Update: I originally posted this in 2017 but I've updated in 2022 following another visit
Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals *****
There are four parts of the world that every Sikh has family friends or relatives; Panjab, England, Canada and California. I'd heard (and read) a lot about the west coast of the United States, and I was excited when I was given the chance to give a talk in San Francisco. I decided to extend my stay for a few extra days and ended up spending almost a week in the city.
Its the tech capital of the world and in terms of western cities, it's definitely one of the strangest I have ever visited. Areas of ridiculous money are often a short walk from areas of abject poverty. The natural beauty of the Bay Area is contrasted by the dirty, run down and drug infested streets away from the coast. It's a city of extremes, but it's one that has left a strong impression on me.
Union Square & Market Street
If you think that the city looks, sounds and feels a little Spanish, that's because it was first a Spanish, then a Mexican city and only came into American hands in the last 170 odd years. The city is on the San Andreas fault and therefore has seen a number of large earthquakes destroy signifiant parts of the city, therefore the buildings currently there aren't actually that old.
The city began its rapid growth as part of a Gold Rush in the mid 19th century, although since then San Francisco has become known as one of the largest tech hubs in the world. The city also has one of the largest LGBT populations of any major city, and the colourful rainbow flag is pretty much everywhere. The area is known for its temperate year round climate, which made it all the more frustrating when I arrived into an uncomfortably hot heatwave.
It never ceases to amaze me just how big the United States is. The flight from New York to San Francisco took almost as long as it takes to fly from London to New York. I experienced no issues either flying from NYC or landing at San Francisco.
I decided to take the metro (known as BART) into the city from the airport. It was relatively simple to get to grips with the way it worked, although at almost $9 it cost more than both the subway from JFK into NYC and from O'Hare into Chicago. Trains run every 15 minutes, and it took about 30 minutes to get into the centre. The trains were comfortable and very different to those I found in Chicago and New York. They seemed like a 1980s designer's vision of what the future looks like, it was weirdly outdated and futuristic at the same time.
Powell Street Station takes you into the centre of Union Square. I walked out into a hot, colourful and loud city. A queue was forming outside the cable car stop and right away I noticed the large hill that I had to climb to get to the top of Nob Hill, one of San Francisco's 44 hills. I'd seen tv shows and films based in San Francisco, and the older cop shows would always see a chase with cars flying off the hills. I'm not surprised, the hills in some places are almost vertical, it's absolutely surreal. And they are everywhere, you can't get away from them. And believe me, even for a relatively fit person, I struggled up some of them.
I did what I usually do when I spend a few days in a city on my own; I got on my phone and used an app to ask around for anyone who would be willing to spend a few days showing me around. Thankfully a young portfolio manager from San Francisco answered the call, and for the next four days she showed me around her city beginning with a stunning rooftop bar atop the Marriot Hotel, just off Union Square. Unlike the rooftop bars that I had gotten used to in New York, this was very different, the large semi circular windows cut to a terrain vastly different from Manhattan, more akin to Spain than the United States,
We walked down the famous Market Street, somewhat similar in feel to Orchard Street in Singapore or the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. It was roughly a 20 minute walk down to the Embarcadero on the waterfront and the Ferry Building.
A number of large earthquakes have meant that there aren't a significant number of old buildings in the city, but the 245 foot tall beautifully designed Ferry Building stands towering over the harbour, over 100 year since being completed. As the name suggests, the building is used as a ferry terminus, but inside its large interior are also a plethora of bars, shops and restaurants and we decided to grab some food there. As nice as the interior was, and as beautiful as the setting was, its probably not somewhere I would eat again due to the cost. I was surprised to find out that the cost of living in San Francisco is higher than the cost of living in New York, and this meal certainly gave credence to that fact.
I did return to the building in 2022 to see the weekend farmer's market - and I remembered almost straight away how expensive things were the first time around, so I didn't buy anything, but it was a nice thing to do on a weekend.
After eating, we decided to take a walk to the AT&T sports park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. We only walked around the perimeter of the stadium that is generally regarded as the finest baseball stadium in the States and it definitely looked like the kind of place I'd like to watch a ball game some day. I had arrived only a week after the Golden State Warriors basketball team had won the NBA finals, so the entire city was still in celebratory sports mood, and it showed in the amount of people sporting their teams jerseys around the city. As we continued our walk, a non-Panjabi guy on seeing me shouted 'Kiddah JI'. It definitely was a big change from New York, and I liked it.
I took a fairly long route home with my walk to see as much of the city centre as I could, and even though it was now well into the night, I never once felt unsafe. Sure, certain areas looked very shady, but people generally tended to mind their own business. The walk was definitely worth it as it took me through some great parts of the city, in particular parts of the financial district and Chinatown. The financial district is home to the city's few skyscrapers, the most spectacular of which is the Transamerica Pyramid, which for the last 40 years has been the tallest building in the city.
