With more infrastructure investment and new social initiatives, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about San Francisco’s post-pandemic comeback.
San Francisco was hit especially hard by the pandemic, and the media was quick to take note: the existing homelessness crisis was exacerbated by occupancy limits in shelters, new fears and anxieties threw the drug epidemic into overdrive, and remote working led people to search for more space and more affordable accommodations in the surrounding Bay Area suburbs.
Reports touted the end of this once-great city – so you can understand my initial trepidation about returning on my first post-pandemic trip to the city in June. I expected to see a city ravaged, but over the course of a warm, bright week, the city told me a different story; one that’s surprisingly uplifting. Despite what you may have heard, San Francisco is still a boom town – and it may just end up bouncing back stronger than before.
I arrived to find the streets of the Embarcadero packed with people waiting for ferries to Sausalito, shopping for ripe summer berries at the farmers market in front of the Ferry Building and jogging along the postcard-perfect waterfront. Tourists have returned too: couples pose for pictures in front of the glittery Bay Bridge and families descend en masse on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Francisco has always been one of America’s top tourism destinations: in pre-pandemic 2019, the San Francisco Travel Association recorded an all-time high of 26.2 million visitors. Numbers are expected to hit 21.9 million visitors this year, up from 14.8 million visitors in 2021, with business travellers accounting for some 30 per cent.
Dare I say, it seems like old times. The famous entrepreneurial start-up mentality is still there, and the high-tech buzz from nearby Silicon Valley, which is part of the greater San Francisco Bay Area, is louder than ever. Newly released data from analytics firm PitchBook shows Bay Area-based start-ups accounting for one-third of total capital of all US venture capital activity, proving the area is still the nation’s start-up capital.
“Like in all big cities, remote work has reduced the number of office workers coming in to San Francisco on a given day,” says Ted Egan, the City and County of San Francisco’s chief economist. “Office vacancy has risen here, as it has in every major office market,” he says.
Recently San Francisco’s largest private employer, Salesforce, announced it is subleasing floors in its 43-storey Salesforce West property; however, it maintains ownership and may reoccupy the space in the future. “There has been some out-migration of tech workers, but the vast majority have moved to nearby suburbs and are still part of the San Francisco tech talent pool,” says Egan. This makes face-to-face interactions possible when needed.
“For business travel in San Francisco, so much of it is tech and medical,” says Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. The 123-hectare Mission Bay neighbourhood on the east side of the city, for instance, is a biotech cluster home to more than 38 life science companies including Bayer and Pfizer.
First urbanised in the late 1990s, the area has recently expanded to include the Chase Center arena, home of the newly minted 2022 NBA championship Golden State Warriors; the new 299-room Luma Hotel San Francisco; as well as Uber’s massive worldwide headquarters and super campus, which opened in March 2021 and spans over 92,900 sqm.
There has been a renewed appetite for in-person meetings and at the city’s leading exhibition space, The Moscone Center, 34 events are confirmed this year. The facility has recently completed a US$551 million expansion.
San Francisco International (SFO) plays an important role in attracting business to the city, acting as a major gateway to the rest of the US, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The first phase of upgrades to the Harvey Milk Terminal (formerly known as the South Terminal) opened in May 2021, with seven new departure gates and a new post-security passenger walkway which connects it to the international terminal, allowing passengers to connect to domestic flights without having to go through an additional security checkpoint.
“[The upgrading of SFO is] going to be a continual process,” says D’Alessandro, “but for the business traveller, those types of improvements are going to make the experience in San Francisco much more positive.” The final phase of the terminal will be completed in spring 2024. “[It’s also] the first airport terminal in the world named after an LGBTQ+ leader,” says D’Alessandro. It features a display of exhibition content honouring the life of the political leader and activist.
While cities across the world are attempting to bounce back from Covid-19, San Francisco has a tougher job than most. Its notorious reputation for social problems such as racial and economic disparities, drug addiction, homelessness and crime existed well before the pandemic.
Recently, the city has put a major focus on tackling its widely publicised challenges through focused funding. The city budget for 2021 to 2023 includes US$25 million allocated for the Street Crisis Response Team (a rapid, de-escalation response unit for people experiencing behavioural health crises on city streets) and US$9.6 million for the Street Wellness Response Team, to provide immediate wellbeing checks, and medical and social services to those experiencing homelessness.
There have also been changes to policing strategies, including the Tourism Deployment Plan, a high-visibility police presence in tourism areas. In July 2020, San Francisco mayor London N. Breed introduced the Homeless Recovery Plan with the largest expansion of Permanent Supportive Housing in the city in 20 years, and over the last two years, the city has leased or acquired more than 2,500 new units for the project.
“I’m really impressed with the steps that the city and the mayor are taking, and also the people of San Francisco,” says D’Alessandro. “In the last few years, they voted for a number of ballot measures that would significantly raise the amount of funds to provide long-term supportive housing for people and also short-term care. “I think what we’re going to see in San Francisco in the next few years is significant improvement on the street, which is great for everybody.”
