After a 10 hour 25 minute flight on one of British Airways’ Boeing 747’s (getting quite old now – these planes have each clocked up millions and millions of miles) I was flummoxed by the San Francisco BART ticket machine. Once I had negotiated the payment and ticketing system – the actual transportation was a pleasant surprise. Travelling through some interesting SF suburbs, the colourful pastel walls of houses and warm glow of the sunset made me feel I was about to travel into the set of the OC. It was a reasonably attractive and welcoming start to being in what I had always considered to be quite a big city.
Upon first impression I was struck by how quiet everything was. I’m not sure if I’m just used to poor road surfaces in Europe or just a general lack of hybrid cars, but the traffic noise seemed to be almost non-existent and there was a calm and relaxed atmosphere which was reassuring and surprising for the heart of a major city. I took one of the F-Line trams down to the sea too, which added to my surprise – and the sense that San Francisco was going to be a little bit different from what I was expecting.
Having the sea on a city’s doorstep always changes the feel of the place, and San Francisco seems like no exception to this. The great expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the west gives the city a slightly mystical quality – the majestic Golden Gate Bridge symbolizing the last contact with man-made structures for thousands of miles.
Of course, it would be a shame not to experience the water while here, so a trip to Alcatraz or across the bay to Oakland is a must. I decided the next day I would embark on an Alcatraz trip - the short boat ride providing some great photo opportunities back to the city. The view put the relatively small city center into perspective with the landscape around it and the bay area. Alcatraz was just what I expected from a tourist attraction, however I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail they’d gone into and the amount of care taken to preserve and portray the history in the right context. I really enjoyed it, and if you haven’t already been there I found it very entertaining for a couple of hours of the day.
In the evening there was a large choice of places to visit, naturally. I realized again that things are a little different however, and I found it a real pleasure to observe the variety and the regions of where you can eat…small enclaves of different cultures producing some of the best food of its kind in the US and certainly the best I had experienced in a long while. Of course China Town provided some fantastic flavors; including the famous House of Nanking where I found myself that night…the business, sense of culinary adventure and boisterous atmosphere adding to my stay…I really felt I had arrived.
Generally I noticed that unlike many cities that use the term ‘multicultural’ as liberally as possible, San Francisco really did define it to its fullest extent, yet assumes the role of a “multi-cultural” city without boasting or any grandeur. I think it is what it is, and maybe because of its location in the world it seems to a European like me everything rolled into one - a city halfway round the world and the gateway between East and West…where possibilities are just as great to Asians travelling east as they are for Americans travelling west. It’s a city I’d love to go back and explore for longer (maybe taking in some of the surrounding areas of California) but I found San Francisco is also perfectly do-able in a few days. It’s small and compact, has good transport links and enough art, culture, nightlife and sophistication to keep you, or me for that matter, more than amused.