If you’re reading this website, chances are you know a lot about San Francisco already. For many LGBTI people, it’s a rite of passage.
So much of the city’s history is gay history. For many of us, it’s like coming home (at least temporarily).
Especially the Castro District, the gayborhood immortalized in HBO’s gay drama Looking, and the old stomping ground of the late Harvey Milk, the first gay person to be elected into public office in California before his assassination in 1978.
It’s also known for its world-class museums and arts spaces, which are arguably some of the best in the States. There are also the famous sights: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, the historic cable car system and the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, atop which sits Coit Tower.
So why write about it again? Well, partly because we’ll seize every opportunity to visit our favorite SF haunts for the rest of our gay days. And also, because no matter how many times you return, there’s always more to explore…
What to do
The diversity of the city’s cultural spaces set it apart from many others in the USA. From art to design to natural history, you really only need to pick your interest and you’ll find it represented here, somewhere.
The newly-renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is worth visiting just to experience the building itself, which is undoubtedly a work of art in its own right.
The living wall is a highlight – it’s been designed as a place to recharge and defeat museum fatigue. The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly the Doris and Donald Fisher collection.
“I look for inspiration in reality. Only reality powers my imagination and gives me new life.” #HBD to Pablo Picasso, an artist who keeps us inspired– born #onthisday in 1881 in Málaga, Spain [Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers), 1955] . . #newSFMOMA #fromthecollection
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The Fishers, founders of Gap, were prodigious collectors of modern art, and much of it, including pieces by Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol, now call SFMOMA home.
If your aesthetic is more ‘Downton’ than ‘downtown’, then the Legion of Honor, known for its fine arts collection, is your best place to start.
Set in Lincoln Park, it has epic views over the Golden Gate Bridge. (Top tip – for the best view, go later in the day to avoid the morning fog that periodically engulfs the city).
The museum has one of the largest collections of European art in the US, and Rodin’s The Thinker in its courtyard.
Then check out the de Young Museum [above] and the California Academy of Sciences, opposite each other in the park. We’d recommend visiting both with a CityPASS, which offers discounted entry to a range of SF attractions, such as the Aquarium of the Bay, Exploratorium and the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure. It includes a Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport.
The de Young has a huge collection of American art. It also has a tower offering commanding 360° views of the entire city.
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The Academy’s rainforest and aquarium are both must-dos. The earthquake simulator is an eye-opener, giving you a taster of the 7.9-magnitude ‘quake that flattened the city in 1906.
If you want your culture kid-free, (and possibly accompanied with a glass of wine), all of the museums run a late night on Thursdays.
Once you’ve checked out the de Young and the Academy, take a breather in the exquisite Japanese Tea Garden that sits right by the pair of them. It’s not huge, and not somewhere you’ll linger for long, but it’s too beautiful to miss.
Tea Garden done, explore the Golden Gate Park, encasing all of the above. It’s sprawling – 1,000 acres to be exact.
We’d suggest doing it on a Segway. If time’s short, this really is the best way to take it all in. Segways are surprisingly easy to use, and great fun once you’ve got the hang of them.
You’ll get full training from the clued-up guides who know the park like the back of their hand. If Segways aren’t for you, there’s the option to hire a bike, or simply take a stroll.
Then, take a boat tour of the bay to get up-close-and-personal with both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. The latter’s just as beautiful as the former, but has been eclipsed by the Golden Gate’s fame, beauty and, we suspect, more evocative name.
(As an aside, the Bay Bridge is by far the more impressive sight after dark – it now boasts a truly incredible light sculpture by Leo Villareal, which was put in place to mark the bridge’s 75th anniversary, and is now a permanent installation. We’d urge you to see it whilst you’re in town.)
Alcatraz is, of course, a must. Even now, years after its closure as a prison, there’s something very forbidding about the island. And you can’t help feel a flicker of sympathy for the people who spent their final days there.
Book as soon as you possibly can though. It’s such a popular attraction that if you hope to pick up tickets once you’ve arrived in the city there’s a high chance you’ll end up missing out.
Be sure, also, to head over to Pier 39, famed for the noisy Californian seal lions who like to hang out here.
Where to eat
In case it wasn’t immediately clear from its nickname, San Francisco is a city by a bay. This means that seafood is abundant here. And it’s good. Very good.
Sticking with Pier 39, we’d start the evening with a quick glass of vino from the Wines of California wine bar, and take in a flight – three glasses of state-produced plonk that whet the appetite before you start feasting. From there, both Swiss Louis and Fog Harbour Fish House are both guaranteed wins on the fish front.
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Presidio Social Club is another restaurant guaranteed to please. Sat in Presidio National Park, it’s a short walk from Lucasfilm’s HQ. (Here, you can wander into reception and have a photo with Darth Vader. It’s set in a converted military barracks, as the national park is a former army base).
The rib eye steak is both huge (it’s definitely for two) and excellent, while the mushroom sugo is mouthwatering.
If you want to try something quite different, then head to the Stinking Rose. Everything on the menu features garlic. From the bagna calda (roasted garlic cloves), which is a treat spread on bread, to the garlic ice cream (an interesting taste that we’re not 100% sure about) the chefs here have simply let their imagination run away with them.
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The garlic-roasted prime rib is absolutely delicious. If you’re planning on heading to the Castro to kiss boys, girls or gender-fluid peeps afterwards, we’d suggest a quick trip back to your hotel to brush your teeth first.
If you fancy Asian fare, get yourself to the Asian Art Museum. Not only does the museum boast the finest collection of Asian art outside of Asia, it serves an incredible pork belly. As with the other museums, it does a late night on Thursday.
When the sun sets
We can’t talk about San Francisco without talking about the scene. It’s centred on the Castro district, but the city’s so diverse, and open to all, that it wouldn’t be unfair to say that most of San Francisco is an extended village.
There are spaces for all tribes and tastes. A good place to start is The Mix, a low-key, neigborhood bar with some of the friendliest staff and patrons you’re likely to meet. If, as the writer did, you find yourself in the city alone, you’re guaranteed to find someone to strike up a conversation with.
From there, the world (or at least the blocks around Castro station) is your oyster. The common theme that runs through all of the bars we found ourselves in is just how pleasant everyone is. If you don’t have a good time, the problem’s probably yours. There’s another selection of bars in the South of Market district too. Give yourself time to check them all out.
You absolutely must check out Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon. It’s an SF institution. The road it’s on was even renamed ‘Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard’ (formally Green Street).
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BBB is the longest-running revue show in the States. And it’s glorious. Silver – who died far too young – created a hysterical, laugh-until-it-hurts, fiercely intelligent yet utterly ridiculous piece of burlesque that manages to lampoon everything without offending anyone. Writing aside, it’s a must-see for the costumes, which are, quite frankly, mind-boggling. You can’t say you’ve lived until you’ve seen a woman wearing the San Francisco skyline on her head.
Where to stay
San Francisco isn’t actually that big. Indeed, it’s a really walkable city, so you’re never too far from anything. This means you can have your pick of hotels, without having to worry that the one you like is going to be miles away from anywhere.
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Our pick is Palace Hotel. It’s less than 15 minutes on the subway (that’s right next door) to the Castro. And the Palace is just like its name: palatial.
The rooms straddle old-world style and contemporary luxury perfectly. The food is to die for – I doubt I’ve ever had a better breakfast. It also boasts a well-stocked gym and a full-sized pool, meaning you can burn off some of said breakfast. It’s at the higher end of the scale, yes, but absolutely worth it.
You can also plan your trip to San Francisco at www.sftravel.com.