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Matador’s destination expert on San Francisco, California, lays out the city’s avoidable attractions…and what you should do instead.

Photo: BlueLinden

1. Don’t… go to Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf sounds like it was really cool 60 years ago, when fishermen actually sold the day’s catch to locals.

Nowadays, it’s the most unabashed, soul-sucking tourist trap in San Francisco, filled with corporate chains, barking sea lions, and gutterpunks posing for photos with Japanese tourists. It’s also a haul from any other cool attraction.

Do… go to the Ferry Building

If you want to check out the piers and see how folks are eating in SF today, hit up the Ferry Building. The renovated landmark is home to local farm and food boutiques, and hosts weekly, year-round farmers markets. Foodie indulgences draw locals and tourists alike, but beware: the fancy cheeses and organic produce add up.

Also, be sure to stop by cult favorite Blue Bottle Coffee.

2. Don’t… ride a double-decker bus

Not because I have anything against seeing a city from atop a moving vehicle, but because it’s damn cold up there. Double-deckers are great for views, but they’re also great for catching damp gusts of fog and ocean wind.

Those grim, purple-lipped faces are mildly amusing from the street, but you don’t want to be one of them.

View from Dolores Park / Photo: dustinj

Do… ride the J-Church

One of the city’s best views is along the J-Church line, when the streetcar heaves up the steep incline to the top of Dolores Park. All of downtown, the Bay, the bridge, and the East Bay are splayed out in front of you, plus the sunning hipsters of San Francisco’s trendiest green space.

The J-Church is a part of SF’s MUNI mass transit system, meaning a ride is only $2 (unless you sneak through the back doors for free).

3. Don’t… eat at the Cheesecake Factory

Really? One of the best dining destinations in the U.S., maybe the world, and that’s the best you can do? Sure, Union Square looks pretty all lit up at night, but come on.

Do… eat at a Top 100 restaurant

The San Francisco Chronicle’s annual Top 100 Restaurants list is like the Michelin Guide for the Bay Area. Every restaurant that takes itself seriously competes to make the list, while cult followers and die-hard foodies try to eat at all 100 in the course of a year.

Check out last year’s list and an interactive map on the Chronicle’s website. My recommendations: NOPA, Delfina, Slanted Door.

4. Don’t… wear an Ed Hardy shirt

Nothing says douche-tard quite like an Ed Hardy shirt. They’re especially offensive in the city where Ed Hardy rose to fame — and still tattoos.

Do… get a real tattoo

You know what looks more like a tattoo than an Ed Hardy shirt? A real tattoo. You could cough up the $200/hour and get your own Ed Hardy piece at Tattoo City or visit one of the many top-notch shops in the city.

My recommendations: Black Heart, Everlasting, and Skull and Sword.

5. Don’t… stand on the wrong side of the escalator

Never mind complaining about the steepness of hills or gasping at buttless chaps. The most egregious offense a visitor can commit is blocking the bustling flow of businessmen and bike messengers in the MUNI and BART stations.

You’ll know you’re guilty when an angry commuter shouts: “Left side walks!”

Do… move yourself and your unwieldy luggage to the right side of the escalator

We got places to go.

6. Don’t… buy drugs on Haight Street

The Haight Ashbury’s era as a hippie haven of flower-laced acid trips ended about, oh, 40 years.

And Twitchy McGee over there muttering “doses, doses” is really not the guy you want to trust your money or psychiatric well-being with.

Do… take a trip to Oaksterdam

If you’ve gotta get high, head over to Oaksterdam. Near the 19th Street BART station in Oakland, this is the Bay Area’s premier medical marijuana district, complete with a gift shop and university, schooling pupils in the how-tos of the cannabis industry.

Be aware that you’ll need a doctor’s note to purchase those grapes.

Photo: ingridtaylar

7. Don’t… say anything homophobic

It’d be like going to Israel to spout anti-Semitism.

Do… go to the Eagle Tavern

Really feel the need to spew gross bigotry? Take it down to the Eagle, the famous SOMA leather-daddy dive bar. Those guys’ll be glad to engage in a healthy, uh, debate.

