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Things You Need To See While You’re In San Francisco

With its myriad hills and spectacular bay, San Francisco beguiles with natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods, and contagious energy. Whether or not you’ve already visited the City by the Bay, it can overwhelm visitors with its offerings. Of course there are the well-trodden spots including Alamo Square, with its Painted Ladies; Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39; and twisting Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world.” But there’s much more to see and do, so we’ve selected the 25 top things every visitor should experience in San Francisco. Whether you're visiting for the first time or the fifth, these recommendations ensure that you’ll have a great trip.

San Francisco's signature International Orange entryway is the city's majestic background, and about 10 million people a year head to the bridge for an up-close look. Walking the 1.7 miles to Marin County—inches from roaring traffic, steel shaking beneath your feet, and only a railing between you and the water 200 feet below—is much more than a superlative photo op (though it's that, too). Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge under your own power is exhilarating—a little scary, and definitely chilly. From the bridge's eastern-side walkway, the only side pedestrians are allowed on, you can take in the San Francisco skyline and the bay islands; look west for the wild hills of the Marin Headlands, the curving coast south to Lands End, and the Pacific Ocean.

Foodies, rejoice! The historic Ferry Building is stuffed to the brim with all things tasty, including cafés, restaurants, a farmers' market, and merchants peddling everything from wine and olive oil to oysters and mushrooms. The building backs up to the bay, so the views are great—but they're even better from the decks of the departing ferries. San Franciscans flock to the street-level marketplace, stocking up on supplies from local favorites such as Acme Bread, Scharffen Berger Chocolate, Cowgirl Creamery, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Humphry Slocombe ice cream. Slanted Door, the city's beloved high-end Vietnamese restaurant, is here, along with highly regarded Bouli Bar. The seafood bar at Hog Island Oyster Company has fantastic bay view panoramas. On the plaza side, the outdoor tables at Gott's Roadside offer great people-watching with their famous burgers. On Saturday morning the plazas outside the building buzz with an upscale farmers' market where you can buy exotic sandwiches and other munchables.

If there’s one place in San Francisco that feels like a city unto itself, it’s Chinatown. Here, people dash between small neighborhood stores, their arms draped with plastic totes filled with groceries or souvenirs. Breathe in the scented air as you watch the nimble hands at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, then kick back with a cocktail at Li Po around the corner, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of an opium junkie still looking to score. At Tin How Temple, climb the narrow stairway to this space with hundreds of red lanterns, then step onto the tiny balcony and take in the alley scene below. And, of course, don’t skip a chance to have dim sum at Yank Sing.

There's not much south of Market Street that encourages lingering outdoors—or indeed walking at all—with this notable exception. These two blocks encompass the Center for the Arts, the Metreon, Moscone Convention Center, and the convention center's rooftop Children's Creativity Museum, but the gardens themselves are the everyday draw.Office workers escape to the green swath of the East Garden, the focal point of which is the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. Powerful streams of water surge over large, jagged stone columns, mirroring the enduring force of King's words that are carved on the stone walls and on glass blocks behind the waterfall. Atop the Moscone Convention Center perch a few lures for kids. The historic Looff carousel twirls daily 10–5. South of the carousel is the Children's Creativity Museum, a high-tech, interactive arts-and-technology center geared to children ages 3–12. Kids can make Claymation videos, work in a computer lab, check out new games and apps, and perform and record music videos. Just outside, kids adore the excellent slides, including a 25-foot tube slide, at the play circle. Also part of the rooftop complex are gardens, an ice-skating rink, and a bowling alley.

Perched on a swan-filled lagoon near the Marina's yacht harbor, this stirringly beautiful terra-cotta-color domed structure has an otherworldly quality about it. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and restored in 2008, the palace is a San Francisco architect's version of a Roman ruin, and it's been eliciting gasps for almost a century. The massive columns (each topped with four “weeping maidens”), great rotunda, and swan-filled lagoon have been used in countless fashion layouts, films, and wedding photo shoots. After admiring the lagoon, look across the street to the house at 3460 Baker St. If the maidens out front look familiar, they should—they're original casts of the “garland ladies” you can see in the Palace's colonnade.

