Once the epicentre of the 60s hippy and free love explosion, San Francisco has moved with the times. Yes, it’s still a bohemian stronghold, but it’s also a stone’s throw from the never-ending tech gold rush over in Silicon Valley. On top of that, it’s a city that’s firmly planted a flag on the foodie map, and not just because it’s home to the famous Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, where top chefs can be seen picking the best produce for cutting-edge dishes being created in the city’s hip kitchens. It’s no wonder the ingredients here are so good – the city is surrounded by rolling farmlands, and it’s only a short drive to the dreamy, sun-dappled landscape of Napa Valley, with its bountiful vineyards.
The thing about San Francisco is that the appeal is just as bound up with the landscape and natural beauty, as it is with the cool bars and restaurants. Even the notorious fog is a celebrity around these parts, with its very own Twitter account (@KarlTheFog, if you’re wondering). Where better to take in the epic scenery than the Golden Gate Bridge? This crimson-hued landmark is the global symbol of San Francisco, and you’ll feel the hairs on your neck bristle when you set eyes on it for the very first time. Looking at it is one thing, but walking across it and gazing out at the cityscape and the ocean is even more astounding.
Then there’s Golden Gate Park. While New York’s Central Park may hog the limelight when it comes to urban greenery, Golden Gate Park is actually bigger. It’s more than a place to relax and recline on sunny Californian days – it’s dotted with must-see attractions too. These include the Conservatory of Flowers, where you can see vivid, exotic plants in a 19th-century structure, while a tranquil amble to the Japanese Tea House and Garden – with its waterfall and sweet-scented blooms – will soothe any stresses away. If you’re here with kids, be sure to seek out the park’s vintage carousel too.
Less idyllic, but utterly fascinating, is Alcatraz Island. This is another landmark synonymous with the city: the infamous prison island which was once home to the country’s most feared mobsters, robbers and killers. Visiting Alcatraz is a rite of passage for San Francisco visitors, and there are engrossing tours that will take you on the ferry over, and then into the shadowy walkways with its eerie cells. Alcatraz actually has a long history going back well before the era of the prison, which you’ll also learn about when you visit.
Back on the mainland, it’s hard to know which area to visit first. There’s Chinatown for one thing. Even if you’ve experienced Chinatowns in other cities across the world, this San Francisco quarter stands apart as the largest example outside Asia. It’s a whirling, aromatic city within itself, and it’s worth coming with an empty stomach so you can feast on salt and pepper crab, aubergine and salt fish claypots and delicate dim sum filled with seafood.
Then there’s Fisherman’s Wharf, the waterfront hub where you can wander souvenir shops and tuck into clam chowder served up in bread bowls while enjoying the panorama of the bay. Pier 39 is part of the district, and is home to 3D rides and the majestic Aquarium of the Bay, with its sharks and rays. Speaking of wildlife, look down below the pier to see the famous resident sea lions basking and flapping about.
You’ll also want to make time to go a bit beyond the heart of San Francisco, to experience the surrounding beauty. The wine country of Napa Valley has already been mentioned, but what about Muir Woods? You’ll find this vast swathe of unspoilt nature across the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’ll make you feel you’re a world away from the urban bustle of San Francisco. Here, you’ll go on long walks between old growth coast redwoods – a bewitching hiking experience in a prehistoric-seeming treescape.
Close by, you’ll also find arty Sausalito, a chic community with the vibe of a European village. This is a perfect place to spend a day checking out galleries and trying the freshly-prepared seafood dishes by the waterfront. And, if you feel like being more adventurous, you can always head further northwest to Point Reyes National Seashore, a wild and tamed realm of rugged cliffs and sweeping beaches, where you’ll want to bring binoculars to spot the scurrying wildlife. It’s a taste of the great American outdoors, just an hour from San Francisco.
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