For some masochistic reason, I love reading other people’s blog posts about the cities I’ve lived in. There’s something weird about hearing a very limited, myopic perspective of a place you know quite intimately, or at least in a very different context than a tourist.
Now, I never actually lived in San Francisco, although I often tell people unfamiliar with the area that I did. I went to the University of California, Berkeley (GO BEARS!) which is across the Bay Bridge, about 30 minutes by train from The City (yes, people in the Bay Area really do call it that). But I’ve been into the city enough to know which tourist recommendations are terrible, and hopefully provide a better alternative.
DON’T: Eat clam chowder at Boudin’s in Fisherman’s Wharf
If it were up to me, no one would go to Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39, like, ever. As it is, I understand why tourists want to see it even if though I disagree with it on a ethical level. (That was hyperbole.)(Kinda.) (I also understand if you’re going there for the In’N’Out, something I can fully endorse.)
But if you’re going to fight through the crowds of Fisherman’s Wharf because you want some New England Clam Chowder (sidenote: why do people think this is a San Francisco specialty? It’s from New England. It says so in the name. Whatever.) go into a real restaurant. Pick any of them on the Wharf. They are all touristy and expensive, but everything in San Francisco is expensive and they actually have good clam chowder.
Boudin’s clam chowder sucks, because Boudin is a bread maker, not a soup factory. If you go to any other restaurant, I guarantee they will have some good sourdough bread bowls (probably from Boudin), but much better soup.
If you’re just looking for a nice restaurant near the Wharf, I would recommend Cioppino’s, a long-time San Francisco Italian joint. It’s been around forever, and they offer cioppino, a traditional seafood stew that actually is a San Francisco specialty. Also I had my 19th birthday party here, and they were really nice to us, even though groups of fifteen 19- and 20-year-olds are usually treated like shit in restaurants.
Also, if you like really, really love clam chowder (which I do), you should actually drive 100 miles south to Monterrey. They know how to make a good clam chowder. If you walk along the pier, each restaurant will give you samples of their clam chowder so you can decide which one you like best, or maybe just troll for samples until you’re full of free clam chowder. Clam chowder, clam chowder, clam chowder. If I say it 3 times to my mirror do you think Beetlejuice will appear with a piping hot bowl ready for me? Anyway.
DON’T: Get a sundae at Ghirardelli Square
This ice cream shop literally gives me a panic attack. It’s like Disneyland on a hot summer day, but in an enclosed space. It’s a nightmare. You will wait in a long-ass line with children screaming from either consuming too much sugar or being forced to wait for sugar. If you really want to try to their chocolate sauce (which is quite good), buy Ghirardelli products literally ANYWHERE in the city, buy some ice cream, and make a sundae yourself. There are so many great ice cream shops in San Francisco, although many are now equally expensive with equally long lines. But at least their lines are open-air, and are full of adult hipsters instead of screaming children.
DON’T: Ride on the cable car
You will wait in line for 2 hours, and it costs an insane amount of money for a 15-minute ride. Last time I checked it was $5, but that was about 5 years ago. Who knows what it is now.
Instead, hop on the bus line F, which goes from the Castro, down Market Street to the Embarcadero and ends the line in (ugh) Fisherman’s Wharf. All the cars for the F line are old streetcars from all over the world, and the price is just a normal MUNI ticket ($2.25). It’s way less crowded and just as charming.
DON’T: Enjoy the picturesque scenery while ignoring the ugly beast of gentrification
San Francisco is famous for not only being beautiful, but for being a haven for all sorts of weirdos and progressives and counter-culture. Many of its historic neighborhoods are famous for their unique aesthetic, colorful murals and public art, or offbeat shops and street performers. Chinatown, North Beach, the Mission, the Castro, Haight-Ashbury. Each neighborhood has its own niche and history, where people who were not welcome anywhere else could find a place for themselves.
But the city is changing rapidly, and the influx of tech money is driving out many of the people who made it a cool city in the first place. Don’t go to Haight-Ashbury and romanticize the Beats and Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan without realizing that starving artists can’t afford to live in this city anymore. Don’t complain about the homeless people when you don’t understand that 1/5 of the population in the San Francisco area is homeless because of the lack of affordable housing. The immigrants and multi-ethnic communities that made the city so unique are being pushed out, and it’s irresponsible to come in and snap a few pictures without realizing what is going on here.
While SF’s gentrification is not so much the fault of tourism but the tech industry, if you are visiting San Francisco you should make sure you are not contributing to this problem. Be careful where you stay. Landlords evict tenants, realizing that it’s more profitable to turn apartments into short-term rentals on AirBnB without paying necessary hotel taxes that support city services for the non-millionaires in the city.
If you don’t like the hotel or hostel option, do your research before you book with AirBnB or a similar site. Are you just renting a room from an owner/tenant making some extra cash? Or is this apartment reserved exclusively for tourists, thus reducing the number of housing units available to city residents? It’s easy to overlook these issues, but you can speak with your money. If you rent from these people, you are supporting them. Don’t be that guy who helps force families out of their homes just so you can have a nice place to crash on vacation.
San Francisco is a beautiful, wonderful place that enchanted me from my first visit at 10 years old. There’s much more complexity and beauty in this city than the Golden Gate Bridge and Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. In Girl Scouts we used to say that we should leave a place better than we found it, but that’s only possible if we actually know something about the place we found.