It may be world-famous, but first and foremost the park is the city's backyard. Come here any day of the week and you'll find a microcosm of San Francisco, from the Russian senior citizens feeding the pigeons at Stow Lake and the moms pushing strollers through the botanical gardens to school kids exploring the fabulous California Academy of Sciences and arts boosters checking out the latest at the de Young Museum. Be sure to visit the park's iconic treasures, including the serene Japanese Tea Garden and the beautiful Victorian Conservatory of Flowers. If you have the time to venture farther into this urban oasis, you'll discover less-accessible gems like the Beach Chalet and the wild western shores of Ocean Beach.

San Francisco has no shortage of impressive, grand homes, but it's the tiny fairy-tale lanes that make most want to move here, and Macondray Lane is the quintessential hidden garden. Enter under a lovely wooden trellis and proceed down a quiet, cobbled pedestrian lane lined with Edwardian cottages and flowering plants and trees. Watch your step—the cobblestones are quite uneven in spots. A flight of steep wooden stairs at the end of the lane leads to Taylor Street—on the way down you can't miss the bay views. If you've read any of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books, you may find the lane vaguely familiar. It's the thinly disguised setting for part of the series' action.

Take a look at the exterior of the store: the replica of a revolutionary mural destroyed in Chiapas, Mexico by military forces; the art banners hanging above the windows; and the sign that says “Turn your sell [sic] phone off. Be here now.” This place isn't just doling out best sellers. Designated a city landmark, the hangout of Beat-era writers—Allen Ginsberg and store founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti among them—and independent publisher remains a vital part of San Francisco's literary scene. Browse the three levels of poetry, philosophy, politics, fiction, history, and local zines, to the tune of creaking wood floors. Be sure to check the calendar of literary events.

Most people assume that this stubby white tower atop Telegraph Hill is supposed to look like a fire-hose nozzle. And considering that a fire truck–chasing, cross-dressing 19th-century socialite donated the funds to build it, maybe it is. The tower itself is of vague interest—it does house the history of San Francisco in murals—but the parking lot at its base and tiny park out back have fantastic views of the city and the bay. The tower sits at the top of Telegraph Hill's Filbert Steps, a steep stairway through glorious gardens with vistas of transcendent beauty, an only-in-San Francisco spot locals cherish.

Cotton candy and souvenirs are all well and good, but if you want to get to the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf—boats—there's no better place to do it than at this pier, one of the area's best bargains. Depending on the time of day, you might see boat builders at work or children pretending to man an early-1900s ship. Don't pass up the centerpiece collection of historic vessels, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, almost all of which can be boarded. The Balclutha, an 1886 full-rigged three-masted sailing vessel that's more than 250 feet long, sailed around Cape Horn 17 times. Kids especially love the Eureka, a side-wheel passenger and car ferry, for her onboard collection of vintage cars. The Hercules is a steam-powered tugboat, and the C.A. Thayer is a beautifully restored three-masted schooner.

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Travel Tips

The Best Things To Do In Kansas City When Someone Visits

Kansas City sits at the center of an identity crisis. It’s a liberal oasis in the middle of two red states, and the state line divides the city itself between Kansas and Missouri. That’s good news for you though. Each day is a chance to explore cultures, worlds, and time periods the average visitor probably wouldn’t expect from a flyover state. Give yourself a weekend and you’ll be hooked.

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You can’t come to Kansas City and not indulge in the primal joy of eating meat right off the bone. This is a BBQ city and your BBQ choices will get you judged. Q39 is the newest contender (39th Street), where you can get whiskey with an ice cube made of meat juice. Gates is an all-time classic (found all over town) and The Peanut (the original is downtown but newer locations abound throughout the city) is a city secret for killer wings, dating back to 1933 when it was a speakeasy. Joe’s, located inside a functioning gas station, was featured in the final season of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, so you know it’s worth a stop. And Arthur Bryant’s (also multiple locations) is the move if you’re looking for the most meat for your buck.

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Kansas City has an incredible history steeped in blues and jazz. Around 18th and Vine you’ll find the city’s jazz district, which is also home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, which are both excellent. But if you’re ready to get genuinely funky, head to the Blue Room for till-dawn drinking and music, or treat yourself to an equally late-night adventure (365 days a year) at the Green Lady Lounge.

