This is your hotel. Beware of pigeons. And small children.
Thousands of bloggers will soon descend on the city for the annual BlogHer conference, and this is the wholly complete and completely kick-ass guide to things to do in San Francisco that don’t suck.
Whether you’re looking for the best places to go for after-hours drinks or the best places to buy kids’ clothes, or maybe you’re just looking for a nice, relaxing day spa or a $5 tranny hooker named Reshelda … whatever you’re looking for, this is the blogger bible for navigating the not-so touristy she-bits of the City by the Bay.
I tried to focus on Union Square-Chinatown-North Beach-Tenderloin-FiDi areas, because they are all easily walkable from the hotel: the notorious Westin St. Francis. But you’ll also find some great adventures that are relatively nearby and require either a nice long stroll or an easy ride on MUNI or BART.
A lot of readers ask where we find Emmeline’s clothes, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Lots of revealing below. But I swear to god, if you buy out all the children’s hats, you’re dead to me. Dead!
So to begin …
The best places for after-hours drinks:
Bourbon and Branch – 501 Jones Street. Yes, it requires a 4-block walk through the Tenderloin and late at night that can feel a little sketchy. But it’s worth it. Big Time. The vibe is that of a 1920s speakeasy, complete with passwords to get in. Find the door, ring the buzzer and offer the password — it’s always “books” to get into the secret library. You will not be disappointed — except maybe in paying $12 for a drink. Be warned. (From hotel, turn right on Powell, right on O’Farrell and walk to Jones. Look for sign that says, “Anti-Saloon League.” 5 mins.)
Empress of China — 838 Grant Avenue. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, don’t judge a dilapidated old building by its AIDS-covered veneer. Head up the top-floor retro bar and enjoy some fine ’50s-style furnishings, strong drinks and gorgeous views of the city. Plus, Erik Estrada drank here! A great chill place to talk and meet-up early or after hours. (From hotel, left to Post. Right on Post. Left on Grant. Follow to Sacramento. 15 mins.)
John Foley’s Irish House — 243 O’Farrell Street. A little more touristy than I like, but if you’re in Union Square, pretty much everything is going to be touristy. And this is easily walkable. (From hotel, left on Powell, right on O’Farrell. Go one block. 2 mins.)
Slide — 430 Mason Street. This place has a mean rep of dissing guys unless they are accompanied by a pantheon of women … so most anyone attending BlogHer should have no problems getting in. This is for anyone who wants to dance, as it’s a glitzy nightclub. Like Bourbon and Branch, it’s done up in 1920s speakeasy decor — and actually used to be one. (Photo) In fact, you enter the joint by going down a wooden twisty playground slide — just like one that was hidden behind a trapdoor in the ’20s. Again, this is for dancing, although you can also be a wallflower. (From hotel, left on Powell, left on Post, left on Mason. Easy peasy. 3 mins.)
Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge — 1155 Grant Avenue. The bad news is it’s a hike from Union Square. The good news is this place puts the “Holy shit! This place is skanky!” in Dive Bar Karaoke. If you’re looking for a place to sing your guts out with good friends and watch a usually wasted bar tender completely forget about charging you for drinks or maybe throw firecrackers … you’re in luck! Definitely worth an excursion for late-night sing-alongs and memories you will not ever forget. And I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. (Take a cab. Just easier, or walk all the way on Grant if you desire. 25 mins.)
Hotel hot spots: Make your way up to the 12th floor of the original building (not the big one with glass elevators) and you’ll find a quaint library club room where you might be able to sneak a drink or just find a quieter place to chill out. Also, you will be a rock star if you can get security to key you down to the one-time basement speakeasy (look for the elevator that has a “B” button on it). More on that here.
The best nearby playgrounds if you’re bringing kids:
Willie Woo Woo Wong Playground — Sacramento at Waverly. Very nice nice playground with new equipment and awesome rock wall for older tots. Great place to burn off steam. Hang Ah dim sum is a nearby basement dive restaurant not to be missed. (Walk out of hotel, cross Union Square, turn left on Stockton. Walk through tunnel to Sacramento. Turn right. 10 mins.)
Portsmouth Square playground — Sacramento at Montgomery, closer to financial district. A little more sketchy and lots of pigeons, but a good feel for life in Chinatown. Two separate playgrounds — both hot and packed on warm days. (Follow route to Woo Woo park but just keep going on Sacramento until you hit Kearny. 15 mins.)
