This Summer my boyfriend and I visited one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. San Francisco is incredibly accessible for tourists, has unbelievable food, drink and attractions, incredible cultural history and so many neighbourhoods, all with their own distinctive identity.
By the time I landed in SF, it was dinnertime, and I was jetlagged. And of course, jetlag calls for one cure and one cure only – tacos. The Mission District, an eclectic Latino neighbourhood, is renowned for its Mexican fare, which many agree is some of the best in the entire world. San Franciscan chain restaurant Tacolicious is a must-visit, with reasonable pricing and stunning flavour combinations which span across both the food and drink menus. The super citrusy Baja cod tacos paired with a spicy “pasión” cocktail certainly shook off my jetlag in no time. Later on, during our SF stint, we visited the legendary and always busy La Taqueria. I find burritos too overfilling, but La Taqueria answered my prayers by providing delicious rice free burritos in their no-frills joint.
We wanted to get a general feel for San Francisco, yet equally take it easy on our first full day, so we opted to purchase tickets for SF’s ‘Big Bus’ tour. The tickets are a little pricey at $50 ($45 if you purchase online), but the bus tour covers all of San Fran’s main attractions and is valid for 24 hours, so you can hop on and off the bus wherever you like. We decided to stay on the bus for most of its journey, making notes of places we’d like to revisit, but when we got closer to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, we had to get off. This pinch-me moment offered the most stunning views of the SF skyline and Alcatraz Island, whilst jogging my memory of that moment in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where Madeleine jumps into the Bay to be saved by the marvellous James Stewart (see image below). You find that a lot in America – everywhere you look, you’re pretty certain you’ve seen it in a film somewhere.
We ventured into LGBT neighbourhood The Castro in the evening and tried out Super Duper, a burger takeaway which is honestly too good for words. Whilst we ate, a local guy overheard our Yorkshire accents and began to tell us how dearly he wants to visit York’s National Railway Museum which kind of caught us off guard, considering some Londoners have mistaken me as Scottish. Nevertheless, I’m not even that much of a burger fan and Super Duper has CHANGED ME. Also – get the garlic fries.
Anyway, a little history about The Castro. It was one of the very first openly gay neighbourhoods in the entire United States and remains so to this day, paying homage to LGBT by having rainbow pride flag pedestrian crossings. It was heavily hit by the HIV/AIDS trauma in the 1980s, and one of its most famous residents was politician and LGBT icon, Harvey Milk. We visited what is believed to be America’s first ever gay bar, which is situated in The Castro. Named “Twin Peaks”, the windows of the bar are floor to ceiling, so patrons are blatantly seen by passers-by.
For our third day, we decided to use the remaining time on our Big Bus ticket to go to Alamo Square Park and see SF’s unmissable Painted Ladies. The Painted Ladies are in fact not women, but some of San Fran’s most beautiful and architecturally renowned mansions which line the perimeter of the park. The buildings have frequently featured on screen and, unlike several more modern Stateside locations, the mansions brilliantly depict the unique and authentic architecture San Fran celebrates. A perfect spot for people and dog watching, the raised park also offers a great view of Downtown San Francisco.
The nearby hippy neighbourhood Haight Ashbury was one of the highlights of our trip. Lined with psychedelic murals depicting Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and uber-cool vintage shops filled with second-hand Burberry trenches, Haight Ashbury was the hub of the 1967 Summer of Love social movement where 100,000 young hippies descended on the district. Eclectic rock band The Grateful Dead lived at 710 Ashbury Street during the late 1960s (pictured below on their stairs with other SF bands), and guitarist Bob Weir commented that Haight Ashbury’s ‘67 Summer of Love…
‘…was a ghetto of bohemians who wanted to do anything—and we did but I don’t think it has happened since. Yes, there was LSD. But Haight Ashbury was not about drugs. It was about exploration, finding new ways of expression, being aware of one’s existence.’
A quick bite to eat in an unassuming pizzeria also resulted in something oh-so-special. Escape from New York is a food rockstar in a league of its own, providing monster pizza slices of heaven to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tenacious D and The Simpson’s creator Matt Groening, and after one singular bite, I knew exactly why. No joke, this was one of the best-tasting things I have ever had in my entire life. And it was $5.
Our penultimate day arrived and we had booked tickets to visit the notorious Alcatraz Island. First things first – this has to be booked way in advance via www.alcatrazcruises.com. The tickets vary in price depending on what time of day you visit “The Rock”, but no matter what time you visit, the experience is unforgettable. The audio guided tour is spectacular, providing you with headphones which direct you around the prison’s cells, dining halls and libraries, submerging you into the dangerous world of Alcatraz inmates and prison guards. Take time to explore the expansive grounds of the island, such as the convict’s recreational area and the Alcatraz Lighthouse, before you take a 15-minute cruise back to the San Fran shore. Alcatraz Prison was home to infamous inmates such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud, and the escape stories and statistical information you learn about you will never forget. This is honestly one of the best things you can do in SF.
Our Alcatraz cruise set off at 1:30 pm, so before that, we spent some time by the bay. We began by visiting the farmer’s market in the Ferry Building, before heading down to Fisherman’s Wharf on Pier 39 and watching the hilarious colony of sea lions. Fisherman’s Wharf lays at the north point of SF and is one of the most touristy areas in the city. What some Brits may consider America’s answer to Blackpool, San Fran’s Fisherman’s Wharf is filled with endless novelty shops and delicious eateries.
Speaking of food, another famous Franciscan food is sourdough bread. San Fran has its own microclimate, so when the bread is left to prove, the SF air naturally gives it a sour taste. The Boudin Bakery is a San Franciscan legend, serving sourdough bowls filled with clam chowder whilst baskets of freshly baked bread travel over your head. It’s such a brilliant experience and gives you a true taste of what the original SF food scene is all about.
Our final day began in the best way possible by riding arguably San Francisco’s biggest icon, the cable car. We queued for a really long time at the Powell & Hyde turntable, but it was definitely worth the wait, as it was such a fun and memorable way to get to the North point of San Fran. Try and stand on the outside of the cable car for the true experience, as well as seeing amazing panoramic views of the hilly San Fran roads stretching out to the water.
The cable car terminated near Ghiradelli Square, an adorable space filled with even more restaurants, cafes and shops. Ghiradelli is an American chocolate brand, and the square lays on the former chocolate factory. Whilst you’re in this neck of the woods, it is certainly worth visiting neighbouring streets such as Union and Chestnut, which are lined with gorgeous boutiques, and Lombard Street offers a picture-perfect opportunity, with an amazing backdrop of eight hairpin turns.
Our final day was completed with something pretty bizarre. We caught an Uber and ended up being driven home by Floyd Mayweather’s former resident DJ.
Long story short, San Francisco is an absolutely phenomenal cultural hub full of food, music, super-friendly locals and unparalleled landscapes. I’ve tried my hardest to describe its beauty, but I doubt words do it justice.
Text: Natalie Zannikos
Images: Natalie Zannikos, Trip Savvy,Vanity Fair