If I were looking for naked men, Latino street art and hippies within minutes of one another, I’d head to San Francisco.
I don’t surprise easily so, San Francisco, well done! From the slightly perplexing to the jaw-dropping jolt, here are a few of the surprising sights of San Francisco that caught my eye during two visits in July and August.
1. That’s not rain, it’s mist!
You may call it ‘mist’ but when it cascades down my face in huge drops, I tend to call it rain. Also, I understand that if I wish to experience summer in your city I should revisit in September (August is fleece weather).
In fact, there seems to be no such thing as ‘San Francisco weather’. It may be sunny in the Castro and rainy (apologies – I mean misty) just a mile or two away. Pick up the phone and call across town to check whether you’ll need an umbrella or sunglasses. In this city, you’ll probably need both.
2. The fog just… rolls in.
This fog is like none I’ve ever seen. It rolls in silently and thickly and by the time you look up, the other side of the street might be invisible.
So San Franciscans should be among the world’s best drivers in foggy conditions, right? Let me put it this way. They don’t slow down much in zero visibility, and when I asked someone to help me find the car’s fog lights, the answer was, “What fog lights?”
3. The city is being retrofitted for earthquakes.
It’s impossible to spend any time in San Francisco without the word earthquake making an appearance. After the ‘big one’ in 1906 much of San Francisco was leveled. It was quickly rebuilt – stronger and sturdier. All new construction is quake-proof, and many older buildings are being ‘retrofitted’ to make sure they don’t fall down if the earth shakes again. This, sadly, is something people believe is only a matter of time (the last significant tremor was in 1989).
Perhaps because so much of it was destroyed, San Francisco values its architectural heritage. While some cities (Montreal, I’m looking at you!) have mercilessly bulldozed to make way for lucrative skyscrapers, San Francisco repairs, restores and refreshes its buildings of historical importance.
4. This is a low-rise city.
When I think of US cities I have visions of giant buildings reaching to the sky. San Francisco doesn’t disappoint in this area, but its highrises are concentrated in a compact downtown financial area. Beyond that, San Francisco has a relatively flat skyline, with two- and three-story dwellings making up a large part of the city.
This may be earthquake-related too…
5. The hills are stupefying.
I have vertigo and try to stay away from mountains and other heights. I had no idea I’d be experiencing it in one of the world’s most sophisticated cities.
I’ve watched movies with cable cars and enjoyed reruns of The Streets of San Francisco so I expected hills. I just didn’t expect them to rise nearly straight up, their incline so steep you have to reach the top before the downhill slope even becomes visible – a bit like a roller coaster.
The most famous hilly street is probably Lombard Street, with its zany zigzags and lush plantations. It is tame in comparison to, say, Divisadero Street, whose summit is more point than hump. I wouldn’t want to take a driving test here.
6. Thrift shop hopping is fun – but a bit disconcerting.
Europe is no stranger to second-hand shops (and home to thousands of flea markets) but in some sections of San Francisco, like the Mission, every other shop seems to be a ‘thrift’ shop. They sell regular clothes, of course, but also – we are in San Francisco after all – more offbeat items like feather boas and cowboy hats.
Problem is, the merchandise is organized by color rather than size. You can shop from the red rack or the pink rack – but not from the size 14 rack.
Tell me… who goes into a clothing shop requesting ‘a pink skirt, any size’?
7. There are still hippies in Haight-Ashbury. Sort of.
I’m a child of the sixties and grew up with the legends and songs of the ‘summer of love’ and its backdrop, the mythical corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets.
Well, some hippies forgot to leave. They’re still here, caught in some sort of fantasy freeze-frame, dirty bare feet, head bandannas, glazed eyes and all. Mostly, though, Haight Ashbury is for nostalgia buffs seeking whiffs of Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, whose houses still have major gawking potential.
Psychedelic storefronts sell tie-died memorabilia and made in China T-shirts, about as authentic as Disneyland but much seedier and without the fun.
8. How can there be so many homeless people?
San Francisco is wealthy, opulent even, yet it’s hard to find a downtown street corner without homeless people.
The city has been called the ‘homeless capital of America’ so homelessness has been extensively documented. There is no single cause: lack of services contribute, but so do economic hardship and job losses, rapid gentrification, and rising house prices (especially due to nearby high-tech industries) which have left poorer people with nowhere to go. The city’s climate is mild so living on the street isn’t as harsh as say in New York.
9. The Castro gay scene is… really really gay.
Of course it is. This is the epicenter of the Stonewall riots. The gay capital of the world. Rainbow flags. Flamboyant fashions. Freedom of expression.
Apparently it was perfectly legal to walk naked on the streets of San Francisco until City Supervisor Scott Weiner banned public nudity in 2012. The meaning of nudity is a hotly debated subject and ‘getting dressed’ is a term open to interpretation – and nowhere is that interpretation as broad as in the Castro. Being clothed may mean wearing a sock on one foot. Or perhaps a sock on… another part of the body.
10. The entire city is an art gallery.
I love street art and I expected plenty of it so this wasn’t so much a surprise – it was more like awe. Entire buildings are decorated on the outside, something often forbidden in other cities by building codes. San Francisco does love color and a stroll is a bit like walking through an art gallery so explosive you might need sunglasses on a cloudy day.
11. San Francisco is… more than just San Francisco.
I had no idea there was a ‘beyond’ San Francisco, known as the Bay Area. The city is vibrant and fun but – so are its neighbors. In Sausalito, where I met a friend for lunch, the view of the city across the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge is at least as glorious as the view from San Francisco itself. Berkeley, another nearby city, is world-renowned for its University of California campus and its technical smarts. And Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge, is being transformed from a crime capital to a hip artistic community.
So yes, San Francisco absolutely. But not only. And always, surprisingly.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- You can more or less navigate San Francisco on public transport – I say more or less because the system is complex and not all the routes are obvious. Do your research before traveling, and get a good transit map as soon as you can.
- You can use cash or cards in ticket machines, but they don’t give back much change so make sure you have some $5 bills.
- Taxis are almost impossible to find so you’ll have to use Uber if you don’t feel like taking public transportation.
- If you do happen to visit Haight-Ashbury, make sure you stop by the Amoeba Music shop, crammed with reasonably-priced vinyl oldies.
All photos by Anne Sterck unless otherwise noted.