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Be Spontaneous in San Francisco

Find the best hotels in San Francisco, as well as the absolute best things to do in the city

Whether you’re a long-time local or weekend visitor, there are certain San Francisco attractions that should top your Bay area bucket list. Dining on the country’s best dim sum, shopping for local goods in Oakland alleyways, soaking in a Russian bathhouse overlooking the bay; it’s only natural that a city so diverse and full of character would offer such ample opportunities to explore. Not sure where to start? Here are ten of our favorite, most quintessential things to do in San Francisco.

San Francisco blogger's guide

At times, traveling can be intimidating, especially when there are so many options out there. That’s why I got excited when Booking.com & Time Out New York decided to send me on a spontaneous trip. After all, who likes booking a trip & waiting six months to go on it? No one.

I only discovered my destination would be San Francisco the evening before I left on the trip, and I admit, I was a little intimidated to make a last minute reservation, but navigating through the Booking.com mobile app was a breeze. Not only was it easy to use, it let me search specific categories to help find the perfect spot in minutes. I was all set and ready to go in less time than it takes to order delivery. 

When I arrived in San Francisco I headed straight to Hotel Zetta. I was welcomed by a beautifully designed lobby with a modern, eclectic atmosphere that made me feel right at home. I wanted to check my bags in early and let them know that I used Booking.com to make the reservation—they were more than happy to accommodate me, even on a busy weekend. 

One of my favorite things about traveling to different cities is experiencing the local flavors & food. After asking a few locals, Ken Ken Ramen got the majority vote, so I figured I’d have to give it a shot. Ken Ken offered a clean, tasty and healthy Japanese style ramen that’s definitely worth checking out—not only was the food delicious, but the aesthetic was whimsical and offbeat, with the cluster of glowing lanterns illuminating the room in a truly magical way. 

The next morning I set out to find a boost of caffeine. No ordinary coffee shop was going to cut it—I wanted to find something off the beaten path, so when I discovered Samovar Tea, I knew it was going to be a great experience. As soon as you walk in, you’re overwhelmed by the incredible smell of their brewing Masala Chai Teas emanating from the two large brass pots filled to the brim with creamy chai. I tried both the Almond Milk Chai and the Lemon and Coconut Torte—both were exceptional. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but even more so when you travel often. One of the things I love about San Francisco is that the city is always looking for more ways to use natural resources in their design. Local restaurant, Bar Tartine, is a good example of that.  

In my opinion, there’s nothing that shapes the “feeling” of a city more than its food and art, so once I’d filled up on the former, I went in search of the latter. While exploring Hayes Valley I quickly noticed the wooden temple standing proud in the middle of the park—it’s incredible. Designed by local artist David Best, the piece will stay in place for the next year, allowing members of the San Francisco community and visitors alike to write or draw on its ply-wood walls. City Art Gallery also caught my attention, featuring an eclectic group of artists with something for everyone (I fell in love with the vintage-plate illustrations from local artist, Maureen Shields). 

Being raised in Texas, I have a soft spot for Mexican food. At this point, salsa verde runs deep in my blood, so I got excited to find a spot in San Francisco doing something unique. Gracias Madre is some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and despite being vegan, the taste was just as bold and fresh as any traditional Mexican spot. 

It might sound odd, but one thing I really like to do when exploring a new city is finding a solid barber. Not only is it good to get a haircut, they typically have a lot of great suggestions on local spots worth checking out. I headed over to Fellow Barber for a quick trim while enjoying the vintage aesthetic of the spot. 

Depending on the city, transportation can make or break a trip. Personally, I enjoy traveling by bike when convenient as I find you get to see more of the “uncharted territory” this way. When I spotted SOSF Bike Tours, I gladly paid the rental fee, which was a fraction of the cost of taking taxis and a lot more fun. 

Visiting one hotel is fun, but two…well, you get the idea. That’s why I was excited that Booking.com made it so easy to hotel hop. I was able to find a new designer hotel and make a booking within five minutes, and the Grand Hyatt had just what I was looking for. 