8. Don’t… ask where all the black people are

San Francisco likes to advertise its progressive thinking and liberal policies, but it has a dirty secret. The City by the Bay has been bleeding its African-American population for decades, since a 1950s “urban renewal” project bulldozed through the heart of the Fillmore, the “Harlem of the West.”

Post dot-com-boom, the black population of San Francisco has dwindled to a pathetic 7%.

Do… smile politely at the city’s claims to diversity

San Francisco is culturally and artistically vibrant — but when it comes to race and socioeconomics, the diversity train left the city over a decade ago.

For an excellent exploration of the African-American quandary in SF, rent the indie flick Medicine for Melancholy. Just don’t discuss it loudly over dinner.

9. Don’t… roll your eyes when we say “hella

We’re like sailors who don’t notice we’re swearing. And when you point out every single usage of our most identifiably awesome intensifier, it makes you stand out as a non-native who’s not down.

Because, really, we know you’re just jealous you’re not from the Sucka Free, Yay Area.

Do… join the linguistic phenomenon that’s captured millions

Rolls of the tongue so sweet and smooth…

About The Author

Lauren Quinn

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler. She maintains the blog, where she writes about her explorations of untold stories, underground music, abandoned buildings, street art, tattoos, 12-step recovery and of course, travel. She is currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, researching and writing narratives of trauma. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.

  • Everywhereist

    LOVE THIS LIST! (Though I do so love Alcatraz – I know it’s a tourist trap, but STILL – it should totally be on your “Do see” list. :) Oh, and as a Seattle-native, I understand the use of “hella”. A Floridian friend once said to me, “Uh, you realize you say that ALL the time, right?”

    Yeah. I say it hella often. :)

  • JoAnna

    I’ve never been to San Fran and definitely appreciate some suggestions on what to hit up when I finally get there. Thanks!

  • Julie

    Love this! And can you share #5 with NYC? Pretty please??

  • spencer

    One correction…Fisherman’s Warf is eerily silent now that the barking of the sea lions is gone. And the people they have dressed up as sea lions clearly don’t know what a sea lion bark sounds like.

  • christine

    1. If you want about 70-80% vendors as the Ferry Building, but about 1/3 of the price, check out either the Berkeley Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, or my fav, the Temescal FM in Oakland on Sunday mornings (much smaller, but much nicer to hang out).

    2. I know you probably didn’t pick this pic, Lauren, but it’s weird to see a straight couple kissing at Dolores Park instead of hot, gay men half nude sunbathing when the weather climbs above 62 degrees. That’s half the point of chillin’ in that park – yummy.

    5. Every big city’s subway system/airport/etc. No doubt.

    8. Just head over to Oakland, or for those who can’t afford Oakland anymore because how expensive it’s gotten since the dot-com era (and just recently, with the very interesting resurgence of Auto Row – have you been down there lately? There’s all these hip new restaurants), Richmond.

    Yeah, the Bay is hella cool – thanks for this round-up, I had fun reminiscing!

  • neha

    Lauren, this is my favourite piece of the series! I absolutely love your words. I was laughing my head off. Hope to use these suggestions some day.

  • Lauren Quinn

    Christine–I was recently in the London Tube, and there were signs everywhere about standing on the correct side. You’d think people would have gotten the point by now, but nooooo. And, yes, the Ferry Building is pricey, but it’s a good tourist activity. (And for the record, my favorite farmers market is definitely the Saturday Lakeshore. But the Temescal’s good too.)

    Spencer—So bummed about the sea lions. They were one of the last authentic things at Fisherman’s Wharf, and now they’ve taken off too! This article was written before their Christmas departure, so thanks for updating folks. My cousins were seriously disappointed on their recent trip. (And, despite my citing the pending publication of this article as evidence, one of my cousins still tried to buy weed on Haight Street. Tragic!)

  • TonyW

    Good list…. I would add that you should try to avoid gasoline-powered vehicles. We have BART, which mostly works most of the time, and takes you not only to Oaksterdam, but also to 16th and Mission, ground zero for burritos (Pancho Villa, La Cumbre) and a short walk to Tartine Bakery. We also have bike rentals and bike paths that allow you to explore the city, and even bike across the Golden Gate Bridge which is pretty cool (in more ways than one). We also have lots of walkers, who check out the Filbert Steps up to Telegraph Hill.

