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Saturday, January 05, 2008

'Cisco

Travel feature on San Francisco from today's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent
“I left my heart in San Francisco,” sang Tony Bennett, and it’s not difficult to see why upon visiting this beautiful city. The good news is that, if like Tony, you do find yourself leaving your ticker behind in the City by the Bay, it’s easier to go back and reclaim it as Aer Lingus is now operating direct routes there four times a week (and daily from summer 2008).

Most of us have certain images of San Francisco embedded in our minds, whether it’s the city’s landmarks or famous 43 hills that proved so crucial to the action of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and the movies Bullitt and Dirty Harry, or its dense, atmospheric fog that contributed ineffably to the mysterious and chilly effect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

San Francisco, of course, is also known for providing the vanguard of the countercultural movement in the 1960s, and for its adoption of, and by, huge swathes of gay men and women. Indeed, as much as one quarter of the city’s 800,000 strong population is gay, making San Francisco a modern Mecca for the pink pound tourism demographic. It was this very reputation for tolerance that led Mayor Gavin Newsom to issue gay marriage licences in the City in 2004 (that were later revoked), ensuring that the City became a cultural and political flashpoint in the nasty and divisive 2004 US presidential election.

The city’s gay focal point is the area known as The Castro, which is a moniker that no doubt leaves its Cuban namesake properly aghast (a theory highlighted in a brilliant episode of The Simpsons). The neighbourhood is packed with fantastic independent stores, cafes and cultural centres, such as the famed Castro Theatre, as well as a plethora of bars and restaurants. Like other Californian cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco is surprisingly quiet on weeknights, with some shockingly early closing times for such a major city (11.30pm in places), but the City, and the Castro especially, explode into life from early Friday evening, more than making up for the mid-week lull.

But this is just one part of a rich and fascinating city. We took a bus tour of the City on our first morning, which really is a better way of finding your bearings than relying solely on guide books. A tour such as that opens up areas that might otherwise go unexplored such as the ethnically diverse neighbourhood known as The Mission (which once had one-third Irish residents), the swish Pacific Heights with its Victorian architectural splendour (and property prices that would even make Irish heads spin), and the Presidio, home to the Golden Gate Park, a huge green space that houses the stunning botanical gardens and Japanese Tea Rooms.

Of course, the two main tourist attractions that absolutely every visitor to San Francisco must take in are Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. The former attracts massive crowds, so it’s vital that you book tickets well in advance, even before you leave Ireland (http://www.nps.gov/alcatraz/).

Entry to the island itself is free, but an adult return ticket for the ferry costs $16 (around e11). Once at the prison, you can avail of a headset to guide yourself around the complex, with some interesting historical context and titbits thrown in for good measure. On a clear day (which are more common in the late spring and summer months), the island, and the ferry ride, offer stunning views of the City. Be warned though that Alcatraz is a steep climb, although cart transport is provided for the frail or disabled.

When you get dropped back on the mainland, now would be the ideal time to amble around the large waterfront area. Fisherman’s Wharf, for good and for bad, has all the carnival-style airs and trappings of a tourist seaside resort. The waterfront is packed with seafood restaurants and souvenir joints (if that’s your thing), and the area also serves as popular starting point for a ride in one the legendary cable cars that run throughout the City.

It’s also worth popping along to Pier 39 to avail of bay tours, as well as to have a gawk at the sea lions, who arrived shortly after the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and have set up squatting rights on the walkways at the marina ever since.

For many visitors to San Francisco, myself very much included, the highlight in terms of tourist attractions is the Golden Gate. As iconic as the Bridge is, there really is nothing to prepare you for seeing this breathtaking structure when confronted with it in reality. At this time of year, the bay fog really is too impenetrable to be able to enjoy the Bridge, but if you are travelling in the spring or summer, I would strongly recommend you hire a bike from one of the many rental places on the waterfront in order to take it all in at your own pedalling pace.

There’s a route set out to the Bridge replete with cycle tracks and laneways, which continue the whole way over the Golden Gate too. Once you get to the other side, you can then literally freewheel the whole way down to the beautiful bayside resort of Sausalito (look out for the mad hippie guitarist with the dog!), have some lunch, and then get the ferry back to the Pier. Another option is to take a helicopter ride around the City, which involves flying under the Golden Gate. A seat for the 20 minute ride will set you back about $165, which works out at approximately e112.

Once the major draws are done and dusted, your time is then your own to explore whatever parts of the city you wish. I particularly liked Haight Ashbury, an eclectic neighbourhood that was once the seat of the Summer of the Love revolution, but is now defined by a peculiar mix of bohemian chic, record levels of homelessness, and middle ground gentrification (so much for Flower Power). There is still a lot to enjoy in Haight despite the encroachment of respectability, with some fantastically quirky eateries and stores (a big shout out to Amoeba, a wallet-hijacking record, CD and DVD emporium).

In a similar vein to Haight is North Beach, a predominantly Italian neighbourhood that became synonymous with artists, writers and leading figureheads of the Beat movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights book store still stands tall on Columbus Avenue and is well worth a visit by anyone with even a passing interest in American cultural history. Today, North Beach is teaming with cafes and restaurants, many of which are considered tourist traps, but quite a few of which have avoided the worst excesses and ridiculous prices associated with that tag.

Despite the direct flights, I doubt San Francisco will ever challenge New York as Irish people’s US shopping destination of choice. The longer flight is one factor, but San Francisco is an expensive place, and the apparent scarcity of outlet malls which provide all the incentive for shopping in the US, means that the average visitor probably won’t be returning home with an extra bag of merchandise.

That’s not to say that the City doesn’t offer a great selection of shops, because it does. The streets in and around the heart of the City, Union Square, are filled with more household names and designer brands than you can swing a pricey purse at (Macys, Bloomingdales, Abercrombie and H&M to name a few).

The area around Union Square is also where the bulk of the tourist hotels are located, providing a fantastic base for all your various treks around the City. It’s quite easy to get around San Francisco on foot, though you will have to fall back on a cable car, bus, underground (BART) or taxi to navigate, and conquer, the City’s more vertiginous hills and inclines (such as the famous Russian Hills neighbourhood).

As for dining out, one of the most refreshing, and reassuring, things I found about San Francisco is that it’s very hard to put a foot wrong food-wise. There are a few places that seem too geared towards tourists, but there’s such a wide variety of fine general and specialist restaurants, and good quality (and good value) diners and eateries, that you should be able to eat well and eat cheaply.

One place I would recommend is the Cliff House (http://www.thecliffhouse.com/), located on Point Lobos about 20 minutes drive outside the City. This restaurant is located right on the cliff’s edge, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the ruins of the Suthro Baths below. The view is, to use Californian parlance, awesome, and the food is pretty damn good too.

In terms of climate, many visitors to San Francisco are taken aback when they see how cool it is there. The City is surrounded on three sides by water, which together with the aforementioned fog, makes for a startlingly mild climate. The autumn and winter can be quite chilly, and although there’s a good deal of sun in the summer, it never really rises above 26 degrees then. The best advice is to bring plenty of sweatshirts and light jackets to cover all eventualities, and make sure to tote one around with you at all times, no matter what time of year it is. Chances are you’re going to need it.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

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