Ever wanted to visit Japan or Italy? How about Morocco? Lucky for you, living in San Francisco means you can get a taste of the world without leaving the confines of the city.
Everyone’s been hit with that sudden urge to drop everything and become a globe-trotter. The plethora of gorgeous Instagrams, Facebook updates, even your friends’ pictures from that recent trip to Barcelona — it’s enough to make anyone want to book a ticket on the next plane out.
Of course, that’s not always a feasible option. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of places you can visit instead to travel the world while staying inside of San Francisco. The requirements? The locations have to be true to the atmosphere and culture of the country, well-reviewed by natives and, of course, be within SF city limits.
Satisfy your wanderlust by traveling through the international hotspots we found in San Francisco — if you visit all 14, you’ll have breezed through 11 separate countries. Ready? Let’s go.
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr in Golden Gate Park
The Japanese Tea Garden offers more than just a refreshing cup of tea — a walk through their breathtaking garden transports you away from San Francisco to the origins of Japanese Zen, where simplicity and tranquility were prized assets. When you’re inside strolling the enclosure, you’ll find it hard to remember that the 21st century world waits for you outside the Tea Garden’s wooden gates.
The tea room offers four different teas by the cup — sencha, hojicha, genmaicha and jasmine — but the more adventurous should try the intense matcha. If you decide to go with the matcha, make sure to sample some Japanese treats such as the dorayaki, the kuzumochi and arare to balance out the bold flavor.
A San Francisco staple for a reason, this is one global location that’s an oasis for locals and tourists alike.
1750 Geary St in Japantown/Lower Pacific Heights
Japan is all about serenity — look at their rock gardens (minimalist), tea ceremonies (peaceful) and traditional dances (slow). But nothing says “calm” like a giant bath, which is why no trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to one of their onsens, or hot springs.
Although stereotypical Japanese onsens are natural bubbling pools surrounded by a ring of rocks, hot springs are hard to come by in San Francisco (and honestly, most parts of Japan). Kabuki Springs preserves the essence of a Japanese onsen by establishing two trendy communal bathing areas in Japantown, one for each gender. The natural browns, blues and beiges of Kabuki intimate an atmosphere of utter calm, despite the fact that everyone in the communal bathing room is naked!
There are showers, dry and steam saunas, a saltwater pool, and a hot pool guaranteed to boil the stress right out of your system. Kabuki offers complimentary bath products, sea salts, chilled face cloths, and teas, and the communal baths also include a full-time bathing attendant.
1737 Post St in Japantown/Lower Pacific Heights
Japan gets an additional entry because this store is way too cool to bypass in a global traveler post. On the outside, Katachi seems like yet another tiny Japanese knick-knack store filled to the brim with cute stationary and anime-embossed gifts. But the inside is a whole different story.
Katachi sells swords. Real swords. As in, samurai movie, Kill Bill-esque, can-cut-you-without-trying swords. Their website advertises them as “the largest retailer of decorative and functional Japanese Katana in the Bay Area,” and the employees are all incredibly knowledgeable about the wares. If swords are too much for you to handle (or too expensive — a real katana goes for $400 easy), Katachi also sells knives in-store.
For those more interested in picking of authentic Japanese groceries, Nijiya Market on 1737 Post Street is an absolute must.
Waverly St in Chinatown
There are really two Chinatowns — the tourist trap one and the locals one. The kitschier side of Chinatown is more of a Disneyfication of real China, with basically one souvenir shop cloned a million times over. Move a block over to Waverly Street and watch the scenery change.
Waverly Place is to Chinatown as La Tacqueria is to Taco Bell. The residents that live behind the hustle-and-bustle of tourist laden Grant Avenue have quietly made their haven on Waverly Street, resulting in an interesting culture deep inside of side streets.
Immerse yourself in the real life of San Francisco’s Chinatown residents while walking down Waverly as you take in the distinctly picturesque Asian architecture. You can even offer fruit to the Goddess of Heaven at San Francisco’s oldest Buddhist Temple Tien Hou; just climb up to the third floor of 125 Waverly Place.
161 Erie St in the Mission
“Imagine a scene from a Bollywood movie smack in the middle of a thumping nightclub—swirling colors, the rhythm of pounding feet, and the relentless energy of brilliant beats.” That’s how Non Stop Bhangra describes themselves.
Interested? You should be. Voted as Best Dance Party in San Francisco by 7×7, Non Stop Bhangra is a place where culture meets trendy and the ancient meets the modern in a resounding clash. Happening once a month at Public Works, the traditional dance style evolved from the movements of farmers while they ploughed, sowed, and harvested. These days, Non Stop Bhangra has taken a new form as it mixes the traditional with contemporary music.
Experience the Best Bollywood Hotspot for yourself this Saturday, July 18th.
Belden Pl in the Financial District
Turn off Kearny, walk down Pine and suddenly you’re smack dab in the middle of France. Ever happened to you before? Then you’ve been to San Francisco’s enchanting French alley, Belden Place.
Not nearly as widely flaunted as Chinatown or Little Italy, Belden is a small French district tucked away between two larger streets — blink, and you’ll miss it. Countless outdoor seats in front of an array of cafés and bistros with string lights twinkling overhead lull visitors into a romantic Parisian ambience.
We guarantee that this little slice of France will make you believe in la vie en rose.
Voulez-vous visiter cet endroit ce soir?
