San Francisco is a city to leave your heart in

San Francisco has surprisingly few must-see sights, but it is the filler that makes this city such a snug place to visit, writes Geoff Power.    

The jaywalking gene is strong in the Irish; when abroad we can’t let an opportunity pass without testing road-crossing rituals.

Do we pre-empt the green signal, or wander across audaciously where there is none?

By American standards traffic in San Francisco is relatively light. But what confounds is the manner in which cars here politely yield to pedestrians.

Hover at the footpath’s edge and invariably a car grounds to a halt, fully 5m away! With vehicles unwilling to dice, it punctures the jaywalker’s mojo.

Does this tie in with the peace-loving image we associate with the city? Do the natives effortlessly slip the label on or stubbornly hitch their identities to it? Cool people, climate, language, lifestyle?

After all, with every stereotype or preconception comes a necessary counterweight.

Stroll through Fisherman’s Wharf with its shimmering views of the bay and its celebrated bridges disappear into the swollen haze.

The glare and commercial pomp of Pier 39 crowd the streetscape and, for a while, the city appears much like any other, one that suffers too much from franchise mania.

But keep walking, keep moving: push further into San Francisco’s soul and you uncover the quarters that live and breathe, that are organic and idiosyncratic.

San Francisco prides itself on being more European in appearance than any other US city. The tightly-packed clapboard housing and retail outlets dip and roll across the city hills; it is the most densely populated metropolitan area in the US after New York City.

Since its foundation in 1776, San Francisco has been subject to dramatic change and transition. Natural disasters and strident civic action — earthquakes, prospectors and dot-com speculators — have left lasting impressions.

San Francisco is a city to leave your heart in

Arguably, though, it is the counter-cultural roots that linger in most people’s minds.

In its hey-day, between 1950 and 1980, the Beat Generation, New Wave filmmakers, liberal activists, and blissed-out hippies all converged here, turning San Francisco into an outcast of cool.

Since then many of the neighbourhoods most closely associated with that era have gone through a process of gentrification. But the Mission District, for one, maintains its own breed of eccentric, and the Castro still keeps itself queer. Both are bustling, diverse neighbourhoods.

A trolley bus to Mission St prompts an encounter with two manic preachers. A man in his 40s, sitting opposite, rambles: “Jesus is a brown man. Don’t eat pork; pigs are filthy. I love pork!” On the seat behind, a woman in her 20s screeches, punches her bag and then hollers something indecipherable.

Neither is conscious of the other. Those sitting nearby sport bemused smiles.

My girlfriend and I had timed our visit beautifully; we were in town to attend the gay wedding of an old college friend.

He was due to get married in the middle of Gay Pride Week and, as luck would have it, on the same day the US Supreme Court declared state-level bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The weekend of June 26 and 27, around the Civic Center, Market St and the Castro, was a rush of colour and bared-flesh celebration.

San Francisco is a safe city and, if your legs can carry you, an easy one to navigate on foot.

We walked from Union Square, the downtown commercial heart, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge — an urban hike!

There are other modes of transport available, however.

You may pedal your way to the bridge, and across it, on a rental bike.

Alternatively, there are Muni bus and trolley options, boasting ‘zero emissions vehicle’ status.

Casual cyclists are a rare sight in the hilly neighbourhoods, but they materialise South of Market and in the Mission District, and although surprisingly few cycle lanes exist, it doesn’t stop the city from wearing its eco-credentials on its sleeve.

San Francisco is a city to leave your heart in

Perhaps it has to; there is that right-on past to protect and, more worryingly, a shaky future to consider: California is in its fourth year of a record-breaking drought.

With this in mind, we visited the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park.

The current building opened in 2008 and its twin-hill grass roof melds into its parkland setting.

If for no other reason, go to catch a glimpse of Robert Emmet — scratch your head in wonder as to why our rebel leader stands outside the entrance (the statue was donated to the park in 1919 by James D Phelan, a former mayor).

Fittingly, if you prove you have cycled or travelled by public transport, the ticket desk will give you a $3 discount.

The best attractions inside the Renzo Piano-designed, eco-friendly museum are the earthquake simulator and planetarium, which arguably justify the hefty entrance fee.

Outside, across a palm-tree bowl, is the de Young Fine Arts Museum, which is an arresting sight.

The museum showcases American art from the 17th to 21st centuries, as well as displaying contemporary costume and textiles.

San Francisco is a city to leave your heart in

San Francisco has surprisingly few must-see sights; it is the filler that makes this city such a snug place to visit.

The sense of community is strong.

There is the thrill of visiting individual neighbourhoods to enjoy independent cafés, bookshops, designer outlets, and restaurants.

WHAT TO SEE

  • Visit Alcatraz. If visiting during peak summer months, you need to book with Alcatraz Cruises three weeks in advance. The best time to visit is between January and March when tickets are always available, even for last-minute travellers (see www.alcatrazcruises.com).
  • Pop into City Lights Bookshop. Although relatively small, it has a wonderful atmosphere and history, situated in the heart of North Beach. Stroll, cycle or drive down Lombard Street, an experience all road users will love.
  • Do a City Guides Free Walking Tour. Get a fascinating insight into locations used by Hitchcock in Vertigo. (To enhance the experience, watch the film in advance.) Or gain access to the Coit Tower murals where scenes of the Great Depression were created by leading artists of the 1930s (www.sfcityguides.org).

Wander down the peaceful, pedestrian-friendly Pier 7, near Embarcadero, for unadulterated views of the bay area.

  • Hop on a historic cable car. Used mostly by tourists the ticket cost is high but the Powell & Mason, Powell & Hyde, or California Street lines are worth a spin.

WHERE TO EAT

  • Herbivore restaurant, on Valencia Street, Mission District - excellent vegetarian options (www.herbivorerestaurant.com). 
  • XOX Truffles - tasty chocolates free with each cup of coffee, Columbus Ave, North Beach. (www.xoxtruffles.com)
  • The Plant Café Organic - great views from bay-side tables, on Pier 3, Embarcadero (www.theplantcafe.com).

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel rooms don’t come cheap. We stayed at the San Remo, a Victorian hotel in North Beach. Most rooms come with shared bathroom facilities (www.sanremohotel.com).


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