Spotlight on San Francisco

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Why go
2012 sees the Golden Gate Bridge celebrate its 75th anniversary (www.goldengatebridge75.org), while the new America’s Cup World Series stops by from August 11-19 and August 27-September 2. As San Francisco’s mayor, Edwin Lee, says:  “ San Francisco has never looked more golden.”

What to see and do
Clearly you must start with the Golden Gate Bridge whose orange towers are arguably San Francisco’s best loved symbols. Driving or bicycling across “the bridge that couldn’t be built” affords unrivalled views of the Marin headlands.

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

Classical sightseeing should continue at Alcatraz – you can’t come to the west coast’s cultural capital and not take a boat over to the infamous Alcatraz prison, aka the rock. Ferries for Alcatraz (www.alcatrazcruises.com), whose A list criminals included Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud, depart from behind the Pier 33 ticket booth. The self guided audio tours are excellent: not only do you get a close look at the prison cells, but you’ll hear the voices of former prisoners and guards recall what life on Alcatraz was really like.

Away from Alcatraz, first time visitors to SF will be enthralled by the cable cars. Designed by Scottish born Andrew Hallidie, the cable car revolutionised transportation in San Francisco when it was introduced in 1873. Usage has dwindled today (there are now just 10 miles of track, compared to 110 miles at the start of the 20th century) but a ride on a cable car remains the best way of beating San Fran’s legendary breakneck slopes.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

Next spend an afternoon ambling around Chinatown – home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia – whose pagoda topped alleyways hum with activity 24/7. Finally there’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Forget the overpriced restaurants and tacky souvenir shops and seek out the sea lion colony that can usually be found between Piers 39 and 41. Close by on Pier 46, visitors can explore a WW11 submarine that survived six tours of duty.

City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore

Top shops
Union Square – aka the city’s heart – is home to upscale hotels, theatres and the largest concentration of shops such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Anthropologie, Abercrombie and Fitch and Bloomingdales. But if you prefer boutiques and quirky one off shops, make for the mural adorned Mission District – a haven for vintage and thrift store shoppers.
Meanwhile bookworms will want to flock to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore (www.citylights.com).The first paperback bookstore in the US, City Lights achieved overnight notoriety when charges of obscenity were levelled at Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl.

Best bites

The Farmer's market at the Ferry Building

I hope you’re hungry… food is without a doubt San Francisco’s favourite pastime. The city is home to everything from fine dining restaurants to food trucks and farmers markets – the best of which can found at the Ferry Building. Situated at the foot of Market Street, the former transport hub (with its 240ft trademark clock tower) boasts an airy gourmet market place selling artisan cheese, chocolate, wine country olive oil, organic veggies, fresh Marin oysters and other treats. For a sustainable supper, check out Roots (www.therootsrestaurant.com) at the Orchard Garden Hotel (SF’s first eco friendly hotel). Named San Francisco’s best organic restaurant, the emphasis on seasonal, locally grown produce. For further food recommendations, visit: http://sf.eater.com/

After dark
Vesuvio (www.vesuvio.com) – next door to City Lights bookstore in North Beach – is where Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas used to drink. While you’re in the Italian enclave (as North Beach has become known), have a cappuccino at Caffe Trieste (www.caffetrieste.com). Legend has it that Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Godfather here while Beat poet (and founder of City Lights Bookstore) Lawrence Ferlinghetti still frequents the Vallejo Street joint. Opera blares from the jukebox during the week while there are live concerts on Saturday afternoons.

Excursions
Stylish Napa Valley aka the centre of the American wine industry, lies an hour north of San Fran. There’s a myriad of wineries to visit but I can vouch for Robert Mondavi (www.robertmondavi.com) and Paraduxx (www.paraduxx.com) – tours and tastings from US$25. Consumed too much cabernet sauvignon (the fruity red wine that Napa is famed for)? Soak up some of the alcohol in Yountville. There are more Michelin star restaurants here than anywhere else in America, but do book ahead for celeb chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry or Bouchon (Keller’s French brasserie) as tables go like hotcakes. For a meal that doesn’t require you to remortgage your house, the Oxbow Public Market (www.oxbowpublicmarket.com) is where it’s at. Comfort cooking is the order of the day at Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door (www.kitchendoornapa.com) – mains from US$13.

Napa Valley vineyard

Napa Valley

Alternatively if sipping wine in a sun dappled valley isn’t for you (maybe you’re from Mars or something), venture to the blue collar city of Oakland (www.visitoakland.org) to see why The New York Times ranked the the birthplace of poet Gertrude Stein as number five on its list of 45 Places to visit in 2012.

Getting around
Exploring San Francisco is easy – at just 48 hilly square miles, the city is surprisingly compact. San Fran is also that rare thing: a US city where owning/hiring a car is not necessary, thanks to the fabulous (and affordable) public transportation system, Muni (encompassing street cars, cable cars and buses). The CityPASS (www.citypass.com) gives you free MUNI rides plus generous discounts and complimentary entry into scores of other attractions. However if you’ve got strong legs, you can easily cover much of San Fran on foot, in a day.

Cable car

Cable car

Sleepover
Accommodation in San Francisco gets booked up very quickly so reserve well in advance, where possible. I stayed in Japantown at Kabuki Hotel (www.jdvhotels.com/kabuki/) which, with its shoji screens and Japanese soaking tubs, possesses more character than most. Rooms can be noisy but the neighbourhood is a delight with sensational sushi restaurants and the fabulous Fillmore venue (Zeppelin, Janis and Hendrix all played here) only a stone’s throw away. Found a fab hotel in San Fran? Let us know by posting a comment below!

For more San Francisco suggestions, visit www.sanfrancisco.travel

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