101 reasons to love San Francisco
A love letter to the Golden City
Tony Bennett famously explained how he left his heart here in the city. And he gives a few solid reasons why—the fog, the cable cars, being high on a hill. The usual. But there are so many more reasons why people love the city high above the blue and windy sea—places and experiences one doesn’t normally think of since they’re regular occurrences or daily sights. Let’s take a look at what makes heart strings zing here in San Francisco.
1. When you’re on the J train and it pops out of the corridor into Dolores Park, giving you an amazing view of the city. Any regular public transit commuter who takes the J knows that, just as the train emerges from the corridor from Noe Valley and onto the southwesternmost corner of Dolores Park, it provides the most magical views of San Francisco. A dreamy scene during a dreaded commute.
2. When a hill is so steep it requires a sidewalk stairway. Sometimes a street grade is so steep and so dangerous that a regular sidewalk won’t do. Sometimes it requires a sidewalk stairway. Not all the steps are glamorous or offer views galore—but all of them are so quintessentially San Francisco. They range from wide and roomy (like the stairway on Taylor Street between Pine and California streets) to the narrow and short. But all of them are essential due to our tall terrain.
3. Your first Giants home game of the season. Now that bandwagon #evenyear fans have mercifully come and gone, Giants games promise to be even better. If you haven’t been to the official church of San Francisco, be sure to catch a game—and don’t forget to bring your warmest sweater, cap, jacket, scarf, socks, and long underwear for evening games.
4. Lunch break at 1 Kearny POPOS. Of all the privately-owned public open spaces in downtown San Francisco, this gem, with views galore and clean bathrooms, is the best. Ideal for lunchtime breaks.
5. Arguing about which taqueria has the best burrito. Couples break up over this.
6. Danielle Steel’s hedges. Crudely referred to in vulgar parlance as “Danielle Steel’s bush,” the noted romance author stoked the ire of many locals when she planted massive hedges around her Spreckels mansion, which she purchased in the late 1980s and restored as a single-family home. Decried by SF Chronicle critic John King as “comically off-putting,” today they are as comically San Francisco as International Orange and sourdough bread.
7. Vermont Street, San Francisco’s real crookedest street. The crooked portion of Lombard has beautiful landscaping, multimillion dollar homes, and a picturesque view of North Beach and beyond. What it doesn’t have is the record for the crookedest street in San Francisco, a title that actually belongs to the much less attractive but still crookeder Vermont Street in Potrero Hill. It’s also home to the annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel race every April.
8. Sixth floor bathroom at Union Square Macy’s. The award-winning loo at the Union Square women’s Macy’s is a sight to behold. An Art Deco design, featuring Italian marble, chandelier with carved ceiling medallion, and full-length stainless steel stall doors. The city’s number one place to go number one.
9. Tuesday noon siren. Every Tuesday at noon exactly, 109 sirens throughout San Francisco blast the city with its weekly reminder that San Francisco has an emergency broadcast system. For locals, it’s a comforting reminder to make sure your emergency kits are in order. For newcomers and visitors, it’s a bit odd to hear a booming voice echo through the entire city to tell you that “This is a test. This is a test of the Outdoor Public Warning System. This is only a test.”
10. Fairmont Penthouse. Considered to be one of the most luxurious hotel suites in the entire world, this full-floor, 6,000-square-foot penthouse has hosted every luminary from President John F. Kennedy to Nat King Cole. From the vaulted billiard room that’s entirely covered in floor-to-ceiling Persian tiles to the two-story circular library crowned by a rotunda where a celestial map is rendered in gold leaf against a sapphire sky, it’s worth every penny of its $18,000 a night price tag.
11. V.C. Morris Gift Shop. Frank Lloyd Wright’s only design in San Francisco lies behind a dense wall of tan bricks with a single deep arch. The interiors, now a city landmark, feature a spiral ramp that predates his noted Guggenheim Museum in New York by more than a decade.
12. Bayview Opera House. Founded in 1888, it is the oldest existing theater in the city. It recently benefitted from a major renovation.
13. Taking the cable car because it’s convenient, and knowing it’s the only moving national landmark. Psst, if you have a Clipper Card, you can use it here.
14. Urbano Sundial in Ingleside Terraces. Completed in 1913, the 26-foot-high sundial is the only thing that remains of San Francisco’s great raceway.
15. The Phelan Building, aka city’s best flatiron. Designed by William Curlett and built in 1908 by James D. Phelan, this Market Street gem replaced the 1881 version, which was advertised as “thoroughly fire and earthquake proof.” Oops.
