San Francisco is like the wild child you once knew at school; the one with a lively bohemian spirit and a startling ability to attract others with their charisma and cool-as-they-come attitude.
As one of the most idiosyncratic cities in the US, San Francisco has long been a centre for bohemians and game-changers, from the hippies who launched the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury to the residents of the Castro, champions of the gay rights movement, and the innovators of Silicon Valley.
The result? A city that combines the friendliness of southern California with the intellect of New York. It’s not for nothing that the Beat Generation’s literature was centred around North Beach; San Francisco is a place where you can idly tell a soap seller the smell reminds you of your grandmother, and he’ll launch into an anecdote about Proust.
Its formidable past has fostered a culture of acceptance. Different as each neighbourhood is, this is one place where you can go anywhere, dressed any way, and no one will give you a second glance, unless, of course, you’re one of the ‘naked men of the Castro’, who see nudity as a way of affirming their civil rights.
The openness is instantly captivating. “I lived in a lot of places for two or three years,” says ‘Donna Sachet’, MC at the Sunday’s A Drag Brunch, a buffet lunch attended by cross-dressers at the high-falutin’ Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “I’ve been here 20 years now, and I’m here for life. When I fly in, and see my city, I get butterflies.” The feeling, clearly, is mutual — as a San Fran institution, she’s even sung the national anthem at a San Francisco Giants game. A drag queen helming a baseball match? Only in San Francisco.
You can tour Alcatraz. You can spot the sea lions at Pier 39, inch up Russian Hill on a cable car and snake down the eight hairpin bends that make one block of Lombard Street reputedly ‘the crookedest street in the world’. Yes, you’ll enjoy it; but you won’t see what makes San Francisco special.
“We actually love the tourists staying in Fisherman’s Wharf,” says Austin Miller, a barista at Castro coffee shop Spike’s. “We just stick ’em down there and leave them.” His colleague, Jon Mendoza, agrees. “The real San Francisco is up here.”
They’re right. An afternoon in the Castro plunges me into the San Francisco of lore: men in tight T-shirts with buff pecs, louche-named shops and the gloriously flamboyant Castro Theatre, built in 1922 with a proscenium arch, fake marble columns and a canary-yellow Wurlitzer organ that’s played before each film.
There’s a serious moment, though, when I visit 575 Castro Street, the former camera shop of Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978 after being elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors as America’s first openly gay man in public office. His story was so inspirational it was translated to the Hollywood screen in Milk, to much critical acclaim; with Sean Penn winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The building is now the headquarters of the Human Rights Commission with a sobering exhibition devoted to Milk’s life.
From the battleground of gay rights to the birthplace of hippy culture: perched on a hill to the east of the Castro is Haight-Ashbury, which spawned the 1967 Summer of Love and much of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations from its demure Victorian buildings. Today, it’s more hipster than hippy, but the Red Victorian peace museum, run by 86-year-old Sami Sunchild, keeps the faith. “We preserve the pure essence of the peace movement,” says Sami’s right-hand woman, Danica Hill. Upstairs, 18 quirky rooms form a B&B, while downstairs, people bond around the Conversation Table. “Don’t sit here if you don’t want to talk,” warns a placard. Their focus is on meditative art and playing the ‘choosing game’ — an exercise where you arrange panels of abstract art into a bigger picture. “It makes you drop out of your life for a few minutes,” explains Danica.
I leave, buoyed and ready to glimpse the drama and grace of the Golden Gate Bridge, which hooks the steeply raked, candy-coloured houses of this hilly city onto the windswept Marin headlands.
There are many ways of seeing this icon: walk it, drive it, cruise under it or cycle over it. You can glimpse the bridge from the beach at Crissy Field or, on the other side, from the road etched round the cliff edge of the Marin Headlands. If it’s visible, that is. “What a view,” sighs Mike Awve, a tour guide with The Urban Safari, which ferries visitors around San Francisco in a zebra-print truck. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
He’s joking. The bridge has disappeared, engulfed in fog. But suddenly the mist rolls through and down, and the bridge swims into view, shimmering through the cloud like some spectral oasis.
