33 Places to Play Hooky in SF

One day this Spring, let’s skip work and wander. Here’s where you’ll find AFAR employees on their perfect day out of the office (“shhh!”).

Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA
A few blocks east of Goldsworthy’s more prominent Spire is this installation of fallen trees snaking through the still standing ones. Wood Line is located within the cypress grove near the intersection of Presidio Boulevard and West Pacific Avenue, just off Lovers’ Lane. Thousands drive by this spot and never notice it. It’s a beautiful work. View it, walk around it, walk on it, experience how it changes over time.
220 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
For a dose of culture, head to Park Life in the Inner Richmond. The goal of this gallery-cum-retail space is to feature today’s most engaging contemporary art. Located in a 1,400-square-foot former furniture store, Park Life showcases 10 exhibits per year. After perusing the artwork, make your way to the retail side, which sells international art and design items, including prints, jewelry, and housewares. Park Life also collaborates with artists to release new items ranging from books and zines to T-shirts and skate decks. And if you can’t make it to the shop, Park Life’s online store features many of their products.
1690 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94121, USA
In Golden Gate Park, right off Ocean Beach, you’ll find two historic Murphy windmills that have just been restored to their former working glory. The surrounding tulips and a picnic area make it a perfect pit-stop on your way to, or from, the beach. If you’re in the mood for a nice meal, live music, and beer check out the Beach Chalet next door! History buffs, checkout this (long) informational pdf about the history and renovation of the mills, Campaign to Save the Golden Gate Park Windmills: A Preservation Planning Critique.
Pier 7, San Francisco, CA 94105, USA
Pier 7 is a secret. I have found myself there many times and never understand why there are rarely any crowds. At sunrise or sunset with your back to the city you can get gorgeous photos of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. The beautiful wooden pier, ornamented handrails, and antique-styled lamps makes this spot totally romantic. Turn to face the city and you have Coit Tower, the TransAmerica building and much more. A beautiful spot that the crowds don’t know about. Ssshhh...
560 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
For lovers of unique design, contemporary and vintage style, and long-lasting quality, Eden & Eden in North Beach is one stop you must make. The eclectic shop is stocked with everything from designer womenswear to teeshirts and handmade jewelry to a variety of colorful homewares (check out the pillows). Though the boutique does carry pricier items, there are less expensive pieces as well, and everything is of the highest quality—not to mention that much of it comes from a variety of designers and makers, from Bay Area artists to UK-based. You can also visit the website to shop online, but a trip to the shop itself in North Beach is worth your time. Eden & Eden is open Mondays through Fridays from 10 am to 7 pm and Saturdays from 10 am to 6 pm.
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
The de Young Museum, with its perforated copper facade and spiraling tower in the center of Golden Gate Park, is as dramatic outside as it is inside. Follow the widening crack in the sidewalk into the atrium. It’s an Andy Goldsworthy–created nod to the tectonic plates that carved out California, and emblematic of the museum, too: The previous building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and rebuilt by Herzog & de Meuron, opening in 2005. Inside, Gerhard Richter’s wall-size mural, made from digitally manipulated photographs, greets visitors. The museum specializes in American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania, and Africa. Visiting exhibitions often focus on modern works and draw massive crowds. Recent blockbusters include Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Hockney. Make sure to visit the observation deck at the top of the tower. (It closes one hour before the museum.) It’s a unique view over the low-lying western end of the city.
100 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA
The Victorian-era glass and wood structure, which looks like a sugar-coated castle atop a grassy slope, is Golden Gate Park’s oldest building. It’s also one of San Francisco’s most splendid historic sites. Wander through five different galleries housing 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants along with the world’s largest public collection of high-altitude orchids. The potted plant gallery features rare flowering plants and an assortment of decorative urns and containers from all over the world, including a leftover from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Keep your eyes open for special exhibits, including the annual Butterflies and Blooms, which transforms the conservatory into a magical garden aflutter with hundreds of butterflies.
Lower Nob Hill, San Francisco, CA, USA
Bourbon and Branch is a traditional speakeasy. Their 8 house rules—hushed voices and no cell phones among them—encourage neighborly conversation in a very relaxed setting. It’s a great way to meet people if you’re traveling alone as well. There is a binder’s worth of libations here that are each expertly prepared by resident ‘mixologists.’ Don’t forget the password—they’ll give it to you when you make a reservation. It’s all part of the fun!
4500 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
Mollusk is a neighborhood surf shop that sells clothing and great boards. They carry my surfboards and handplanes [for body surfing]. They occasionally host art shows and live music. The shop is sort of like the cornerstone of the Sunset. 4500 Irving St., (415) 564-6300, mollusksurfshop.com. This story appeared in the January/February 2012 issue.
2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115, USA
You’ll have a hard time ever leaving B. Patisserie, and you’ll know why it’s been an over night sensation in lower Pac Heights. The open, modern space feels like something you’d find in the Marais in Paris, and the fact that you can view the pastry-in-the-making magic, while you’re deciding what to order- it a rare treat. B. Patisserie is owned by head pastry chef Belinda Leong and her partner (and San Francisco Baking Institute founder) Michel Suas. Leong trained in Paris with Pierre Herme and has been a part of kitchens such as Gary Danko, Fouchon and Manresa. A colleague of mine (and an extraordinary pastry chef in her own right) suggested this location recently for a catch up with the girls and I have to admit I’ve been back way too many times since then. Four Barrel coffee is also on hand to help you wash down the inevitable delicious delights, and with window seating as well as tables, it’s the perfect place to catch up with friends.
1001 Minnesota St, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA
They had me at the yellow building. I love wandering the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco and both Piccino restaurant and separate coffee bar, are lovely places to gather. The coffee bar on 22nd Street serves carefully crafted Sightglass organic coffee drinks. Their baking team aims to impress and I can’t get enough of the mushroom turnovers. Bonus: If you’re looking to make a to-go order from the Piccino restaurant around the corner, the coffee bar is where you’d place and pick up that order (hours have recently been extended until 10pm).
600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, CA 94110, United States
With no sign above its unassuming storefront, Tartine is most easily recognized by the line that snakes out its door and down Guerrero Street. People patiently wait for flaky pains au chocolat (the best outside Paris, in my opinion), decadent banana cream tarts, and hot-pressed sandwiches stuffed with fillings like smoked sheep cheese and quince jam. The bakery’s James Beard Award–winning pastry chefs also turn out loaves of stone hearth–baked bread, available every day after 4:30 p.m. Nurse a coffee and nibble on a croissant at the communal table, or take picnic provisions to nearby Dolores Park.
1634 Jerrold Ave, San Francisco, CA 94124, USA
Even the blackest of thumbs can find inspiration at Flora Grubb’s eponymous nursery—or at least a good cup of coffee. Grubb runs the enormous space (complete with Ritual Coffee Roasters bar) with a gallery-like ethos, rotating in new displays every week along with plenty of gear from basics (Japanese pruners) to funky garden flair (succulent letters). This appeared in our October 2014 issue.
Steiner Street
An estimated 48,000 houses were constructed in San Francisco from 1848 to 1915 in the style typical of the day, with ornate woodwork characteristic of so-called Queen Anne design. Earthquakes and fires, most notably those of 1906, destroyed many—as did shortsighted development—but those that survived are now cherished. When these historic houses are restored and painted in a variety of bright colors to bring out their details, they are often referred to as “painted ladies.” One of the most-photographed rows of painted ladies can be found on Steiner Street, overlooking Alamo Square Park. (Yes, these are the same houses that appear in the Full House opening credits.)

