Spending my formative years – aged roughly 10 to 13 – watching Charmed saw to it that visiting San Francisco was at the top end of my North American bucket list right from the beginning. Damn, that show made it look cool. As did the shed-load of J1 students who ventured there for the summer months year in and year out, while I slaved over the airwaves back home from May to September, vowing that my time would come. Until finally, living on the West Coast of Canada, with just 1,500km separating me from the Golden State City which I craved, it did.
My favourite way to travel is to have a local cart me around from place to place, and show me not only the things that tourists come to a city to see, but also what it’s like to live there. Thus, I am extremely fortunate to have a friend who lives and works in San Francisco, who could do just that. (Hey Kate!) I had roughly three and a half days to spend in the city, and although I saw so much during my time there, I only wish that I had given myself longer.
San Fran like a local
The Castro & Dolores Park
As my friend lives in The Castro, it was our base for most of the trip. The area was one of the first LGBT neighbourhoods in the US, comes complete with rainbow pedestrian crossings, and is also home to the beautiful Castro Theatre, which unfortunately, I could only appreciate from the street, as time did not permit me to see a show there. (*cries for days*)
Dolores Park, located between The Castro and Mission districts was the first stop on our San-Fran-like-a-local tour. The 16-acre park combines two of the best things any public space can provide – epic city views, and ample availability for creeping on other people’s dogs. Other park features include a guy dressed in teeny-tiny speedos giving out free suncream, and the Truffle Man, who will sell you edibles, should that be your idea of a good time, and comes with his own page on Yelp. For an added good time, visit the nearby Bi-Rite Creamery, and if you’re as lucky as we were, witness a colony of nudists cycling by as you awkwardly slurp your ice-cream.
Thrifting in Haight-Ashbury
Haight-Ashbury is best known as the centre of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s, and the area has stayed true to its roots ever since. Walking down Haight Street, you can expect to be greeted by a sea of colour, costumes and hemp, in salutation to the generations of hippies that walked the streets decades before. It’s also a thrift-shoppers dream. Every second store in Haight brags second-hand and vintage goods, and if you’re prepared to root, bargains and beautiful pieces are two-a-dozen.
Off the Grid/Presidio Picnic
If you really want to see how the locals spend their free time in the city, you don’t need to look much further than Off the Grid at The Presidio of San Francisco every Sunday. Hundreds of people, with an assortment of children, pets, games and picnic blankets descend on the lawn in front of the Walt Disney Family Museum for the weekly event. The network of food trucks feature everything from meat in a jar to extortionately-priced creme brulee and everything in between.
San Fran like a tourist
While seeing the city like a local is all well and good, when you’re visiting a place for the first time, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to take the tourist route at some stage. In such a case, you might as well do it right and bring a selfie stick with you, to make it very clear that you’re from out of town AND YOU DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT.
Golden Gate Bridge
If you visit San Francisco and don’t see the Golden Gate Bridge, did you really visit San Francisco at all? Well yes, but it’s worth venturing over to it regardless. The iconic bridge is 3-miles long, making for an easy walk or cycle across. We chose the walking option, and although it was undoubtedly a beautiful and rewarding stroll, we were nearly swept clean off the side a number of times thanks to the force of the wind. If it’s on your list, then for the love of God learn from our mistakes and bring something to tie up your hair.
Fun fact: The Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t originally intended to be red. It was supposed to be a boring every-other-bridge type of grey but when the steel arrived in San Francisco for the bridge it was coated in red primer, and they thought it looked fierce well altogether so they ultimately decided to keep it that colour.
When you think about it, taking half a day out of your holiday to go see a now defunct federal prison is kind of an unusual concept, and yet Alcatraz Island remains one of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions, and for me, is a must see for anyone visiting the city. Once on the island, the free audio tour takes only 45 minutes and its narrators, including former Alcatraz inmates and guards, will guide you through the history and daily life of the penitentiary. The tour also details the two-day siege of the prison in 1946, now known as the Battle of Alcatraz, that saw two correctional officers taken hostage and murdered in cold blood during the most violent escape attempt in the jail’s history.
If you’ve booked a trip to San Fran, it’s worth your while buying your tickets to Alcatraz at the same time, as it books up very quickly, particularly during peak tourist season.
Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39
The ferry from Alcatraz Island leaves you a conveniently short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. If tourism traps full of tack are what your dreams are made of, then welcome to paradise, my friends. Think Tramore circa late-90’s, but with more smelly seals. It’s ideal for souvenir shopping and over-eating and has lovely views of Alcatraz Island and the bay. Please don’t think I exaggerate about just how smelly those seals are though.
Should you have the time, there’s also an ‘Irish’ shop on Pier 39 that features a window display of boxes of Lucky Charms as if they’re a delicacy of the Emerald Isle, allowing any and all Irish natives to stand outside and scorn.
If San Francisco, Paris, London and New York were to duel to the death over which city would win in a ‘cool’ contest, then my money is with San Fran. Each neighbourhood has its own very distinct character, making it easy to recognise when you’ve crossed from one district to another, and you could spend days just wandering the streets gazing at the beautiful houses and street art. While living in Vancouver has made me all but immune to ludicrously high costs of living, if you’re used to a more moderate economy, then please know that San Francisco is not a city you can really do on a budget. However, it is worth selling your granny for the air fare.