I usually avoid driving through San Francisco. Usually I’m coming from Oakland, so the traffic that ties up at the Bay Bridge toll booth is a nightmare. In fact, the entire highway interchange around the bridge, going both ways, is a force to be reckoned with. Then if you get off the freeway anywhere near Market Street, you have to deal with the whole clusterfuck of whatever-the-hell-that-is. Then when you finally get to your destination, you have to find parking, which is usually upwards of $15.
In September, I was driving from San Mateo to Oakland when I impulsively decided to get off at the LAST SF EXIT before crossing the Bay Bridge and spend the rest of my day hanging out in Richmond*. I had texted a friend who lives out there earlier, someone who I hadn’t seen in a few years, and we had vaguely made plans of the “let me check and get back to you in a few hours” variety. I know him to be a bit flaky; you really have to stay on his ass and get him to reply. I didn’t know if he would actually pull through this time. I was sort of telling myself to leave it, because who wants to drive all the way out to the Richmond neighborhood just to get blown off?
When I was in college we usually blew off anything west of Divisadero. The journey out to the former sand dunes of San Francisco takes at least an hour, at best, when coming on public transport from the East Bay. The one exception I usually made was coming to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park, which was also a harrowing journey, seeing as its a free festival and the MUNI line 5 was always completely packed over that weekend.
But as I drove my Honda Civic up and over the many hills (have I ever mentioned that I hate driving hills, especially having to stop at a light when on a super steep incline?), by the time I got to Golden Gate Park and found parking I didn’t have to pay for, I realized it was all worth it. There’s so much to love about these old sand dunes.
Golden Gate Park
I wouldn’t say this is exactly oft-forgotten, as it’s a pretty popular destination for tourists and locals alike, but it does take awhile to get here without a car. But it’s a huge park with tons of beautiful things to see, including several gardens and museums. I normally don’t recommend this, but one time we rented some segways and rode through Golden Gate Park for a friend’s birthday and it was definitely worth it.
I wouldn’t go swimming here (the water is freezing, and it’s always windy), but the ocean is so majestic and the coastline is so beautiful. It’s usually foggy, but I think it’s equally magical with sun or with clouds.
If you’re up for a lot of walking (or you have a segway or a bike), you can walk through the Golden Gate Park all the way to Ocean Beach, then follow the road up the hill to the Cliff House, then go ’round the bend ’til you get to Point Lobos to find our next underrated beauty.
I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t even know about Lands End until I accidentally stumbled upon it after leaving Ocean Beach. Lands End used to house a bath and an amusement park, which was destroyed in an earthquake and then a fire. (Yeah, pretty much par for the course in San Francisco.) It’s now a national park** and you can hike down the cliff to see the remaining walls.
I was also starving by the time I got to Lands End, so I had a tuna melt at this diner right on the cliff, Louis’. It’s not the greatest restaurant I’ve ever been to, but they make a pretty good tuna melt and the view is unbeatable.
Once I finally got ahold of my hella flaky friend (love him, but this is #truth), we hung out in Richmond, which is probably one of the last bastions of semi-affordable rent in the city***. I’d been here a couple of times before in college, on the rare occasions when I got my ass in gear, and even though it’s the boondocks, it’s a great neighborhood. Like most places in San Francisco, there’s a mix of Chinese and Japanese groceries, coin laundries, taquerias, old-school pizza joints, dive bars, sports bars, and of course the ever-multiplying upscale restaurants.
We went to my friend’s favorite pupuseria (which is also a liquor store, what a great combo), then listened to some Roberta Flack and Billie Holiday records. For desert, we popped into Toy Boat, which looks super cute and has some delicious-looking deserts, but the milkshakes were $7, and by now y’all know how cheap I am. Instead we went to Genki Crepes & Mini Mart across the street. They have milkshakes for $4, plus it’s also a Japanese grocery store.
This is why I love Richmond so much: you can have your bougie, trendy eateries but there is also a delicious, cheap(er) alternative just down the street, if that’s more your vibe (and budget).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sunset as well, probably the other bastion of semi-affordable rent in the city. I didn’t actually go out there last September but I wanted to give it a quick shout-out anyway. You’ve probably heard of it as the location of the 16th Avenue tiled steps, if you’ve heard of it at all. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen it on Instagram.
It is also technically in the boondocks, as it runs along the south side of Golden Gate Park. The vibe is pretty similar to Richmond. Some of my favorite places out there are The Taco Shop at Underdog’s (just huge, overflowing-with-filling Tex-Mex tacos and cheap Coronas), Arizmendi Bakery (amazing bread and pizza, where every day they only sell one type of pizza but it’s always unexpected but delicious toppings), and Trouble Coffee. I actually heard about this place because of a story on This American Life, which will straight up break your heart and make you cry, so listen in private.
Ok, so you probably didn’t need more things to add to your San Francisco itinerary, but here we are. Enjoy!
Note: All these places are accessible by bus, it’s just easier with a car.