Leo Babauta: san francisco recommendations

I’ve only been living in San Francisco since the summer of 2010 (though I did live here as a teen-ager in the 80s), so I’m not fully qualified as a native to give recommendations.

I’ve never let that stop me before.

Here are some of my favorite things in San Francisco.

Best of SF:
If you only have a day or two, here are my picks (details of each are further down):

  • Best Relaxing Experience: Samovar Tea Lounge (runner up: Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, but only early mornings, weekdays, when it’s not crowded).
  • Best Coffee in the World: Blue Bottle.
  • Best Casual Dining: Gracias Madre.
  • Best Special Occasion Dining: Millenium.
  • Best Outdoor Stroll: Golden Gate Park (runner up: Land’s end trail).
  • Best View of SF: Twin Peaks (runners up: Presidio near Golden Gate Bridge, and top of Buena Vista Park).
  • Best Place for a Picnic: Dolores Park (gourmet picnic food nearby at Bi-Rite Market).
  • Best Pizza: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana (close: Pizzeria Delfina, Una Pizza Napoletana, Cafe BaoNecci).
  • Best Pastries: Tartine, hands down.
  • Best Chocolate Chip Cookie: Specialty Bakery (runner up: Pinkie’s).
  • Best Cliffline Views: Land’s End trail.


  • Gracias Madre. My wife Eva’s favorite restaurant, it’s all-vegan, casual, with delicious organic Mexican food from veggies grown in a local farm.
  • Millenium. Gourmet vegan food, so good. Pricey, dressy, great for special occasions. Shows that vegetables can be as good as any gourmet chef’s fare.
  • Cafe Gratitude. It’s a hippy vegan joint unlike any other. Such a cool experience. Laid back, happy, with great food. Maybe 2/3 of the menu is raw, but it’s all good. The location on Harrison Street might be closing, sadly.
  • Loving Hut. Locations in Westfield Mall (if you’re shopping downtown), Chinatown and Inner Sunset, it’s Asian fast food, vegan-style. Not necessarily healthy, though they have great salads. One of the only places to get vegan pho.
  • Plant Cafe. One of the nicer healthy organic spots, good wine. Has omnivore food, but good vegan options.
  • Paxti’s Chicago-style Pizza. If you’re craving deep-dish pizza, this is one of the best in the city (Little Star being also great). And if you’re vegan, they have an awesome vegan pie.
  • Source. Two brothers from New York City recently opened up this little spot, and the variety of vegan food here is really cool. Not gourmet fare, but tasty and varied.
  • Ananda Fuara. It’s an almost cult-like experience, but with decent veggie food of all kinds. One of the better veggie options if you’re in the downtown area.
  • Greens. Gourmet vegan food, one of the first in the nation and still excellent fare in a great location in Fort Mason on the waterfront.
  • Herbivore. Not my favorite vegetarian food ever, but decent, with more variety than most places.
  • Cha-Ya Vegetarian Japanese. All-vegan Japanese food, very good. If you’re vegetarian looking for a Japanese fix, this is the place to go.
  • Sunflower Vietnamese. A little hole-in-the-wall in Mission, makes delicious, greasy vegetarian Vietnamese dishes (ominvore dishes as well).
  • Udupi Palace. All vegetarian food, Southern Indian, which is different than the usual northern Indian food you might be used to. Get the dosas.
  • St. Francis Fountain: Old-fashioned diner with great vegan breakfast options.

Coffee & Tea:

  • Samovar Tea Lounge. Best tea house in the world. Exellent food, but the tea is outrageously good. Amazing stop if you need an oasis of calm.
  • Blue Bottle Coffee. One of the best coffee shops in the world. Be prepared to wait in line, then drink the coffee slowly, savoring it. Not for Starbucks fans.
  • Sight Glass Coffee. One of the newer shops on the artisan coffee scene, it’s making quite a name for itself.
  • Four Barrel Coffee. One of the hippest coffee shops ever, great artisan coffee. Also known for its lines.
  • Ritual Coffee Roasters. Brilliant coffee in a great shop on Valencia.

Outdoors & Active:

  • Land’s End. Gorgeous walk along the cliffline with dramatic views of the Pacific going into the Bay, including great views of Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Golden Gate Park. One of my favorite places ever. Wonderful trails, a Japanese tea garden, a great science museum, best playground ever, a lake with a mountain in the middle, a waterfall, buffalo … what more could you ask for?
  • Batteries to Bluffs trail. In the Presidio near Golden Gate Bridge, some of the most gorgeous views in the city.
  • Dolores Park. Beautiful spot between Mission and Castro neighborhoods, the perfect place for a picnic, can get crowded on sunny days. Great views of the city on the upper side of the park.
  • Golden Gate Bridge. You know which one I mean. Jog across it for a unique run.
  • Twin Peaks. Can be quite a hike to this lookout (or you can be lazy and drive), but oh man. Best views of the city ever. Go to the actual twin peaks above the lookout for 360 degree views of the city, and be prepared to be amazed.
  • Sutro Forest. Lovely trails through fantastic little forest in the middle of the city, near UCSF. Can be a bit tricky to find, but once you’re in the forest, it’s like there’s no city around you.
  • Marin Headlands. Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and you’ll find some great trails heading in different directions, with beautiful views of the bay and more.


I am an avid pizza fan, and have scoured the city for the best pizza. I’m partial to Neapolitan style pizza, though there are two deep-dish places I also love in the city.

