T.he first local I met was Karl. A quiet, slightly ominous presence, he didn’t seem particularly keen on me seeing San Francisco‘s biggest icon. I had gone down to Fisherman’s Wharf to take an early-evening cruise of the bay, and as soon as we pulled away from the pier I started to crane my neck. The Golden Gate Bridge may be smaller than its counterpart over the Humber, but it has a certain allure nonetheless.
Alas, as we got closer it became apparent that a heavy fog had descended, rendering the landmark all but invisible. “Yup, that’s Karl,” said Eric Kirchmann, a scraggy-bearded deckhand who has been working on boats here for 20 years. “He doesn’t like you to see too much.” It may seem odd to give fog a name, but Karl is kind of a fixture round these parts and you’re bound to drift into him at some point.
We turned back, looping around Alcatraz and under the Bay Bridge, the 4½-mile link between San Francisco and Oakland. Less coy than its big orange pal, the Bay Bridge sparkled with thousands of LED lights.
Chilly and hungry, I ducked into Boudin Bakery. Fisherman’s Wharf teems with tourist trappings, but Boudin has been a San Francisco institution since 1849 – the second year of the California gold rush – and is known for its sourdough bread.
As I walked through the cavernous restaurant it seemed that everyone was tucking in to the same thing: clam chowder in a hollowed-out bread bowl. The dish I really wanted to try, though, was cioppino, a San Francisco specialty that dates from the late 19th century and the Italian fishermen who settled here. My 21st-century version was possibly fancier; shrimp, squid, mussels, fish and sweet, local Dungeness crab simmered in a spicy saffron and tomato broth – glorious.
In a city synonymous with hippies, poets and tech billionaires, it takes something to stand out from the crowd. So hats off to the guy I spotted the next morning riding around with three human-size teddy bears strapped into the passenger seats of his Chevy convertible di lui.
I had been picked up from the smart, downtown Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel for a tour of the city in a 1977 VW camper van (sanfranciscolovetours.com). While the hotel was all Philippe Starck furniture and cigar-lounge seriousness, the van had been decked out with flowers and beads and painted in an explosion of psychedelia, so teddy-bear guy wasn’t the only one attracting double-takes.
Chinatown in San Francisco
People waved, made peace signs and took photographs everywhere we went, especially as we crawled round the hairpin bends of Lombard Street, the so-called crookedest street in the world (it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco, but hey, man, whatever). Naff? Yes. Fun? Also yes.
Summer of Love classics blared as we toured the city: Jefferson Airplane wailed as we rattled past the Palace of Fine Arts in Marina district; Buffalo Springfield grooved as we followed trolley buses on Russian Hill; Janis Joplin begged us to take another little piece of her heart as we swaggered into Haight-Ashbury.
It’s estimated that 100,000 free-lovin ‘hippies flocked to San Francisco in 1967, turning the Haight into a kind of communal living room, a place to share ideas, beds and funny cigarettes. Nowadays it’s more of a place to turn on, tune in and drop £ 20 on a souvenir tie-dye T-shirt.
Despite the slightly theme-park vibe, it’s still an interesting area to explore. Haight Street leads you west to Golden Gate Park, with its 55 acres of botanical gardens and the de Young Museum’s fine collection of American art. A 20-minute walk the other way takes you to the postcard-pretty “painted ladies” of Alamo Square – late-Victorian wooden houses painted in subtle shades of orange, blue and green.
I left the love bus and made my way northeast through Tenderloin and Nob Hill (and the bit in between known as, er, Tendernob) to Chinatown. Nob Hill is one of the most well-to-do neighborhoods in the US, but Tenderloin is blighted by high crime rates and homelessness – it’s not a place to linger.
The Summer of Love tour
Chinatown, however, is well worth a dawdle, especially if you get off the main Grant Avenue drag and duck into the alleyways that used to be filled with gambling houses, brothels and opium dens. Today they are home to bakeries and family stores, and provide cut-throughs to North Beach.
North Beach has a certain atmosphere of otherness about it – a little bit of magic in the air. As well as being the historical home of the city’s Italian community, it was the stamping ground of the beat writers of the Fifties.
