Hands-down, one of my favourite American cities is San Francisco. Although the whole state of California is pretty freakin’ rad, SFO really does stand out. It’s not a beach city, but what it offers in cuisine, attractions, shopping (!), general friendliness and yes, lots of weirdness, more than makes up for boring old sunny shores and sparkling sand.
I’ve been there twice, with both trips revolving around seeing a concert. The first time I went we saw The Tragically Hip, a classic Canuck band, at the Fillmore. Yup, the very same Fillmore where Jimi Hendrix and his entire generation of rock stars played back in the day. Second time was to see City and Colour, also at the Fillmore. Although they were two very different shows, both were amazing and intimate; I even got a few splashes of Hip singer Gordon Downey’s sweat on me. Let’s just say it was a very different experience from seeing them in a hockey arena.
Anyway, the point of writing this post was to reveal some awesome highlights (and funny little snippets) of our time there. It’s not until you experience SFO first-hand that you really understand why there’s a hundred songs and movies made about this great city.
1. Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s gimmicky. But, when in Rome… well, you should just do it, the first time, anyway. And once is enough. Have clam chowder in a bread bowl. Go to Ghirardelli Square and indulge in heavenly chocolate of all kinds: nuts, fruit, dark, white, milk, candied, sea salt, caramel, whatever. Visit the barking seals at Pier 39; go for a spin in the Rocket Boat around the harbour and the Bay Bridge. Have lunch at a sidewalk restaurant and delight in quirky street attractions… speaking of which…
2. Random Naked Cyclists
Ok, the whole “demonstration” is probably not random, and I know they do this in other places, too (including Victoria), but this just seemed – well – utterly San Fran. You’re having a bite to eat patio-side when suddenly a rush of nudies on bikes fly by. One thing you must remember when in SFO: always have your camera at the ready because you never know what’s going to happen. (Nice ciggy between the red nails in this pic, BTW. Ewwww.)
3. Alcatraz Island
This place is definitely worth a closer look than just a snapshot from the other side. Since I’m a big history nut and I gravitate toward the freaky and weird, it’s right up my alley. Join a walking tour on the grounds and then head inside the cell block, strap on some headsets and prepare for an audio experience that will really creep you out. You even get to see remnants of the famous escape depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz. If you truly want to get the bejesus scared out of you, sign up for the night tour.
4. The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero
This old ferry terminal is now home to a myriad of shops, trendy restaurants, open-air markets, and cool little cafes. While you’re shopping for your wine and cheese, you might – just might – run into someone famous. Like the time we spotted Martha Stewart and her entourage at the Ciao Bella ice cream shop. Ol’ Martha was looking pretty good with her perfectly-coiffed hair, black leather pants and high boots. Naturally, people were practically falling over themselves to give her stuff, as you can see in this pic I semi-clandestinely snapped.
5. The Food!
I seriously have never been to a place this side of the country that’s got so many awesome options for foodies. You could probably eat out every day for years here and never hit all the great restaurants and street carts. From a funky little breakfast establishment in Nob Hill to a chic and classy reso on Fillmore, I could go on and on, but here are some worth mentioning:
- First Crush Restaurant – friendly, late-night service with a cool bar, fab wine list and homestyle treats such as fried macaroni.
- Bourbon Steak Restaurant in the Westin St. Francis Hotel. We happened to have reservations here when owner/celebrity chef Michael Mina was whipping the kitchen staff into a frenzy. The place was hopping and the service impeccable – we even had our wine glasses refilled by his business partner, also on duty that night. Now that’s personalized service.
- Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel – this hidden gem is popular with the professional work crowd, yet still evokes a casual feel. It is the West Coast, after all. We hopped right up to the classy bar and watched the place fill in a matter of minutes. I was instantly dazzled when offered a free glass of champagne (mistakenly poured for someone else). The moving pictures on the wall added a touch of eeriness that was undoubtedly cool – thank you, Philippe Starck.
6. Street Entertainment in the North Park
SFO has mastered street entertainment – with the North Park especially keen to show off. One lazy afternoon, as we were partaking in a lunch of pepperoni calzones at a sidewalk restaurant, this huge black guy dressed in white coattails and top hat approached and amicably offered to sing for money. After we opted out, he moved on to the next couple, who also declined. I think at this point he was getting tired of rejection; either that or he was just having a really bad day. And so we watched, amazed, as he literally shifted from nice to nasty in a matter of seconds, shouting and berating the couple for not helping him out. And then there was the larger-than-life Tinsel Man at the street market. In short, the people-watching is pretty spectacular. Oh, and the murals aren’t bad, either.
7. Golden Gate Bridge (obviously)
No question, one of the must-dos. The key is getting hooked up with a tour (complete with a little history thrown in) aboard one of those old-fashioned trolley buses which take you through the park and over the bridge. The weather was beautiful that day; not an ounce of fog in sight. I was almost disappointed. Can you see me in the mirror? (Hint: I’m the one with the big sunglasses.)
8. Shopping in Union Square
We stayed in the Square the second time around – right up the street from H&M, Neiman Marcus, DSW Shoe Warehouse, the works. I thought I died and went to heaven when we stepped into Bloomingdale’s – just the array of sunglasses alone on display was dizzying. I eventually settled on a gorgeous leather jacket, which I had to carry with me while we wandered around and eventually got lost trying to get back to our hotel. This was especially fun through some less-desirable neighbourhoods. Thank God for Cam, who gave anyone who dared look our way (or my jacket’s general direction) the Jack Reacher stare.
9. Baseball Game in AT&T Park
It was the Giants against the Oakland A’s – their cross-town rivals. Picture a warm night, the overpowering smell of dirt, grass and beer. People shouting and cheering. Chowing down on hot dogs and popcorn. The sun setting behind a humongous glove. Oh, and the Giants won – Tim Lincecum was awesome, a wild example of mullet over matter.
10. Lots and Lots of Live Music
Coming from a smaller city where economic realities can limit access to outstanding live entertainment, I really appreciate its abundance in SFO: tons of great venues, varied styles, and real talent where you least expect it. Take, for instance, the time we stumbled into a dark, grotty bar on lower Mason Street (perhaps a slightly dodgy part of town at night) and were blown away by a show featuring a blues dude going by The Harrison B. One six-string, one snare and cymbal, and these guys rocked the place.
PS. We’re making our way down there again in a few days. (Well, technically, we’ll be making a side-trip there via CalTrain from San Jose.) Once again, we’ll be basking in San Francisco’s glorious weirdness. And loving it.