Although Marie-Joëlle Parent was born in Quebec, her heart has definitely been in California for the past six years. She is the author of 300 Reasons to Love San Francisco and has more than 15 years of experience in journalism. With her small family, she is now busy exploring her adopted city, which she adores. Here are her top picks for San Francisco, including cafes, markets, gardens, and a few well-kept secrets.
Clement Street Farmers’ Market
Every Sunday from 9am-2pm, local farmers set up their seasonal stands along Clement Street in the Inner Richmond neighborhood at the edge of the Presidio. I make a point of going there almost every week to check out new products and soak up the local atmosphere. There’s always live music and a variety of street food stands. I love to watch the families with their wheelbarrows full of groceries and their kids in tow!
If you’re hungry, Mandalay, one of the best Burmese restaurants (and the first in the US), is nearby. The owner, Sherry Dung, will welcome you as if you were part of the family. Order the mango chicken, the samusa soup, the fermented tea salad (lap pat dok), and her curry noodle dish.
If you’re in the mood for a smoothie or healthy bowl, Nourish Cafe, the city’s best vegan cafeteria, is next door on 6th Avenue. Their colorful, delicious dishes are so good I can’t get enough!
Finish off your gourmet walk with a hike in the Presidio, one of San Francisco’s most beautiful parks. Take in the breathtaking views of the bay and Alcatraz (from the Inspiration Point lookout).
Sushi & spa in Japantown
I love Japantown! It’s one of San Francisco’s most unique places and the United States’ first and oldest Japanese neighborhood. It’s only a few blocks, but it’s packed with great restaurants and feels like you’ve traveled halfway around the world in the blink of an eye.
Spend a couple of hours at the Pearl Spa (for women only), which offers a range of treatments (scrubs, massages, hammam, dry sauna, hot and cold baths, pink salt room to eliminate toxins from the body, and red clay room to relax the muscles) at very reasonable prices. You’ll leave feeling energized!
Then there’s the Kabuki Springs and Spa, an oasis in the city. A favorite of San Franciscans, this spa recreates the experience of an onsen, a Japanese open-air hot spring bath. You’ll find hot and cold baths, a dry sauna, a hammam, and showers. The entrance fee for the communal baths is $45, and you are free to stay as long as you like.
After the spa, grab a bowl of noodles from Marufuku Ramen or some tasty sushi from Sasa, both located on the second floor of the Japan Center. I also like to stop at Kinokuniya, an impressive bookstore that has been around since 1969.
Gourmet meal with a view
One of my favorite places to take my friends when they visit San Francisco is the Empress by Boon. Perched at the top of a tower in the Chinatown district, it opens up to a breathtaking view of the city’s hills. It’s a fitting backdrop for the sophisticated dishes of Michelin-starred chef Ho Chee Boon, who brings a California twist to Cantonese cuisine. His specialty is duck. Don’t miss it.
The best park for kids in San Francisco
One of my favorite weekend rituals is to go for a run or jog at Crissy Field The bay serves as a running companion, Alcatraz Island lurks in the distance, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the finish line on the horizon.
The old airfield is always a hive of activity, especially on a Sunday morning. The whole city seems to be out here walking their dogs, and there are all sorts of sporting events and art installations taking place on the grassy field. A new children’s park has recently opened here, and it’s become one of my kids’ favorite places to go!
The Outpost is a giant outdoor playground overlooking the bridge. Children can climb on giant structures made of logs, rocks and other natural materials. They can also build and make art. There’s no better way to explore the wild side of the Presidio than this.
Afterward, head to The Warming Hut for a hot beverage. You can also find many city-related items and books in the boutique cafe. As you leave, greet the many crab and salmon fishermen at Torpedo Wharf. They sometimes catch mini sharks, which they proudly display to onlookers.
Is this the best pizza in San Francisco?
The line to get a table can be long. But the pizza from Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach (Little Italy), is worth the wait.
Tony was the first American to win the title of Best Margherita Pizza at the World Pizza Cup in Naples in 2007. He’s been perfecting his art for years, and his restaurant is a veritable museum of the different styles of pizza from around the world. He offers twelve different types of pizza (New York, New Haven, Neapolitan, St. Louis, etc.).
