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15 San Francisco hacks to make your life easier

Written by
Bonnie Wach

Foggy, sunny, expensive, free-spirited, inspiring, infuriating—living in San Francisco has as many ups and downs as the city’s 43 hills. Your first year after moving here is full of new experiences—finding your preferred spot for single-origin espresso, for example, and learning to keep a tote bag with you at all times. After a few more years, you're able to tick off most San Francisco rites of passage. Now that you’ve mastered the basics, take these tips accumulated over decades of living here and you’ll soon be navigating the streets of San Francisco like a pro.

Getting around

1. Waze your way through downtown
San Francisco’s labyrinth of one-way streets and rush hour logjams can be a motorized Sisyphean hell. The Waze traffic app helps you avoid the worst snarls by using crowd-sourced real-time data to map the route with the least traffic. Waze can also direct you to the cheapest gas station along the way (no small thing considering SF gas prices are among the highest in the nation).  

2. Park like a boss
Street parking anywhere in this city can be challenging, but around Fisherman’s Wharf and AT&T Park, it’s an Olympic event. If you can find a legal meter, it’s likely to cost you upwards of $5 to $7 an hour—which still beats the $76 expired meter ticket. You can avoid the latter at least using PayByPhone app, which lets you add time to the meter from your cell phone and will also alert you when your time’s expiring. SFpark, run by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, uses real-time data to help you find open spaces and adjusts meter and garage prices during peak times to help reduce congestion in overused areas.

3. Avoid cable car lines
Riding the cable cars is a San Francisco rite of passage, but standing in line for two hours at the Powell/Market terminus is a total buzzkill. Walk a few blocks up Powell or Hyde Street and you can catch a cable car anywhere along its route, usually with no waiting. Just look for the brown-and-white cable car stop signs. Another tip: Your Clipper Card gives you unlimited monthly rides on buses, streetcars, and cable cars ($68, $23 seniors/youths)—not a bad deal given that a one-way cable car fare is $6.

Eating and drinking

4. Reserve a smoking-hot table
Reserving a table at an “it” restaurant is practically a competitive sport in San Francisco, with tech-savvy foodies finding new and ingenious ways to rig the odds on OpenTable at places like State Bird Provisions. If you aren’t a programmer from MIT, we offer these practical suggestions: 1) Be flexible—if time is not of the essence, it’s way easier to get in at 5:30pm or after 9pm. 2) Sit at the bar—even perennially packed places like Nopa and Cotogna offer no-reserve seating at the bar. 3) Chance it—hotspots such as Flour + Water and Slanted Door hold a decent percentage of tables for walk-ins. Get there before 6pm and your odds improve even more. 4) Try lunch—a good number of top restaurants, including Zuni Café, Boulevard, and Alta CA—are open for the midday meal, and you often don’t need a reservation. 

5. Wait better at Burma Superstar
Burma Superstar, the no-reservations Burmese restaurant in the Richmond District, is as famous for its epic waits as it is for tea leaf salad and pumpkin pork stew. A recently opened spinoff in the Mission District (Burma Love, 211 Valencia St between Clinton Park and Duboce Ave) has hopefully thinned the crowds a bit, but we wouldn’t count on it. The key is to put your name on the list, add your cell number, and the restaurant will call you when a table becomes available. Then walk across the street and grab a pint at the Plough and Stars. We’ve also had luck calling the not-so-secret phone at the host stand (415-350-7117) in advance to get our name on the list.

6. Get takeout at Tony’s or try Il Casaro
As the first American to win the World Champion Pizza Maker title in Naples, Tony Gemingnani has undoubtedly earned the sometimes two-hour-plus waits at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. But if you’re too hungry to wait, we suggest going next door for Tony’s takeout at the Slice House. True, you won’t get to watch your pizza emerge blistering from the 1,000-degree coal-fired oven, but it will still taste damn good (just don’t wait until you get home to eat it). A fantastic no-wait alternative in North Beach is Il Casaro, which produces equally exquisitely thin and blistered Neapolitan-style pizzas and panuozzo, a heavenly stuffed sandwich made with pizza dough.

