We stayed at Hotel Nikko, a Japanese-inspired ultra modern hotel in Union Square. The room rates at Hotel Nikko were fairy reasonable when we purchased them through Expedia. For $10 extra, we were able to gain key card access to the spa for our entire stay, which had a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and steam room.
Union Square is an ideal place to stay because it is centrally-located. Most of the tourist attractions are north of Union Square and most of the vegetarian restaurants are south of Union Square.
There are so many vegan-friendly restaurants in San Francisco that it can be a bit overwhelming. Here are a few of my favorites:
Millennium - One of the few upscale vegan restaurants in the country, Millennium serves inventive dishes in a ritzy setting. The prices aren't *that* extravagant (I spent about $70 for three courses and two cocktails). If you're staying in Union Square, Millennium is a short walk from your hotel.
Herbivore - The food at Herbivore is typical vegetarian-restaurant fare, served in the usual "hip" setting. The lunch/dinner food is on par with similar restaurants (ex. The Chicago Diner) but the breakfast is outstanding. If you go for breakfast, I highly recommend the "dessert crepe" - three delicious crepes, filled with baked bananas and blueberries, topped with a coconut cream sauce.
Maggie Mudd - An ice cream parlor that sells many flavors of vegan ice cream! You can order vegan milkshakes, ice cream sundaes, ice cream cakes... If you're vegan and you avoid soy, never fear. Half of Maggie Mudd's vegan flavors are made from coconut milk.
Cafe Gratitude - A raw vegan cafe that has the best raw desserts that I have ever tasted. The creamsicle shake is heavenly. The key lime pie is so good, you'll swear it's the real thing (well, except for the raw nut crust in lieu of a traditional graham cracker crust... but the filling is incredible).
Ritual Coffee Roasters - A coffee shop with tons of vegan baked goods. Try the vegan "bacon" donut for a really weird experience. If you're a coffee snob, this is the place for you. The barristas here know their stuff. If you're lucky, you might even show up on a day when they're holding a coffee tasting.
Weird Fish - A fish and chips shop that also serves vegan fish and chips. You have your choice between seitan "fish" and tofu "fish" (don't worry, it doesn't actually taste like fish - it's just breaded, fried deliciousness). If you eat here, order the "buffalo girls" appetizer. They're not as realistic as the vegan buffalo wings at Red Bamboo, but they're still pretty damn good.
Rainbow Grocery - While not technically a restaurant, who can pass up the opportunity to visit an ALL-VEGETARIAN grocery store? Rainbow Grocery has a fabulous selection of vegan cheeses (Sheese, Dr. Cow's, Cheezly, Teese, Tofutti, Follow Your Heart,...) and the bakery section is full of vegan baked goods.
Here are my votes for best vegan-friendly "ethnic" restaurants in San Francisco:
Best Indian: New Delhi creates unusual Indian dishes, with entrees like mango mushrooms, curried soy cutlets and eggplant tamarind.
Best Chinese: House of Nanking might not seem vegan-friendly at first glance, but tell your waiter that you want "vegan for n" where n is the number of people at your table and you won't be disappointed. The chef will prepare 5 special vegan dishes for you at a cost of $20/person.
Best Mexican: Papalote is a burrito joint in The Mission that serves "soyrizo" (vegan chorizo) burritos.
For $30, you can take a boat to Alcatraz Island and visit the infamous prison. The price includes an audio tour, which lasts a little over an hour and provides a fascinating narration of life at Alcatraz, including interviews from former prisoners and prison guards. While on Alcatraz, you will see spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco.
The boat to Alcatraz departs from Pier 33 on Fisherman's Wharf. While in the Fisherman's Wharf area, you can watch over 1,000 sea lions sunbathing on Pier 39.
The Golden Gate Park:
The Golden Gate Park is an oasis of green grass and trees in the center of the city. It is home to a number of musems and attractions:
The California Academy of Sciences features a three-story rainforest, planetarium and aquarium. Environmentalists: make sure tour the "living roof" and learn about an innovative way of providing low-impact heating and cooling.
The de Young Museum is a fine arts museum that is known for its special exhibits. When I was there, King Tut was on display.
The Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest of its kind in the United States. For $5 (cash only), you gain admission to the garden, which is filled with whimsical bridges, statues, koi ponds and a zen garden. For another $4, you can sit in the tea house and enjoy a pot of high-quality tea and a plate of fortune cookies and Japanese crackers.
The Botanical Garden doesn't house many flowers, but it is home to an excellent collection of pre-historic plants, as well as some topiary sculptures of dinosaurs.
The Bison Paddock contains a small herd of bison. It is part of an effort to replenish a population that was once hunted nearly to extinction.
There are also a number of scenic ponds in Golden Gate Park. If you walk all the way to the western edge, you will arrive at the Pacific Ocean.
A melding of hipster and Hispanic culture, The Mission District has streets lined with vegetarian restaurants, quirky bookstores and boutiques, taquerias, hand-painted frescos and an actual Franciscan mission that dates back 1783. It's a nice place to wander around. The Mission is also a short walk from Castro Street, where Harvey Milk had his camera shop.
Chinatown is purportedly home to the largest population of Chinese people outside of Asia. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory offers free tours, where you can watch as the cookies are quickly pressed into their crescent shape.
Just a few blocks away is North Beach, San Francisco's Italian neighborhood. North Beach is also full of cafes and streets referenced in Beat Generation literature (see Kerouac, Jack). Be sure to visit the City Lights Bookstore, a famous independent bookstore owned by beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
1) Don't be fooled by the fact that San Francisco is in California. The weather is temperate year-round, but the city can get quite cold in the evenings. We visited in the middle of August and the temperatures dropped below 50 degrees most nights. Make sure to pack some warm sweaters!
2) Getting to the Mission restaurants can be tricky if you're staying in Union Square. At first, we took cabs to get there and it ended up being $15 each way. If you don't want your inexpensive dinner to double in price (by paying for all of that cab fare!), I recommend looking into the BART train system. BART is a commuter train that has most of its stops in neighboring towns, but it has an underground stop in Union Square and two stops in The Mission. For $1.80, you can go from Union Square to the corner of 24th and Mission St. in under 6 minutes!