Here it is. Keep in mind, I wrote this almost 4 years ago when I was living in San Rafael still and commuting to work on the east coast. Some stuff has changed, but not too much. I was just there visiting my sister on the way to NJC and if anything the nice areas south of market have spread even more. There are a bunch of users that live in the area or spend a lot of time there and can add more. @Bumblebee
It's an ok walking city, if you link various areas together via buses or trains. Dress for cold weather, even in the summer. With the fog it’s not unusual to have 50 degrees and wind downtown. Most areas are pretty safe, as long as you are NORTH of Market St. Some areas outh of Market can be sketchy depending on where you are due to drug problems. The public transportation system is pretty good. BART and muni run through the center of the city and then the buses go everywhere else. If you get a Clipper card you can use it on the bus, the muni (light rail), BART and the ferries.
Fisherman’s Warf. Lots of stores, kitchy museums and restaurants. You can catch the boat over to Alcatraz from here. I really haven’t spent much time over there. Ghiradelli (as in the chocolate company) Square is two blocks away. If you are going to do the cable car thing (and it’s worth the $5 each way) the best line to go on is Hyde-Powell. It goes over Russian and Nob Hills and goes down some crazy one way streets. Sit up front on the bench on the left side of the car if you can.
Embarcadero/Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was redone about 10 years ago and has a bunch of cool shops and stores in it. The cup cake place (I can’t remember the name of it right now) is to die for. There is a farmer’s market on Saturdays that’s great too. Just across the street is the Financial District which looks like just about every financial district in the country but is fun to walk around.
Union Square. Lots of brand name stores have locations here. Normally there is some kind of art display going on in the square. Other than that, it’s great for walking around but doesn’t have much else.
North Beach: The city’s Little Italy. It centers on Columbus Avenue and is also home to the (very small) Red Light district which is interesting to walk through. Lots of great restaurants and cafés. Our favorite is called Pulcinela. The tourist classic is the Stinking Rose where everything has garlic in it. Washington forms the center of North Beach with the Big Cathedral on one side.
Japantown is on Webster and Geary and is a giant shopping mall full of Japanese stores and food places. It’s kind of crazy and a great place to pick up cheaply imported stuff as gifts. You’ll find all kinds of things here, many of which only have Japanese writing on them and you’ll have no idea what they are.
Golden Gate Park runs from the ocean about 2 miles in land. The park has miles of walking trails. Also there is a Botanical Garden (free) and a Conservatory Of Flowers (I don’t know if it’s free or not). The Academy of Sciences has a great aquarium in the basement (it’s huge) and a neat biosphere you can walk through. Otherwise I don’t think it’s worth the $25 to get in. If you can get discounted tickets it may be worth it though. Right across from the Academy of Sciences is the De Young Art Museum. It is not free, but if you like art it is worth paying to get in. Also at the museum (and free!) is the tower. Just go in the front doors and walk to the right. It’s a 7 story tower that overlooks the city and is really a great place to get an overview from.
The Presidio is the old Army base that sits at the base of the Golden Gate. There are tons of back roads and trails the wind through it. At the very top of the hill is the Legion Of Honor, which is another art museum. It’s not free either but has some interesting rotating exhibits that may interest you. The view from the front of the museum is pretty nice as well. The Presidio runs down the hill to Crissy Field which is an old WWI airfield that sits right at the edge of the Bay. There’s a nice walking trail that ends up underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
On the ocean side of the Presidio is the Cliff House which is an old hotel that is now an upscale restaurant that overlooks the ocean. The food is so-so for the price (I wouldn’t go) but the views walking around it are really cool. It used to be a bath house back in the day and you can still see the foundations and see old pictures of what it looked like in side.
Hayes Valley has a bunch of really nice shops (if you go, stop by Fiddlesticks, a really upscale but cool children's toy store and say hi to my sister) and food places. It's near Alamo Square which is fun to walk around or sit in.
