Most destinations are simply places to visit. Others feel like home. Katie Glass has a go at living like a local in San Francisco
I didn’t go to Riga and long to belong. I’ve never spent time in Bangkok and found myself looking at house prices, or stayed in Frankfurt and wondered what I could do there for work. Even in New York, a city I love, I am happy following the tourist trail. But in a handful of special cities, being a sightseer doesn’t cut it. In these places I sense that, as a tourist, I’m not just missing out, but missing the whole point. And that is always how I’ve felt about San Francisco.
Perhaps it’s because I’m intimidated by – almost in awe of – Frisco, LA’s sophisticated older sibling, only a few hours up the coast, yet infinitely more erudite and urbane. Perhaps it’s inevitable I’d fall for a place where Flower Power met the big city and gave birth to Facebook (a Venn diagram of all my favourite things). Whatever the reasons, I’ve long wished San Francisco was my home.
San Fran suits real life so much better than a holiday, too. It isn’t a city of touristy sights, but one of lovely, liveable moments – long waterfront walks, even longer bar stool debates, and authentic street food you’d never find on a mini-break. It can’t be a coincidence that San Francisco is the home of Airbnb, the holiday-rental company originally based upon the idea that travellers get more from a destination when they stay with a local rather than in a hotel chain. This is the place where field-to-farm dining and latte art were invented, for goodness’ sake. Places don’t get more local than this.
Of course, I couldn’t just pack up my job, flat and friends on a whim. That’s too capricious, even for me. Instead, I convinced my other half to take a month-long staycation – a maxi-holiday when we would make San Fran our home. Swerving the touristy districts, I looked to the neighbourhoods this time and found a cottage in Bernal Heights. It’s an area in the southeast (between the hip barrio Mission and the 101 freeway to Palo Alto, home of Google) that has boomed as the city has ‘siliconised’. More residential than Mission, it’s so family-friendly the locals call it ‘Maternal Heights’.
Like residents from the get-go, we took an Uber from the airport (how else to get around the city where the app was invented?). Our cottage was a cute clapboard affair with a small garden, on one of those typically steep streets peering down over the city’s rooftops. As soon as we turned the key, I felt I’d moved in.
I loved Bernal Heights immediately. It was the perfect ’hood for a mini life-swap. On my first morning, I walked down to the local string of stores, Cortland Avenue, where the Progressive Grounds Coffee House and the Heartfelt gift shop nicely evoked San Fran’s hippie-meets-capitalist vibe. For instant blending-in, my boyfriend and I only allowed ourselves to buy American food. We raided the Good Life Grocery store, carrying home brown paper bags of exotic chia-seed drinks and Almond Dream yoghurts we’d never tried before. (And because we weren’t yet quite as healthy as everyone
else in the city, we also bought a sugary Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix in the corner store.) We made a picnic and ambled to Bernal Heights Park, just at the corner of our road, before climbing to the peak to sit looking out at our new neighbourhood spread out beneath us. We’d never have had this moment, or found this park, or this view, as tourists.
A bit more adventuring and soon I’d found our local Farmers’ Market (Alemany Farmers’ Market, every Saturday) and the coffee shop, Farley’s, around the corner on Potrero Hill – a friendly place with walls of magazines, serving home-blend coffee to residents. I even joined the nearby gym where, because this is California, you can work out with your dog (fitlocalfit.com). They love dogs as much as people here, and the dogs were some of our most charismatic neighbours. There was the Staffordshire terrier sitting upright on a chair in Farley’s as his owner drank a macchiato, and the French bulldog, whose owner described him as his ‘foster dog’ (I don’t think he was joking). We even wondered, since we were pretending to live here, if we should download the Walkies app, which lets you take a local shelter dog for a walk. We resisted. But only just.
