Today I’m publishing the second post in a new limited-run series all about great weekend getaway destinations around the country that I personally love. The project is done in partnership with Marriott International, continuing a relationship that I’ve had for a long time and deeply value. Even before I started my blog I was an enthusiastic guest of Marriott International properties, so it just makes sense. For the next couple of months I will be highlighting a number of different cities around the U.S. that I think are ideal places for a long weekend escape. Whether you live regionally and can drive there or simply hop on a plane for an easy flight, they all have one thing in common – they’re fun cities to explore. Today I’m excited to share why I decided to add San Francisco to that list.
Why San Francisco
There are a number of factors with my determination on what cities to visit in my quest to share great weekend getaway destinations, including how easy they are to reach. Given its size and importance, San Francisco is thankfully well served by most of the major airlines, which means just about anyone can easily and affordably get to the city. It’s also a great city in terms of weather, thanks to its position on the water. While famous for its fog, the Pacific winds moderate the climate in San Francisco, which means that it’s almost always a comfortable experience, although you may need a light jacket at certain times of the year. Finally, I personally think that San Francisco is one of the liveliest and interesting American cities and the incredible wealth of experiences, both natural and cultural, all guarantee a fun-filled getaway no matter your style of travel or personal interests.
Experiences in and around the city
It had been many, many years since I last visited San Francisco as a tourist, so I decided to tackle the city from a fresh perspective, revisiting some sites and exploring new ones. Graced with incredible weather, I made the most of my brief getaway as I trekked up and down the city’s famous hills. There is a lot to occupy your time in San Francisco, and a full week could easily be spent exploring both the city and nearby destinations, but from my experience these are some that aren’t to be missed.
A military base for more than 200 years, the Presidio is now a public resource on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. With incredible wooded areas, views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio is one of the most physically stunning parts of the city, and one of the most popular. I stopped into the visitor’s center to get the timetable for the free shuttles that run around the park, before walking across the street to an unlikely-placed museum – The Walt Disney Family Museum.
Owned by the Walt Disney Family Foundation, a non-profit organization established by Disney’s heirs, the museum features the life and legacy of Walt Disney. I’d heard about it for quite a long time and I was excited to finally visit the museum to learn more about the man whom I so greatly admire. More than just an assortment of trinkets and artifacts, the museum is a modern and well thought out institution with plenty of interpretation and active engagement experiences to help visitors of all ages learn more about Disney. And learn I did, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the man, from his early days up through the creation of Disneyland. If you have the time and any interest in Disney, I strongly recommend spending a couple of hours here.
I then boarded one of those aforementioned free shuttles for the highlight of my visit to the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge. The recreation area is so much more than just the famous bridge, it’s a vast area that includes many important natural spots along the coast and is one of the largest urban parks in the world. Naturally though, my main interest was in the bridge but, as I quickly learned, there’s more than one way to appreciate this architectural marvel. Yes, you can admire it from the main visitors center and leave, but I wanted a different point of view so I hiked along one of the many trails in the park down to the water and the base of the bridge itself. I wasn’t alone either; the incredible weather had also inspired many others to join me as we clambered down the hill to admire the inherent beauty of the city. No matter how you decide to enjoy the Golden Gate Recreation Area, definitely plan on spending some time here, it’s well worth it.
Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 and Beyond
While it’s definitely a bit corny and touristy, there’s a reason why Fisherman’s Wharf is so popular. It’s a large area with a lot to see and do and is also near the spot from where boat tours leave and visits to Alcatraz are coordinated. A brief note about Alcatraz – as an experience it takes a large chunk of time, but it is worth every second of it. The National Park Service has done an incredible job at creating an experience no one will forget. From the city views on the boat as you cross over to the island, to the stories told in the former prison itself, it’s a fascinating experience. It’s also one that shouldn’t be rushed, so devote at least half a day and book your tickets well in advance.
The Wharf features a great number of shops and restaurants, but it is also a good place from which to start your exploration of the city by foot.
It’s become a travel cliché to say that a certain city is “a city of neighborhoods,” but in San Francisco that is very true and will define your visit. Unless you spend a week or so in the city you won’t be able to fully experience them all, so pick a few and learn all you can about them. As I left Fisherman’s Wharf it was lunchtime and my stomach dictated which neighborhood was first on my list, North Beach. An easy walk from the waterfront and convenient to many downtown locations, North Beach has long been known as San Francisco’s Little Italy. That was a fact that I couldn’t miss, as soon as I crossed the invisible threshold into the neighborhood everything seemed to be adorned with the tri-colors of the Italian flag. As such, it’s also pretty easy to find a great place to eat and I opted for a massive slice of traditional pizza which I took over to Washington Square Park to enjoy some people watching as I ate.