St. Mary’s Square playground — California Street at Grant Avenue. Great open space with nice, new playground equipment, but also a sometimes hang-out for ne’er-do-wells and roustabouts. If it feels that way, keep walking along Grant till you get to Willie Woo Woo, which is just so fun to say. (From hotel, cross Union Square and go one block past Stockton to Grant Ave. Take left on Grant. Park at Grant and California. 10 mins.)
Yerba Buena Garden — Mission Street between 3rd and 4th. Great slides for kids and small sandbox. On hot days, because of the blue and black rubber, it’s something akin to Dante’s Inferno. But there’s also a carousel, a great waterfall and lots of grass to run around. There’s even an ice skating rink and bowling alley hidden nearby. (From hotel, turn right on Powell outside. Turn left on Market. Turn right on 4th. Walk 2 blocks — park is on your left. 5 mins.)
The best, easiest day-trip strolling adventures:
Hayes Valley — If you’re looking for a less touristy side of San Francisco but still want to enjoy some great restaurants and find some of the best kids clothes in the city, this is a wonderful place to start. You can stroll up Hayes Street from Franklin to Laguna, poking in and out of stores that offer everything from modern art to $117 skirts … for 3 year olds. Ouch. Plus there are all sorts of hidden alleys and open spaces to explore. And don’t miss the monster. Best way to get there: Take MUNI train from Powell Street to Van Ness station (any underground train will get you there in two stops); once on Van Ness, walk three blocks north to Hayes, turn left.
Grant Avenue — In North Beach, Grant Avenue takes on a very different feel from its Chinatown cousin — it’s littered with bars, record shops, cute clothes boutiques and excellent restaurants. Don’t miss Delilah Crown, an excellent place for dresses for both mom and daughter (Grant and Green). Best way to get there: Either walk up Grant from Union Square, past the touristy Chinatown section until you cross Columbus; or take a cable car from in front of the hotel and get off at Union Street, and head up hill from North Beach.
The Ferry Building – This is an easy walk from Union Square and well worth the journey. Walking along Market Street in the early morning sun and enjoying the wide sidewalks and gorgeous buildings is why so many people consider San Francisco a European city. Well, that and because we dress better. And are snooty. At the Ferry Building, you’ll find everything from delicious gelato to ritzy caviar in what basically amounts to the city’s ode to gourmands. Slanted Door is the best restaurant if you’re looking to escape for dinner. An don’t miss bomboloni at I Preferiti di Boriana. If you go on Saturday morning, go early to avoid the mob-scene known as farmers market. Best way to get there: From hotel, turn right on Powell out front, turn left on Market and keep going. You can’t miss it. If you’re feeling slothful, jump on a train or BART to the Embarcadero Station.
Tenderloin — Don’t skip the ‘Loin just because you’re scared of a few crack dealers, because A. your hotel is ridiculously close to it all, and B. you’ll miss some of the best, most beautiful theatres (hello nude men!) in the city and some of the best street food you’ll find anywhere. And a cool park for the kids. Why go to San Francisco if you’re just going to hang out at the mall that might as well be in the Big Cleve? From hotel, take O’Farrell to your right until you get too scared.
24th Street — You’ll have to jump on MUNI or BART to get here, but it’s worth the short transit trip. This is one of the nicest, most culturally diverse walks in the city. (John King wrote about it here.) Basically, you can take an easy stroll from the heart of family friendly, a stroller-on-every-corner Noe Valley to the heart of the hipstery Mission District to the working class Mexican neighborhoods a little further to the east. And if you keep going (taking a few twists and turns) you will eventually wind up in the Dogpatch and the lovely old drydocks neighborhoods. (That last is a long, long walk.) Best way to get there: From hotel, go right until you find the Powell Street underground station. Either take J Church MUNI line “outbound” to 24th Street or hop on BART and get off at 24th Street station. I’d recommend take the MUNI line, as it lets you off in Noe Valley and requires less backtracking.
