As the undisputed cultural capital of California, San Francisco’s appeal knows no bounds. San Francisco is an eclectic city. With a bustling downtown filled with skyscrapers by the water, an architecturally jaw- dropping bridge, and its very own Chinatown, it almost feels a little Sydney-esque. Though this sentiment fades when you find yourself on a cable car carrying you over the city’s repetitious steep hills lined with Victorian-style houses reminiscent of Europe. It has a surplus of sub-cultures and a great arts scene, similar to that of Melbourne or New York, but the blue skies, palm trees and slow pace are testament to the fact you are without a doubt in California.
I had never been to the city prior to moving, and my first impressions were mixed. Despite all the things I had heard from others about it being a remarkable city, for me it was not love at first sight. It was 5am on my fifth day in San Francisco when a poignant sign that I had found my new ‘home’ struck me. I was en route to watch the sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge and found myself on a beautiful street called Fillmore. I had spent many hours researching and looking into different areas and in this moment I knew this was where I needed to be…and mid-revelation, there on the side of the street was a sign that sealed the deal. A shop front with two simple words written on it’s hoarding: Heidi Says. And just like that, the location battle had been won and two weeks later I moved into an apartment two blocks away.
The longer I lived in San Francisco, the more I learned what a unique and diverse city San Francisco is. With a colourful background including the hippies of Haight-Ashbury (in 1967’s Summer of Love) and the groundbreaking gay rights movement (á la Harvey Milk), San Francisco has long been crowned the epicentre of liberal activism in the United States. In recent decades, the city has earned the title as the dot-com hub of the world. The online boom of the 90’s saw vast numbers of startup companies migrate to the area, and the subsequent social media frenzy has cemented their stay; the headquarters for the likes of global giants Google, Facebook, Linkedin and Ebay are currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For this reason the city has recently experienced a gentrification like no other; with population highs and housing expansions, the city has inevitably given birth to a string of trendy areas with fabulous places to drink, dine, and shop.
Home to the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is a hotspot for tourism and is always modestly buzzing. From a day trip to the former notorious prison on Alcatraz Island or a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf, this metropolis has an abundance to offer travellers. On any day of the week Pier 39 in the Fisherman’s Wharf district is teeming with people who have either come to try its world-famous variety of seafood, get swept-up in the lively atmosphere or see the profusion of boats, most of which belong to third generation fishermen, dating back to the days of the gold rush. Aside from lots of tourists, you can expect to find shops, restaurants, street performances, the aquarium, and a cluster of sea lions sprawled out on the docks. For lovely and relaxed specialty store shopping, Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights has at least a day’s worth of great shops to visit as well as divine cafes, book stores and restaurants; it is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and popular streets in the entire city.
San Francisco is renowned for its eventful art scene; from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), to the De Young Fine Arts Museum or the Cartoon Art Museum, there is something for everyone. The city also hosts an exclusive annual contemporary and modern art fair artMRKT, which includes a showcase of 70 galleries from around the world, bringing some of the globes most celebrated artists and galleries to San Francisco. Over three days the art fair is known to attract thousands of visitors who come to browse the art collections, join in on arts discussions or attend performances. If you are in the Hayes Valley area and hold a penchant for jazz, make a visit to the SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco’s new jazz concert hall. It is the county’s first freestanding building dedicated entirely to jazz and seeks to expand the reach and strengthen respect for jazz musicians.
While the city is believed to have the highest number of homeless inhabitants per capita of any major U.S. city, when it comes to the number of restaurants per capita, it is also the leader of the pack. Not only is the city big on sustainability and supporting local produce, but also their food is sensational on both a high-end and more affordable scale. In terms of the cuisine itself, the selection is varied: if Chinese is your forte, then head to the ever-buzzing China town; for some authentic Mexican, go to Mission district; or if you prefer Italian, visit North Beach’s Little Italy – you will know you are there when you start seeing the Italian flag on all the traffic light poles.
In a city celebrated for good food there’s no wonder you never have to travel far to find it. Food aficionados have made it even easier to stumble on the perfect bite as the city is home to about 150 food trucks, which are all unique and diverse in their specialties, including the Cream Brulee Cart or The Taco Guys. Food trucks can be tracked through live online maps or at the Off The Grid weekly markets, your roaming mobile food extravaganza armed with free sides of music, craft, and soul.
As for the San Francisco nightlife, I will be completely honest when I say that San Francisco doesn’t tickle my fancy for 30-somethings on a Saturday night – I’m still on the hunt for “my kind of dance floor”. This said, there is a string of great restaurants, nice bars and live music gigs and each venue has its own voice and personality; diversity here is key. For drinks in the afternoon sun head to Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow or the Marina – they all have a nice selection of bars with outdoor seating and usually a nice buzz. After this, head to the swanky Park Tavern in North Beach, and you can have a bite to eat at the restaurant too – the food is delicious. For something a little more diverse, head to Valencia Street in the Mission District. If tequila tickles your fancy, then you can’t go past Mosto which stocks with more than a hundred types of tequila; the city is known for its legendary cocktails but the El Mosto (with tequila, agave nectar, and lime juice) takes this reputation to a new level! For dinner, try Lolinda’s, which is an Argentinian steakhouse that combines Latin American flavors with Californian sensibilities; they have also opened up a fabulous rooftop bar called El Techo de Lolinda, which serves fabulous caprioscas.
There is something for everyone here in San Francisco and if you are yet to visit, this destination should be swiftly added to your bucket list. The pure scope of its neighborhoods and the distinct pockets that define them, ensure that this reasonably small city leaves a very large impact.
Disclaimer on the climate: Don’t be fooled into thinking San Fran enjoys California’s famed good weather. Its summers are the coolest of the major U.S. cities, rarely surpassing 24 degrees, while the winter months are equally mild and moist. While the sun does shine, there is often fog here so make sure to bring your layers!