To many visitors, and even some San Franciscans, the Richmond and Sunset districts are largely unexplored areas that sandwich Golden Gate Park. Less flashy and more foggy—for some, this is the real San Francisco. Bordering the northern flank of Golden Gate Park, from roughly Masonic Avenue to the Pacific Ocean, the largely residential Richmond District is a cultural melting pot of Asian, Russian and Irish communities. Once a sandy wasteland, the region was developed after the construction of the Geary Boulevard tramway in 1906. Eastern European Jews formed a strong community after World War I, and many of their synagogues and delicatessens still thrive.
Clement Street, the district’s primary commercial corridor, stretches from 2nd Avenue all the way to 34th Avenue, and the area between Arguello and Park Presidio boulevards arguably offers a more accessible Chinatown than the more famous one downtown. Coastline-hugging Lincoln Park contains a spectacular golf course that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the California Palace of the Legion of Honor fine arts museum, a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris, built by George Applegarth in 1924 to honor California soldiers who died in World War I. A number of hiking trails branch off from here and meander along the spectacular cliffs at Land’s End.
South of Golden Gate Park, the Sunset District mirrors the Richmond in terms of its Irish and sand-dune origins, but stretches of the Inner Sunset, especially the quadrants around Irving Street and 9th Avenue and Judah from 45th Avenue to the Ocean, are rapidly turning into hipster hamlets, with trendy restaurants, bakeries and boutiques. The Sunset’s main attraction, however, is way out west where the turf meets the surf. Thin, sandy Ocean Beach is a good spot for a contemplative wander to watch surfers battle strong rip tides and chilly waters. Fort Funston, a large, natural dune area on the southwest edge of the city, is a favorite place for dog walkers and hang gliders. Just down the road, the San Francisco Zoo borders picturesque Lake Merced, encircled by biking and jogging paths.
Things to do in Sunset, Golden Gate Park and Richmond
Foggy Outer Richmond is home to a small shopping district on Balboa Street that lays claim to this great local cinema. Opened in 1926 and designed by the Reid Bros., whose other iconic San Francisco creations include the original Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel, this cozy movie house screens everything from new releases, second-run films, indie and classic noir double-features.
The opening in 2008 of the redesigned Academy marked the debut of the world's “greenest” museum and put San Francisco firmly on the world science museum map—it's the only such institution to combine an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and scientific research program under one roof. The complex is anchored by a four-story rainforest dome that's home to flitting butterflies and birds, and a “living roof” that features some 1.7 million native plant species. In between is the Steinhart Aquarium with the world's deepest living coral reef display, an Amazonian “flooded forest” viewed via an acrylic tunnel, the all-digital Morrison Planetarium, a live penguin habitat, an African Hall with lifesize dioramas of lions and gazelles, and a swamp featuring Claude, the albino alligator. As opposed to most museum fare, the Academy's dining options are first-rate: The Academy Cafe offers a half-dozen organic, sustainable ethnic food stations; the Moss Room is a proper, fancy sit-down restaurant with a dripping moss wall.
For a California Academy of Sciences Nightlife, click here.
San Francisco's most seductively situated museum, the Legion is set on ocean bluffs at Land's End with sweeping views of the Golden Gate. The neoclassical museum is a three-quarter-scale adaptation of the 18th-century Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris, built in 1924 as a memorial to the Californians who died in World War I. A cast of Rodin's The Thinker dominates the entrance; the French sculptor was the personal passion of Alma Spreckels, the museum's founder, and the collection of his work here is second only to that of the Musée Rodin in Paris. A glass pyramid in the courtyard acts as a skylight for galleries containing more than 87,000 works of art, spanning 4,000 years, but with emphasis on European painting and decorative art (El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet). An expanded garden level houses temporary exhibitions, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts and the Bowles Collection of porcelain.
The most prominent feature of this futuristic-primitive building is the massive perforated copper tower that emerges from the surrounding canopy of trees, making all those who approach from the 9th Avenue entrance to Golden Gate Park feel like the vanguard of an expedition that's just stumbled across an abandoned mothership. The effect is at once overwhelming and electrifying. Inside, however, the exterior walls take a backseat to the impressive and vast collections of art. The de Young holdings include some 27,000 paintings, sculptures, objects, crafts and textiles from Africa, Oceania and the Americas dating from the 17th to 20th centuries. Rotating exhibitions cover a wide swath—everything from the treasures of King Tut and the Impressionists to Edward Hopper and Keith Haring. There's also an excellent store and café with large outdoor seating areas in a sculpture garden. The observation tower with commanding views over the park is worth the trip alone; the courtyard, café, store, sculpture garden and tower can be entered without paying admission.
The three-acre African Savanna, Grizzly Gulch, a children's petting zoo, a gorilla preserve, and the expansive Lemur Forest are among the highlights of the zoo, where more than 1,000 species of mammals and birds make their home. Spread across 100 acres across from the Pacific Ocean, the zoo features environments from around the world, including an Australian Walkabout with kangaroos and emus, Sumatran and Siberian tigers, and Amazonian anacondas. Don't miss the thoroughly entertaining meerkat habitat, the insect zoo, with its tarantulas and giant hissing cockroaches, and the Little Puffer Train. Combine your visit with a walk along Ocean Beach and maybe lunch at the Beach Chalet or Louis' Diner.
San Francisco's collective backyard, Golden Gate Park stretches for three miles between Haight-Ashbury and the Pacific Ocean and encompasses 1,017 acres of gardens, walking paths, lakes, recreation fields, museums, a Japanese tea garden, and innumerable areas for music events and recreational sports. The 1878 Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest building in the park and the oldest Victorian glass greenhouse in the Western Hemisphere. The Koret Children's Quarter, built in 1887, is the oldest municipal children's playground in the country, revamped a few years ago into a state-of-the-art play park. The de Young Fine Arts Museum and the California Academy of Sciences anchor the quadrant between 9th Ave. and John F. Kennedy Drive, where on Sundays the main drive is closed to cars and strollers, bicyclists and rollerskaters take over the streets. At the western edge of the park where it meets the Pacific, the popular Beach Chalet and Park Chalet are great destination dining spots offering spectacular ocean views, house-brewed ales, and local fare.
Restaurants and bars in Sunset, Golden Gate Park and Richmond
Aziza is the perfect marriage of Moroccan flavors with Northern California ingredients, suffering from none of the clichés of either. With a Michelin star and an Iron Chef championship under his belt, chef-owner Mourad Lahlou has risen to the ranks of the city's elite, but Aziza remains firmly grounded, turning out dishes such as branzino with eggplant, mustard greens and peppers, and short ribs with carrot jam, mustard soubric and dates that continue to surprise and delight. A destination in its own right, the bar serves cocktails made with hand-muddled herbs, fruits and vegetables and imaginative combinations such as reposado tequila with wild arugula and turmeric root.
This small, wildly popular eatery falls geographically and gastronomically somewhere between Thailand and India, sharing ingredients and spices with both, but interpreting them in uniquely Burmese ways. Lines start forming a half-hour before opening for house specialties such as tea leaf salad, a deliciously crunchy combo of dried tea leaves, fried yellow beans and garlic, sesame seeds, tomatoes and dried shrimp; samusa soup; and pumpkin pork stew slow-cooked with kabocha squash and ginger. Expect a wait at this no-reservations spot—the best bet for immediate seating is to get there at 5pm for dinner.
A offshoot of the popular, acclaimed NoPa restaurant, Nopalito offers authentic, from-scratch Mexican cooking made with local, sustainable and organic ingredients. This is the antithesis of slapped-together street food. Dishes are carefully composed with subtle flavors to create deliciously complex interpretations of traditional Mexican meals: Carnitas is slow-cooked and braised in orange, bay leaf, milk, cinnamon and beer; Mole Coloradito con Pollo is made with toasted chiles, almonds, Ibarra chocolate, dried plums and a huge array of spices. Don't miss any version of tangy, tender nopales (cactus leaves), frequently on the menu in the form of tamales or in dishes such as Queso Flameado con Chorizo y Nopales (flamed Oaxacan and jack cheese with grilled cactus and chorizo).
Deep in the Outer Sunset district, a sleepy haven for resident surfers and fog lovers, Outerlands has sparked a cultural renaissance in what has long been a culinary backwater. Amid salvaged fence-wood walls, crocheted afghans, beer in mason jars, and the Pavlovian scent of simmering soups and baking bread, diners tuck into dishes like fennel a la plancha in mussel vinaigrette, pressed roast chicken, and cast-iron-grilled cheese sandwiches made with heavenly house-baked bread. A recent expansion and a new chef have only enhanced the cozy and convivial scene. At brunch, don't miss Dutch pancakes baked in a cast-iron skillet, or “eggs in jail”—hollowed-out housemade levain toast with eggs fried in the hole—and the array of delectable pastries.
With a menu of more than 50 items (not including the daily specials), Marnee Thai offers a deep dive into regional Thai cuisine. Chef Chai Siriyarn's menu focuses mainly on Siamese cuisine from Central Thailand, but he also covers specialties from the north and south, including turmeric- and ginger-seasoned noodle curries and Indonesian-style chicken satay. Local favorites include green papaya salad, Tom Ka Gai (sour-spicy coconut chicken soup), Hor Mok (steamed snapper in curry mousse with cabbage in a banana leaf bowl), pad Thai, and curry dishes. If it's on the menu, don't miss the morning glory—like a delicate spinach green—sautéed in soy bean and garlic sauce.
This Inner Sunset stalwart has been going strong for more than 30 years—a locals favorite for creative sushi and festive atmosphere. The inevitable wait for a table passes quickly with a drink from the bar. Then settle in for signature elaborate specialty rolls such as the Caterpillar (eel, cucumber, avocado), Behind the Green Door (skipjack, shrimp tempura, Maui onions, tobiko), and whatever the chef is concocting as a nightly special. Those who don't want sushi won't be disappointed; there's a good selection of cooked items from teriyaki and tempura to sukiyaki.
Locals sometimes overlook this attractive, traditional Thai restaurant, which has anchored the Outer Richmond dining scene for decades. But it should be considered by anyone looking for an authentic experience. Slip off your shoes, sit on a low bench (with a padded back support) and enjoy fiery, colorful curries, excellent pad thai and noodle dishes, and specialties such as Saam Kasart, spicy beef, chicken and pork sautéed with young bamboo shoots in a secret berry sauce. At $25, the Thai Royal Dinner, which includes appetizer, soup, salad, two entrees and dessert, is a bona fide bargain.
Ton Kiang is a longtime local fixture for dim sum, invariably packed and noisy, especially during peak hours (10am–3pm). Dining rooms on two floors fill up mid-morning with extended families, neighborhood regulars, weekend brunchers, and adventurous tourists all clamoring to get the attention of the ladies rolling around carts of steamed and fried Chinese dumplings, glistening roast duck, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, clay pot stews and sweet egg custard tarts. For novices, the best strategy is to ignore the menu and just point at what looks and smells tasty. Don't miss the Shanghai dumplings, filled with meat and a shot of hot soup, or the crab claws stuffed with shrimp. And save room for a Chinese doughnuts—deep-fried chewy puffs rolled in sugar.
Shopping in Sunset, Golden Gate Park and Richmond
Green Apple Books was founded in 1967 as a 750-square-foot used-book nook. Since then, it has steadily upsized, taking over several storefronts on a block of the misty Inner Richmond surrounded by Chinese restaurants and grocers. One bi-level storefront houses all new books, including an excellent section of staff picks and quirky categorizing designations. (“Lowbrow,” reads one.) Head upstairs to browse an assortment of board games, journals, stationery and novelty gifts. Two doors down, the used-book arm of Green Apple is a little quieter, inviting lingering. The well-appointed shelves are lined with dusty tomes—hardcover and paperback, popular and rare—and the aisles are moodily illuminated by skylights. Finds might range from antique classics and rare first editions to 1960s-era comic books and graphic novels. In 1996, Green Apple took over its financially strapped neighbor, Revolver Records, knocked down a wall, and turned the shop room into a section for new and used records, CDs and DVDs.
There are two Mixed Nuts—the more recent one is a nook in Hayes Valley—but the original Outer Richmond location is the larger and the better stocked. The spot is off the beaten path, to be sure; this area is better known for ethnic restaurants than retail stores. The upside, however, is that even on weekends you're likely to be the lone browser among the makeshift aisles. One of the store's three owners, Jon Rolston, owns a hauling business, and keeps Mixed Nuts stocked with treasures from the '40s to the '60s through his day job and obsessive garage-sale scouring. The trio shares a passion for iconic seating, and dozens of Henry Miller and Eames chairs line floor-to-ceiling shelves spanning one wall of the store. The facing shelves contain dated ephemera with an industrial slant: electric fans, desk lamps, aluminum signage, globes, cameras and more. Postcards and pins sell for $1 apiece, while collectible designer chairs and dining tables can run into the thousands.
This 1,400-square-foot store and gallery is a champion of emerging artists and clever design. The colorful wares are spread across large central tables stocked with books, and dozens of posters and prints cover the walls. The store's curated stash includes playful office accessories and housewares from Japan, Germany and Scandinavia, jewelry and other wearable art, T-shirts and stationery. Park Life maintains a time-stealing display of art, photography, and design books, including a handful of rare, out-of-print books and exhibition catalogs. Co-owner Jaime Alexander curates ten exhibitions per year in the gallery in back; she also serves on the board of the Headlands Center for the Arts. The shows typically coincide with the introduction of spin-off T-shirts, skate decks or prints in the store, created in collaboration with the featured painter or illustrator. Previous notables include artists like Jason Polan, David Shrigley, Tucker Nichols and Ian Johnson. More recently, Alexander added a sister outpost in the Mission.
Crossroads may be a national consignment chain, but the Bay Area is its hub: It boasts four shops in the city proper and two more in the East Bay. The “recycled” fashion is gently used, with most prices ranging from $10 to $50. Though there are plenty of fast fashion discards from Forever 21 and H&M, you'll also find designer duds in the mix. The clothes are loosely sorted by type: jeans, tops, pants, skirts and jackets. (The denim section, in particular, yields some steals.) This isn't a fashion graveyard, by any means. The store's staff buys with an eye for seasonal trends.