The city of San Francisco is famous for many things: cable cars, fog, gay pride, steep streets, very expensive housing, the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the gateway to California’s wine country to the north and the Silicon Valley tech hub to the south. We started our trip on the Northwest Coast by spending nine days in San Francisco, first in an AirBnB room in the Castro (the historical gay district) and then housesitting in the nearby neighborhood of Lower Haight.
Based on those experiences, here are our impressions of the city:
- The parts of San Francisco that we got to know the best (Lower Haight, Duboce Triangle, and the Castro) rank as one of the best urban areas for strolling that we’ve seen. The sidewalks are broad, with surprisingly large trees growing out of small openings in the pavement. There are lots of interesting buildings to look at, especially Victorian-style wooden townhouses (known as Painted Ladies) with their carved facades decorated in an array of colors. Few houses have front lawns, so people do their flower gardening in big pots next to their houses or in little beds built into the sidewalk. Temperatures are mild, which makes walking a pleasure. And although San Francisco is full of ups and downs, there are long stretches that are fairly flat, on the waterfront and in the valleys between the hills.
- The Castro neighborhood is fun, especially if you’re queer. There are rainbow pride flags everywhere, shops with bawdy names (Nail Me for a nail salon, Sausage Factory for an Italian restaurant), and vibrant cafes and night spots. There’s also a wonderful little museum at the GLBT Historical Society that preserves stories of the city’s queer past. Before we went to San Francisco, we rewatched the film Milk, which stars Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, a 1970s gay-rights pioneer and San Francisco’s first openly gay politician. Much of the movie was filmed in the Castro, and it provided good context for some of the places we saw.
- The waterfront is fun too, with great food stalls in the historic Ferry Building and views of San Francisco Bay and its iconic bridges. (There are also interesting shops on some of the piers, a terrific Maritime Museum, and nearby Ghirardelli Square for chocolate lovers. We visited those on our previous visit to San Francisco, in 2013.)
- In nine days of eating out, we never had a bad meal in the city. (It helps that Melissa is a crack researcher of Google, Yelp, and TripAdvisor restaurant reviews.) The standard of food in San Francisco, especially Asian and Mexican food, is very high, though prices are high too. Our favorite restaurants were Dumpling House on Noe Street, Nopalito on Broderick Street, and Penang Garden (a nostalgic taste of Malaysia for us) next to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown.
- Getting around the city by transit was easy. Light-rail streetcars ran from our neighborhood to the downtown museums and the waterfront. And it was easy to get Lyft and Uber rides around the city, as well as to and from the airport.
- There are some unusual vehicles on the roads, ranging from the futuristic to the nostalgic. At one end of the spectrum, there are Waymo self-driving taxis, whose sleek white exteriors and rotating sensors on top make them look like police cars from a dystopian sci-fi film. (We didn’t give them a try.) At the other end of the spectrum, the light-rail lines along Market Street and the Embarcadero are using streetcars from the 1940s, restored and painted with the colors and names of historical streetcar lines from various cities. We saw a streetcar from Melissa’s home town of Cincinnati go by, and we rode streetcars painted to look like old ones in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Riding them made us think of our long-ago relatives, such as Chris’s great-grandfather, who commuted to work by streetcar in Philadelphia.
- The view from Alamo Square Park is wonderful. This big hilltop park, a few blocks from our housesit, offers 270-degree views over the city. Melissa spent one chilly afternoon sitting under a tree in the park sketching the famous view of seven Painted Ladies with the downtown skyline behind them (see the photo at the top of this page). The wind was blowing so hard that her hands were going numb as she was finishing her drawing.
- San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is very large and impressive, full of beautiful objects and lots of information about Asian history and religions. If you’re slow museum goers like us, who want to read every display, you’ll need at least four hours to do it justice.
- There are lots of homeless people around San Francisco, both on the streets and in a big city-run tent encampment opposite the grandiose City Hall. When we visited, there was also lots of police presence in that area, perhaps to reassure tourists and residents after a much-publicized increase in shoplifting and in looting of stores closed for Covid.
- We took a steep uphill walk from our neighborhood of Lower Haight to the area known as Haight-Ashbury. It was a center of the Beatnick and then the hippie counterculture in the 1950s and 60s, and it still tries to have a quirky, alternative edge. It’s an odd mix: high-end boutiques next to drug paraphernalia shops; groups of gawking tourists picking their way around street people on the sidewalks. To me, the neighborhood felt scruffy and crowded, but Melissa liked it. Either way, it’s definitely a slice of San Francisco history.
- San Francisco has the highest gasoline prices I’ve ever seen in the United States: $4.59 a gallon for regular in early July in the Castro. That’s about $1.30 more per gallon than in northern Virginia. Part of the reason is that California has the highest gas tax in the nation, 63 cents per gallon.
- If you can, take a road trip (or daylong bus tour) south of San Francisco to Monterey, Pebble Beach, and Carmel for history, some beautiful coastal scenery, and a self-consciously quaint, chichi little town with more art galleries than I’ve ever seen in one place (though I haven’t been to Santa Fe yet).