A date with San Francisco
A 72-hour adventure in this bastion of U.S. liberalism makes it clear that there’s more to the city than Victorian houses, a famous bridge and steep streets. It is, above all else, an experience unto itself.
Text: MARTÍN ECHENIQUE @martinechenique | Photos: TOM KUBIK
Over three days, I had the most ephemeral love affair of my life with a city named after a saint and famous for its liberal and revolutionary spirit. Nestled amid seven hills, next to a bay that was sunnier than ever, the city was surprisingly free of its frequent (and sometimes gloomy) blanket of fog. It was a perfect chance to explore the charms of San Francisco, which entrances visitors with its seductive, hippie and not-too-saintly vibe. My self-imposed challenge was to discover its secrets in three days. We’re here, and we’re off!
Day One: Pleased to meet you
My partner lived in San Francisco for a long time, and he returns every year to visit his family. This time, we’ve made the trip together, him as a local and me with the aim of losing my San Fran virginity after waiting for so long. We begin with a quick trip downtown to visit Chinatown, the neighborhood with the largest Chinese population outside of Asia. Today, the roofs of Grant Avenue are decorated with pagodas – which serve an aesthetic function, not a religious one – and a parade of shops sells second-hand odds and ends, healing herbs and Asian antiques that blend with souvenir stands and clothing with the typical “I Love SF” stamp.
One block over, Stockton Street is a sort of Shanghai in miniature. Here, we’re the only Westerners strolling the sidewalks, which are lined with products that challenge my (Westernized) ideas of cuisine. The market is at its liveliest at noon on Saturday. It’s otherworldly, to say the least.
Next, we take the number 30 bus towards the multifaceted Mission district. First stop: Dolores Park, 15 acres with one of the best views of the San Francisco Bay and the city’s impressive skyline. Another essential attraction is the colorful mural that since 1994 has covered the walls of the Women’s Building, a community center for women just five blocks from the park. It’s a perfect example of the city’s progressive spirit.
It’s almost 9:00 p.m. and time to continue on to Valencia, by far the coolest street in the Mission. Dog Eared Books lives up to its name, with thousands of inexpensive books organized in an unusual system in this cozy shop run by two men with long beards, big glasses and flannel shirts. Half a block north, Paxton Gate is heaven for curious souls. Taxidermy, bizarre plants, gemstones, insects and books on squid or bonsai care are just some of the items at this eccentric shop. The street is also home to Amnesia (one of the hippest bars in the city, specializing in cocktails made with Korean soju), Zeitgesit (a punk rock biergarten), Farina (delicious pizza) and El Buen Sabor (the best tacos in town).
We end the day at one of Janis Joplin’s favorite spots in the city: The Stud. An icon since 1966, this bar/club helped foster the city’s hippie and gay movements. The cover charge is just five dollars, and drinks are another six. With a kitschy aesthetic, The Stud specializes in drag shows that offer quality tributes to pop culture.
Day Two: On two wheels
The goal for today is to ride for nine miles along the coast, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to end in Sausalito, a town with a charming, Mediterranean air. Before we head out, we’ll need a hearty breakfast.
The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero is the perfect starting point. Organic cafés, local bakeries and gourmet pastry shops set up outside facing the bay on Saturday and are open everyday inside the first-floor Ferry Building Marketplace. Essential treats include the pumpkin bread from the Acme Bread Company and the organic coffee from Peet’s Coffee & Tea or the Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
After renting bikes in front of the ferry terminal, we make our way along San Francisco’s coastline and head up (walking our bikes, of course) nearly 250 feet above sea level to the rocky point where the bridge begins. Take your time here: there are special lookouts where you can park your wheels and take in the scenery for a good, long while.
The journey into Sausalito is a scenic one: coastal forests and a cycle path along the bay welcome you to a picturesque town that could just as well be in the heart of the Costa Brava. A great place to have lunch and recharge your batteries is the popular Fred’s Coffee Shop on Bridgeway Street or Caffe Tutti, right by the Sausalito ferry terminal.
Clearly, returning by bike never crossed our minds. We decide to take the ferry back to San Francisco. Beyond offering a nice break, the ferry will renew your faith in the existence of the truly perfect sunset, and the views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge make all the exercise worthwhile.
Day Three: Peace & love in the park
Golden Gate Park is another great opportunity for a bike excursion, especially on Sundays, when the roads are closed to cars. Three miles of labyrinthine paths take visitors to the Japanese tea garden, a protected area with native bison and the impressive de Young museum.
At the east end of the park, is the Haight, the neighborhood that gained fame as the cradle of the hippie and countercultural movement during the 1967 Summer of Love. You’ll either love the Haight… or hate it. For many visitors, the inevitable smell of marijuana and the psychedelic tie-dye shop windows are overwhelming, but others embrace the Haight as utopia incarnate. Today, you’ll find plenty of cafés, bookstores restaurants and shops that are more hipster than hippie, part of an inevitable process of gentrification.
We leave behind this haven of flower power (or what’s left of it) and head home to the east side of the bay. The lights that illuminate the Bay Bridge pass over the car windshield one after the other, and I realize that – somewhat miraculously – San Francisco completely captivated me in just 72 hours. Maybe there is something saintly about it after all. in
Daily flights to Los Angeles from Lima and Santiago, followed by oneworld connections to San Francisco.
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495 Jefferson St., Fisherman’s Wharf
1075 Sutter St., Downtown
161 Powell St., Union Square
Ferry Building Marketplace
1 Ferry Building, Embarcadero
3560 18th St., Mission
El Buen Sabor
699 Valencia St., Mission
255 Columbus Ave., North Beach
Fred’s Coffee Shop
1917 Bridgeway Blvd., Sausalito
12 El Portal St., Sausalito
3583 16th St., Castro
199 Valencia St., Mission
853 Valencia St., Mission
399 9th St., SoMa