San Francisco, that beautiful, eclectic city on America’s west coast, owes a fair deal of its popularity to a cheesy family that lived in a postcard-worthy house just a short stroll away from the picturesque Alamo Square. But San Francisco has a lot more to offer than that corny minute-and-a-half introduction to Full House. In fact, a solid five days in the city only just gave me enough time to scratch the very top layer of this complex and fascinating city.
Much like New York, San Francisco is often defined by its public transport. Tourists queue for hours just to hang precariously off the side of the world-famous cable cars, which groan up and down the steep roads between claustrophobic suburbs; the busy streets are packed with stately historic street cars; and in-between this all are the near- zero emission buses which, if necessary, will drop you off at one of the various ferries.So if I told you that one of the most dramatic introductions to the city was in the form of a spotless, characterless public train, you’d probably think I’m a little mad. But for around five bucks, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) system, although not nearly as touristy, offers one of the best and most functional introductions to San Francisco.
Hop into one of these trains at the San Francisco International terminal and before you have time to get through the glowing introduction in your bulky guide book, you’ll be swimming in quintessential San Fran.
This is because when you eventually pop your head above ground, you’ll find yourself spinning just south of Union Square. At almost any time of the day or night, you’ll be instantly caught up in the infectious buzz of locals and tourists flitting between some of the world’s most popular, and glamorous, retail chains, gourmet restaurants and a handful of exclusive boutiques. Hotels abound in this area, everything from the classic shoebox motel to the ultra-modern and luxurious chains, all within easy walking distance of the station.
Like many cities on America’s west coast, San Francisco has its roots in the mid-‘0s California Gold Rush, when people from around the world flocked here in the hope of finding their fortunes. And when the madness subsided, people stuck around because, quite obviously, they fell in love with what surrounded them – beautiful bays, long, undulating hills, green parks and views that match some of the country’s best.
But what truly defines this period in the city’s history is its large and ever-increasing Chinese population. Now, Chinatowns are a dime a dozen throughout the States – you’ll find one in practically every city. But San Francisco lays claim to the world’s biggest outside Asia, and you can easily dedicate an entire day to wandering through its fascinating streets and alleyways while sampling some truly authentic Chinese dishes.
Fortunately, the best way to view China Town is also one of the cheapest. The San Francisco City Guides are a group of dedicated volunteers with a passion for the city, and they run up to 10 free daily walking tours in each neighbourhood and around most major landmarks and attractions. In fact, you could get to know the entire city without even paying a cent, especially if you’re not one for giving donations.
From China Town, you are in the perfect position to explore almost any part of downtown San Francisco, so I decided to continue walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf, the kitsch, tourist mecca of the coastal region. While most people will tell you this is one of those must-visit attractions, it could easily be skipped, save for one redeeming factor – just down the road is Pier 33, where up to 10 times a day you can catch a ferry to the infamous Alcatraz Island.
Sure, Alcatraz hovers dangerously close to the tourist-trap tag – after paying $26 for your ticket, you’ll be forced to have your photo taken in front of a green screen onto which the stereotypical Alcatraz image will be transposed (which will be ready for you on your return, for a paltry $22).
There’s still something magical and mysterious about this prison and the audio tour was totally enthralling, with tales and commentary from ex-cons, warders and a variety of other people to lend it some genuine credibility. The best part of the audio tour is that because everyone’s so enthralled in the commentary, you can hear a pin drop as you navigate the maze of cells.
I eventually wound down my day with a cup of Phish Food watching nutty swimmers stroking out into the frigid San Francisco bay before I joined the back of the queue to catch the cable car back to Union Square – just to say I had.
There really is so much to see and do in San Francisco that it can all get a bit overwhelming, and if you have the time it’s well worth visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, either on foot or via rented bicycle.
Tour guides will tell you to find something else to do on a cloudy day, but in fact they’re misinformed. It’s on the cloudiest, most miserable days that this engineering marvel oozes real character and atmosphere. It offers the most spectacular photographs under these conditions even as you battle along the narrow pathway next to swishing traffic, in the thick fog and howling winds.
But if you want to experience the city, to get a true taste, you’re better off venturing into one of the many diverse neighbourhoods, which, although less frequented by tourists, are equally fascinating.
The Mission District is one such place, and its combination of historically Spanish-Mexican families with a newly established hipster population means the vibrancy of its people overflows onto the crowded streets. In recent years it has become particularly trendy.
But the real jewel in the crown of The Mission is a block-long alley, squeezed just off 24th Street, aptly named Balmy Alley. This short stretch of road is home to San Francisco’s greatest and most concentrated collection of hand-painted murals. There’s barely a blank spot on the walls, fences and doors, and, if you time it right, you can have the experience all to yourself while tourists queue for hours to have their caricatures painted on the other side of town.
Of course, there are unique neighbourhoods aplenty in San Francisco, and if you’re in the Golden Gate Park area, it’s a great idea to stroll down Haight Street in the bohemian Haight-Ashbury area. There you can pop in and out of the fascinating niche music and clothing stores, all drawing influence from hedonistic days gone by, and eventually stop for lunch, a light snack or a drink or three at any of the equally trendy and offbeat restaurants, coffee shops and bars.
But it was a late-night sojourn through the Tenderloin District that truly put the finishing touches to my trip. This dubiously named residential zone has long been the black sheep of the city, and although it used to be the regular stomping ground of the likes of Miles Davis, today it’s a rundown, depressing drug hole. In the space of just three blocks I was offered crack from the grimy hand of a desperate youth, walked past a real gun-in-the-ribs, put your hands where we can see them, NOW! arrest, ignored the heckling from dozens of prostitutes, and even had to skip over a slew of multi-coloured used condoms launched from the seedy apartments above.
But in a strange way my experiences here lent a lot to this fascinating city that, despite this hidden, gritty underbelly, is just brimming with creativity and energy. It’s a city so diverse and entertaining, so unique and individualistic, and yet still far from perfection, that you can’t help but fall in love with it.
Originally appeared in print in the Saturday Star: