What do you think of when you visualise San Francisco? Quite possibly the burning orange hues of the Golden Gate Bridge spring to the fore. Maybe it’s rows of multicoloured Victorian houses or cable cars whizzing up and down hilly inclines. How about the notorious Alcatraz Island emerging from the fog that famously blankets the area year-round?
Those were the images I had in mind too before I visited, but I happily discovered so much more. I found a San Francisco that has just about everything, for everyone, including the solo traveller.
As a busy cosmopolitan base, it balances the business of city life with the quick escape to the best of coastal California. There are thriving and diverse neighbourhoods all over, from the trendy Mission District, to the pristine Pacific Heights and Nob Hill areas and on to the long-established Japan and Chinatowns. You’ll find some of the finest restaurants in the world in residency and I was enthused by the emphasis on fresh and local produce that so many establishments construct their menus from.
There are some stark contrasts too. This is the home of Silicon Valley, the hub for global technology development. But I was struck by the scale of the homeless population, it seemed more prominent here in an area that is home to Facebook, Twitter et al and their associated digital wealth and power. This didn’t take anything away from my visit and I’d happily return, but it did seem staggering that part of the experience of visiting one of the most advanced cities in the world, was to witness such commonplace poverty.
Until next time…
The Mission District, Clarion Alley and Dolores Park
One of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in San Francisco, the street art culture around the Mission District is symbolic of a city that has not shied away from challenging political and cultural boundaries. I found it intriguing to explore diverse neighbourhoods like this, sitting just a few miles from the smart skyscrapers and affluence of downtown.
Nearby Dolores Park is a fantastic green urban space that rewards you with outstanding panoramas. Locals love to frequent the park daily, making it perfect for world-go-by-watching, afternoon picnics and you might happen across one of the numerous festivals, performances and cultural events that take place here throughout the year.
The Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), which occupies one block in the inner Mission District, is a community-based, artist-run space that has over the years been home to over 700 murals from artists of all ethnicities, ages and levels of experience. Established in 1992, CAMP was inspired by the murals of nearby Balmy Alley which began to appear in the early ’70s in response to human rights and political abuses in Central America. Both Clarion and Balmy Alleys are constantly changing, with established and new generation artists creating murals throughout the year.
This is an immaculate building with an inside dome reaching 307 feet which encapsulates a grand staircase leading to the first floor. During my visit, I saw couples emerging from and going to their marriage ceremonies, often with just a few friends and family in tow and I was struck by what a spectacular location it is for an intimate wedding. My cousin got married there last year and I was so thrilled to see her beautiful photographs from the day – having been there I could just imagine how exciting it must have been to marry her partner in such stunning surrounds.
Haight Street and the Painted Ladies
In the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood, I happened across the well-known and well-photographed Painted Ladies or “Postcard Row” beside Alamo Square. The name is not unique to this row but refers to any set of Victorian or Edwardian houses painted in three or more colours to highlight their architectural intricacies. The houses have appeared in an estimated 70 TV shows, films and adverts and with the city skyscrapers looming in the background, the row boasts one of the most iconic San Franciscan cityscapes.
Strolling along Haight Street reminded me of Camden in London – quirky, edgy and a little obscure. The area used to be the epicentre of San Francisco’s hippie culture and to some extent it still is, albeit peppered with a little gentrification in the form of trendy restaurants, pricey vintage stores and of course, independent coffee shops.
Nob Hill, Fillmore Street and Lombard Street
I loved strolling around the neighbourhood of Nob Hill with its dreamily impressive houses lining the up and down flow of hills. Nearby, Fillmore Street thrives on its reputation as one of the best areas in the city for shopping and dining. It borders the equally visit-worthy areas of Japantown (heaving with authentic Japanese shops and restaurants), the buzzing jazz district (Fillmore Street has been synonymous with jazz since the ’40s when the area was a music mecca for some of the greatest jazz musicians) and the opulent Pacific Heights.
On my pleasant afternoon musing over boutique shop windows on Fillmore, I took some respite at a lovely café called Jane and whiled away an hour watching the world go by on a bench outside, something which my legs were grateful for. Walking up, down and around the hilly streets of San Francisco can be tiring.
As early evening arrived, I made my way to Lombard Street, another icon from the city’s bounty of sights and the tiny winding road is as bizarre and extraordinary as I imagined. Arriving at the peak, I descended the 250 steps to properly see the stream of flowerbeds that zigzag down its centre. The view from the top is particularly beautiful around sunset as the sky deepens over the bay.
Fisherman’s Wharf to The Golden Gate Bridge
If you can, I’d highly recommend cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge and a good starting point to rent a bike is at Fisherman’s Wharf. Try the team at Blazing Saddles who are well stocked with rentals and operate a 24-hour return service. They can give you a map, explain the route and they also have a range of electric bikes if you prefer a cycle that’s a little less demanding on the legs.
The route to the bridge is straightforward and popular with visitors, so all you need to do is follow everyone else, stopping en route at the best vantage points for some photos. Fort Point is ideal for this and the sheer scale of the bridge really can’t fail but impress from this stage of your cycle. The two-mile journey across the bridge itself is a fantastically surreal experience that might be the highlight of any trip to San Francisco – it was for me.
If you’re feeling adventurous, once you’ve crossed the bridge head west around the headland. This route requires some navigation of hilly inclines, but the offset is that you get away from the busier cycle routes and discover unparalleled vistas of the bridge with the city nestled in the background. There are some beautiful trails around this area leading to sights like the Point Bonita Lighthouse. As my map-reading skills started to deteriorate, some helpful locals pointed me in the right direction of Sausalito and I completed a rewarding circumference of the Marin headland.