    One more thought…the Ferry Building is quickly getting taken over by the kinds of places that can afford the newly increased rents. Some of the most interesting shops are getting pushed out, so go sooner rather than later, before it joins the “avoid” list.

  • Ekua

    Haha, just yesterday I went downtown and was grumbling about all the people STANDING on the left side of an escalator. How could they? ;)

    The one thing I’d have to disagree with is #8. In addition to gentrification, San Francisco has a lot of secrets in the Fillmore and the south eastern part of the city (Bayview, Sunnydale, etc). In my (radical?) opinion, the reality of it should be addressed more often, especially if it makes locals uncomfortable and forces them to think about SF’s issues.

    Otherwise, HELLA cool list. I will show this to the next visitor I get who tries to get me to wait in line forever to eat mediocre food at the Cheesecake Factory.

    • Simone

      TOTALLY agree with you there. I love where I’m from, but that’s one thing that San Franciscans need to work on — stomaching and talking about harsh realities.

  • Lee

    Oh, and another don’t…please don’t refer to San Francisco as San Fran, Frisco or SF. We like to call it San Francisco, or The City.

    If you choose to miss Fishermans Wharf/Pier 39, you also get to miss the hilarious Bushman, where he usually hangs out.

    • christine

      Oh, the Bushman! I haven’t seen that guy in years. Yeah, that is a great tourist thing, or to stand across the street and watch the tourists get ambushed! Hee hee.

    • Joe Bousetta

      Only white yuppies whine and complain about using the word Frisco, which is why my San Jose self loves calling it that. Your black and Latino population, that the white yuppies are pushing out, says Frisco all the time. Get over yourselves.

  • skepticalhippo

    This list can be easily summed up by telling people to do the most expensive option. Spoiled people always have this idea that people don’t do the things they do because they aren’t as into style and all that as they are. It is so infantile. You aren’t special you just pay more for the same rebranded crap so you can think you are special.

  • Candice

    Why is it so taboo to use “San Fran”?

    • Simone

      I’m from there, and I don’t think it is. Yes, the city folk call it the city, but it’d be silly if you were calling it that all the way across the country.

    • Ekua

      “San Fran” or “Frisco”… there’s something inexplicably awful about the way those sound. Or maybe it’s the nasal sound of “San Fran” and that “Frisco” reminds people of 90s rap. Most people I know here in San Francisco will just say “SF”.

  • Gray

    Great list, Lauren! I’m glad to know of alternatives that might not be as crowded as the typical tourist options always found in guidebooks. But, uh, since we don’t have any Cheesecake Factory restaurants in VT, I still might have to sneak in one meal there if I’m in the neighborhood. Or at least dessert.

  • Simone

    And DO be sure to make it over to the Headlands, or some of the other surrounding natural beauty.

  • Nancy

    Killer list Lauren. I always look forward to your pieces; you’ve got style. Bookmarking this for future reference.

  • Abbie

    GREAT list! I love the Ferry Building – especially the cheese store :) I also visited Dolores Park this past weekend – amazing view!!!

  • avisoo

    I will do… take a trip to oaksterdam. very interesting!

    • Lauren Quinn

      Important Oakland marijuana update: iGrow, “the Walmart of weed,” opened last week. It’s not in Oaksterdam–it’s out by the airport and doesn’t actually dispense weed, but all the equipment needed to grow it. It’s a huge warehouse, opened to a shitton of fanfare, media attention, even City Council members came out. Definitely worth a look, if for nothing else than the cultural experience. Just don’t take the bus out there.

  • Greg Kruse

    Hey, its cool to get up to date on what’s happening in the City, but you left out my favorite “thing to do in San Franciso” (but only on a sunny day – there are still a few of those, aren’t there?) Get down to Fort Point and walk across the Golden Gate bridge. The wind, the waves, the sail boats and the ferries, the Rock out there like a wart on the breast of the Bay, Sausalito on one side, the Marina Green and the City on the other, and waaaaay out there in the distance the Companile at the foot of the Berkeley hills. Awesome. May everyone who walks with you stay topside. Its much cheerier that way.

    My least favorite thing to do is walk through the financial district at lunchtime with the suits. Been there, done that. Long ago and far away. Amen.

