San Francisco

The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco” – attributed to Mark Twain

The first thoughts that come to me about SF are the television series, The streets of San Francisco, and the movie Bullitt (starring Steve McQueen), which has THE best car chase ever filmed – you can visualise the cars being launched as they hurtle up and down these streets.  Now as small fact, Steve McQueen actually drove through these streets the car during the movie (no stuntman).  I can attest that these streets are tough. 

The SF skyline is interesting with its many shapes and highpoints.  The city is also quite densely built, with a large number of low rise apartment buildings hugging the cliff-like streets.

But we are here to do more than just want to talk about the city’s streets – there’s the fog, wind, GLBT’s (more about that later), wind, vibrant community…and did I mention the wind? Here is another trivial fact not widely known, San Francisco is Spanish – San (city) and Francisco (many hills).  We did start to resemble mountain goats as we traversed the hills around our accommodation in Nob Hill.  Even the downside of the hill had its challenges.

This is the most expensive way around the city….unless you get on and the cable car resembles a sardine can, then the conductor figures there is no point collecting a fare.  The obligatory ‘photo op’ on the cable car.

This has to be the windiest city I have experienced – the wind is a daily thing.  We are in California in summer.  We all visualise warm sunny days by the beach…people, change that mindset now.  The beaches are grey sanded belts separating grass from water, the water is frigid, year round and during summer, SF experiences thick fogs as the warm air comes in from the ocean over the city.  Many a day we required a warm top to ward off the cool wind (note wind, not breeze). 

But, with all that said, SF is a vibrant and interesting city to explore with many fascinating neighbourhoods.  Our accommodation was in Nob Hill, which boasts the highest summit in the city and all the cable cars traverse this part of the city.  Our apartment building had some wonderful 180 degree views across the city, from the Golden Gate Bridge and towards the Mission and Castro neighbourhoods. 

Nob Hill was the area in which the well-to-do built their homes and the term Nob had nothing to do with rich people.  It is based on an American Indian word, nabob, meaning chieftain.  This area did have many grand mansions, but they were levelled during the earthquake and fire of 1906, with buildings collapsing from the shaking, ruptured gas lines igniting fires that spread across the city and burned out of control for several days.  They eventually saved the rest of the city by dynamiting blocks of building to build a fire break.

Our travels in SF took us to many great areas including Chinatown, Haight Ashbury, the Mission district, Fisherman’s Wharf and Castro.  Starting at Union Square, which is lined with palm trees and is the heart of shopping in this city (think LV, Prada and the like as well as small boutique stores). 

A short walk to Chinatown allows you to experience a vibrant neighbourhood where some 30,000 Chinese immigrants settled during the gold rush era of the 1850s.  This district has a typical Asian look and feel about it and the smells took us back to Vietnam.  The architecture, however, is an unusual hybrid of American buildings with a Cantonese addition, but it does evoke a wonderful oriental feel. 

The Chinatown Gateway is a beautiful and ornate archway signifying the entrance to Chinatown.  This is where we experienced possibly the most multicultural moment of our travels – sitting in a French café, drinking Italian coffee in the US in front of Chinatown.

We took on the Mission District which was populated in the 19th century by Californios (Spanish speaking, Roman Catholic Californians) and working-class immigrants from Europe.   In the early 1900s, a wave of Central American immigrants settled in the Mission and, in the 1950s, immigrants from Mexico began to predominate.  This is also the area which has the oldest building in the city, Mission Dolores.  It embodies the city’s Spanish Colonial roots.  The mission had a beautiful basilica built in the early 1900s.

A short distance from the Mission is the area now popularly called the Castro, once a working-class Scandinavian and Irish area it has become North America’s first and best known gay village, and is now the centre of gay life in the city.  It proudly (no pun intended) boasts the gayest four street corners in the world and is the centre for all things GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi and transgender).  This was an interesting area to walk through and so vibrant.

…and the Castro Theatre, which is the oldest theatre still operating in SF, is where Harvey Milk started his crusade for equality…
…and then there are the locals – note that this was a particularly cold day in SF…
Near the geographic centre of the city is Haight-Ashbury, famously associated with 1960s hippie culture. The Haight still retains some bohemian character that had made it so famous. 
An area close by survived the 1906 earthquake with its Victorian inspired architecture largely intact, including the famous “Painted Ladies”, standing alongside Alamo Square.  Here we have a wonderful view of the city.
We experienced something that was not on our itinerary or suggested areas to want o venture into – the Tenderloin.  Our orientation tour of SF took us through all the districts and across the Bridge.  As we travelled through this district, words like high crime rate, unsafe area and avoid, especially at night kept being repeated in our mind.  Several days later as we walked down our street towards the tram to take us to the Mission and Castro districts, we inadvertently walked into the heart of the Tenderloin.  We walked briskly, avoiding eye contact – the shops all had bars on the windows and doors were shuttered, most with graffiti.  A short brisk walk later we were safely at our tram stop.
And finally, Fisherman’s Wharf.  This area was once the centre of the fishing industry of SF, dominated by Sicilians and Genoese in the late 1800s.  The hub of Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39, with its restaurants and shops, including a merry-go-round.  It was refurbished to resemble a fishing village.  The local residents, the sea-lions that bask themselves on the dock, think that this is a nice place to reside.

Further afield, Sausalito is a small bay-side town across the harbour from SF.  It is basically a promenade for cafes and boutique stores (as well as the many souvenir stores).   


And then there is Muir Woods, a national monument which is one of the few remaining stands of old growth coastal redwoods. The coastal redwood covered the Californian coastline, until they were heavily logged during the 19th century industry boom.   These woods were named in the honour of John Muir, the naturalist for turning Yosemite into a national park.

SF has renovated a significant number of trams from not only across various US cities, but across the globe, including Italy, Denmark and, we are reliably informed, an old rattler from Melbourne.

This is the view from the rooftop patio of our apartment building, which was a lovely outlook, but also quite chilly and unpleasant with the wind.


Lombard street is very crooked (and beautifully planted).  But the residents who line the street must be a very tolerant group of people.



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