North Beach (aka Little Italy)
This one’s a no-brainer. Little Italy is home to some of the city’s best Italian restaurants, import shops, cafes, bars and clubs, with history to boot. If you have no idea where to start in North Beach, we recommend trying Trattoria Contadina for some authentic pasta and Caffe Trieste for the atmosphere and coffee. Make sure to visit the famous Saints Peter and Paul Church, too!
Wine snobs looking for a true Italian enoteca should step out of North Beach to Biodivino Wine Boutique on Russian Hill.
The Italian cuisine isn’t the only thing that distinguishes Little Italy from the rest of San Francisco; the bright shades and murals are splashed across facades are a small but prominent reminder of Italy’s trademark colorful buildings.
3301 Lyon St in Marina
The Palace of Fine Arts wins itself an extra spot on this list for sheer beauty. Look at that majesty.
Constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition by California architect Bernard Maybeck, the Palace of Fine Arts is modeled off of a Piranesi engraving of a Roman ruin in a pool. The Palace is San Francisco’s very own piece of Ancient Rome interposed on the edge of a lagoon — one that was built especially to highlight the Palace’s grand features.
Unanimously declared the most impressive of the monuments from the Exposition, the Palace was too spectacular to be torn down and to this day remains the only surviving work that still remains in its original location.
3321 16th St in the Mission
Why just travel the world when you can travel back in time, too?
San Francisco’s oldest building, Mission Dolores, just celebrated its 239th birthday on June 29th — making it slightly older than the USA by a slim margin of five days. Steeped in history, Mission Dolores is a fantastic example of architecture in the old Spanish Empire.
Its younger cousin, the Mission Dolores Basilica, was built in the popular Gothic Revival style of Europe at the time.
One of the most interesting parts of Mission Dolores is its formerly secret mural. The mural was painted by Native American artists back in 1791 but was covered up shortly afterward by a reredos (an altarpiece), hiding from view until it was finally revealed in 2004. The mural is now on display on Bartlett near 22nd street.
Obviously we’ve all treated our stomachs to Mexico with all of the top-notch Mexican food in the Mission, but what about our minds?
Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard Bldg D in the Marina
The Mexican Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Museum, so you know it’s legit. Also like the Smithsonian, admission inside the Mexican Museum is free, so if you’re strapped for cash this is a great location to visit.
The Museum has collections of everything from colonial and pre-Hispanic art to Chicano art. On top of permanent collections, the Mexican Museum also hosts a variety of events, such as a Neighborhood Fiesta or a special sculpture exhibit.
1351 Church St in Noe Valley
Sit down to a real high tea at the quaint Lovejoy’s Tea Room.
This delicate little slice of England stays faithful to the traditional tea party England is well-known for; order the Queen’s Tea with a group of friends for the full (and filling) experience. The meal comes in four parts: first the tea, then the four layer platter, followed by warm crumpets and finished off with petit fours.
With the whole store stuffed full of knick knacks, lace, teapots and other Victorian-esque items, the decor lends itself well to the tea party. Lovejoy’s even offers bonnets you can wear for your tea party!
360 Sutter St in the Financial District
Ever felt that pants were too restrictive? Want to experience what true freedom “down there” feels like? Then it’s time to visit William Glen & Son, an authentic one stop kilt shop!
All of William Glen & Son’s items are imported from Scotland, so you are guaranteed authentic Scottish tartan print every time you shop there. On top of kilts (which they measure to fit even the largest of dad bods), William Glen & Son also sells eccentric Scottish trinkets, ladies wear, jewelry and Scottish clan items. The prices are a bit high, but even if you’re strapped for cash we still recommend visiting just to check out the wares — as well as the salesman in an honest-to-god kilt.
There’s also a rocking scotch and whiskey shop available in the back room if drinking is more your style than kilts.
419 O’Farrell St in the Tenderloin
At first glance the decor of Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant is reminiscent of a Las Vegas showgirl: flashy, ornate, and showbiz to the max. The sofas are straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights, the doorways are in a familiar onion dome shape and every pattern is geometric or arabesque; a clear nod to Morocco’s Arab influences, despite its African location.
Despite (or maybe thanks to) its almost overwhelming dedication to theme, Marrakech Moroccan is the most immersive experience in Moroccan culture San Francisco offers. Sit down, relax and be transported to the mythical city of Marrakech, where belly dancers accompany your meals and hookah is offered with dinner.
The belly dancers are reported to be great fun, and often ask audience members to dance with them throughout your meal. Come after 7:30 PM to get the full experience.
3119 Clement St in the Outer Richmond
For an arguably even more traditional dining experience, head to El Mansour. Certain traditions are kept, like washing hands before meals with rose-scented water and drinking mint tea, and you eat the meal with your hands. The servers provide you with pieces of warm, fluffy bread that you use as your makeshift utensils, and the talented belly dancers interact with the patrons, even teaching a lesson or two.
724 Geary St in Lower Nob Hill
Traditionally a product of Iran (or Persia) and popularized by Egypt, the hookah bar is a Middle East twist on the bar scene — intoxication optional.
Our fair city has slim pickings when it comes to hookah bars, an alternative to the classic coffee shop hangout. The few hookah bars that are available are often smashed together with restaurants, cutting into the casual-yet-intimate vibe that true hookah generates among friends.
724Hookah is one of the best hookah options in San Francisco, committing to the traditional lux decorations of hookah by hanging curtains and offering plush couches as seating. The only light sources come from string lights or low-light bulbs, resulting in a sultry feel.
[Featured Image: Japanese Tea Garden]