16. Afternoon at the Fruit Shelf in Dolores Park. On any given weekend, the city’s most beloved park is broken up into strata of denizens. From tech kids to unemployed hipsters, they all have a preferred patch of grass at this popular park. However, arguably the best spot has to be the top southwestern corner, lovingly labeled the “fruit shelf,” for the many queer folks who gather there. (It also has some of the best views in the city to boot.) Shirt and pants optional.
17. Dahlias. The official flower of San Francisco.
18. John McLaren statue in Golden Gate Park. The noted horticulturist who served as superintendent of Golden Gate Park for 53 years, hated statues. He did everything in his power (which was quite a lot as superintendent) to not have any in Golden Gate Park. In true shady and petty San Francisco fashion, he was later presented with a life-sized statue of himself for his 65th birthday. Embarrassed, he hid it away. After his death, the statue found a new home in Golden Gate Park, where it still lives today. Sorry, John.
19. Diamond Heights Eichler community. Iconic postwar developer Joseph Eichler, with designs by architect Vernon DeMars, built a nest of homes up in Diamond Heights. While they were built as an affordable yet well-designed alternative to pricey abodes, today they command top dollar and are rarely vacant. The ultimate urban hike for any Eichler fans.
20. Spotting flocks of wild parrots. The feral parrots of San Francisco were first thrust into the spotlight when musician and Telegraph Hill resident Mark Bittner published a book—The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill—about the birds and his observations about them. Shoot forward to today and the unofficial bird of San Francisco can be found in nearly every neighborhood, and have even been spotted in the East Bay.
21. The veterans memorial/cat sanctuary in the Outer Richmond. Down from the Veterans Hospital on 44th Avenue and Clement in the Outer Richmond, you will find a makeshift veterans memorial the also doubles as a cat sanctuary, replete with cat food, shelter, and water. It even has a tiny feline-sized American flag on a small flagpole.
22. Eating Hot Cookie with your cookie while walking around the Castro. The city’s queer district is more than just bars and dance floors. It’s actually a great date. Grab a couple of treats from Hot Cookie, put on your cutest pair of denim jeans, and take a stroll around the world’s LGBT mecca. Highlights include the Rainbow Walk of Fame, Harvey Milk’s camera shop, the Castro Country Club (for teetotalers), ZGO Perfumery & Apothecary, and espresso at Cafe Réveille.
23. Beers at Specs followed by poring over the shelves of books at City Lights. For the biblio-minded, grab a few pints here during happy hour, then stumble across the street to City Lights, the famous beatnik-era bookstore featuring shelves and shelves of some of the best printed word in the world.
24. Picnic with friends at Stern Grove concert. Every year since 1938, the Stern Grove Festival has offered free weekend concerts featuring notable acts ranging from Patti LuPone to the San Francisco Symphony.
25. That San Francisco is built on ships. Like a nautical version of Poltergeist, San Francisco rests atop many sunken ships, like the Brigantine Galilee, which can now be found at the Fort Mason parking lot. Some spots in San Francisco mark a buried ship with a plaque, most of them found in the Financial District.
26. Stumbling upon the Golden Gate Park Diorama in the lobby of the Beach Chalet. The miniature of Golden Gate Park offers a bird’s eye view of how the park looked in 1996.
27. Albion Castle. There are many things to love about this mysterious castle in Hunters Point. It’s built on top of working springs (shoutout to anyone who ever pool partied there), it’s the old home of the Albion Ale and Porter Brewery, it’s Local Landmark #60 (since 1973), and it eventually turned into a restored and private (and possibly haunted) residence.
28. Finding the Bummer and Lazarus plaque in the Redwood Forest adjacent to the Transamerica. San Francisco’s most famous mutts.
29. We’re a sanctuary city. San Francisco protects undocumented immigrants by not prosecuting them for violating federal immigration laws. This allows all San Franciscans to have access to city services, no matter their immigration status.
30. Maya Angelou was one of Muni’s first female streetcar conductors. Maya Angelou is many things. Author, activist, inspiration, civil rights pioneer. One other major, and likely less known, accomplishment is that the noted scribe became San Francisco’s first female black street car conductor, a job she got when she was only 16 years old.
31. Salon Doré at the Legion of Honor. One of the most acclaimed examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture in the United States, the Salon Doré (moved from the Hôtel de La Trémoille in France) at the Legion of Honor is quite possibly the most gorgeous room in all of San Francisco.
