Lately, it seems like the news headlines from San Francisco have been negative, from the city’s homelessness crisis and highly publicized recall elections to the area’s astronomical cost-of-living and worsening fire seasons.
But San Francisco is still San Francisco. The fog still rolls in from the Pacific to blanket the city’s jumbled hills, the sunset still flames crimson behind the Golden Gate Bridge and the smell of salt and eucalyptus still hits the moment you step outside of San Francisco International Airport. Always a city for lovers of the outdoors, pandemic restrictions led to the near-universal embrace of an indoor-outdoor city life. And at its core, the city’s spirit, a heady brew of creativity, progressivism and experimentation, remains unbreakable.
San Francisco’s pandemic recovery has been slower than other major metropolitan areas in the United States; according to data from the San Francisco Travel Association, forecasts for 2022 estimate 80 percent of 2019’s visitor volume. While the Downtown and Union Square neighborhoods remain quieter than prepandemic times, the city’s singular neighborhoods, from the Mission to Russian Hill and the Outer Sunset, are vibrant with packed restaurants and bars, and many boast of new parks and in-person events. San Francisco no longer imposes a mask mandate, but some businesses will require or request masks; masks are recommended but not required on MUNI and BART, the city’s public transportation systems. Many indoor events, including concerts and theater productions, require proof of vaccination to enter.
New parks and slow streets
San Francisco’s wealth of green spaces has increased thanks to a trio of new parks, including the Presidio Tunnel Tops, 14 acres of new national park land hugging the city’s north coast that opened this month. Boasting panoramic views of the Bay, the park was designed by the same group behind New York’s High Line and is home to a changing roster of food trucks, art installations and performances. For more views, check out Francisco Park in the city’s Russian Hill neighborhood, which opened in April on the site of San Francisco’s first reservoir. In the southeastern Mission Bay neighborhood, largely protected from the city’s frequent westerly winds, Crane Cove Park has become a warm, sunny destination for stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking and lounging since it opened in 2020.
In addition to new parks, San Francisco has become more walkable and bikeable with the pandemic-driven development of the Slow Streets program, which limits or prohibits car traffic on streets throughout the city. Destination-worthy ones include the Great Highway, which runs alongside Ocean Beach on the city’s western shore (it’s currently closed to car traffic on weekends and often, on windy days) and JFK Promenade in Golden Gate Park, which could be made permanently car-free in November. The one-and-a-half-mile stretch of JFK takes you past destinations like the Conservatory of Flowers and the Rose Garden, plus the Skatin’ Place, where you’ll often find a rocking roller disco.
A return to in-person music events
Golden Gate Park is also playing host to a number of major in-person events this year, including Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free, three-day music festival being held Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. This year’s lineup will feature Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Buddy Miller, with more artists to be announced next week. The Outside Lands Music Festival is taking place Aug. 5 to 7 with artists including Green Day, Post Malone and Lil Uzi Vert (single-day tickets from $195; three-day passes from $409). Find even more music in the Sunset District at the Stern Grove Festival, now in its 85th year. The series of free weekly concerts, happening on Sundays through Aug. 14, has acts ranging from the San Francisco Symphony to Phil Lesh.
The Portola Music Festival (single-day tickets from $200, two-day passes from $400), a new music festival coming to San Francisco from the team behind Coachella, takes place on Sept. 24 to 25 at Pier 80, and will showcase electronic acts including Flume, James Blake, The Avalanches and M.I.A.
A new destination for contemporary art
With its opening in October, the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco aims to provide a fresh approach to the ways in which contemporary art should be showcased and shared. Tied to its core tenets of equity and accessibility, ICASF will have free admission and plans to showcase local artists and artists of color in an environment that is welcoming to all. Opening programming includes a solo exhibition from Jeffrey Gibson, a Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor, a group exhibit curated by the California artists and curators Tahirah Rasheed and Autumn Breon, and work from the local artists Liz Hernández and Ryan Whelan.
Eat and drink
San Francisco’s restaurants have struggled from pandemic restrictions, but also the high operational costs and high costs of living limiting the workforce. Many storefronts remain empty, and a number of legacy businesses closed, including Alioto’s, an Italian seafood restaurant that held court in Fisherman’s Wharf for 97 years, and the Cliff House, an iconic destination hugging the jagged shoreline over the Pacific (a new restaurant may open there by the end of the year).
While undoubtedly challenging, the past two years have had a silver lining: Outdoor dining and drinking cropped up everywhere, from long-established restaurants like Nopa to brand-new spots like Casements, a modern Irish bar in the Mission that opened in January 2020. The bar had originally planned to be a cozy, indoor-only affair, but instead it now serves stellar cocktails (from $12) on one of the best patios in the city, complete with an outdoor semi-private space, live music, D.J.s and colorful murals of Irish rock musicians including Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.
While marquee openings are still a major part of the city’s food fabric — recent ones include the opulent Palm Court Restaurant in the new RH Gallery and a new Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience store — some of the most exciting developments center on low-key projects from high-end chefs. In the Mission, Corey Lee of three Michelin-starred Benu opened San Ho Won, a Korean barbecue spot with classic dishes and riffs on tradition, like a blood-sausage pancake and kimchi pozole (starters from $16, barbecue from $26). Matthew Kirk, a sous chef from Lazy Bear, opened Automat, a day-and-night destination in the Western Addition for baked goods, breakfast sandwiches and burgers (sandwiches from $9 to $16).
Natural wine is nothing new in San Francisco, but low-intervention bottles — small-batch, often funky wines made utilizing organic ingredients, native yeast and usually, little to no sulfites — are dominating new restaurants and bars. Shuggie’s, a pop-art explosion with a lively bottle list from the West Coast and beyond, features two-dollar wine shots and a “trash pizza” made from repurposed food waste (wines from $15 for a glass or $51 for a bottle; pizzas from $19). Palm City Wines opened in the Outer Sunset in spring of 2020 as a takeaway-only natural wine bottle shop and deli; now, it also serves small plates, wines by the glass, Northern California beers and forearm-sized hoagies (starters from $8, sandwiches from $19). Upping the ante is Bar Part Time in the Mission, a natural wine-fueled disco with a rotating roster of D.J.s and wine producers.
Where to stay
1 Hotel opened in San Francisco in June on the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building. The striking space features reclaimed wood and native greenery, recyclable key cards and hangers in the 186 guest rooms and 14 suites (from $500 per night), plus a rooftop spa, chef’s garden and beehives. Terrene, the hotel’s restaurant, features a farm-to-table inspired menu and a wide selection of mezcal and tequila.
LUMA, which also opened in June, is the first hotel development in the Mission Bay neighborhood. With 299 rooms (from $329 per night) and a rooftop lounge opening later this summer, the hotel is close to Oracle Park and the Chase Center. And on June 30, the longstanding Sir Francis Drake Hotel in Union Square reopened as Beacon Grand with 418 renovated guest rooms (from $249 per night), a lobby bar and in 2023, will reopen a redesign of the famed top-floor bar, the Starlite Room.