Tony Bennett is not the only person to have left his heart in San Francisco; more than 16 million visitors lose theirs to the city every year. San Francisco has been a popular destination since the California Gold Rush of 1849, when the town’s population rocketed from 1,000 to 25,000 in less than a year.
In 1869 the Pacific Railroad opened up trade routes with the east of the county, and the influx of Chinese railroad workers lead to the creation of the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. By 1873 the first of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars was running on the notoriously steep Clay Street, and at the turn of the century San Francisco was a major city known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions and thriving arts scene.
The origin of 1960s counterculture, the city’s North Beach neighbourhood was home to Beat Generation writers who fuelled the 1950s San Francisco Renaissance, while hippies flocked to Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. As a result, San Francisco today is as celebrated for its free-thinking, liberal attitudes as it is for its stunning landmarks.
There is much more to San Francisco than its picture-postcard Golden Gate Bridge or the notorious former prison island of Alcatraz. While both are worth a visit, San Francisco’s real beauty is found within the impossibly steep hills, contrasting mix of Victorian and modern architecture, and the laidback attitude of its inhabitants.
Explore Chinatown, a vibrant district where residents practise Tai Chi and play Chinese Chess in Portsmouth Square. Nearby is Russian Hill, a residential neighbourhood with the famously-crooked Lombard Street. A steep, one-block section of the street comprises eight switchbacks to counter the hill’s natural 27% grade, and is lined with hydrangeas. Then hop on a passing cable car and head for Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf to marvel at the sea lions basking in the sunshine.
Just as no trip to the City by the Bay is complete without a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, so all visitors should wander the streets of Haight-Ashbury, a popular hang-out for bohemians in the late 1960s. Today the district is best known for its expensive boutiques, but it still maintains its counterculture ambiance. The Haight also features a number of Painted Ladies: Victorian houses lovingly restored to their colourful and ornate former glory.
Although San Francisco is relatively small by international standards, the city’s 800,000 San Franciscans punch well above their weight when it comes to socialising. There are an estimated 3,300 table service restaurants within the seven-mile-by-seven-mile city limits, and San Francisco’s multi-ethnic population ensures a wide choice of cuisines.
Chinatown features a multitude of restaurants offering excellent dim sum and Chinese delicacies. Other favoured cuisines include Japanese, Spanish, Italian and plenty of vegan or vegetarian options; consult residents and local travel guides for up-to-the-minute suggestions. Travellers looking for a bite to eat on the run should head to the Ferry Building at the eastern end of Market Street. Enjoy a view of the Bay Bridge as you try a $5 cup of Clam Chowder, and wander the many small restaurants or the twice-weekly Farmers’ Market.
Nightlife is excellent and eclectic in equal measure. Visitors looking for funky live music venues, bohemian bars and all-night dance clubs should investigate the South of Market area. However, know where you are going; SoMa is a patchwork of warehouses interspersed with a labyrinth of alleyways and has only recently been ‘gentrified’.
Four hours’ drive from San Francisco, in east-central California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, is Yosemite National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 750,000-acre park is internationally recognised for its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves and biological diversity. With thousands of lakes and ponds, and hundreds of kilometres of streams and trails, the park is a hikers paradise.
Yosemite Valley is known for Yosemite Falls; one of the world’s highest waterfalls at 782 metres and most impressive during spring. The most famous sight in the valley is the granite monolith of Half Dome; a mountain whose sheer face and rounded top looks like a giant stone dome that has been split in two.