32. Tales of the City. Armistead Maupin’s chronicle of San Francisco in the 1970s, which takes place in an apartment complex on a street modeled after Macondray Lane, is what led many a young queer person to make the pilgrimage to Baghdad by the Bay.
33. Karl the Fog. San Francisco’s most famous celebrity.
34. Exploring the San Francisco History Center on the sixth floor of the main library. Everything you could ever possibly want to know about the history of this city can be found within these four walls.
35. Openly hating on tech companies but relying on them 5x a day to accomplish basic tasks. You’re not a real San Franciscan until you illogically hate on something that you also rely on daily.
36. Chinatown alleys. San Francisco’s Chinatown isn’t just one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it’s actually the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. While Grant Avenue is lined with dragon-adorned street lamps, facades that wow, and shops aimed at attracting tourist dollars, locals love exploring the neighborhood’s many alleys where lifelong Chinatown residents do their daily work.
37. Walking the Filbert Steps. The best way to see Telegraph Hill is by taking a hike along the Filbert Street steps. Don’t miss the circa 1880 homes, quake shacks, Grace Marchant Gardens, and—best of all—the ultra-charming Napier Lane.
38. The stank at Tigerlily Perfumery. Olfactory high art can be found at this Valencia Street hot spot, featuring the work of many local perfumers. A store that is singlehandedly bringing fragrance back to San Francisco.
39. Sutro Tower. Sorry, Golden Gate Bridge, Transamerica Pyramid, and Coit Tower, this is the ultimate signifier of San Francisco.
40. Excelsior Water Tower, the real landmark of locals. Technically called La Grande Tank, this Tiffany-blue water tower is perched at the top of McLaren Park and is one of the first things folks see as they cruise into the city on Interstate 280.
41. Slow dancing night at the Make Out Room. Every first, second, and fourth Tuesday, the Make Out Room nightclub presents Slow Jams, where DJ Paul Costuros pumps sweet ’60s soul. Couples can often be found slow dancing on the floor. Adorable.
42. The pitter-pat of rain on your bay windows—also, bay windows. This year’s deluge of rain provided not only drought relief, but the glorious plinking sound of rain hitting bay windows across the city. Bonus points if your living room comes with a working fireplace.
43. Peaches Christ’s productions at the Castro Theatre. Among other strokes of brilliance, Peaches Christ singlehandedly made Showgirls the cult classic it is today.
44. Our Lady of Maytag. If this Western Addition midcentury church doesn’t attract you with its saddled roof, comprised of eight segments of hyperbolic paraboloids that give the structure its signature washing-machine look, then its bawdy boob shadow will.
45. When tour buses get stuck on our steep hills. And how it almost always makes the local news.
46. The Westerfeld House in Alamo Square. Jim Siege’s landmark Victorian is a long, strange trip. Read all about it.
47. The golden fire hydrant atop Dolores Park. Said to have been the only working hydrant during the Great Quake, it helped save the Mission District from a fiery fate. It also receives a fresh coat of gold paint each year on the anniversary of the quake.
48. Crown Towers. The Downing red facade and Satan-inspired address (666 Post) make this Art Deco/Gothic building, designed by John C. Hladik in 1925, one hell of a high rise.
49. Oasis in SoMa. The best venue to see the country’s top drag queens perform, it’s first and foremost a queer space serving LGBT clientele—i.e., bachelorette parties aren’t welcome. And that’s a good thing.
50. The lobby of 140 New Montgomery. The contemporary and postmodern lobbies of today could learn a thing or more with the Art Deco lobby at 140 New Montgomery—namely, more is more.
51. Church of 8 Wheels. On the outside its a nondescript and seemingly abandoned church, but once inside you’re transported to a roller disco courtesy of D. Miles Jr., aka the “Godfather of Skating in San Francisco” and his Holy Rollers crew. Where there were once pews now is a bona fide roller rink, and each night has some type of 1970s-style theme to skate along to. Because it’s so heavy on the ‘70s style, skaters often don outrageous outfits and makeup to fully embrace the theme.
52. The Yoda statue in the Presidio. The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side, sure. But you can easily find this right off Letterman Drive outside LucasArts in the Presidio.
53. Pier 22½ & the SFFD Fire Boats. Aquatic showoffs in the bay.
54. All the lowkey genius kids who play chess day and night in the Chess Room at the Mechanics’ Institute. We see you, and we plan on voting for you when you eventually run for president.