Although I would have loved to extend my visit, the three-day getaway still gave me a boost of inspiration and energy to take back home. After discovering how easy it is to make a spontaneous trip like this happen, I’m personally sold on using Booking.com for all my travel needs. The biggest question is, where should I go next?

By Nathan Michael

By Nathan Michael

Nathan Michael is a Chicago-based lifestyle & travel photographer. He is the co-founder of BEEF Bureau + Popular Pays.

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1

Tour the Mission’s best murals

San Francisco’s tradition of public art (both oficially sanctioned and otherwise) has made the city one big canvas; the Mission District alone boasts over 90 documented murals and hundreds of others. Check out the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center to sign up for a tour or stock up on info before heading out on your own.

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2

Trade tokens for Thai brunch

Every Sunday, Berkeley-based Thai Buddhist temple Wat Mongkolratanaram hosts a communal-style Thai brunch. Fresh, steamy dishes such as pad thai, beef noodle soup, mango with sticky rice and coconut pancakes are served up to anyone who makes a donation; dollars are traded for tokens, which can then be exchanged for food. The weekly meal brings all types of residents and visitors together, and is a (most delicious) San Francisco rite of passage.

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3

Rock out(side) at Outside Lands

San Francisco's music event of the summer (and year), Outside Lands draws roughly 200,000 revelers over three days of music, food, comedy and art. This year's fest will take place from August 7 to 9, and its eclectic headliners include Wilco, Kendrick Lamar and Elton John, with supporting sets from the likes of St. Vincent, Caribou, Leon Bridges, Benjamin Booker and so many more. The sprawling Golden Gate Park proves a perfect setting, and gave the event its name: Back in the Gold Rush days, the area was marked on maps as part of the "great sand waste," or "Outside Lands." Today, it’s anything but.

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4

Roller skate in a church

Find your "rolligion" in the former house of worship that Church of 8 Wheels founder David Miles, Jr.—otherwise known as the Godfather of Skate—converted into a modern-day roller disco. Strap on some skates and totter around the rink's perimeter while the Holy Rollers, a groovy, costume-wearing group of regulars, twirl beneath the mirror ball. The spot hosts open skates four nights a week: the gay-frequented Rainbow Night on Tuesdays, old-school funk on Wednesdays, date night on Thursdays and Black Rock (Burner night) on Saturdays.

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5

Sing along to cinema classics

One of San Francisco's finest and best-loved repertory cinemas, the Castro Theatre was built in 1922 and became a registered landmark 55 years later. These days it's a dream space of classical murals and rare old film posters, with ceilings that shimmer with gold and films introduced to the strains of a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. The best events here are the theatre's singalongs, set to everything from musical classics like The Sound of Music, Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease to Disney hits like The Little Mermaid and Frozen. Subtitles are provided so you won't miss a word, and goody bags and costume contests always make it a party.

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6

Explore Oakland's Temescal Alley

A diverse, well-curated collection of unique and locally-owned specialty shops has sprung up along two pedestrian alleys in North Oakland's Temescal District, making it one of the city's hippest destinations. Peruse hand-made and vintage clothing, jewelry, books and home goods; or savor some freshly brewed coffee while getting a shave. The alleys are pet-friendly and full of amicable artisans, some of whom open up their workspaces to visitors. To name just a few of our favorite shops: Crimson Horticultural Rarities is a lush, urban nursery; Ali Golden sews bags and dresses while chatting with customers; Doughnut Dolly will fill a pastry with whatever your heart desires; Esqueleto offers nature-inspired jewelry and art; and Book/Shop are experts on the written word.

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7

Dig into some dim sum

San Francisco has the country’s largest Chinatown, and the compact enclave is packed with great places to eat. But the best Chinese restaurants are scattered all over the city, whether you’re looking for superior dim sum, seafood or fiery Hunan fare. Here in SF, it's easy to find eateries showcasing diverse cuisines of China that go far beyond the takeout carton cliché.

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8

See a pier's worth of photography

One of the best places in the country to see contemporary photography, Pier 24 provides a quiet, contemplative environment for viewing photographic works—the massive space is free but open by appointment only, which keeps attendance small at any given time. The giant venue houses the permanent collection of the Pilara Foundation, and offers self-guided two-hour tours. Call to set up your appointment in advance, and prepare to be awed by over 4,000 works spanning the history and international breadth of photographic art.