Cleaner and greener
As well as its new social initiatives, San Francisco continues to be a leader in environmental policies, working towards a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. The elevated Salesforce Park has 600 trees spread over two hectares. It’s a new addition to the city’s financial district following a few false starts after first opening in 2018. The 2.8-hectare, waterfront Crane Cove Park, which opened in 2020, is a once-industrial area that links Mission Bay on the east side of the city and Dogpatch to the south.
More recently, the 1.8-hectare Francisco Park opened in the Russian Hill neighbourhood (home of the zigzagging, often-photographed Lombard Street), transforming an unused reservoir into urban parkland; and Presidio Tunnel Tops, built atop the Presidio Parkway highway tunnels, has just added 5.6 hectares of new national parkland to the Presidio.
The city is also attempting to modify the behaviour of its citizens. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Slow Streets programme has pedestrianised many routes to encourage walking and cycling over driving. Meanwhile, the Muni network (light rail, cable cars, historic streetcars and electric trolley buses) operates the most sustainable fleet of any North American city, with more than half of its vehicles using greenhouse-gas-free hydropower. Public transportation will also be improved with the long-anticipated extension of the Central Subway.
And for those that need to use SFO regularly, you may find some relief in the knowledge that its Harvey Milk Terminal recently became the first airport terminal in the world to earn LEED v4 Platinum Certification.
Flourishing food outlets
San Francisco is the city for foodies with a creative, multicultural offering that takes full advantage of the famed natural bounty of northern California, which includes seafood, agricultural products, and wine from nearby Napa and Sonoma. During the pandemic, thousands of outdoor dining permits were issued, designed to repurpose unused street space, and these “parklets” are now permanent for outdoor dining.
There is always a hot new restaurant to visit in San Francisco. Try the buzzy, modern steakhouse Miller and Lux by celebrity chef Tyler Florence, housed at the Chase Center. “There’s no doubt that the restaurant industry is coming back stronger than ever, and I think it’s because we’re seeing the demand,” says Florence. “People are ready to get out, try new restaurants and celebrate special occasions. After the past few years, it’s really refreshing – and, quite frankly, relieving to see.”
San Francisco boasts the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the neighbourhood is one of the city’s top attractions. Don’t miss a meal at the sexy new Cantonese lair, Empress by Boon, the namesake restaurant of ex-Hakkasan star, Ho Chee Boon. For something more casual, go for on-trend and expertly rendered new Korean barbeque outfit San Ho Won in the Mission District. It is chef Corey Lee’s first Korean restaurant, and his other restaurant, Benu, was the first restaurant in San Francisco to be awarded three Michelin stars.
Each of these restaurants were completely booked-up when I visited, with queues snaking out front. Big groups of friends celebrated milestone birthdays at Miller and Lux over glistening seafood towers; couples cooed at each other across the intimate, dimly lit booths at Empress by Boon; and with the music blasting and sizzling hot food coming out from the kitchen in a steady stream, San Ho Won had all the thrumming energy of a night-time street market.
It’s the same right across San Francisco: restaurants and bars are packed, streets are bustling, and neighbourhoods – from the new to the timeless – feel full and alive. Spend even a few days in this city, and it’s easy to see why there’s reason to be bright and optimistic about San Francisco’s comeback.
New and renovated hotels
In addition to San Francisco’s 245 properties, seven new hotels are debuting this year; plus, some of the city’s top properties are undergoing major renovations.
- 1 Hotel San Francisco
A soothing, eco-chic refuge on the Embarcadero, the newly opened 200-key 1 Hotel San Francisco has sustainability at heart, with no single-use plastic and environmentally minded, stylish décor of living, local plants and recycled redwood from the city’s old Bay Bridge. There are plenty of luxe perks too, including complimentary rides in the hotel’s fully electric Audi e-tron, all-natural Bamford toiletries and zero-waste cocktails at restaurant Terrene. 1hotels.com/san-francisco
- St Regis San Francisco
With 260 recently refreshed, light-filled guestrooms and a new Gatsby-esque lobby/restaurant dripping in gold, velvets and high style, St Regis San Francisco continues to be one of the city’s best five-star hotels. It’s in a great location on the Yerba Buena cultural corridor, adjacent to museums, and has its own art collection. Expect to be spoiled with top-end indulgences. A new pool and promenade are on the way as part of the property’s multiphase makeover. marriott.com
- Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco at Embarcadero
Offering some of the best views in the city, the newly renovated, crisp-and-modern hotel (one of two Four Seasons in the city) has 155 rooms spread out on the top 11 floors of a sky-high, 48-storey building in the Financial District. Two top new terrace suites have just been revealed, with over 186 sqm of indoor and outdoor space. fourseasons.com/embarcadero
Take me there
You can book your next trip to San Francisco with United Airlines at united.com. United operates daily nonstop flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow on a 777-200 or a 787-9 Dreamliner. You can also connect via New York/Newark or Washington Dulles from Edinburgh.
Customers travelling in United Polaris® business class can enjoy access to the United Clubs℠ at Heathrow’s Terminal Two and the award-winning Polaris lounge in San Francisco.
Words: Nicole Trilivas