Just south of Market St is the Mission district which is interesting to walk around. If you are there check out Clarion Alley which is full of amazing graffiti. You'll probably get hassled by a few of the artists for money to help them buy "paint" but it's safe. The Mission used to be kind of sketchy in places, but the nice areas are starting to sprawl and the area is getting pretty heavily gentrified. The historical rule of not going south of Market St has kind of evaporated a bit over the last few years.
The Castro is also an interesting place to wander around and see the area.
Misc places to eat in the city:
Bix is an upscale (and kind of pricy) jazz club that has amazing food.
Burma Superstar is Burmese fusion food. It’s kind of like Thai food, but way better. I would say only go for lunch because the line for dinner can be over 2 hours long. It’s that good. Ask them what to get and they should recommend the rainbow salad and somosu soup.
Memphis Minnies is on Haight St and has excellent BBQ... for the west coast.
The East Bay is Oakland/Berkeley etc. I can’t really say too much about it as we don’t go over there very often (other than to go to Ikea). Berkeley is worth seeing if you have the time. The UC campus there is pretty bustling and has tons of food places. The only food I’d really recommend over there is a place called Bacheeso. It’s a Turkish place in Lake Merritt and is very good. The owner is a friend of a friend and they’ve always treated us well. The area is a little run down, but pretty safe during day light hours.
Just across the Golden Gate bridge is Sausalito. It’s a super touristy town but is worth a drive/walk through downtown to look up at the houses on the hill overlooking the Bay. On the other side of 101 are the Marin Headlands and Rodeo Beach. You can get out there in one of two ways. The best I think is head up to the scenic overlook just off of the bridge (on the west side of the highway, not the little tourist building on the east). Head up the hill the Battery Overlook (stopping along the way to look back at the city and bridge). At the battery most people stop and then come back, but the road continues (it’s one way at the at point) and is a windy twisty plunging ride down the cliffs back to Point Bonita. If you are there on a Saturday through Monday between 12 and 3 (I think) you can walk out to the Light House. It’s got a crazy bridge to get to it that only can support 2 people at a time. Past Point Bonita is Rodeo Beach. At the beach there are a few walking trails. Also back there is the Marine Mammal Rescue center which is neat to walk through If you have time.
North of Sausalito is the exit for Muir Woods and Muir Beach. Both are cool. The beach is free. The woods costs money but is worth it if you want to walk in the redwoods. Also at the exit is the road to Tennessee Valley Beach which is a nice 1.5 mile walk (each way) down the Tennessee Valley to a small cove and beach. If you want to any walking I’d recommend it. You can get to Muir Woods either by the high road or the low road. If you take the high road and then veer off about half way there you can go up Mt. Tam. The road splits about halfway up the mountain and if you left you get amazing views of rolling hills that run down to Stinson Beach. If you go right the road runs to the “west peak” which is the actual top of the mountain and is about a 30 minutes hike from the parking lot. Great views in all directions, just watch out for snakes in the sun.
North of all that is San Rafael where I lived. Not much to do in the town itself but there is a can’t miss restaurant in Sol Food. Puerto Rican Food. Don’t forget to order a limeaid as well. Heading west out of San Rafael you have San Ansolmo (cute little down town… if you need food Bubba’s Dinner is mostly organic and really good) and Fairfax (watch out for the hippies).
About 30 minutes north is Point Reyes. The focal point is the lighthouse which sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It’s down 100 something steps (each one is numbered) but is well worth the walk for the views. It can be super windy out there though and the lighthouse is closed one day a week (you’ll have to check their website). It takes about an hour to get there from San Rafael, but as I said the drive alone is worth it. Also, Point Reyes Station (the little town out there) is pretty cool.
Farther to the north east you have Sonoma and Napa Valleys. I’m not a wine person so I can’t tell you much about either one. Personally I think Sonoma is prettier but they are both nice. Just be prepared for really hot temperatures. It can be 90+ up there and in the 50s in the city. As far as food up there, there is a really great place called Ad Hoc which is owned by Thomas Kheller. It’s a $50 fixed price menu that changes every day. It’s about as cheap as you’ll get for a 4 star 4 course meal and every time we’ve gone we’ve been super impressed.