San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities on the west coast. Famed for its steep rolling hills, iconic bridges, unique architecture, and its wonderful location on the Pacific Coast Highway. Cosmopolitan and diverse, the stunning Bay Area just gets better with time.
From hippies to hipsters, gold rush to dot coms – San Francisco has had a colourful history. Art, culture and past glories intertwine – such as the vintage cable cars criss-crossing the city, or the counterculture roots of Haight-Ashbury – ‘Frisco’ is a city of constant change. San Francisco’s capacity to embrace social change and subcultures creates an intriguing place. The Victorian splendour of the ‘Painted Ladies’ of Alamo Square contest with the high-rise megaliths of the Financial District. Museums and galleries vie for your attention against sports and shopping. Add to this world-class restaurants, great bars and idyllic parks and you have the makings of a fantastic San Francisco holiday.
Golden Gate City Festivals
One of the most diverse cities in the USA, San Francisco has it all. Since the 60s and the height of counter-culture, San Fran has been a musical and cultural hotspot. The SF Outsidelands Festival at the Golden Gate Park has some of the biggest names in music and food. Watch Radiohead or Lana Del Rey whilst drinking craft ale and eating gastronomic hot dogs from 5 to 7 August. Another great festival happens in October (TBC) on the wonderfully-named Treasure Island, just near San Francisco Bay. Small but inspiring, the eponymous Treasure Island Festival provides two days of music and mayhem.
What's on in San Francisco over the next few months
It’s all about the arts in San Francisco during September – from festivals to comedy and Broadway musicals. October is, of course, all about Halloween – with spooky ballets and ghost tours leading the fun. Then Thanksgiving in November means a large helping of festive fun – including Christmas fairs and Turkey Trots.
If off-the-wall, boundary-pushing theatre is to your taste, then don’t miss the San Francisco Fringe Festival from 9 to 24 September at EXIT Theatre. Local theatre groups exhibit their talents in this superb showcase, encompassing everything from one-man acts to magic. Or for two days of family-friendly fun, make your way to Grant Avenue from 10 to 11 September, for the San Francisco Chinatown Autumn Moon Festival. Dragon parades, dancers, children’s activities and live music are just some of the highlights of this popular annual event. It’s time to sing along with Feed Me (Git It) and other favourite numbers from the Broadway cult classicLittle Shop of Horrors. Ray of Light Theatre company presents the smash hit musical – about singing carnivorous plant Audrey II and shy floral assistant Seymour – at the Victoria Theatre from 16 September to 8 October. Then have your funny bone tickled for free when the 36th Annual Comedy Day takes over Golden Gate Park on Sunday 18 September. Forty comedians will be keeping the laughs coming over five hours, in the park’s scenic surrounds. So settle down with a picnic and get ready to enjoy chuckles a-plenty.
Not-to-be-missed dates for the diaries of art lovers… 6 October to 6 November sees hundreds of artists welcome the public into their working spaces, as part of the ArtSpan Open Studios event. Get a fascinating glimpse into multiple art forms – ranging from photography to sculpture – and enjoy a rare opportunity to meet new and established art talent. Then soak up the carnival atmosphere as San Francisco Columbus Day is celebrated with the traditional Italian Heritage Parade. Dozens of handcrafted floats, marching bands and Italian musicians will form a procession through the streets from Fisherman’s Wharf to North Beach, on Sunday 9 October. Add a dash of culture to your Halloween celebrations, by booking tickets for Company C Contemporary Ballet’s Arcane: A Tale of All Hallows’ Eve. Breathtaking beautiful choreography and music combine with a touch of the eerie in this Tim Burton-esque tale of the spirit world – at the Fort Mason Center from 21 to 30 October. Then step up the spookiness on Halloween, with a night tour of Alcatraz – said to be haunted by former prison mates – or a ghost walking tour.
World cinema fans should hurry to grab tickets for the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond. Toasting the finest independent new work from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, this prestigious festival is the USA’s leading showcase of independent documentaries, short films and experimental work – with a little Bollywood mixed in. At various locations, from 10 to 13 November. Then step into the world of Dickensian London at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair from 19 November to 18 December. The Cow Palace Exhibition Halls will be transformed into an enticing, lamp lit world of vintage pubs, tearooms, theatres and shops. So browse for unique gifts while enjoying the festive revelry – it’s guaranteed to get your Christmas spirit flowing. See the city in a new light, when the Illuminate SF Festival of Light sees San Francisco a-glow with a series of extraordinary art installations. Free guided tours, illuminated bike rides and other special events form this annual celebration of the Bay Area’s commitment to culture and creativity – from 24 November to 1 January 2017. Then watch and cheer on hundreds of runners in fancy dress, as they build up an appetite for Thanksgiving dinner during the San Francisco Turkey Trot. Expect to see jogging turkeys and pilgrims pounding the pathways of Golden Gate Park, during this festive fun run on 24 November.
The cosmopolitan and chic Union Square is a haven for shopaholics, with its abundant shopping opportunities. They range from well-known department stores, like Macy’s, to exclusive designer boutiques and lesser celebrated emporiums. Union Square is a one-block plaza boasting a 97-foot Corinthian column, with flower stands, palm trees and a great atmosphere. You will also find some great food options, from high-end restaurants to food stands selling hot dogs and pizza – it caters for everyone looking for a bite to eat after shopping.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most famous attractions in the USA, and a must-see spot in San Francisco. Home to Pier 39, where sea lions bask and bathe, Ghirardelli Square, and ‘Fish Alley’. Enjoy the boardwalk entertainment, then sample a fantastic local delicacy – try the famous clam chowder and sour dough bowl or the Dungeness crab. There’s plenty of fun to be had at the museums and shops along the pier. You can take a trip to the infamous island-prison of Alcatraz from Pier 33, not to be missed.
As in all major cities, the Financial District is home to the biggest skyscrapers in San Francisco. From the ultra-modern monuments to the clusters of less imposing art-deco structures. ‘Wall Street of the West’ is the concentrated centre of commerce and business. There is plenty to do in the area, with popular bars and fashionable restaurants lining the streets. Located in the hub of the district, The Crocker Galleria Shops are high-end boutiques, and the nearby Embarcadero Center, will cater to your other retail needs.
The ‘Dragon’s Gate’ entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown welcomes you to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. This tightly-packed warren of restaurants, temples, shops and street vendors is the oldest ‘Chinatown’ enclave in North America. Become immersed in Asian culture, find exotic gifts in the wonderful stores, search for herbal remedies and become mesmerised while watching a dragon parade. Chinese New Year is an especially fun time to visit, with many parades and festivities to watch, and of course awe-inspiring firework displays.
The predominantly Latino neighbourhood of ‘The Mission’ lies at the heart of San Francisco and contains the oldest building in the city – Mission Dolores. You will find authentic restaurants serving delectable Spanish and Mexican food, alongside specialty bakeries and markets. Nearby Dolores Park has subtle flavours of Barcelona’s public parks, especially the colourful and eye-catching art. There is a Chicano (Mexican American) pride present in the area, with galleries, murals and music suggesting this all over the district. Check out Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley for the stunning murals.
If San Francisco is unofficially the LGBT capital of the world, then the Castro District is its headquarters. Neon-lit bars, chic shops and superb restaurants compete for your attention in what could be the cleanest and friendliest part of town. Karaoke nights are booze-fuelled and hilarious, with duets that would put Elton and George Michael to shame. Head to Orphan Andy’s for 24-hour food, ideal for after-hours snacks and maybe a nightcap. Don’t miss the Castro Theatre, a baroque-deco cinema in the centre of town.
San Francisco: an insider’s guide
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