I never lived in a major city before moving to SF, only in suburbs. It’s been great getting to know the city and becoming familiar enough with many of its neighborhoods to have favorite spots in each one. I’ve had friends and couchsurfers visit from out of town (even from other countries like Turkey, Russia, Israel, and Germany) and have enjoyed both playing the tourist and sharing my favorite SF experiences with them. In the next few posts, I’ll cover the SF highlights I’ll miss most in some of my favorite neighborhoods.
When I moved to SF, I fell in love with Cole Valley and found an apartment in the neighborhood (turns out I’m in ambiguous territory that may be part of Inner Sunset, but more on that later). Cole Valley is a mini version of Noe Valley, the SF neighborhood with the most puppies and strollers per capita. The only difference is that Noe gets more than five sunny days per summer. Incessant fog aside, the neighborhood benefits from being cute, quiet, relatively safe and centrally located. It’s right near the southeastern corner of Golden Gate park, which is a good way to orient people who haven’t heard of the tiny neighborhood. There aren’t tons of great restaurants or bars and many of the shops tend to be overpriced, but that’s ok since the adjacent neighborhoods provide more variety.
Just a ten minute walk from the heart of Cole Valley, Upper Haight (or “The Haight”) is a separate world awash with hippie nostalgia and filthy street kids that somehow know their boundaries and remain within a one block radius of Haight street. While Haight itself can be less than pleasant to walk along, especially at night, and the thrill of being at the historical intersection of Haight and Ashbury may wear off when you note the souvenir shops and Ben & Jerry’s on the corner (at least they got rid of the Gap store), the neighborhood still is a great place for window shopping and people watching.
A Day in Cole Valley and Upper Haight
Start with breakfast at one of the cafes near the intersection of Carl and Cole streets. Keep in mind that brunch is big in San Francisco. The best places attract the masses and you may find yourself waiting an hour or more to be seated, even on a weekday! Cole Valley is known for its highly rated bistro, Zazie. If you’re set on eggs benedict and mimosas, have plenty of time and don’t mind spending over $20 on breakfast, it’s not a bad place to enjoy a leisurely morning meal. I generally opt for La Boulange, a French-style bakery right across the corner from Zazie. Even on the busiest weekend mornings, you won’t wait more than 15 minutes for your food. The French toast they make is more like a sweet, custard-like quiche. Served up with very fresh fruit, it’s one of my favorite options for breakfast. Of course, you can’t go wrong with any of the baked goods (croissants, tarts, bread puddings and more) they have on display. If it’s a sunny day, Reverie with its spacious back patio is a good place for coffee and a light meal, but keep in mind that they take cash only.
After breakfast, give yourself some time to digest – you’ll be doing some climbing later! In the meantime, take a peek at some of the shops on Cole street. Even if home improvement is the last thing on your mind, check out Cole Hardware. It’s the friendliest neighborhood hardware store ever. Enjoy the mural outside depicting Cole Valley’s local canines, and greet the real ones that are inevitably lounging on the sidewalk. Step into Val de Cole to check out their extensive selection of (often discounted) wines.
Ready for a workout? The climb up to Tank Hill takes less than 15 minutes – just take Parnassus to Shrader, turn left, and when it gets steep – keep going! When Shrader ends at the top of the hill (catch your breath and admire the angel sculpture carved out of a tree), turn left and continue up to the trailhead. Climb the short dirt trail and watch as the best panoramic view of San Francisco unfolds before you. Best of all, you’ll rarely share the view with more than a couple of other lucky wanderers.
If you have the energy to visit another urban park, you can take the newly restored trailhead at Stanyan and 17th street to enter Sutro Forest, where you’ll feel more removed from civilization than you would think possible in the heart of a city. Beware though, the place can feel so cut off that it becomes unnerving if you’re alone. On my last visit I heard eerie creaking sounds that suggested some of the hundred-foot-tall trees were ready to collapse on my head. And if a tree falls in Sutro Forest, and nobody’s there to hear it…?
Time for lunch! For some quick and more than decent Mediterranean food (think falafel and shwarma wraps), stop by Taboun on Parnassus street. Or you can wait until you’re in the Haight to have the perfect slice of thin crust pizza at Escape from New York. On the way there, take Cole street to admire the colorful Victorians – I actually prefer these to the ones in Pacific Heights that get more attention.
Haight street has a lot of fun shops to explore, whether or not you want to buy anything. Starting from the west end of the street, Amoeba Music is an enormous record store in a former bowling alley. It has tons of esoteric stuff and almost inspired me to start a vinyl collection. For funky designer shoes that are ridiculously comfortable (and colorful) stop by John Fluevog. There are plenty of unique vintage clothing shops like Decades of Fashion and Held Over, where browsing the collection is almost akin to visiting a museum, as well as more practical secondhand stores like Buffalo Exchange. Of course, it being the Haight, there are plenty of smoke shops and places to pick up New Age/hippie paraphernalia. Step into Genesis Imports for a minute to admire the intricate wooden carvings and stock up on Nag Champa. The interesting shopping on Haight ends around the intersection with Central Avenue, where you can check out some more iconic Victorians.
Hungry yet? If it’s a Thursday, head back toward Stanyan for Off the Grid. Organized last year, this weekly event brings quality food trucks from all over the area to Upper Haight for the evening. The crowd is fun, there’s often live music and the food is varied and not what you might expect to come out of a truck. One of my favorite vendors is 3-sum eats with their flavor-infused lemonade and cornflake-encrusted chicken sandwich, but they don’t always make an appearance. Some other good options for dinner are Ploy II, a cozy and authentic Thai place, and Parada 22, serving Puerto Rican food (plantains galore).
For drinks, The Alembic is the place for atmosphere and elaborate cocktails (but good luck reading the dense descriptions on their menu – it might be easier to ask the bartender for a recommendation!) On the more casual end are Hobson’s Choice, for the sweet (but strong) house punch, and Magnolia or Martin Macks for a few beers. In general, nightlife in the Haight (as with much of San Francisco) is more “grab a couple of drinks” than “party til dawn,” but you can have a good time.
View Cole Valley & Upper Haight in a larger map
Have you been to these neighborhoods? Do you agree with these highlights or would you recommend other places? Leave a comment below!