The Bay Area is beaches and bridges, big hills and water, fog and sunshine. It’s a place where everything is a discovery — the same spot on a different day, with different weather, in a different mood, is a different thing. Other cities seems two-dimensional, exploring them feels like being a rat in a maze. San Francisco is fleeting — I crest a hill and the whole bay comes into view, the red bridge and the fog flowing over the headlands and the sun setting above the Pacific, and I duck down the other side and it all disappears. I know it will never be exactly like that again, and that no one had that moment exactly like me. It’s a city of secrets, and everyone who has ever lived there has their own. Out of love for that, I’m going to share a few of my lesser-known SF-area faves (along with the usual spots I think they beat out). I hope you enjoy and share — the best Bay Area moments are had with friends.
Top of Mount Tam via Fire Access Road
Better Than: Twin Peaks
The Bay Area is home of the view spot. For me, it’s the higher, the better. While Twin Peaks, Bernal Heights, and others in the city are nice, I like to take it to the top. Drive like you’re taking the long way to Stinson Beach, along Panoramic Highway. Cut back on the Pan Toll Road (it is labeled as a Fire Access road.) Take a left when it hits a paved parking lot, and look for the dirt pull-out a few hundred yards up on the left. Hike up the back of the hill to the stand of trees on the rock outcropping, and there you have it – on top of the Bay and on top of the World.
Better Than: Dolores Park
Dolores Park is an SF legend, and on a sunny weekend day it must be one of the world’s best public not-a-party parties. But sometimes I’m not in the mood for pasty PBR-bodies and other people’s music. That’s when I head to Precita Park. Same sunshine, easy walk, and with a few nice coffee shops, and plenty of scenester-free space, it’s the perfect spot for relaxing and reading.
Hottub Clubs, Oakland
Better Than: Everything
This secret borders on legend, but for those not in the know — yes, there are secret hottub clubs in Oakland and Berkeley. Think overgrown hippie backyards, side-yard gates with code-panel locks, community rules on respectful behavior, and an extremely lax attitude towards actually wearing bathing suits. If you can get on one of the email lists, you’re golden.
Mile Rock Beach
Better Than: Baker Beach, Ocean Beach
“It’s the journey, not the destination” best says why to choose a trip to Mile Rock Beach over Ocean Beach or Baker Beach. I have a lot of great memories at those beaches — I once dug a 4 foot-deep foxhole to get away from the wind during an Ocean Beach bonfire, then filled it in at the end of the night, only to realize my buddy’s car keys were still at the bottom; I once played such an intense game of Frisbee on that far end of Baker that a large crowd of men gathered to watch. With Mile Rock Beach, my memories are about getting there. Park near the Cliff House and hike the trail towards Lands End. Weave in and out of the cypress trees until you see the sign. Stop for a moment to take in the view 100 feet above the Pacific. Then down the stairs, through the little trail, get splashed by the ocean for a few and then, if you’re like me, turn right around and take the journey again.
OUTSIDE THE CITY BEACH
Cowell Ranch Beach
Better Than: Stinson Beach
This one is a bit hard to find. The best I can do is tell you to go just a bit past Half Moon Bay (past route 92) and look for a semi-hidden sign with a pelican on it. Pull off into the little dirt lot and walk down a few hundred yards through an artichoke field and find the steps to the beach. It’s a green-sand cove with high dune-cliffs, really secluded, really peaceful, a really nice place to take some friends, a picnic, maybe a bottle of Patrón, and spend the day getting away.
Better Than: Napa
Napa is fancy. Russian River is woolly. Depends on what you’re looking for, but I definitely prefer my wine country to be a bit wilder. Renting a house on the river leaves you not far from many vineyards. Better than Napa, there is more to do than just drink. Tubing, fishing, and day-trips to Bodega Bay or the Russian River delta are all great options. And you can always put on some make-up and hit the bars in Guerneville, which has a fun nightlife scene.
IN THE CITY HIKING
Mt. Sutro Open Space Reserve
Better Than: Golden Gate Park
This is a place where I truly feel I am no longer in a city but an entirely new world. You can find the trail-head by walking all the way up Willard St, and once you do, you are plunged into a secluded, hilly eucalyptus grove with hummingbirds, spots of sunshine, and not a house or another person in sight.
OUT OF THE CITY HIKING
San Pedro Mountain and Montara Mountain
Better Than: Mount Diablo
I hiked Mount Diablo once. It was hot, there was no tree cover, and there were rattlesnakes. I arrived at the top, saw a parking lot, and realized to my dismay that I could have had the same view without leaving the Subura. San Pedro Valley Park in Pacifica is less popular, but way better. It is one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the Bay Area, and the park has a few great waterfalls to hike to. From the mountain’s summit, views of the bay and the Pacific, and, if you have someone to pick you up on the other side, you can go over the top of the mountain and all the way down to Gray Whale Cove Beach.
Better Than: Zeitgeist
Every SF-er knows, loves and maybe also hates Zeitgeist. It has the tamale lady, the surly bouncers, and the reasonable-prices on a great beer selection. But it’s a hipster bar shaped like a biker bar. If you want a real, road-rash and separated-shoulders hangout, take a ride down the Skyline Boulevard to Alice’s Restaurant. It’s not the place from the Arlo Guthrie song, but it is a bona-fide biker bar, with hogs outside and charmingly bad food inside to prove it. For those who haven’t, the Skyline drive is reason alone to make the trip.
Better Than: the Pacific Ocean
Jump in the Pacific Ocean around San Francisco and you have 30 minutes of useful consciousness before hypothermia sets in. Great for a cool-down dip, not so much for a full day of swimming. A much better spot to float around with some cocktails, or do a little cliff-jumping, is the Inkwells, a series of deep pools along Lagunitas Creek. They really fill up in the summer; that is the best time to go.
Top Of The Mark
Better Than: The Roofbar Formerly Known As Medjool
Maybe it’s because the view spots are so great, but San Francisco doesn’t do “bar with a view” as well as, say, LA, NYC or Chicago. Really, unless you work in the financial district or live in Al Gore’s SOMA penthouse, you probably aren’t even in tall buildings very often. In the Mission District, the Medjool Roofbar was a decent, if crowded, place for an outdoor, up-high cocktail. But my favorite bar in the sky is a place where I am always the youngest person by 25 years – the Top Of The Mark. The Mark is a classic. My grandfather remembers going there when he was in the war, stationed at Fort Ord. A famous movie-actress at the time gave him a ride home in her limousine. (He has told me this story approx. 789 times.) Anyway, the Top Of The Mark has waiters in tuxedos, plenty of tables near the window, and the most spectacular view of the city, period. I highly recommend you visit. It would make my grandfather proud.