Ok I’ll admit that given the fact I’m talking about a visit to California, specifically in this case San Francisco, we are far from the heart of Trump’s America. But, given the inescapable nature of his presence over the last twelve months (and more) it’s hard to avoid it even when visiting this most liberal of cities.
In that regard, and don’t worry this won’t be all politics and will settle into more travelogue based things soon, a few things did spring to mind while exploring the city. Primarily amongst these was the continued growth in the number of homeless people.
While it’s fair to say that during Obama’s time in office this isn’t something that decreased, it seems the number of people, particularly men of colour, living on the streets of the city has expanded even further.
With one notable exception, these people seemed largely harmless (and I don’t have any evidence the less harmless person was actually homeless) but it remains a disturbing trend, particularly in light of the other trend I witnessed, and both of these were echoed in Los Angeles as well.
That other trend is how the higher end of the property market has expanded.
In San Francisco this was most notable in the sudden escalation of skyscraper development with three structures that, two years ago looked almost stagnant in the South of Market area, having been completed or near completed in the last two years.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, new high-rise offices and hotels have appeared along with an increase in the ‘gentrification’ of the downtown area leading to a really stark contrast between those on the street and those in the towers – particularly poignant given the recent release of a new Blade Runner film which I saw twice during this visit.
With all that in mind, back to my trip.
For the second time I had chosen to use AirBnB for accommodation in San Francisco, but, rather than staying in the area of North Beach/Downtown as before, I headed further west, to the Castro side of Mission Dolores Park.
While Castro is famously the city’s gay district, the area between it and Mission Street to the east, roughly within three blocks of the park, has become something of a hip area in recent years and this was obvious right away with the selection of smaller business that have sprung up focussing on fresh produce and moving away from the usual chain stores (though of course the likes of Starbucks, Walgreeens and Seven-Eleven are never far away).
These seem most prevalent along 18th Street with coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and grocery stores aplenty.
The ones that grabbed my eye in particular were the Bi-Rite Market grocery store that had the feel or a real local store with a great selection of speciality produce from cheeses and meats to teas, wines, and more.
Another was the Tartine Bakery that was a fine place for breakfast and had a selection of impressive looking cakes and pastries, even if it appeared to be near permanently packed.
On a couple of occasions I ate at the small Pizzeria Delfina that had a great, bustling atmosphere and very nice traditional style pizza, along with a very relaxed service style that was refreshing in light of the often painfully forced service offered elsewhere in the US.
A couple of blocks up, at 20th and Valencia, was a great bookshop as well, part of a small chain dotted around the city, Dog Eared Books. While not as iconic as City Lights (which of course is always a must to visit) this came with a similar feel and charm celebrating the independent side of things while also stocking the bigger names.
Not too far away on Church Street, near the intersection with Market, was another bookstore specialising more in second-hand and older titles, Aardvark Books, that also featured a rather friendly cat.
Along with the evident history provided by the Mission de San Francisco de Asis and more recent historical structures makes for a fascinatingly varied area to explore.
Mission Dolores Park is a hub of all of this and, on the warmer days, it was packed with people relaxing in the sun, playing ball games, walking dogs and anything else you could think of doing in a municipal park, creating a great friendly atmosphere that permeated the area.
By the time of reaching Mission Street, and the Mission District that surrounds it, this atmosphere had changed slightly and, while still generally friendly, took on a slightly more down at heel vibe. While I would like to explore this area more, it’s one I would do in day time and, in this instance, led to one of the few disappointments of my visit to the city with an at best average meal at the otherwise strongly reviewed WesBurger ‘N’ More restaurant.
Heading to the west the Castro district remains one of the brightest and friendliest in the city with a genuinely cosmopolitan and welcoming atmosphere from its many cafes and bars that open onto the street, with a real sense of modern life mixing with the history of the area. Even the homeless guy who seemed to have a regular pitch outside Walgreens had a sense of this with his various signs playing up on the area’s obvious more liberal political stance.
