San Francisco is one of those cities I’ve always dreamed about from reading about it in novels. Books about bookshops, revolutionaries, queer culture, free love, migrants, jazz, trams, highs, and hippies.
I was nervous that the reality of San Francisco in 2018 wouldn’t live up to the picture I had in my head. Time has moved on since the classic 1960s image of the city. I was worried that it would have modernised and been taken over by shopping centres, capitalism and American corporation culture.
However, I was pleasantly surprised that- while there is an extent to which this is true in the financial centre- on the whole the alternative culture of San Francisco still thrives, a living beating heart of liberalism in a country which largely seems anything but.
I was bemused on arriving at our Airbnb in Haight Ashbury, the former epicentre of the ‘summer of love’ to see groups of people hanging around in tie-dye (non-ironically) smoking dope and strumming guitars. Socialist bookshops piled high with everything from books on Marxist analysis to the ‘cunt colouring book’. Gay leatherclad couples strolling around, and rainbow flags hanging from buildings. And, best of all, a vegan eatery on every street.
Haight Ashbury in particular retains most of what you imagine the ‘character’ of San Francisco to be, though there are parts of it that seem a bit forced, a reconstruction of an old image. However, the tie-dye shops are all family owned and you can buy any garment of clothing you can imagine in these whacky designs. There are record shops, bookshops, coffee shops and cocktail bars galore.
It’s also very close to the Golden Gate Park, which is a lovely place to go for a long morning run, particularly since the weather here tends to be cool, sunny, and clear at all times. With botanical gardens, a huge greenhouse, and endless winding paths, it’s a spot that’s really worth checking out if you need some downtime. Just remember that in the US it is illegal to drink in public so if you’re gonna bring a bevy for a picnic you’d better keep it out of sight (mad, I know).
Powerful street art tells a political story of resistance everywhere you walk, and you can find out where the best bits online are to do a self-guided tour, which is probably the best bet since it’s constantly changing. The highlight for me was the MaestraPeace Mural, which covers the Women’s Building. This is a women-lead non-profit community and arts centre a with workshops to support people facing difficult issues like domestic violence and drug abuse, education programmes to help people get into work, exercise classes, a fresh free food programme, performances, cinema, and even legal support and tax advice to low-income and migrant women. The building is wrapped in a colourful mural that is a ‘testament to the courageous contributions through time and around the world’ and it is a sight to behold.
If you’re short on time, the other place to check out lots of great street art in a relatively short stretch is Clarion Alley, which is plastered in some of the most political graffiti you will see. There is a focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, with murals dedicated to the memory of murdered black people, as well as those focusing on economic injustice, Palestine, feminism, and much more. We even saw a bunch of people painting as we checked everything out.
For those that enjoy a smoke, weed is legal in San Francisco and can be bought from any of a number of regulated dispensaries. They seem to vary in character from a clinical and almost pharmaceutical setting to an old school smoking lounge. It’s no surprise really that the locals, and Californians in general, are such a chilled out bunch.
If you’re feeling open-mined and happen to be there at the end of September, you might want to check out the Folsom Street Fair. Primarily a gay and leather event, it’s now opened out to be almost more of a kink expo in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street. If you see people wandering around naked or in fetish gear around this time, you can bet that’s where they’re headed. Even if you don’t fancy participating, you can go as an observer as long as you make a contribution to an HIV charity. The atmosphere is very friendly, and you don’t have to be gay. I will warn you, you will probably see people doing things to each other than you can’t unsee, but if you go with a liberal attitude you’ll have a fun afternoon.
On a slightly chiller note, I was really happy to get to check out some jazz while we were in San Francisco. There are several great bars that pump out live music every night of the week. The cocktails are expensive (but strong), the dancing is lively, and given its history, you really can’t go to San Fran and miss out on this.
You might have read about City Lights bookshop in poems and books. That’s the kind of place it is. I love a good bookshop anyway, but a bookshop so iconic there are literally books about it is something I couldn’t resist. It did not disappoint, and I wished I had more spending money and a bigger suitcase. There were shelves upon shelves on books on all the subjects I care about most, with a focus on social justice spanning literally everything you can think of. More than that- novels by international authors I’d never heard of, poetry, travel books, and maps. I ended up settling for a collection of poetry called Women of Resistance, a collection of international feminist poetry, the proceeds from which are donated to Planned Parenthood and the Centre for Reproductive Rights.
Another legend of San Fran is of course the trams, which chug up and down the unbelievably steep slopes of the city. It’s something you have to do once (and after hiking up some of these hills you’ll really want to), and for us it was fun to hop onto the ledge on the outside of the tram and hang on. I did feel that for the people in the middle, who would have had their view blocked by us, it probably was less of a good deal, so if you can try to go at a less busy time of day so you can actually enjoy it.
Pier 39 has a reputation for sea lions, which sadly we didn’t see. It’s a bit cheesy (your typical seaside pier) but it’s a nice place to stop and have a drink by the water, and you can even see Alcatraz over the sea, though we didn’t have time to go. They’re also famed for their sourdough bread here.
The ‘Painted Ladies’ are a row of houses that have been the feature of many films, and have now become a bit of a landmark. Lombard Street is another great place to get a snap. A whacky winding street bursting with flowers, it looks like the stuff of Alice in Wonderland and it’s hard to believe people actually live there.
If you have more time, I’d definitely recommend hiring a car to go out of the city for a few days. The Pacific Coast highway has some lovely views, such as Half Moon Bay. Another thing I really enjoyed was renting a cabin in the woods. California is home to some really beautiful redwoods, and out here, you really feel that you’re far from everything.
So did it live up to my expectations? Well, I ended up leaving San Francisco googling jobs and the feasibility of getting a visa. So yes, I loved it and would seriously consider actually living there if there was a chance of getting work in my field, in spite of the mad tango monster President. It seems a world apart from the rest of what you think of as ‘MURICA’ and Californians are amongst the friendliest, most cheerful, and easy going folk I’ve encountered on my travels.
My one bugbear is the poverty. Given that it’s one of the wealthiest places in the world, I was seriously disturbed by the number of homeless people we saw. Sure, London and the UK in general has the same issues, but I would say not nearly to the same extent. There seem to be several times more homeless people than you see on the streets of London, and not just that, but they seem much, much more desperate. I saw people eating out of bins outside restaurants that would cost $60 a head for a meal, trying to drink the remains of rancid yoghurt drinks. Putting down half a pizza on the way home for a second while looking where to go, and someone ran up and begged for it. And more than that, a much higher proportion were clearly struggling with serious drug dependencies and mental health issues. Again, I know these are problems in the UK too but I was really shocked by how much worse it was. For all that San Francisco on the whole has a progressive outlook and a drive for social justice, in many ways there still doesn’t seem to be much of it about. There are centres and programmes to help, and it’s suggested that’s why there are quite so many people who gravitate there. If I was able to live and work there, I think that’s the area I’d have to look for work in. Like a lot of liberal places, there ironically remains a high concentration of wealth in the left, and a bit more distribution of it might make it a city living closer to the values you see spray painted on the walls. With so many great social initiatives, I sincerely hope they get more funding to help more people live a better quality of life in a city that, in all other ways, is bloody fantastic.