By Peter Majerle Photo by Peter Majerle
Where to go • What to do
San Francisco was not a city founded by developers and civic leaders bristling with plans of urban grandeur. It was colonized by scoundrels, carpetbaggers and moneygrubbers, representing myriad languages and all shades of the human condition.
They came in droves from around the globe after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and almost overnight the small Spanish mission community became a worldwide icon. This, in my opinion, set the stage for San Francisco to become what it currently is: unabashedly open, and incredibly fun.
For anyone who has not been to San Francisco, the mind’s eye might conjure up images of the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars climbing impossibly steep urban hills, and the quasi-pyramid shape of the Transamerica tower presiding over the Financial District.
The City by the Bay might even summon vague concepts like counterculture, unapologetic liberalism and the borders of personal expression pushed back.
All of these would be accurate descriptions. Yet none even begins to capture the intense electricity of individuality that permeates San Francisco.
The first-time visitor would do well to spend less time gawking at the iconic monuments, away from the swarms of puffy Midwesterners at Fisherman’s Warf, far from the tour buses at the Golden Gate Bridge overlook, in the shadows of Union Square’s Gucci lights and Rolex charms.
Start by hitting the streets, where the magic of the city really happens. Because the city grew so quickly, and with such a ragtag populace, performers, artists, eccentrics and writers who didn’t fit in New York or London eventually migrated towards this Pacific Rim city, struggling to create a niche. And many succeeded.
A stroll through Chinatown will reveal an urban landscape unique in its foreignness in the United States. Dragon-tail street lampposts illuminate streets decked out in red and gold, selling steamy dim sum, souvenir Buddha dolls, medicinal herbs and bric-a-brac under signs hand-scrawled in Chinese. People do business in Mandarin or Cantonese, and the buildings with their hidden temples look every bit as fantastic as anything you’ll find in Kowloon. Beyond the market atmosphere of Grant Avenue, and in the shadows of North Beach’s famous City Lights bookstore, the secondary streets still serve as a focal point for the area’s large Chinese population. While cutting through an alley, inside an open door I glimpsed a group of old Chinese men sitting around a table playing dominos, with other men bent over the game, shouting and waving their arms, a vignette of another world. Two buildings further another door was open, revealing old Chinese women sitting around a table, subdued, concentrating on their own game of dominos.
In The Mission, hipsters wearing sleeves of tattoos rub shoulders with immigrants from Latin America and a few of the previous generation’s working-class residents. Recent gentrification, a remnant from the dotcom boom, means that you’ll find some high-end restaurants and bars here and there, but for the most part walking Mission Street means exploring antique (or junk, depending on your perspective) shops, specialty bookstores, taquerias, clothing boutiques, funky coffee shops and bars bursting with dyed hair, body art and the energy of twenty-somethings from around the globe, gathered right here, about to produce the Next Big Thing: Haight-Ashbury for the 21st Century.
Even with the hangover form the dotcom boom in the late 90s, which made paper millionaires out of many San Francisco residents, there is a palpable feeling that anything could happen, and that nearly anything will. History tells us that. This is, after all, the city that brought us William Randolph Hurst, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, Ina Donna Coolbrith and Ken Kesey; the hippies, gay pride, and student rights; technology companies and the digital world.
San Francisco still is the Wild West. It’s still a boomtown with a rush atmosphere. Anything goes. And with an influx of swaggering idealists, literary wannabes and tech nerds, the interesting social mix that has long been the city’s most intriguing element will continue to develop.
Nuts and Bolts
Language: English is the language de jure. However, Spanish is heard in many neighborhoods, and Cantonese and Mandarin are common in Chinatown.
Currency: The American dollar ($1=¢554, as of press time)
Transportation: San Francisco has a wide reaching network of public transportation that includes trains, buses and subways. Driving within the city isn’t necessary, but for longer day trips you’ll need to rent a car.
Costs: San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
Getting there: Many international carriers fly to San Francisco, either via direct flights or through a U.S. hub. Check visa requirements before purchasing a ticket.
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