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.

Brief history

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.

Accommodation in San Francisco

San Francisco residents complain frequently about skyrocketing rents, and it’s no different for visitors. Expect accommodation to cost upwards of $200/night in a reasonable hotel or motel, and less out of high season, although keep in mind that rates can fluctuate wildly at any time based on demand. To get the best deal, be sure to reserve well in advance, especially for summer and early autumn visits.

The San Francisco Visitor Information Center can provide help with finding accommodation, while San Francisco Reservations regularly offers cut-price rates on lodging. For B&Bs, contact Bed and Breakfast San Francisco. If funds are particularly tight, look into one of the many excellent hostels, where lodging rates start around $29.

Finally, other than a group-only campground in the Presidio, there’s nowhere legal to camp in San Francisco itself, so if you’re determined to sleep under the stars either in a campground or wild, head to any number of parks in the East Bay, down the Peninsula or in Marin County.

Alcatraz

Before the rocky islet of Alcatraz became America’s most dreaded high-security prison in 1934, it had already served as a fortress and military jail. Surrounded by the bone-chilling water of San Francisco Bay, it made an ideal place to hold the nation’s most wanted criminals – men such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. The conditions were inhumane: inmates were kept in solitary confinement, in cells no larger than 9ft by 5ft, most without light. They were not allowed to eat together, read newspapers, play cards or even talk; relatives could visit for just two hours each month. Escape really was impossible: nine men managed to get off “the Rock”, but none gained his freedom, and the only two to reach the mainland (using a jacket stuffed with inflated surgical rings as a raft) were soon apprehended.

Due to its massive running costs, the prison finally closed in 1963. The island remained abandoned until 1969, when a group of Native Americans staged an occupation as part of a peaceful attempt to claim the island for their people, citing treaties that designated all federal land not in use as automatically reverting to their ownership. Using all the bureaucratic trickery it could muster, the US government finally ousted them two years later, claiming the operative lighthouse qualified it as active.

At least 750,000 tourists each year take the excellent hour-long, self-guided audio tour of the abandoned prison, which includes sharp anecdotal commentary as well as re-enactments of prison life featuring improvised voices of the likes of Capone and Kelly. Ferries to Alcatraz leave from Pier 33; allow at least three hours for a visit, including cruise time. Advance reservations are essential – in peak season, it’s nearly impossible to snag a ticket for a same-day visit.

Best time to go to San Francisco

San Francisco does not belong to the California of endless blue skies and slothful warmth. Flanked on three sides by water, it is regularly invigorated by the fresh winds that sweep across the Peninsula. The climate is among the most stable in the world, with a daytime temperature that generally hovers around 15°C (60°F), but can drop much lower at night.

Spring and autumn usually have the sunniest days, while summer often sees heavy fog roll in through the Golden Gate. This thick mist does much to add romance to the city but it can also dash any hopes of tanning at the beach. Winter brings most of the city’s rainfall, sometimes in torrential storms.

Almost everywhere else in the Bay Area is warmer than San Francisco, especially in the summer when the East Bay basks in sunshine, and the Wine Country and other inland valleys are baking hot.

To avoid the crowds, do not come in the summer, although even then the tourist congestion is rarely off-putting. The best time to visit San Francisco is late May or June, when the hills are greenest and covered with wildflowers, or in October and November, when you can be fairly sure of good weather and reduced crowds.

Cable cars

It was the invention of the cable car that put the high in San Francisco’s high society, as it made life on the hills both possible and practical. Since 1873, these trams (trolleys) have been an integral part of life in the city, supposedly thanks to Scotland-born Andrew Hallidie’s concern for horses. Having watched a team struggle and fall, breaking their legs on a steep San Franciscan street, Hallidie designed a pulley system around the thick wire rope his father had patented for use in the California mines (the Gold Rush was slowing, so the Hallidies needed a new market for their product). Despite locals’ initial doubts, a transport revolution followed. At their peak, just before the 1906 earthquake, hundreds of cable cars travelled 110 miles of track throughout the city; over the years, usage dwindled and, in 1964, nostalgic citizens voted to preserve the last seventeen miles (now just 10) as a National Historic Landmark.

The cars fasten onto a moving two-inch cable that runs beneath the streets, gripping on the ascent, then releasing at the top and gliding down the other side. You can see the huge motors that still power these cables at the excellent Cable Car Museum and Powerhouse, 1201 Mason St, at Washington (cablecarmuseum.org).

Chinatown

The oldest such enclave in the USA, bustling and noisy Chinatown is shoehorned into several densely populated blocks and is home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia. It has its roots in the arrival of Chinese sailors keen to benefit from the Gold Rush of 1849, and the migration of Chinese labourers to the city after the completion of the transcontinental railroad twenty years later. The city didn’t extend much of a welcome: Chinese immigrants were met by a tide of vicious racial attacks and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the only law in American history aimed at a single racial group), which prevented Chinese immigration and naturalization. Nowadays, Chinatown bristles with activity despite its increasingly elderly population base and, in sharp contrast to the districts that surround it, a clear lack of wealth.

Enter through Chinatown Gate at the intersection of Grant Avenue (the district’s tourist thoroughfare) and Bush Street. Gold-ornamented portals and brightly painted balconies sit above Grant’s crass souvenir stores – some of the tackiest emporia in the city. A few blocks up, Old St Mary’s Cathedral, 660 California St at Grant Ave, was one of the few San Francisco buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, and there’s a good photo display of the damage to the city in its entranceway.

San Francisco drinking and nightlife

While justifiably famous for its restaurants, San Francisco is also a great drinking town, with a huge number of bars ranging from comfortably scruffy jukebox joints to chic lounges and clubby watering holes. Though spread fairly evenly over the city, top bars are particularly numerous in the Mission and the area between Hayes Valley and Upper Haight, where they seem to line up one after the other. Some charmingly seedy dark horses are found in the Tenderloin; at the opposite end of the spectrum, young-sophisticate cruising spots populate the Marina, while slick lounges speckle Downtown and South of Market. Of course, the city has many specifically gay and lesbian bars, most plentifully in the Castro and South of Market, with a few scattered in the Mission. According to California law, there’s no smoking allowed in any bar unless its sole employees are the owners; to assuage all concerned parties, a clever handful of San Francisco taverns have constructed enclosed spaces expressly built for puffing.

Eating in San Francisco

With an abundance of nearby farms showering the city’s farmers’ markets with fresh produce, a culture that increasingly emphasizes sustainable food practices and a local population with a sharp proclivity for eating out, it’s little wonder that San Francisco is one of the world’s elite restaurant cities. Its dining scene may be remarkably convivial, but this is a city where people take few things more seriously than food.

San Francisco has long been known for its fine-dining restaurant experiences, and more recently for its wealth of low-end marvels such as taquerias, dim sum eateries and curry houses. Indeed, the greatest asset of San Francisco’s restaurants is their staggering variety, not only in terms of types of cuisine, but also in price ranges and overall experiences. Adding to all this has been an explosion of mobile vendors – chefs behind the wheel of catering trucks serving so-called street food, encompassing crêpes to barbecue to waffles – that’s having a huge effect on how the city eats out, with locals flocking to “Off the Grid” events and the new Soma Streat Food Park, as well as following day-to-day locations and hours of operation of their favourites via websites and Twitter feeds. Check Wsfcartproject.com for further details.

Golden Gate Bridge

The orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s signature architectural symbol, are visible from almost every high point in the city. Its colour was originally intended as a temporary undercoat before a grey topcoat was to be applied, but locals liked the primer so much upon the bridge’s 1937 opening that it’s remained ever since. Driving or bicycling across it is a genuine thrill, while the walk across its 1.7-mile span allows you to take in its enormous size and absorb the views of the Marin headlands, as well as those of the city itself. The view is especially beautiful at sunset, when the waning glow paints the city a delicate pink – unless of course everything’s shrouded in fog, when the bridge takes on a patently eerie quality.

Golden Gate Park

The largest and most diverse green space in a city rich in parklands, Golden Gate Park is the one above all that’s not to be missed. Stretching three miles west from the Haight all the way to the Pacific Ocean, it was constructed in the late 1800s on what was then an area of wild sand dunes buffeted by sea spray. Today, despite throngs of daily visitors (particularly in its museum-rich eastern reaches), you can always find some solitude among its hidden meadows and quiet paths.

