We were not prepared for San Francisco, the vertical city.
I feel that most locals intuitively know which streets to take to avoid going over hills, either that or their lung capacity is significantly bigger due to a daily regimen of climbing steep slopes. My friend and I were pretty used to the up and down nature of the city by the end of our two week stay there but in the beginning it was like undergoing involuntary marathon training. We would often stop halfway up a hill to catch our breath. While complaining about the ridiculous incline of the road the view would catch our eye and suddenly the uphill struggle would justify itself.
We arrived in San Francisco late on a sunny afternoon after a long trip over from Chicago. After the wet farewell we received from overcast Chicago, San Francisco’s warm summer wind was a welcome surprise. The drive in from the airport to the Civic Centre, where are hotel was located, reminded me a lot of the Mediterranean. Along the highway we passed dry landscape with bleached yellow grass until we hit the city core where everything seemed to brighten with green colour.
Our hotel balanced on the delicate border between safe-to-walk-at-night and better-not-risk-it, between Haight-Ahsbury and the Tenderloin. The route the taxi had taken us through had not instilled us with confidence so when we decided to go for lunch we headed out in exactly the opposite direction of where we had come from. Somehow we managed to end up right in the heart of the Castro District. We had lunch at Cafe Flore under colourful umbrellas, surrounded by beautiful flowering bushes, and celebrated our arrival in San Fran with five dollar martinis.
There was still plenty of sun left before we had to circle back to our hotel so we wanted to explore a little. We saw on the map that there were a number of parks nearby so we thought we would go for a stroll. Navigating turned out to have its own difficulties. It is very strange to look at a map and think, ‘We should go down this street’, only to discover that you are in fact going uphill. There is some sort of mental disconnect, like your brain has to hit the brakes and check the GPS again. Eventually, after an embarrassing number of wrong turns, we arrived at Buena Vista Park.
Tall is a good word for this park. It sits on a steep hilltop overlooking the city and is densely forested with beautiful pines and eucalyptus trees. Once we got to the top we were rewarded with an almost 360 view of San Francisco. The highway stretched out like a ribbon in one direction and in the distance we could make out Golden Gate Bridge. We spent a couple minutes just taking in the quiet of the rustling tree tops, high enough away from any traffic.
What goes up must come down and so, with no small amount of relief, did we. On the way back to our hotel we stopped at Alamo Square, which is essentially one giant lawn with a cluster of trees in the middle. Along the eastern side of the park we saw the famous Painted Ladies — which is not the name of an artistically inclined strip club — they are in fact a set of colourfully painted Victorian Houses. They feature heavily on San Francisco postcards but I would argue that they aren’t even the most beautiful houses that the city has to offer. There are many brightly coloured buildings with unique characters scattered around the city, particularly along Haight Street with its hippie culture. The Painted Ladies are unique in that they are clustered together with the skyline of San Francisco’s downtown core acting as the backdrop.
After having had a good preview of the kind of walking we would be doing in San Francisco we decided to give our legs a rest. We sat back on the cool grass and looked at the sun reflect off the skyscrapers in the distance as dusk fell. I find that it is more fun to discover a city by walking rather than simply looking for the fastest way to get from point A to point B. In San Francisco however, this was going to be a challenge. One that we were happy to accept.