I lived in San Francisco for 15 years and moved away in 2021. Whenever I tell that to people, their first reaction is inevitably along the lines of, “Geez, isn’t it sad what has happened to San Francisco?”
Yes, some sad things have happened in San Francisco. There are too many homeless people. There are too many people doing drugs on the streets—and dying from fentanyl. There is too much crime. And, finally, the remote work phenomenon that started with the pandemic has hit San Francisco probably harder than anywhere, resulting in a downtown that can feel like a ghost town in parts.
So, what does that mean for a visitor?
First of all, fewer other visitors. Hotels are cheaper. It is easier to get into restaurants. The ugly San Francisco headlines have negatively affected San Francisco tourism. Though, truth be told, travelers are coming back. SF Travel says the number of visitors in 2023 is expected to be down only 11 percent from 2019 levels (after being down 55 percent in 2020). But while the price of hotel rooms has skyrocketed across most of the country, the average daily hotel room in SF is 10 percent less than what it was in 2019.
Do cheaper rates matter if you are going to have an unpleasant experience? No, but based on my trip this August, for visitors who know about San Francisco, I think it is a great time to visit.
My friends and I were all pleasantly surprised with how clean the city appeared and how the homelessness was not as widespread as we had been led to believe. Yes, the Financial District was quiet, and there were a lot of closed storefronts. But it was clean and pleasant and the neighborhoods were vibrant.
A day exploring the city
On my first day, I walked from the classic Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, where I was staying, to the Financial District for a coffee. It was definitely quieter, without the tens of thousands of commuters who used to drive, train, or ferry into the city every day for the old 9 to 5. There were many storefronts that were empty or closed, a natural consequence of the loss of workers. But the area was clean. It’s clear there has been a major effort to clean up downtown, and there were signs of new activity popping up. There were a number of yellow-jacketed people out and about. I later discovered that they are hired by the city to supplement the police force as part of a program to provide an enhanced public safety presence in a number of areas of the city.
After coffee, I went for a run on the Embarcadero. It’s a fine spot for exercising, with the beautiful bay on one side and the city on the other, no stops—and not a hill to climb. It’s flat the entire way. And the pièce de résistance, the SF weather is the best in the country for running. Not too hot and not too cold. It was 68 degrees, and I was happy— well, as happy as I can be running. I rewarded myself with a delicious lunch at one of my old favorites, Hog Island Oyster Co. on the patio of the Ferry Building overlooking the bay. I had a half dozen Tomales Bay Pacific oysters and an avocado, corn, and tomato salad. In two bites, I remembered that farm-to-table cuisine in Northern California is very hard to beat.
Later that day, a friend and I walked to North Beach and had a great dinner at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Even though I now live in New York, which is known for its pizza, I still pine for the pizza at Tony’s. After dinner, we stopped at a nearby dispensary (when in Rome . . . ) and headed to Washington Square to sit and enjoy the evening. San Franciscans love their parks. A considerate person had brought their sound system and was playing tunes at a nice volume; there were dozens of locals relaxing on the lawn, playing games, and looking totally happy with life.
Foggy evenings and buzzy restaurants
Later in the week, a friend and I biked to the Marina neighborhood for some wine and then continued to the new Tunnel Tops Park between the Presidio and Crissy Field on the bay, with glorious views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog came in. I’m a big fan of fog. There may not be a lot of us fog fans in the world, but if you are, SF in the summer is a dream. We met some friends (properly attired in layers to deal with any weather), sipped wine, and watched the evening end. We finished with dinner at the buzzy new Turkish–Middle Eastern restaurant Dalida in the Presidio. Yes, San Francisco still buzzes. And chefs Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz are definitely making Dalida worth the buzz. I’m still dreaming about the kayseri mantisi: butter-roasted lamb dumplings in a garlic, yogurt, and tomato sauce.
On two evenings I had dinner with friends who live in the city. I asked them questions that mostly got me quizzical looks:
“How is life in SF?”
“What do you think? We are sitting here [insert setting], having a great time, enjoying the weather, the scenery, the people, the food, the wine, and the everything else that is San Francisco, and you’re asking what is it like?”
“What about the headlines?”
“What about the headlines?”
“Well, they make the city sound like Armageddon.”
“Do you think the press might exaggerate?”
My final day I walked through Union Square, which was quieter that it used to be but still active. Most stores had someone staffed at the front to make sure not just anyone came through their doors. But honestly it didn’t look like those screeners had much to do. I walked by the site where a friend is opening two new luxury watch stores (Patek Phillipe and Rolex) early next spring. He thinks betting on San Francisco to recover is not a particularly risky bet—and in fact thinks it will be better than ever. From there, I walked to another old favorite, Zuni Café on Market Street, for lunch. More oysters, a salad, salmon, and some white wine. I was definitely enjoying being back.
I ended the day taking the new Central Subway from Chinatown to Oracle Park for the Giants game. Oracle Park is another of my favorite things in the city. (Two others, Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, would have to wait for my next trip.) I haven’t been to every stadium in the country, but I’m still going to say Oracle is the best stadium in the country. I don’t know how it could be beat: beautiful views of the bay and the Bay Bridge and the freshest air. It is wonderful. The Giants lost, but the great thing about baseball in person is that the game is not the most important thing. It is the atmosphere. Eating and drinking. Enjoying the weather. People-watching. Talking to your friends. It felt like everyone was leaving the stadium with a smile. I know I was. And planning my next trip back.