On a warm afternoon in October 1989, I cycled home through Golden Gate Park. On exiting I noticed that all the traffic lights were out and that pedestrians were wandering around in a peculiar daze, as if a tornado had blown through town. Thinking it was nothing more than a neighbourhood power cut, I continued home to my apartment in Haight-Ashbury and then called a friend. He seemed puzzled by my matter-of-fact calmness. "They're showing something on the news right now," he explained. "The Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge has collapsed." One of the biggest earthquakes in local history had shaken the city while I was on my bike - but being in motion myself, I hadn't even felt it. Not an easy thing to explain, over and over, during the next few months when people asked me, "So where were you when the big one hit?"
Forget touristy Twin Peaks and Coit Tower. Just above Haight-Ashbury, Tank Hill offers most of the breathtaking scenery you'll see on Twin Peaks - taking in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Bay, and on clear days the mountains of Marin-but in nearly people-free isolation. Nearer to downtown, to avoid the huge lines at Coit Tower, go the roof of the nearby San Francisco Art Institute for a splendid and free view of the water between the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay Bridges, with the stark ex-prison buildings of Alcatraz Island easily visible in the middle.
Best cheap meal
The Mission District is jammed with joints serving the best Mexican food to be found anywhere (including Mexico); you can get huge and delicious meals for $5 or less. A particular favourite is the cafe-style Taqueria El Toro at 17th & Valencia, serving delicious football-sized meat and veggie burritos for around $4. Perennially crowded, you may think you'll never get a seat, but something always seems to open up just in time. Then you're rubbing elbows with the most eclectic lunch and dinner crowds around, including neighbourhood Latinos, youthful slackers, and policemen from the station across the street.
Most offbeat sport
San Franciscans are equally fervent about their fitness programs and left-leaning politics. Never do the two mix more explosively than on the last Friday evening of every month, when thousands of cyclists stage a "Critical Mass" ride through the heart of downtown on Market Street. Their goal is to advocate bicycle transportation as an alternative to the car commuting that chokes the city's streets at rush hour, and they really can't be ignored. Traffic is delayed for blocks in each direction as angry, harried office workers lean on their horns in counter-protest. The street is magically motor-free for 15 minutes or so, but this isn't Amsterdam; a couple of minutes after the last rider has passed, it's back to artery-clogged business as usual.
A must to avoid
Fisherman's Wharf, despite its millions of annual visitors and position of honour at the front of most local tourist brochures, is for the most part a colossal waste of time, centred around some of the tackiest tourist- trap museums and arcades of any major city. If you do go, don't skip the wharf's boat trips to the former prisons on Alcatraz Island, however, which are surprisingly educational and informative; repeat visitors should try the new evening tours, especially for the eerie ride back through the darkness.
Most surprising sight
Driving through the western outskirts of Golden Gate Park, you see a large field enclosing what appear to be moving haystacks. This is the Buffalo Paddock, where a small herd of rare American Bison roam. Even here, San Francisco's yen for obscure political activism is a force to reckon with; the death of the herd's leader, King Lear, in 1997 sparked an outcry from a volunteer Watch Bison Committee that the San Francisco Zoo hadn't done enough to prevent his decline.
Where to head for
The best way to reach Tank Hill is by going south on Clayton Street and bearing right on Twin Peaks Boulevard just to the south of 17th Street; as you start going up a steep incline, Tank Hill lies to the right. The San Francisco Art Institute is at 800 Chestnut Street.
Taqueria El Toro (415 431 3351) is at 598 Valencia Street, on the northwestern corner of 17th & Valencia.
Critical Mass rides start from Justin Herman Plaza, near Market & Steuart Streets on the last Friday evening of each month. Riders begin gathering around 5pm.
Boat trips to Alcatraz, operated by the Blue & Gold fleet (415 773 1188), leave from Pier 41 on Fisherman's Wharf. There are regular daily departures.
To reach the Buffalo Paddock in Golden Gate Park, enter the park at 36th Avenue and Fulton Street, take the first right onto JFK Drive, and go a few hundred feet; the enclosure is on the right side of the road.
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