The City by the Bay wears its heart on its sleeve. Young and feisty, it continues to reinvent itself and yet manages to remain unchanged. Are 36 hours enough to get to know it? Find out with Gustasp and Jeroo Irani
Shaped by the California Gold Rush in 1848 and flattened at one time by both an earthquake and a fire, San Francisco is a strikingly photogenic city nestling among hills around a bay. Something seems to be happening all the time here, like bubbles in a glass of sparkling wine. In this city with a live-and-let-live attitude, punks with wildly streaked hair and nose rings mingle with stand-up comedians, men in cowboy hats, suburban housewives, working women and tourists. And human potential and mind-expansion evangelists stalk the streets in hopes of snaring converts! In the 1960s, the city was the birthplace of the hippie counter culture and in the 1990s the eye of the dot com boom and subsequent bust. As one resident observed: “San Francisco never grew out of its adolescent years!” Indeed, this is what makes it so special.
Hop on to a clanging cable car for a ride to attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The iconic cable cars afford spectacular views of neighbourhoods such as Nob Hill, once home to the city’s richest residents, and sweeping views of the Bay as well as the fortress of Alcatraz. The handful of cable cars that now remain have been declared a historic monument and the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines are the most charming routes.
browse the lines of stands, where vendors hawk giant-sized crabs that boil in bubbling cauldrons. Haunting aromas waft from sea food restaurants clustered along the historic waterfront, as they get ready for a new day. Remember to sample freshly baked sourdough bread, a local speciality, with your morning tea or coffee.
Nearby is Pier 39, with hundreds of shops, restaurants and other attractions. A portly Italian man belts out arias from popular operas, and not too far away a flautist and guitarist entertain excited tourists. Children and adults ride a brightlylit carousel and sea lions lounge by the bay while a local with a placard that reads “Why lie? I need a dollar for a beer” brushes past us. Stop for lunch at one of the cafés where you can take in a whiff of the ocean with the breeze while sipping tall drinks. Try the ultimate comfort.
foods: a creamy clam chowder (a San Francisco speciality), hot crab melt (Dungeness crab served on fresh local bread) and crab cake appetisers.
Located at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf is Ghirardelli Square. Once the site of a large chocolate factory, it is today famed for the Ghirardelli chocolate store and surrounded by shops, galleries and restaurants in restored industrial-era buildings. If you have the time, the Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park are worth a look-see too. Or, take a Segway waterfront tour and cruise around Fisherman’s Wharf and its many attractions.
Hop on to a cable car (Powell-Hyde line), disembark at the top of Hyde Street and walk down the steps of Lombard Street, billed as “America’s crookedest”. Lined with beautiful Victorian mansions, it has hairpin bends that make it easier for cars to negotiate the incredibly steep incline.
Bring down the curtain at the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, accessible by bus. The bridge is visible from many vantage points in the city, a shimmering deep-burnt sienna or reddish brown, depending on the light. Completed in 1937, it is not the longest but certainly one of the most beautiful suspension bridges in the world.
We embark upon a sunset cruise that sails past Alcatraz Island and goes under the bridge as well. The silvery Oakland Bay Bridge, one of the world’s longest, is visible in the distance. Eating out is a pleasure in food-obsessed San Francisco, where you can dine at no-frills eateries or gourmet outposts manned by young, creative chefs.
San Francisco has the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in North America. A fascinating maze of narrow alleys studded with flamboyantly-coloured pagoda-roofed buildings, this is also home to one of the oldest bakeries, the tastiest dim sums, the oldest wok shop and the Clarion Music Centre, which sells exotic musical instruments from around the world. Dotted with temples, theatres, antique and souvenir stores, tea houses, and pharmacies cluttered with Chinese remedies and medicines, Chinatown virtually pulls you into another culture and another realm. You can spend hours walking along the streets. Thirty-six hours are just enough to start a love affair with the city and cover some of its major sights. There are fascinating museums such as the De Young Fine Arts Museum, the oldest in the city; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, near the Civic Center Plaza; the Asian Art Museum on 200 Larkin Street; and the Palace of Fine Arts. Browse the Golden Gate Park in the heart of the city, which has some lovely gardens and museums. Take a ferry to the historic prison of Alcatraz on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Indeed, San Francisco is a city that is conscious of its striking good looks and seems to pose and preen for the visitor with the grace of a woman who never ages.