Chinatown - Start your tour of the largest Chinatown outside of Asia at the gate on Grant Avenue at Bush. Grant is the main thoroughfare, but it's more fun to zigzag your way up to Stockton Street and down to Kearny Street, peeking down hidden alleys along the way.
Contemporary Jewish Museum- Architect Daniel Libeskind's angular, blue steel merged with a historic brick building provides an innovative new space for the CJM, inside and out. The museum's exhibition program includes contemporary art, film, music, lectures, literary readings, and live performances. The courtyard in front is a nice place to relax.
Grace Cathedral - Gorgeous cathedral on top of Nob Hill. Check out the striking stained glass, walk the labyrinth outside, then lounge in the rose-filled park across the street.
SF MOMA - SFMOMA is a stand-out of new media art and has an outstanding photography collection. Film screenings are frequent and the rooftop garden (with a cafe) is a nice place to hang out.
Union Square - Known mostly for its flagship stores and upscale shopping, Union Square is a central spot to take in your surroundings. The Square itself hosts regular art exhibits, music performances, and movie screenings. Stroll through Maiden Lane, pop into the galleries on Geary Street for a First Thursday Art Walk, or ride the glass elevator of the Westin St. Francis (for free!) to get some sweet downtown views.
Yerba Buena Gardens and Center for the Arts- San Francisco's premier contemporary art center presents films, performance, and visual art. The gardens outside are truly a peaceful oasis in the midst of modern skyscrapers.
Got more time?
Cable Car Museum - This small and quirky museum is located in the powerhouse that contains the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the actual cables. Admission is free.
Mechanics' Institute - Housed in a 100-year-old building, the unique Mechanics' Institute is a research library which also holds chess instruction, book discussions, and various events like movie nights and food and wine pairings, all free or for a nominal cost.
Museum of the African Diaspora - A complex history is celebrated here with a focus on contemporary art. Permanent exhibitions include celebrations, culinary traditions, and music of the diaspora.
SF Historical Society and Museum - Check the website for info on free walking tours of the city as well as updates on when the gloriously restored Old Mint (at 5th and Mission Streets) will be open as a permanent 33,000-square-foot museum.
Westfield San Francisco Centre- Slick mall with all the fixings. The best kept secret is the food court on the lower level which offers a wide range of cuisine at cheap prices.
Worth the extra effort!
Farmer's Market at the Ferry Plaza - The market is widely acclaimed for both the quality and diversity of its fresh farm products, as well as artisan and prepared foods.
Giants Game at AT&T Park- The San Francisco Giants (2010 and 2012 World Series Champs!) play in possibly the most picturesque stadium in the USA. Be aware that the food and drinks here are expensive, though eating a hot dog while enjoying one of America's favorite pastimes is priceless.
As a rule, avoid most tourist-trap restaurants on Powell Street. Two streets over (at least!) is where you can find delicious cuisine at more reasonable prices.
Cheapest of the cheap:
Cafe Bean - Good spot for coffee or a breakfast sandwich.
Chutney - Offering tasty and quick Indian and Pakistani cooking, Chutney is a budget traveler's dream.
Gallery Cafe - Across from the Cable Car Museum, a good place to fuel up on caffeine.
You's Dim Sum - A relatively unknown spot for takeaway dim sum and red bean buns.
Westfield Centre Food Court- Abundance of cheap but good food options here at low prices.
Boxed Foods Co. - Amazing sandwiches and salads at this Financial District lunch spot. Also serves the ever-popular and strong Blue Bottle Coffee.
Cafe de la Presse - A chic European sidewalk cafe across from the Chinatown gate, you can also find a huge variety of international newspapers and magazines here.
Cafe Mason - Just outside the hostel, go here instead of tourist-filled Lori's next door. Open early and late.
Dottie's True Blue Cafe - You will wait in line here, but it's worth it for homemade pastries and scrumptious breakfasts and lunches. Arrive at 2 p.m. (open until 3 p.m.) to avoid the long wait.
Farm:Table - Teensy spot serving up good coffee, breakfast, and lunch -- all fresh, organic and in-season, the menu changes every day!