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One of the biggest draws of Kansas City is the music scene. In addition to the city’s blues and jazz roots, there’s always killer acts hitting up the city to break up the empty drive between tour stops in St. Louis and Denver. Riot Room, Uptown Theater, Knuckleheads, and Arvest Bank Theater are all fantastic venues that always seem to have a show worth checking out. recordBar is one of KC’s best, just-big-enough venues, where you can catch all your favorite medium sized acts as they travel through town (recordBar also has a flying-under-the-radar brunch that is to die for, should you find yourself hungover in the area the next day.) And tiny record shop Records With Merritt has gained a sudden prominence in the local music scene, hosting almost nightly multi-act lineups in an intimate space where just 30 people will pack the room and me it feel like a special show.

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The Plaza
As a kid I came here to gaze at the millions of dollars in Christmas lights. As an adult I'm still impressed, but I’m equally interested in cruising the bars. This 15-block area just north of the river is filled with nice shops and high-end restaurants.The yearly Plaza Art Fair in the fall brings in international artists of all mediums and draws a crowd of over 250,000.

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Just off the Plaza, the nearby Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is the go-to stop in KC for high brow arts and culture. The exhibits range from the great masters to the new renegades, with a mile of gorgeous architecture that would be worth the trip even if there weren’t painting on the walls. There’s also a gigantic shuttlecock on the back lawn that has become an odd landmark in the city (it’s a must grab selfie while you’re here).

Not an art fan? Union Station is a historic train station built in 1914 with touring exhibits from around the world. It also sits across the street from the World War I Museum and Memorial, making it an excellent two-for-one destination.

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KC loves to get loose. Pawn & Pints is a bar and restaurant with a six-layered wall of board games that are available to you and your party. Take your pick from literally dozens of games, including Cards Against Humanity and Scattergories.

Tapcade and Up/Down are arcade-bar experiences with wildly different line-ins: the former being a combination movie theater and old-timey cabinet set-up, and the later being a balls-to-the-wall neon blowout. Both will reignite your inner child.

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Arthur Bryant’s (see the BBQ entry) is where most people love to stop for a quick photo, but if you want a selfie that the locals will respect you for, try to pose in front of the Western Auto sign. A gigantic glowing mainstay of the KC skyline, the sign has been unlit at night for decades, until now. Grab a shot of you and a friend outside one of the many local distilleries, with the huge glow of KC spirit behind you.

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Things to See Trip Ideas

9 Of America’s Finest Just-Outside-The-City Drives

Living in the city can often feel oppressive with traffic around every corner and tall buildings blocking most of the sun. Luckily, salvation isn’t far away. Get out of the concrete jungle and enjoy the open road for the first time in weeks. Here are nine of the best quick drives you can easily hit from some of America’s great cities. Get moving.

Chuckanut Drive is a road along the coast that’s maybe greener than any drive you’ve taken in your life. You’ll be surrounded by overhanging trees and it’ll often feel like you’re driving through a tunnel of foliage. There’s a faster way to get to and from Seattle, but why would you skip a beautiful, twisting, cliff-bound drive full of farmland and mountains? You can even make make it a foodie trip by stopping along the way at places like Breadfarm or Taylor Shellfish Farms.

West coast drivers have the ultimate asphalt blessing: Highway 1, an idyllic, 655-mile stretch of Pacific coastline driving. Blast some music and take the trip up to the perfectly unfancy and delicious Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market. Open your window for the ocean breeze. Get some fish, grab a picnic table across the parking lot, and stare at the water. Now, drive to Point Dume, and sit on the beach for as long as you possibly can.

You can see the mountains from the city and they’re calling your name. Drop everything (except your keys) and drive straight to Gem Lake Trail. Cruise up the mountains and keep the windows open for that fresh air, even if it’s cold. Lean into the curves and accelerate at the apexes. You’re in the Rocky Mountains, for God’s sake: Not having your windows down should be criminal.

Even though Asheville isn’t known for hustle and bustle, everyone needs to get out of town once in a while -- and you’re so close to an amazing drive, especially in the fall. Meet up with the Blue Ridge Parkway wherever it’s closest to you and take it to Mount Mitchell State Park. The overlook is spectacular. Keep driving on the parkway and, pro tip, throw on some driving music you can turn up.

A drive in the City by the Bay is now more stop than go, so take the Golden Gate Bridge out of the city, head to Muir Woods National Monument, and drive among trees that were around when Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome. Then go directly to Hog Island Oyster Co in Marshall. You’ll take the famous Highway 1 and enjoy stunning views of the ocean and Point Reyes National Seashore. You might not want to stop.