You can also order it to go and have a picnic in Washington Square with a view of Saints Peter and Paul Church (where Marilyn Monroe took her wedding pictures with Joe DiMaggio).
San Francisco Flower Mart
The San Francisco Flower Mart is a San Francisco landmark and the second largest floral market in the United States. It’s a huge space. Horticulturists arrive at 2 a.m. to greet florists, interior designers, and wedding planners. It was walking through the market at 3 a.m. one morning in 1991 that Martha Stewart fell in love with hydrangeas, forever changing the fortunes of this flower that had almost disappeared from people’s minds.
Today, the market is home to about 60 vendors. It is open for the general public from Mon-Fri 9am-3pm and Sat-Sun 8am-3pm. I’m lucky enough to be able to go almost every week, as the market is located right across the street from the Pinterest offices.
The Swan Oyster Depot is an intimate, 20-seat counter serving oysters, crab salads, lobsters, squid, mussels, smoked salmon, clam chowder, uni and their signature Dungeness crabs.
Regulars know to ask for the crab back to dip their sourdough bread in the shellfish’s delicious fat. Take it all in with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and soak up the charm of the place. Chat with the friendly, mustachioed waiters and admire the many yellowed photos on the walls. It’s been open for over 100 years and is still as popular as ever, so expect to wait in line.
The counter opens at 10:30 a.m. every day and closes at 5:30 p.m. (closed on Sundays). Many people line up as early as 10am and bring their own bottle of wine to help make waiting less tedious. Cash only.
The Lyon Steps are a magnificent set of stairs that I use regularly on my way from Pacific Heights to the Marina. The 244 steps, surrounded by gardens and manicured hedges, are very popular with athletes who climb up and down them for training, especially on weekends.
The home of Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein is in the middle of the stairs, in front of the golden heart-shaped sculpture known as the Migrant Heart. The home of Senator and former Mayor of San Francisco, Diane Feinstein, is in the middle of the stairs, in front of the golden heart-shaped sculpture known as the Migrant Heart. It is one of 130 heart-shaped sculptures throughout the city.
The Bay Area Discovery Museum, located on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge near Sausalito, is one of the best family activities. Kids will love it! In fact, it is one of the best places in San Francisco for families to visit. It’s packed with interactive experiences focusing on science and exploration. The outdoor museum features seven different zones (including tide pools, hiking trails, caves, and cobweb installations) and an art studio where kids can create and play with 3D printers. The museum is set on the lush grounds of the former Fort Baker military base.
After visiting, dine at Cavallo Point Lodge, a historic hotel housed in the former Colonial Revival homes of Army officers. Another way to enjoy the area is to make an appointment for a massage or a skin treatment at the Healing Arts Center & Spa.
High-end dining in San Francisco
The best Greek restaurant in San Francisco is Kokkari Estiatorio. It also has the best service, as the owners, bartenders, and waiters will remember your name if you return for a second visit, and will treat you like a guest they’re welcoming into their home. The decor’s rustic and welcoming, with big floral arrangements, soft lighting, pillows on the chairs and copper pots hanging from the ceiling.
Chickens and lambs are roasting in the large fireplace in the dining room, and large baskets of sourdough bread sit on the counters. The menu celebrates traditional Aegean dishes with a modern spin. Order the classic Greek salad (horiatiki), grilled octopus, octopus stuffed with feta, fennel and oranges, divine lamb chops, meatballs and moussaka. Quite a feast.
Dine at Ernest
Ernest is one of the new darlings of the San Francisco culinary scene, housed in an industrial building on the edge of the Mission District. One of the best places to eat in San Francisco! Executive chef Brandon Rice cut his teeth at Noma in Copenhagen, among other places. The menu is eclectic, full of surprises, and the flavors are a blend of Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. The menu is constantly in flux, but certain signature dishes, like the tonkatsu pork cutlet, are nightly favorites.
Save room for dessert: their Basque ice cream sundaes and cheesecakes are a real treat!