A short break: San Francisco

Matthew Brace strolls the boardwalks and cycles up and down the hilly streets of one of America's hippest, most stylish cities

One of America's truly classy cities, San Francisco is bursting with style and history. Its steep streets, elegant Victorian architecture, and its great position right on the bay also make it one of the most desirable places to live in the US, despite the comparatively high cost of living. The view of the city as you cross the Golden Gate Bridge more than lives up to expectations.

Frisco has been through a lot for a relatively young city: devastating earthquakes, serial killers and religious cults, gold rushes, the summer of love, and being the epicentre of the rise of the gay movement. All have left their mark on the place and helped turn it into a fascinating destination.

When to go

San Francisco has a mild, wet climate which makes it a year-round destination, but the weather is notoriously unpredictable. Rainfall is less in the summer but a warm June afternoon can turn damp and chilly once the fog rolls in from the Pacific.

Getting there

Many major European and US airlines fly daily. Summer and Christmas are the high seasons when prices are steeper: Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747) and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) charge between pounds 500 and pounds 540 return, USAirways (tel: 0171-484 2100) pounds 370 return.

Autumn fares are lower: Virgin, BA and USAirways charge from pounds 370 to pounds 400 return (based on 20 Oct departure, fixed ticket, minimum stay of a week).

Getting around

On arrival at SF International Airport, go to the Ground Transportation Office or call the free information line (tel: 001 800 736 2008). Buses and trains are cheapest at less than $5 downtown, Airporter minibuses charge roughly $12 (pounds 8) one-way, cabs twice that.

If you are feeling fit enough to tackle San Francisco's many hills, hire a mountain bike for a few days (approx $25 a day). Cheaper than rental cars and cabs, easier to park, and better for the environment. Call tourist information for a list of bike- hire shops.

Public transport is extensive if not always efficient. Most people hop on the Muni (streetcars, buses and cable-cars, for information tel: 001 415 673 6864). It is a flat $1 fare, or buy a pass for a few days (up to $15-$20 for a week).

For journeys around the Bay Area, try the light railway, Bart (tel: 001 650 992 2278).

Where to stay

Haight-Ashbury, the district at the centre of the 1960s hippy era, is a great place to lay your head. One of the wackiest hotels around is the Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast (tel: 001 415 864 1978; e-mail: redvic@linex.com) where you can sleep in the psychedelic splendour of the Flower Child Room or the Peacock Suite. The place is nearly 100 years old and owned and run by Sami Sunchild, whose heart and soul are still back in the 1960s. She will welcome you with messages of peace and love as one of her "world family". Her paintings hang in the rooms and hallways. The hotel must have a special aura for it was one of the few buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake which flattened most of the city. Doubles from pounds 55 to pounds 80.

Another unusual place to stay is the Dockside Boat and Bed (tel: 001 415 392 5526) where guests stay on boats in the harbour by Pier 39 and get rocked to sleep by gentle waves. Doubles average around pounds 40.

If you are on a low budget, the Hostel at Union Square is a reasonably priced yet quite grand temporary address (tel: 001 415 788 5604). There are kitchens, sitting- rooms, a TV room and a full itinerary of sightseeing activities to join. For members of Hostelling International, it costs pounds 10 a night per person, non-members pounds 12.

If money is no object, head for the Majestic near Japantown on Sutter Street, for classic San Francisco style and luxury. The building made it through the 1906 earthquake and is a living museum of Victorian architecture. From pounds 80 to pounds 110 per room.

What to see and do

The Castro is the gay centre of the US and possibly the world. The community developed around one wide street which today is decorated with rainbow flags, the symbol of gay pride. You will see many references to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in San Francisco. He was murdered in City Hall in 1978.

To visit Alcatraz you will need to book ahead (tel: 001 415 773 1188 or 001 415 705 5555) and set aside most of a day to take the tour. Al Capone was in here for a spell, as was Machine Gun Kelly. The audio-tour is riveting, with testimonies from the prison warders and inmates for whom this was once home.

Fisherman's Wharf is the place to go for a tasty flavour of San Francisco. The piers and boardwalks are lined with seafood stalls selling steaming crab claws, lobster and all manner of molluscs.

