Where to start about San Francisco? How to describe a city that has had more words written about it than one human being could read in a lifetime? Our starting point was arriving into the city in a hire car at rush hour, crawling through traffic while trying to find our hotel following 20 hours of travelling, including 11 hours in a plane. We really needed to find our hotel.
We’d booked something ’boutique’ that was shoehorned into an old, narrow building in a fashionable part of town. It cost a small fortune for a room that wasn’t big enough to accommodate two people, two bags and tea and coffee-making facilities. We were woken daily at 6am by garbage trucks picking up bins in the alleyway behind the hotel. Value for money is highly speculative in San francisco.
We checked in, just glad to have somewhere to stay after a gruelling journey, but this city has an energising effect. It wasn’t long before our excitement got the better of us and we headed out to sample our first bit of San Francisco’s famed nightlife and culinary scene.
If its origins were inauspicious, as an impoverished Spanish colonial mission, today San Francisco is a small town with a fully deserved global reputation. Founded in 1776, the mission was built at great cost in lives by the indigenous Ohlone and Miwok who lived around the bay before Europeans arrived. Things didn’t improve much when it became a neglected Mexican outpost in 1821.
A year after being incorporated into the United States in 1847, gold was discovered in the Californian hinterland. This village of 800 people literally exploded over night. San Francisco became the disembarkation point for hundreds of thousands of gold prospectors. By the mid-1850s its population had grown to over 30,000; by the end of the century that number was ten times greater.
The arrival of the ‘Forty Niners’ saw San Francisco became a byword for iniquity. If you had money you could buy anything you wanted in the dozens of bars, gaming houses and brothels. This wild and irreverent history has left its mark on this remarkable city as it’s journeyed from insignificant speck on a map, to a socially liberal, non-conformist icon, to tech hub and unicorn startup epicentre.
With so many world-famous landmarks, it’s almost impossible to decide what to see and what to do when you only have a few days. We decided to abandon any itinerary and to explore the city streets on foot – which was just as well, you can wait an eternity for one of the fabled cable cars to arrive and to not be packed with people.
On our first day we went down to the Fisherman’s Wharf area, stopping for food at Pier 39. This area has some great eateries but it feels a bit like being in a theme park. Far more interesting was the stroll along the waterfront towards Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge. The views over the bay to Alcatraz and the northern shore are beautiful, but the views from the Golden Gate Bridge are even more impressive.
Needing more perspective, we headed to Twin Peaks for vast sweeping views over San Francisco and the Bay. This is a city of hills but few offer such magnificent vistas. Afterwards we walked down through Eureka Valley to the Castro, to have a brunch accompanied by unlimited Bellini cocktails in the epicentre of the fight for gay rights in the United States.
There was a time when a Sunday visit to the Castro would have meant naked people exercising their right to be naked in the streets. Creeping social conservatism and changing demographics saw public nakedness in the area banned in 2012. Despite widespread protests, local politicians have yet to relent.
We spent a lot of our time wandering around central districts like Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, the Tenderloin, Russian Hill and Cow Hollow. All names that are known the world over. It’s a fascinating city to stroll around, and people are remarkably friendly as you do so. Most fascinating for me was the diversity of the city, and the fact that there are so many small independent shops, bars and restaurants.
We ate superb Mexican food at tiny places without names, had cocktails made by a biker/barman who sliced the limes with a huge bowie knife, watched cars drive down Lombard Street, walked past naked badminton players on Baker Beach, and sampled delicious dim sum in China Town. We planned to spend more time in San Francisco on our way back, but in the end ran out of time. This short visit whetted our appetites for more though.