You’ve heard of Minnesota’s many, many lakes, but there are also many, many rivers that make for great weekend cruising. Take I-94 E out of Minneapolis and connect with MN-95 N/St. Croix Trail North. You’ll follow the St. Croix River, which you can take all the way up to the National Scenic Riverway Visitor Center. The whole trip feels like you’re canoeing along the St. Croix, but in a much better (and faster) vehicle. You can easily take this route back to the city if you’d like, but you can also head back by starting on US-8 E if you want a change of pace and enjoy views of some of the state’s 11,842 lakes.

Iceland has its famous Ring Road that circles the entire country but America has the Maui Loop in Hawaii. You’ll drive from Kahului, taking the Hana highway to Ho'okipa Lookout for a spectacular view of the ocean. When you’re not on the ocean, you might be climbing mountains with stunning overlooks and steep curves. Drive to Halfway to Hana for their famous banana bread, and then stop at the Hana Lava Tube, Waianapanapa State Park, or Koki Beach -- or just keep going to the Laulima Farm Fruit Stand or Grandma’s Coffeehouse on your way through the trees.

The Columbia River Scenic Highway was the first scenic highway in this country and you’ve probably never heard of it, even though it’s beautiful and filled with moss, waterfalls, flowers, and, of course, the river. Take it to Vista House for a panoramic view, or keep driving to Latourell Falls or Bridal Veil Falls or Multnomah Falls or Horsetail Falls (there are a lot of waterfalls). Keep your window open and listen to the falls thunder as you speed by on your way to Cascade Marine Park where you can overlook the Bridge of the Gods. Yes, that’s what it’s really called.

What New York has in traffic and congestion it makes up for upstate. To make the most of it, head north along the Hudson River and take the road to Bear Mountain, which is known for its hiking (the Appalachian Trail runs through it) and stunning view from Perkins Memorial Drive. Then drive to the giant sculpture park that is Storm King Arts Center or see farm animals at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. Or, you can cross that bridge you saw, Bear Mountain Bridge, and get lost in the windy roads of the mountains. Hopefully you have a car that can handle turns and hills. If not, take it easy, enjoy the view, and head back down to the city along the river.

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Bucket List Ideas

The Ultimate Chicago Summer Bucket List

If you moved to Chicago in the past nine months, maybe you’ve heard about this thing called summer. Those of us who have been here a while promise it exists -- and that it’s worth waiting for.

Now that daffodils are tentatively opening and restaurants are removing the wind covers from their doors, it’s time to start scheduling your outdoor time. Pro tip: It’s a bad idea to leave the city between June and September. Instead, lure your out-of-town friends with our ultimate Chicago summer bucket list. How many items can you cross off?

Chicago’s cultural, musical, neighborhood, food, and beverage-focused street festivals are so numerous, we won’t even attempt to list them all here. Every resident should experience at least one of the city’s Big Three music festivals -- Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, and Riot Fest -- once in their lives. But for a truly Chicago festival experience, think smaller: Andersonville’s community spirit shines through during Midsommarfest (June 8-10), a celebration of the neighborhood’s Swedish roots, which features music, dancing, crafts, beer, craft beer, and everything else that makes a Chicago street festival great. Or drown out the swan song of the end of Summer Fridays with some sweet notes at the Chicago Jazz Festival (August 29 to September 2). The Millennium Park mainstay features legends and newcomers alike, as well as art, food, a New Orleans-style second-line procession, and tons of adorable dancing children.

If you think Chicago’s architecture tours are just for visitors, you’d be dead wrong. There’s really no better way to see all of downtown in an afternoon than by water. We recommend Wendella’s Signature Lake and River Tour ($39), which takes passengers on a 90-minute journey through the locks and into Lake Michigan for an unparallelled view. In true Chicago fashion, the tour boats have bars. If you’re looking for a slightly more budget-friendly option, the Chicago Water Taxi connects commuters and tourists alike to locations from North Avenue and Sheffield Avenue in Lincoln Park to Chinatown. An all-day pass will run you just $9.

