The summer of love may no longer be in bloom, and the misfits are outnumbered by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but San Francisco is as captivating as ever. If Los Angeles attracts people hoping to be discovered, San Francisco has always drawn those wanting to discover themselves — amid giant redwoods, sublime headland and rows of candy-coloured houses cresting the city’s 43 hills.
I had family living here when I first visited. They showed me the sights, introduced me to the neighbourhoods and gave me the best city guide possible as I sat back as I fell for the Bay Area. Although it’s an often-overused analogy, San Francisco is a collection of independent villages. Look beyond Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, and you’ll find enclaves of people fiercely crafting their own communities.
There’s the out-and-proud Castro, of course, which has shaped so much of San Francisco’s history, and whose streets are worth a wander whatever your orientation. There’s Haight-Ashbury, still clinging to its hippy past. Even North Beach retains echoes of its Beat Generation heyday.
But the neighbourhoods shaping today’s San Francisco are ones that don’t roll off the tongue so easily. Two decades ago, Hayes Valley was the worst area of the city. Today, it’s the template for regeneration, with a thriving, yet passionately independent, shopping and restaurant scene.
The Mission has long gone from a working class, immigrant neighbourhood to one of the city’s nightlife hubs, but recently it’s become a daytime destination too, with the emergence of the ‘Valencia Street corridor’. Meanwhile, SoMa, or South of Market, is the latest district to emerge; its phenomenal bars challenging the Mission for its nightlife crown.
Different as they are, San Francisco’s villages are united by a common thread: the desire to be different. Chains are frowned upon, and the streets teem with artisans and entrepreneurs blending chocolate, selling vintage, or crafting Prohibition-era cocktails. From shops to restaurants, keeping it local is the name of the game. It helps, of course, that San Francisco enjoys one of the most spectacular settings in the world. But there’s a reason locals call it simply ‘the city’ — everything revolves around these 43 hills.
Where to eat
Even when meat is on the menu, ‘local’, ‘organic’ and ‘farm-to-table’ are the buzzwords — it’s par for the course for menus to list producers, from farms to fishing boats. We’re not just talking high-end restaurants, either — only in San Francisco could you have the ‘local, sustainable and organic’ Kara’s Cupcakes (3249 Scott St, Pacific Heights) in Pacific Heights, or Craftsman and Wolves (746 Valencia St, Mission) — a Mission District bakery that operates a seasonal menu (think root vegetable croissants in winter and fresh blueberry muffins in summer).
This being San Francisco, of course, it’s not just the food that’s off the wall. Restaurants have concepts, from Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St, Mission) — a Mission favourite that screens foreign movies over dinner in its courtyard — to The Abbot’s Cellar (742 Valencia St, Mission), which pairs its menu with domestic craft beers. Mission Chinese Food (2234 Mission St, Mission) is where it gets weird: in the down-at-heel part of the Mission, lurking behind the facade of an unassuming restaurant called Lung Shan, it’s a top Sichuan spot.
There is, of course, a more all-American option — albeit with a SF twist. Sauce (135 Gough St, Hayes Valley), a Hayes Valley institution (it recently opened a second branch downtown), mixes US comfort food with Californian cuisine — think Portobello mushroom fries, or bacon-wrapped meatloaf. True to San Francisco form, they keep things local here — not only are all the ingredients California-sourced, and everything, including the bread and pasta, made in-house; they also rent out eight bedrooms, making it one of the few places to stay in Hayes Valley.
Here, the local, responsibly sourced movement that’s long been part of the restaurant scene is now sweeping the city’s bars. At Bar Agricole (355 11th St, SoMa), bartenders make their own bitters and grow garnishes on the patio. The cocktail menu lists only pre-1940s drinks — tying in with the other big trend here for ‘historic’ bars and speakeasies. Bourbon & Branch (501 Jones St, Tenderloin) kicked this off in 2006 with an unmarked door, a password for entry and staff in 1920s gear; it’s been so successful that a sister speakeasy, Tradition (441 Jones St, Tenderloin), has opened a block away. Local Edition (691 Market St, Downtown) is another throwback bar in the basement of the former Hearst newspaper building in FiDi, with typewriters and printing presses as decor.