Don’t miss the Japanese Tea Garden, which features carp-filled ponds, bonsai and cherry trees and sloping bridges that all lend a tranquil feel. Nearby, the immaculate Conservatory of Flowers and 75-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden are both worthwhile destinations for exotic foliage and quiet reflection.

Mission District murals

The hundreds of murals around the Mission District underscore a strong sense of community pride and Hispanic heritage. The greatest concentration of work can be found on Balmy Alley, an unassuming back way between 24th, Harrison, 25th and Treat streets in the neighbourhood’s southern section, where’s there barely an inch of wall unadorned. While some of the murals are more heartfelt than either skilled or beautiful, it’s still worth stopping by for a peek, although the heavy-handed political imagery can be wearying.

For an informed tour of the artwork, contact Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center, 2981 24th St at Harrison St (precitaeyes.org), which has sponsored most of the paintings since its founding in 1971; the organization also sells maps of the neighbourhood’s murals.

Where to go in San Francisco

Surrounded by the shimmering waters of the San Francisco Bay to its east and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean to its west, San Francisco sits on a hilly peninsula. The city’s hills serve as handy markers between its shifting moods and characters. As a general rule, geographical elevation is synonymous with wealth – the higher up you are, the better the views (barring fog, of course) and the higher the rents.

Created by landfill and bulldozing, one of the flattest stretches of land and best places to visit in San Francisco is Downtown, at the top right-hand corner of the Peninsula. Capped at the Embarcadero waterfront by the towering Ferry Building – boat terminus turned gourmet market – Market Street is lined with the city’s tallest office buildings; it runs alongside the boxy high-rises of the Financial District, and past the shopping quarter of Union Square, also home to a number of boutique hotels.

Just north of Union Square is Chinatown, a tight cluster of apartments, restaurants, temples and stores built around historic Portsmouth Square. Nearby, the towering Transamerica Pyramid makes a useful landmark to orient yourself by, shadowing historic Jackson Square’s restored redbrick buildings.

Columbus Avenue separates Portsmouth from Jackson Square, heading northwest and forming the backbone of North Beach, the old Italian enclave once haunted by Beat writers and still popular among espresso drinkers.

To either side of Columbus stand peaks of three of San Francisco’s steep hills: Telegraph Hill to the east, the perch of the unmistakeable Coit Tower; Russian Hill to the west, reached by curvy Lombard Street; and Nob Hill – once the province of robber barons – to the southwest, topped by stately Grace Cathedral, along with some of the city’s poshest hotels.

Along the northern edge of the Peninsula, Fisherman’s Wharf is loathed by locals, yet draws hordes of visitors to its tacky waterfront piers. It’s also the departure point for ferries to the notorious former island prison of Alcatraz. Trails along the water’s edge lead west past the clutch of museums in Fort Mason and the ritzy Marina district, home of the Palace of Fine Arts and some of the city’s best shopping.

High above, on the hills just to the south, the ornate mansions and Victorians of Pacific Heights make for splendid views; from this perch you’ll also spot the Presidio, a vast expanse of green stretching west to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Back near Downtown, the gritty Tenderloin, a rundown section of cheap hotels and sleazy porn shops, will snap you back to reality. It rests uneasily next to the Civic Center, where the painstakingly restored City Hall is the imposing focus.

Cross Market Street and you’ll hit South of Market, once the city’s major industrial enclave and, in the Nineties, home to the offices of a myriad now-defunct internet start-ups. It has retained its cultural cachet with the development of the Yerba Buena Gardens and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The area’s waterfront, long-neglected South Beach, has been rezoned for housing and businesses, anchored by the Giants’ baseball park.

Inland, the Mission District was built around Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco. The neighbourhood’s diverse population, which includes a large Hispanic community, holds a concentration of lively cafés, restaurants and bars. Just west is the energetic Castro quarter, hub for San Francisco’s gay population.

