They flocked here in the thousands during the Gold Rush. This was the site where the Beat generation rejected convention through their controversial writing. The hippies’ summer of love happened here, as did the gay liberation movement in the ‘60s. Start-ups sprung up all over town during the dot-com boom. If there’s a revolution to be had, it will likely start in San Francisco. This history of being open to new ideas, embracing the unknown, this attitude is sewn into the fabric of San Francisco today. This town is a fun, alternative, anti-establishment travel destination. Here you can shed your inhibitions, no judgement.
With trams traversing over 43 curvy hills out of a Dr Seuss book, colourful Victorian facades lining the streets and bay views surprising you at every turn, this city has charm in spades. Mountains stand proudly across the sparkling bay, while the George Clooney of all bridges – the Golden Gate – spans the view. It’s unlike any other American city you know.
Moody tones in the living room lounge at Clift hotel
Take the attitude toward food. Organic, low food miles, sustainable, farm to table; eco-friendly establishments are sprouting up everywhere. Spend Saturday morning at the buzzing Farmers’ Market in the picturesque Ferry building to get a feel for this phenomenon; inspect the farm fresh produce and artisan goods like organic honey, gluten-free bread and cheese made in a solar-powered creamery.
San Francisco holds the title for more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the States. The ultra funky The Slanted Door serves up Vietnamese fusion using ecologically farmed meat, washed down with exotic cocktails. Seasonal wood-fired cuisine is the go at restaurant-of-the- moment Nopa or you can sample organic breads at traditional French bakery La Boulange’s famed brunches.
Also unique is the city’s attitude to- wards chain stores. In downtown Union Square you’ll find major department stores like Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks, and international labels like Gucci and Prada all in one compact area. San Franciscans have geographically restricted the global chains to this zone in a successful bid to let their locally-owned shops thrive elsewhere. Boutique stores abound on Hayes Street, where you can snatch up a one-off piece at edgy Acri- mony (women’s and men’s clothing) or Zonal, an eclectic furniture and home- wares store. Upmarket Fillmore Street is a picturesque collection of boutique brands like Scotch & Soda and Cotelac.
Even sightseeing in San Francisco is stylish. Take a cable car along the exhilarating Powell-Hyde Line, marvel- ling at how this 19th century relic can make the steep hill climb. The Painted Ladies – a series of immaculate Victorian houses made famous in film and television shows – stand opposite Alamo Square, in juxtaposition to the modern city skyline. Fisherman’s Wharf is where you can savor the quintessential local dish, seafood chowder, and then burn the calories at Golden Gate Park, a green mecca that is bigger and bolder than Central Park.
Houses known as the Painted Ladies
San Fran is a patchwork quilt of micro-neighborhoods, each with their own personality. For insight into the town’s colourful past, hit up areas like Chinatown, the oldest and one of the largest in the country; Haight Ashbury, the centre of the hippie movement; or the Castro, one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the US and still a symbol of gay activism.
The SOMA (South of Market) district was once known for its budding artists, but with the dot-com boom came gentri- fication – and glamorous restaurants and bars. Standouts include two Michelin star Saison and posh Twenty Five Lusk, and seductive nightclub Manor West.
Central to many of these districts is Clift, a boutique hotel that captures the essence of San Francisco. Housed in a century-old stone building created by the prominent local Clift family, it was resurrected by lifestyle hotel mogul Ian Schrager with interiors designed by Philippe Starck. With a pedigree like that, it’s no surprise that the hotel is glamorous with a contemporary flair. Not to mention that its historic Redwood room is a legendary late night venue, graced by many a cocktail-sipping celebrity.
San Francisco comes alive at night, when it seems like no one knows when to go home. For a close-up of the Bay Bridge evening light show, you can’t go past atmospheric Waterbar. At the aptly named Absinthe, you can sample every style of absinthe – but probably shouldn’t. Or go underground with the rekindling of the speakeasy, at private haunts like Bourbon & Branch – secret password provided with your reservation. Tap into the city’s alternative side by visiting drag venue Asia SF, where sexy illusionists will keep you guessing.
This city is fun, fresh and uninhibited. If San Francisco were a person, she’d be the one painting the town red on a Saturday night.