As a Londoner, I always gaze longingly across the globe to cities that somehow combine cultural riches with a spectacular natural setting. Cities such as Sydney, Cape Town, Rio, Auckland and San Francisco, where you can jog along beaches or scale peaks before work, and enjoy all the cultural and culinary perks of city life in a spot where nature still takes centre-stage.
After all, few cities offer travellers the abundant cultural riches of San Francisco, the dynamic and diverse Northern Californian peninsula famous for freedom, fabulousness, food and Facebook. But these cultural credentials come accompanied by a very pretty face: with a melodramatic troupe of hills and spectacular bay, San Francisco wears her natural charms with style, beguiling visitors with seductive scenery alongside thrillingly diverse neighbourhoods and infectious energy.
For a city break that also feels like a bucolic wilderness retreat, base yourself among the pines at the Lodge at The Presidio, a 1,500-acre park on a former military post, with miles of trails through densely forested areas. It’s easy to imagine you’ve driven hours out of the city, but you’re just a 10-minute Uber trip or 20-minute bike ride (the Lodge has free bike hire available for guests) from the Marina. The Presidio itself is well worth exploring, with highlights including the Walt Disney Family Museum and much-Instagrammed Yoda Fountain outside Lucasfilm HQ. After a day hiking the forest trails, hunting for the series of Andy Goldsworthy outdoor sculptures, soak your aching limbs at SenSpa, still here in the Presidio, an uncannily beautiful spa space housed within former army barracks. Then perhaps pop to the Presidio’s gastropub, Sessions, for craft beers and fish tacos.
From the Presidio, it’s particularly easy to get out to Golden Gate Park, where eucalyptus trees soar and waves crash at the foot of the cliffs. After biking or strolling Ocean Beach and perhaps exploring the Lands End trails and the ruins of the Sutro Baths (which burned down in the 1960s), treat yourself to a cocktail or coffee at the Cliff House, just above the cliffs of North Beach.
Even if you choose to base yourself in the heart of the city, it’s easy to usher some wilderness into your day. Its compact size is all the more remarkable given San Francisco’s cultural heft and diversity, but this makes it the perfect city break for active travellers who love the good stuff: organic cuisine, live music, inspiring art and captivating architecture. Down at Fisherman’s Wharf, you can swim with the locals in the bay with open-water swimming clubs the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club), then warm up in the sauna. If a hot room won’t cut it, an Irish Coffee at The Buena Vista Cafe, the world’s single-biggest consumer of Tullamore Dew Whiskey that serves around 2,000 Irish coffees a day.
Or pull on your walking boots and book a neighbourhood tour with Urban Hiker. I joined the Castro/Twin Peaks group, which starts out at the famed 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, and winds its way up three peaks, and through forested trails that not even many locals know about.
If you prefer two wheels to two hiking boots, rent an e-bike from the likes of Blazing Saddles and whizz across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, where you’ll get the best views gazing back at the city across the bay. Trust us on the e-bikes – I’m a regular cyclist and initially thumbed my nose at the idea of cheating with a motor. But San Franciscan cyclists joke that this bike-friendly city is “like Amsterdam, but with hills”, and a little boost on those inclines makes a day exploring the city on two wheels feel a lot less like hard work and more of a holiday.
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