“The weather here’s different every 10 minutes,” says Craig Fonarow, a former financier who took up photography when he moved to San Francisco and now owns a gallery in North Beach. “You could go out onto the Golden Gate every day for 10 years and each time it’d look different.”
You certainly don’t come here for the weather. As Mark Twain once reputedly said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” But what you’ll quickly realise is that what it lacks in classic Californian sun, San Francisco makes up for with personality.
“You may have noticed something on your plates here that you won’t have seen anywhere else in America,” says Mike Awve. “Vegetables.”
I have to admit, nowhere else in the States does fresh, local produce like Northern California. “We have some of the best produce in the country on our doorstep,” smiles Amar Gagnon, chef at vegetarian restaurant Greens.
He must be right, because the dishes of fire-roasted poblano chilli, gratin provencal, and farro and squash risotto are so spectacular I question my carnivorous tendencies. The view’s equally impressive: floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Golden Gate.
On the other side of town, at the foot of the Bay Bridge, Waterbar serves up San Francisco’s other trump card: seafood. I eat scallops in a sweet broth, and oak-roasted bass. Again, the focus is on ingredients — the menu lists the provenance of every dish, right down to the ship that caught the fish.
Even teatime is upmarket, I discover, as I graze my way through trendy Hayes Valley — an area east of Haight-Ashbury — crammed with independent shops and restaurants. I try organic macaroons at Chantal Guillon, cupcakes at Miette and a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at Taste. “The aim is to slow down here,” says owner Vincent Fung as he shows me how to steep rose petals in a traditional gaiwan.
“The tea should run like a bell curve: the water starts off tasting of nothing, and you keep steeping until the tea tastes of nothing. It’s like the circle of life.” Even a cuppa has a spiritual meaning in San Francisco, it seems.
“Twenty years ago, this was the worst area of San Francisco,” says Russell Pritchard of Hayes Valley. “Now, it’s the best.”
In 1990, when Pritchard opened furniture shop Zonal, the area was overshadowed by drugs, crime and, quite literally, by a freeway overpass. When that was demolished in 1992, things changed rapidly. Zonal, though, remains the same: a treasure trove of classic Americana — tables, chairs, and neon signs.
“I never planned to move here, but fate thrust me into it,” says Pritchard. The Canadian tells the same story as so many other San Franciscans: came to the city by chance; will never leave. Take Cicely Ann Hansen, who owns vintage clothing shop Decades of Fashion, in Haight-Ashbury. She arrived for a modelling job in 1966, aged 16.
“I thought, this is it,” she grins. “I went home, finished high school in three months, and came straight back. I didn’t call my parents for a month. And I certainly didn’t tell them I was living opposite the Grateful Dead, that LSD was being passed out in the street, and that 20,000 of us would go to the park and listen to Allen Ginsberg.”
Hansen’s Haight-Ashbury stint lasted only a few years, but when her parents died in 2006, she re-evaluated things. “I asked myself, ‘Where was I super-happy?’ And I immediately thought: in the Haight.” Hansen now stocks “tens of thousands” of clothes from the 1880s to the 1980s: flapper dresses, vintage silk pyjamas, a pair of jazz-age spats — they’re all here.
But it’s North Beach that’s home to San Francisco’s most iconic shop: City Lights Bookstore. Open since 1953, America’s first paperback bookshop was a magnet for the beatnik era’s greatest minds and is still owned by its founder, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “He comes in here all the time,” says a colleague of the 92-year-old. “He’s doing fine.”
San Francisco is no New York when it comes to hotels, but there are plenty of quirky places to stay. In the unprepossessing Tenderloin district is the über-trendy Clift, which features a cavernous lobby with a 10ft-high bronze chair, and the Redwood Room — an art deco bar that was, supposedly, panelled using a single tree.
A block west is Hotel Adagio. Built in 1929, it’s more laid-back than the Clift, with an emphasis on its environs; placards on the front desk detail its staff’s San Fran picks, and corridors are lined with pictures of headlands and redwoods.
But I’d secured a stay at Cavallo Point Lodge, a former barracks on the other side of the Golden Gate that was converted into a hotel three years ago. Not only does it enjoy perhaps the most iconic hotel view in San Francisco — nestling in a crook of headland in the shadow of the bridge — but it’s eco-friendly too, using sustainable materials extensively (steamer chairs made from recycled bottle tops, gas fires rather than air con in bedrooms).
