This is the first of a short series about San Francisco. This first narrative covers why we went in the first place and an overall perspective of San Francisco as a destination. Future postings will cover specific sights and activities, and giving impressions and advice on what's good and what to avoid.
I think that it is notable that over the years I have avoided the States in favour of other destinations, but somehow have found myself in San Francisco twice within the last year - and thoroughly enjoyed both times.
Mostly I had been able to avoid the States, due to the fact that the most economical flights from New Zealand to Europe, were generally through Asia. However, on a trip to Turkey in November 2011, the flight specials happened to go through the States, with choices being either via L.A. or San Francisco …… so naturally the latter was chosen. A bit of reading about S.F. got us interested enough to spend just under a week there.
San Francisco ?
To most people, perhaps outside of the States, it's easy to think of all the major cities being of a similar size, each with a population in the millions. It is a bit unreal when you read the statistics, to see that compared to L.A. which has a population of about 3,800,000 and is the second largest City in U.S.A, while San Francisco only has a population of 800,000 and is only the fourth largest city in California.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that it is a small provincial outpost. It's not until you realize that urban development has been determined by the topography of the land, and its population is actually spread out over numerous centres around the San Francisco Bay Area, that you begin to appreciate the unique differences which make up San Francisco. Indeed the larger San Jose - San Francisco - Oakland metropolitan area has a population of 7,600,000 with San Francisco as its central hub. Further, because San Francisco is situated at the end of a narrow finger, its development has progressed in a fairly compact manner, and it is the second most densely populated city in the USA (New York being the most densely populated). As a result, its architecture is unique and the multitude of Victorian styled houses have defined its modern streetscape since.
The Development of San Francisco
San Francisco is located on the end of a long peninsula or finger of the bay, which ends in quite a flat square frontage and presents a prominent face to the Bay area. Naturally, development has evolved in relation to its seaward position, but it has also been modified and reshaped, firstly by its position as the largest city in the early development of California, then by the devastating earthquake and fire in 1906. Subsequent to this, it developed its position as the face of America to the Pacific, being the port of transition for immigration from the Asia Pacific region, as well as servicemen going to war. The constant change and turmoil, probably has had a flow on effect, and as a community, it has taken on new ideas, liberalization, and gay rights.The result is a society which is quite rich and vibrant and the sights and attractions are clearly steeped in its checkered history.
Once at the Airport.
Arriving, the airport was very user friendly, with transport on the Bart train system into San Francisco easy to navigate. Basically there is no need to have your own transport as the public system is very good and diverse in its nature. The Bart system is different to the underground, Buses are everywhere and along the main roads can be seen the old "F" trams, which are a blast from the past, while the cable cars are exceptional. While on face value going on the cable cars seems such a touristy thing to do, once you realize how important they were back in the day, and appreciate the skill of the drivers, it certainly takes on a new dimension. Don't be fooled into thinking that they are a bit 'grandma', as the steep hills and sharp corners certainly requires some fortitude to stand on the running boards.
One of the mistakes we made however, is thinking that by being on the Pacific coast, that it would be relatively warm in November, which was the time of our first trip. Were we ever wrong - with a chill in the air which goes right through you, driven by the winds (not strong) coming off the bay. Going back in July of 2012, at the height of the summer season, still produced days with cold winds and changeable weather. The water in the bay is apparently extremely cold, which is why there were no escapes from Alcatraz during its days as a prison. Travelling just north or south produces warmer weather, so it appears to be a quirk to the coastal landform. Regardless, this doesn't dim the appeal of San Francisco, and if anything highlights the other aspects of life in the Bay, which perhaps would be overlooked if it was a beach haven. The Historical, Cultural and Societal aspects of San Francisco provide absorbing attributes.
Compact and Easily Accessible City.
The makeup of San Francisco is dominated by 'The Embarcadero', along the waterfront and 'Market' street, the main street which is orientated at right angles to the former and splits San Francisco into two. The various areas are quite distinct and have their own character and flavor. Because central San Francisco is compact, everything is within walking distance (although being moderately fit helps as there are plenty of hills), and it is amazing to transition from one area to the next quire seamlessly. Once you get tired, it is easy to catch a tram, bus or cable car, the later just adding to the experience.
A Breakdown of Popular Areas Around Central San Francisco
I have defined the interesting areas of central San Francisco loosely as follows :-
Downtown, The Embarcadero and Financial District.
One minute you can be amongst the skyscrapers of the financial district along with the Transamerica Pyramid, and its landscaped plazas ….. the next you are at the Ferry Building which has been turned into a vibrant market, selling all manner of produce, gourmet food, along with plenty of restaurants and cafe's. Walking along The Embarcadero offers great views both out to the bay from the various piers along its length, and views looking back to the city and its diverse features. Moving away from the waterfront leads you into the main retail areas of San Francisco, one of note is Union Square, which has all the major stores, along with a good number of boutique shops.
North Beach, Russian and Telegraph Hills.
North beach or little Italy is one of my favorite areas, dotted with numerous caffe's, ristorante's and trattoria's to suit every taste and budget. The Coit Tower, at telegraph Hill has an imposing position, and the rolling landscape and four storied Victorian housing provides plenty to see and do. The cable cars pass through the area and terminate near Fishermans Wharf (although I feel the later is overblown) .
Chinatown and Nob Hill.
This is one area where all of a sudden you are in another world, smack bang in the middle of a working chinese community, apartments, shops, factories and commercial buildings. It is one of the oldest and largest in the USA. Of course in some respects one Chinatown in the world is very similar to another. Nob hill is famous for its fantastic views, early mansions and hotels, and is well worth a stroll through.
The Civic Centre.
Where most of the public buildings are situated such as the Opera house, various theaters and the Symphony hall, all done in a style to conjure up the times of the Roman empire, with large plaza area surrounding them. The surrounding area has streets of accommodation, shops and restaurants and cafes.
Fort Mason, Marina Area, Presidio and The Golden Gate Bridge.
Certainly, a great day to take a trip along this strip of San Francisco, and one which must be done on a bike, riding along the coast over the bridge and onto Sausalito on the other side. It is unclear why the Golden Gate Bridge makes such an impression as there are certainly many bridges in the world constructed since which are longer, higher and have been constructed in more difficult situations. In the end the designers just chose the right spot, the right configuration and the right time to build it. It was built at a time when San Francisco was the gateway to the west and was a huge symbol both for those living in California and more importantly, those coming in.
The Castro and Mission Districts.
Castro has been long known as the gay mecca, but in recent times has developed into a significant but laid back shopping area. The Mission District is the centre of Latino culture, is the location of the original Franciscan Mission known as Mission Dolores, and has a diversity of fresh ethnic food, public art eclectic shops, business and residences.
The Haight/Ashbury Area and Golden Gate Park.
The Golden Gate Park is one of the largest and best known urban parks, being three miles long and half a mile wide, making it 20% greater than Central Park in new York. The neighbouring Haight Ashbury area is known for its diversity and creativity, and has a mixture of old and new sprinkled through it.
Future Postings on San Francisco
It is planned in future Postings to look at a number of things that travellers should do, and perhaps not do in regard to the sights and attractions which make up San Francisco. One thing my visits to San Francisco has taught me - not to carry ones preconceptions too far. Mine almost stopped me seeing a fantastic city in the USA - now i'm a believer.