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The Surprising Sights of San Francisco

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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.

San Francisco fog

San Francisco’s wet fog moves in

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…

San Francisco residential

Many buildings are low-rises, with Victorian architecture; highrises are relegated to the downtown financial district

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.

Lombard Street San Francisco

Lombard Street, possibly the most crowded and photographed hill in San Francisco (but by no means the steepest)

San Francisco tram

What is stupefying is that these otherwise quaint contraptions climb up and down the hills as well

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’?

San Francisco thrift shops

Thrift shops are crammed along Mission Street frequented by everyone, rich or poor

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.

Haight Ashbury corner

It’s still there, but it’s not the same

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.

San Francisco homeless

Living in the streets

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.

San Francisco Castro

Daytime attire in San Francisco’s Castro district (Photo Leyla Giray Alyanak)

Castro tanning salon

Advertising a tanning salon in the Castro

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.

Naked men in the Castro

Casually clothed in the Castro

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.

Dragon street art San Francisco

Spotted in Haight-Ashbury: not my kind of subject matter but striking

Casa de las Mujeres San Francisco

Now that’s more like it – the Women’s Building, a community center in the Mission district

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.


Oakland’s preserved old quarter

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.


  1. Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog on August 10, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    Oh wow. Pretty much all I knew about San Fran was that it had a big bridge and lots of hills, but this post has really made me want to visit. Looks like a slightly crazy and amazing place! Also, I love street art, so that’s definitely pushing SF up my list. Great post, and fab photos – especially the one of the tanning salon. Bizarre! Thanks for posting! 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 10, 2014 at 11:20 pm

      It IS crazy – and yes, I walked past the tanning salon several times before figuring out what it was! Some things, though, I figured out with no trouble at all 😉

  2. Emily on August 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Hey, this was so interesting for me as a Bay Area native to see SF from a new perspective. I’m really glad you liked our City by the Bay! And yes, summer is the worse weather of the year, so you were brave! I always got a kick out of intrepid tourists who show up at the beach in bikinis when I was wearing 3 layers of Gortex. I would have to add the advice, however, that the greater Bay Area without a car is nearly impossible. And you will even miss most of the goodies of SF itself if you don’t have wheels. Compared to Europe (where I have happily survived 4 years now without a car), public transport in CA is complicated, slow, unreliable, and can be dangerous (sadly, don’t underestimate this last point). SF itself is a little better in this regard, but I still think you miss a lot of the natural wonders (and some man-built ones too) without a rental car. Yes, those hills can be a little scary – but car rentals in the US are automatics (no sliding back downhill when shifting gears) and once you’ve got the hang of it the Bay Area (and Sausalito and Muir Woods and Fort Funston and Carmel and on and on…) is your oyster. Or maybe your crab cioppino? 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 12, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks for the extra information, Emily, and I absolutely agree. If there’s ANY way you can drive, do it. You’ll be able to see ten times more. The first time around I used public transport in San Francisco, and the second I was in a car – a world of difference. If you CAN’T get a car or don’t drive and have no choice, you can get around on public transport but it won’t be fast, and it won’t be fun. And given the latest news, quite dangerous.

  3. Crisflitz on August 12, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I spent 3 months in SanFran in 2010 and loved every moment there. Apart from the fabulous art and theatre culture, I loved visiting the aquarium in the Academy of Science – I could spend hours just watching the seahorses and jellyfish!!
    Re the gay and homeless: I was lead to believe that people from all over the US migrate to SF because of its liberal outlook and acceptance of difference; and the less harsh climate – if you’re going up have to live on the streets, at least you won’t freeze or burn. But my 15 year old grandson from Australia joined me there for 4 days and was very disturbed seeing the number of people begging, and also commented on the obvious discrimination of the Blacks and Huspanics…. Of course this doesn’t just happen in SanFran.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 12, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      I heard the same thing about San Francisco’s homeless and the city being a magnet for people from other cities… As for the Aquarium, I didn’t make it – I needed more time, but then, don’t we always!

  4. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru on August 18, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    Interesting perspective on San Francisco. When I lived in SoCal, we’d visit every so often. I tended to like Marin County (Sausalito, Mill Valley in particular), which was a little more rural. The Golden Gate coastal rec area is really nice, too, up through Bolinas and Point Reyes – stunning scenery. Summer weather is pretty lousy, you’re right. We’ve got all the Californians over here now on Kauai. 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 18, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      Seems as though there are plenty of places I still have to see!

  5. noel on August 18, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Looks like you’ve capture the spirit and culture of the city and yes I agree, Divisadero street driving uphill in a manual is really scary business when people are right at your tailgate, yikes!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 18, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      Works best with eyes closed!

  6. The Gypsynesters on August 19, 2014 at 1:52 am

    We didn’t see anything quite that crazy on our visit, but what a great city!

  7. Donna Janke on August 19, 2014 at 1:53 am

    Great look at San Francisco. It’s been years since I was there. Your post makes me want to return right away.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 19, 2014 at 10:33 am

      Ha! I think having an apartment IN the Castro accounted for a lot of sights!

  8. Carole Terwilliger Meyers on August 19, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    It is always great fun to read about my native city through new eyes. Thanks! About the nudity, the odd part is that it is so cold here–the fog, the mist. If you’d like to know more about SF or the beyond, check out my website, Berkeley and Beyond, http://berkeleyandbeyond.com/

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 19, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      Thanks Carol, I’d definitely check it out. Funny – I asked myself the same question about winter, trying to imagine how they would twist thick scarves around themselves to leave key areas ‘uncovered’…

  9. Marilyn Jones on August 20, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Your article is one of the best I’ve read on San Francisco…you talked about your observations and I loved it! Well done!!

  10. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go on August 20, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    There are so many reasons to visit San Francisco and you’ve given me some more to add to my list. I would love to see the old Victorian homes and street art and, of course, Castro street!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 20, 2014 at 6:56 pm

      It’s amazing how no matter how well you know a place, there’s always more to discover… and that applies everywhere I believe.

  11. Irene S Levine on August 21, 2014 at 4:38 am

    Absolutely loved your very informative and engaging post. Almost as unique as the city!:-)

  12. Michelle on August 23, 2014 at 2:56 am

    I do not shock easily either but being an adventure seeker, San Francisco sounds like a great place for me to visit! I was in Marin County last November and only saw the Golden Gate Bridge. I would love to see Lombard Street someday! Very interesting post – I enjoyed the tour 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 23, 2014 at 6:53 am

      Thanks Michelle – other than the sight of three naked men on a street corner the sights weren’t shocking – just very interesting, an eye-opener about this great city!

  13. Lezlea on April 29, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    I took my 17 yr old granddaughter to SF last weekend. She already knew about the men who wear only socks. If being publicly nude is illegal, I wouldn’t have guessed it. There were about 6 naked older gentlemen on bicycles right when we got off the ferry from Vollejo letting it all hang out.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 29, 2017 at 9:57 pm

      I admit that particular notion of ‘illegal’ eludes me as well 🙂

  14. Sarah on December 27, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    “And Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge, is being transformed from a crime capital to a hip artistic community.” Unfortunately this is gentrification, one of those big catalysts of the homelessness rates previously mentioned in the article, and disproportionately affecting Black populations in the East Bay. Not so sure this is a positive thing–sure, it feels ‘safer’ for solo female travelers now, but it comes at a great cost to many. Otherwise a lovely article celebrating many of the colorful things I adore about the Bay Area!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 27, 2018 at 10:43 pm

      Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Sarah – I’m sorry to hear that populations are suffering as a result and am glad you brought that to my attention.

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