As a fan of slow travel, I’ve never understood the cruise-goer’s approach. How can three hours on shore count as ‘doing’ a place when it’s a struggle to get under a city’s skin after living there for months? Even short breaks can be unsatisfying, particularly if you try to cram in too much.
Unfortunately, San Francisco is one of those places. People skim the surface; simply checking the boxes in their guide book. Cable car ride – done. Fisherman’s Wharf – done. Alcatraz – done. It’s a real shame. If you’re brave enough to break away from the tourist trail, SF might just surprise you.
Everybody Needs Good Neighbourhoods
San Francisco is a city where cultures collide. This is thanks, in major part, to the immigrants that have settled here from all corners of the world. To get a flavour of its eclectic roots, set some time aside to get to know the neighbours.
Stroll the uber-wealthy streets of Nob Hill (and don’t be the one that takes a picture of the street sign whilst your pal does an obscene gesture). See where the city’s old money lives and then head to Haight Ashbury, famous for being a hippie haunt in the days of flower power.
For me, Chinatown feels a bit like being in a 1970’s episode of Scooby Doo – which is awesome. It must be all those foggy hills and mountains of food, but it’s a fascinating neighbourhood to visit. While you’re in the area, head north a few blocks and discover City Lights Bookstore, the famous former hangout of Californian beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The cool-o-meter is rising by the second, right?
Mission is one of San Francisco’s most lively neighbourhoods. Its Hispanic roots mean you’re more likely to hear “¡Paz y amor del hombre!” than “Peace and love man,” so bring your phrase book. Famous for its murals, the whole place feels a bit like an outdoor art gallery – which is awesome. A walking tour, conducted by one of the artists themselves, is a great way to discover some of the best murals.
Oh I take that bit back about Nob Hill.
Hang with the Locals
A great way to see a different side of San Francisco is to make friends with the local folks. In these ever-connected days of digital, meeting people in far-flung places has never been easier so jump on Twitter and ask the direction of a great bar, restaurant or attraction. In my experience, San Franscicans are really friendly and love the chance to show off their home town. I mean, come one, who wouldn’t? It’s awesome.
Eschewing hotels for homestays or renting a room in someone’s house are also great ways to meet locals and see another side of the city. Alternatively sublet an apartment for a short time and pretend you’re a child of the flower power period by dancing down the streets bedecked in floral garlands and the nonchalance of a lifetime local.
Explore the Bay Area and Beyond
If you’ve got the time then I highly recommend renting a car and exploring the wonders beyond the city. Road trips in the US, however short, are a great way to get a feel for just how big the country is, especially if you’ve just soaked in the haunts of On the Road writer and fulltime dude Jack Kerouac.
Berkeley, home to the University of California, and San Jose, which boasts the strange Winchester Mystery House, both make good destinations for a day trip. Or why not cross the Golden Gate Bridge and visit Marin County, one of the US’s wealthiest neighbourhoods?
If you’ve more time on your hands then tour the Napa Valley, world famous for its wines. Or head south-east and discover the great outdoors at one of California’s national parks: Yosemite National Park, and Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are all within a couple of hundred miles of San Francisco.
With its reputation for counter-culture, it’s no wonder San Francisco caters for the vegetarian and vegan lovers amongst us. Not only are there plenty of veggie and vegan restaurants, but most eateries have more than a number of vegetarian dishes to choose from.
One restaurant comes in highly recommended: Close to the Civic Centre in the downtown area, Ananda Fuara is a friendly Buddhist-run restaurant with a great choice of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Go forth and discover!