San Francisco was the last stop on my little North American tour, by which time I was kind of ready to head home to my beloved England. The city was going to have to knock my socks off to make it worth the extra flying & alone time. Flying out of the States less 48 hours later, I declared San Fran one of my favourite cities in the world. Definitely worth the flying visit.
First things first, it's time to hit those famous steep hills. If you really want to work up a lunchtime appetite, you can attempt to scale them on foot. The cable cars, though, are decidedly more thrilling. I deigned to be that tourist and buy an all day travel card so I could ride up and down the famous streets & trust me, it doesn't get old.
The conductors always have great chat and never seem bored of their somewhat repetitive days spent riding the hills. Make sure you catch a cable car at the end of its line, when the conductors jump out and swing the whole car around on a turn table.
After my umpteenth trip up & down California St, I glanced sideways and was hit by a barrage of colour & noise. San Francisco's Chinatown is deemed by many to be the best in the world, and it definitely lived up to this prestigious title in my eyes. I jumped off my beloved cable car, waved goodbye to the conductor & found myself in the Far East.
I recommend a walk up & down the main streets of Grant & Stockton Street before you make a gastronomical decision. Just take in all the shop windows & signs in the oldest Chinatown in North America - and the largest outside of China! What a great claim to fame.
I don't even remember where I stopped off for food, but that's not really the point. Immerse yourself in the culture & let your waiter pick out some goodies for you - I heartily recommend char siu bao. Let the sights & smells of Chinatown wash over you and when you step out, it'll be like you just left a whole other world.
Next stop on my whirlwind tour of SF was North Beach, a famously arty neighbourhood. Vesuvio was the hangout for the likes of Jack Kerouac & others from the Beat Generation. It opened in 1948, and has barely changed in an attempt to honour its early visitors. Neal Cassidy, who was the real life version of Kerouac's Dean Moriarty in Beat bible On The Road, visited the bar in 1955, opening the floodgates for the other Beat kids.
I grabbed a drink downstairs and headed up for a bit of first floor tranquility. Nowadays Vesuvio attracts all kinds of people including those thirsty types on weary Beat pilgrimages to SF. As I sipped my drink I admired the laid back, unpretentious personality of the bar - it is not the kind to be wearied by relative fame.
Jack Kerouac once stopped in for a drink on the way to meet with the famous author Henry Miller. He ended up being drawn into the bar and never made it to the writer's house. Such is the lure of Vesuvio!
Do: City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave
When the Beats weren't drinking at Vesuvio, they were hanging out at City Lights. Founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights fast become known as the most daring American publishers - most notably for its publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Nowadays, the bookstore still publishes, and retains much of that beatnik magic among its shelves & shelves of books.
Jack Kerouac Alley is all that separates the bar and the bookshop.
I found that while Shakespeare & Co in Paris can be a little intimidating & overrun, City Lights was perfectly tranquil and quiet - ideal reading conditions. Like Vesuvio, it seems unaffected by its worldwide reputation. Instead, you are invited to sit and read a while. I ventured upstairs to check out the Poetry room, where evening readings are often held, and found myself completely alone. I grabbed a copy of Patti Smith's autobiography Just Kids and had a little read. I later bought it and devoured it on the plane ride home.
Featuring a quotation from my favourite bookshop in Europe cemented my new love for City Lights.
Til next time, America!