North of the Castro, Haight-Ashbury was once San Francisco’s Victorian resort quarter before the hippies and flower children took over; today it’s a rag-tag collection of used-clothing stores and laid-back cafés. Nearby are a few areas of only marginal interest to visitors: tiny Japantown, the slightly tatty Western Addition and the Lower Haight, best known for its nightlife.

The western and southern sides of San Francisco are where many of the city’s locals live, in neighbourhoods like the Richmond, liberally sprinkled with some of the city’s best ethnic restaurants.

The Richmond is hugged by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to the north, along the coast of which you can pick up the four-mile Pacific Coast Trail. Expansive Golden Gate Park borders the south of the district and holds a number of fine museums and gardens. South of the park, the Sunset’s homogenous single-storey houses stretch on relentlessly; relief can be found on the western coast, home to the city’s best beaches.

Though San Francisco is undoubtedly the focus of the Bay Area, there are many places to visit in the surrounding parts, too. The East Bay is centred on the gritty, up-and-coming port city of Oakland and the University of California’s flagship campus in hipster Berkeley. To the south, the bayside of the Peninsula contains Palo Alto, dominated by prestigious Stanford University, while the coast offers some surprisingly unspoilt beaches on either side of delightful Half Moon Bay.

North of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County boasts the postcard-perfect towns of Sausalito and Tiburon, plus prime biking and hiking trails in the Marin Headlands. Further north is the lush beauty of California’s famed Wine Country, whose principal valleys, Napa and Sonoma, trace gentle crescents through the countless vineyards.

San Francisco beers

While its surrounding countryside may be internationally known for winemaking, the city of San Francisco is renowned for its craft beers. The best-known local product is so-called steam beer, a lager-bitter hybrid invented when early local brewers, finding the ice needed for lager production too expensive, instead fermented their yeast at room temperature like an ale. The result was a beer with the lower ABV of lager but the hearty flavour of bitter. (The precise origin of the odd name, unfortunately, has never been established.) To find out more, take one of the engaging, free one-hour-thirty-minute tours at Anchor Brewing, 1705 Mariposa St at Carolina, Potrero Hill (weekday afternoons only; reservations essential), whose namesake product is a local treasure and universally available at bars and stores.

San Francisco’s super burrito

Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks, New York its pastrami sandwiches and Texas its barbecue. In San Francisco, the super burrito is not only the premier bargain food, but truly a local phenomenon. The city is home to well over 150 taquerias – informal Mexican restaurants specializing in tacos, quesadillas, tortas and, of course, burritos – and locals are often heard debating their favourites effusively. A San Francisco super burrito stuffs a jumbo tortilla with any number of grilled or barbecued meats, Spanish rice, beans (choices include whole pinto, black or refried), melted cheese, pico de gallo (a splashy mix of diced tomato, onion, jalapeño and coriander), guacamole or slices of avocado, a splatter of salsa and even sour cream. And with its emphasis on vegetables, grains and legumes, the burrito also easily lends itself to vegetarian and vegan variants. Most San Francisco taquerias wrap their goods in aluminum foil for easy handling, as most locals eat burritos by hand. Expect to pay $6–10 for a super burrito and to not have much of an appetite for hours afterward. Forego the utensils, order a Mexican beer or non-alcoholic agua fresca (fruit drink) with your foiled meal, and you’ll fit right in.

The Castro

Progressive and celebratory, but also increasingly comfortable and wealthy, the Castro is the city’s centre of gay culture. Some people maintain it’s still the wildest place in town, others insist it’s a shadow of its former self. Many of the same hangouts remain from its 1970s heyday as portrayed in the 2009 film Milk, but these days they’re host to a slightly more conservative breed as cute shops and restaurants lend a boutique-like feel to the place. A visit to the district and its adjacent steep, manicured residential streets is a must if you’re to get any idea of just what San Francisco is all about – the liveliest time to stroll around is on Sunday afternoons, when the streetside cafés are packed.

The Financial District

North of the city’s main artery, Market Street, the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the Financial District form the city’s only real high-rise area. Workers clog the streets and coffee kiosks during business hours, but the canyons of skyscrapers quieten down considerably by evening. Along Montgomery Street, the grand pillared entrances and banking halls of the post-1906 earthquake buildings jostle for attention with a mixed bag of modern towers, of which the most recognizable is the Transamerica Pyramid, still one of the tallest buildings in the world. The off-white, once-controversial structure resembles a squared-off rocket more than an actual pyramid and opened to business tenants in 1972.

