Despite being born in LA and living all over, there are only two cities that I would call home. The main one is London, England; but the second still holds a special place in my heart even though it has been almost fifteen years since I lived there – San Francisco.
The city has changed drastically since I lived there – in large part due to the construction of the Salesforce Tower and the continual growth of Silicon Valley – but underneath it is still the same city I loved to explore as a child. If anything, it is now even more dynamic and interesting than it was then, though in not all entirely positive ways. For one thing, there seems to be an unspoken contention over space between the increasing homeless population and the techy hipsters who have moved into the city over the last decade or so. The city overall has had money, both private and state, poured into its buildings and neighbourhoods. The beautiful Victorian row houses are freshly painted; the grandiose City Hall has been sandblasted to pearly perfection; but by comparison, many of the streets are filthier than ever before. Areas like the Presidio and Pacific Heights are unsurprisingly spotless, but increasingly trendy areas like the Mission are dirtier than ever. These streets are full of tents; people living in vans; and even one man camped beneath nothing more than an umbrella. The homeless have literally made the streets their playground. San Francisco now exemplifies the sad, but timeless struggle between wealth and poverty.
Despite this, the city’s most resplendent landmarks are still a draw to the rest of the world. And understandably so – the Golden Gate remains one of the most elegant suspension bridges; fisherman’s wharf is still an eclectic bonanza of sweet treats, sea lions and oddball shops; and the cable cars are still iconic. If you only do one touristy thing in the city, it should be riding on a cable car up San Francisco’s giant hills. The best line is the Powell-Mason line which runs from nearby Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square and Market Street. For the full experience, stand on the outside of the car and cling to the outer bars. Though I am no longer eight years old, it is still one of my favourite things to do.
San Francisco has so many wonderful areas but the one best loved by me is the Marina District. There is nothing better than wandering beneath the dome and arches of the Palace of Fine Arts, and then strolling over to Chestnut Street to grab a coffee or a bite to eat. The Palace was built for the 1915 Exposition and is now mostly used as a venue for art and music shows. With the lake, the swans and the secluded walkways surrounded by columns and greenery, it is easily one of the most peaceful spots in the bustling city – a special retreat.
Heading out further west from the Marina, the city’s natural beauty is truly showcased. Right at the tip of the city, the Presidio is the perfect place to escape the city’s noise. The best time to drive is on a sunny day when the sun is at its peak. The tall trees shade the roadways only allowing dazzling sprinkles of sunlight to come through the leaves. I recommend ending the drive up by the Legion of Honour Art Museum. It is probably best known for its appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but it also houses some renowned pieces by Rodin, Monet, Degas and other wonderful artists. The classical style colonnades and the large central courtyard, which features one of Rodin’s copies of The Thinker cast in bronze, takes me back to Europe.
With all of its hills, San Francisco has some absolutely remarkable views. There are plenty of spots from which to take in the whole city. Nob Hill is easily one of the best and thus, it is where many affluent Americans have chosen to settle. Mixed in amidst the beautiful houses is Grace Cathedral – a grand gothic imitation which is less than a hundred years old, but nonetheless, is still magnificent. Another popular viewpoint is from Coit Tower. Though now dwarfed by many modern skyscrapers, it is still an iconic landmark on the cityscape.
I could go on and on about San Francisco, and it seems I already have, but there are some things which you have to just discover for yourself. There is plenty more to see and do in one of the few American cities that I believe truly warrants multiple trips. After all, I lived there for seven years and there are still things I am learning about it …
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: San Francisco by Night at Christmas
Middle: Golden Gate Bridge
Bottom: Palace of Fine Arts