San Francisco landed in my imagination at a young age. Perhaps San Francisco got into your mind via the film noir of Alfred Hitchcock, as you watched Kim Novak and James Stewart wrangle in 1958’s Vertigo. Perhaps San Francisco was lodged in your imagination through the works of the 1950s Beat poets, as you read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It might have been a fascination with the hippy and counterculture movement of the late 1960s and 1970s – which nurtured one of the most progressive LGBTQ+ communities on the planet – that first put San Francisco on your cultural radar.
And the good news for starry-eyed first-time visitors like me is that it’s entirely possible for travellers to tap into San Francisco’s legendary rebellious, progressive and creative spirit. The trick is to skip the tourist hotspots and live the city like a local, immersing yourself in San Francisco’s most colourful and diverse neighbourhoods.
Start by choosing your hotel wisely; the breakfast at the Clift Royal Sonesta near Union Square has made it the go-to breakfast meeting spot for local creatives and finance workers. Designer Philippe Starck oversaw the recent revamp, and the showstopper of a lobby features a collection of pieces by Ray and Charles Eames, Salvador Dali and Roberto Matta. It’s not easy to lure yourself away from such sultry surroundings, but as you do, make sure you leave a little room for an Irish coffee at the charming Buena Vista Cafe which serves close to 2,000 Irish coffees a day. And you know what? Those 2,000 people aren’t wrong; there’s no better way to begin a day of decadence in San Francisco.
I get my bearings with a murals tour of the Mission District, with Chris from San Francisco City Guides, which offers free and reliably excellent group tours around the city. Named after the Mission Dolores, which dates back to 1776, today this traditionally Hispanic neighbourhood has seen rapid gentrification, but the hipster vibe hasn’t come close to overpowering its Latino roots.
Old-school eateries like Taqueria San Francisco rub up against cutting-edge craft cocktail bars like Trick Dog and innovative restaurants like Argentine-inspired Lolinda and Californian-Mediterranean Foreign Cinema. But it’s through the murals that I really get a feel for the place, and the Precita Eyes Muralists HQ is the best place to start. (If you can’t make a free guided tour with SF City Guides, download the Mission District audio walking tour from detour.com.)
The Mission District wears its history and politics on its walls, with hundreds of walls and fences adorned with works of art. In Balmy Alley, local artist Lucía Gonzalez-Ippolito is putting the finishing touches to her Women Of The Resistance mural, painted by an all-female crew to pay tribute to 38 female activists across the generations. It’s heartening to feel that political activism and creativity is still practically a birthright here in San Francisco and the city’s longstanding commitment to social activism and political engagement is perhaps most tangible here in the Mission.
Another birthright, as it happens, is coffee and, in the nearby Philz Cafe on 24th Street, writers and creatives sip iced mint mojito coffees among fliers for grassroots political campaigns, underground punk gigs and sound baths, all happily coexisting among the battered retro furniture.
Next on my list of dream San Franciscan neighbourhoods I’d move to in a heartbeat is the Castro. This time, I get my bearings with an Urban Hiker tour of the area, starting out at the opulent 1920s Castro Theatre, which fittingly hosted the 2008 world premier of Milk, Gus Van Sant’s biopic of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), an LGBTQ+ activist and California’s first openly gay elected official.
It’s impossible to really understand San Francisco’s progressive spirit without visiting this fiercely progressive yet party-loving neighbourhood, where rainbow flags still fly proudly, spontaneous street celebrations regularly erupt outside iconic gay bars like the Twin Peaks Tavern and the GLBT History Museum covers more than 100 years of the Bay Area’s queer heritage.
Another area I’ve had my eye on is Hayes Valley, a revitalised and eminently walkable neighbourhood in the Western Addition. Hayes Valley’s makeover began in 2003, when a committed group of residents succeeded in having the Central Freeway removed, a highway that had brutally divided the neighbourhood in a superb example of dire urban planning. Their efforts paid off and today the area is dotted with independent boutiques, cute cafes and chef-driven restaurants.
Kim Alter’s Nightbird is at the forefront of the area’s blossoming culinary scene, while 20th Century Cafe serves spectacular cakes and loose-leaf teas. There is also a cluster of charming, tiny champagne bars, one hidden at the back of Nightbird, another, The Riddler, on Laguna Street. If you want to keep things cheerfully cheap but no less bubbly, Biergarten has communal tables and locally sourced German-inspired pub grub.
Meanwhile, the former shipbuilding district of Dogpatch is the city’s creative heartland, a motley and completely charming collection of Victorian homes, workers' cottages and warehouse spaces that are increasingly populated by hip restaurants, cafes, design boutiques and artists studios.
On a Dogpatch tour with Incredible Adventures, I meet Kim Austin of Austin Press Apothecary at the Pier 70 shipyard, in a warehouse building that houses sculptors, designers and artists. Over the past decade, Dogpatch has lost much of its rough edges to evolve into a relatively affordable hub for creative industries, from branding consultancies to breweries, like the Magnolia Brewing Co.
Five years ago, the brilliant Museum of Craft and Design moved here from its Union Square premises and the Minnesota Street Project and McEvoy Foundation For The Arts have further beefed up Dogpatch’s credentials as the city’s emerging arts district.
Tourists might know San Francisco as the bridge and the bay, but locals know San Francisco as a cluster of close-knit communities dotted all around town, each with its own distinct flavour. Choose a different neighbourhood each time you visit, and you’ll never run out of San Franciscos to discover.
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