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9

Pick up some pirate supplies

We've never seen a more unique storefront than that of nonprofit youth writing center 826 Valencia (the brainchild of local lit-god Dave Eggers). The wood-paneled interior is fashioned after the belly of a ship, and ropes and flags dangle from the ceiling. You'll find a wealth of tongue-in-cheek pirate gear and paraphernalia for sale, including eye patches, gold coins and peg leg sizing charts (plus peg leg oil, for conditioning said prosthetic). The kids' classroom is in the back, where the organization hosts writing workshops, after-school programs and field trips. Don't miss the "fish theater," two plush seats and a glowing tank filled with colorful aquatic creatures hidden behind a red velvet curtain.

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10

Soak in a Russian bathhouse

Drawing on the ancient traditions of bathhouse cultures from Russia, Greece and Turkey, Archimedes Banya features private soaking tubs, heart-pounding plunge pools, saunas and a sun-kissed roof deck with neck-craning bay views. The bathhouse also offers services such as massages, body scrubs, wraps, facials and mineral baths, and there's even a bar and restaurant, Zteamer's, if all that soaking works up your appetite. Our favorite part about Archimedes is that it doesn't take itself too seriously—kitschy touches like a borscht and smoked-salmon menu, mosaic-laden columns and humorous ad campaigns make this a fun place to unwind. It's also open until midnight, and a basic, three-hour pass costs just $37.

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Top-rated hotels on Booking.com

Hyatt Regency San Francisco

Rated 8.1 on Booking.com

Don’t forget to look up when you check into this landmark hotel, which boasts the world’s largest atrium lobby. Rooms have a relaxed, polished feel, with floor-to-ceiling windows and plush lounge chairs—and for upper-tier guests, there’s access to the Regency Club Lounge, a penthouse space which offers free continental breakfast and snacks throughout the day. But dining in the atrium restaurant, Eclipse (attached to a sleek cocktail lounge) is nothing to miss, either, with market-fresh produce, Dungeness crab and sustainably-caught Ensenada fish tacos.

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Beresford Arms

Rated 7.7 on Booking.com

Entering the parlor-like lobby at this Victorian throwback, with its chandeliers and elegant arched windows, is like stepping into a Brontë sister novel. Luckily, its period charms are a stone’s throw from present-day amenities like Union Square, the Powell Street BART station and cable cars running up to Telegraph Hill. All guests are provided with a light continental breakfast, and there’s a free wine and tea reception every afternoon; additional perks include an English pub-style restaurant, free WiFi in select rooms, and suites with Jacuzzi tubs and wet bars. 

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The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

Rated 9.2 on Booking.com

This luxury retreat may be housed in a 1909 Neoclassical structure, but its minimal aesthetic and high-tech amenities scream 21st-century San Francisco. A classy silver-and-blue palette marks the rooms, which all feature 46-inch HD Smart TVs and Italian marble bathrooms with rainfall showerheads—at the top end, Presidential Suites even add Bang & Olufsen 10-speaker surround-sound systems. The 24-hour room service is operated by Parallel 37, a contemporary American eatery with a bar serving handcrafted cocktails; there’s also a full-service spa, gym and a business lounge. 

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Warwick San Francisco Hotel

Rated 8.4 on Booking.com

There’s something grand, yet undiscovered, about The Warwick, whose Beaux-Arts façade and mystical lobby murals are the handiwork of Arthur Brown Jr., the same early 20th-century architect responsible for City Hall, War Memorial Opera House and the obelisk-like Coit Tower. Brown’s ornate, linear aesthetic has been channeled in the bright, brass-and-wood-accented rooms (many with window benches) and suites with fireplaces and balconies overlooking Geary Street. In 2014, a new upscale dining concept, Aveline (along with an equally trendy cocktail bar), was unveiled, serving house-smoked salmon, raw opah with miso, and crab macarons.