55. The Book Club of California. This beautiful club house on Sutter Street in Union Square has what every library is missing: a bar.
56. Paxton Gate. From landscaping and taxidermy to dead butterflies and venus flytraps, this Valencia Street staple offers some of the best curios in town.
57. Playing hooky for the day. So many great options when one decides to take the day off work/feign illness—Dolores Park, Baker Beach, Castro Theatre. Just be sure to stay off social media lest your boss be the wiser.
58. Conservatory of Flowers. The crown jewel of Golden Gate Park has been and will forever be the Conservatory of Flowers. Since opening to the public in 1879, the National Historic Landmark has lured tourists and locals alike to its tropical wonderland that should make any botanist blush.
59. The gorgeous Neptune Society Columbarium in the Richmond. Drop dead gorgeous.
60. Riding the wiggle. Providing cyclists a relatively flat route between Duboce Park and the Panhandle, the Wiggle avoids many our city’s famously steep streets.
61. The San Francisco Center for the Book. Founded to support the appreciation, teaching, and creation of book arts, this 7,000-square-foot space hosts more than 400 workshops.
62. The restaurants. Rumor has it they’re pretty popular these days.
63. Historic F Trains. What these beauties lack in leg room, they more than make up with vehicular beauty. The F-Market line boasts an exclusive fleet of historic retired cars from cities around the world. Be sure to look for the rare open-air streetcar, which makes occasional appearances on sunny days.
64. The Head of the Goddess of Progress at City Hall. A looming 20-foot-tall statue that stood atop San Francisco’s original city hall, her 700-pound head is all that remains.
65. The Ramp in Dogpatch. The best place to get day drunk, period.
66. The Tobin half house in Pacific Heights. This Tudor Gothic Revival house was originally two houses designed by Willis Polk for Michael de Young’s two daughters. One liked it, the other didn’t. So only one home was built. Intended to be mirror houses of each other, its archway stops at the beginning of the neighboring house.
67. Garden of Fragrance at the botanical gardens. Created for the visually impaired and people with disabilities, the garden allows people to experience through smell and touch.
68. Sunday afternoon stroll in the FiDi. Chaos of business and meetings on the weekdays, a tranquil forest of concrete and steel on the weekends. The best time to see the architecture you’ve been missing while rushing to and from work.
69. It gets cold at 4 p.m. What do you mean, you left your jacket at home?
70. Victorians. From Italianate and Stick to Queen Anne and Eastlake, San Francisco storied Victorian architecture is the signature look of the city.
71. The new South Park. This year marks the dawn of a new era for the little-known but much-loved South Park, when the park reopens this fall after a year-long overhaul. Not to be one upped by its more popular brothers Dolores and Golden Gate, films like the musical RENT and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (where Cate Blanchett has her final breakdown) were filmed here.
72. Balmy Alley murals. The Mission is filled with murals and street art, as evidenced by the many tourists on the weekends, but some of the best can be found along Balmy Alley at 24th and Mission. It is the most concentrated collection of murals in the city, with the first piece painted by Maria Galivez in 1972.
73. Riding the glass elevators at the Westin St. Francis after cocktails at Clock Bar. After getting good and tipsy, take a ride up the glass elevators at this famous hotel. Ideal spot for making out, should the mood strike.
74. Free swing dancing in Golden Gate Park on Sundays. For over 20 years, folks have been gathering onJohn F. Kennedy Drive between Eighth and 10th avenues to participate in a free swing dance party. It costs nothing and you don’t even need to show up with a partner. Free beginner classes start at noon, and the dancing continues until 2 p.m.
75. The wave organ. Sloshes, gurgles, hisses, and other wave sounds can be heard at this acoustic sculpture constructed on the shore of Ocean Beach in 1986. Located at the tip of the Marina Green.
76. Pet Cemetery in the Presidio. Ghoulish but pretty.
77. When Burning Man arrives, you can go to all the places you want to go. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
78. Golden Gate Park being so underrated. Indeed, there are the 1,017-acre park’s obvious jewels—the California Academy of Sciences, the Herzog & de Meuron-designed de Young Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden— but there are also so many lesser known gems worthy of your attention. For example, a Saturday afternoon paddle boating at Stow Lake, taking selfies at the Golden Gate Pavillon, the Golden Gate Park Playground (spinning children around since 1888); the Dutch windmills and tulip gardens; the Golden Gate Park Golf Course; and the music concourse. Just to name a few.