There’s a ‘healing arts centre’ on site too, and the restaurant, Murray Circle, is Michelin-starred, but it’s the constantly shifting view of fog rolling over the Golden Gate from my bedroom window that’s the real draw. It’s like staying in an ever-changing work of art.
San Francisco’s neighbourhoods are as well defined at night as by day. Since 1926, the rich have been drinking in the views at Top of the Mark, the Mark Hopkins Hotel’s rooftop bar and the highest point in downtown San Fran. The literary crowd go to Vesuvio Cafe, the one-time North Beach local of Jack Kerouac, while hipsters make for a block on Haight Street — between Fillmore and Steiner — back-to-back with bars, from raucous beer palace Toronado to the bizarre Noc Noc, with murals, tribal thrones and a short-but-sweet drinks menu.
But it’s in the grubby Tenderloin that San Francisco’s most ingenious bar lurks. On the former site of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, access to Bourbon & Branch is strictly controlled — you apply through the website and are given a password.
That’s how, as midnight approaches, I find myself ringing the bell at an unmarked door, underneath a sign advertising Prohibition lobbyists the Anti-Saloon League. A woman in a flapper dress and a slash of scarlet lipstick demands the magic word, ‘dapper’, and shows me into a tiny, dark room lit by tealights, with cast iron stools at the bar. The soundtrack is jazz, the cocktails complex and strong. “Congratulations on finding us,” reads the menu. “We want to provide an environment where you can have a great drink, listen to quality music and not be bothered by the outside world.”
Quirky, cool, and utterly aware of it; yet totally lacking pretension. It’s as valid a description of San Francisco as it is of Bourbon & Branch. Who needs sun when you’ve got attitude like this?
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from Heathrow. Other airlines operating direct flights from the UK include United Airlines, American Airlines and British Airways. www.virgin-atlantic.com www.unitedairlines.co.uk
Average flight time: 9h45m.
San Francisco has good public transport, with buses, metro and cable cars. Parking is expensive downtown, but there’s metered and free parking elsewhere. Ferries run between Sausalito and downtown. Taxis are reasonable but expect to pay a 10% tip.
When to go
The best times to visit are March to April (typically cloudless and mild) and September to November (sunny and warm). Summer can be foggy and cool, while winter, though mild by US standards, tends to be wet.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens spending fewer than 90 days in the city don’t need a visa but will need to apply for security clearance in advance, via an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) form, which costs $14 (£9). https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta
Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.55.
International dial code: 00 1 415.
Time difference: GMT -8.
Spike’s. 4117 19th St. www.spikescoffee.com
Red Victorian. 1665 Haight St. www.redvic.com
The Urban Safari. www.theurbansafari.com
The Castro Theatre. 429 Castro St. www.castrotheatre.com
Muir Woods. www.nps.gov/muwo
Sunday’s A Drag Brunch, Francis Drake Hotel. 450 Powell St. www.harrydenton.com
Greens. Fort Mason. www.greensrestaurant.com
Waterbar. 399 The Embarcadero. www.waterbarsf.com
Chantal Guillon. 437 Hayes St. www.chantalguillon.com
Miette. 449 Octavia St. www.miette.com
Taste. 535 Octavia St. www.tasteteasf.com
Zonal. 568 Hayes St. www.zonalhome.com
Decades of Fashion. 1740 Haight St. T: 00 1 415 750 1704.
City Lights Bookstore. 261 Columbus Ave. www.citylights.com
Craig Fonarow Photography. 527 Columbus Ave. www.fonarow.com
Top of the Mark. One Nob Hill. www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com
Vesuvio Cafe. 255 Columbus Ave. www.vesuvio.com
Toronado. 547 Haight St. www.toronado.com
Noc Noc. 557 Haight St. www.nocnocs.com
Bourbon & Branch. 501 Jones St. www.bourbonandbranch.com
How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers four nights at Cavallo Point Lodge with flights and car hire, from £999 per person. Or four nights at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fisherman’s Wharf on a B&B basis, from £699 per person. www.virginholidays.co.uk
Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)