The famous cable-cars still run along some streets and catching one is a must. There are three routes and you can ride them all day for less than $10 (tel: 001 415 673 6864).

The biggest overseas influence in San Francisco is Asian, hence the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (tel: 001 415 831 2700) where you can sit, take green tea and contemplate this great city.

On a rainy day, the Exploratorium (tel: 001 415 561 0360) is a great museum for children, full of hands-on science displays and gadgetry.

A City Pass offers a Bay cruise or Alcatraz tour, plus entry to the Exploratorium, Steinhart Aquarium and Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Palace of the Legion of Honour, and the MH de Young Memorial Museum. Adults pay $27.75, senior citizens (65 and over) $19.75, and children $17.25.

Food and drink

The vast choice is frightening and leaves visitors in no doubt of San Francisco's claim to have more restaurants per head of population than any other US city.

The city's geographical position means this is the place where Asian, North American, Latin and European cuisines collide. And this being health- obsessed California, there is a passion for freshness.

Good dry wines make the two-hour trip from the Napa Valley, and forget the regular, watery beers as there is a wide selection of excellent ales produced in micro-breweries throughout the Pacific North West.

Seafood is top of my dining list because it is always plucked from the Pacific that morning.

For lunch, sit downstairs with the locals at Fisherman's Grotto No 9, at Fisherman's Wharf, where baked crab au gratin or petrale filet amandine swiftly became two of my favourites (lunch from pounds 20). I didn't have the nerve to go mad and order the giant crab cioppino (crabs, prawns and clams in a rich Italian tomato sauce, pounds 25).

Fisherman's Wharf is not cheap, however, and for half the price you could simply walk between the stalls while snacking on the odd crab leg or oyster (pounds 1.50-pounds 5).

For a giant steak, try the Tadich Grill at 240 California Street in the Financial District, the city's oldest restaurant, where little has altered in 50 years (dinner pounds 15-pounds 30).

And for a wonderful dining experience, sample the excellent dim sum at the cavernous Gold Mountain Restaurant at 644 Broadway in Chinatown. The place can seat several hundred people at one go (dinner pounds 15-pounds 25).

Nightlife

While the city definitely moves after dark, it cannot compare with the glitz and the buzz of New York. Most summer nights are warm enough to sit outside and enjoy the European-style cafe culture which San Francisco successfully recreates.

Some visitors might like to visit North Beach to trace the roots of the Beat generation and two of the movement's proponents, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Check out some of the cafes along Grant Avenue, the Beats' former stomping ground.

Castro's gay scene is lively after dark. Sections of Castro Street itself are packed with restaurants, cafes and bars. Some venues are gay-only but others cater for a mixed gay and straight crowd.

San Francisco is not known for its plethora of nightclubs but their number is growing and areas like South of the Market are now quite happening.

Out of town

Santa Cruz, an hour-and-a-half drive south down the coast along the magnificent Highway 1, is beautiful. It lies on the sweep of a large bay which is popular with surfers, and where, in spring and autumn, whales stop off on their migrations and play in the waves. The 1989 earthquake devastated Santa Cruz but the downtown area has been completely rebuilt with shops, offices, good sushi restaurants and bars. Contact Santa Cruz visitors centre (tel: 001 831 425 1234).

Across the Golden Gate Bridge is the National Recreation Area of the same name (tel: 001 415 556 0560) which is full of walking trails through the woods, with great views back to the city.

The wine-producing Napa Valley is about a two-hour drive from central San Francisco but worth it for anyone with a taste for the grape. Contact Napa Valley visitors centre (tel: 001 707 226 7459).

Deals and packages

Matthew Brace flew with Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747) which does daily direct flights. He stayed at the Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Haight-Ashbury (tel: 001 415 864 1978; email: redvic@linex.com).

Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400) is offering a three-night break until the end of October for pounds 205 per person, including three-star hotels, transfers and tours but excluding flights, and a four-night break in San Francisco and the Napa Valley until Christmas for pounds 357 per person, including hotels, transfers and tours but excluding flights.

Further information

Contact San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau , 201 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA (tel: 001 415 974 6900); or the California Division of Tourism, PO Box 1499, Sacramento, CA 95812, USA (tel: 001 916 322 2881).

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