79. The design shops on Sacramento Street. From March to Serena & Lilly to Future Perfect and Hudson Grace, this stretch of Sacramento in Presidio Heights is the place to go for interiors that go above and beyond Ikea bric-a-brac and EQ3 tchotchkes.
80. Dolphin Swim & Boat Club. You see them bobbing up and down in the water whenever you’re down at the Aquatic Park, these brazen locals who dive into the bay’s water wearing only swim caps and swimsuits. They have been swimming in the bay since 1877, when the Dolphin Club was started and had a membership cap of 25. Today it’s a nonprofit, public access swim and rowing club with nearly 1,500 members, and regularly hosts big swims to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
81. The Palace of Fine Arts. The best backdrop for quinceañera photos.
82. Hearts in SF. Since 2004, giant heart sculptures have been appearing all over San Francisco. From the steps of Union Square to the front yards of private residences in Pacific Heights, every one of the 131 five-foot-tall heart sculptures are designed by local and national established and emerging artists. They’re on display all over the city, and then are auctioned off to benefit San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.
83. Union Street on a Sunday afternoon. Messy on Friday and Saturday night, Union Street on a Sunday afternoon is the best way to fall back in love with the unfairly maligned Marina District.
84. Moraga Street Tiled Steps. Beginning at Moraga and 16th Avenue, the Moraga steps feature 163 mosaic panels applied to the step risers. A neighborhood effort, over 220 residents helped create handmade tiles embedded within the mosaic.
85. Ballet season. Twinkle toes tickled, beginning every January.
86. Flora Grubb Gardens. Flora Grubb opened a humble nursery in the Mission in 2003 with an aim to be a source for beautiful gardens that required minimal water and chemicals. The idea was so successful that, in 2007, the business expanded into the massive flora wonderland in the Bayview that we all know and love today.
87. Castro Street rainbow crosswalks. Installed at the intersection of 18th and Castro streets, the rainbow crosswalks are a result of a Castro Streetscape Improvement plan back in 2014.
88. Cupid’s Span. Gaudy and oversized? Yes. Bold and beautiful? Absolutely.
89. The nonprofit 826 Valencia. A pirate store that isn’t, the nonprofit, started by local scribe Dave Eggers, helps kids with their writing skills.
90. Sunday Streets. Inspired by Ciclovía in Bogotá, Colombia, where streets are closed on Sundays for pedestrians, Sunday Streets shut down one popular neighborhood street on God’s day throughout the year. A great way to get out of your neighborhood and see how other residents live.
91. The pristine condition of the Pacific Unity sculptures. Cast for the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, these deco modern sculptures used to flank a much larger stature, the Goddess of the Pacific. Sadly, she was destroyed when the navy took over the area. But these guys managed to survive.
92. Maltese Falcon plaque at Burritt Alley. A tribute to Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel.
93. Completely freaking out whenever there’s a chance of rain. “Is that a drop of water on my windshield? Time to slam on the breaks!”
94. Keith Haring’s “The Life of Christ” (1990) at Grace Cathedral. The interfaith church’s response to death of cathedral congregants and staff members to AIDS.
95. Kooky restaurants like the Tonga Room and Forbes Island. Before communal tables and mason jars ensnared the dining scene, whimsy and fun were the order of the day. Themed restaurants like the Tonga Room (where it rains indoors) and Forbes Island (all aboard!) used to be the destination spots for the not-so-gastronomic sect.
96. Lands End. The highlight of this park along the shoreline is the rocky labyrinth, as seen on many an Instagram page.
97. “Back door!” Step down, please.
98. How inclusive the city is. What San Francisco lacks in diversity—an unfortunate stain on our city—we attempt to make up with by being inclusive. Whether it be the annual Right to Life March or the Dore Alley Street Fair, we hardly bat an eyelash at anything provocative these days.
99. The many, many dog parks. There are around a hundred dog-friendly public spaces in San Francisco, but there’s something pretty magical about the off-leash Crissy Field beach adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge. Same goes for Fort Funston. Dog beaches, what’s not to love?
100. The Corporate Goddess sculptures in the FiDi. High atop—23 floors, to be exact—the Philip Johnson-designed 580 California Street building are 12 ghostly figures that artist Muriel Castanis was commissioned to create in 1982. Castanis has always insisted that they’re just “corporate goddesses,” but nearly everyone who spots them, either from within the building looking out or from the sidewalk looking up, notes that they are pretty spooky.
101. That big, orange-painted hunk of metal. We hear it’s kind of popular.
Originally published on February 14, 2017.