Osha Thai - Open 'til 3 a.m. on weekends, bustling Osha Thai is the best spot to satisfy your hunger after the bars close. Six locations are scattered around SF.
Ryoko's - A fun and happening sushi joint. DJs spin on weekends, when it's open until 1 a.m.
Sakana - A solid, albeit more relaxed sushi back-up if Ryoko's is packed.
Thai Stick- Fresh and flavorful Thai in a simple setting.
A slight splurge...
Millennium - Even meat-eaters will rejoice at the amazing vegetarian food presented at Millennium. Only organic, sustainably-produced food is served.
Pazzia - The family-style ambience and fresh homemade pastas and pizzas will floor you. This Italian is the real deal and the owner is as congenial as can be.
Fancy a night on the town?
Bourbon and Branch - An upscale speakeasy of sorts that stirs up yummy, fancy cocktails; use the password "books" to be escorted to the secret back room behind the bookshelves.
Rickhouse - Serving inspired cocktails expertly shaken and stirred by hot bartenders, the new kid on the block is extremely popular with the suit crowd. But the prices are totally reasonable (if not shockingly so). The interior is lined with old oak whiskey barrels.
Harry Denton's Starlight Lounge - Five stars for the cheese factor, but it's almost a tourist rite-of-passage to pop in here. Views are spectacular and DJs spin '80s classics Top 40 hits. And where else can you find a Sunday brunch drag show? There's often a cover charge.
Ruby Skye - The place to see big name DJs, this club's space and sound is fantastic. Weeknights bring a more mellow crowd than weekends.
Swig - Modern decor and exposed brick make the two levels of Swig an inviting space. Dancing gets going after dark, especially on weekends.
The Cellar- A young crowd hits this laidback club for cheap drinks and various theme nights like '80s or dance and hip-hop.
Prefer a laidback ambience?
111 Minna - Frequently rotating art exhibits span two grand rooms. DJs spin, good happy hour spot.
Aunt Charlie's Lounge - You'll find tranny divas and hipsters grooving together in this dimly lit dive, deep in the Tenderloin.
Bacchus Kirk - Chill bar with a great jukebox and a pool table. Not a sports bar per se, but they do show sports games.
Cantina - A good gathering place to meet others, the mixed drinks are lip-smacking.
The Owl Tree - Intimate like an old tavern, kitschy owls dot the room as do old-school chandeliers. Have a beer while watching the game on two flat-screen TVs or lounge in the leather booths with a martini.
Sugar Cafe - Stylish coffee bar by day turns to swanky lounge at night. Decent food, a fireplace, and large windows opening out into the street.
Tunnel Top- Superb bar on top of a massage parlor with exposed beams and a rickety balcony. Always playing excellent music with occasional live DJs, this is a good spot to meet up with friends or hang solo.
Biscuits and Blues - Get down with live blues while feasting on homey Southern cooking.
The Warfield - A fantastic space to see accomplished bands; DJs also spin here occasionally. Tickets are usually in the $20-$35 range.
American Conservatory Theater - A professional theater company presenting groundbreaking productions of classical works and bold explorations of contemporary playwriting. Hostel guests can get half-price "rush" tickets by paying in cash and showing their HI USA membership card or paid hostel receipt at the ACT box office, up to two hours before showtime.
Curran Theatre - Big Broadway musicals featured.
Exit Theatre - Presents indie and experimental theater.
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre - Quaint theater presenting performances by America's foremost African-American playwrights.
SF Playhouse Theatre - Informal and welcoming theater performing cutting edge shows.
MUNI - Bus lines within 3 blocks include the 2, 3, 4, 27, 31, 38, 38L, and 76.
BART- The Powell Street BART station is just 3 blocks from the hostel.
Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours offers our guests a discounted rate of $18-22 per day (reg. $28-32) for city-ready mountain and hybrid bike. Helmet, lock, rear rack, camera bag, bungie cord, and map included in cost of rental. Performance, tandem, and other specialty bikes are also available.
For more on biking in San Francisco, see: Cycle the city with self-guided San Francisco bike routes.