For some, it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, with its graceful, tawny lines melting into the backdrop of rumpled green hills, the Pacific sliding into the Bay below. For others, it’s the famously feisty spirit — this has been a hub of independent thinking and counter culture since it was first settled as a Gold Rush town in the mid-1800s. For many, it’s the easy location: all the accoutrements of a big city slotted neatly into a wild coastal landscape that people fly thousands of miles to see. But whatever it is that draws first-timers to San Francisco, there’s plenty more that drags them back again and again.
This is one of America’s big hitters, of course. The kooky eco-city whose knockout views launched a thousand camera clicks. San Francisco — or SF, San Fran, the Bay Area, even Frisco, if you don’t mind the locals’ disapproving glances — has long been at the forefront of global opinion. Gay rights, the hippie movement, the Beat Generation, were all centred on this seven-by-seven-mile cultural crucible. Locally-sourced food was the norm here long before it became the culinary fad du jour. Its easygoing yet ambitious atmosphere has drawn entrepreneurs from all over the globe. Even the weather’s unique: the notorious fog often closeting it away from the rest of sunny California. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” Mark Twain is said to have quipped.
Rarely is a major city so fused into the landscape as this, where roads scale near-sheer hillsides, pastel-coloured houses cling to the sidewalks, giant redwoods rear skyward in Golden Gate Park, and the pristine coastline of the Marin Headlands lies just beyond the city itself. And yet, perhaps because of its natural state, few places keep it as real as San Francisco does. More often than not, that shop will be locally owned, that bar will have blended its own liqueurs, and that hoodie-clad neighbour in the bakery (for San Franciscans love bakeries) will be a Silicon Valley billionaire.
It’s a city cliché, of course, but San Francisco really is a collection of villages, each with its own personality. Among the best to explore are the hippie Haight, chic Hayes Valley, the out-and-proud Castro and the Mission, an independent high street by day, nightlife hub by night. And while San Francisco has its obvious tourist attractions (Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge for starters), for those who love it, the city itself outshines them all.
Like a local
Beware the fog: San Francisco is as famous for its microclimates as its fog. The weather can change from one block to the next, so do as SF residents do and layer up.
Car free: This is one US city where it isn’t necessary to rent a car. Bike riding is popular, especially around the Golden Gate area, and vintage streetcars from around the globe go down main drag Market Street and around the piers. There are ferry services and water taxis around the bay, and ride-share apps, like Lyft (above), mean you’re never short of options.
What to see
Marin Headlands: The pristine Marin coastline squares off against the city. Hire a car to wind your way around the hillsides and meet the latest rescue seals and sea-lions at the nearby Marine Mammal Center.
Cable car: San Francisco’s notoriously hilly terrain makes for some spectacular transport options. Get winched up and over on a cable car (of the three lines, the Powell-Hyde is the most scenic), and hop off at jaw-dropping Lombard Street,
the ‘crookedest street in the world’.
Beat Museum: This fascinating little museum in North Beach is a brilliant introduction to the Beat Generation, and has a treasure trove of memorabilia, from Jack Kerouac’s jacket to Allen Ginsberg’s typewriter.
Castro: One of America’s first gay villages. Drop in for a movie at the retro Castro Theater, then walk up the Rainbow Honor Walk — a 20-strong ‘walk of stars’ dedicated to giants of the LGBT world. Finish at 575 Castro Street, once the camera shop of Harvey Milk. hrc.org
Twin Peaks: For the best view of the city, make for this spectacular lookout point perched on a high bluff above the Castro. The 360-degree panorama takes in downtown SF, the entire Bay Area and — depending on the fog — SF’s long strip of Pacific-pummelled beach.
Mission murals: Take a tour of the Mission’s famous political murals with Precita Eyes, a local non-profit now in its fifth decade. Weekend art tours take in six-block Balmy Alley, a constantly updated open-air gallery.
Hayes Valley: Independent shop offerings include Propeller, which spotlights emerging designers making everything from porcelain decanters to upcycled chopping boards, and cult skin and bath products Nancy Boy. True Sake boasts the largest collection of sake in the world.
Haight-Ashbury: The Summer of Love lives on in the Haight. You can dress the part thanks to its many vintage stores — Held Over is one of the best — and browse the shelves at ‘anarchist collective’ bookshop Bound Together.
Where to eat
Tacos Cala: A taco stand at the back of Cala, the first US restaurant from Mexican super-chef Gabriela Cámara, serving tacos de guisado — Mexico City-style stewed tacos brimming with Bay Area ingredients.
Test Kitchen: A new venture from celeb chef Michael Mina, Test Kitchen trials entire concepts — from the décor to prix fixe menus — every few months. Previous incarnations include a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean hybrid.
Piperade: Basque food with a local twist — the entire menu, down to the bottled water, is sourced locally, organic and sustainable — this San Francisco staple was one of the first to combine Californian cuisine with outside influences.
Where to stay
The Buchanan: This peaceful Japantown hotel from boutique chain Kimpton is phenomenal value. Rooms have subtle Japanese accents — artwork, kimonos, in-room easels — while retro restaurant Mum’s has been going since the 1970s.
Hotel Zephyr: Hotels don’t get much quirkier than this lovely little place off tourist hub Fisherman’s Wharf. The design is nautical-chic (all portholes and rope-as-decoration) and the ‘back yard’ is perfect for an evening spent around the firepit.
Hotel Zetta: An ‘urban retreat’ from posh hotel group Viceroy, with comfortable rooms and 21st-century technology making for a good stay.
ThirstyBear Brewing Co: An organic craft brewery in the middle of the city, this is the place to sample seasonal beers with a NorCal bent — think gluten-free IPAs and ales infused with vanilla and cocoa from Berkeley.
Doc’s Clock: Follow the neon lights into this hipster dive bar in the heart of the Mission. Down-to-earth drinks, a lively atmosphere and varied clientele — it’s San Francisco to the core.
Vesuvio: Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Francis Ford Coppola have been regulars over the years. Vesuvio, in North Beach, was at the centre of the Beat Generation years.
Airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Delta and United fly daily non-stop from Heathrow to San Francisco, while Air New Zealand flies via Los Angeles. Many visitors fly into SF and out of Los Angeles, driving the Pacific Coast Highway in between.
Average flight time: 11h.
Piled over 43 steep hills, San Francisco’s not the most walkable of cities. Tourist-friendly areas, such as the piers, are well served by streetcars, with tickets priced at $2.25 (£1.50). For everywhere else, there’s taxis and car-sharing apps.
When to go
With mild weather year-round, there’s no bad time to visit, but bear in mind that a San Francisco summer isn’t as warm as other parts of California and fog can hit at any time. For a combined PCH roadtrip to Los Angeles, late spring or autumn is ideal (the coast road’s prone to landslides in winter), or to catch the harvest in Wine Country, October’s best.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens travelling for less than 90 days can fill out an online ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver form in advance. It costs £8.60 ($14).
Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.43.
International dialling code:
00 1 415.
Time difference: GMT -8.
How to do it
Frontier Travel has seven nights at the Argonaut Hotel on a room-only basis, including return flights via LA on Air New Zealand, from £1,319 per person.
Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)