San Francisco is an American city like no other. You step off the plane and feel as if you belong and could belong regardless of how you look, what you think or how many interesting quirks you may possess. The City By the Bay has long been home to those who walk to the beat of their own drum, and it has been characterized by movements of the past that are built on tenets of liberalism and counterculture.
Fast forward from the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s (gold seekers were called “forty-niners”, hence San Francisco’s football mascot) all the way through the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city to booming San Francisco in the 1950s and ’60s. Enter the hippie.
The arrival of hippie culture and the Summer of Love established San Francisco as the mecca of the Peace Movement, growing predominantly in the Haight-Ashbury section of town (Hunter S. Thompson fittingly nicknamed the area “Hashbury”). Today, these ideals are still strong. The entire city seems to be an ally to the LBGTQ community and the Castro district was home to famed gay rights activist, Harvey Milk (check out the movie about his life, starring Sean Penn and James Franco). Immigrants have flocked to San Francisco from Asia and Latin America (Angel Island is the Ellis Island of the West Coast) contributing to its culturally diverse population. Environmental awareness is not so much an effort but a way of life (don’t even think about depositing a plastic bottle in a regular trash can).
The colors of San Francisco itself give you an insight into its character the minute you lay eyes on it. The colorfully painted homes, the rainbow flags flying high, and the deep greens of evergreen trees dispersed throughout town are all contrasted against a canvas of the deep blue of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific - and then there's that iconic pop of the red Golden Gate. While other regions of the country may be home to people who point out a person’s “otherness”, criminalize their way of life or simply be unable to accept the differences in those unlike themselves, San Francisco provides a haven of acceptance. It lacks superficiality and pretension – what you see is what you get and what you get is a city with endless amounts of diversity, one that will broaden your horizons and expand your worldview without you ever leaving the country.
I have visited San Francisco multiple times before and at different times of the year (December, July, October). Here’s what I love to do in this city:
(1) The Castro district: Since we were there for Halloween, my sister and I decided to go out in the Castro for the night, one of the first gay neighborhoods in the entire country. You cannot miss the Castro district while visiting San Francisco. Take a stroll and snap a picture in front of the famed Castro Theatre . It’s full of history, character and naked man-butt (on Halloween).
(2) Walk the Golden Gate Bridge: Conquer your fear of heights and take a walk over the Golden Gate Bridge, that links San Francisco to the town of Sausalito. It offers beautiful, sweeping views of San Francisco and the surrounding area plus perfect picture opportunities. (Not exactly a fun fact: It is the second most popular suicide site in the world. Phones and suicide prevention signs are posted all along the bridge – kind of an eerie feeling!)
(3) The Ferry Building: Artisanal everything. Feels and looks like Blake Lively and Gwyneth Paltrow‘s dream come true. Waffles, mushrooms, olive oil, ice cream, meat, chocolates, juices, etc, all at their highest quality (and most expensive, but there are free samples everywhere). Get a BlueBottle waffle and coffee while you’re there.
(4) Golden Gate Park, The de Young Museum, and California Academy of Sciences: Golden Gate Park is the Central Park of San Francisco. It covers 1,017 acres of public ground and can be a bit daunting to walk – luckily, we discovered the shuttle (laziness at its finest!). The park is lush and green, full of looming oak and evergreen trees. Head to the de Young Museum of Fine Arts, which always has amazing exhibits, and the California Academy of Sciences. It also has the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden.
Not surprisingly, San Francisco is a very pedestrian friendly city – just be prepared to climb some steep hills (this is one vacation that you can lose weight on). Also the BART (SF metro) and the MUNI (which includes cable cars, above ground train, and busses) are awesome options for getting around the city without having to use taxis. These City Walks are great cards with suggestions for different walking routes through the city:
SF is one of my favorite cities in the world and there’s a reason Tony Bennett sang “I left my heart in San Francisco”.