Travel: The Beat generation goes on

It's wild, wacky - and definitely not on the level. Muthena Paul Alkazraji on a groovy day out in San Francisco
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The Independent Culture
If you're going to San Francisco this weekend, you're probably an aspiring travel writer. The annual Book Passage travel-writing conference is taking place in Corte Madera, north of the Bay.

But San Francisco is the real story. Here's a good opening paragraph: "A jazz-speak term was coined in the Fifties for a Bohemian type found in San Francisco, which also means `a state of finished exhaustion and deep happiness'. You've got a long day to taste `the city by the bay'. Follow this route and hopefully you'll find yourself in the best sense of the word `Beat' on its completion".

And here's how the rest goes:

The only way to approach San Francisco is across the city's premier icon. The Golden Gate Bridge is an exhilarating experience at any time of day, but on an August dawn the view across to the financial district is especially beautiful.

Completed in 1937, the Golden Gate's 1.2-mile span carries more than 100,000 cars a day between the San Francisco peninsula and Marin County. It can withstand winds of 100 miles an hour plus, whipping it 18 feet from side to side. Try not to think about this. Once across, plug into San Francisco's excellent public transport network: catch bus number 28 from the Toll Plaza to the Moscone Playground, then transfer to the 30 downtown to Stockton Street.

Get yourself to the San Francisco Visitors' Information Centre at the intersection of Market and Powell Streets (Market and Powell). Here you can pick up a free copy of The San Francisco Book, which includes a street map and bus routes, and a three-day Muni-pass for $10, which will cover all but one of your rides on public transport.

Head for the nearby terminus of the Powell-Hyde cable-car, where plenty of panhandlers will entertain you and relieve you of a spare quarter while you queue up. Watch out for the man who plays impassioned Beethoven on the rims of water-filled wineglasses.

The cable-car route climbs steadily up Powell, turns left along Jackson, and then trundles over Russian Hill, where the views are likely to disturb the agoraphobic. Conceived by an English mining engineer in the 1870s, the mechanically drawn cable car was a godsend for the San Franciscan carthorse, which was formerly yoked with hauling passengers up the city's one-in-four gradients.

Today, what may look like clanging equivalents of the Torquay sea- front tourist express are, nevertheless, an effortless way of drinking in the downtown detail as it flows by. The views are best experienced by strap-hanging recklessly off the sides.

Disembark at Hyde and Lombard. From here, the streets of San Francisco plummet in step-like descent beneath a criss-crossing mesh of overhead trolleybus wires, and down towards the bay and the infamous Alcatraz Island. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas dislodged their hub-caps chasing hoods down Russian Hill in the Seventies. It is a perennial movie-maker's favourite for car-chase scenes.

Walk down the 10 rippling chocolate-box chicanes of "the world's crookedest", Lombard Street, and straight down three more blocks to Columbus Avenue.

Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, which looks like an upturned water-sprinkler, and the Bay Bridge across to Oakland, crown the skyline above stretching blocks of pastel-coloured, two-storey residences. Turn right along Columbus Avenue through the heart of Italian North Beach; its restaurants, bars, cafes and bakeries provide ample lunchtime diversion.

For a more radical alternative, take Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit - the efficient underground railway) to 16th Street Mission station. Mission is the city's Latino neighbourhood, home to many a political and economic refugee from Mexico and Central and South America, and it is a vibrant slice of souvenir-free urban life. Occasional Latino cowboys loiter in white stetsons, mean and moustachioed as if transported from some Nicaraguan village square. It is a poorer part of the city, however, but outsiders flow through.

Mission is the best place in San Francisco to sample authentic Mexican food at little more than the cost of a handful of (pinto) beans, and it is famed for its street mural art. Some of the most spectacular examples spiral colourfully up the walls of the Women's Building on 18th Street between Valencia and Guerrero, celebrating women's achievements and spirituality. For elevenses, try the Cafe Macondol, where, poignantly, Che Guevara and Pablo Neruda scrutinise the customers from its postered walls.

To get there, head east for a block and a half from the station along 16th Street, where most of the action is centred. Puerto Alegre is a wonderful little budget-priced American-Mexican diner around the corner on Valencia, just before 17th. The Women's Building is a block beyond this.

Jack Kerouac Street is back in North Beach, and at the corner of Columbus Avenue the writer's shrine is City Lights Bookstore - a must-see for all fans of hipster literature and would-be writers, founded in 1953 by the poet and Beat patron Laurence Ferlinghetti, who brought Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac to the world's attention.

Its shelves house an unmatched wealth of "spontaneous prose". As well as glossy essay-and-photo books about Beat culture, and limited hard-cover editions of Howl and Other Poems, you can pick up Ginsberg railing against the strictures of convention on CD, and even a Kerouac CD-rom.

From City Lights continue along Columbus to the foot of the 48-storey (853ft) Transamerica Pyramid, the city's tallest building. Turn right along Montgomery "Wall Street of the West" for a neck-craning wander past some of the financial district's finest structures.

Banks began springing up along Montgomery in the 1850s to handle California's gold wealth, but it wasn't until the 1960s that San Francisco's office blocks began to sprout seriously skywards.

The 761ft Bank of America building, at 555 California Street, was used as the setting for the epic Seventies disaster movie Towering Inferno. The then lesser-known San Francisco native, OJ Simpson, played Chief of Security. The building was constructed using red South Dakota granite, and it still gives off a fiery glow in the right light.

From its roof, the Zodiac Killer - whose legacy still looms large in the city's psyche - sniped his first victim at the start of the 1971 thriller Dirty Harry. Watch out for the Gothic Russ Building at 253 Montgomery, and the cylindrical edifice of 101 California, with its sliced-away base.

Before spinal seizure from gazing endlessly upwards sets in, head back to City Lights and into the neighbouring Vesuvio Cafe to drink in yet more nostalgia. Inside, newspaper articles and photos on the walls evoke the heyday of Beat North Beach.

It was Vesuvio's bearded and beret-wearing customers of the Fifties who coined those tireless colloquialisms "pad", "chicks" and "squares". So now you're here, "Live it up. Tomorrow you may be radioactive", as they used to say.

Fact File

Getting there: you can fly non-stop from London Heathrow on British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Through discount agents, expect to pay around pounds 375 for travel in mid-September or later.

Staying there: Pacific Tradewinds Guest House, 60 Sacramento Street, Financial District (001 415 433 7970). Small, friendly, dormitory-style hostel, with kitchen, for travellers on a tight budget. $14 per bed per night.

Phoenix Hotel, 601 Eddy Street and Larkin, Tenderloin (001 415 776 1380). Fifties' kitsch, tropical theme motel with kidney-shaped pool. Beloved of touring rock groups, with many celebrity guests. Double rooms $89 per night. Not the safest of neighbourhoods at night.

Red Victorian B&B, 1665 Haight Street, Haight Ashbury (001 415 864 1978). Thematically decorated rooms evoke the Sixties with names such as the Flower Child Room, the Peace Room, the Summer of Love Room. From $60-$200 per double room per night.