Visit San Francisco and shake up your world view

Posted by Michelle Hardie on 10 October 2018

San Francisco’s history, colourful Victorian homes, undulating geography and proximity to the sea and mountains, make it a must-visit destination.

San Francisco city with Oakland Bay Bridge in the foreground. Photograph by Edgar Chaparro.

I had never been in a Cadillac before. Oversized, powerful and smelling of ambition, the beast roared to life as we swung on to the US-101 motorway, my bum sliding over the polished leather seat. I was being driven to my home for the next four days, in the heart of San Francisco, by a Mongolian driver with forearms the size of large hams. This was the metaphor for things to come. I was in the USA and for the first time! I sat back to enjoy being looked after for four days by Airbnb. They had invited media from across the globe to celebrate 10 years of being in business, and Getaway was on the guest list.

It was a 20-minute drive to Geary Street and en route I began to spot some of the city’s famed attractions, such as Twin Peaks (sadly, no relation to the cult TV series) to my left, a 25-hectare park filled with walking trails and sweeping views of the Bay Area. I made a mental note to try and get there – so much to see, so little time. To my right, was the watery expanse of San Francisco Bay and glimpses of majestic Oakland Bay Bridge, which connects to the city of Oakland, east of San Fran. ‘And Golden Gate Bridge?’ I asked the driver. ‘You have to go that way to see it,’ he said in broken English, waving his arm north-west.

Haight-Ashbury is a little scruffy but it’s heaven on earth for vintage lovers and holds on to its 1960s flower power vibe. Photo by Michelle Hardie.

There were sobering sights too. I had heard about America’s homelessness but to see it firsthand was to recognise that the American Dream doesn’t extend to those who can’t afford the rent. Yes, the rent. There is much talk about this among locals. San Francisco is considered one of the most expensive cities in the world. Some blame is placed on tech startups born in the city that have turned their founders into overnight billionaires and with them higher prices for everything. Despite this, I can’t deny feeling thrilled at being in a city that’s home to digital giants that have changed the world (and made my life easier in Cape Town – Uber started in San Francisco).

‘There’s Twitter’s headquarters,’ pointed out my chatty Uber driver as we headed down Market Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. ‘Twitter was about to go bang until Trump started tweeting,’ he tittered.

Heritage street cars – these antiques have carried generations of San Franciscans. Photograph by Michelle Hardie.

Travelling eastwards, and about 10 minutes later, we arrived on Brannan Street at Airbnb’s shiny, glassed headquarters. The atmosphere was genial and, while I was aware I was being hosted, I like to think that what I experienced was authentic. Is this where people are trying to nurture the American Dream, with homey offices, three nutritious meals a day for staff, every conceivable drink (alcohol included) on tap and your pet welcome at the office?

What exactly is the American Dream anyway? Writer James Truslow Adams coined the term in 1931. His definition was that ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’, regardless of where you were born and your position. Records show that the Californian Dream inspired the American Dream, when gold was discovered in the foothills at Sutter’s Mill, about two hours from San Francisco, in the 1840s. California became known as a state blessed with opportunity – you could get lucky and rich.

The Painted Ladies, built between 1892 and 1896, survived the 1906 earthquake. Victorian and Edwardian architectural styles are a defining feature of the city’s hilly landscape. Photograph by Michelle Hardie.

Thinking about the city’s tech explosion, I was reminded of a question that caught me by surprise. ‘What does San Francisco smell like, Ma?’ my youngest asked on the phone. ‘It smells of possibility,’ I said. ‘There is something indefinable here that makes you think you can do whatever you put your mind to. Maybe it’s what people mean when they speak of being free, and it feels safe on many levels.’

This sense of safety and inclusion is the result of people like Harvey Milk. I had never heard of him until I visited the Castro district south-west of the city – full of flamboyance and flapping rainbow flags, it was one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the US. Harvey was a New Yorker who moved here in the 1970s. Described as a visionary, he was also the first openly gay elected official in California and a gay-rights activist. I wondered if he was drawn here by that same sense of possibility.

The history of Alcatraz Island also reflects this desire for change. Once a prison holding the likes of crime boss Al Capone, by 1963 it had been closed and lay abandoned. Then in 1969, a group of Native Americans occupied it during the surge of activism sweeping California and claimed the island as theirs for two years.

The redwoods of Mill Valley are hundreds of years old and hundred of feet tall. Photograph by Michelle Hardie.

Alcatraz had also been Jolene Babyak’s home. ‘I grew up there,’ she told me on the ferry taking us to the island, two kilometres offshore in the bay. A random stranger, I’d sat next to her and struck up a conversation. I learnt that her father had been the acting warden, and that she was the author of various books about Alcatraz, one of which is Birdman about criminal Robert Shroud, aka ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’.

‘It was like growing up on a military base,’ she said. ‘There were lots of kids on the island and we took the ferry to school in the city each day.’

Later, sitting in beautiful gardens made by inmates years back, warmed by the gentle sun and drinking in the view of Golden Gate Bridge, I could have been anywhere but a former maximum-security prison.