    • Lauren Quinn

      Writing a list of what not to do was easy (ish). Writing one of what TO do would take forever. Probably why there’s so many SF Bay Area guidebooks. And probably why I love it here so much. ;)

  • bren

    I know the whole frisco thing is hella annoying but I was born and raised in SF and I call it SF! hahhaha

  • David

    I lived in Berkeley for four years and I never managed to hang out at Dolores Park! This makes me want to go back there so much! Great article :)

  • socalgirl

    Please, for the love of god do not take this man’s advice regarding the word “hella”. Move about four hours outside of this city and say that word and you just might get laughed at.

    • Omissy27

      Seriously.  People who say Hella sound ridiculous and Yay Area sounds just as bad

  • melissa

    It most definitely is “The City.”

    Just be very cautious these days if you do attempt to save yourself a couple (yes, only $2) of bucks by sneaking in the back door of a MUNI train. They will gladly slap you with a ticket for $150 or more if you can’t show them your transfer (that’s 75 wasted paid for rides).

  • Tahoetootsie

     Another interesting insight into the SF mystique:  The Columbarium.  This is a domed Greek-style building (a beautiful rotunda) that houses the ashes of hundreds of San Franciscans.  The niches are glass fronted and one can look into the most amazing personalized “statements” from the grave.  Some ashes are in cute cookie jars, some in model car, or a cowboy boot;  niches contain personal items of value to the deceased, photos, figurines, hats, etc.  You name it and you’ll see it.  You can even leave a personal note at some displays.   The history of the site is really interesting too. As I understand it, there are no grave sites available in SF and old graves were moved years ago.  The Columbarium  is now owned and operated by the Neptune Society.  It is located in a residential neighborhood and is not often listed as a MUST SEE, but well worth it.  You’ll have a great story to tell when you get home.  Google it!

  • Winton Yuichiro White

    She forgot to include:
    10. Don’t…….say “San Fran”.
    Do…….say “the City” or “SF”.

    • Kevin Alciati

      Never understood what is wrong with saying San Fran. When I was younger people said it all the time, now it is a “no no.”

    • Winton Yuichiro White

      I personally think it’s because of how it sounds with our American accent. Also, the only people I’ve heard said it were non-San Franciscans. That might be why.

    • Kevin Alciati

      Well, all these shortening of the names I am sure originally came from the actual locals.

    • Winton Yuichiro White

      @[1422020803:2048:Kevin Alciati] – Right, probably by “locals”. I personally say “San Francisco” or “the City”.

    • Kevin Alciati

      I say the “City” I think most people do. But for some reason over the last 10 years or so, everyone said, “only tourist say ‘San Fran’. I think it was a marketing tool or something. Not sure why then it is ok to say, “Frisco.” Iol.

    • Winton Yuichiro White

      To me it sounds like they’re trying to sound cool by using it. “Frisco” is weird. I only heard locals from East and North Bay (in my circle of acquaintances) use that one.

  • ホワイト 雄一郎

    They should’ve included: Don’t….say “San Fran”.

    • Aleksey Artemyev

      this made me miss “The City” preetty bad!

  • Alex Tomita

    Do you guys still enjoy Rice-A-Roni down there?

  • Sera Lindsey

    Awesome list, good suggestions! However, I always have to add my own two cents: The Ferry Building Marketplace is so solid, and has some of the best food! Boulettes Larder? Don’t miss that or you’ll leave feeling like you missed something. I’d say DO…go to the Ferry Building for breakfast (save some cash) and then for dinner and a movie hit up the Castro. Lunch and drinkies in the Mission.

  • Gemma Tate

    Thank you for adding the blurb about the scarcity of black San Franciscans. I am black and just moved here last year and I get really tired of hearing (white) people tell me how diverse the city is. It is not. There are whites, Asian and gays. The Latino population is being pushed out by the hipsters and the black population continues to decline. I also oddly feel like people treat me differently here.

  • AJ

    I’m black and I just moved to San Francisco for school a few weeks ago. When I first got here I was uncomfortably amazed at the lack of black people. It was almost a slight culture shock to me. Now a few weeks in I see several black people walking up and down the streets. We’re always staring at each other as we walk past probably thinking the same thing. “Cool, another black person.”
    But Asians do dominate this city.

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