Thursday, May 31, 2012

Top 5 "Only in San Francisco" Things to Do

"Only in San Francisco" is a term that's spoken in either a positive tone, with a warm smile and a beat of the heart, or a pejorative one, accompanied by an intolerant eye roll. Today, a few days after the Bay Area celebrated the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge, I'm feeling the love for my adopted home. So for any of you planning a visit, here are five of my favorite "only in San Francisco" things to do (in no particular order of preference). 

1. See a movie at the Castro Theatre

 It's a 1922 neighborhood, single-screen movie palace that still shows films most every night--usually of the vintage and independent variety--and still has a guy playing the Wurlitzer organ before screenings. Do you have one of those in your town? I thought not. 

I've seen everything here from the sing-a-long versions of Grease and The Sound of Music to Up in 3D to countless film noirs to Fun in Boys' Shorts, a staple of the annual Frameline gay and lesbian film festival. At the Castro, you're part of a community, not just an audience member--and it's OK to hiss the villain on screen, if not expected. Tip: Before the show, smuggle in a freshly baked treat from Hot Cookie, a few doors up the street.
The Castro Theatre
2. Check out the naked guys.  

The Castro is San Francisco's--if not the world's--main 'gayborhood.' In recent years, it's also become home to a tiny minority of nudists (in which "tiny" refers to their membership ranks, not necessarily their "members"). Mostly guys, mostly older, mostly not physically attractive, the clotheless contingent walks around the neighborhood as casually as if they were going grocery shopping. (Imagine them in the produce aisle, carefully selecting cucumbers.) 

The 'naked guys' also congregate in the public parklet across from that staple of middle America, Pottery Barn. Sometimes, the Creme Brulee Cart sets up shop nearby, though I think a hot dog stand would be more appropriate. 

Oddly enough, public nudity isn't a crime here (unless something lewd is occurring), though a citizen could make a beef about it if he or she wanted to. Do I love seeing these guys naked in public? The truth is, no. But I love what they represent: freedom and lack of shame. Here, in one of the country's most liberal cities, you can be who you truly are--and you can do it with pride. Tip: I've heard some of the naked guys will pose for pictures with you (if you ask nicely, of course). Won't that be something to show your friends back home?
3. Ride a vintage streetcar. 

I'm not talking about the cable car. I'm talking about hopping aboard one of the many mid-20th century streetcars from cities around the country--and some from abroad. (The loud orange trolley cars are from Milan.) Here again, this is where San Francisco goes against the grain. These cars had been cast aside, considered archaic by cities like Boston. San Francisco bought and restored them and now runs a fleet of them along Market Street, the Embarcadero, and a few other above-ground rail lines. To my knowledge, no other city has amassed such a collection of trolley cars. Tip: You can ride a vintage trolley to the Castro, if you're dying to see a movie and public nudity. And if you're lucky, you might even get to ride NewOrleans' streetcar named desire
Vintage streetcar in San Francisco
4. Ride the California Street cable car. 

I sensed your disappointment when I wrote about streetcars, not cable cars. Of course you must ride a cable car when you're in San Francisco. To many people, it's the definition of an "only in San Francisco" experience, as no other city in the world still operates cable cars. 

But don't do what every other tourist does and wait in the interminable lines at the Powell Street cable car turnaround. Instead, jump onto a cable car at either the top of California Street (at Van Ness Avenue) or at the bottom, near the Hyatt Regency on Market Street (not far from the Ferry Building). For some odd reason, the California Street cable car carries far fewer riders, so you'll probably be able to board without waiting. 