The Mission

Vibrant, hip and ethnically mixed, the Mission is San Francisco’s most exciting district. It’s also home to generally pleasant weather, for when much of the rest of the city is shrouded in spring and summer fog, the remarkably flat Mission can be bright and (relatively) warm. After California’s annexation, the area became home to succeeding waves of immigrants: first Scandinavians, followed by a significant Irish influx, then a sizeable Latin American population, who remain its dominant group today. The neighbourhood is rich in trendy bars and restaurants – notably along Valencia Street – that jostle for space with old taquerias.

Union Square

The city’s retail heart can be found around Union Square, located north of Market Street and bordered by Powell and Stockton streets; it takes its name from its role as gathering place for stumping speechmakers during the Civil War. Cable cars clank past throngs who gravitate to the district’s many smart hotels, department stores, boutiques and theatres. The square witnessed the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford outside the Westin St Francis Hotel in 1975 and was also the location of the legendary opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman spies on strolling lovers. Many of Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories are set partly in the Westin St Francis; in fact, during the 1920s, he worked there as a Pinkerton detective.

Along Geary Street, not far from the south side of the square, the Theater District is a pint-sized Broadway of restaurants, tourist hotels and, naturally, theatres. On the eastern side of the square, Maiden Lane is a chic urban walkway that, before the 1906 earthquake and fire, was one of the city’s roughest areas, where prostitution ran rampant and homicides averaged around ten a month. Nowadays, aside from some prohibitively expensive boutiques, the main feature is San Francisco’s only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, an intriguing circular space at no. 140 that, when it opened in 1948, was a prototype for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Today it’s occupied by Xanadu Gallery, which specializes in premium Asian art pieces.

Things to do in San Francisco

Painted Ladies

Sooner or later, all visitors to San Francisco come to Alamo Square to view the six colourful Victorians known as the “Painted Ladies”.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The dazzling modern exterior of SFMoMA is as much of a draw as its renowned collection of abstract Expressionist and California School art.

Año Nuevo State Reserve

No matter what time of year, you’ll see clusters of elephant seals lounging on the beach, but to see hundreds of them at once stop by during the December to March mating season.

Baseball

From the upper seats at AT&T Park you can enjoy a fine view of the Bay in between innings when the Giants have a home game. With fun, fact-filled tours of the ground and even a play area for children, there’s something here for everyone.

Nightlife

Head to the neighbourhoods for a drink and a dance.

Paramount Theatre

The Paramount merits a visit for its eclectic decoration, employing stained glass, mosaic and sculpture.

Taquerias

Nowhere is San Francisco’s Mexican heritage more evident than in the taquerias of the Mission District.

Wine country

Napa and Sonoma valleys are filled with superlative vineyards and stunning landscapes.

Musée Mécanique

Relive your misspent youth with this bizarre but entertaining collection of classic arcade games and slot machines.

Coit Tower

The Depression-era frescoes inside Coit Tower are fascinating, and the views of the city and bay from the top are some of the best around.

Berkeley

This laid-back East Bay town gives you the opportunity to stroll through the leafy campus, browse the bookstores and idle in cafés.

Cable cars

Famous for good reason, these glorious old trams provide irresistible photo opportunities, as well as a leisurely way of climbing Downtown’s steepest hills.

Chinatown

Chinatown bustles with dim sum restaurants, traditional herbal stores and steamy teahouses.

Alcatraz

Take a boat ride out to “The Rock” and tour the famous maximum-security prison, where Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly did time.

Legion of Honor

This celebrated museum holds an impressive collection, notable for its Rodin sculptures.

The Ferry Building

This foodie paradise sells gourmet produce and offers superb views over the Bay.

Golden Gate Park

It’s easy to spend hours unwinding in the green expanses of Golden Gate Park, whose Japanese Tea Garden is one of its main attractions.

Gay Pride

If you're here in late June, be sure to check out the exuberant Gay Pride parade, which takes over the Castro district.

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Andy Turner
10/2/2020
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