Chicago is lauded as one of the top culinary cities in the world, which, duh. But the cocktail scene is world-class in its own right. Pick your signature cocktail of summer and taste-test it at bars throughout the city, or try different ones depending on your mood. At Estereo, try the Breezy -- the permanent menu option features a base of yerba mate, house falernum, lime juice, and bubbles; customers then choose their add-in spirit. Devereaux, the newest project from former Billy Sunday beverage director Lee Zaremba, features a spread of creative signature cocktails and daytime sippers; we’re itching to try the Pineapple Collins (tequila blanco, pineapple, lemon, mineral water). If you like your summer cocktails frozen, Parson’s Chicken & Fish does a slushy version of a negroni, along with a rotating daily slushy special (like a margarita and Dark & Stormy). In search of a dive bar that’s not really a dive? Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar is the answer to your quandary, where our go-to is the Hornswagglers High Tea, a blend of Earl Grey-infused vodka and cream soda. It’s yours for the low, low price of $7.

We’ve never seen a group of humans more excited about sitting outside than Chicagoans in summer. A great patio is the sprinkles on the soft-serve cone of the Windy City. A couple new options this summer: Nine-year-old taco haven Big Star, the gold standard of Chicago patios for years, recently gained a sibling; Big Star Wrigleyville opened in early April in a massive space at Hotel Zachary with some fresh menu items to go with the same old honky-tonk soundtrack. And Avondale’s Ludlow Liquors, located in the former Orbit Room space, is bringing picnic tables, two-tier stadium seats, and lounges to its revamped outdoor area. (Has someone invented a word for a patio makeover yet? We’ll call it a pati-over.) Create a drink sampler with cocktails served by the ounce.

If you like pitchers of vodka-lemonade and dancing, there’s Roscoe’s. If you’re looking for some less innocent dancing, there’s Berlin Nightclub. There’s truly a bar to fit every mood in Boystown, and on a hot summer night, the hours fly by so fast, you won’t believe it’s 3am. The neighborhood is especially lively during the annual Pride festival and parade (June 16-17 & 24), and Northalstead Market Days (August 11-12).

One of the surest signs summer is on its way: The return of private boats to Chicago’s harbors. Whether you’re part of the party-hard “playpen” scene at Ohio Street Beach or looking for a calmer afternoon of sailing, there’s a ship life for every Chicagoan. But before you can live out your aquatic fantasies, better make sure you’ve got a boat friend lined up to help make them come true. (Even better if it’s a friend-of-a-friend, so you’ve got an easy out in case of a summer romance gone sour.)

There are two groups of Chicagoans: Those who hate the annual Air & Water Show, and those who are either from the suburbs or have a friend who lives in a lakeside high-rise. If you’re in the latter group, you know how to play this one. (Step 1: Ply your high-rise friend with lots of bubbly.) But for those who have HAD IT with the noisy fighter jets and lakefront crowds, Air & Water Show weekend (August 18-19) is a great time to check out all those places on the West and South Sides that you keep missing. Head down to Calumet Fisheries for legendary smoked seafood, or, if ribs are more your style, check out the barbecue at Smoque.

Across the street from the Loop business district, it’s almost as if Millennium Park was planned to taunt office workers during the summer. Take a break for an afternoon (or just for your lunch hour, if you can’t get away), and spread out on the lawn next to Pritzker Pavilion. Read a book, listen to a podcast, or just people-watch as friends chat and kids chase each other across the grass. We’ll also let you in on a little secret: At the southeast corner of the Pavilion is the entrance to Lurie Gardens, where visitors can take off their shoes and dip their feet in a man-made stream.

With miles and miles of lakefront, and even more parks and trails outside the city to explore, Chicago is best seen on two wheels, and summer is the perfect time to do so. Rent a Divvy bike if you don’t own one (but don’t forget a helmet) and hit the pavement. Biking can also be a great way to make new friends. Join Critical Mass as riders take over the streets for a massive group ride the last Friday of every month, or strip down for the World Naked Bike Ride on June 9.

While you’ve certainly enjoyed more than your fair share of local produce in Chicago’s restaurant scene, the city’s plethora of farmers markets mean it’s time for you to become the chef. Check out this schedule to find your neighborhood market. We’re particularly fond of Lincoln Park’s Green City Market, which features chef demonstrations, live music, and more dogs per square foot than a humane society.

This Chicago classic’s sole location is so far south, you’d swear you’re in the suburbs. (They actually start across the street.) But the cone’s layers of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House, pistachio, and orange sherbet have kept Chicagoans young and old making the journey for decades. You can get the cone at select festivals like Lollapalooza, but nothing compares to the 92-year-old storefront.