From the air we glimpsed the wide sweep of the bay with hills sloping steeply towards the sea. The city quickly drew closer as the wheels of the plane skimmed the waves and we came in to land at San Francisco International Airport. Yet even this aerial view of the city cannot prepare you for its three-dimensional nature.
San Francisco is criss-crossed by a grid system of streets. Those going crossways from the Presidio and Golden Gate Park are numbered from 2nd Avenue down to 48th Avenue next to the Great Highway by Ocean Beach. The streets descending from Golden Gate Park are named alphabetically from Irving Street down to Wawona Street next to San Francisco Zoo and Sloat Boulevard. Because the city sprawls across a number of steep hills, the fascinating result is that each district has its own micro-climate. This results in wide variations in weather throughout the Bay area at any given time. So always carry a light coat, sweater and sweat shirt with you to be ready for anything!
'No city makes the heart come to life as San Francisco does. Arrival in San Francisco is an experience in living' - said William Saroyan. I agree.
Our hearts soon came to life with an experience of San Franciscan living the day after our arrival, when my husband Robert and I went to Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park with our daughter Samantha and her children Hattie (9) and Louise (7), her friends Chris and Sarah, and Sarah’s girls Terri (10) and Imogene (7). It was the third Sunday in July, the day of the annual San Francisco AIDS Walk along a 10 km (6.2 mile) specially designated route through the park. It was morning and the meadow was shrouded in cold fog. A pall of amplified music and speeches from a stage to one side of the meadow hung over the people milling round. Tents and stalls dotted the hill overlooking the meadow.
We joined a slowly moving tide of about 21,000 people surging along the route. There were people of all ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations - small children, students, mothers pushing baby buggies, brightly clad people with black dreadlocks and pensioners. Everyone was walking to raise funds for AIDS research. Hattie and Louise skipped along chattering to Terri and Imogen, while Samantha, Sarah and Chris caught up with each other’s news.
There was a sudden burst of exotic Eastern music before us. We came closer to be greeted by a group of large ladies swaying to the beat, their middle-aged midriffs moving in a belly dance to a separate rhythm. They wore ankle length skirts, bikini tops and long dangling earrings with rows of silver bracelets round their wrists.
“Hi! You’re doing great! Keep it up!” Three Chinese girls at the roadside waved to us. More waves. More greetings. By now the sun had come out and we were getting hot. We reached the first of 3 check points and there gratefully accepted cups of water and packets of snacks. Thankfully a long line of green Portaloos stood at a discreet distance.
Further on we met more dancers. Their head-dresses were huge, their faces heavily painted white, their eyebrows and eyelids thickly blackened and their lips bright red. They wore long skirts beneath well-filled bikini tops, a thin line of hair running down the tanned, tautly muscled stomach of one dancer the only sign of their true sex.
Feet were dragging as we neared the final checkpoint. Spectators crowded the sidelines. 'Nearly there now! Thank you for taking part!' they called. Eagerly we availed ourselves of the lavish refreshments being offered before sinking down exhausted on to a bench. All good fun, but not to be recommended before a tour of the city.
Downtown is Union Square, a plateau on a low grassy mound surrounded by hotels, offices and shops, including Macy’s store. Workers and tourists picnic there and it forms a setting for occasional evening concerts and Sunday art exhibitions.
Off one side of Union Square is Grant Avenue, which brings you to Chinatown through the Dragon Gate, a gift to San Francisco from the Republic of China in 1969. We went there several times to explore the shops with their colourful displays of merchandise including silk goods, jewellery, postcards and T-shirts.
The 30 tram goes through Chinatown along Stockton Street parallel to Grant, passing grocery shops, bakeries and restaurants selling Chinese food on its way to North Point. From there it is not far to walk to Ghirardelli Square and the famous Fisherman’s Wharf.
Shops, cafés and other attractions are situated on various levels in Ghirardelli Square. These are centred round a small forum with a fountain in the middle, where live music may sometimes be heard. We took Samantha, Hattie and Louise to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory and Soda Fountain. The factory was established in 1852 but is no longer at that location. Now Ghirardelli Chocolate has a shop and soda fountain where you can sample some chocolate and watch a demonstration of how Ghirardelli chocolates were once produced. Afterwards we sat in the soda fountain sampling the lavishly produced creations listed as sundaes on the menu. They comprised several scoops of variously flavoured ice creams together with sliced bananas and chopped pineapples and strawberries covered with chocolate or hot fudge syrup and crowned with whipped cream, chopped almonds and a cherry. Remembering the hills, its debatable whether this helps by cooling you down, or hinders by increasing your mass!
Nearby is the San Francisco Maritime Museum. We walked up the hill of Fort Mason to look down on the Marina with the Palace of Fine Arts housing the Exploratorium. Behind it stretches Crissy Fields, a long shoreline extending to the Golden Gate Bridge. This bridge is open to pedestrians and is 1.2 miles long with fine views of San Francisco, Alcatraz and Marin County - when not enveloped in mist.