But speaking of malls … ahem … the best places to pick up kids clothes:
Lavish — 540 Hayes Street. Wow. It can be expensive as all get out but you can also find some deals on local designers and other wonderful things you can’t find at the Target. A gem for cute skirts, awesome shirts and wonderful toys. Their sister store, Fiddlesticks, is a few doors down. And if you’re in the area, don’t miss the Thread Lounge designer sample sale store down the block, where you can find things for yourself as well. (Follow directions to Hayes Valley above.)
Chloe’s Closet – 451 Cortland Avenue. In Bernal Heights, it is a definite taxi trip away but I would be remiss in leaving out the best children’s consignment shop this side of anywhere. You can find deals on everything from shoes to dresses to hats. Plus there’s toys for the kids — and they’re barely chewed on, which is nice. (Take a cab.)
Peekabootique — 1306 Castro Street. In the heart of Noe Valley, you can find both new and used clothes here. Great place for retro-designed new shirts, and you’ll never know what’s in the racks until you dig dig dig. Take the J Church line from downtown to 24th Street, turn right and walk to Castro Street. (A new favorite, Mabuhay, is on Church and 24th, right where the J train stops. A must-see.)
Murik Childrens Store — 73 Geary Street. A very easy walk from the hotel, you’ll find the best in European children’s clothes designers at prices you may not even need a fourth mortgage for. You can definitely find some treasures for cheap here. (From hotel, right on Powell, left on Geary. Store is on your right closer to Market Street.)
H & M — Westfield Shopping Mall. If you’re going to go there anyway, don’t miss the back of the third floor H&M store, where you can find some cheap, cute clothes for the kids. Great hats for newborns and more than enough rainbow stockings to keep anyone happy. (You don’t need directions to the mall. You’ll find it.)
Britex Fabrics — 146 Geary Street. I couldn’t possibly compose this list without mentioning a fantastic fabric store for do-it-yourselfers like myself. Great fabrics, including rare, hand-dyed Japanese denims, and even better buttons and iron-ons. Don’t miss the third floor.
The best nearby day spas:
Nob Hill Spa — don’t miss the infinity pool! This is Dana’s favorite place in the world.
Burke Williams Spa – A great place for after-shopping relief.
Kamalaspa — Simply cross Union Square to the lap of luxury.
OneSelf Massage — Despite the skeezy name, you won’t get better reviews than Christina.
Earth & Sky Oasis — The name says it all, no?
Best tranny hookers:
Rashelda — Corner of O’Farrell and Jones. Close to Bourbon and Branch — how convenient for you!
Cleotildy — Mid-way between Bush at Stockton. Often uses nearby tunnel. Bring own pillows.
Steve — Except for the chlamydia, she’s a gentle lover.
Best non-tranny hookers:
Just kidding. I only know about the trannies. (And I’d like to say how thrilled I am to think my wife, mom, in-laws and many assorted relatives read this every day. Hi everyone!)
Citizen Cupcake: You’re in luck. One of the country’s best pastry chefs has delicious cupcakes for sale on the third floor cafe of the Virgin Megastore (just a few blocks away). Cross Union Square, right on Stockton to Virgin store on your left at Market. 3 mins.
Kara’s Cupcakes: If you don’t get a filled Fleur de Sel cupcake, don’t even bother going. I don’t want to know you. Several locations in the city, but the easiest way to get one is to simply hop on a Hyde Street cable car and head all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf and find the cupcakery at Ghirardelli Square to your left.
Miette: If you find yourself at the Ferry Building, don’t miss the display-case wonderland of sugary treats. See notes on Ferry Building stroll above for directions.
I know I’ve left a billion things out, but I wanted to make this easiest for people who don’t have cars and want to squeeze in a few things between conferences. Getting way out to Golden Gate Park, while definitely worth it, can take a long time on MUNI. (The 2 bus will take you from nearby Sutter way down to Clement Street, where you can explore or walk a few block south to the park.)
All that said … despite its reputation, MUNI is actually convenient for getting around the city and at $1.50 a ride (you also get a transfer pass good for an hour and a half), it’s a lot cheaper than the $5 cable cars (no transfers, limited routes). Just budget a lot of time for your trips. MUNI map is here. And individual routes here. And if you find yourself stuck somewhere, go to nextbus on your iPhones or whatnots and find out how long before your bus arrives.
If you’re looking for more activities or want more dining-drinking-shopping-prostitution options, please let me know in the comments and I will update the list with more local gems.