  • Una Pizza Napoletana. One of the newer joints on the artisan pizza scene, Anthony was a celebrity pizzaiolo in NYC before creating the perfect minimalist pizza experience in San Francisco.
  • Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. My favorite pizza in the city, get the Marghertia, which won pizza competitions in Naples. Also have a bunch of other interesting styles like Roman, Sicilian, American, Detroit and more.
  • Pizzeria Delfina. One of our absolute favorites. Great pizza. Also a good Italian restaurant next door to the 18th St. location by the same name.
  • Cafe BaoNecci. Tiny little restaurant with very authentic pizza.
  • A16. Very nice Italian place, excellent pizzas, good wine. Better for special occasions.
  • flour + water. Trendy place in the Mission, not easy to get in, but excellent food including very good Neapolitan pizza.
  • Zero Zero. Also very good pizza. My kids love the dessert — freshly made donut balls with ice cream, so delicious.
  • Pizetta 211. Tiny place in the Richmond, but really good pizza.
  • Little Star. Locations on Divisadero and Valencia Streets, one of the two best deep-dish pizza places in the city.
  • Paxti’s Chicago Style. The other best deep-dish pizza in the city, have a vegan version too. Locations in Hayes, Noe Valley, Fillmore and Marina, all great spots.
  • Pauline’s: One of the best California-style pizzas around.
  • Other standouts I regrettably haven’t tasted yet: Gialina, Pizzeria Picco (Marin), Boot & Shoe Service (Oakland), Zachary’s (Oakland) and Pizzaiolo (Oakland).
  • Less favorite: We’ve tried and enjoyed, but didn’t love, Escape from New York Pizza, North Beach Pizza, pizza from Arizmendi Bakery, Ragazza.

Beer, Wine & Cocktails:

  • Monk’s Kettle. Expensive, but what an incredible selection of beers. Must-do for any beer connoisseur.
  • Toronado. Much more of a dive-baar than Monk’s Kettle, but the beer menu is unbeatable.
  • Magnolia Brewery. Excellent beers on tap, made on site.
  • Beretta. Some of the best artisan cocktails in the city, and they also make very good pizza.


Fine Dining:

  • Millenium. Gourmet vegan food, so good. A must if you’re vegetarian, still great if you’re not.
  • Frances. Amazing, Michelin-starred food, at reasonable prices in a lovely casual setting.
  • Locanda Osteria. One of our favorite new places. Good Italian, not too dressy, excellent wines.
  • The Slanted Door. Gourmet fusion Vietnamese with a great location on the water.
  • La Folie. Special occasions only, be prepared to dress up and spend a pretty penny, but some of the best fine French dining in San Francisco.

Other Restaurants:

  • Zazie. Perfect little French bistro with a nice outdoor area in the back. Good food, not too expensive.
  • EOS Wine Bar. Excellent wines, good small plates, in the same Cole Valley neighborhood as Zazie.
  • Dosa. Locations on Valencia and Fillmore (both great streets), Southern Indian food at its finest. Really delicious, good cocktails too.
  • Frjtz. Prounounced “Fritz”, it’s good Belgium burgers, fries, crepes and sandwiches. And beer. Locations in Hayes Valley and Valencia, both great neighborhoods.
  • Ike’s Place. Some of the best sandwiches you’ll ever try, with some great vegetarian and vegan options (and omnivore). Takeout only, order ahead for pickup so you can skip some of the crazy lines.
  • Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers. Some of the best hamburgers ever, with an amazing selection, including great veggie burgers. Also get the sweet potato fries, milkshakes, and beer.


No comments on these except every single bookstore here is small, independent, and wonderful. If you’re a booklover, check out a few in the area you’re walking around in.

For Kids:

Please please skip Pier 39 and do the things below. The zoo isn’t bad, but not as good as the things below.

  • Exploratorium. One of the best hands-on science museums in the world. A must must must for kids.
  • California Academy of Sciences. Amazing science museum, one of my favorite places ever. Kids and adults alike will love this, and it’s in the middle of Golden Gate Park.
  • Zeum. Hands-on creative space for kids. Really fun, and it’s in a great location in the Yerba Buena Gardens.
  • Koret Children’s Quarter. Best playground in the city, at the end of Golden Gate Park, worth a visit if you have young ones who need to run around. Try the concrete slides.
  • House of Air. Trampoline park that includes trampoline dodge ball. So much fun, for adults and kids alike.

Tourist Things Worth Doing:

Skip Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Union Square, tour buses, Chinatown, and the Powell Street cable car (better to catch the cable car at California Street).

  • Coit Tower. A fun hill to climb, cool tower, great views of the city. Afterward, walk down to the North Beach neighborhood and have pizza at Tony’s or Cafe BaoNecci (see pizza section). Or go up the crooked Lombard Street, which is ultra-touristy but still cool.
  • Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. Farmer’s market is Tues., Thurs. and Sat., and is one of the best in the city with an amazing selection of food and food carts. Even when there’s no farmer’s market, the Ferry Building is a collection of gourmet food like no other.
  • Alcatraz. It’s touristy, but really interesting historical tour.
  • Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is beautiful, and you can walk across. I’d recommend just walking part way, then going on the Batteries to Bluffs trail (see outdoors section).
  • Japantown. Smaller than Chinatown, not as much to see, but a few cool shops and restaurants, good crepes and mochi.


These are the best streets in the city for people who like to stroll and look at interesting shops with fantastic wares. Best for Parisian-style window shopping, because they’re not cheap.

  • Valencia Street, Mission district. Some of the best little shops and restaurants in the city, in one of the most colorful neighborhoods around.
  • Fillmore Street, Pacific Heights. Great shops for those who love to shop.
  • Chestnut & Union Streets, Marina district. Two top-notch shopping streets only a few blocks from each other.
  • 24th Street in Noe Valley. Great little local shops, restaurants, wine shops and more.
  • Hayes Street, Hayes Valley. One of the best little neighborhoods in the center of the city.
  • Haight Street, Upper Haight. A blast from the past, with some of the color of its 1960s heyday, but modernized.