7. Go gourmet at AT&T Park
Garlic fries and Cha Cha Bowls may be old news to Giants fans, but did you know you could also get eggplant panini, fresh sushi and sashimi, grilled crab sandwiches, and pizzas topped with basil picked fresh from an on-site hydroponic garden? To try these ballpark treats, head (in order) to: Giuseppe Bazurro, Mashi’s Sushi Bistro (both club level), Crazy Crab’z, and the Edible Garden (both center field). Other under-the-radar favorites: California Cookout’s ahi tuna sandwiches (promenade level), the Doghouse’s Bangkok hot dogs topped with pickled cucumber, daikon, red onion, jalapeño, cilantro and sriracha (club level), Edsel Ford Fong’s beef and broccoli bowl (center field), and the Anchor Steam taproom behind the center-field scoreboard. If none of these options appeal, BYO—AT&T allows outside food (just no alcohol).

8. Find your food truck
Food trucks are everywhere, all the time these days, but sometimes any old breaded chicken schnitzel topped with caraway-paprika honey, chopped liver, horseradish aioli, and cabbage slaw won’t do. That’s when you turn to Roaming Hunger, a website/app that locates all your favorite food trucks for you. Search for trucks using the map or by list of vendors. If nothing comes up on the map, click on the truck name for their Twitter feed.

9. Discover a secret sky-view lounge
Rooftop bars and sky-view lounges are a dying breed in San Francisco. The famed few that remain—Top of the Mark, Starlight Room, the View—make up for it with hefty cover and cocktail prices. Opened in 1946, the Marines Memorial Club (609 Sutter St at Mason St) is dedicated to the U.S. Marines who served in the Pacific during World War II. Slip up to the top floor of the hotel/club to discover the Leatherneck Steakhouse & Lounge. Here you can sip a strong cocktail in the company of gents in suit jackets reminiscing about their war years while gazing over the city skyline and listening to piano man Jerome tickle the ivories. The best part: There’s no cover, and the drinks are downright cheap (especially during the 4–6pm happy hour).

10. Devour cheap Dungeness
Fresh Dungeness crab is one of the joys of winter, but if you want to avoid paying premium Fisherman’s Wharf or fancy market prices, you need to head to Sun Fat Seafood Co. in the Mission. The unassuming market offers great prices on a huge variety of fresh seafood and shellfish, including 12–15 varieties of oysters, mussels, salmon, sushi-grade fish and fresh-caught Dungeness.

City living

11. Get a free culture fix
Culture comes at a price, but not on the first Tuesday of every month when the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor offer free admission, and the Cartoon Art Museum is “pay what you wish.”

12. Avoid the crowds at Hardly Strictly
Increase your odds of snagging a parking space during this free three-day celebration of bluegrass and acoustic music. Option 1: Head up the little driveway off John F. Kennedy Drive to Stow Lake and drive around to the east side. Option 2: Drive down the Great Highway and park at the beach, then walk up to the Towers of Gold Stage—always less crowded and arguably more musically interesting than the main Banjo Stage.

13. Stop in for a show at Amoeba
While the decade of free love (and free music) is long over, Amoeba Music has stayed in the groove, bringing a whole slate of free live shows, DJ sets, and events to its Haight-Ashbury store. Performances include the likes of Lana Del Rey, Milo Greene, Elvis Costello and the Black Keys.

14. Bone up on history on a City Guides tour
One of the best ways to get a handle on local history is on a free City Guides tour, led by local volunteers through the SF Public Library. Guides offer six to 12 tours daily ranging from Pacific Heights mansions to Russian Hill stairways and Alfred Hitchcock film locations.

15. Get a sneaky peek of the game
Want to watch the world champion San Francisco Giants play ball without ponying up for a ticket? Stroll over to McCovey Cove and catch a few innings through AT&T Park’s outfield windows below the bleachers along the waterfront promenade.

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