San Francisco: also known as Fog City. Maybe I was lucky, because the day I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge it was beautiful sunshine and the view across the bay was stunning. It wasn’t even too windy.
It was my first time visiting the West Coast of America, having previously only been to New York and Florida, with a brief stop in Washington, DC, and a hair-raising Greyhound bus ride through Georgia and the Carolinas, but that’s a story for another day.
As I rode the BART train from the airport into the city centre, I was intrigued by the architecture – block-shaped, pastel-coloured multi-storied homes with the garages tucked underneath. Later, exploring more of the city, the variety of architecture, from ornate Victorian so-called “painted ladies” properties and 1920s homes to more modern editions, was equally fascinating. But almost all were painted in the same pastel palette.
San Franciscans are an incredibly diverse mix of people, and all seemed to exude a genuine Californian warmth and friendliness wherever we went. It was heart-warming to witness the courtesy shown to fellow passengers on the buses and trams, and the friendly greetings from shop and restaurant staff. I instantly felt at ease and not like I was in one of the most densely populated cities in the US.
The city has numerous neighbourhoods, all with their own distinct characteristics. The downtown area is much like any other major city. In the Civic Centre, the stark contrast between the grandeur of City Hall and the city’s large homeless population is evident, the nearby Tenderloin being one of the grittiest neighbourhoods. Union Square is the main shopping area, filled with the big brands, department stores, and coffee shops.
Fisherman’s Wharf, once a thriving industrial and fishing port, is now mainly a tourist destination, lined with souvenir shops and attractions. The resident sea lion population at Pier 39 is a big draw, and it’s true, they are amusing to watch as they bask on the wooden pontoons, barking and jostling for position.
A historic streetcar ride away along the Embarcadero is the Ferry Building with its distinctive tall clock tower. This Victorian building was once the main transit hub of the city, receiving commuters from across the bay. As trains and cars took over from ferries, the building fell into decline. Following the 1989 earthquake and plans for the regeneration of the waterfront area, it was converted into offices and an artisan food market. The produce and homewares on offer are a feast for the senses. Organic, local, and sustainable are the buzzwords in this part of the States, and the food was certainly some of the best I have experienced.
You can’t come to San Francisco and not ride the cable cars. So, after joining the queue of tourists at the turntable on Market Street, my husband, son, and I trundled up and down the steep inclines of Nob Hill and Russian Hill, getting off at the intersection with Lombard Street to see the so-called “crookedest street in the world”. Another tourist draw, this block of Lombard Street was designed in the 1920s to reduce the steep gradient, and includes eight hairpin turns. Groups of tourists pose for selfies and wander down the street past people’s homes, whose occupants I can only think have immense patience and excellent parking skills. The view from the top is outstanding. To the east you can see Alcatraz Island, the Bay Bridge, and Telegraph Hill with its Coit Tower. To the west, on a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge.
The cable cars were first built in 1873 by a Scottish engineer and are powered by a wire cable running beneath the surface of the road. Today only three lines survive and are the world’s last manually operated cable cars. Not content with only riding the north–south Powell-Hyde line, we tried the east–west running California Street line too, which took us past the famous San Francisco Chinatown.
Chinatown and Sunset
The Chinese have influenced city life since the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and Gold Rush of 1849. Now, San Francisco is home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Chinatown, the oldest in North America, is a thriving, colourful mass of businesses and restaurants. Chinese lanterns hung on strings across the street, and dim sum restaurant staff enthusiastically encouraged us to try their wares. In more recent times, other Chinese communities have established themselves in the Sunset and Richmond areas to the west of the city.
Our Airbnb apartment was in the Inner Sunset area near West Portal, which is, in my opinion, the best place to stay. Though it’s mainly a quiet residential area, its little strip of shops and restaurants houses some hidden gems and it’s well connected to public transport.
Looking for places to eat, we found Calibur, just a short walk from West Portal station. In the style of a classic American burger bar, it’s a cool place to stop for organic, grass-fed beef burgers and tasty fries cooked in tallow. Just down the road is the Trattoria da Vittorio, a bustling Italian restaurant with excellent service: the Brussels sprouts with gorgonzola cream sauce was delicious.
Golden Gate Park
A must-see is Golden Gate Park. At 3 miles long, it’s 20 per cent bigger than New York’s Central Park. Bold racoons and squirrels scampered through the trees as we strolled past the picturesque lake at its centre. There is so much to see here we didn’t get to experience it all – bison, botanical gardens, a windmill, museums, children’s play area. No wonder it’s a popular place to hire bikes.
The Japanese Tea Garden we did stop in to see and were very glad we did. Built for the 1894 Midwinter Exposition, the landscaped gardens and koi carp pond beautifully frame the amazing Drum Bridge and wooden pavilions. Lunch at the small tea house overlooking the ponds was a suitably serene experience, nibbling on tiny sandwiches and sipping miso soup. You can, of course, also try various Japanese teas. The small gift shop sells gorgeous ceramics and other Japanese trinkets.
To end the afternoon we caught the N train out to Ocean Beach to dip our toes in the Pacific. The beach is a huge expanse of golden sand, and was almost deserted but for a few dog walkers, surfers, and yoga practitioners when we visited in October. Fascinatingly, this western part of the city is built on the sand dunes that once covered the area.
And that about sums it up: there’s a lot more to this city than meets the eye, and it definitely needs more than a week to uncover it.
Getting around: San Francisco has a good public transport network of buses, street cars, trains and the Metro, which doubles as a subway system in the downtown area, turning into overground trams in the outer suburbs. To make getting around easy, we recommend purchasing a 1, 3 or 7 day Muni Pass, which gives you unlimited travel on all Muni buses, street cars, Metro, and cable cars. Otherwise you must have exact change ($2.25) to buy a ticket when you get on. Cable cars cost $7 per ride, so a pass can save you a lot of money if you plan to have a few rides. See www.sfmta.com for details. The BART train from the airport costs $8.95 each way and will take you into the city centre. (Prices correct as of October 2016.)
Family-friendly city: there are plenty of parks, museums, aquariums, trams, and a zoo to keep younger family members entertained. If you’re planning on visiting a few of the big attractions and a boat tour, a CityPASS can save you money and includes a 7-day Muni Pass in the cost. www.citypass.com
For children, the California Academy of Sciences is a must visit – a combination of aquarium, planetarium, rainforest biome, and natural history museum, it’s got something to entertain all tastes. www.calacademy.org
A travel companion recommended the boat tour by Red and White Fleet sailing from Pier 43 under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island. www.redandwhite.com