San Francisco is a buzzing city that hums with creativity and embodies America’s diversity. Not only has San Francisco taken centre stage during several social and artistic movements, the ‘city by the bay’ is also beautiful. Due to the variety of different cultures contained within a relatively small metropolis, it’s possible to spend weeks here and feel like you’ve barely scraped the surface.
As visitors will no doubt testify, San Francisco is a place where you can truly leave your heart. Unusually, the metropolis doesn’t appear to have a real centre; instead an array of cultures collide to form a patchwork of different neighbourhoods, each as vibrant and interesting as the next.
Jumping off the ‘Bart’ (The Bay Area Rapid Transport – San Franciso’s equivalent of the Tube) on Market Street is a good starting point for exploring the city. Alighting here will take you into what feels like the commercial hub of San Francisco. Business types in suits swarm past one another, whilst popular shopping chains entice customers in. Here you’re just a short walk from Union Square, home to department stores and famed US brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie and Fitch. It’s definitely worth a trip if you’re feeling wealthy and / or are in dire need of clothing.
Stepping away from Market Street and walking underneath a bridge leads you away from urban capitalism and into Chinatown. It feels somewhat remarkable that by passing through a tunnel you are taken from a fast-paced, commercial neighbourhood into something so different. Chinatown has an undeniable atmosphere of urgency, but remains a far cry from the besuited business vibe of lower Market Street.
Instead the urgency comes as hundreds of people plough in and out of the numerous food shops and restaurants which adorn the pavement. Enticing smells ooze out of every one, whilst each establishment exhibits an exotic array of produce outside their entrances. Here buildings are ornately decorated and red lanterns dance on wires above the roads, adding an air of beauty and celebration to the streets.
Blurring into the boundaries of Chinatown is North Beach, the Italian district, as marked by tiny, painted Italian flags encircling the lampposts. In addition to being home to exceptional cuisine, North Beach also has a rich literary heritage. This little Italy served as the focal point of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s, and the movement’s legacy is intertwined into her lanes. Jack Kerouac Alley can be found in between the beat hangout and fantastic bar, Vesuvio, and pioneering indie bookstore City Lights. Both of these will hold great appeal for literary buffs and you can argue that when drinking at Vesuvio, you are not, in fact, a drunken lout, but rather a cultured, literary type.
Walking away from North Beach can take you to a famed San Francisco attraction: Lombard Street. Known as ‘The crookedest street in the world’, the many twists and turns of the small road make it exceptionally eye-catching and an excellent photo opportunity. The reason it’s so crooked though, is to slow down the steep incline, so take heed now: it is on a very, very steep hill, and after walking it you may feel like you’re having an aneurysm.
If you do take this very worthwhile trip to see a very windy street, you’ll be afforded spectacular views of a bay so great that Otis Redding felt inspired to write a song about it. Wandering down towards it, you too can watch the ships roll in, whilst also observing Alcatraz sitting somberly on the horizon. The former prison is well worth a visit, and trips to the island operate in all seasons (you just may need to book a couple of weeks in advance).
More than just a home to notorious miscreants, the island also saw an occupation by Native Americans in the 1970s, with some of the original graffiti documenting the take-over having been restored. Whilst this might not be the key focal point of the defunct penitentiary now, learning about the Native American occupation provides a fascinating insight into some of the contemporary struggles of native peoples against the United States government.
Alcatraz is not the only part of San Francisco to have provided a backdrop for social activism. Across the city lies Castro; a neighbourhood famed for its gay rights struggle (if you haven’t already seen it, the Oscar-winning film Milk will give you an excellent background to this historic district). Still very much the gay hub of the city, Castro is vibrant, colourful and home to a bounty of bars, clubs and restaurants, where rainbow flags fly high and proud. The last week in June sees the city‘s Pride festival, which is guaranteed to be great fun for all in attendance, as parades and parties take over the neighbourhood.
Vibrancy and colour can also be found in another famed ‘Frisco district: Haight-Ashbury, which takes its name from the intersection of ‘Haight’ and ‘Ashbury’ Streets, the area famed for being at the core of the hippie revolution of the 1960s. Today, Haight-Ashbury is a great place to peruse vintage shops, relax in a bohemian bar and stock up on books and records. The area also backs onto to the enormous Golden Gate Park, which is a great place to stroll around or to sit with a picnic. Despite the name, however, it’s miles from the bridge.
Also close to Haight-Ashbury is the Mission district, full of fantastic eateries and home to Elements Hostel, which has a great rooftop bar affording stunning views of the city. You don’t have to be a guest to visit the bar, and it’s certainly worth forking out for a pricey cocktail so you can sit back, gaze over the rooftops and take stock of everything you’ve seen.
Like any city though, San Francisco has its fair share of crime, and the Mission is one of the more notorious areas, so err on the side of caution here and don‘t venture out alone at night. Many a resident has also warned that the Tenderloin district is part of San Francisco which ought to be avoided. Unless you want to buy crack, in which case apparently it’s quite amiable.
With so much to see and do, San Francisco is worth dedicating a good chunk of time to, even if ultimately you just find yourself sitting in the dock of the bay, wasting time.