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Club Donatello

Rated 8.7 on Booking.com

Standing tall over Post Street, a mere block from Union Square, The Donatello’s most appealing feature is found not inside, but outside the building: a breezy rooftop deck with potted plants and upholstered sun loungers offering prime views of the San Francisco skyline. Hungry? Try crab-stuffed ravioli, or traditional ossobuco di cinghiale, at the hotel’s northern Italian eatery, which also bills itself as a jazz club, offering live entertainment seven nights a week. There’s a hot tub and fitness room, too, and ultra-serviceable rooms are outfitted with microwaves, wet bars and minifridges.

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Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco

Rated 8.9 on Booking.com

Four Seasons’ penchant for muted tones and tucked-away dining spaces makes it a favorite for elite business travelers and couples, and this well-situated property is no exception. An art-filled lobby pays homage to the many nearby galleries and museums (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Museum of the African Diaspora, Asian Art Museum), and in the posh rooms and suites, floor-to-ceiling windows, soaking tubs and luxe glass-enclosed showers create mini havens inside the bustling city. Keep the pampering up at MKT Restaurant — Bar, whose dark leather banquettes and warm oak paneling evoke a modernized British country club, yet the fare remains pure west coast, with artisanal cheese plates, charred octopus, and steaks from local California ranches.

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Queen Anne

Rated 8.2 on Booking.com

In a city full of history-steeped hotels, this restored Victorian mansion stands out—originally built as a girls’ finishing school in the late 1800s, the legend goes that headmistress Miss Mary, who died shortly after the school opened, still haunts room 410 (though if we were a ghost, we’d happily linger here too; the antique-filled suites offer canopy beds and wood-burning fireplaces). The complimentary breakfast is generous, with hard-boiled eggs, sausage and pastry, and there’s a library with a fireplace for complimentary sherry receptions at the end of the day. Even better for Bay Area first-timers: a shuttle service whisks sightseeing guests to nearby city attractions (for free, of course) each morning.

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Kensington

Rated 8.3 on Booking.com

‘Cathedral, or hotel?’ you might wonder as you make your way up to this 1925 Gothic landmark, whose ornamented façade is replete with double-height stone arches, and whose lobby contains hand-painted ceilings. In fact, the church-like foyer is so prized, the hotel encourages guests to linger over complimentary tea and sherry in the evenings. Mahogany-accented rooms add a Parisian flair, with white carved wood mirrors and tufted headboards—in addition to basic amenities like coffeemakers, iPod docking stations and 36-inch flat-screens. Also on offer: an acclaimed seafood restaurant, Farallon, with suspended jellyfish lamps and rose-white domed ceilings that make you feel like you’re inside a conch shell. 

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Hotel Drisco

Rated 9.5 on Booking.com

There’s no such thing as being too spoiled by a hotel, though Hotel Drisco certainly tries. Each morning, a free chauffeur service offers one-way trips to Union Square and the Presidio. If you’re a snacker, this hotel has got you covered—bagels, fresh fruit and Illy cappuccino are part of the daily continental breakfast spread (weekends add smoked salmon and brie), and the rate also includes afternoon tea (with biscotti), and a nightly wine and cheese reception. Still not sated? Rooms service is available 24 hours a day—the same attendants will even deliver up extra pillows chosen from the in-room “pillow menu.” Work off all that munching in the hotel’s 24-hour gym, or rent a bike (free) and cruise straight into the famous oceanfront Presidio park for unobstructed Golden Gate views. 

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St Regis San Francisco

Rated 9.2 on Booking.com

Standard brand perks like around-the-clock butler service, a destination spa, and an evening sabering ritual (as in, a champagne bottle elaborately “uncorked” by slicing off the top with a sharpened blade) make the St. Regis an obvious pick for celebratory sojourns. Light, airy rooms add to that elevated mood with chic Barcelona benches, leather walls and Bella Crema marble fixtures; there are even shuttered windows separating the bedroom from the bathroom, for that elusive luxury: privacy. Corner suites, some of the ritziest in the city, bring the San Francisco skyline to life with movie screen-worthy views. Minimal-chic restaurant Ame serves limited edition sakes and sashimi, while the greenhouse-inspired Vitrine dining room focuses on croque monsieur, beef cheeks, and veggies from the hotel’s organic garden.

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