Of all American cities, San Francisco is one of the quickest to feel like home, because it is so walkable. You can also Uber or catch the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train, and trams and buses criss-cross the city, too. But I found my stride trooping the streets, often heading for nearby Mission. It reminded me of East London, where the trendies and Turkish community meet. Except Mission is a working-class Latino area that’s been gentrified by the tech boom, creating a mish-mash of cultures in which millennial trends sit side-by-side with Mexican tradition. Around Valencia Street, piñata shops sit next door to artisanal bakeries serving gluten-free bread. I spent happy hours sitting in a hipster coffee shop watching teenagers Instagram flat whites, while outside, elderly Mexicans shuffled by.
Soon, I found myself with a regular morning beat, as if I’d been living here for years. I would walk from Bernal Heights to Mission, passing Precita Park Café to pick up an (oh-so Californian) kale smoothie for breakfast. Then I’d weave down the hill, past pretty pastel wooden houses, on to Clarion Alley with its graffiti murals. And since I had nowhere specific to be, I’d carry on walking. Luckily, San Francisco is a city made for freelancers like me. I’d head to Dandelion Chocolate, an artisanal chocolatier and café, where the air is thick with the smell of warm cocoa (and the wi-fi signal is strong).
During sunny breaks, I’d head to Dolores Park to watch tech-valley billionaires lying on the grass, while people in tie-dye threw poi (those ‘performance art’ ribbony rope things). When it rained, I spent a fortune in offbeat boutiques, such as fashionable Azalea or my favourite shop, Dog Eared Books, a place that feels like an institution even though it’s only been there since the ’90s. This overflowing store is stocked with new and obscure titles, quirky stationery and unusual magazines. On lunch breaks I’d hang out there, flicking through books I’d never buy, and spending too much on ones I’d never read. In the evenings, Mission was our go-to ’hood. Here, at twinkly fairy-lit bars, we’d gorge on the best and cheapest Mexican food in town. I discovered Puerto Alegre, a worn joint, where we gulped down Margaritas and enchiladas, all the more delicious because we were the only Brits around.
We wanted to try on a couple of suburbs for size, so we moved to Pacific Heights for the second part of our stay: a posh, quiet northern suburb of extravagant white mansions, where Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed. The apartment we rented was in a grand Victorian townhouse – a snip considering a group of four could stay here for about $150 each a night. I’ve always wanted to snoop inside these iconic, historic houses, and now I found myself living in one. Beneath atmospheric eaves in rooms with vast picture windows, real log fires and modern geometric cushions, I revelled in the juxtaposition of old and new – just like San Fran itself. Best of all, I had a view of San Fran’s best-looking local – the Golden Gate Bridge.
To describe Pacific Heights as affluent is putting it mildly. It’s older and classier than the southern suburbs, but what you lose in coffee joints, you gain in spectacular views and access to Golden Gate Park – sprawling grounds that somehow combine a Japanese Tea Garden with herds of real bison.
Haight-Ashbury, the starting point for Flower Power, was also within strolling distance. Although not what it was in the ’60s, it still has enough of a hippie vibe that you can hear the sound of bongos. I also finally made it to Sausalito, a pretty waterfront town I’ve long wanted to explore. On San Francisco Bay’s north shore, across Golden Gate Bridge, it’s only a 20-minute drive from the city (or 30-minute ferry), yet I’ve never found time to visit before. We stayed on the Yellow Ferry, a large barge at the heart of a boho houseboat community, whose alternative energy drew Fleetwood Mac to write Rumours here. We lit a fire and sat outside watching sunset fall over the bay, then woke the next day to find seals congregating on a pontoon just beyond our bedroom.
We spent our last weekend in California driving south to Big Sur, and a cabin we’d rented among the redwoods. I’ve never stayed somewhere so simple yet spectacular. In the day we drove past vast stretches of seascape. At night, in an outdoor bubble bath, we sat five storeys up among thousand-year-old trees – so close, we could reach out and touch their red bark through the bath foam. I loved it. And yet it was only when we were driving back to San Francisco that I really felt like I was going home.
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