San Francisco has seemingly always been eager for change. It will forever be linked to the 1967 Summer of Love, a high point of the hippie era. It ended, of course, when people went back to their lives as winter approached, but as I walked around the suburb of Haight-Ashbury where it began, I recognised the ‘gentle people with flowers in their hair’. A young woman was doing yoga on the kerb in the sun, her blonde wisps of hair catching the light, her belongings beside her. Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hit single ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’ still conjures up that feeling of throwing your bag into a van and heading out in search of a gentler world. I like to believe those flower children laid down a softer route for us all.

Early one morning, walking through the streets to the Ferry Building, I passed a young homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. ‘Gabi!’ he shouted. He repeated her name over and over in different ways – caressing and soft, the next angry and urgent, another he sung with such longing and expectation that I was transfixed. Since coming home, I have often thought of him. What brought him to the streets? Who was Gabi and where did she go? The many voices in his head reflected what I had experienced in the city – the light of sun-drenched streets and bronze-brushed parks and the shade of alleys and doorways dotted with sleeping forms. I like to think he was reaching towards something; that possibility lay ahead. I like to think his was a voice of hope.

Clayton Street Airbnb. Photograph by Michelle Hardie.

Top things to do

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Its vast collection fills seven floors.

Golden Gate Park.
Wander through 400 hectares of parkland, covering 150 years of history.

Beat Museum
Full of memorabilia from the 1950s Beat Generation. Novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg were key figures.

Coit Tower
For the view of the city from Telegraph Hill, plus murals.

 

Plan your trip

Getting there
I flew Emirates from Cape Town via Dubai courtesy of Airbnb. Flights from R13000 return. travelstart.co.za

 

Need to know

South African passport holders need a visa (R2005). ais.usvisainfo.com. Don’t be tempted to buy airtime and data at the airport mobile shop (as recommended by guidebooks). I got a much better deal at T-Mobile (R760) which gave me more than enough for my eight-day stay. Tipping is from 15 – 20% in restaurants.

 

Stay here

San Francisco is expensive but you can find accommodation that won’t bankrupt you.

735 Geary Street was a clean homely apartment in a Victorian building in the heart of the city. The west part of Geary Street was gritty but I felt safe wandering around. Union Square, the hub of the city, is a couple of blocks away – about a 10-minute walk. R1255 per person sharing. airbnb.com/rooms/3402610

728 Clayton Street is an elegant apartment in suburban Cole Valley, near Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury and a short walk from Golden Gate Park. I could have stayed here for a month. From R3733 (sleeps six). airbnb.com/rooms/3133266

The Green Tortoise Hostel has existed since 1974 and its laidback atmosphere hasn’t changed. Don’t be put off by its boast of being ‘#No1PartyHostel’. It’s possible to find a quiet room in this sprawling, once-grand building. Close to City Lights Bookstore and Beat-era hangout, Vesuvio Cafe. From R625 per person sharing B&B. greentortoisesf.com

 

Eat here

Clam Chowder from Bistro Boudin. Photograph by Michelle Hardie.

Bistro Boudin at Fisherman’s Wharf serves traditional clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl for R160 (small). 160 Jefferson Street

Zazie in Cole Valley is very popular with locals – the Omelette du Jour (R225) which included goat’s cheese and fresh asparagus was memorable, and the coffee refill free. 941 Cole Street

Bartlett Hall was inviting with its wood-burning fire, leather and soft lighting. Filled with locals, it’s a three-minute walk from Union Square. I would return for The Bartlett Burger (R225). 242 O’Farrell Street.

 

Do this

Visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory in Chinatown. It opened in 1962 and it’s the original site where the first one was invented (R154 for 12). You’ll be offered warm pieces of cookie to nibble. Take a wander around this bustling Chinese community – the largest outside Asia. 56 Ross Alley

Walk from Union Square to Fort Mason via Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. About a two-hour stroll (10km), it takes you through the city and along the seafront. Go early – the seafront is packed on weekends.

Ride the cable cars. You can’t leave San Fran without doing this. Take the Powell/Hyde line and hop off at Lombard Street to watch cars navigate the famous wiggly street. Powell Street, sfcablecar.com

Visit the Painted Ladies. They are on the edge of Alamo Square – views of the city are excellent. There’s a public loo here – hard to find in San Fran! Steiner Street

Tour Alcatraz. I was spellbound by a historian giving her talk about this famous island prison. Set aside a day to get the full benefit. R566 per person, which includes your return trip on the ferry. alcatrazislandtickets.com

Go to a game. San Francisco Giants are a professional baseball franchise. Sadly, its team wasn’t playing while I was there. It’s a great way to experience the American baseball spirit. san-franciscobaseball.tickets-center.com

See the ancient redwood trees. I booked an Airbnb Experience so that I could go with a local. Greg Garcia collected me and another guest from Sausalito, and from there we drove to Mill Valley to start our easy, three-hour hike. R702 per person. airbnb.com/experiences/61714 . The ferry to Sausalito (R145 one way, goldengateferry.org) departs from the Ferry Building. Get there early, to browse the impressive food shops in the Marketplace.

Cross iconic Golden Gate Bridge. I walked it (you can also cycle) from the north side into the city. It took about half an hour with stops to cross.