Plan your next trip with our new Dream Weekend series, combining expert picks from GOLF.com staff and the travel gurus at Travel & Leisure. We’re bringing you the best recommendations for golf courses, hotels, restaurants, and sightseeing–so you can focus on your round instead of your itinerary. Now on the tee: San Francisco.
If you’re going to San Francisco, feel no obligation to wear flowers in your hair. The city I moved to nearly 30 years ago has long since shed its hippie-dippy airs. Waves of tech-boom money have washed away the tie-dye and the whiff of patchouli. What remains is a thrumming urban center of gleaming office towers and live-work lofts where one-bedroom condos routinely fetch more than a million bucks. Oh, and lots of golf courses and world-class restaurants. So, yeah: Forget the flowers. But bring your sticks and your appetite.
After touching down at San Francisco International Airport, collect your luggage and your rental car and then collect yourself by taking a few deep, meditative breaths. You’ll want to be relaxed as you merge into the sluggish traffic heading north into the city: bottlenecks around these parts now rival those of Los Angeles. The pace is much better at Gleneagles Golf Course at McLaren Park, a terrific nine-hole sleeper on the southern lip of San Francisco, roughly halfway between the airport and the city. The lilting fairways here are lined with cypress and eucalyptus trees, and the greens, which were rebuilt a few years back, are strikingly pure, all the more so for a municipal course. Post-round, be sure to stop by for a drink in the low-slung clubhouse, where you’re apt to find a colorful cast of local characters at the bar. For your $20 greens fee, and a few bucks for a beer, Gleneagles gives you more than your money’s worth.
When it comes to accommodations, you can hardly swing a nine-iron in San Francisco without smacking into a cool, conveniently located hotel. The Westin St. Francis in Union Square puts you in the center of the downtown action. Another nearby option is Hotel Vitale, on the Embarcadero, a fashionable retreat with a lively bar in the lobby and a quiet rooftop terrace for hotel guests with killer views of San Francisco Bay.
Asking San Franciscans about their favorite restaurants is like asking New Yorkers about their favorite pizza: everyone’s got an opinion, and no one’s wrong. This is one of the world’s great dining cities, so it really all depends on your budget and your tastes. If you’re looking for a blowout, bucket-list meal, look no farther than Benu, a three-Michelin star, modern-American outpost from celebrated chef Corey Lee. Just be warned: the final tally on your bill will likely have a comma in it. On the more casual side, consider China Live, in Chinatown, for—you guessed it—contemporary Chinese cooking And if Cal-Italian is what you’re after, Cotogna, in Jackson Square, is hard to beat.
One of San Francisco’s great unsung attractions is its large-scale camera obscura, a rare device inspired by a design by Leonard Vinci that projects images of the surrounding landscape using natural light that spills through its roof. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this camera sits on a bluff at the city’s western edge, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, so the panoramas it provides are unforgettable. Admission is $3 for adults, and $2 for kids and seniors, making it a rarity of rarities these days: a truly affordable San Francisco treat.
Travel & Leisure Tip: Visit San Francisco in September or October for the most reliably pleasant weather and fewer crowds. Come in July and August for your pick of outdoor festivals and events. Spring is also a great time to visit, but expect the fog to roll in with a cool ocean breeze in the afternoons. During the annual Bay to Breakers footrace, held every May, some 75,000 runners and walkers, many in costume (and a few in their birthday suits), tackle this 7.46-mile course. The event also happens to be the city’s biggest (moving) party.
Get up and at it early with a stroll along the waterfront to the Ferry Building, a gourmet emporium that backs up to the bay. Saturday is farmers’ market day, so the place will be teeming with fruit and vegetable vendors and prepared food stands. Grab a coffee and a breakfast sandwich. You’ve got golf to play.
Of San Francisco’s multiple public access options, the undisputed jewel is TPC Harding Park, a Golden Age design that first opened for play in 1925. Threaded into its rich history is the story of San Francisco native son Ken Venturi, whose parents ran the pro shop at Harding Park. Harding is where young Kenny learned to play. Bob Rosburg also cut his teeth here, as did Johnny Miller and the amateur great Harvey Ward. In the 1960s, Harding Park was a regular Tour stop (Venturi, Gary Player and Billy Casper all claimed victories). But by the 1990s, when I started wandering Harding’s tree-lined fairways, the course had become like an aging film star: great bones but with sad, sagging features.