Lunching in Sausalito
After that challenging cycle, Sausalito was the perfect rest point and after ordering a sandwich from a bustling deli across the street, I sat by the waterfront to enjoy the view. The town has plenty of souvenir shops and pricey boutiques given that it is the first place many people stop after crossing the bridge.
If you can’t face cycling back to the city, you can always hop on one of the ferries from Sausalito harbour for a more leisurely return journey. I decided to get back on the bike though, unaware of the tediously steep climb out of town. Nonetheless as the day unwound and the sun descended, the red tone of the bridge deepened and I took some of my favourite photographs from my trip before crossing back over.
Golden Gate Park
Another place that is easy to get to by bike, this is a beautiful park with a lush botanical garden, striking conservatory of flowers and tranquil Japanese tea garden. You could easily lose a day here and when you visit it’s easy to see why this is the park San Franciscans hold close to their hearts; it’s the one that breathes life into their city.
I hired a bike from Fisherman’s Wharf and took the same route to the Golden Gate Bridge, before veering west along the coastal trail that brings you past China and Ocean Beaches and around to the park.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1935, claiming status as the first West Coast museum devoted to contemporary art. It’s been expanded since my visit with a significantly enhanced gallery space, so I’m itching to go back at some stage.
With 45,000 square feet of art-filled space devoted to permanent and rolling exhibitions, you could easily while away half a day here. It’s worth booking tickets if you plan to visit at the weekend when the museum is at its busiest.
And so to eat…
Wolves and Craftsmen
I was intrigued by the prospect of this contemporary pâtisserie after reading great things about it before my trip. Suffice to say when I did visit, Wolves and Craftsmen left a lasting impression. The name is an ode to craftspeople and the challenges faced when pursuing one’s craft and the menu is nothing short of wonderful, ever-changing with an assortment of pastries, breads, lunch dishes and desserts.
I tried a delicious squash and ricotta tart, savouring it while sitting outside as life buzzed by in the Mission District. Bottom line, if you’re in San Francisco I implore you to visit.
Farm : table
This lovely café near Union Square was so welcoming I returned most mornings for my breakfast. It occupies a tiny space as a lovely haven from the busy city streets and their specialism in local, sustainable and homemade ingredients will be hugely appealing to many foodie travellers. I loved their matcha tea latte, fresh orange juice and homemade granola to start my day off, perfect fuel for negotiating the day.
My evening at Progress was one of the finest solo dining experiences I’ve had. Perched on a prime seat in the hub of all the action at the bar, I was perfectly positioned to chat with the bar staff as they kindly explained unusual ingredients from the menu, made their recommendations and checked in with me throughout the evening.
The food is outstanding. Every dish intrigues the senses and bursts with flavour and passion. Squid ink noodles with hedgehog mushrooms and kale, stinging nettle and ricotta ravioli, Spanish octopus with blood orange and kale crisps, grilled Monterey bay abalone with black truffle butter, beef short rib ragout with smoked potato – the cooking rewards diners with a meal to remember for a long time. Progress epitomises the sheer brilliance of the contemporary San Franciscan food scene.
This wonderful vegetarian restaurant sits right by the waterfront and is perfect for lunch and dinner. Carnivores don’t fear, despite no meat on the menu, the food is delicious and with ingredients grown on their very own zen farm in Marin, you can be certain everything arriving at your table will be of the finest quality. The atmosphere is thoroughly pleasant with unobtrusive yet attentive service.
I happened across this fantastic restaurant en route to Golden Gate Park and savoured a tasty strawberry and matcha scone after a hunger-inducing cycle from Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Outerlands is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the morning I stopped by it was buzzing with locals chatting and tucking in with gusto to their food. Breakfast alone is a feast of cornbread benedict, savoury mushrooms and greens, daily grains with almond milk and roasted apples, as well as a delectable selection of pastries, muffins and scones, all made with locally sourced ingredients and a sprinkling of affection and inspiration.
The city’s food mecca, the Ferry Building is a must on any trip to San Francisco. I visited on my last afternoon before a late evening flight and sampled a selection of sushi from one of the many food residencies here.
There’s a farmers’ market on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the building itself is an iconic landmark, with its tall clock tower that dates to 1898 when the area emerged as a prime entry and exit point for people and goods to and from the city (for anyone wondering why the year 1915 is displayed on the tower in my photo, it was to celebrate 100 years since the world’s fair was held there).
And then there was ice cream…
If you only visit one ice cream maker in San Francisco, this is the one. Named after the characters from the classic British comedy Are You Being Served? (Mr Humphries and Mrs Slocombe), the flavours awaiting discovery here will bring a smile to all ice cream connoisseurs.
The team behind the counter very generously let you try a taste of any flavour, a little distracting as you get lost sampling your way around every tub. I can personally vouch for the peanut butter curry (trust me) and the maple walnut. There are two branches, one in the Mission District and another in the Ferry Building – I tried both (not on the same day I swear).
Smitten Ice Cream
A little alternative ice cream experience can be discovered at Smitten. They don’t have a counter to choose your scoops from, but instead you pick your flavours of choice from the board and the team pours a fresh ice cream base into their liquid nitrogen machine to produce your personalised scoops.
The satisfyingly unique thing about their ice cream is that because everything is churned to order, there are no additives or unnatural ingredients, so that blood orange cream or jasmine tea scoop is filled with simply what should be there and nothing else. There are four Smitten shops dotted around so you’re bound to happen across one and it would be an ice cream shame not to have a try.