Long before the hippies homed in, the Ohlone Native American tribe had the run of San Francisco. Colonized by Spain in the 16th century, the area later came under Mexican rule, before beginning to attract the first conquerors of the “Wild West”. The local population got its first major thrust upwards in the mid-1800s with the discovery of gold. Two features of these days went on to become San Francisco icons: sourdough bread and jeans by Levi Strauss, who used a heavy cloth for miners’ trousers.
The boomtown crashed, literally, following a devastating temblor and subsequent fires in 1906. True to its pioneering spirit, however, San Francisco was reborn, physically as well as metaphorically: Not a single one of its banks failed during the Great Depression of 1929.
Once a hippie hub: (clockwise from above) A San Francisco cable car; a game of Candyland on the famous Lombard Street; San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds. Photos: SFCVB and AFP
Almost 40 years later, the city rose again in the age of flower power. Psychedelic music became its signature tune, with bands such as Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead strongly identified with the area.
From street-corner buskers to high-end music hall concerts, there’s something to suit every taste in San Francisco. There’s a series of Mahler, Brahms, Bach and Tchaikovsky concerts through November. Click here for details. Or watch local actor James Carpenter play Frankenstein’s monster in an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s horror story at the Thick House (till 7 November). Log on to Sfarts for details. At the Market and Powell Cable Car Turnaround, street performers raise the bar on free entertainment.
You could also drop in at the Museum of Modern Art, the California Academy of Sciences (a natural history museum). If that’s too straight for your tastes, try the Musée Mécanique (for its collection of penny arcade machines), the Museum of Ophthalmology or Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.
In the “alternative” calendar, June’s LGBT parade (which will celebrate 40 years next year) attracts around 500,000 visitors every year. San Francisco also has a wide range of “adult” entertainment.
Baseball and American football pretty much define sports in San Francisco, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a youngster who plays neither. The home teams—the Giants and the 49ers—have overwhelming support in the city, but the rules of the game, especially American football, may be too arcane for those of us who refuse to look beyond cricket. No worries, there are still plenty of options for the athletically minded: Rent a bike or go on a bike-guided tour (www.baycitybike.com), sail around the bay and under the Golden Gate bridge (www.adventurecat.com) or go sport-fishing www.flashfishing.net.
FOOD AND DRINK
From French Nouvelle to Nuevo Latino, the city caters to all kinds of taste buds. We pick the most quirky:
• The Stinking Rose: Don’t say we didn’t warn you: This Italian restaurant builds its meals around garlic, varying levels from “strong” (for those who really relish the herb) to garlic-free for those who just can’t bear it. Visit www.thestinkingrose.com first.
• Town Hall: For authentic American food (yes, there is such a thing), look no further than this replica of a large schoolhouse. On the menu are buttermilk-fried chicken and peanut tasso-crusted pork chops. Go to www.townhallsf.com.
• Forbes Island: This floating restaurant has a lighthouse, waterfall and even real palm trees. Located on the famed Fisherman’s Wharf, the dining room of this restaurant is partially underwater and has little portholes giving diners an underwater view. For details, visit www.forbesisland.com.
• Teatro ZinZanni: Also a waterfront restaurant, this one offers you a blend of European cabaret, circus arts, vaudeville and good music with your dinner. Visit www.love.zinzanni.org.
WHEN IN SAN FRANCISCO, DON’T…
• Carry a tropical wardrobe: The mercury hovers around 60ºF (15.5°C) even in summer.
• Park on a hill or even a slope without cramping your wheels to the kerb, setting the handbrake and putting the car in parking gear—it’s the law.
• Wear a bathing suit to North Beach; it’s the cafe-studded Italian quarter.
• Carry a milk pail to Cow Hollow; the old dairy district west of Van Ness Avenue has become a popular shopping sector.
• Call cable cars trolleys; they’re powered by the moving steel cable you hear humming in the slot beneath your feet.
• Plan to go swimming in San Francisco Bay unless you’re a member in good standing with the Polar Bear Club.
• Forge past a street sign saying “Grade” or “Hill” unless you’ve had your brakes checked recently; it means steep as in 31.5% of grade.
• Board a public conveyance without exact fare; the drivers don’t give change.
• Go out without an umbrella; the coastal mists are capricious.
• Colour the bridge over the Golden Gate gold; it’s International Orange.
3 Things to do
As told by insider Carolyn Alburger, Writer
• Bissap Baobab: No dinner spot transports me like Bissap Baobab with its charming Senegalese staff, the tart, fresh hibiscus margaritas and the slightly ramshackle, thrown-together vibe. And if you’re feeling frisky, you can dance off the tamarind coconut shrimp to world music DJs at Little Baobab next door.
2323 Mission Street, San Francisco, (415) 8269287, www.bissapbaobab.com
• Alembic: Sometimes it can be packed, sometimes you may get a little attitude from the hostess, but you can’t find a better crafted cocktail in the city or a more playful take on their drinks. Take one description from their menu: “Sand and Blood: a classic story of love, desire, and tragic death gave this equally classic cocktail its moniker…Alluring as Rita Hayworth, but this femme fatale kicks like a bull. Toro!”
1725 Haight Street, San Francisco, (415) 6660822, www.alembicbar.com
• Sundance Kabuki Cinema: This is a movie theatre with a restaurant and full bar inside. You can pre-choose your seats and take food and alcoholic beverages bought on the premises into the theatre. And that’s not to mention the most comfy seats I’ve experienced in a theatre and the best brownies on sale for dessert.
1881 Post St, San Francisco, (415) 3463243, www.sundancecinemas.com