocktails.