So says a wise cabdriver at the end of a perfect weekend in this international city. With a population of 808,850, San Francisco is relatively small but mighty: The entire city is just about 7 by 7 miles square, but its colorful history—from the Gold Rush to the dot-com boom (and bust), from gay pride to the green movement—is written all over the place, in multiple languages.
Walk even a few blocks here (it's the best way to get around) and dozens of foreign accents hum together in an energetic buzz, melding with the whirring of passing bicycles and the clanging bells from cable cars riding up those famously steep urban hills. Beyond the city are steeper hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean to the west. Across the bay to the east are neighbors—Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda—that celebrate the city's spirit with gorgeous campuses and tree-lined communities. And to the northeast are miles and miles of wine country, beckoning with Tuscan-like beauty.
Living in urban bliss isn't cheap, but visiting can be. The diversity in San Francisco's culture lends itself to a range of dining and cultural options—from Ethiopian to Burmese—that cater to just about every budget. Entertainment is as varied as the people who live here: ballet, karaoke, fashion shows, protests. Gorgeous (albeit sometimes chilly) weather encourages numerous (free) outdoor activities: hiking, biking, climbing, surfing, sailing ... the list goes on and on.
If all else fails, there is always that age-old pastime perfected by generations of Californians: chilling out.
Here's our Whirlwind Weekend in San Francisco.
FridayUnion Square, the city's pedestrian-friendly shopping hub, makes a great base from which to explore, because it's intersected by several major bus and cable-car lines and lies just north of the Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. Recommended: The Mosser (54 4th St.; 800-227-3804; www.themosser.com), a five-minute walk southeast of Union Square. A 1913 Victorian hotel, it offers affordable, recently renovated charm. If you're on a serious budget, consider booking one of the shared-bath rooms (from $79). Mine was tiny but tidy, featured an in-room hand sink and came with a comfy robe. Another prime-location budget spot: Hotel Stratford (242 Powell St.; 415-397-7080; www.hotelstratford.com), one block south of Union Square. Club rooms, which feature flat-screen televisions, robes and free Wi-Fi (from $99), are a good catch; no-frills standard rooms (from $85) are a bargain. Customer service doesn't seem to be a priority here, but booking online saves some of the hassle.
Once you're settled in, head out. Immerse yourself in San Francisco's affordable international culture by heading into the heart of Japantown. From Union Square, ride the 38 Geary bus west to Buchanan Street, where Peace Plaza and Japan Center mark the center of the 'hood. Forget Benihana (although that's here too): Tucked into a small corner of Japan Center is Kushi Tsuru (1680 Post St.; 415-922-9902), where mouthwatering nasu dengaku (Japanese eggplants broiled in miso), fairly priced sushi and bento boxes line the Japanese-English menu. Go easy on the Sapporos: tomorrow's a big day.
SaturdayStart with a hearty breakfast at Mama's On Washington Square (1701 Stockton St.; 415-362-6241; www.mamas-sf.com). It's an incredibly steep 20-minute walk if you head from Union Square straight up Stockton Street, but you will be rewarded with the best eggs Florentine you've ever had. Be prepared to stand in line for a long time, no matter how early you get there, and remember: Good things come to those who wait.
Work off your breakfast with a short hike up the honeysuckle-laden Filbert Steps to Coit Tower the 210-foot Art Deco pillar overlooking the residential Telegraph Hill neighborhood below it, with views of San Francisco Bay to the east and the Golden Gate Bridge to the northwest. For $4.50 you can ride in a claustrophobic elevator to the observation deck, but the view from the hill is just as nice from the pine- and eucalyptus-shaded grounds.
Telegraph Hill descends into North Beach, known for its deeply rooted Italian culture. The whole neighborhood smells of cappuccino. There are independent coffeehouses on every other corner; there are authentic family-style and upscale Italian eateries and dusty old mom-and-pop bookstores. The most famous of these is City Lights (261 Columbus Ave.; 415-362-8193; www.citylights.com), founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti as the country's first all-paperback bookshop. Today the store's late-night hours and cozy stacks make for a homey rendezvous point.
Grab a slice at North Beach Pizza (1499 Grant Ave.; 415-433-2444; www.northbeachpizza.com), an easy walk from both Coit Tower and City Lights. The dark wood booths and picture windows of this decades-old local favorite foster a cozy dining experience, and the amazing scents wafting from the large oven in the front room seal the deal.
Wander from North Beach south to Chinatown via Grant Avenue, lined with Chinese grocers, bird and fish markets, restaurants, retail outlets, salons and makeshift shrines. Everything is painted red; everything is on sale. Make a small detour to tiny Ross Alley, home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co. (56 Ross Alley; 415-781-3956). Since 1962, the tiny factory has produced millions of fortune cookies (regular and chocolate), almond and sesame cookies, and extremely popular "adult" fortune cookies. Ahem.
If the aromas from Chinatown's hundreds of restaurants haven't lured you to a dinner joint by now, wander a little longer—they will. The biggest crowd lines up outside House of Nan King (919 Kearny St.; 415-421-1429), on the eastern periphery of Chinatown and up the street from the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Nan King features a full English menu, but when chef-owner Peter Fang visits your table (and he will), follow his lead and let him choose for you. Everything is delicious, affordable and speedily delivered, making up for the sometimes lengthy wait.
If you're up for a nightcap, head up Columbus Avenue to Vesuvio Cafe (255 Columbus Ave.; 415-362-3370; www.vesuvio.com), a cozy saloon that neighbors City Lights and shares its beatnik history. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, who appear as the loosely fictionalized road-tripping heroes in Kerouac's classic "On the Road," put away a few drinks here back in the day.
SundayIt's a bit of a hike to Home Plate (2274 Lombard St.; 415-922-4663), so it's worth catching a cab to the no-nonsense chow joint in Cow Hollow, near the Marina District. Ten tables seat local folks who are just as happy with expertly cooked huevos rancheros as Denver omelets, but the real treat is Home Plate's Cured Salmon Benedict. Everything is served with a homemade scone and apple butter—amazing.
Next stop: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco's whopping 3-mile-long wonder spanning the west side of the city from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to the Pacific Ocean. There is a lot to see here, and it's incredibly varied—from the picturesque rose garden to a bison paddock and fly-fishing pools. Where to begin? Try the Japanese Tea Garden (415-752-1171; www.holymtn.com; admission $4), adorned with pagodas and koi ponds and serving tea daily. Weekend tram service makes exploring other corners of the park fairly easy.
If you make it to the park's western border, it's worth walking a few blocks farther northwest up the coast. Here you'll find the ruins of the Sutro Baths (www.sutrobaths.com), which reigned as the world's largest indoor swimming pool establishment until a fire destroyed the structure in 1966. Mossy skeletons of the foundation remain protected by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and trails have been dug into the surrounding grounds, making for bizarre and beautiful seaside explorations in fair weather. When it's time to return to reality, the 38 Geary bus bound for Union Square is just up the hill on 48th Avenue.
After a quick rest, get a taste of the Bay Area's wine country courtesy of the Alameda-Oakland Ferry ( www.eastbayferry.com). Pick up some lunch on the way at teensy Cafe Dolci (740 Market St.; 415-392-9222), whose $5.75 Vietnamese baguette sandwich combo is a no-brainer. Those with a sweet tooth may want to stop at Beard Papa's (68 4th St.; 415-978-9972; www.beardpapasf.com), the city's resident cream puff specialist. Continue northeast (on foot, of course) to the beautifully restored 1898 Beaux Arts Ferry Building (1 Ferry Building; 415-693-0996; www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com), which reopened in 2003 to house ticketing offices for commuter ferries, as well as gourmet grocers and eateries.
The ferry ride to Alameda ($12.50 round trip) is 20 minutes, just long enough of a journey to offer a few scenic views over lunch. Hop off the ferry at Alameda, cross the parking lot and you're in urban wine country: Alameda's Rosenblum Cellars (2900 Main St., #1100; 510-865-7007; www.rosenblumcellars.com) is the closest winery to San Francisco—perfect for oenophiles who don't have the time (or wheels) to trek to Napa and back. A return ferry departs for the Ferry Building 90 minutes after dropoff, which is just long enough for a tasting and schooling before heading back into the city for dinner.
For one last eclectic, ethnic meal, take the 6, 7 or 71 bus west down Haight to Hayes Valley, where Axum Cafe (698 Haight St.; 415-252-7912; www.axumcafe.com) offers Ethiopian on the cheap. Vegetarian entrees start at $7, and the place serves Ethiopian beer as well as traditional tej (honey wine). Head home with a full belly, or wander the colorful neighborhood for a sweet treat to get your fill before bidding farewell to the City by the Bay.