The streets of San Francisco are home to funky bars, legendary bookstores and mind-bending murals, discovers Jenny Southan.
1. Top of the mark
It’s easy to get around San Francisco on foot, so climb to the top of Nob Hill, past the clanging cable cars traversing California Street, and begin your tour at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins hotel.
In 1939, the 19th-floor penthouse suite was transformed into a bar – the Top of the Mark – and it’s become one of the most popular vantage points for taking in the city. In the Second World War, servicemen would gather here before shipping out, and it became customary for them to buy a bottle of liquor to leave behind the bar so the next man from their squadron could get a free drink.
Order a bottle of San Francisco’s own Anchor Steam beer or one of the bar’s 100 different martinis, and take in the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the bay and the Transamerica Pyramid building. Live music is performed every evening except Monday. Visit topofthemark.com
2. Fisherman’s wharf
Walk down California Street to the oceanfront, and when you get to the Embarcadero, turn left and continue walking up to Pier 39, or catch the F Line streetcar six stops to Bay and Embarcadero (US$1.50 – pay on board with right change).
Particularly beautiful at sunset, Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to come for hot clam chowder and sourdough bread, or to meander past the boats moored at the marina. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, hundreds of sea lions took up residence at Pier 39’s K dock, much to the locals’ surprise. While the animals are free to come and go – most of them disappear in the summer to breed – they are now protected. Follow their eerie whooping calls and see them for yourself, lolling about and sunning themselves on the floating wooden jetties. Visit fishermanswharf.org
3. City Lights bookstore
To get to the North Beach neighbourhood, also known as Little Italy, walk up Bay Street and turn left on to Stockton Street, following it all the way up to 216 Columbus Avenue. The area was once the haunt of 1950s Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and City Lights bookstore became a meeting point for the movement.
Founded in 1953 by Peter Martin and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was the first store in the US to sell only paperbacks, and went on to publish works such as Ginsberg’s controversial poem Howl. The store has ceiling-high shelves packed with literature specialising in everything from progressive politics to cinema, and the staff exude that quintessential San Franciscan cool.
To sample what it’s all about, pop in and pick up a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or catch a beatnik poetry reading upstairs. Open daily from 10am to midnight. Visit citylights.com
Before turning down the newly restored Jack Kerouac Alley, don’t miss another great view of the Transamerica Pyramid building straight ahead. Walk past the walls painted with psychedelic murals and cut on to Grant Street in the centre of Chinatown, home to the largest population of Chinese people outside Asia. You may wish to explore the exotic-smelling side streets, but sticking to the main one will take you all the way to the Dragon Gate on the corner of Bush Street.
Like a mini slice of Shanghai, there are strings of paper lanterns, noodle bars, ornate buildings and bold signs above shop fronts in Chinese script. Peek in a window and you’ll discover all sorts of curiosities, from souvenir insects set in resin to herbal remedies.
5. Union square
Once you hit Grant and Post Street, turn right and walk two blocks to Union Square, the wealthy heart of the city. The cosmopolitan plaza was once the site for pro-Union Army rallies during the Civil War in the 19th century, but now the area is better known for its towering department stores, such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Barneys, chic designer outlets, art galleries and high-end hotels.
Around the corner is Market Street, which stretches 5km from the waterfront to Twin Peaks park, and is also good if you have the shopping bug. If you’re in a more contemplative mood, you could sit on the grass by some palm trees and soak in the surroundings.
San Francisco is chock-full of amazing restaurants so it’s hard to choose between them, but a few blocks away from Union Square, on an easy-to-miss side street called Claude Lane, is Gitane, a gypsy-bling eatery serving dinner and killer cocktails from 5.30pm until late. Opened late last year, it has become one of the hottest places in town. There’s a bar downstairs complete with chichi artwork, vintage wallpaper and funky acid lounge music, and a restaurant upstairs sporting exposed brickwork, mirrored surfaces and red lampshades. In summer, you can sit out on the street Parisian style.
The menu mixes French cuisine with Portuguese and Spanish, and the wine list reflects this. Ease into the evening with a negroni tinto (Miller’s gin, Marie Brizard crème de cacao, Campari and ruby port) and take your pick of dishes such as cordero pan-roasted lamb noisette, rolled and stuffed with herb mousseline, tapenade, pisto manchego and baked polenta (US$25); or pan-seared sea bass with arroz negro, grilled asparagus, Parmesan tuile and romesco sauce (US$23). 6 Claude Lane; tel +1 415 788 6686; gitanerestaurant.com