San Francisco: From a local’s perspective

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By Ali Ballard

Hey Mud & Magnolias (I say this with my best southern accent because everyone in the Bay always wants to know where I am from)! My name is Ali Ballard. You might remember me from a past issue featuring the quirky stylings of my Joyner home. The interior was filled with thrift store finds hung gallery-style and shelves arranged with trinkets and souvenirs that I had collected from my travels. This past year, I made a decision to trade my knick-knacks for a life that values experiences over possessions. I gave my mug collection to Britney Jean, a friend that I knew would love it as much as I once did. Betty, the blue-haired doe I once thought would be along for the ride if I backpacked through America, now resides in my parent’s garage. I packed a carry-on suitcase and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. You can read more about my travels and life here on my blog,

My niece came to visit me here in San Francisco a few months ago. Madison, a sixteen-year-old junior at Saltillo High School, worked part time as a waitress and bought her own plane ticket to come visit me in my new city! I admire her work ethic and her sense of adventure, and I wanted her to experience the same San Francisco that I found magical and endearing.

The day after she arrived, I took her to Chinatown, my favorite place in San Francisco! Her face lit up as she saw the red lanterns and the shops filled with souvenirs. It was such a wonderful feeling seeing her experience something so different and new for the first time. We stopped and watched street performers, tried on silk ensembles in the Chinese dress shop and bought fresh fortune cookies at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in a hidden spot on Clay Alley.

Our city tour continued, and just a few hours later, we had experienced Latin, Italian and Chinese cultures. Each district of San Francisco is uniquely its own and a learning experience for newcomers.

Inspired by Madison’s visit, I want to show everyone the city that captured my heart just as I showed her. I walked up hills that seemed endless and through alleyways to find my favorite spots, and I want to share them with you. This is a complete guide to my San Francisco. I did not google the top restaurants or check Yelp reviews to know what to order, I relied on my authentic experiences here in the city.

Places to Eat

We Be Sushi – 538 Valencia St in the Mission District: I like to order miso soup and the crunch roll. I’m not very brave when it comes to raw sushi, so I stick to the cooked kind. I first noticed this quaint restaurant as I was passing by one day. The inside is tiny and the room is filled with a red glow from the neon light that reads We Be Sushi.

Orphan Andy’s – 3991 17th St. in the Castro: It is a 24/7 diner that serves an array of breakfast foods and various other fried foods. I love their burger and fries.

Hot Cookie – 407 Castro St. in the Castro: Right around the corner from Orphan Andy’s, Hot Cookie serves fresh baked cookies, including some in naughty shapes.

Cafe Révielle – 610 Long Bridge St. in Mission Bay near AT&T ballpark where the Giant’s play: This is my favorite place to eat brunch. They have hot cakes, breakfast hash, and fresh salads.

Henry’s Hunan – 1398 Grant Ave. in North Beach: This restaurant was recommended to me by the checkout girl at City Lights Bookstore. I always order hot tea, spring rolls, vegetable fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, and mongolian chicken. Across the street is a bar called Tupelo!

Cafe International – 508 Haight St. in the Lower Haight: The atmosphere is very Bohemian. It is a coffee shop with a mix of couches and tables with chairs. They pride themselves on offering cuisine that is, like the name says, international. I like to order the quiche and lentil soup served with cornbread.

In-and-out Burger- 333 Jefferson St. near Fisherman’s Wharf: This is a must-eat if you are visiting California.

Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem –  2323 Mission St. in the Mission District: I love their biscuits and gravy for brunch and their totchos (tater tots layered with nacho toppings such as sour cream, cheese, jalapeños and black olives).

KitTea Cat Café – 96 Gough St.: If you are a cat lover you have to book a reservation to play with a room full of cats for an hour. You will also be served a choice of tea or hot chocolate and there are sandwiches and chips to order.

Taco Shop – 1824 Irving St. in the Sunset: Taco Shop has the best Carnitas California burrito. A California burrito has french fries inside!

Golden Boys Pizza – 542 Green St. in North Beach: This pizza is so good, and you can buy it by the slice.

The Baked Bear – 2824 Jones St. in North Beach: Build your own ice cream sandwiches! Choose an ice cream and put it between donuts, brownies or cookies, and then add toppings to your creation!

