Is there a more agreeable city in the world than San Francisco? A city so edenic? In this picturesque city, hill-cupped yet open to the ocean, the living is seductively easy. At times in its history San Francisco has been a rakish city, a city of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists hurtling towards the future (Silicon Valley is nothing new in a city built by the Gold Rush); at others it has been the heart of the counterculture (Beats, hippies), a progressive, tolerant city. Nowadays it is staid, prosperous, living off its former buccaneering glories like a star ex-athlete who never has to buy a drink at the bar so long as there’s another wide-eyed newcomer eager to hear his nostalgia-tipped stories. And San Francisco has a lot of stories.
With just 48 hours available you will have to eschew San Francisco’s natural glories – the towering redwoods of Muir Woods or beautiful Marin County. Blessed is the tourist who after his 48 hours here heads to Los Angeles in a rented convertible, driving down that exquisite 485-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway. Here’s how to immerse yourself in the utopia of the Left Coast in two days.
Getting your bearings
San Francisco is that rare American city in which you can lose your way – it is cut into a series of vertiginous hills and the steep, tortuous streets are not easy to navigate. If you don’t want to stand around on street corners wrestling with a city map, ride the cable cars. There are three lines, two of which, Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason, traverse north-south routes and a third, California Street, which moves east to west (www.sfcablecar.com). The best views are to be had on the Powell-Hyde line: a sudden sliver of sky, sea and the iconic red of the Golden Gate Bridge seen from the top of a steep street of brightly coloured Victorian houses. Even if you’re only in town for 48 hours, buy a three-day pass: a single ride costs $5, a single day pass for unlimited rides on all forms of public transit costs $11, while a three-day pass costs $18 (www.sfmta.com). The passes are also valid for the vintage streetcars, which go from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro, taking in the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s palm-lined waterfront boulevard and Market Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
What to do
San Francisco is an unabashedly touristy city. Take a hop-on hop-off bustour (a two-day ticket valid for an unlimited number of rides cost $30, www.opentopsightseeingsf.com ) and become familiar with the city’s distinctive neighbourhoods. Buses depart from Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s tourist central, though you can board at any stop. Containing Ghirardelli Square, the famous Pier 39, the Maritime National Historical Park with its small fleet of late 19th-century ships, various tourist-friendly ‘museums’ (a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a waxworks) and crammed with shops and mediocre restaurants, the Wharf at once compels and repels. You cannot go to San Francisco without visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, if only to take the ferry cruises to the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz.
The trip to Alcatraz, the once forbidding prison complex that housed Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and the ‘Birdman’ Robert Stroud, is a little too expertly managed. But the free audio tour is fascinating in parts and the island remains impressively bleak, the impassive stone still scrawled over with graffiti from the 19-month Native American occupation of the disused island in 1971. Book in advance at www.alcatrazcruises.com.
Apart from the cruises and the boisterous sea lions crowded in Pier 39’s West Marina (www.pier39.com), visit the Wharf for the wonderfully eccentric Musee Mecanique(www.museemechanique.org) which houses a vast collection of hand-turned music boxes, player pianos and antique arcade games. North Beach and Chinatownare nearby. San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest in North America, is of course well-established on the tourist trail, the jade-green dragon gate on Grant Avenue leading into a warren of clamorous commerce. Wander into shops and restaurants on a whim. I walked into the Empress of China (www.empressofchinasf.com), a stately, faded restaurant with chandeliers, imitation Han-era kitsch, framed photographs of 1970s celebrities visiting the restaurant and a fine view of Coit Tower through its grimy windows.
North Beach was the locus mundi of the American alternative imagined by the Beats, the generation of writers led by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, which coalesced around the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookshop and publishing house City Lights. The shop (www.citylights.com) is still there on the edge of North Beach, Telegraph Hill and Chinatown. Nearby is theBeat Museum(www.thebeatmuseum.org) with its hodgepodge of signed pictures of Beat luminaries, posters and first editions of Beat texts. North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy, contains several Italian restaurants, including Francis Ford Coppola’s CafÃ© Zoetrope (www.cafecoppola.com/cafe zoetrope), housed in the green Sentinel Building. North Beach also retains its many strip clubs and peep shows.
Haight Ashbury, like North Beach, once the eye of the countercultural storm – hippies this time – is now, again like North Beach, a pleasant theme park version of its former self. Like a once relevant band on yet another ‘Greatest Hits’ tour, Haight Ashbury goes through the motions, relives 1967 on a constant loop, as yet another tour group files past Charles Manson’s former house.
Walk through the Haight, past the perfectly preserved Victorian houses, survivors of the 1906 earthquake that flattened San Francisco, and you soon arrive at Golden Gate Park. Here, San Francisco’s tolerance, its happily co-existing contrasts are made manifest. This is the sort of park where scrubbed-clean professional parents coach their little girls to play soccer, undisturbed by the huddled groups of drug users politely exchanging needles. More salubrious sections of the park include the Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest of its kind in the US and remarkably beautiful. The park also contains the vast de Young art museum (entry $10; www.famsf.org/deyoung).
There is much else that you will want to try and squeeze in: a visit to Lombard Street, ‘the world’s crookedest street’; a visit to the Mission district, once working class and Latino, now filled with galleries, bookshops and restaurants but still mixed income and eclectic; visit Castro too, its giant rainbow flag fluttering in the breeze. Finally, you will want to walk the 2.7km length of the Golden Gate Bridge, revelling in the view.
Where to eat
Cheap meals are easily found in Chinatown. In Fisherman’s Wharf, avoid the restaurants and make straight for the stalls on Taylor and Jefferson Streets. Eat your super-fresh crab with sourdough bread bought from one of the Wharf’s bakeries. In North Beach, I enjoyed excellent pizza at Tommaso’s(www.tommasosnorthbeach.com). In nearby Russian Hill, there are lovely views and Bijoux bistros; tryHyde Street Bistro(www.hydestreetbistrosf.com). Serious eaters will enjoy establishments like Coi (www.coirestaurant.com) or Quincein Pacific Heights (www.quincerestaurant.com).
Where to stay
For atmosphere and grandeur, try the Westin St Francis(from $200; www.westinstfrancis.com) on Union Square, the main shopping district. The Chateau Tivoli(from $100; www.chateautivoli.com) is a restored Victorian mansion in Alamo Square, famous for its ‘painted ladies’, the almost gaudily pretty century-old houses. Rooms are named after such San Francisco figures as Isadora Duncan. The Inn San Francisco(from $145; www.innsf.com) in the Mission is a faithfully preserved Victorian house. Vertigo (the movie) was set in San Francisco, and Hotel Vertigo (from $100; www.hotelvertigosf.com) occupies the site of the film’s Empire Hotel in Nob Hill. Rooms at the Hotel Whitcomb(www.hotelwhitcomb.com), opposite the elaborate Orpheum Theatre, can be had for $79.