City by the bay: Best of San Francisco

Chic, cosmopolitan and with a relaxed, happy-go-lucky vibe, San Francisco has much to offer visitors, as Caitlin Fitzsimmons discovers.

When gold fever struck in 1849, San Francisco was transformed from provincial shanty town to thriving multicultural city. As much an idea as a place, it has seduced fortune seekers ever since – from the wide-eyed flower children of the 1960s chasing their own vision of the American dream to the technology innovators of Silicon Valley. The city tantalises the traveller with its relaxed ‘live and let live’ attitude and appreciation for the finer things in life.

Foodie obsession

San Francisco is a city obsessed with food. The fascination with eating well is not just about gourmet cuisine in Michelin-starred restaurants – though the city has more than its fair share of those. San Franciscans are just as passionate when it comes to hunting down the best burrito carts or stocking up on organic kale and juicy peaches at the many farmers’ markets.

Any exploration of the city’s food culture begins at the Ferry Building. This is still the home port for the ferries that chug back and forth across the San Francisco Bay but for locals it’s now even more famous as a gourmet marketplace. Coffee lovers should start their day at Blue Bottle Coffee, which serves some of the best brewed beans around. Head to Acme Bread Company for some classic San Francisco sourdough – perhaps paired with some locally made organic cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the Ferry Building also hosts an outdoor farmers market and many of the city’s restaurants roll in food vans to cater for the brisk lunch trade.

ice cream

Historic San Francisco

Given that large parts of San Francisco burned in the 1906 earthquake, it is remarkable how much the city still resembles the ‘before’ photographs. While the downtown skyline is dotted with skyscrapers like any New World city, the city retains its historic atmosphere. Everyone has heard of the antique cable cars that traverse San Francisco’s famously steep hills but there are also vintage street cars from around the world running along the main thoroughfare, Market Street, as a regular commuter service.

The city centre is filled with grand old buildings, chief among them the splendid City Hall in beaux-arts style with a dome said to be the fifth largest in the world. Right next to the financial district is San Francisco’s picturesque Chinatown, the largest outside Asia. Meanwhile, in surrounding suburbs such as Hayes Valley, Haight Ashbury and Noe Valley, you can see rows of colourful Victorian terraces known as “Painted Ladies”. For the oldest intact building in San Francisco head south to 16th and Dolores Streets in the Mission district. Next to the elaborate Catholic basilica, is a simple white building with a red roof and a Spanish air – the original Mission Dolores church built by the Spanish in 1776.

Culture vulture

Mission muralArt lovers will gravitate to the Museum of Modern Art on 3rd Street. The special exhibitions are nearly always worth seeing, but the main galleries are none too shabby either. Painters Henri Matisse and René Magritte and sculptor Jeff Koons are among the artists featured and there are also impressive collections focused on photography, plus architecture and design. Before you go upstairs, take the time to check out Kerry James Marshall’s murals in the lobby. The audio guide is invaluable here, since you need to move around to different parts of the room to get the intended effect.

Around town, you can see three works by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, at the City Club on Sansome St, the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut St, and the Diego Rivera Theatre at San Francisco City College. Murals by less famous artists are popular throughout the city but especially in the Mission district. The one on the exterior walls of the Women’s Building on 18th Street, between Guerrero and Valencia, is particularly beautiful.

You could amuse yourself for days without ever venturing into the western half of the city. Yet it would be a shame to leave without visiting the city’s vast green oasis. Golden Gate Park is huge but easily explored by bicycle, with hire shops nearby on Stanyan St or at Stow Lake inside the park. If all that pedalling wears you out, head to the park’s Japanese Tea Gardens and relax with tea as you admire the serenity of the arched bridges and willows.

California Academy of Sciences

Golden Gate Park is also home to the De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. My pick is the academy, an extraordinary structure with a living roof of native California meadow. Make sure you have at least half a day to explore – the delights include a tropical aquarium, a four-storey rainforest with birds and butterflies flying free, and a planetarium.

Last glance

Of course, San Francisco’s iconic landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge. There are vantage points to see the sweeping red arches throughout the city but the view from the ship is likely to be the best of all.

Golden Gate Bridge

This article was originally published in the spring 2011 edition of Portunus Club Magazine, the magazine for P&O Cruises. The print version was a double-page spread with photos from Getty and Alamy. The text, and photos used on this site, are copyright to Caitlin Fitzsimmons and may not be reproduced without permission.

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