Luckily, there’s a healthy dose of the unusual to counter the hipster nightlife. Smuggler’s Cove (650 Gough St, Hayes Valley) is a flamboyant tiki joint with a basement bar and mini pool. But perhaps most San Franciscan of all is Martuni’s (4 Valencia St, SoMa), an old-school piano bar serving oversized martinis.
For a more sober experience, join the Silicon Valley crowd as they talk start-ups over a cup of high-class tea. Open as late as 10pm, Samovar (498 Sanchez St, Castro; 297 Page St, Hayes Valley; 730 Howard St, Downtown) has three lounges in the city, serving small-batch artisan tea at prices only an entrepreneur could love.
Hayes Valley has probably the most eclectic shopping district in San Francisco, with Hayes St (between Laguna and Franklin) and surrounding streets wall-to-wall with everything from clothes to furniture. Top picks are Ver Unica (437 Hayes St), a vintage clothes shop spread over two stores; Minimal (364 Hayes St, Hayes Valley), which sells trinkets for the house; and Zonal (568 Hayes St, Hayes Valley), a trove of repurposed Americana. Nancy Boy (347 Hayes St, Hayes Valley), meanwhile, stocks phenomenal chemical-free skincare and bath products made with essential oils.
The Mission’s Valencia Street corridor (between 18th and 20th Sts) is starting to give Hayes Valley a run for its money, with quirky homeware shops (all great, but I like Aldea) springing up alongside places like Paxton Gate (824 Valencia St, Mission), whose nature-inspired shop shifts seed packets alongside animal skeletons. Betabrand (780 Valencia St, Mission) is an innovative clothing company, manufacturing only the designs that get the thumbs up from its customers, who vote on every item. Nearby is Dandelion Chocolate (740 Valencia St, Mission), which makes and sells its chocolate — straight from the bean — on the premises.
For a mixture of chains and independents in a prettier setting than Union Square, try Pacific Heights. The upmarket neighbourhood sprinkles designer labels among pricey independent boutiques on Fillmore St (between Bush and Clay) and mixes in trendy names, like J Brand and Apple, in retro, pastel-coloured buildings on Chestnut St, between Fillmore and Divisadero, while the touristy Upper Haight is great for vintage clothing.
Top 10 local tips
02 San Francisco is a city of microclimates, and you never know when the fog or wind will hit, so dress in layers, and plenty of them.
03 Save your visit to the California Academy of Sciences for a Thursday night — its weekly late-night event, with cocktails.
04 If you want to ride a cable-car, shun the jam-packed Powell St lines for the California St line. It’s prettier, and crowd-free.
05 Don’t trust GPS — in this hilly city, roads can stop abruptly at a staircase and continue on the other side.
06 Join America’s food truck revolution at SoMa StrEat Food Park (428 11th St), a former parking lot that’s been converted into a food truck park.
07 The best way to cross the Golden Gate Bridge is to hike or bike across, then get a ferry back from Sausalito.
08 California’s famous for its In-N-Out burger chain, but there’s a secret menu — find it online.
09 Keep an eye out for SF’s celebrated eccentrics. The ‘naked men of the Castro’ have fallen victim to a recent nudity ban, leaving ‘protester’ Frank Chu as the city’s favourite eccentric.
10 Try Peek — a website that picks the best things to do in SF.
Books: Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels are SF classics. The Beat poets congregated in North Beach. Stock up on their works at City Lights Books, in North Beach, still owned by 95-year-old poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
On screen: Hitchcock’s Vertigo is arguably San Francisco’s finest film. It features the Golden Gate and the Mission, among other locations. Milk, the biopic of politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, was shot in the Castro.
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)