SAN FRANCISCO proper occupies just 47 hilly square miles at the tip of a slender peninsula along the Northern California coast. Arguably the most beautiful, and probably the most progressive major city in the USA, it remains true to itself: an individualistic place whose residents pride themselves on living in a city like few – if any – others in the world. It’s a surprisingly compact and approachable place, where downtown streets rise on impossible gradients to reveal stunning views, and where fog rolls in on a moment’s notice to envelop everything in mist. This is not the California of monotonous blue skies and slothful warmth – the temperature rarely exceeds 80°F and usually hovers in the 60s between May and August, until summer weather finally arrives in autumn’s early weeks.
San Francisco is a city of distinct neighbourhoods. It’s second in the USA to only New York in terms of population density – commercial square-footage is surprisingly small and mostly confined to the downtown area, so the rest of the city is primarily residential with street-level shopping districts easily explored on foot. You could try to plough through much of it in a day or two, but the best way to get to know San Francisco is to dawdle.
The original inhabitants of this area, the Ohlone Indians, were all but wiped out within a few years of the establishment in 1776 of the Mission Dolores, the sixth in the chain of Spanish Catholic missions that ran the length of California. Two years after the Americans replaced the Mexicans in 1846, the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills precipitated the rip-roaring Gold Rush. Within a year, fifty thousand pioneers had come from the Midwest and East Coast (or from China), turning San Francisco from a muddy village and wasteland of sand dunes into a thriving supply centre and transit town. By the time the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, San Francisco was a lawless, rowdy boomtown of bordellos and drinking dens, something the moneyed elite – who hit it big on the much more dependable silver Comstock Lode in Nevada – worked hard to mend by constructing wide boulevards, parks, a cable-car system and elaborate Victorian redwood mansions by century’s end.
In the midst of the San Francisco’s golden age, however, a massive earthquake, followed by three days of fire, wiped out three-quarters of the city in 1906. Rebuilding began immediately and in the decades that followed, many of its landmarks were built, including both local bridges (the Golden Gate and the Bay). By World War II, San Francisco had been eclipsed by Los Angeles as the West Coast’s most populous, but it achieved a new cultural eminence with the emergence of the Beats in the 1950s, hippies in the 1960s and a newly liberated gay population all throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Since the 1990s, San Francisco has been the scene of the dot-com revolution’s meteoric rise, fall and recovery; the resultant wealth has pushed housing prices sky-high. This is a city in a constant state of evolution, quickly gentrifying itself into one of the most high-end towns on earth – thanks, in part, to the disposable incomes pumped into its coffers from its sizeable singles and gay contingents.