Must See Places 

Chinatown – San Francisco has the largest Chinatown in the country. It is filled with shops to buy souvenirs, places to eat and street performers. While in Chinatown, visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. You can stand in line and create your own fortunes to insert into freshly made Fortune Cookies. You can buy a whole bag for a couple of dollars. Watching the cookies being folded one by one is hypnotic.

North Beach- This is the Italian neighborhood, with Italian flags decorating the street lights. Stop by Saints Peter and Paul Church, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio posed for photos after their city hall wedding in 1954.

City Lights Bookstore – An independent bookstore made famous by the beatnik era.

Jack Kerouac Alley – An alley that connects Grant and Columbus Avenues in Chinatown. Kerouac was known to frequent the adjacent pub and bookstore (City Lights Bookstore). In 1988, the bookstore’s founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti proposed that the alley be transformed. Now, it’s known for its engraved poems from writers like John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou and, of course, Kerouac.

Fisherman’s Wharf – Home to restaurants and other tourist attractions. Eat an all-American hot dog from a stand, ride the carousel and listen to the sea lions bark on Pier 39.

Musee Mecanique – Bring a $5 bill to cash in for quarters and play vintage arcade games for a few hours.

Ghiradelli Square – When you enter the front door, get a free piece of chocolate! You might have to stand in line a little while for ice cream, but it’s worth it if you get hot fudge on top.

Haight-Ashbury- The historic hippie district. You might find murals of Janice Joplin or Jimi Hendrix in this area. The shops are filled with tie-dye jumpsuits and woven hoodies. The Goodwill in this neighborhood is my favorite! The vintage shops have the most beautiful items. If you’re a vinyl collector, stop by Amoeba Records.

The Painted Ladies – These famous houses are located on Steiner St. across from Alamo Square Park. Tourist flood the park to have their photo made in front of the homes featured during the title sequence on the popular television show “Full House.”

Golden Gate Bridge – I suggest renting a bike and riding across the bridge. If you want to skip the bike ride and just want your photo taken, stop at the Visitor’s Center for a nice view of the bridge.

Baker Beach – Prepare for nudity and the perfect view of Golden Gate Bridge!

Dolores Park – Located in the Mission, this beautiful park is full of palm trees and, on sunny days, hundreds of people sunbathing on blankets and sharing a picnic. It is across the street from the high school that Carlos Santana attended.

Valencia St. in the Mission – I love to walk this street and look at all of the shops. There is a pirate store that is really interesting. Also, Dandelion Chocolate factory is there if you want to stop for a yummy hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. My friend, Mr. Brandy, plays on Valencia St. in front of Clarion Alley at night. He lives and plays piano from inside his van. He is one of my favorite people that I have met while living in San Francisco.

Clarion Alley in the Mission – This alley is filled with brightly painted political murals. Sometimes artist will have their garage doors open and you can purchase art work.

Castro Theatre – When you visit the theatre, know that this is the real San Francisco treat (not rice-a-roni). a pine organist will be raised from the orchestra to play some fun melodies such as “Singing in the Rain.” When he is finished, he will be lowered back into the orchestra and the curtain is drawn for a dramatic effect before the film begins.

Mosaic Stair Case – On 16th and Moraga, you will find a staircase that extends from the ocean all the way to the sky! If you go at sunset, you can watch the San Francisco bay swallow the sun. If it’s foggy be sure to bring a scarf and jacket because it can be windy at the top!

Seward Street Slides- There is cardboard at the bottom of the slides. This is a hidden attraction that is fun for kids and adults!

Marin Headlands – A beautiful place to watch the sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Places To Stay

Airbnb – If you do San Francisco right, then you will not be in your hotel very much at all! Get out and see the city and just be in your room to shower and sleep. Airbnb is the way to go.

Green Tortoise Hostel – A hip place if you are interested in staying for extremely cheap and meeting people from around the world. The first time I stayed in a hostel in Chicago I was a little nervous, but had the time of my life meeting people from around the world! They also offer double beds in a private room for $67 a night.

Hotel Triton San Francisco – An interesting hotel with artsy decor. It is located on Grant Ave.–a central location to everything the city has to offer. Rooms start at about $150 a night.

1 Comment
  1. This is a beautiful article. Ali, you have done and absorbed so much of the San Francisco I love in such a short period of time. Well written. I will pass this on to new friends visiting. Great great great!!❤
    Mr Brandy

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