On my return journey I had the opportunity to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I'm not a modern art person, but this was part of an event I attended and it was good fun, although probably not my kind of thing if I had to pay for it. If you're in the area and you look modern art, this is a decent sized museum that'll keep you interested.
The unexpected heatwave
After hitting a particularly hot few days in Chicago, I was looking forward to the more temperate climate of San Francisco. The city is famous for never getting too hot or cold, but I had walked into an unexpected heatwave.
I had wanted to catch a bus from my hotel to Crissy Field, a park that serves as a lookout point over the Golden Gate Bridge. After waiting 45 minutes in very hot weather, I decided to catch a ride share. As soon as the taxi arrived, the bus followed, it was annoying, but sometimes that happens. We rode through some of the most expensive real estate in the United States, with large houses overlooking the waterfront and the famous bridge.
It was a roughly 20 minute ride to get into the Crissy Field area. The area was formerly a US Army airfield, and a walk around El Presidio still showed huts and buildings with their former military names. The field itself was a vast expanse of green along the waterfront with a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a landmark I have seen on many tv shows and films, and seeing it in real life was a little surreal. After seeing the Bay Bridge the day before, this just looked so much better. I walked along the promenade and took some pictures, before heading toward the bridge. It's a beautifully scenic walk up a short hill to get from Crissy Field to one side of the Golden Gate Bridge. At each turn you get glimpses of the bridge. The walk itself was fairly quiet, a few couples were walking along the steep steps, but otherwise it wasn't particularly busy.
Opened in 1937, the mile long Golden Gate Bridge was once the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today it is still a jaw droppingly beautiful bridge. The San Francisco side of the bridge houses the welcome centre and this is where it got a little busy. A busy highway runs in the centre of the bridge, with one side of the bridge for pedestrians and the other side for cyclists. I quite liked this set up, it was considerably better run than the Brooklyn Bridge which is extremely frustrating to walk across.
It took about half an hour to cross the bridge. I could actually feel my skin sizzling as I walked across with no shade, the pollution from the cars making breathing a little uncomfortable. The views however were gorgeous, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and San Francisco on the other. The large steel arches looked almost dominating as you walked under them. It was spectacular. There were also numerous signs with numbers to counselling. It turns out the Golden Gate Bridge has the second highest number of suicides in the world.
The far side of the bridge has an area called the Vista Point where most people take photographs. The area was crowded and I didn't think the view was that good at all, especially compared to the San Francisco side. However, on the far side of the road where the cyclists ride, there is a hill called Battery Spencer. I crossed under the busy bridge to the other side. It was mid afternoon at this point, I hadn't eaten, I foolishly hadn't even bought a bottle of water. If you've read my articles before, you will realise, that when I'm out exploring I rarely eat. It's not healthy at all and this was one of the many occasions where it was uncomfortable due to the heat, but nothing I wasn't willing to overcome.
It was a 10 minute walk up a fairly steep hill to get to the top of the hill that was formerly used as a protection point for the military. I reached the top and there were only a handful of people. The view from here was significantly better than the view from Vista Point and I was glad I had taken the detour. I felt almost on top of the bridge as I looked over the Pacific Ocean directly infront of the me, and the downtown area of San Francisco across the bridge on the other side. It took almost 45 minutes to get down and then across the bridge and it was after 4pm before I arrived back at my hotel, completely hungry. I got a call from my friend who told me she would take me to the best taco place in America so I happily decided to join.
Posh to poverty
The Mission District of the city is a far cry from the hills near the waterfront. A relatively flat expanse of land, the area is full of poverty. Its marketed as a bohemian neighbourhood, but it's not quite there yet.
San Francisco is a notoriously liberal city, fairly relaxed on drug usage and providing somewhat of a sanctuary to homelessness. The climate of the city also means that it never gets too cold for for the city's poorest. What this means is the city has a very large homeless population. That's one thing, but the open drug use was something else. People injecting themselves on the side of main roads, right in the sight of the police who turn a blind eye. Funnily enough, the police don't turn a blind eye to jay walking which is a big no-no in the city. I didn't realise until I was stopped by a local who pointed to a police officer who was waiting on the side of the road, just waiting to hand out tickets.
The Mission District is home to El Faro Lito, home of the best (and cheapest) taco's I have ever had. I would recommend this place to anyone and everyone. As the city doesn't usually get too hot, not that many places have air conditioning, completely different to NYC. It did make the dining experience a little uncomfortable, but I was so hungry I didn't mind.
We decided to walk to Mission Dolores Park, a short distance from the taco place. All around were people, walking around half naked, completely off their heads on drugs. There were old women in wheelchairs, injecting themselves. The streets were littered, it was all a bit of the mess.
