San Francisco’s best attractions are its neighborhoods

As iconic and eye-catching as many of the San Francisco’s top attractions are—from the towering Golden Gate Bridge to the dramatic curves of Lombard Street—I still think planners who organize their group fun around them are potentially making a mistake. The real treasures of the city are its distinct neighborhoods and their colorful shops, dining options and general ambience.  Sure a group can have a good time at Coit Tower for 20 minutes, but a locale like the Haight-Ashbury provides an entire afternoon of exploration and entertainment.

My personal favorite district is probably North Beach, where groups can explore the city’s ‘beat’ heritage along and nearby the main artery of Columbus Ave. Of particular interest are the neighboring establishments of Café Vesuvio and City Lights Books, divided by a short alleyway dedicated to Jack Kerouac. Vesuvio is the ideal funky tavern for a group to take a break, with the upstairs providing a perfect perch for people-watching; and City Lights—if you somehow haven’t heard of it—is one of the most delightful bookstores anywhere and owned by legendary poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Just across the way on Broadway is a Beat Museum worth a peek as well. Other tempting possibilities are Tosca’s, a classy old-school bar/café; Francis Ford Coppola’s trendy eatery; and my personal favorite bar in the city, the Savoy Tivoli (on Grant Street). Any group considering a pub crawl should head straight for North Beach.

The Haight-Ashbury transports groups back to the city’s Summer of Love era that followed the Beat generation. It’s hard to top the Bohemian vibe here, and the setting is made even more relaxing by its location adjacent to Golden Gate Park—practically a neighborhood of its own, albeit a forested green one. On a sunny afternoon, a stroll down Haight Street followed by an outing in the park is about as good as it gets, and if the weather does turn on you the amazing California Academy of Sciences is only about a 10-minute walk into the park from the corner of Haight and Stanyan.

The Marina can be an overlooked area, and is really a top place just for strolling around, with the best restaurants and shops probably found on Chestnut and Union Streets. Chrissy Field, right by the water, boasts a nice marina, and Fort Mason is home to the tremendous ‘Greens’ restaurant as well as a performing arts theater that is one of the most enjoyable places in the Bay Area to take in a show. And on a sunny day, the recently revamped Golden Gate National Recreation Area closer to the Golden Gate Bridge than Chrissy Field is a memorable picnic spot with the bridge as a dramatic backdrop.

Chinatown, which I’ve written about here in greater detail recently, is a nice locale for delicious cheap dining and funky souvenir shopping. I’ve always thought this would be the perfect place for a teambuilding scavenger hunt, or similar experience. For a no-frills lunch loaded with flavor, try the time-tested Yuet Lee on Broadway and Stockton’s corner; for an elegant group affair check out the Empress of China on Grant.

Those are probably my favorite S.F. neighborhoods, though other worthwhile outings would include touring the spectacular murals dotting the Mission District. And while I’m not a big fan of Fisherman’s Wharf, any group exploring that sector should definitely make a pit stop at the Buena Vista (on Hyde) for the best Irish Coffee in America. A tourist trap has rarely been so much fun.

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