And frankly, I like the views better on this route. Along the way, you'll pass the financial district, Chinatown, and Nob Hill landmarks. And you'll go up or down some steep hills, depending upon where you board--which is, in itself, another great San Francisco experience. Tip: Fares at most times are $6 each way (with no transfers), which can you pay the conductor. Try to have the exact fare, if possible. If you plan to ride a cable car more than three times in a day or ride other local buses or trains, get the $14 day pass (which the conductor will also sell you).
California Street cable car

5. Eat a hamburger at Zuni. 

I know what you're thinking: You can eat a hamburger anywhere. But Zuni is and always has been, practically from the moment it opened, a quintessential San Francisco restaurant. Just about everyone I know who lives here loves it. You'll see all types at Zuni, from local politicians to leather queens (sometimes they're one and the same) to film directors. I once spotted cult film director John Waters having dinner here, went over, introduced myself, and enjoyed a brief chat with him. (He's as funny in person as you'd expect.) 

I almost always take out-of-towners here, who uniformly love it. Which brings another Zuni story to mind. Years ago, Nick and I brought visiting relatives of his from Alabama, a conservative but sweet couple of retirement age, to Zuni for lunch. They sat with their backs to the huge windows that look out onto Market Street, with Nick and I facing the windows. At one point, a trickle of leather queens in full regalia began parading by, including an unusually short man chain-linked to an unusually tall one. The trickle soon turned into a flood, as I realized that it was time for the annual Folsom Street Fair, a celebration of all things leather and kink. Nick and I struggled to keep from reacting as his relatives enjoyed their lunch, completely unaware of the parade going on behind him. 

Oh yes, the hamburger! I almost forgot. The Zuni burger is the bomb. Zuni mixes the meat with salt and lets it sit (refrigerated) for 18 to 24 hours. Then they cook it just to your liking, throw on some Gruyere cheese if you want, and serve it on fresh focaccia bread. Order it with the shoestring fries and you'll soon be smacking your lips double-time. Tip: You can only order the burger at lunch or after 10 p.m. 

Zuni's burger
Now it's your turn. What are your favorite "only in San Francisco" experiences?


  1. So, when I go back to San Francisco, I can stay with you and Nick, right? Because now I want to go back. ;)

    ONLY in San Francisco . . . eat a sourdough bowl from Boudin's (on Pier 39) filled with clam chowder

    ONLY in San Francisco . . . drink tea in the Japanese tea gardens

    ONLY in San Francisco . . . scare the crap out of your family as you navigate a huge SUV down Lombard Street

    ONLY in San Francisco . . . take the Red and White Fleet under the Golden Gate and around Alcatraz

    . . . and I could go on and on about chocolate, Chinese food, aquarium, cable cars, fish . . .

    1. Claudia, we have a blowup mattress with your name on it!

  2. Alas, I have never been to your fair city. I am so ashamed. But, it IS on my short list of places to go! And, now I have five things I MUST do while there. I am salivating at the thought of the burger.

    I am totally picturing the Naked Guys enjoying a Creme Brulee. Pinkies up?

    Thank you for such great recommendations. What are five things you would skip?

    1. JuJu, you've just given me an idea for a future post: the five things I'd skip in San Francisco. Love that. Thank you!

  3. Sister Concepta MarieMay 31, 2012 at 5:57 PM

    BARRY'S DO LIST (far from comprehensive): Explore on foot, including up and down hills; go to the opera; take the J-Church from Market Street sitting backwards for view from Dolores Park; visit Muir Woods in the rain early in the morning in winter on a weekday; walk to the GG Bridge via Crissy Field, then across; visit the View Gallery (as I call it) at the De Young Museum, followed (on sunny Sunday morning) by a spell of bench-sitting by the central fountain in the Music Concourse for people-watching; have breakfast at the Ferry Building Farmers Market on Saturday morning; have a look inside City Hall to get a feel for San Francisco's grand view of itself and its grand aspirations right after the Earthquake; see an old chanteuse at the Rrazz Room and order a Manhattan; slurp oysters and sip a martini while standing at the bar at Zuni; dine at Range or Aziza or La Ciccia or any of a hundred great other little restaurants; This and more...

    BARRY's SKIP LIST: Pier 39, 49 Mile Drive, Fishermans Wharf, Cliff House, Pride Parade

  4. Great stuff, Barry/Sister Concepta Marie. Totally agree. Haven't been to Aziza or La Ciccia so now I have to try them. Thanks for your suggestions.