From there I have to be honest, I didn’t have a plan but I think that’s a fantastic way to approach the city. Instead I just walked and in the process I did indeed pass by many of the spots on my to-do list. City Lights Bookstore, the heart and soul of the Beat Movement, the skyscrapers of the Financial District, colorful Chinatown and eventually ending in Union Square. Along the way I tried to experience the best of each neighborhood, whether it was snacking in Chinatown or enjoying the museums found in and around Union Square. San Francisco is a city that you can personalize, and there’s honestly no better way to enjoy your time in the city.
Where to Stay
San Francisco has had a long and very colorful history, and the wealth of hotels in and around the city are just as much a part of the tourist experience a is the Golden Gate Bridge. There are also many fantastic options, but here a few that I think are important properties to add to your list.
The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square – I love grand old historic hotels, and in San Francisco there is no other property with the legacy of the St. Francis. Since it first opened in 1904 this has been one of the city’s most prominent addresses and since it takes up a full block of Union Square, it’s also impossible to miss. Miraculously surviving the great earthquake of 1906, the hotel went on to welcome the world’s most important people over the decades, from presidents to royalty and everyone in between. Today it remains one of the city’s prominent luxury hotels, and the experience of staying in this legendary establishment was as much a highlight for me as was anything else I did in the city.
Palace Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Francisco – San Francisco being what it is though, the St. Francis isn’t the only legacy hotel; the Palace, or “New” Palace, is another grand old establishment. Built in 1909 it too enjoys an enviable location, making it ideal for a weekend getaway. The property meticulously embraces the wonderful excess of the Gilded Age, but is also a modern hotel with all of the amenities any luxury traveler today would expect. With so many great hotels in San Francisco, it’s hard to pick just one but the Palace should definitely be on your to-do list.
Four Points by Sheraton San Francisco Bay Bridge – If a coastal location is what interests you, then the Four Points is a great option. Down by the waterfront and centrally located in the high-tech city of Emeryville, the Four Points by Sheraton San Francisco Bay Bridge is convenient to both downtown San Francisco and Oakland. Also, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys are an easy scenic drive from this newly renovated hotel.
What to Eat
San Francisco has long been considered one of America’s great foodie cities, and that’s certainly true today. Thanks to a very long history of immigration and a decidedly eclectic citizenry, San Francisco has had a lot of practice in fusing together these disparate traditions into a food experience that is totally unique in the country. North Beach is home to great Italian restaurants that are thankfully firmly rooted in the classics. I stopped by for a massive slice of pizza, but many trattoria line the streets offering delicious Old World favorites. For dinner I wanted something totally different, but decidedly San Franciscan. A quick walk from my hotel, I soon found myself in Chinatown, the largest in the U.S.
Instantly I was transported across the ocean, everything from the aromas to the language were wonderfully foreign. Before sitting down to eat, I first stopped by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to see how the famous cookies are made and to buy a few bags of them to take home. Then, on the recommendation of a friend, I sat down for an incredible meal at the Bund Shanghai Restaurant. Thankfully, my friend couldn’t have recommended a better spot and an evening of devouring some classic Chinese dishes was pure heaven. My only regret in San Francisco was that I didn’t have weeks to spend eating; the options are really that incredible. From fine dining to down home favorites, it’s hard to go wrong in the City by the Bay.
Fun Day Trips
One reason why I wanted to include San Francisco in my roundup of fun weekend getaway destinations is due to the wealth of active day trips from the city. If you’re planning a three-day weekend escape to the city, I strongly recommend spending one of them getting out and exploring the greater region. One of the most popular day trips is of course wine country – Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Naturally, entire trips could be, and are, spent exploring one of the world’s most famous wine regions, but they’re also accessible enough to visit if you just have a day. There are a number of tour options available in case you don’t want to drive, all of which visit a number of incredible wineries and cafes. For a more natural escape, Muir Woods is a stone’s throw from the city center. Muir Woods, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is a park that caters to pedestrians, as parking of vehicles is only allowed at the entrance. Hiking trails vary in the level of difficulty and distance, but are a great way to truly appreciate the incredible natural resources of the area.
San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in the country to visit, and with good reason. With its long and unusual history, temperate climate, fun activities and delicious restaurants, there is any number of reasons to visit and enjoy an easy getaway.