Every Bay Area resident knows the name South San Francisco from the impossible-to-miss white washed letters on the hillside along Hwy 101 just north of San Francisco International Airport. Far fewer know that the city was named not solely on its proximity to San Francisco, but by a meat packing tycoon with an affinity for the industrial areas of South Chicago and South Omaha. Cattle ranches settled in the valley in the late 1800s, and soon after came the reputation of "The City of Industry," bringing with it brick buildings, lumber and steel mills. Although still home to industry, in more recent years Biotech companies have flocked to the area and coined it “The Birthplace of Biotechnology.”
South City, as it is known, is home to a diverse population that brings with it an array of great food. Filipino, Italian, and Mexican restaurants, delis and diners and anything from Korean to Brazilian food fill the streets from Grand Avenue to El Camino Real. With hiking in San Bruno Mountain to the north, views of the Bay to the east, and low-key food and drink in between South City offers a day trip that everyone can enjoy.
Sign Hill Park (650 Poplar Ave.)
The iconic sign welcomes weary travelers back to the Bay, a symbol of home to many and for even more, a sign that everyone sees yet knows little about. Planted on the side of the aptly named Sign Hill Park are 34 white-painted concrete letters that spell SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, THE INDUSTRIAL CITY, each letter 60 feet in height. In 1923 the letters were painted on the hill as a gimmick to draw industry to the area. By 1928 the city realized this was the best advertising they could get and approved a bond to build the concrete letters. The park itself boasts 30 acres of open space and two miles of hiking through wildflowers and native habitats. The path to the letters is a short yet steep hike starting at the end of Poplar Avenue. Bring walking shoes and cardboard; the letters double as makeshift slides.
Little Lucca Sandwich Shop & Deli (724 El Camino Real)
The sheer size of the sandwich alone would be worth the $8 - $12, but throw in flavorful meat, fresh vegetables and signature sauces and this place wins the prize. Beef brisket, fire roasted steak, Jamaican spiced turkey, dry coppa and Black Forest Ham are a sliver of the meat options on the menu. Shrimp is served Tuesdays and Fridays and vegetarians are not left out. Their Original Garlic Sauce gives each sandwich the unique Little Lucca’s taste and hot pepper sauce adds a spicy kick. There are few decorations in this shoe box size deli; the emphasis is on the sandwich. Seating is offered at outdoor picnic tables only, weather permitting. Head to nearby Orange Memorial Park (781 Tennis Dr.) for more picnic tables and to get out of the bustle of El Camino. Don’t be deterred by a long line, it is worth the wait.
Oyster Point Marina & Park (95 Harbormaster Rd.)
This slice of the waterfront is a welcome respite from city life. A pier is often dotted with fishermen, while nearby grills offer a place to enjoy a sunny day and views of the Bay. Planes fly in and out from all directions during takeoff and landing at nearby SFO airport while boats leisurely bob in the marina. A hiking and biking path follows the water past grassy knolls, a beach area and the occasional flock of geese.
Wind Harp Tower (500 Grandview Dr.)
In the heart of the biotech empire of South San Francisco stands a 92-foot-tall aeolian harp constructed in 1967. This massive instrument is played when the wind goes through its arched, steel beams and was named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind. The sculpture was made by Lucia and Aristides Demetrios and is one of the world’s largest aeolian harps. Be sure to bundle up and visit on an especially windy day to hear its whistling song. A small parking lot is located at the foot of the trailhead. Be aware that other parking nearby may be restricted.
The StandBy (935 Airport Blvd.)
Pretension is left at the door at this down-to-earth bar. Regulars great each other by name and newcomers are welcomed. Being in the vicinity of an airport, biotech companies and a swath of hotels, this bar brings in, and brings together, a wide range of clientele. Happy hours offer a cozy place to hang with friends, play board games (provided), eat snacks (sometimes provided, call ahead) and pick from a jam packed jukebox. Karaoke nights get the whole bar singing and djs bring out a crowd.
Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.