Going for gold
After seeing Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s clear that sea lions would not make very good pets. They loll all around the huge Pier 39 like gigantic animated jelly babies, wriggling and tussling constantly (except for the ones who seem to have slipped into a coma). The young males rough each other up and sound like a bunch of louts, endlessly roaring Uh? Uh? Uh? Uh?
Not many cities have a colony of wild sea lions living in the centre, but then, not many cities are like San Francisco. The place is crazily unique, a wonderful, quirky, satisfying one-off, a town of extremes and paradoxes.
Every city tells a story, and this one is all about dreams. Dreams that come true. The dreams which built San Francisco – and which it lives by today – are of fortune, freedom and the good life. It all started with a gold rush, and in a sense, that quest has been going on ever since in this golden city.
The boom years after the Gold Rush have left a legacy of pleasure-seeking and a love of entertainment. Of course, in the Sixties, it was the full-on, stoned capital of hippy-dom. “If you’re going to San Francisco,” went the rock song of 1967, “be sure to wear a flower in your hair.”
More than three decades later, there are few flowers in the hair and Peace and Love has become something of a marketing exercise as tourists are bussed in to see the old hippy haunts around the Haight-Ashbury intersection. But the city remains a focal point for a newer youth culture.
The extraordinary mosaic of neighbourhoods makes for striking contrast, with an extensive Chinatown, a full-on gay district called Castro, and a historic upper-crust area called Nob Hill. The thriving downtown Financial District is surprisingly beautiful, sleek modern glass structures standing side by side with ornate pre-War skyscrapers.
Many districts have streets of older houses locally known as “Victorians”. For sure, Queen Victoria wouldn’t recognise the style, with their crazy individualistic jumble of American Gothic, American Tudor and American Renaissance, nicely embellished with Art Deco details. But she’d be amused – they look great.
Quakes and mists
The city and its people famously have a defiant spirit of independence, and there’s even a touch of apocalyptic, devil-may-care wildness in the air. But that could be due, perhaps, to the constant threat of a major earthquake like that of 1906, which demolished the city centre. Minor tremors are common, there was a more damaging one in 1989, and there’s an almost mystical reverence accorded to the San Andreas Fault which passes under San Francisco Bay and will one day destroy the city again.
Just ten years after the great quake of ’06, the city had been completely rebuilt and was raring to go again. Imagination, inventiveness, can-do innovation and lateral thinking are in the air. Maybe that’s why not just dope-fuelled Zap Comics and ostentatious Gay Pride have their roots in San Francisco, but also the high-tech creativity of Silicon Valley (which starts in the south-western suburbs).
Perhaps pushing things to the limit has something to do with being the West Coast’s most westerly big city, in a hauntingly beautiful end-of-the-world setting, wrapped in swirling mists and surrounded by water. That lingering sea mist, lying delicately over the Bay in the morning like great rolls of chiffon, forms an ethereal, mysterious backdrop, emphasising the city’s remoteness.
The mist is at its worst in high summer, by the way, just when the rest of California is baking. It can come as a shock to some visitors, thinking that California is synonymous with the sunshine and beach life, to discover that San Franciscans are more likely to need a raincoat than a bathing suit. To avoid the mist, come in autumn, when the city’s weather is at its best.
It was the mists which prevented so many explorers from discovering the vast San Francisco Bay. Although the opening, now crossed by the Golden Gate Bridge, is fully a mile across, seafarers failed to notice it. Sir Francis Drake, for one, passed this way in 1579 and did not see the Bay. Incredibly, Indians kept this secret place to themselves until as recently 1776, when the Spanish at last found their way here and set up a little mission to Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1849 the discovery of gold in the nearby hills brought tens of thousands of treasure-seekers, and a makeshift, lawless dockside city sprang up overnight.
Today, the city has strangely few ‘must-see’ sights. What it does have is a plethora of interesting, imaginative, child-friendly museums and galleries – most with free entrance – devoted to modern art, local history, cartoons, sciences, the Chinese, the Mexicans, the sea, even a museum of Levi jeans (in the old Levi Strauss factory). You must pinch yourself to remember that San Francisco is no Paris, London or New York, but a place with a population of under one million.
It's great fun to ride the rattling, open-sided cable cars. Although a picturesque piece of San Francisco history in themselves, the cars remain an excellent way to get around on the city’s steep hills, and much used by locals, who step on and off them at will. As they climb up and down the roller-coaster streets, the cable cars give thrilling views. At intersections, look down side turns to catch glimpses of the blue waters of the Bay, the vistas cut across by the impressive ironwork of the Bay bridge.
The Bay Bridge is an exquisite marvel of engineering, 8˝ miles of dazzling blue above and below as it steps clear across the Bay from San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley on the other side. But that does not quite outclass the dignity of the Golden Gate Bridge, which crosses grandly from the city into Marin County, on the north side of the Bay. City dwellers pour across the bridge at weekends and vanish into Marin’s wilderness, wine towns and bustling waterfronts. In fact, you can crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on foot, a breezy, invigorating two miles.
Terminus of the cable cars is the old docks, better known as Fisherman’s Wharf. This has become the city's busiest - and tackiest - tourist area, though its industrial dockside premises like Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery have been cleverly converted into attractive, unusual shopping and entertainment complexes.
Pier 39 is the Wharf’s focal point. It definitely deserve a visit, if only to say "Hi" to the sea lions, who have congregated at this spot since long before the pier itself was built.
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