A local’s travel guide to the San Francisco Bay Area: what to eat, see and do in three days

<span>Kari Paul at Crimson Horticultural Rarities in Oakland, California.</span><span>Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian</span>
Kari Paul at Crimson Horticultural Rarities in Oakland, California.Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian

San Francisco is widely known for its cable cars, foggy weather and hilly landscapes – but as someone who has lived here for five years, I know there is a lot more to the city than the picturesque postcards would have you believe.

I grew up in Iowa, where life is a little quieter, and I later lived in New York City, which nobody would describe as quiet. The Bay Area is my favorite place I have ever lived, though, a happy medium between a noisy city and peaceful small town – with plenty to do, and beautiful naturescapes never far away.

San Francisco and its surrounding areas have been subject to a lot of bad press recently, but for me, despite the problems (and occasional traffic congestion), living here feels like having access to a sunny playground all year round. If I were offering a friend a locals-only guide, here’s what I would suggest they get up to.

Day 1: The Jewels of Oakland

I love San Francisco, but the entire time I have lived out here I have stayed on the east side of the bay. The neighboring city of Oakland, where it is consistently warmer, more vibrant and, frankly, more fun, is what I call home. In general, I suggest renting a car when staying in the Bay Area. If you are primarily sticking around San Francisco, most activities are easily accessible by public transportation, but having a vehicle will give you easier access to all of the beautiful destinations surrounding the city.

Start out your day on Piedmont Avenue, which has a number of must-see spots. Grab a bagel or doughnut at the vegan cafe Timeless Coffee and stroll down the block to the beautiful nearby plant store Crimson Horticultural Rarities. Just across the street, Spectator Books has an excellent selection that leans heavily on local authors. Vintage stores line the street, and I especially enjoy Mercy Vintage, where I once found an excellent wool skirt covered in hand-stitched ducks. I always love to stop by a picturesque flower stand situated in an alleyway on the same street and pet Luna, the shop dog.

After you get your shopping in, head down to Lake Merritt for a stroll. Historically known as “the Jewel of Oakland”, the lake is a popular meeting or strolling place. On a typical weekend day, expect to see the shores lined with picnicking Oaklanders, stands selling food and locally made goods, and lots of wildlife. The full perimeter of the lake is 3.1 miles (5km). I recommend starting at the pergola on the north end and wandering past the bonsai garden towards the Oakland Museum of California, just a half-block walk from the lake, for an afternoon of art.

After the museum, you can walk to the Lion Dance Cafe in downtown Oakland. The award-winning, farm-to-table restaurant offers an often-changing menu of Teochew-Singaporean and Cali-Italian family recipes. They do not take reservations or preorders, so prepare to wait in line – it’s worth it! Though they offer sit-down dining, I recommend getting the food to go and driving up to Joaquin Miller Park for a beautiful panoramic view of the sunset over the bay. If you can get there before it’s dark, check out the redwood trees in the park as well. They’re breathtaking.

Day 2: Souvenirs & Splurges

If you are coming from Oakland and want to get to San Francisco on your tour of the Bay Area, there is no better way to do so than by ferry. Park your car in Jack London Square and take the boat route marked for the Ferry Building in San Francisco. If you arrive on a Saturday, there will be a farmers’ market brimming with local fruits and vegetables. No matter what day you visit, the Ferry Building is full of food stands and other shops. You must stop by Arab street food purveyor Reem’s. The Ferry Building location is an outpost of its main restaurant in the Mission and its menu features its signature varieties of man’oushe (a homemade flatbread). Also in the building is the Fog City Flea Trading Post, a cute stop for vintage clothes, jewellery and San Francisco souvenirs.

Take the train to the Mission District, perhaps my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. Along Valencia Street you’ll find vintage shops and stores selling goods from local artists. My personal favorite is Paxton Gate, an oddities shop that sells everything from crystals and candles to teeth and taxidermy. While you’re in the Mission, be sure to turn down one of the street-art-filled alleyways for a free outdoor gallery of sorts.

Of course, everyone wants to see the Golden Gate Bridge when visiting San Francisco, but rather than book a touristy bike tour, I recommend seeing it from Lands End – the national park which to me is the most beautiful place in the city. Take an Uber there and wander around the Sutro baths. A now-defunct public recreation center that opened in the late 1800s, the Sutro baths featured massive pools, an ice-skating rink and an amphitheater. Today, all that remains are the ruins, which make for a beautiful place to watch the sunset.

For a dinner splurge, I highly recommend Nari, a Thai-Californian restaurant inside the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown. Afterwards, wander to the neighboring Japan Center malls to buy kitschy toys and eat soft-serve matcha or sesame taiyaki ice-cream (from a fish-shaped pastry) at Uji Time Dessert. Close out the evening at the Do Re Mi Music Studio, across the street, a karaoke spot with private rooms available by the hour.

Day 3: Hit the Road

One of the best parts of living in the Bay Area is how easily accessible beautiful natural landscapes are. There are countless day trips you can take from Oakland and San Francisco, but if I had to choose my favorite it would be Bodega Bay – a stunning unincorporated area in Sonoma county along the coast.

Drive up Route 1 and take the long way, stopping at Point Reyes Station and enjoying the beautiful scenery along the shoreline there. Many hikes and beach walks can be found along the way. Keep an eye out for seals. I highly recommend staying at the Lodge at Bodega Bay – which is a relatively affordable luxury experience with room rates starting at $280. As someone who loves birding, this is truly a dream location for me as the Lodge overlooks a protected nature preserve full of wildlife. Relax in the hotel’s infinity hot tub, take a dip in the pool or enjoy its spa amenities. It also has a great on-site restaurant.

While in Bodega Bay, you can also stop by the church where the classic Hitchcock thriller The Birds was filmed. Of course, you will be in wine country, so if that’s your thing check out some local vineyards. I am always sure to drive a little farther up the coast for a stop in Jenner, a tiny beachside town with great hiking trails and kayak rentals. A must-see is Cafe Aquatica, where you can enjoy a coffee overlooking the water and occasional live music. With spotty cellphone service, sitting alongside the water where the river meets the Pacific Ocean and watching seals play on rocks and kayakers float by will make you feel worlds away from life’s responsibilities. Amazingly, though, you’re less than a two-hour drive from San Francisco.

  • Kari Paul is the Guardian US’s tech reporter. When she’s not working, she’s birding, crocheting and exploring California