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Once you’ve ticked the key tourist boxes, the real joy of San Francisco is in its distinctive neighbourhoods – there are more than 27 of them and each demands time to explore properly. Getting around is easy, thanks to the super efficient MUNI bus and tram system – if you plan to cover the city comprehensively a City Pass is well worth the investment as it gives you free access as well as entry to a number of top attractions. The famous wooden cable cars are included in that and are undoubtedly an experience but, one ride is enough – they get very crowded and the hard wooden seats and precarious standing spots around the outside are not in the least bit comfortable.
I especially loved the ‘F line’ which runs all the way from the famous Castro Street area (home to gay rights activist Harvey Milk) down to Market Street and then along the bay to Fishermans Wharf. What makes it so special are the vintage and heritage street cars unique to this line. They been sourced from all over the world (there’s even one from Birmingham)
The bus system is also brilliant – they even offer special stops and hydrolic platform access for wheelchairs (take note London Transport!). Get to grips with the bus map and you’ll soon be moving round the city like a local, saving lots of shoe leather and avoiding long, slow climbs up the 43 hills on which San Francisco is built.
So back to those districts … accommodation in San Francisco can be limited and pricey – look beyond downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf to save money and experience other districts. Our hotel, the Kimpton Buchanan, proved a great choice – from the bus stop immediately opposite we could be downtown in 10 minutes on a number 2 or 3 bus. But best of all it placed us with easy access both to Japantown (literally on the doorstep), Fillmore which forms part of both Lower Haight (an up and coming 30 something neighbourhood) and the swankier Pacific Heights. On our first evening, having taken a daytime flight and struggling big time with the 8 hour time difference, a quick dinner at one of the many fantastic and great value Sushi bars in Japantown was ideal. Second night, same problem – how to keep awake past 8pm? Again a wide choice of restaurants on Fillmore were within a 5 minute stroll and a world away from the more touristy offerings of Fisherman’s Wharf where many feel obliged to head.
San Francisco’s Chinatown of course is world renowned – its huge, a warren of tightly packed restaurants, markets, street vendors and temples. Its so authentic it’s easy to forget you are in the U.S. Haight and Ashbury is the area for those seeking to relive the Summer of Love and hippy heritage and, for a taste of the future, SOMA (South of Market St) is the magnet for web gurus and urban hipsters.
The commercial hub of the city is the Financial District, loosely running between Union Square and the Ferry Building. This showcase of glass and steel skycrapers, is mixed in with classic older architecture, designer label shops and plenty of restaurants and funky bars. When we were there, Apple were just opening their new flagship store on the corner of Union Square – a magnificent uber modern cube of a store with retractable floor to ceiling glass walls creating an exciting indoor/outdoor retail space – visions of the future perhaps in this high tech part of the globe.
And more visions of the future at the hugely impressive San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA for short. Of everything we saw and did in San Francisco this to me, was the most memorable. Recently re-opened after a 3 year renovation, the museum has almost tripled in size by the addition of a striking new extension. The space alone is a delight, both indoors and out with fabulous collections of photography, sculpture and modern art. SFMOMA also has the best gift shop by a mile – my favourite purchase was a cute and kitsch ‘Fog Globe’ of the Golden Gate bridge. Give it a shake and the sparkly fog catches the sunlight and makes me smile every time