  5. anne marie in phillyJune 2, 2012 at 3:11 AM

    I love your city! I need to get back there...

    the pix of the vintage streetcar - looks like one of our old red arrow line cars that were used in the suburbs of philly. trolley memories...

    and the closest thing we have to the castro is the colonial in phoenixville; THE BLOB was filmed there in the late 50s. the colonial is still a single screen, working, lively theater (

    1. Sounds like I need to make a trip to the Colonial, Anne Marie. Thanks for letting me know about that. -- Jim

  6. ANYTHING from bi-rite market

    heading to Berkeley for a pizza pie at the Cheese Board Collective

    the pandulce in the mission district

    picnicing in golden gate park

  7. I LOVE the street cars and cable cars in San Francisco! The street cars are so nostalgic, just thinking about them makes me wish I was there. Why did I not know about these naked men, Jim? Next time I am there. I'm taking a street car to the castro and checking out a movie, have a hamburger and maybe? a hot dog.....

  8. The guy who sings opera in the alley off Union Square. He's had some training and he has picked the spot with the right reverberation time.

    Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts. Often neglected or just driven by on the way to or from the Golden Gate. I think it used to be lit up at night making it even more spectacular. For some of us, it is an icon.

    Stopping and buying produce at the Sunday Farmers' Market in UN Plaza while on your way to the Symphony.

    The approach from the Bay Bridge. The city and skyline come right to the water's edge. The air quality is always spectacular. On a clear day the goal is tantilizingly in sight, but still just outside my grasp.

    The legend (?) of the Marina Safeway. I know Armisted Maupin wrote about it in Tales of The City, but in the late '80's I seem to remember a friend from grad school remarking that she still thought that it was a bit of a 'scene'. Another form of street theater perhaps?

    Technically off topic, but the best view of the city and the bridges is from the Berkeley marina. Pack a picknic lunch and go hang out on the breakwater.

    1. Oh, I forgot...swooping down off the freeway at the 5th Street exit and, while readjusting to the pace of city traffic after an hour and a half on the freeway, noticing all the men in assless chaps locking their 'real clothes' in the trunks of their cars. Oh, the weekend of the Folsom Street Fair --- silly me!

    2. Great tips, Will J. And the Folsom Street Fair -- that's a whole 'nother blog post on its own, don't you think?

  9. l. Great burritos from Gurdo's in the Mission..think I spelled it right.

    2. Biking around Angel Island.

    3. Hike to the nude beach looking east to the Golden Gate, the nudists there are pretty, so I have been told.

    3. A Trip to Good Vibrations for souvenirs to take back home to Kansas. :))

    1. Better yet, go shopping at Good Vibrations and then go to the nude beach!

  10. the comments in this post were just as helpful as the original post! I'm planning my second trip to SF for late July/early August. We went last April and it was FREEEZING! But we did enjoy some places that weren't on our itinerary:
    Nick's Crispy Tacos (horchata was to die for)
    Musee de Machenique (not sure how to spell it...but its down by Pier 39 and had ALL sorts of vintage arcade games including a VERY old photobooth with authentic pics that will last WAY longer than the new machines).
    The Stinking Rose (restaurant...everything was made with garlic, including the ice cream!)

    1. Great suggestions Heather. And when you come in late July/early August, don't forget to bring a jacket and/or heavy sweater. It can get very chilly here that time of year.

  11. I love Pakwan on O'Farrell for the best Saag Paneer ever.

    We walk up to Nob hill from the Tenderloin for Grace Cathedral.

    Take the 38 bus all the way to Ocean Beach and Sutro Heights Park.

    Shop at Golden Veggies Market on Polk.

    Walk along the pier from Market and Embarcadero to the Wharf.

    I travel from the Midwest to SF every six months. On my last trip we took the bus up to Twin Peaks and walked back to the Castro.

    One more - Yoga to the People in the Mission. $10 for 75 minute class.

    SF is my home away from home. I am so not a tourist.

  12. Actually your creative writing skills has inspired me to start my personal BlogEngine weblog now.