The Powell-Hyde cable car travels regularly up and down the steep slope of Hyde. As you climb up Hyde, pause for breath and look back. You will see the blue Pacific Ocean before you with high-masted boats crowding the harbour in the foreground and Alcatraz Island rising behind them. Between 1934 and 1963 up to 302 prisoners, their gaolers and their gaolers’ families, were housed there. The clear view of San Francisco, its buildings and city lights just one mile away were a constant reminder of the liberty they had lost. Further on you will come to Lombard Street on your left - 'the crookedest street in the world'.
At Fisherman’s Wharf there are street musicians, stalls selling jewellery and handicrafts and numerous snack bars, cafés and restaurants selling sea food including clam chowder, a San Franciscan speciality served in a 'bowl' of sourdough bread.
One chilly Saturday morning we took the ferry for Sausalito from Pier 41. Turning to look back, we saw that San Francisco was completely hidden by fog. The bay was clear, but a dense ribbon of white cloud surrounded Golden Gate Bridge. Thirty minutes later we disembarked at Sausalito, which was hot and sunny. A narrow main road wound past the harbour with small streets snaking up the steep hills towering above it. We strolled around, shopped for souvenirs and sat in a small square shaded by trees eating fresh sandwiches from a nearby bakery and watching the world go by.
On our return to San Francisco, Robert and I wandered through the Ferry Building looking at the shops selling gourmet foods and drinking a Peet’s coffee.
Another day Robert and I took Hattie and Louise to San Francisco Zoo. There were rare breeds of cattle, pigs, horses and hens. We watched the Barnyard Stampede, where overweight sheep and goats were driven into an enclosure with loud yells and whoops and waddled over to us to take food pellets from our hands. We saw owls, birds of prey and monkeys and paused by the penguin pool trying to spot the penguin that Hattie had adopted. We ate lunch opposite an enclosure housing meerkats, watching their sentinels scouting for danger as the rest of them ate. Then Hattie and Louise rode on a train round the zoo.
Crowds throng the sidewalks round Market and Powell downtown. At the terminus on Powell each arriving cable car heralds a flurry of people getting off and being replaced by new passengers. Market Street is a lively mix of casually dressed tourists and smartly suited San Franciscans walking past stalls selling handicrafts and shabby unshaven men holding out plastic cups. The air is filled with music played by street performers. Shops and department stores line the streets on both sides of the road from Market and Fifth down towards the Financial District.
The Museum of Modern Art at 151 3rd and Mission Street houses a 20th century art collection including paintings, sculpture and photographs. We visited the California Academy of Sciences at 875 Howard Street at Howard and 4th, due to return to Golden Gate Park in 2008. A party of schoolchildren with their names, addresses and telephone numbers round their necks joined us together with their teachers as we walked round the collection of live penguins, fish, reptiles and snakes in clear glass tanks. We also went round the Asian Arts Museum at 200 Larkin Street Civic Center and McAllister with over 15,000 items spanning 6,000 years of history and forming one of the largest Asian art collections in the world.
Cow Hollow round Union Street and Fillmore is an upmarket shopping area of boutiques, galleries and gift shops. The quality of the second-hand clothing and factory rejects offered for sale in the thrift stores (charity shops) reflects the upmarket neighbourhood in which they are situated.
On our last Saturday in San Francisco we went to a neighbourhood garage sale at Alamo Square at Hayes and Steiner Streets. We saw a hill with trees, a children’s playground and several people walking their dogs. No sign of a sale. We turned a corner and there it was. Stalls lined both sides of the street by the park and there were private garage sales outside several of the houses opposite. People were selling furniture, paintings, bric-a-brac, old postcards, jewellery, plants and food. Across the square a line of Victorian houses painted in pastel colours stood against the bright blue backdrop of the Pacific Ocean with Alcatraz Island rising up in the distance - the symbol and summary of our San Francisco experience in living.
The Visitor Center at Hallidie Plaza on Powell and Market Streets will give you the summer programme of free guided historic walks in San Francisco. Tel. 415-283-0177 (Only in San Francisco). See also the San Francisco Chronicle on Fridays for details of street fairs and garage or estate sales.
Buses and cable cars (trams) are used for Muni public transport. Drivers do not give change, so have the exact fare ready. Monthly Muni travel passes are obtainable for over 60s (proof of UK entitlement will suffice to confirm eligibility) and young people aged 5-17 years. Other adults may buy weekly passes. See the Muni website for more details. When travelling on Muni transport, don’t eat, drink or smoke. Stay awake and guard your valuables.
Finally, some general advice. Drinking alcohol in public is forbidden, so people drink from clear plastic bottles of water or Styrofoam cups with hot drinks rather than from cans. Watch out for pickpockets, particularly on the crowded streets of Mason and Powell between Union Square and Market.