The park is located next to a high school and is popular with students. The local I was with told me that literally anything goes in the park, and I wasn't surprised when I began walking through it. The park was absolutely packed as people went outside to make the most of this unexpected heatwave. People were openly taking drugs and drinking, but it was a very relaxed and nice atmosphere. The park is on a hill and the top of the hill has a great view, not only of the green space but also the financial district in the background. I really liked the feel of the park. This wasn't anything like Central Park, this wasn't for families, it was young people and that gave the area a different vibe.
At this point I began struggling with the heat, so after staying in the park for a short while, we headed to the Castro District which was a short walk away. The Castro was the first gay district in a city that is famous for its large LGBT population. The rainbow flag was on every lamppost in the area as we were a week from the annual Pride Parade. This area felt a lot like the San Francisco that I had imagined. Again, very easy going, very liberal and relaxed. We headed to Philz Coffee, a chain famous in the Bay Area and had a cold drink to cool off. A week of heatwaves in New York, Chicago and San Francisco had me pretty exhausted.
During my return visit in 2022, I finally managed to make the trip to Alcatraz, something I had missed out on the first time around. At $42, tickets aren't cheap, but they include an audio tour as well as a 15 minute boat ride there and back.
Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons in the world and closed in 1963, although today it is an open air museum thanks to largely to a protect by indigenous Americans about their rights. The rock on which Alcatraz sits lies a decent distance from any body of land, making attempts to escape very difficult, although some of its fame lies from the attempted escapes that inmates made.
The obvious comparison for me was the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast that I visited a few years ago, although at 45 minutes the tour here is much shorter and also more costly. That being said, Alcatraz is comfortably more famous and stepping off the boat to see the dilapidated but still standing prison building was pretty special.
It's a short walk to get to the main entrance, and an audio guide tells stories from the perspective of prisoners and prison guards and it's very well done. Peering into the cells that were once home to inmates was pretty surreal, and the cells where prisoners tried to escape were particularly interesting.
Other than the prison, the rock on which Alcatraz sits has other buildings (like the Warden's House and a mid 19th-century lighthouse) and actors dressed in early 20th century clothing told further stories of the prison as well as its prior history as a Fort that protected American interests on the Pacific coast. It was a great experience, and you can do the whole thing in about 2 hours, so it's well worth taking the time out,
Twitter, City Hall and a boat ride
The day finally came to give my talk, and I decided to get an Uber into the Civic Centre where I would be presenting. To my surprise, the area was much closer to where I was staying than I thought. The Civic area has been recently rebuilt and upgraded and is actually one of the nicer parts of the city. although the surrounding areas are all full of abject poverty. The highlight of my day was eating lunch at the Twitter Headquarters, which itself was only a couple of blocks from the Uber HQ. It brought home to me why this area is known for its tech, and my hosts told me personal stories of tech entrepreneurs that they knew.
In terms of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco, its difficult to beat the nearly century old San Francisco City Hall. Built in a style similar to the US Capitol (its actually over 40 feet taller), its grand design is in contrast to some of the other buildings in the city. It was one of the few buildings, not just in the city, but in the country that I kept looking at from different angles. It's absolutely stunning.
I decided to walk back through some of the rougher neighbourhoods, and I promise you, some of them are really bad. People walking around with shopping trolleys full of possessions. Even after a few days, I found the open hard drug use really strange, police were watching and doing nothing as people of all ages and colours were injecting themselves on the side of roads. I understand that the city is both liberal in its drug use and its dealings with the homeless, and I'm sure there are organisations looking into the issues there, but there's a lot of people I walked past that I thought would surprise me if they lived more than a few more years.
In the evening I headed to Fisherman's Wharf to meet an old family friend. I hadn't met him before, but he was close with my dad before he passed away. The Fisherman's Wharf area feels like a giant tourist trap, but there are pockets of beauty and certainly the walk along the pier is a good one. We had a very friendly chat for an hour or so before I met my friend and we caught a ferry to Sausalito. The city is a fairly small settlement on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Now I'm sure at a certain age, I would have liked the charm of Sausalito, but at this age both me and my friend took a quick look, a 5 minute walk and decided it wasn't for us. The whole place was just very small and very quiet and we quickly hopped back onto a return ferry into the city. We decided to visit another rooftop bar in the city. San Francisco doesn't have as many rooftop bars as New York, in fact, I'd a hazard a guess that it's less than London too, but the ones I visited were very cool. After the Marriot on the first day, we decided to go to the Top of the Mark, a rooftop bar with panoramic views on top of Nob Hill, one of the tallest hills in the city. As I mentioned earlier, the views from San Franciscan rooftops are unique, its a fairly dusty and foggy city which gives the landscape a bit of mystique. As the evening turned to night, the lack of large well known landmarks meant that I was looking at a mass of lights, although the Bay Bridge looked fantastic lit up.
