There are few places in the world more famous than the Golden Gate, but San Francisco offers much more than just a shiny bridge and makes a great stopover destination writes Janet McGarry.
San Francisco is truly a city of contrasts. On the one hand, are the elegant tree-lined streets with gorgeous wooden houses leading down precipitous hills to the sparkling Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge burns its unique brand of rusty red on the skyline, its sheer size making Sydney’s Harbour Bridge resemble a humble coat-hanger.
On the other hand is the evident poverty. It’s not on the scale of many American cities but never the less more visible than you’ll see in most parts of urban Australia. It’s hard to walk around sprawling bodies on the sidewalk in the middle of the day without wondering how and why the richest nation on earth still has such confronting social issues.
San Francisco is quintessentially American, yet it is probably America’s most European city in terms of feel. The city centre is compact and easy to navigate. It combines history with commerce and business, but this is a totally lived in city with a green, trendy, arty feel. It is a city with a soul and visitors are easily welcomed. The only over the top tourist precinct is Fisherman’s Wharf and if you are like me, you’ll walk through there quickly or bypass it altogether. Greater pleasures are found by simply hopping off the bus or cable car and wandering down or mountaineering up the hilly streets.
San Franancisco’s public transport is great if not a little eccentric. The clanking and ringing of the cable cars you expect, but there is also a modern underground (the BART), an historic tramway and a complex mix of buses (some with electrified cable overhead) called MUNI. The cities ferries are the best way to see the city skyline and topography but not as frequent as desired. For the best value grab a one day pass.
The city likes to wear its green credentials front and centre. Be ready for lots of opportunities to buy organic – the best being the Organic Farmers Markets at the beautifully restored Port Ferry Building. Be lucky in summer and you might hit the city on one of its Spare the Air days – free public transport all day to try and ease car use and the pollution haze.
Yes, you’ll do the iconic things – the trip out to Alcatraz (spooky), visit or cross the Golden Gate, eat in Chinatown and shop at Union Square. But what I remember most is the moments away from the main drag, the little side streets and view points over the bay, the café s of North Beach, the parks and gardens. This is a city to wander at will, letting it just soak into your soul.