A major renovation changed that. Spearheaded by former USGA president Sandy Tatum, the multi-million dollar project was completed in 2002. The prices went up, especially for out-of-towners, but so did the quality and prestige of the course, which has since welcomed such marquee events as the Presidents Cup, the Charles Schwab Cup Championship and the WGC-Match Play. Harding today is kept in pristine condition, with sharply defined fairways and swift-running greens. Its compelling routing remains largely unchanged, with a back nine that wraps around the front nine, building in drama as it unfolds. A demanding stretch of closing holes, cut hard along Lake Merced, ranks among the great finales in all of public golf. The short par-four 16th, guarded on the right by a stand of cypress trees, might look familiar to you. It’s where John Daly missed the two-foot putt that cost him the playoff against Tiger Woods at the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship. More tournament golf awaits at Harding Park. After wrapping up your round, you can tell your friends that you just played the course that has been selected to host the 2020 PGA Championship and the 2025 Presidents Cup.
On your ride back toward downtown, avoid the freeway and take the scenic route, cutting through the city and into Golden Gate Park, an expansive patch of greenery that runs from the famed Haight-Ashbury district all the way out to the Pacific Ocean. Cultural attractions in the park abound, from a Japanese tea garden to the DeYoung Museum to the California Academy of Sciences, a wonderful showcase of natural history. There’s even a bison paddock. And, better yet for golfers, a nifty little nine-hole par three course.
Nightfall brings another smorgasbord of choices. In the increasingly fashionable neighborhood of Hayes Valley, the SFJazz Center is a modernist space and cutting-edge performance center that draws leading musical names from around the world. It’s within walking distance of a range of superb restaurants, including Nightbird, Rich Table, Souvla and Absinthe. You’ll find something great without looking very hard.
Another option is to go old school by strolling the streets of North Beach, San Francisco’s historically Italian neighborhood. Many of the restaurants here serve straight-ahead red sauce Italian food for tourists. One exception is Da Flora, a home to heartfelt Italian cooking. Another is Tosca, a former Beatnik watering hole that now complements its vibrant bar with a well-executed menu of Cal-Med cuisine.
Just across the street from Tosca stands Vesuvio Cafe, a San Francisco landmark, where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other Beat icons used to gather to talk and drink, though not necessarily in that order. The walls are lined with black-and-white photos of the legendary writers and poets who used to hang here, and the time-capsule atmosphere around the bar echoes with reminders of the city that was.
Travel & Leisure Tip: The Holy Grail of parkland in San Francisco is Dolores Park—it’s by far the most popular and most iconic, known for turning into a daytime party every weekend. It recently finished some major renovations, including new bathrooms, tennis courts, and five acres of fresh Bermuda grass. Here, people watching nearly rivals the views of the skyline.
San Francisco is roughly seven miles long and seven miles wide, a fairly small urban footprint with lots of green-fingered fairways running through it. Presidio Golf Course, on the former army base of the same name, is a sylvan layout that affords sweet views of the surrounding city even as it wins you over with its quirky charms. Lincoln Park Golf Course, the municipal course where 1969 Masters champ George Archer honed his putting skills, is scruffily conditioned but fully endearing, all the more so for its astounding vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, which looms so close to the 17th green you almost feel like you could touch it with your putter. Just south of the city, in Pacifica, is another unassuming course with impressive pedigree: Sharp Park, one of the rare municipal layouts designed by Alister Mackenzie. It sits hard along the ocean, the poor-man’s Cypress Point.
The early time you booked leaves you with the rest of Sunday free. If you book your trip when the San Francisco Giants are in town, you can go straight from the golf course to the ballpark to enjoy a day game at AT&T Park, a contemporary stadium with classic ballpark look, a la Camden Yards. The mood here is spirited and relaxed, all the more so when a slugger from the home team blasts a drive to deep right and the ball splash-lands in San Francisco Bay.
True to the culinary reputation of the surrounding city, AT&T Park is home to some of the best stadium food in the country. Craft beers and kielbasas. Street tacos and burritos. Neapolitan-style pizza and Caribbean barbecue. It’s all good. But if you come and go without trying the Crazy Crab’z sandwich with a side of garlic fries, consider your day at the ballpark incomplete.
Travel & Leisure Tip: Learn about the history of San Francisco’s lesser-visited west side at the new LEED Platinum Lands End Lookout center. The thoroughly modern building offers refuge from the coastal fog and has picture windows for unobstructed views of ancient shipwrecks and the Sutro Bath ruins. Read about the history from the time of the Ohlone Indians to the present, then set off for birdwatching along nearby windswept trails.