San Francisco has earned its stripes as America's coolest city, says Katie McGonagle
As we hung off the side of a vintage cable car, hurtling down one of the city’s trademark steep slopes past an eclectic mix of modern shopfronts and grand Victorian edifices, I decided no view could be as quintessentially San Francisco as the one unfolding below me.
Then I remembered the city’s skyline sparkling in the afternoon sun as we sailed back from Alcatraz Island, the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the ornate arch that signalled our entrance to Chinatown, the neon-clad marchers of the jubilant Gay Pride Parade turning Market Street into a riot of colour – the list goes on. So which view best defines this city, capital of American counterculture? The answer is all of them – and more.
San Francisco is a city of a thousand faces, a celebration of America at its most diverse, with myriad cultural, social and artistic influences played out across its neighbourhoods, each one more exciting and unusual than the last.
SEE: SEA LIONS AND SKYLINES
First-timers always want to pack in the ‘must-sees’ but in this city, that’s a long list. Unless they have several weeks to spare or are willing to forgo sleeping and eating (and with so much amazing food around, that would be missing half the fun), convince them to be realistic and leave some for next time. Trust me: to paraphrase the state’s former governor, they’ll be back.
Union Square is a good place to start. I happened upon free salsa lessons and live music – this is the kind of place where no one bats an eyelid at dancing in public.
Suggest splurging at Saks or the massive Macy’s stores on opposite sides of the square, and stop at the latter’s top-floor Cheesecake Factory for superb views over the plaza below.
For fine dining, head next door to The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus, which is famed for its exquisite stained-glass dome, then wander through Maiden Lane for boutique shopping and a glimpse of the unusual building façade designed by Guggenheim architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Japantown lies west of here – six blocks of Japanese restaurants and shops are focused around Japan Center and its elegant five-tiered Peace Pagoda – but to the north, Chinatown and Italian-influenced North Beach hold even more ethnic appeal.
Enter Chinatown via the Dragon’s Gate at the corner of Bush and Grant and you’ll find the largest Chinese settlement outside the country itself, a historic home for immigrant workers and now a microcosm of Chinese culture filled with Oriental eateries, herbal shops and pagoda roofed-temples. Funway offers a Chinatown Ghost Walking tour for £16.49.
North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy, where bistros and delis serve up hearty Italian fare. It was also home to many of the Beat Generation’s most famous writers including Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the most touristy area, offering all the fun of the fair at amusement park-style Pier 39. Watch out for street entertainers, ride the carousel, stop at K-Dock to see (and hear) the resident sea lions, and try fresh seafood at one of many fish restaurants.
Nearby Pier 33 is the departure point for Alcatraz. Its status as a former federal prison is well known, and a tour of the cells is one of the most chilling yet memorable experiences of any San Francisco itinerary, but visitors will also learn its more recent history, see its huge variety of seabirds, and enjoy spectacular views of the city on the return boat trip.
Advance bookings are essential; Attraction World teams Alcatraz tickets with a 24-hour hop-on, hop-off bus taking in the Golden Gate Bridge and hairpin turns of Lombard Street, the ‘crookedest street in the world’ (£49 per adult, £39 per child).
Speaking of the Golden Gate Bridge, Suzanne Harvey, US regional product manager for Hayes & Jarvis, says: “If you’re looking for a great view of San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, go to Fort Point. It was built to defend the Golden Gate during the American Civil War and is well worth visiting for a history lesson, but it’s also a great place to see striking views of the bridge.”
After a gentle stroll through the park, head south past suburban townhouses and bohemian Haight-Ashbury to Castro, centre of San Francisco’s buzzing gay scene. My visit coincided with the annual pride parade, so rainbow flags and flamboyantly-dressed locals were out in full force, but it’s a vibrant place any time of year, not least for its iconic art deco theatre.
Bordering this is Mission district, the heart of the area’s first Spanish settlement and home to its oldest surviving building, the 18th-century Mission Dolores.
Head back downtown via SoMa – South of Market – stopping at the Museum of Modern Art, entertaining Cartoon Art Museum or Contemporary Jewish Museum on the way.
STAY: FAIR AND SQUARE
Most hotel product is grouped around the two key tourist areas, so find out whether clients would prefer the fun of Fisherman’s Wharf, or a short stroll home after shopping sprees in Union Square.
Luxury options abound. Ruby Briggs, managing director of North America Travel Service, says: “Our favourite luxury hotel in the city is the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. It’s in a superb location in the Nob Hill district and close to so many things.” Prices start at £142 a night.
Nearby Fairmont San Francisco is popular with operators: USAirtours offers the grand property from £108 per night. Hayes & Jarvis suggests upgrading to a Fairmont Signature room for stunning panoramic views, and fitting in a drink at the penthouse bar in the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel opposite.
The Mandarin Oriental is another superb choice for cityscapes: it occupies the top 11 floors of a 48-storey building, with excellent vistas from each of its 158 rooms and suites.
If proximity to Union Square is key, they don’t get much closer than the recently renovated Westin St Francis – ‘an elegant place to stay’, according to Hayes & Jarvis – or the renovated early 20th-century rooms of the Handlery Union Square Hotel.
Design aficionados can head to nearby Virgin Holidays’ pick, the Philippe Starck-designed boutique Clift; the lobby alone boasts a coffee table by Salvador Dali, surreal stool by Renee Marguerite, chairs by Ray and Charles Eames, and a 35ft fireplace with a bronze chimney sculpture.
Mid-range favourite The Argonaut is popular for nautical-themed rooms playing on its Fisherman’s Wharf location. Gold Medal highlights its daily wine hour with tipples chosen by the sommelier (from £76 a night).
Virgin Holidays also features the Holiday Inn Express and Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf, while downtown, the refurbished Grand Hyatt Union Square is the ‘best value’ option according to North America Travel Service, from £72.
Budget choices don’t have to mean straying out-of-town. The King George Hotel is an affordable boutique within a block of Union Square and opposite the American Conservancy Theater and Curran Theatre. Comfort Inn by the Bay is only a few minutes from the waterfront, and starts at £35 with Gold Medal.
MOVING ON: WINE AND WILDERNESS
Guests will never see all that San Francisco has to offer, but it’s still worth making time to enjoy the rest of California’s charms.
Within day trip radius, suggest hiring a bike and cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito in Marin County; it’s a gentle route with great views of the city, and those with tired legs can take the ferry back. Hayes & Jarvis has a three-hour guided tour from £39.
Attraction World’s Muir Woods & Wine Country also takes in Sausalito and the state’s trademark towering redwood trees, followed by an afternoon of wine-tasting (from £51 per adult, £29 per child).
Wine-tasting forms the basis of many tours: Hayes & Jarvis has a guided day trip around Napa and Sonoma from £46, while Funway Holidays can arrange a private limousine tour of the same areas for £285 per person.
For clients keen to go farther afield, head south along the Pacific Coast Highway for a scenic route leading to the quaint seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel, just a stone’s throw from Big Sur. Hayes & Jarvis recommends a stay at the luxurious Post Ranch Inn – worth it for the views alone.
Heading into the heart of California, Yosemite National Park (pictured above) is a worthy stop for stunning scenery and hikes to suit all fitness levels. If clients don’t fancy going solo, there are many group tours departing San Francisco. Grand American Adventures, for example, has a three-day Yosemite and Tahoe mini-adventure starting at £265 land-only, travelling to Lake Tahoe, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite, and back to San Francisco
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