Two days before I left for San Francisco I texted my friend Nereya who’s a native, and asked what I should pack for the trip. The general rule is that when it’s winter here, it’s summer in America but, as I learnt, things are a little different in San Francisco. “It’s rather chilly these days. As Mark Twain once said: ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’,” was Nereya’s answer. Some say Twain didn’t actually say those words but even if they were fabricated it would appear they’re true, as I found out when I finally found myself in ‘Frisco in August after a ten-hour flight to Doha, and then another eight hours to San Francisco.
Besides its complex weather, the only other thing I knew about San Francisco was that it’s often “twinned” with the Mother City. I reckon it’s probably because of the steep streets and quirky architecture in Cape Town – think Bo-Kaap. (To be frank, we know nothing about steep streets in SA, Filbert Street – situated between Hyde and Leavenworth Street in San Francisco – is the city’s steepest street at 31.5 degrees). But once I got to San Francisco I began to wake up to how much of that city is a part of my life here in this tip of Africa.
As a cardholding member of the church of Apple, I read about Silicon Valley in the Walter Isaacson biography about Steve Jobs, so I thought I was clued up about the tech start-ups that call this city home (Google, Facebook and Pinterest). However, the list of companies that have headquarters in San Francisco reads like something out of a fictitious powerful city in a Marvel Comics superhero movie… Visa, Twitter, Häagen-Dazs, Pixar, Yahoo, LinkedIn, eBay, YouTube, Netflix (Netflix and chill anyone?) and Uber are among many of the companies that are part of our daily lives. Whether you’re going to “Uber to the party”, “Googling so and so” or eating a scoop of Häagen-Dazs’s Cookies & Cream, it would appear all of America’s most innovative and smartest people are living within six degrees of separation from each other. But before you dismiss it as just a geek city and a chance fluke, allow me to refresh your memory. During the Great Depression, when almost every financial institution in America was in virtual collapse, not a single San Francisco-based bank failed. In fact, as history has proved, business in the city was so good at the time that its biggest tourist attraction, the Golden Gate Bridge, was constructed in this turbulent economic climate. It goes without saying then that San Francisco is fertile ground for innovators and pathfinders, like the company currently valued at $30 billion – that is Airbnb – and the reason why I was there in the first place, to experience the “home of Airbnb”.
Host with the most
It was my first time staying at an Airbnb host’s house and I won’t lie, it beat most hotel experiences I’ve had. Right in the heart of Divisadero Street, a funky area with bars and restaurants all around it, the apartment I stayed in was so stylish that the décor made it clear the owner was a creative. Wooden floors, a fully stocked bar and crisp white sheets, my host’s home was about half an hour from the airport with no traffic, and a mere 15-minute walk to the street equally known for its famous residents (legendary rockers Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin who lived on the corner of Haight and Ashbury Street) as it is for its homeless who roam the streets with their dogs on a leash and the smell of weed suspiciously following them. My host – who was not around but hosts can stay with you as a visitor – left a comprehensive file with a list of places, sights and restaurants in the areas that he recommended. That’s one of the things I love about Airbnb, instead of finding yourself doing the touristy things with everyone as suggested by concierge staff, you get to see a city through a local’s eyes.
If you like to shop…
Head to Haight Street’s most well-known thrift and vintage shop, Wasteland, for some retail therapy. But be warned, the word ‘thrift’ is used rather loosely here. While there are some good ‘nameless’ finds at Wasteland, you’re most likely to find garments by Marc Jacobs, Diane Von Furstenberg and many other high-end designers. Wasteland is where I found a cute pair of Stuart Weitzman heels that I just couldn’t leave without making sure they came back to The Motherland with me! So obviously, you’re not about to get a T-shirt for R50, but it’s the type of vintage shop that true bargain hunters will appreciate because of its cheaper designer labels.
One of the things that mystified me about San Francisco is how almost every restaurant is Mexican. At first, from my first night when I had a Mezcal (a distilled alcoholic drink that’s quite smoky like whisky but looks as clear as vodka) at a bar called Padrecito, I attributed it to the fact that the state of California is quite close to Mexico. But upon further investigation I discovered that during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, Mexico lost one-third of its territory. This included now American states like Utah, Nevada, Arizona and of course, California. So, if like me you’re partial to fish tacos, burritos and margaritas then you’ll love the food in San Francisco. On my second-last night we went to a fabulous restaurant called Napolita, which has two locations in the city and only uses locally sourced organic ingredients.
What to do
Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge is a must. But be warned, it gets rather chilly so bring reinforcement in the form a warm jacket. Leave flimsy jerseys for your Instagram posts, you’ll be miserable if you’re not warm enough. Outdoor types will love the 2.7-kilometre hike to see the Golden Gate Bridge from both sides. But take it from someone who hiked the city, and proceed with caution… The steep hills might leave you feeling like you’re about to meet your maker but once you’re up there it’s worth it because of the spectacular views. Like Cape Town, San Francisco also has its own Robben Island in the form of Alcatraz. Eerily, like the island prison, Alcatraz in San Francisco’s Bay area has a famous (or in this case, infamous) prisoner too in the form of Al Capone, forever immortalised by Al Pacino in the movie Scarface.
When is the best time to go?
In keeping with the consistent theme of baffling weather, it turns out San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love’ in the 60s actually happened in winter. My advice to anyone travelling to San Francisco? Throw away all your weather knowledge and bring your entire wardrobe just in case. According to international weather patterns, June and July are chilly and foggy and so it’s suggested that the best time to go is between August and October. But I would still be mindful of Twain’s advice.