Ashwin Rajagopalan list five out-of-the-box San Francisco experiences that give you a whole new perspective of ‘California Cool’
There’s more than one reason why San Francisco is one of America’s most visited cities. The Golden Gate might be synonymous with the city but there’s a host of eclectic experiences waiting in every neighbourhood.
The Swinging sixties in Haight Ashbury
It’s been almost 50 years since the flower power generation made an indelible cultural impact that still lives on in the music and fashion influences from the swinging sixties. Even if you are not a fan of that kind of music, a walk around the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood, one of the ‘cradles’ of the Woodstock generation, can be a truly stimulating experience. Join Izu (like I did) and her vegetarian dog Benny for an insightful two-hour walking tour. Izu grew up in this neighbourhood in 1967 (often called the ‘summer of love’) and is a storehouse of cool nuggets from that era. The neighbourhood might have transformed into a swish yuppie belt but there are still little corners that Izu will help you discover that keep that era alive — from wall graffiti, to the famous Victorian house that was the base for the Grateful Dead to the spots where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin hung out. (www.haightashburytour.com)
Check out street graffiti along Balmy Alley
Balmy Alley might not figure prominently in San Francisco tour guides but this little known alley tucked away in the city’s ‘Mission District’ is a treasure trove of wall murals and graffiti. The Mission district has traditionally been one of SFO’s Hispanic districts and Balmy Alley was a project that took shape in the 1970s before expanding in the 80s with some public grants. It is one of the finest examples of the Chicano (a term used to refer to Mexican Americans) mural environments. The colourful murals capture traditional Chicano themes of displacement, human rights excesses in Central America and also contemporary themes. You can explore the area on your own by foot and explore popular local eateries in the Mission district like El Matate or El Farolito that serve authentic Mexican cuisine. (www.balmyalley.com)
Cross the Golden Gate on foot
Every visitor to San Francisco visits the Golden Gate, arguably the world’s most photographed bridge, but not too many visitors experience it like local San Franciscans do. Walk along the 1.92 km bridge that offers cool photo opportunities along the way. Also use the walk to collect trivia about the bridge — did you know that the official colour description for the bridge is ‘international orange’ and not red! Once you are done with the walk (open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) you can either take a ferry ride to Sausalito that offers gorgeous ‘side-on’ views of the Golden Gate or head to Marin Headlands like the locals do, for overhead vistas of this imposing structure.
Test your driving skills at the World’s most crooked street
If there’s one place a valid international driving license will come in handy, it is at the one way ‘block’ along Lombard Street (on Russian Hill). Eight sharp zig zag turns have earned Lombard Street the moniker of the ‘World’s crookedest street.’ The street’s unique layout was conceived in 1922 to reduce the hill’s 27 per cent grade that was too steep for vehicles back then. Even if you don’t have an international driving licence try walking the steep incline and the street’s recommended speed limit of eight km/hour will make sense to you. Lombard Street has been an integral part of American pop culture and was also featured in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo. Not surprisingly this short 180 m stretch is a one way.
Stuff yourself silly at the Ferry Building
The Ferry Building in San Francisco was inaugurated in 1898 and the emblematic clock tour is inspired by the Giralda Bell tower in Seville, Spain. This famous building was almost in disuse till it was cleverly reimagined in the early 2000s. It functions as a farmer’s market thrice a week and is also home to some of the bay area’s finest artisanal food products and innovative F&B concepts. You could opt for one of the guided tours that allow you to sample treats along the way or just explore this gourmand’s paradise on your own. Check out SFO’s most scrumptious strawberry macaroons at Miette or sink your teeth into award-winning cheese at Cowgirl Creamery. Other highlights include gluten-free empanadas at Mariposa and chilli beef at the Prather Ranch Meat Company. (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com)
(The writer was there on an invitation from Trafalgar)