On my first full day in the city I headed to the tourist and commercial hub of Union Square, mostly to pick up a Muni Passport for the week (a must for anyone without a car as for $40 you can use any of the cities main bus and tram lines as much as you like), but also to indulge in some of the more typically touristy things, starting with a ride on the cable car tram from its Powell and Market turnaround point.
Riding the cable cars is a must and, while about the most typical of things to do in San Francisco after Alcatraz, is great fun and gives you a view of real cross-section of the city as it goes from the bustling commerce of Union Square through the edges of China Town and some more residential areas of the city centre, all the way to the sea front park at the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist district.
I hopped off at the top of Lombard Street, the highest point of the ride, to soak in the views and see this famously winding block of street.
While busy with tourists doing the same it is a unique sight and has great views both down to Alcatraz and across to Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill.
If you really feel brave and fit find your way to the bottom of the hill on Columbus Avenue and walk up – I stuck with walking down a block then heading down towards the coast, stumbling on the cute little Fay Park garden in the process (the city is dotted with these from small ones taking up a house plot to ones a block or two in size).
Coming out at the Maritime Park, with great views afforded across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz and some old ships that have been converted in museums, I made my way along to Pier 39. While not especially edifying and packed with tourists seeking out food, souvenir tat and little more, there are a few interesting little things on offer including the Musee Mecanique which I also visited on a previous trip and the always entertaining and fascinating sea lions on their pontoons at Pier 39.
I followed this by taking one of the vintage streetcars (also covered by the Muni Passport) around the Embarcadero for a gentle ride to the Ferry Building, another bustling tourist spot but a little more relaxed than Pier 39 with some interesting, less naff looking, shops and cafes and a local produce market in the old harbour transport terminal.
Another area of the city I headed to this time, which I had previously not explored at all, was the westerly most point, at Ocean Beach.
Stretching miles down the Pacific coast of the peninsula the beach is genuinely impressive, even with mist hanging in the air.
Along with some great views along the coast it features some impressively graffiti’d sea defences and, somewhat uncharacteristically, a pair of traditional windmills emerging from the end of Golden Gate Park that lies on the other side of the coast highway.
While I’m not really one for sitting on the beach, given the mini-heat wave that was starting up many were taking this opportunity, though few were venturing into the surprisingly rough and famously chilly sea – I guess the potential for sharks could be a deterrent too, though there were some surfers out amongst the waves.
From Ocean Beach we picked up a bus along the length of Golden Gate Park to the famed Haight-Ashbury District – home of the original 1960s ‘hippy’ movement. While it’s a little on the touristy side, it has a certain tatty charm that evokes something of its most famous time and clearly still attracts some of the same people it has for the past 50 years or so, and, if anything, has become less commercial over the years since my first visit back in 2006.
Another place I headed this time that I hadn’t before is to be found in The Presidio out towards the Golden Gate.
The area is a lush green one with residential and business space nestling among leafy glades and a surprisingly large and unspoilt forested patch, but where I was interested in was in the grounds of Lucasfilm’s extensive ‘campus’ that includes the company’s offices and Industrial Light and Magic space.
As well as the business side of the now Disney owned company it features an iconic statue of Yoda as well as a publicly accessible lobby with artefacts from the Star Wars films and a collection of vintage movie posters and an impressive cabinet of awards trophies.
Of course no trip to San Francisco is really complete without a visit to the infamous island prison of Alcatraz. Once again I was lucky to get a trip with clear weather, leading to some great views of the city and the bay and the historical side remained fascinating even on a return visit (you can read more of my impressions of the island in the blog on a previous trip).
Away from all that and a visit to the Academy of Science for their Nightlife show which is also well worth a visit and this time featured an exploration of our attempts to discover and communicate with extra terrestrial life, San Francisco remains one of the most interesting and welcoming cities I’ve visited with new things to explore in a place where walking doesn’t make you feel like an alien and with one of the best public transport systems I’ve found anywhere.
And all that recommendation even with the event of a random pepper spray attack on one of my tram trips that led to making a statement to the very helpful local constabulary and meeting some very friendly firemen and paramedics as it seemed if you call one you get the lot!