I decided to head back down the hill to catch a tram, one of the few things I really wanted to do before going back. At $7 the price is incredibly steep, and it was pretty obvious that locals do not use any of the services, due to both the price and speed. That being said it was a good experience, you can either sit inside, or literally hang off the edges, and it's one of those things worth doing once and no more.
During my return trip in 2022, the one thing I really wanted to do was visit some of the 'local' Gurdwaras. And local is an interesting term, because the closest Gurdwara to San Francisco is in El Sobrante and requires a pretty lengthy taxi journey.
The trip was worth it as the Gurdwara is built into a hill, with views over the harbour and city. Inside, the Gurdwara is a fair size and during my trip over, there seemed to be a Gurmat class where a local Sikh woman was teaching paath (recitation) to students. The building itself seems fairly modern and was first opened in 1979, although the Gurdwara has a pretty infamous history, being the site of two separate shootings over the years.
During my visit, I was happy to see a large congregation with people of all ages, and watching some of the kids running around with their friends reminded me a little of my childhood visits to my local Gurdwara. It's not an easy place to get to, with public transport only taking you a part of the way there, but the taxi expense is definitely worth visiting the Guru, and seeing this beautiful Gurdwara.
The second Gurdwara I visited was even further away - in a different city - but there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to visit the world famous San Jose Gurdwara. A Gurdwara has existed in the local area since 1984, but the modern Gurdwara building dates back to 2004, and was built at a cost of $12 million.
It's another Gurdwara that is built into a hillside, but the San Jose Gurdwara is significantly larger and is probably one of the most impressive Gurdwaras I have ever visited. Its design reflects aesthetics of Sikh architecture found in Panjab, and during my visit on a sunny evening, I honestly forgot that I was in the United States.
External speakers carry the sound of Gurbani (the Guru's word) through to the outside perimeter, while the collection of different buildings and the beautiful walkways between them make you feel as though you are walking in paradise. The Darbar Sahib is very large and beautifully decorated. The throne of the Guru is prominent and forms a great focal point, and English translations of Gurbani are digitally updated for all to see. The langar hall is smaller, but serves a diverse community (I saw people of all races there during my visit).
Small reflecting pools of water add a nice touch to the complex, while the views of San Jose are pretty incredible from the front of the Gurdwara. It is genuinely one of the best experiences I have had when visiting a Gurdwara and it's somewhere I'd like to return to time and time again, and it is upsetting to think that it might not happen again, or at least anytime soon.
If you're in the are, San Jose Gurdwara is a definite must visit!
The city of extremes
On my final day, I had only one real goal, and that was to see Lombard Street. It took me a decent walk to get there, a walk that took me through what is described as both the earliest and largest Chinatown in the United States. I liked the area a lot, although I much preferred the Chinatown in Manhattan. As with New York, the Chinatown led into a Little Italy, clearly marked by small Italian flags painted onto lamp posts and the sudden appearance of numerous pizzerias. San Francisco has a couple of nice churches and cathedrals. My walk from the Civic Centre the previous day had taken me past Grace Cathedral, but I thought St Peter and Paul Church here was even more spectacular. For a second, with the style of the buildings and the Italian flags all around, I actually thought I could have been in Italy.
Located on Russian Hill, Lombard Street is described as the most crooked in the world, with hairpin turn after hairpin turn. It's a beautified street, with a lot of greenery, trimmed hedges and flowers, with large houses on either side. The street was packed full of tourists, even first thing in the morning and they were just blocked the main roads at the bottom of the hill as well as the street itself - I can't imagine its so great for the residents. From he top of Lombard Street, you have a fantastic view of both the city and the harbour and it was an absolute highlight of my trip.
I had arrived in a weird heatwave, and I was leaving in a heatwave too. The walk back to my hotel made me realise just how unwalkable this city is. Even if the temperature during my stay was a freak one off heatwave, the hills in the city are ridiculous. I've mentioned in many articles that a 10-15 mile walk a day is comfortable for me, but even short walks on these hills were taxing and for some reason, the walk returning from Lombard Street felt extra difficult.
San Francisco is a unique city, but it falls right into the list of favourite cities. I liked it a lot. The food was good, the atmosphere laid back. I enjoyed the unique topography of the city, and it has more than its fair share of landmarks. I found the Golden Gate Bridge to be more spectacular than both the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and Tower Bridge in London. The cable cars are a unique attraction that adds character to the city, and having a large Chinatown is always a bonus.
That's not to say it doesnt have its drawbacks. Transportation isn't the greatest, but that follows a general trend in the States. The cost of living in San Francisco is even higher than New York and that has priced a lot of locals out of the city. Poverty is a real issue, and although I think of myself as fairly liberal, the open use of hard drugs by the city's many homeless is something that will stay with me. I also thought it was odd that a city with such a liberal disposition would enforce jaywalking so strictly - so make sure you watch out for that.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.