I’ve put off writing this post because I don’t think anything I say here can possibly do the city of San Francisco justice. It’s long been in my top fives places to visit, but I didn’t expect to feel my heart tighten the day we left – ten days was simply not enough. Here’s why.
I’ve never been in such a considerate, cosmopolitan and young-at-heart urban environment. It’s not immaculately clean but it’s not gritty either. Rather it is softly worn, with a bit of dust and dirt to keep it real. The majority of the buildings were built after the great earthquake of 1906 and this has ensured SF has a shabby Edwardian feel that is quaintly beautiful, paired with many public parks where people walk their many dogs (everybody seems to have at least one canine here).
The very steep streets and many hills are accents to the domination of sea and linking bridges – the Bay Bridge being just as impressive as its more famous brother, the Golden Gate Bridge – and this has been subsumed into the spirit of the people, creating a brotherly community spirit that reflects the physical landscape. The best thing we did was take The Real SF walking tour on our first day – it gave us a brilliant overview of the city and what else we would like to see.
Edgy and flamboyant, SF is a freeing place. From the naked sunbathers on the city’s main street and the stylish men of the Castro, to the ridiculously pretty, post-grunge teenagers in the Mission district and the elegant energy of downtown. Public transport, pedestrians and bicycles rule here, with a highly functional public transport system consisting of trams, buses, trains and subways. We were relieved we didn’t have a car; parking can cost up to $10/hour (nearly R100) and driving is more trouble than it’s worth.
There are also still hippies, albeit the modern day equivalent that is the Occupy Movement. They are either standing outside Chase Bank or chilling on the green banks of Golden Gate Park. The museums, galleries and academies are interesting without being stuffy or pretentious, and the people we met were quirky and fun – they all agree they live somewhere special.
Al and I were so happy we stayed in an apartment in the Castro rather than an impersonal hotel. Living like a local is the best way to experience all that SF has to offer. We loved:
- The Castro: Home of Harvey Milk and the birthplace of the gay rights movement, the vibe was phenomenal.
- The Mission District: Great thrift stores, incredible street art and live music bars.
- Hayes Valley: Boutique shops, chic cafes and quirky stores such as “Dark Garden” for handmade corsets.
- Haight-Ashbury: Vintage clothing, record stores, taxidermists and steampunk speciality shops.
- Academy of Sciences and Museum of Modern Art: Fascinating fun and enchanting exhibits.
- Golden Gate Park: We bought a deli lunch from Whole Foods and had a picnic.
- Chinatown: Get a freshly made fortune cookie – this is where they were invented.
- Ferry Building Market: Best place to shops for cheeses, meats and food truck deliciousness.
I easily put on a kilogram while we were here. The food is so uniformly good that it’s much harder to find a bad restaurant than a good one. Dim sum, Californian Chinese, Indian, American, seafood, Italian, Russian, French bakeries, homemade ice-creams… San Francisco is an epicurean’s wonderland. We loved:
- Mission Chinese: A stir-fried pork jowl and winter radish dish that I have been dreaming of ever since.
- Dosa on Fillmore: Great South Indian cooking and delicious cocktails (try the Peony).
- Ton Kiang: The best dim sum I’ve ever had.
- Galette 88: Fantastic hidden lunch spot serving savoury buckwheat galettes and sweet crepes – we went twice.
- Tartine Bakery: Legendary for a reason, I almost inhaled my buttermilk scone and cafe au lait.
- Arlequin Cafe: Incredibly fresh, hearty sandwiches and salads in the uber-cool Hayes Valley.
- Smitten Ice-Cream: They invented their own ice-cream machine, called Kelvin. I love Kelvin.
And these are just the highlights. San Francisco was so much, so wonderful and so heartbreaking to leave. There were a hundred other things we wanted to do and a thousand more meals we wanted to taste. Out of all the places we have been to so far on this magical trip, this is the one that I will be returning to as soon as possible. We have been invited to Alistair’s cousin’s wedding there next year and I’m already doing the mental arithmetic…