4519, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA
In an age when many independent bookstores have surrendered to the advance of chain stores and Amazon, City Lights is a true survivor. Since it was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1956, it has served as a gathering place for San Francisco’s literary communities. Everyone from beat poets to left-wing critics of America have found a welcome here. City Lights is also a publishing house, with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems being perhaps the single most famous book it has put out, though it counts scores of other works by some of America’s leading contemporary literary figures on its list. You can drop in anytime to find an unexpected tome, and the store also has a crowded calendar of readings.

1612 Stockton Street
In a city charmed by all things retro, the North Beach neighborhood is the place for Prohibition-era fashion (followed by speakeasy-style drinking, of course). Stop by the Goorin Bros. Hat Shop for the kind of boutique shopping experience from the days of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a shop made for lingering; you’re encouraged to try on anything and explore the nooks and crannies of the well-curated space (make sure to check out the cinema chairs upstairs). Started in 1895 and headquartered in San Francisco since 1949, Goorin Bros.’ fourth-generation family business is still booming. They make their hats just as they were made 100 years ago—hand blocked on old wood forms and stitched in small factory workshops in New Jersey, Great Britain, and Italy. In addition to the classic Bowlers and Top Hats the company has been producing since the 1890’s, they’ve come up with more modern styles like slouchy knit beanies and colorful wool cloches. With proper care, these are hats that will last generations. Pick up a hat for a stroll in this iconic district and head on over to one of the many neighborhood bars to show it off—Comstock Saloon, Rogue Ales Public House, and Vesuvio Café are some neighborhood favorites.
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
While Japanese gardens have come to be an expected feature of many botanical parks around the world, the Japanese Tea Garden, which opened in 1894, was the first public tea garden in the United States. The original plot consisted of less than half a hectare (one acre), though it gradually grew to its current size of two hectares (five acres). Unusually for its time, a Japanese landscape architect, Makoto Hagiwara, oversaw it for decades until he was interned during World War II and not allowed to return to his position after the war. His legacy lives on, however, in this meticulous garden dotted with pagodas and crossed by stone paths.

355 11th St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA
Is Bar Agricole the best bar in the city? It’s certainly in the top five, based on the groundbreaking cocktail program developed by bartender and owner Thad Vogler; the award-winning architecture and interior design by local favorite Aidlin Darling; and a daring menu centered around produce from nearby organic and biodynamic farms. Vogler used to bartend in Tokyo, and his obsession with Japanese precision shows. You’ll see influences of that in the hand-cut ice cubes he uses, and in Agricole’s glassware and aprons (all from Japan). The bar stocks a limited selection of 20 or 30 spirits, almost all small batch, and with a special focus on rum. Come for drinks, come for dinner, or come for brunch: the midday menu highlights include ricotta doughnuts with quince marmalade and a chicory salad with fuyu persimmon and house-made vinegar. Pro tips: In winter, book the private dining room (nicknamed the Grotto) for a seated, though still laid-back, dinner for up to 32 people; for an outdoor event, Bar Agricole’s covered and heated patio is perfect for larger, more casual groups. For lessons in liquor, check out the private spirits tastings that Vogler offers through IfOnly.
Long Ave & Marine Dr, San Francisco, CA 94129, USA
The Golden Gate Bridge is probably the most photographed site in California, but this vantage point never gets old. Explore the hollowed out fort, learn some history, and marvel at the view from the top floor.
3940 Judah St, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA
They do their own blend of beans called Elbow Grease, and it’s high-octane stuff.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Food + Drink
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East