The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti died in February 2021, but City Lights, the bookshop and publishing house he founded, remains, as do the bars and cafés where he and the writers he published would hang out. There’s Caffe Trieste – the first espresso bar on the west coast, where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure would meet – and Vesuvio, the old bar that is separated from the bookshop by a narrow, mural-filled alley named after Kerouac.
Shopfronts in Haight Ashbury
Across the road from City Lights, Brandon Loberg at the Beat Museum told me why the city became such a center for counterculture. “San Francisco was seen as this place at the edge of the world,” he said. “It was physically as far away from the white picket fences of conservative postwar America as it was possible to get.”
Sure enough, in Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the RoadDean Moriarty and Sal Paradise are driving across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco when Moriarty says: “We can’t go any further ’cause there ain’t no more land.”
The museum collection is small and probably only of interest to connoisseurs, containing photographs, first editions and artefacts from the era, including Ferlinghetti’s writing desk and one of Kerouac’s old woollen shirts (think M&S autumn collection but, you know, hip).
“Part of the point of this museum is to preserve the legacy of that generation,” Loberg said. “They were hugely inspirational. There is a bohemian quality to North Beach that people here cherish. You have to keep it active. “
I left Loberg and walked a few blocks north to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, just off Washington Square. I rounded off the night at Vesuvio, huddled at the bar chatting with regulars and drinking Anchor Steam beer.
The next morning, with a head full of Steam, I met Nick Hormuth at his shop in Soma (south of Market Street). He set up Dandyhorse e-bike tours (sfbiketours.com) seven years ago, taking old mountain bikes and fitting them with motors that enable you to make mincemeat of the city’s thigh-burning hills.
After a devilishly complicated induction course (“Flick the switch to make it easier”), I was given an earpiece so Hormuth could provide a rolling commentary, and we set out for a tour of some of the city’s back streets.
San Francisco’s famous cable cars
The city’s oldest building, and the one that gave the Mission neighborhood and the wider city their names, Mission San Francisco de Asís was built in 1776 by Spanish evangelists who had come to convert the local Native American people. The great earthquake of 1906 resulted in fires that wiped out three quarters of the city; miraculously the Mission was saved thanks to a lone fire hydrant that was somehow still working. On the anniversary of the earthquake each year the hydrant gets a fresh lick of gold paint by way of thanks.
Mexican immigrants flocked to the Mission in the mid-20th century and it retains a distinct Latin edge – even though recent years have brought a degree of gentrification with the arrival of young professionals who work in the city’s technology industry (Twitter, Pinterest and Uber have headquarters here).
The streets are dotted with taco stalls, and every open stretch of wall seems to be splashed with murals celebrating Latin American heritage, demanding workers’ rights and condemning police brutality. A wander down Balmy Alley in particular is like walking through a kaleidoscope that fizzes with pride and defiance.
At the family-run La Palma tortilleria, which has been open on the corner of 24th Street since 1953, we gathered a picnic of freshly made blue-corn tortillas, tomatillo and avocado salsa, and huaraches (maize pockets stuffed with chicken). Having made liberal use of that switch to make things easier, we scoffed the lot high up in Bernal Heights Park, looking north over the city and out towards the Presidio national park.
There are a couple of museums dotted around the Presidio, but really it’s the 300 acres of forest and 24 miles of walking and cycling routes that people come for. (It was also the setting for an appalling 1988 Sean Connery film called, if memory serves, “The Preshidio”).
Originally a Spanish fort complex, the Presidio had been a US army post until the mid-Nineties, when it was turned over for recreational use. The Lodge, where I was staying, is the former barracks, and there’s a distinct “ten-hut!” look to the hotel from the outside, its blocky red-brick formality a contrast to the warm, welcoming interior and the forest and bay that surround it.
The Lodge’s position at the northern end of the park makes it San Francisco’s closest hotel to our old friend, the Golden Gate Bridge, and I’d been promised the perfect view from my room. And so, after my bad luck on the cruise of the bay, it was with a certain sense of resignation that I went to pull back the curtains in my room. Would the fog thwart me again?
No. There it was. Better luck next time, Karl.
Mike Atkins was a guest of the San Francisco Travel Association (sftravel.com). The Clift Royal Sonesta has room-only doubles from £ 190 (sonesta.com). The Lodge at the Presidio has B&B doubles from £ 240 (presidiolodging.com). Fly to San Francisco with British Airways (ba.com)